Christmas in Alsace

A colorful scene along the canal in Colmar.

Some friends and I had planned a magical voyage to celebrate the holidays: Christmas in Alsace, followed by New Year’s in Paris. As the departure day approached, I felt like a giddy child, squirming with anticipation at the delights to come.

Part One: Alsace
It would be my first visit to Alsace, and I was eager to experience the world-renowned Christmas markets of Strasbourg, the wines of Alsace, the colorful half-timber buildings dotted throughout the region. Yummy things to eat and drink included pastries (namely kugelhopf), sauerkraut (choucroûte), onion tarte (flammekueche), pretzels (bretzels), hot spiced wine and gewürztraminer, gingerbread, munster cheese, anything with potatoes.

Like Santa in his sleigh, our flight took us over the all-white landscape of the Alps. We landed in Strasbourg on a rainy afternoon, picked up our rental car, and headed south to Wintzenheim and the apartment we’d call home for the next five days.

Our first evening in Alsace: the 16th-century town hall of Wintzenheim. For dinner, we chose flammekueche, a sort of thin-crust pizza of onions and cheese.
A café window in Strasbourg.

Our first full day was Christmas Eve Day, and we decided that it was the day to visit the Christmas market in Strasbourg. We drove to the outskirts of the city and took a tram into the ancient center.

Strasbourg is a remarkable city, and it helps to understand a little of its history and geography. It is thought of as the crossroads of Europe, thanks to its location on the western bank of the Rhine River, which is the border between France and Germany. Humans have lived here for millennia, although the first permanent settlers were Celts in around 1300 BC. The Romans arrived in 12 BC, then later the Merovingians (early French dynasty), followed by the Holy Roman Empire (primarily Germanic). From 1681 to 1945, the region changed hands between Germany and France many times.

With all that history, as well as its location across the river from Germany, Strasbourg (and by extension, the region of Alsace) is very much a blend of the two cultures. This is clearly seen in food and wine, religious customs, literature, architecture and business. The Alsatian language is still spoken by many.

With the founding of the European Union, Strasbourg was an obvious choice to be one of the seats of power, and today it is home to the European parliament.

A stand for hot spiced wine placed in front of the ancient cathedral of Strasbourg.
After the Christmas markets and a wet stroll through the center of Strasbourg, we stopped at the Académie de la Bière (Beer Academy) for a hot drink and warmth.

After leaving Strasbourg, we decided to fit in one more visit; we arrived in Kaysersberg just as dark was falling, which gave us a delightful view of the Christmas lights and decorations in this lovely town.

All lit up for Christmas in Kaysersberg.
I saw a lot all at once: the colorful lights and their reflection on the wet cobbles, the silhouette of the dog, the youngster receiving something to drink from her mother.

A detailed view of some colorful half-timber houses in Colmar.

Our selection for Christmas Day was the city of Colmar. We arrived on a quiet morning, and we were among very few people out and about. We saw glimpses of the canals that the city is known for, and a few of the colorful half-timber structures of the region.

Half-timber is a kind of construction that was used in parts of Europe starting in the mid-1400s. The styles vary from region to region, but what is consistent is the exposure of the wooden framework. The spaces between pieces of wood were filled with brick, stones or cob. Originally, the entire exterior was covered with plaster or shingles, to protect and unify the structure. Today, the wooden frames of these historic buildings have proven so popular that the outer layer is gone, and great care is taken with the preservation of the wood, as well as the spaces between. In some regions, the wood has been carved with faces or decorative patterns. And especially in Alsace, the plaster is usually painted in vivid colors.

As we continued to walk in the city, we found more and more interesting buildings and more people, too. I expected it to be smaller than it is; just when it seemed that we must be near the edge of town, we’d turn the corner to a whole new scene. Colmar is beautiful, lovingly cared for, and full of fascinating discoveries.

A half-timber house in Colmar.
Maison Pfister in Colmar, built in 1537 for Ludwig Scherer, a wealthy hat maker. The house is heavily decorated; this panel depicts the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.
Hot spiced wine and other treats are available at this stall in front of the Collégiale Saint-Martin in Colmar.

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Colmar, but the day was not done. We decided on a stop in Riquewihr, a charming village that’s much smaller than Colmar.

A lovely shop and house in Riquewihr.
A huge stork nest atop a roof in Riquewihr. The stork is a symbol of the region.
Strolling through magical Riquewihr.
An old stone well in Riquewihr.
A festive window in Riquewihr.

The 17th-century fortifications at Neuf-Brisach.

The day after Christmas we drove to Neuf-Brisach, a fortified town that was built in the 17th century to protect the French border from Germany. The design was by Vauban, an extraordinarily gifted and prolific engineer of late 17th-century France. Seen from above, the intact octagonal design includes several layers of walls and huge star-shaped earthworks.

The town itself is flat and laid out in a perfect military grid of streets, with a large central square. On this very quiet and very grey Saint Stephen’s Day, we walked around the town a bit, and then turned our attention to a museum, one that seems a bit out of character for a military town.

It’s the MAUSA Vauban, a museum of street and urban art, and it is found inside some of the bunkers of the fort. All of us are fans of street art, and we happily spent a chilly hour or so exploring the many installations inside this old structure.

It turns out that one of the people who lent his support to the founding of this museum is Jérôme Mesnager, a Parisian street artist who was born in nearby Colmar. We all met Jérôme last June in his Paris studio.

Poetry and portraiture by Guy Denning.
One of Jérôme Mesnager’s “Men in White” near the entrance to the fortification of Neuf-Brisach.

From Neuf-Brisach, we drove to Eguisheim, another quaint and colorful town full of half-timber architecture.

A street in Eguisheim.
The contrast of old and new, seen in the portico of the church in Eguisheim.
Adjacent half-timber buildings in Eguisheim.

Our adventures continued on Monday, as we had reservations for a wine tasting tour at Zeyssolff Winery in Gertwiller. The great wines of Alsace have a long history. There is evidence of vines growing in this region long before the arrival of the Romans, who cultivated grapes wherever they could. The history continues through the Middle Ages, when Alsatian wines were among the most prized of Europe. Unfortunately, wars and plagues took their toll, followed by zealous over-production, and wine production in this region nearly died out.

After World War II, there was a determination to revive wine production in the region by focusing more on quality than on quantity. Today Alsatian vines grow in a long, narrow swath in the foothills of the Vosges mountains, where the climate and the soil form a perfect combination for the vines.

During the recent covid lockdowns, the Zeyssolff family took advantage of the opportunity to create a whole new visitor experience, and it’s wonderful. Our tour began in the shop, but we quickly moved to the cave. It was pitch black except for spotlights illuminating the ends of wooden barrels, which had been painted with information about the grape varietals and wines of Alsace. There was also a short film about the history of the Zeyssolff family and how they came to be vintners. Since its founding in 1778, the vineyard has remained in the family for 11 generations.

Our guide at the Zeyssolff winery, standing near a wine barrel showing the local grape varietals.

On our last day in Alsace, our train to Paris didn’t depart until the afternoon, so we decided to return to Kaysersberg to see it in daylight. We strolled about the town, seeing things we’d missed in the dark. Olivier and I walked up to the 13th-century castle on the hill overlooking the town. I think we all felt like we’d had a great visit to Alsace, and we were now ready to turn our attention toward Paris.

The Weiss River flows through Kaysersberg.
A pub named Kaysers’ Bier is to be found in Kaysersberg.

We arrived in Paris just in time for a glowing sunset.

Part two: Paris
We had lots of plans for Paris, including museums, restaurants, and a New Year’s Eve jazz dinner (the dinner was canceled shortly before our trip, due to covid restrictions). Alas, the night of our arrival, I woke up with a sore throat, and I spent most of the time in Paris installed in our lovely apartment. I’m happy to say, though, that my friends had all kinds of adventures!

I did manage to do a couple of fun things: an excellent exhibit of the work of photographer Steve McCurry, and a light show at the Atelier des Lumières. Despite not feeling well, it was still a terrific vacation! I’m eager to see Alsace in a different season, perhaps spring when it’s full of flowers. And Paris always beckons.

Thanks for sticking with me through this extra-long post. I hope you’ve enjoyed your armchair tour!

We went to the Musée Maillol to see an exhibit of the extraordinary work of photojournalist Steve McCurry. Here is his 1984 photograph of Sharbat Gula, a 12-year-old Afghan orphan living in a refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan. He didn’t learn her name until 2002. She lived in Pakistan until 2017, when she was deported to Afghanistan. The return of the Taliban in 2021 put her life in danger; she requested and was granted asylum in Italy, where she now resides.
Kabul, Afghanistan, 2003. A teenage boy finds a makeshift stand for selling oranges to help support his family. This McCurry exhibit is stunning in its scope, and it is by far the most beautifully-displayed photography exhibit I’ve ever seen. It was designed by Biba Giacchetti.

We also went to a multimedia exhibit at L’Atelier des Lumières, which showed the work of Catalan artists Dalí and Gaudí.
A lively view of Gaudí’s Casa Batlló in Barcelona.
The colorful images were projected onto the huge interior walls of the building, and they were constantly shifting and moving. In one area, some kids were having fun running up and down the wall, chasing the moving colors.
Farewell Paris! À la prochaine !


Winter Solstice 2021

Looking up at a crystal chandelier and the light it casts on the ceiling.

Winter festivities
There’s a luscious full moon outside my window as I write this post, and the winter solstice is just two days away. In the northern hemisphere, this is the darkest day of the year, an occurrence that led to early rituals which continue to this day, many of them incorporated in more recent celebrations such as Hanukkah and Christmas.

Perhaps it’s human nature, or maybe it’s our western culture, but we tend to shy away from darkness, both the physical darkness of night, and the emotional darkness of some of our feelings. We avoid the darkness with busy-ness, never more so than at this time of year. We shop, we wrap, we cook, we decorate, and we party at a dizzying pace.

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Winter solstice and small miracles

The glowing center of this morning glory—still blooming where I live—looks much like a pink star in a midnight sky.

Where were you in the year 1226?
There is a rare treat awaiting us on this year’s winter solstice. It’s called the Great Conjunction, and the last time humans could see it like this was on March 4, 1226.

When two planets in our solar system appear close to each other—from Earth’s perspective—it’s called a conjunction. When it happens with the two biggest planets, Jupiter and Saturn, it’s called the Great Conjunction, which occurs around every 20 years. However, it’s quite rare when they appear to be overlapping each other AND are visible from earth. The last time they looked this close to each other was during Galileo’s time, in 1623, but the planets also lined up so close to the sun that they weren’t visible from Earth. The next time this will happen is relatively soon: 2080.

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Sparkles for the Season

Archbishop Palace
The magic of the season in tiny sparkly lights adorning the medieval walls of the Archbishop’s Palace in Narbonne.

 

The holiday season is winding down, with all the busy-ness of shopping, wrapping, mailing, cooking, and partying. I’ve gathered some photographs from my celebrations of both Christmas and New Year’s Eve to give you an idea of how things looked in my corner of paradise.


Christmas — Noël

On Christmas Eve—Réveillon de Noël—I joined some of my French friends for a visit to Narbonne to stroll through the Christmas market, watch the parade, and hope for a glimpse of Père Noël (Santa Claus). A week later, on New Year’s Eve—Réveillon du Nouvel An, or Saint Sylvestre—I was with many of the same folks to share a meal and watch the festivities televised from Paris, where 400,000 cold revelers crowded the Champs-Élysées.

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Going green

S&H
This image is etched into my childhood memory bank! A stack of vintage sheets of S&H Green Stamps. Photograph from the company itself, Sperry & Hutchinson.


Green stamps
When I was very young, I remember my mother collecting S&H Green Stamps.* The stamps were green, they carried different point values (1, 10, and 50), and they came in perforated sheets, like postage stamps. When you bought things, mainly groceries, but also lots of other things, the merchant would hand you the receipt along with a row or block of the stamps whose point value related to the sale total.

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