I had the pleasure of visiting the historic town of Strasbourg, France during their annual Christmas market. I traveled with another American au pair. We used the car-sharing service Blabla Car, riding with a couple who owned the car. The voyage was beautiful, we were able to see the French countryside as the car had a large sunroof.
Paris to Strasbourg, France
Strasbourg is located in the Grand Est (east) region of France but is known culturally as the Alsatian region. Near the German border, only a mile from the Rhine, the town is a beautiful mélange of French and German cultures; evident in the architecture, food, and language. Most of the roads and attractions have German names and signs were in both French and German; lasting effects of the German proximity and occupancy before the 17th century and again during World War II.
The charming town appears as if it popped out of a storybook. The old city is full of colorful half-timbered medieval houses, particularly the Petit France quarter, surrounded by the river Ill.
Strasbourg’s Christmas market is one of the oldest and biggest in Europe, dating back to the Middle Ages. At that time, the Klausenmärik or Saint Nicholas market was held around the sixth of December around the Cathedral, now known as Place de la Cathédrale. In 1570, after a sermon by Lutherian preacher Johannes Flinner against the adoration of saints, the name was changed to Christkindelsmärik, market of the Infant Christ. The market’s location changed several times but returned to the Cathedral in 1991 and has spread out from there. Now, 300 quaint wooden stalls can be found across the city centre.
The historic area is quite small and all the attractions are within walking distance of each another. We began our visit at the beautiful sandstone Gothic Cathedral. The sandstone is from the local area and gives the Cathedral it’s natural pink hue. The material is actually quite fragile and many of the detailed structures have been replaced. The Cathedral, at the time is was built, was the tallest structure in the world for several centuries. Another interesting feature is its single tower. By the time the construction was to begin on the opposite side, the funds and interest for the gothic cathedral had run out. Inside, the cathedral houses it’s famous astronomical clock.
Near the Cathedral is Palais Rohan, an 18th century was built by Armand Gaston, Prince de Rohan Soubise. He acted as Bishop of Strasbourg from 1704 to 1713. Gaston desired French craftsmanship in classic style, such as Château Versailles. He hired the King’s chief architect, Robert de Cotte. The project began in 1732 and was completed in 1742. It was used as residency for four bishops of Strasbourg, all Rohans, until the French Revolution.
The palace now houses three separate museums: the Museum of Decorative Arts, the Strasbourg Archeological Museum, and the Museum of Beautiful Arts. You can buy a ticket for one museum at or a single day pass for all three, which is less expensive than buying each separately.
During my trip, we visited the Museum of Decorative Arts. This area of the palace showed seven rooms decorated as they had been. The first room, Synod Hall, is a large entrance hall and dining room. The second room, Chamber of the Bishops, was used as a gaming room and is set with gaming tables. The name derives from the original decor: portraits of the four bishops which were burned in 1793 by revolutionaries and replaced with figures of the Civic Virtues. The allegorical paintings remain. Above the fireplace, a replicate portrait of Armand Gaston now hangs. On the opposite wall hangs a painting from the First French Empire and displays Napoleon I and Empress Josephine’s monogram. The third room is the lavish King’s Bedchamber. Notable guests include Louis XV and the Dauphine, Marie Antoinette.
The next room, the Library, — solid mahogany shelves with glided bronze scones and a large dining table in the center. The fifth room was originally used as a closet due to it’s small size (not by modern standards) but was chosen by Napoleon to be his bedroom. Napoleon commissioned his official cabinetmaker, F-H-G Jacob-Desmalter to make the chairs, a sofa, table and bed, all remain in place. The room is named Napoleon’s Bedchamber though Napoleon never had the opportunity to sleep there. The sixth room, the Prince-Bishop’s Bedchamber, was furnished from the Collection of the last Prince de Rohan by Emperor Napoleon I when he used it as his Morning Room. The last room, Decorative Arts Wing, was originally the stables but currently houses a collection of china, jewelry, clocks, clockwork toys, and watches.
Place Kléber, at the center of the city, is the seasonal home of the Great Christmas Tree. It was grown in Dabo, Moselle and peaks at 30 meters (98.45 ft). It is a well-known symbol of the Capital of Christmas and is referred to as “the beating heart of Strasbourg.” Stories say that the locals, in the spirit of Christmas, would lay presents under the Great Christmas Tree for the poorest citizens. Recent times have produced the Sharing Village, where 60 charity stalls are located, giving information about their organization and ways to get involved. I was surprised to see several well-known organizations in America present.
The popular dishes of the area display a strong German influence. Choucroute, sauerkraut in English or German, was advertised at many of the Christmas market stands and local restaurants. Not being brave enough to try the choucroute, we found other delicious meals to taste. Our first night we ate at a restaurant near our hotel, which was a little bit out of the city. With our waitress’s suggestion, we split a tarte flambée as an appetizer. It was a very thin crust topped with a white sauce, onions, and ham. Later during the trip, I tried a thick crust, similar to pan pizza style, at the Christmas market-both were very good. For our meal, we split a chicken cordon bleu. I didn’t know previously, but our waitress informed us that it was a traditional Alsatian dish. It was fantastic: a home-made crust on a perfectly cooked chicken surrounding a decadent piece of ham, topped with a mushroom gravy.
The second evening we ate out at a charming, traditional Alsatian restaurant near the river Ill. The dining area was lower than ground level. It was a half-timbered building, decorated with murals depicting rural life in the area, with wooden table and chairs. We tried baeckoffe, another traditional Alsatian meal. It is an oven-baked meat with potatoes and carrots meal served in a casserole dish. The restaurant we ate at offered a variety of meat: pork, beef, and lamb. We ate the lamb, it was delightful and very filling.
At the Christmas market you could find other famous cuisine, particularly the hot wine, pastries, and foie gras- all very French. The area is known for the pain d’épices, a loaf of spice bread of gingerbread. We samples several different kinds, some adding raisins, cranberries, dried pear, or, different types of nuts. If you partook in the hot wine, you were given a reusable, festive cup. The initial charge was one euro for the cup, but, if you returned it to any stand, you were refunded the euro. I thought this to be a great way for tourists to have a cheap, useful souvenir and to minimize waste.