EUROPE’S FESTIVE CHRISTMAS MARKETS

A Troika of Treasures in Germany, France & Switzerland

by Barbara Barton Sloane

Basel and River Rhine

During the Christmas season, typically from mid-November through 23 December, all 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.

Heedless of the Wind and Weather

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 – and it banishes the cold quite handily! 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– and meeting warm and hospitable locals in the bargain.

Unique Uniworld

Cologne Cathedral

Popularity of river cruising is on the rise as continued news of mega-liners’ disasters at sea lure us toward more intimate small craft like the SS Antoinette, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise’s 164-passenger vessel. The company has been in business since 1976 and they currently have 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 fairytale 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 4th largest city with a party-going mentality that encourages visitors to kommen Sie zu uns für einen drink (join us for a drink). 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 fairytales. Costumed characters paraded the streets – a true fantasy world.

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 hand-made goods and Christmas decorations, hot, aromatic gluhwein, and bakeries with stolen and other German goodies.

Heidelberg Castle

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 loved the life-size figures on Market Square, the largest Nativity scene in all Germany.

I was looking forward to touring Heidelberg and it did not disappoint – in spite of a freezing, drizzle throughout the tour. I simply pulled up my hoodie and was off to the markets. Heidelberg is home to Germany’s oldest university and, of course, immortalized by Sigmund Romberg and 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 far as 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 à la Grimm. One wonders how a city that does Christmas markets and gingerbread so well can also be home to the glittering EU Quarter and France’s second largest student population. Well, that’s Strasbourg…all the sweeter for its contradictions and cross-cultural quirks. 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 (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 19th and 20th centuries. No surprise here. This is, after all, the home of famous ArtBasel. 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. The wares offered here are of very high quality, and the mulled wine I quaffed was maybe the best of all the ones I sampled (yes, there were many). More indulging: warm, sweet waffles smothered in schlag. And why not? It’s the end of the trip and when in Rome – or Vienna – or Basel for that matter…..

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 le grand Swiss hotel. In the plush lobby/bar, I stopped for a glass of bubbly. What a sparkling way to end my Uniworld European holiday happening!

If You Go:

Uniworld Boutique River Cruise www.uniworld.com

Les Trois Rois www.lestroisrois.com