Today we crossed the border into France from Germany, having enjoyed our festive German Christmas celebration last night. I’d heard Strasbourg, in Alsace (part of the Alsace, Champagne-Ardenne, Lorraine administrative region of France called Grand Est) was beautiful at wintertime – but I couldn’t have imagined how charming the architecture is by itself, without even acknowledging the gorgeous lights illuminating the city after sundown.
Wandering around town, I was amazed by the array of architecture – and, we haven’t even made it to the historic ‘medieval’ district yet! Most of the homes / buildings are three-to-five stories, and decorated with exposed beams, tidy shutters and a healthy slant that comes with age. It feels a bit like stepping back in time, until you look at storefronts and see modern fashion names. Interesting, Strasbourg is also a capital for EU affairs, so there is apparently a ‘modern’ section of the city to the north which looks more like a ‘big’ city would be expected to look.
After dropping the bags at the hotel and stopping numerous times to marvel at the architecture, we stopped for lunch at an open bistro to try our first Alsatian meal. We tried four dishes: escargot in a pastry pouch, pumpkin soup, sauerkraut with sausages / pork products, and a steak frites. Needless to say, it was way too much food but absolutely delicious.
After lunch, we decided to walk across the bridge into the heart of town, and found an unexpected bonus: Strasbourg’s Christmas Market, still up as part of a different tradition from the region which celebrates from 26 December – 6 January, as we’d later learn.
The Christmas Market was beautiful and had all the trappings of the German Christmas Markets we’ve visited – including stands featuring vendors (except instead of brats, there is fois gras, and instead of pretzels / heavy pastries there are light breads and French cookies).
Of course, they also have their own version of Gluhwein – but instead of red wine, the prominent version is actually white wine (locally grown, typically grapes from Alsace are Pinto Gris, Gewurztraminer, or Riesling) with oranges in it.
After sampling some (its quite sweet and definitely not as temptingly drinkable as the German red version!), we continued to wander town, taking in more of the architecture and beautiful Christmas decor and lighting.
My favorite discovery during our wandering through Strasbourg’s winding streets came after I spotted an interesting looking building, walked through a relatively nondescript alleyway, and found myself in a beautiful little square with a massive, brightly lit Christmas tree.
Of course, the river looked beautiful as dusk began to fall.
On our way back to the hotel to warm up and rest before dinner, we decided to pop into the Alsace Museum, which is located in a beautiful medieval building along the main street leading into the center of town. Costing only 6 Euros, it’s definitely one of the more impressive museums I’ve encountered in terms of local cultural history.
The museum covers a huge variety of topics and included about 15 different exhibits (not including the walk through each floor and the basement of the beautiful medieval property), ranging from daily life in medieval Alsace (e.g., costuming, home apparel, pottery, art and cooking wares, toys) to religious and political (i.e., how 4 religious groups – Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, ‘other’ coexisted in the area and influenced one another).
It also has a fascinating collection of artifacts accompanying each exhibit, which I was amused to read were primarily gathered by just looking in the attics and ‘barracks’ (I assume cellars) of old, local homes across the region. For example, one family had just maintained ownership of a house since the 17th century, but never thought to sell or update it since the mid-1700s (there was no explanation for how this wasn’t touched for ~250+ years – or at least none in English – but it makes for a good story); so, the museum sent a team there and they used the home’s unchanged living room as a model for their replica.
Because so many Christmas traditions originated in this region, there is also a Christmas theme to the museum this time of year. There were many interesting factoids including:
- Lots of lore about Advent calendars / candle lighting – for example, that it perhaps originated as medieval Christians living in mixed religion communities with Jewish neighbors adopted a similar tradition to Hanukkah; also rumored that a ‘home for children’ wanted to give the kids something to ‘look forward to’ (…) and had them light a candle each day during the Christmas season
- The legend of ‘Krampus’ or a mythical reaper-type figure who is responsible for basically punishing / abducting kids who fall on the ‘naughty’ side of Santa’s list
- The way that Christmas trees originated, and were actually typically hung from the ceiling or placed on top of tables, and decorated with simple, found ornaments like apples, other fruit, and cloths
Other interest tidbits from the museum:
- Typically, people in this region used fir wood to make doors, chests and other furniture; however, they would paint it a darker brown to make it look like ‘noble’ wood
- They used an energy-efficient means of heating the home, generating heat while cooking and circulating that through the property and then using heat to cook in turn
- Locals have been making food for a long period of time; notable products include white wines and Munster cheese
Of course, we also had to stop for a delicious crepe on the way home before resting before dinner:
For dinner, we tried a modern take on Alsatian food, popping into a cool restaurant called La Hache in town. We shared a coddled egg in mashed potatoes to start, and enjoyed steak entrecote (with delicious baked garlic) and a duck dish that was similar to shepherd’s pie, but with duck instead of ground beef. Of course, we also had to finish up the meal with a dessert, and tried the rum baba, which was essentially a delicious rum-cake covered with extra, fresh rum. Overall, a delicious meal!
Overall, a great first day in Strasbourg!