Visit these Winter Wonderlands!

Hello and merry christmas eve to you all!

I am currently writing from the comforts of my English home after having spent many days doing the tree (for it to fall down twice and smash everything) and made our gingerbread house (and again my hand got burned).

About a year ago for my student newspaper I wrote some recommendations for European City Jaunts (read here!)  So I thought I’d add  a few more to the mix.   Fancy going away and seeing some christmas markets in the lead up to the best time of year?!  Well I have two more recommendations for you, both next to each other geographically – but much different culturally.  Enjoy!

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Alsace

Petite France in Strasbourg at Christmas.  This whole area is a UNESCO world heritage sight - the first part of a town which was given this honour.
Petite France in Strasbourg at Christmas. This whole area is a UNESCO world heritage sight – the first part of a town which was given this honour.

Having just returned from Strasbourg, which calls itself the ‘capital of Christmas’, it’s hard not to get into the festive spirit.   Strasbourg, in Alsace in France, has a German feel but is distinctly French.  Wander around the gorgeous Christmas markets in Strasbourg and savour some Gluwein or hot orange juice (much nicer than it sounds).  The best Christmas markets are in ‘Place Broglie’, near the cathedral, and near the ‘Petite France’ district of town.  Strasbourg caters very well to tourists and is easy to get around, as well as being inexpensive. Take the ‘Batorama’ tour boat to see the European Institutions, and wander the streets at night as EVERYTHING is illuminated.  Beware, though, that most Christmas markets tend to start closing around 8-9pm!

Strasbourg - the capital of christmas!
Strasbourg – the capital of christmas!

Alternatively go to Colmar a beautiful town where Bartholdi (the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty) grew up.   Colmar is a toybox town filled with gorgeous coloured houses and is easy to walk around.   Try and take the small tourist train which gives a comprehensive guide to Colmar in many different languages.   Visit also the Petite Venise (Little Venice) district, which is a sight to behold!  The Christmas markets here are concentrated around the more touristy areas, and like Strasbourg are a blend of German and French traditions.

Part of Little Venice in Colmar
Part of Little Venice in Colmar

Getting there: Ryan air flies to Stansted direct to Strasbourg every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday or alternatively fly from Heathrow with British Airways (every day) to Freiburg-Basel-Mulhouse (Euro) airport with a 50 minute train, or Baden-Baden airport and book a coach transfer, or take the Eurostar from London to Gare du Nord in Paris, then a quick walk to Gare de L’Est to Strasbourg on the TGV.  Driving from southern England can take between 6 to 8 hours.

Getting around:  The Strasbourg tram system is very easy, clean and quick.  Buy at the machine a 24 Hour Day ticket (€4.10) or a Trio (€6) – a 24 hour day ticket for 2 or 3 people. From the central station you should aim to take any tram to ‘Homme de Fer’ – the centre of town.   A return ticket from Strasbourg to Colmar (or vice-versa) can cost between €12-25 return depending on the ticket and time of day travelled.   TGVs are more expensive but only 20 minutes – slower trains take around 35 minutes.   Remember to validate your tickets (‘composter’) in a machine before embarking on any form of transport.  Other big cities nearby include Mulhouse and Nancy, capital of Lorraine.

Eating: Alsace is home to the most Michelin starred restaurants in France, outside of Ile-de-France.  Colmar in particular has a wide range of cuisine.  In Strasbourg try to avoid the main Cathedral area as it is more expensive.   In general a main meal can cost between €10-20 depending on the restaurant.  It is unlikely that you could find cheaper.   Also be sure to try Tarte Flambee/Flammekuchen – an Alsatian speciality, similar to a pizza, but with a thinner crust, no cheese and sour cream.  Sauerkraut with meat, and ‘spatzle’ (noodles similar tasting to gnocchi) are also very popular.   Wine is always very cheap – be sure to try Alsatian specialities Riesling or the gorgeous Gewurtztraminer – a very sweet white wine.

Baden-Wurrtemburg

Baden Baden christmas markets illuminated at night
Baden Baden christmas markets illuminated at night

Baden-Wurrtemburg is the home of the cuckoo clock and the beautiful towns of Baden-Baden and Freiburg and home to the more industrial Stuttgart.   Every little town of Baden-Wurrtemburg (BW) has a Christmas markets and none are exactly the same – some are even themed!  From Viking-themed to old world nostalgia, there’s always something a bit different.   Baden-Baden is a favourite of mine.  Easily one of the poshest and richest cities I have ever seen, but unlike Switzerland does not come with the insane price tag.   The big sights are the Merkur Mountain which can be reached by a bus and a furnicular, giving amazing views of Alsace and BW.  On clear days you can see Strasbourg Cathedral.

Baden Baden turns VERY Christmassy in some areas.  Modelled by friend.
Baden Baden turns VERY Christmassy in some areas. Modelled by (a festive!) friend.

Also an amazing sight is the Baden-Baden Casino, one of the most oldest and beautiful casinos in the world, even visited by Queen Victoria.  If gambling isn’t your thing, just sit in the bar and enjoy the decor!  As according to its name, like Bath in England, Baden Baden also houses many geothermal baths.  They are very ornate and gorgeous, again harking back to a richer era, but be warned for the prude among us – most of the baths require nudity.  Check on their websites their policies before turning up!

Freiburg - sorry that this was taken when the christmas lights weren't up!
Freiburg – sorry that this was taken when the christmas lights weren’t up!

Freiburg equally is a lovely southern German town with Christmas markets and ancient relics.  Visit the old clock tower in particular in the heart of the towen.   In your time in BW you could also visit Treiburg a quaint town in the heart of the Black Forest, home to a Cuckoo Clock museum and Germany’s second highest waterfalls.  It is disabled accessible and involves a walk around the waterfalls and opportunities to feed the squirrels around the park. Heidelburg is also a recommendation – a beautiful town nestled in the east of BW and home to Germany’s oldest university.

Travel to BW: Fly to Baden-Baden airport, Basel-Freiburg-Mulhouse airport or Stuttgart airport.

Travel within BW:  A Baden-Wurrtenburg ticket costs only €22, and then €5 extra for every added person (up to 5 people can travel on a ticket).  This allows you on all trains except the Inter City Express trains, and buses.  For all bus and train times use http://www.bahn.de – easily the best train website to monitor all forms of transport, and in English.   Other bigger cities include Mannheim and Karlsruhe. 

Eating:  BW is generally cheaper than Alsace.  Like Alsace, however, there is a fusion of Swiss/French/German cuisine which differs it from the rest of Germany. Flammenkuche are also very popular here, whereas their ‘Spatzle’ equivilant is ‘Knoepfle’ – a smaller variant. 

Also note!

Baden-Wurrtemburg and Alsace are border regions.  Not only with France/Germany respectively, but with Switzerland.  Both are great places to stay if you want to go on a day trip to northern Switzerland (particularly Basel, Bern or Zurich, although Geneva is also only 3 hours from Baden-Wurrtemburg on fast trains), without the insane Swiss prices.   Basel is the most accessible and is a pretty town for a day trip – the town hall, the river and the zoo are particular highlights.   You could feasibly go to three countries on a whole weekend trip!

I will be writing an official and much more comprehensive review of Strasbourg at all times of year in the next few weeks, but this area and its border definitely needed to be acknowledged separately for their completely non-English take on Christmas.   Have a very merry christmas everyone!

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