Thursday, May 23, 2024

In Strasbourg, France, Santa-capped teddy bears adorn a restaurant’s facade, while stuffed polar bears adorn another building. The central medieval quarter is turned into a Christmas maze, illuminated by curtains of lights above cobblestone lanes lined with food and gift stalls. In Place Kléber, lights on a nearly 100-foot-tall Christmas tree flash and glow, synchronized to carols. Christmas markets across Europe pop up like fairy-dusted street fairs, with temporary chalet-style shops selling everything from handmade ceramics to warmed wine and abundant food. Visitors shuffle among the merry warrens, holding their cellphone cameras high. River cruises on the Rhine, Danube, or Main, spending roughly $2,000 to $4,000 a week, are also a popular way to visit the markets in France, Germany, Switzerland, and beyond. Trains also provide access to market cities and towns along the Rhine, through the Alsace region of France. With train travel, it is possible to spend roughly $300 on trains, splitting six nights between lively Strasbourg and popular Colmar at Airbnbs that averaged $180 a night. The old town in Strasbourg hosts more than a dozen markets in plazas and pedestrian lanes, drawing two to three million visitors throughout the season. Visitors shuffle among the merry warrens, holding their cellphone cameras high and taking advantage of the food and gifts for sale. Craft villages also set the eco-conscious Marché Off apart. Basel offers less commercial markets, including a Christmas tree-filled Fairy Tale Forest, with craft activities such as gingerbread decorating and a children’s train. The markets in Colmar are known for their food stalls and their variety of museums. The Bartholdi Museum is devoted to native son Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty. Over a few weekends in the heart of the market season, Christmas buses ply a course from Colmar to a series of villages on the Alsace Wine Route, including Riquewihr and Kaysersberg. Local trains also reach some of the more remote Christmas-circuit towns. When my train to Obernai was canceled at an intermediate station in Sélestat, I discovered its festival over the 50-minute delay, time to have a 1.50-euro pretzel and learn that the oldest written record of the Christmas tree was in Sélestat in 1521.

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