There were candy canes and sleigh bells and Rudolph’s with shiny noses,
There were wreaths and white pine cones and ruby-colored roses.
There were red bows and white bows and ornaments galore,
There were nutcrackers, giant golden snowmen and a giant present-wrapped door.
There were chocolate covered cherries, bratwurst and mulled wine,
There were star-shaped cinnamon cookies and latkes so fine…
Wait, what? Latkes? you ask. At a Christmas market?
Oui oui! But yes, ’tis the season and ’tis true. But they did not call them latkes. In Alsatian France and Germany, where three friends and I spent 48-hours, they’re called kartoffelpuffer. Sometimes they were herb-flavored and served sans dip, sometimes they were crispy and served with applesauce, and sometimes they were mushy and served with yogurt, but they were always fried and therefore always delicious. In fact, we ate five helpings of them from five different vendors over the course of our whirlwind trip. (And two of us—shockingly not me—had a sneaky sixth helping!)
It’s funny to think I felt a little bad becoming my best elf during Hanukkah when I ended up being surrounded by the Jewish holiday’s quintessential treat.
I’ve previously written of my delight and warm feelings for Christmas, despite being a member of the Tribe, so I’ll jump right to the experience of surrounding myself with bells that jingle and lights that twinkle during our two night trip to Strasbourg—the Capital of Christmas—and nearby Stuttgart, Germany.
I wanted to go to what’s known as France’s most impressive Christmas market (and oldest at 445 years!) last year, but had only arrived less than a month prior, leaving me little time to secure a reasonably priced room and train ticket. And boy am I glad I waited! This is one trip that’s best experienced with friends. Sure, it can be tough to browse stall after stall of Christmas ornaments with four people (and people who, unlike me, may have a need for said ornaments), not to mention that the crowds can be difficult to navigate without holding onto each other in a conga line, but at least we were all buzzed on copious amounts of vin chaud (hot wine). Furthermore, being with a group allowed us to indulge in all the food—and I mean All the Food—without feeling too much like fat Frosty with unmeltable mid-sections.
In addition to the aforementioned potato pancakes, we shared spaetzle in cream sauce, choucroute (a plate of pork meats with sauerkraut and potatoes), fried potato wedges, curry wurst, flammekuecha with muenster cheese (a kind of thin-crust pizza) and bratwurst sandwiches with spicy mustard. We split sticks of chocolate-covered clementines and bags of spiced cookies covered in icing. We stuck our forks into apple strudel doused in vanilla sauce and passed around logs of marzipan covered in chocolate. By the end of each day, the insides of our mouths stung from all the sugar and our bellies puffed out from all the potatoes. We craved lettuce.
The train ride from Paris to Strasbourg is direct and only took about 2 hours. I found the city itself extremely walkable, though fairly big for being so pedestrian-friendly. In our one full day there on Sunday, we did over 20,000 steps—coincidentally, according to my UP Band, the equivalent to walking up the Eiffel Tower 7 times! (Or about half a potato pancake.)
Despite what I pictured, the Strasbourg Christmas market is actually several mini markets spread throughout different areas of the city center. Some focus on food and drink delicacies (to eat there or take home), while others specialize in knick-knacks from wooden toys to snow globes to feathered mobiles. Then, you’ve got your random necessities: socks, brushes and other hardwares from nuts to bolts to drain stoppers and brooms. And, of course, there are several stands sprinkled within all of the above offering hot wine, aka vin chaud aka gluhwein aka mulled wine. By the end of the two full days, it became difficult to distinguish between all the different variations, especially once you top them off with shots of amaretto or rum. This was day-into-night drinking at its finest.
While we consulted maps during our time in Strasbourg, we rarely went very far without bumping into some sort of nod to Noël, be it the cobble stoned streets of the Petite France neighborhood with its timbered Hansel and Gretel-like houses, or the main thoroughfare of Rue des Grand Arcades, with the decorative lights and decor hung high above our heads and along the buildings.
Stuttgart, however, was a tad different. When we exited the station on Monday morning after about an hour train ride, the city felt way more industrial. The walk to the market took us down a pedestrian strip mall lined with chain clothing stores. It was clear this was no “Capital of Christmas”—self-proclaimed or not. Eventually, though, we hit the start of the market, which became more and more charming the further we walked. Unlike Strasbourg, this was one giant market that seemed to just keep going and going and going. We kept up our mission to taste something new every 30 minutes or so, and even took a load off midday inside a mini heated chalet for some beer and more vin chaud.
While we only saw two of the dozens of European Christmas markets, we left feeling well-equipped to declare each a winner in various categories:
Best Reusable Cup: Stuttgart
Rather than the plastic ones we got in Strasbourg, Stuttgart’s reusable cups were full-on ceramic mugs that came in a choice of four different color variations. You could also opt for a glass beer stein—all for a whopping €2.50 ($2.75).
Best Overall Decor: Strasbourg
For capturing the spirit throughout the city, and not just at the markets, Strasbourg comes out ahead. Banks, department stores, hotels and the like all decked their halls with high-class personality. Case in point:
Best Market Decor: Stuttgart
Each chalet had its own little rooftop scene—from Santa on a sleigh to a herd of fully woolen sheep. There were lights and moving reindeer, too.
Best Tree: Strasbourg
We spotted this tree from way on down the road on our first night, and half of us literally skipped towards it. Aside from it being gigantic, the scent of pine was irresistible and the main lights changed color every 8 minutes or so.
Best Market Atmosphere: Stuttgart
Germany wins for providing ample spots for perching. There was always a table to sidle up to or a chalet to dip inside for a cup of something warm or a pint of something refreshing.
Best Extracurricular Activities: Stuttgart
Not only was there a mini ice skating rink, but a pretty and petite ornament-shaped ferris wheel. There was also a life-size train set with a fully-rideable train chugging through it for kids.
Last but not least…
Best Kartoffelpuffers: Strasbourg
Of all the ones we ate, our favorite came seasoned with herbs. It was mushy on the inside, but perfectly crispy on the outside. It was so flavorful, it didn’t need a dollop of anything.
There you have it, folks. Joyeuses fêtes a tous! (Happy Holidays to all!)