Christmas shopping has never been so much fun in this French city with a German flavour
The German-style Christmas markets to be found in Strasbourg (from 26 November-31 December) are among the best I’ve encountered. Individual markets can be discovered throughout the city, but the finest are located in Cathedral Square, La Petite France and nearby Kindelsmarit. But it’s not surprising that Strasbourg should be at the forefront of Christmas markets as the city has been hosting them since 1570.
All of them are jam-packed with stalls of every conceivable kind selling lovely Christmassy goods. Shop till you drop, enjoy a mug of mulled wine, tuck into a bratwurst or simply watch the world go by in the company of everyone’s favourite festive figure – Father Christmas.
Before my trip I was told I must check out the Bredle Market on Place de la Gare. It was good advice. Here I enjoyed my first taste of Alsace butter biscuits, which are made during Advent.
Every year Strasbourg invites a foreign country to be guest of honour and I encountered the hospitality of a typical Swiss traditional Christmas market. A big attraction, the Swiss set up shop in Place Gutenberg selling lovely appetising produce – including raclette and fondue ready to dip into. Complementing these gourmet delights was a display of folk dancing, concert performances and exhibitions from Switzerland and its cantons running non-stop throughout the day.
However, the biggest Christmas market – and the pearl in the oyster – wraps itself round Strasbourg’s imposing red-sandstone Gothic cathedral dedicated to Our Lady. It’s a most enviable setting and every visitor to Strasbourg takes a look at this splendid cathedral church. But at Christmas time, it’s extra special, because of its stunning Nativity display.
Built in three large tableaux sections, it features the traditional Nativity scene followed by the Adoration of the Magi (the Three Wise Men of the East) travelling with an elegant black elephant while the third section depicts the presentation of Jesus in the Temple.
I spent several hours exploring the city’s myriad of colourful twisty medieval streets and was delighted when I came across La Petite France located on the Grande Île (main island) where the river Ill – which once provided the energy to power mills and tanneries – splits up into a number of canals cascading through a lovely area of medieval half-timbered houses and Baroque sandstone buildings. It’s a lively and pulsating area where there is a host of bars and restaurants to dive into.
Both the French and the Germans have ruled this border town at various points in history, but now the city is firmly back in French territory, serving as the capital of Alsace. However, the two cultures are evident, particularly in respect of the city’s architecture.
The German legacy comprises some noteworthy buildings including the one housing the Chamber of Commerce in the former town hall on Place Gutenberg, a large well-laid-out public square with a fine selection of cafés and restaurants.
The architectural legacy remaining from the French Baroque and Classical periods comprise a host of hôtels particuliers (palaces) among which the Rohan Palace is the most spectacular.
The building not only represents the high point of local Baroque architecture but also houses three of Strasbourg’s most important museums: the Archaeological Museum, the Museum of Decorative Arts and the Museum of Fine Arts.
Modern and contemporary architecture rank alongside all these historic buildings as the city possesses some fine Art Nouveau architecture such as the huge Palais des Fêtes (Festival Palace). And in the extended European Quarter, a host of spectacular administrative buildings stand out. Arguably, one of the finest is the European Court of Human Rights designed in 1989 by the renowned British-born architect Richard Rogers in association with Strasbourg-born architect Claude Bucher.
THE FACTS: Returns from London to Strasbourg with Rail Europe (tel: 0844 848 4070, www.raileurope.co.uk) start at £99.