With more than 100 Christmas markets in the region of Alsace, the largest and oldest fittingly resides in the capital Strasbourg, which even calls itself the “Capital of Christmas”. Yet after sampling both Strasbourg and Colmar festivities that roll out in big-city fashion, I wanted to visit a marché de Noël with a different kind of ambiance, something smaller and quainter.
So I went to Riquewihr – a Christmas and souvenir shopper’s paradise, for sure. Still, I wondered if the bustling streets would wear on visiting elderly grandparents, or friends with babies in strollers. Was there a slower speed of marché de Noël in an equally captivating town?
The quest brought me this year to my favorite Alsatian village – Eguisheim, a mere five kilometers from Colmar (which, by the way, offers a tamer version of Strasbourg’s market, dazzlingly lit at night).
At the Christmas Market Eguisheim
With less than 1,800 inhabitants who mostly work for local wineries or industry in Colmar, Eguisheim feels more “lived in” than commercial, yet still postcard perfect. Colorful, half-timbered 16th and 17th century houses line the narrow, concentric cobbled streets, which follow the same line as ramparts that once protected the town’s castle.
And because that eighth-century château was the birthplace of Pope Leo IX (1002-1054), a large fountain bearing his statue dominates the town square, just steps below the castle’s multicolored, tiled turret, and the adjacent St. Leo’s Chapel.
From the tourist office, I collected a booklet that included a chasse au trésor. With a prize offered upon completion, the fun treasure hunt seemed the perfect enticement for families to take in the town’s historical highlights – starting along Rue du Rempart Sud, where a garland of mauve, heart-shaped ornaments draped Eguisheim’s emblematic, slender pigeon house.
While the charcuterie that flanks the town square did brisk business heating up onion tarts and quiches, I followed the scent of mulled spices and wine to the two small Christmas markets on parallel streets behind the château. Clusters of tourists stood at tall café tables, enjoying small portions of choucroute, while two cloaked minstrels entertained the crowd with their medieval bagpipe and drum.
A woman donning a classic Alsatian pinafore and fringed shawl offered me a taste of her home-bottled, spiced apple “sirop,” or syrup. Mixed with hot water, it served as the perfect non-alcoholic answer to vin chaud, so I bought a bottle and then perused stalls featuring carved wooden knobs and spools, dried sausage and wheeled cheeses.
Although already familiar with the town’s few novelty and souvenir shops decked with holiday trappings, I hadn’t recalled ever noticing one store window, framed in fir-tree branches along the main artery, at 20 Grand Rue. With the door left slightly ajar, I peeked inside and discovered a small brocante featuring old-fashioned ornaments, trinkets and decorative kitchen oddities.
Loïc, the 40-year-old shop owner who followed his father into the antique business, said he finds most of his trove when hired to cart off the unwanted contents of Alsatian attics and garages. Two years ago, he moved his family into this early 19th century house, previously occupied by an elderly woman who ran an épicerie until a decade ago.
“Older residents tell me they used to come by every day after school to buy candy here,” he said. He then led me to a hallway window, from which he pointed to the old fumoir where Madame smoked the store’s lard.
Charmed by his hospitality, I purchased a few antique honey cartons and headed home. I’d found my marché ambiance, at just the right speed.
Susie Woodhams is co-author of The Expat’s Guide to Southern Alsace, available on Amazon.com, find out more: www.xpatsguide.com