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OBERNAI, FRANCE“Hot spiced wine is gingerbread for adults,” laughs guide Vivianne Beller as she hotfoots it past half-timbered houses and along the winding cobblestone alleyways of the French town of Obernai.
Navigating the Christmas markets of the Upper Rhine Valley—Germany, France and Switzerland – is more than a seasonal shopping expedition. It’s a serious culinary outing that demands constant refills of gluhwein, the steaming cups of heated red wine spiced with cinnamon, cloves and star anise. The spicy beverage is part of the European custom of adding exotic fragrances to the celebration of the yuletide season.
“It’s a very long tradition to honour someone through aromas,” explains Beller. “But there are no spices grown in this region, so in earlier days they were imported to the large markets in Strasbourg.”
In dozens of Christmas markets across the Upper Rhine, there are booths stuffed to bursting with painted glass ornaments, beeswax candles, wool mittens and toasty sheepskin slippers. Market squares are lined cheek by jowl with temporary eateries, festooned with strings of twinkling lights and strips of pine boughs. Everywhere, there’s some serious eating going on.
Here’s a sample of what’s on the seasonal menus at some of the region’s Christmas markets:
In Basel, Switzerland they can’t seem to get enough cheese. Diners dip chunks of bread into pots of bubbling cheese fondue. More calories come in the form of raclette, thick waffles and sugar-sprinkled crepes. There’s no shortage of decadent Swiss chocolate.
In Baden-Baden, Germany, the market stands sell enormous, heart-shaped gingerbread cookies, drizzled with messages in coloured icing. From morning through night there are sausages large and small, and plates of noodley spaetzle drowned in delicious forest mushroom sauce.
In Freiburg, capital of Germany’s Black Forest, small potato pancakes sizzle in vats of bubbling oil. Vendors package freshly roasted chestnuts into paper cones for immediate snacking. Hot chocolate gives the gluhwein a run for its money.
The five storybook markets of Colmar, France all sell bretzel, the large pretzels of the Alsace region. The twisty bread dough was originally fashioned after a very old Celtic symbol of the sun and was adopted by Christians as an Advent symbol.
Strasbourg, France is celebrating the 443rd anniversary of their Christmas market with glhwein, roasted chestnuts, large chewy pretzels and crepes.
In Obernai, at the top of the French Alsace wine region, outdoor patios are still in full swing, with warm red blankets at every chair. The town is famous for its foie gras, fruit liqueurs, kugelhopf cake and bredle, the traditional Alsatian Christmas cookies made with fragrant ground nuts and spices.
JUST THE FACTS
GETTING AROUND The Eurail Pass connects all of the towns and cities listed in this article. In addition to being fast and efficient, train travel leaves Christmas market visitors free to indulge in a few cups of glhwein. Passes are available through Rail Europe and should be purchased before departure from North America. www.raileurope.com
WEB SURFING www.upperrhinevalley.com