One of the reasons I chose to make Alsace our home for the northern winter is its famous Christmas markets. And it had delivered. In fact, I’m overwhelmed. There is a dizzying number to choose from: everything from high-production value events featuring multiple differently-themed markets in the one town, through to a few craft stalls in a local community hall.
I dropped by our local tourist office in Thann last week to pick up some information to help me navigate. There was a rack groaning with brochures. With Delphine about to pull apart the Christmas decorations, I gathered a random armful and made a speedy getaway.
But glossy brochures aren’t the only source of information. I’ve also been gleaning the details from posters and flyers pinned up on telegraph posts as I fly by on the way to school. These are for the more local, low-key numbers. But I’ve actually found this type of market to be more charming and approachable than the larger scale stunning kind.
Take the Christmas market at the Kruth Ski Club. It was held on what I consider to have been the “opening weekend” of the Christmas market season: the weekend of 24-25 November. I’d already had to make a choice between at least five other village markets that weekend, but the appeal of a Christmas market in a ski lodge had been irresistible.
Up, up into the mountains we went following the occasional sign. I was grateful for the directions I’d received the night before from my neighbour’s friend. We’d been invited around to eat Baeckeofe cooked in our honour. Over the steaming plate of three types of meet and tender root-vegetables I’d mentioned my plans for the morrow. “Ah,” she’d said, “it can be hard to find. You need to turn left at the church in Kruth, follow the road up the mountain, turn right at Frenz then pass on through the village.” Her instructions were spot on, and we arrived to a fanfare: a quartet of musicians playing the long wooden alp horn.
It was a delightful market with local ski lodge volunteers serving up tarte flambée, crêpes with nutella and presiding over a steaming cauldron of vin chaud (mulled wine).
The following week’s excursion to Colmar was a completely different affair.
Last year Colmar won second best Christmas Market in Europe. It is indeed beautiful. And big. There are five separate markets spread out over the historic centre of the town all with different themes: artisans and antiques, land and tradition, children’s delights, specialities of the region. The multi-coloured, cross-beamed mediaeval houses make for a charming backdrop to the cluster of wooden cabins in which all these various delights are found.
But on a Saturday morning, it was mayhem. As the French would say, there was the world. And indeed there was. After a month of living in France, I finally encountered tourists. In the café where we escaped for morning tea, we listened to a group of Spaniards singing happy birthday. Stepping out the door we encountered a bus-load of Chinese tourists and pushing through the crowd I heard the unmistakable twang of Aussie English.
I thought with Colmar we’d seen the worst of the crowds. I’d been asking for it going to such a famous market on a weekend. So I didn’t think twice about going to another one that was in a village, rather than an internationally ranked town, on a Saturday. And how could I resist the call of a mediaeval Christmas market? So in all innocence, we set off early the following Saturday morning for Ribeauvillé.
I started to get a sense of what we were in for when I noticed roads lined with parked cars kilometres out from what “Henriette” (our GPS) said was the market’s location. The closer we got, the thicker the traffic became. We circled around the village looking for a car park. Gendarmes in evidence at roundabouts and event staff everywhere. Eventually we found a spot in the local sport’s oval that had been requisitioned for the weekend as a public car park. We had to walk 20 minutes up the road.
An oh, mon dieu, we couldn’t move! A slow moving snake of people was jostling along, pushing their way through the canyon of mediaeval buildings leaning towards each other over a winding cobblestoned passage. At times we were completely at a stand still. The pram was not an asset. Even the charming mediaeval garbed performers and the surprise arrival of a flock of geese following their fowl pied piper through the crowd couldn’t entice us to stay. I found a side road and we made fast our escape.
Driving back home in the car, I reflected on how wrong first impressions can be. I’d been disappointed when we’d gone to our very first Christmas market. It had been the small kind in a community hall: local crafters were selling their lovingly-made wares, small-scale farmers were selling their best cheeses, yoghurt and dried sausage, and there was a small “restauration” in the hall’s kitchen where you could pick up a plate of choucroute and sausage with a glass, of course, of vin chaud. It had all seemed a bit low-key. After all, I’d come to the Christmas market capital of the world. I’d expected more.
But now I’ve come to recognise these types of market for the true gems they are. What you see there is real. Made by the people in the room, with love and care. In Colmar and Ribeauvillé I saw the piles of merchandise that is immediately recognisable as products designed only ever to be souvenirs. Bought in the moment, discarded when the suitcase is too full.
I cherish the things I’ve bought at the three local markets I’ve been too: a chocolate butter paste I bought from the young women whose mother proudly told me her daughter had made them all herself, a spiced fruit compote that I’ve been eking out on my breakfast cereal each morning, and the gorgeous hand-made Christmas card that is destined for a lucky recipient at home. My only regret is that I didn’t buy more of these cards. At all those glossy large-scale markets I’ve been to, not one Christmas card have I see. So that’s it. I’ve decided to frequent the big end markets no more. Because now I know which type of market is the one where I feel the true spirit of Christmas.