EUROPE’S FESTIVE CHRISTMAS MARKETS
A troika of treasures in Germany, France & Switzerland
By Barbara Barton Sloane
Special to The Vindicator
During the Christmas season, typically from mid-November through Dec. 23, all of Europe comes alive with holiday festivities, and none are more joyous and all-encompassing than the Christmas markets. I had the opportunity to experience these merry events when I joined a Uniworld River Cruise sailing down the Rhine to visit cities from Cologne, Germany, to Strasbourg, France, and all the way to Basel, Switzerland.
During this season, town centers, market squares and narrow cobblestone lanes come alive with brightly decorated stalls offering regional food, Christmas decorations, sweet confections, crafts and live entertainment. Oh, and let’s not forget gluhwein – that spicy, hot mulled wine that is reason enough to visit the markets.
On my excursions into several enchanting German, French and Swiss medieval castle towns, I celebrated the magic of this season in a memorable way; an added plus was learning some background and history of each metropolis.
Popularity of river cruising is on the rise as continued news of mega-liners’ disasters at sea lure us toward more intimate small craft such as the SS Antoinette, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise’s 164-passenger vessel. The company has been in business since 1976, and it has 18 ships.
From the moment I stepped onboard, I was giddy with excitement. I was particularly besotted with my stateroom’s floor-to-ceiling window that, at the touch of a button, lowered half-way, the better to encounter the waters of the River Rhine and its myriad fairy-tale castles.
This Little Trekker Went to Markets
Our first stop: Cologne. This city of a million inhabitants boasts 42 museums and a sophisticated dining culture. It is Germany’s fourth-largest city. There’s also a spectacular UNESCO World Heritage Site, the famed Gothic Cathedral of Cologne. A visit here is at once empowering and overpowering, and Cologne’s market stalls are glowing small Alpine huts. I was smitten by the market on the Rudolfplatz which transported me into a world of Grimm fairy tales.
Next up: Koblenz. Talk about old: This city celebrated its 2,000th birthday in 1992. It lies at the confluence of two rivers, the Rhine and the Moselle, and is considered the “corner of Germany.” Its markets’ 130 gaily decorated wooden stalls offered an extensive range of handmade goods and Christmas decorations.
Rudesheim is a medieval city in Hesse at the southern end of the Rhine Valley that UNESCO World Heritage rewarded for its winemaking, which dates back to the Romans who grew vineyards in the 1st century. Drosselgass is considered the “party lane” of the town with taverns and restaurants offering regional cuisine with famed Rudesheim wine, live entertainment and dancing. There are 120 stalls representing 12 countries, including specialties from far-flung Finland and Mongolia.
I was looking forward to touring Heidelberg, and it did not disappoint. Heidelberg is home to Germany’s oldest university and, of course, immortalized by Sigmund Romberg in his sparkling operetta “The Student Prince.” The town center sports a lively open-air ice rink and carolers that serenaded in colorful Victorian garb. As for the castle, it would be hard to find a more striking location than the one it enjoys, set against the deep green forests on Konigstuhl hill, its red sandstone ruins towering majestically over the entire Neckar valley.
Our voyage touched a small corner of France – Strasbourg – which has the oldest Christmas markets in the country. The markets are situated close to its inspiring cathedral and Old Town’s twisting alleys lined with half-timbered houses a la Grimm. The whole island of Strasbourg is a World Heritage Site, and its holiday bazaars have existed from the Middle Ages. I indulged in one of the region’s specialties: Tarte Flambe. This confection consists of a thin pastry covered with cream, onions and bacon pieces (and is every bit as outrageously good as it sounds).
Certainly Not Least
Our last port of call: Basel, Switzerland. It’s the country’s third most-populous city – located where the Swiss, French and German borders meet. Though not a large city, it is grand in countless ways, not least of which is its Kunst Museum with the most significant public art collection in Switzerland containing works from 1661 up to the 20th century. No surprise here. This is, after all, the home of famous Art Basel.
The Christmas markets at Munsterplatz and Barfusserplatz in Old Town are considered to be the prettiest and largest in Switzerland, with a towering tree that glows and shimmers at night, casting its spell over the entire square.
Les Trois Rois is Basel’s grand hotel. The property enjoys a prime location in the city’s center and directly on the banks of the river Rhine. The day I visited, it was decked out in holiday finery with two huge, bedazzling Christmas trees flanking steps to the entrance. The property belongs to the first generation of urban grand hotels and truly exemplifies the pinnacle of the grand Swiss hotel. In the plush lobby/bar, I stopped for a glass of bubbly for a sparkling way to end my Uniworld European holiday happening.
Barbara Barton Sloane, a Youngstown native, is a New York-based travel writer, editor and columnist who writes for several national and international publications.