Sunday, 21 December 2008

Strasbourg - a superb slice of French life

Seasonal greetings from the eastern French city of Strasbourg in the heart of Alsace.

It's the setting of what is probably the best known and longest running Christmas market here in France - a time when the city, which has more than enough to offer visitors all year round, really comes alive as the place is packed solid for four weeks.

This will just be a (personal) taste of the place at this time of the year, embellished (hopefully) with the most potted of history by way of background.

There is of course plenty of information available out there on the Net or in books - just click on some of the links for a pointer, or better still, come here to discover it for yourself.

The TGV train from Paris has cut the journey time down to just two and a half hours, and there's also an airport - for all those European parliamentarians, amongst others, who shuffle between Brussels and Strasbourg for one week every month.

The city is just the proverbial stone's throw from the French-German border, and its geographical location has seen it switching between the two countries pretty regularly over the last century or so.

Not surprisingly perhaps the influence of both can be felt strongly - culturally, linguistically, architecturally, politically, religiously and not least gastronomically.

Indeed, the Christmas market in Strasbourg - widely found in towns and cities throughout Germany - is very much a prime example of how much the whole region of Alsace is most definitely French, but with a certain German twist.

Actually there isn't just one Christmas market - but several - spread throughout the city.

While they might not offer nearly some of the true Christmas spirit that can be found in their German counterparts, and the stalls for the most part are full of what could politely be termed "imported tat" there's still the chance to hunt out some regional edible specialities and locally produced crafts.

If that's what you're after, then the best starting point is probably Place Broglie.

Honey from local apiculturists, gingerbread galore (not too dry and ideal for the foie gras)
cinnamon biscuits, lebkuchen - ah yes it has probably dawned on you, those with a sweet tooth will not go far wrong.

Waffles, bretzels, tarte à l'oignons, and of course because it's just slightly brass monkeys temperature-wise, vin chaud - white or red - the Alsace equivalent of Glühwein or mulled wine (of sorts) guaranteed to intoxicate against any chill factor.

There's another market around the cathedral, but you might want to put in a spot of culture too and pop inside the city's most famous landmark.

It's VERY Gothic - parts of it dating back to the 12th century - and it houses the fabulous 18-metre astronomical clock, one of the largest in the world.

You want Gothic - you've got it

Moving along to Place Kléber is where you'll find the Christmas tree (from the nearby Vosges mountains) more stalls, more tat, more food and more vin chaud.

And so it can continue from one market to another.

It's not the most enormous of city centres. Even though Strasbourg is the regional capital of Alsace with around 270,000 inhabitants (which almost triples when taking into account the urban population, making it this country's seventh largest city) walking around (or staggering after too much vin chaud) isn't too difficult.

If you're feeling especially lazy, there's always the state-of-the-art tram to take you from one market to another.

Walking is probably your best bet though, to build up an appetite (you'll need it) and to appreciate the true beauty of the city.

There's Petit France, with its quaint timber-framed houses, some of which almost seem to be leaning from different sides of the street to greet each other.

Much of the area is pedestrianised and the streets cobbled, so sensible shoes are the order or the day.

Mixed in with the timber-framed houses elsewhere in the city is an eclectic mix that has thankfully survived the centuries - and wars - in no particular order there's German renaissance, French Baroque, French Neo-Classicism,

Alongside the river Ill, there are some grand tree-lined boulevards, with even more grandiose housing - and if you feel really brave you can "Shanks pony" it all the way to the more modern stuff such as the European parliament or the Richard Rogers-designed European Court of Human Rights building.

When you need a break from the cold and the crowds and want to grab something "proper" to eat and drink - this is where Strasbourg comes into its own, and especially at this time of the year.

Remember this is France - so food and drink are high on any region's list of priorities - Strasbourg and Alsace are no different.

In a sense what's available is "real" fusion food, in that it brings together arguably the best of French and German tables. But be warned, there's none of that prissy pretence or wannabe trendiness. What's on offer is hearty and substantial to say the least, and not for those counting the calories or who baulk at the size of the portions.

Whatever you plump for, be it baeckeoffe, wädele (veal or pork hock), tartes flambée (flammeküche), choucroute garnie (dressed sauerkraut), coq au Riesling or a host of other regional specialities, you'll be presented with a wholesome serving that'll leave you with a suitably warm glow.

Everything of course can be washed down with a regional wine from a Riesling to a Gewürtztraminer, a Pinot gris to a Sylvaner or a beer if you must.

Replete, you might need to walk off some of those extra pounds, and as you wander through the streets, you might still be in need to another slosh of vin chaud.

No problems, the place is still buzzing late into the evening - so one last shot and then back to the hotel to collapse.

There's so much more to write and say (and indeed it has been done so frequently over the years) but perhaps it's best left to the words of the mayor of Strasbourg, Roland Ries, in his introductory welcome to visitors to the Christmas market.

Although he might have a vested interest in promoting the city as its top elected official, he's probably not far off the mark, as he just about sums up what Strasbourg has represented throughout the centuries and continues to do today in a way quite unlike any other European city.

"Every year, when Christmas comes, Strasbourg adorns itself in its very best finery." writes Riess.

"I am particularly aware of the importance of this presence which symbolises the Europe which we want to build; a Europe which laid its foundations in Strasbourg, a Europe which promotes the meeting of peoples and cultures and unites citizens."

So on behalf of him and from the glorious city of Strasbourg, here's one chilled-out, vin-chaud drinker wishing you a very warm "cheers".

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