On the border of France and Germany, in the enchanting region of Alsace, sits the ancient town of Strasbourg. She’s the sort of beauty that can bring tears to your eyes– really. The ancient cathedral that pops up like a startled giant as you turn the corner of a tight, wending alley; the rustic half-timbered houses that are painted in cheery colors as a brace against the moody fog of winter mornings in Europe; the myriad small, exquisite restaurants nestled into the tiny crannies of the old town; and the thriving modern art that pulses of youth and energy. This is the town of Strasbourg to me. A fairytale town, both in and out of time– existing somehow as a real, brick and mortar (or wattle and daub) city, but also, so clearly, a space of literal enchantment where you are transported back to a different time, a different world, both fabulous and fierce.
And this is one of the reasons why the terror attack this past week, on the edge of the Strasbourg Christmas market, strikes hard with a poignancy and earthy tragedy. It shouldn’t happen in such a beautiful place. Senseless violence in a fairytale city. It shouldn’t happen.
But it has happened before in this place and others of its ilk. Because what is the stuff of fairytales, anyway? Dire cruelty always runs through their marrow: just after the achingly beautiful characters capture our hearts, just before we convince ourselves that there is a happily ever after, we get to the bones of the story. And, there at the core, we find violence, malevolence, jealousy. Ugliness.
Strasbourg has known its share of ugliness over the centuries: famine, border wars, plague, the German occupation of WWII. There was even The Dancing Plague of 1518– in true fairytale fashion, a plague that was by equal measures farcical and grotesque. (Honestly, look it up– it’s a bizarre episode that has zombie-overtones and a possible psychogenic explanation.)
What I can’t decide today, my heart aching for Strasbourg (and for all of us in a world marred by cruelty), is whether this fairytale cycle of ugliness and hope, of cruelty and resilience, lifts me up in a moment of sadness or deflates my sense that our better angels will ever truly win out.
All I know is, while hope doesn’t prevent the ugliness, the cut to the bone, it refuses to end the narrative there.
Our holiday visit to Salzburg was fantastic, but it began with a few grumbles. No snow? We wanted flurries and the full picturesque Christmas package, but no snow was in the forecast. In fact, it was nearly balmy by Alpine standards in December. (It turns out, however, that “Alpine balmy” is plenty cold as the sun drops low, so we quickly stopped complaining and huddled over our steamy mugs of mulled wine!)
I’ll give you the quick tour of our Salzburg shenanigans here, complete with photos.
We live near the French-German border, and Salzburg is nestled just into the Austrian side of the German-Austrian border. This makes for a long drive, but we were up for it. We left early, so we’d have a full half day as we rolled into Austria.
As we rolled in, we made our first stop at Hellbrunn Palace–right on the edge of Salzburg. In 2014, we’d visited Helbrunn in late November, just as Christmas Market stalls were being built for the upcoming holidays. It about killed us to see all of the preparations but miss the festivities themselves, so our first order of business was to remedy that injustice. And Hellbrunn did not disappoint!
Hellbrunn offered a charming market and a petting zoo/nativity area for children, all set in the fantastic gardens of the Palace. I’ll post a couple of photos here, but say little more about this, as I’ve already written a post about Hellbrunn’s market (here).
After eating and drinking our way through Hellbrunn, we headed to Villa Trapp to check in and have a quick rest–we needed a little energy before heading out for an evening in Salzburg.
The main attraction for us, especially that first evening in Salzburg, was the Christkindlmart (the Christ-child Market, or sometimes called the Weihnachtsmarkt–Christmas Market). There were a number of spots in the city where you could cruise through markets–Mirabell Gardens (which we did the next day), around the Dom (cathedral), and Mozartplatz (where there was ice skating).
The markets were charming in the moonlight, with Christmas lights twinkling overhead and warmth, light, and wonderful smells tumbling out of each stall. We enjoyed Gluhwein (warm mulled wine), sausages, Weihnachts Schmarr’n in many varieties (with nuts, apple, gingerbread, etc, this is like big bread or pancake chunks cut up and fried with sugar), sugar and apple pretzels, and white Russians in steamy mugs.
At some point, we wandered into the Sternbrau Brewery and Beergarden for a cozy dinner. Everyone went to bed happy.
The next morning, we picked up breakfast on the run and headed for town, with our sights set on the Hohensalzburg Fortress, sat high atop the hill over the city. But to get to the top, you have to start from the bottom. At the foot of the hill, we wandered through a town just starting to come to life for the day. My nephew stuck his head around a corner, only to find that he’d stumbled on the entrance to St. Peter’s Cemetery– a familiar sight to anyone who has watched The Sound of Music. (Although I think that scene must have been largely reproduced on a soundstage, it is clear that this is the location represented in the film.) The cemetery is beautiful–set in the churchyard, with its back up against the stone hills of Salzburg. And those stone hills hold their own surprises. There is a doorway in the hills, to the back of the cemetery, which leads into the catacombs.
The catacombs are hand-hewn, carved into the rock of those hills. For a small fee, you can tour the catacombs–a short but lovely tour, it’s worth the fee. There are small chapel spaces cut into the rock, as well as windows and overlook perches, where you have a nice view of the church and cemetery. After we had finished up with the catacombs, we started the climb toward the Hohensalzburg Fortress.
Let me say, for the record, that the fortress is fantastic and the views are not to be missed. Within the fortress, you can wander the walls and interior courtyard, visit the fortress museum, and enjoy the Marionette
Museum there. It’s a great place to spend an afternoon.
Still, for me, the greater treat of the afternoon was Nonnberg Abbey, which is tucked around the bend of the hill just below the fortress. We knew the Abbey was there, but had been told that it’s not open to enter, so the best we could hope for was to peek into the gates. (Those famous gates from The Sound of Music— Nonnberg is the Abbey where Maria was a novice.)
Imagine our delight when we found the gates to Nonnberg open, and we were able to wander in. The chapel (which is the actual location where the von Trapps were married) is stunning and still small enough to feel intimate. The courtyard and garden cemetery tucked just inside the walls of the Abbey were serene. It was a great place to linger for a moment above the bustle of the town.
After visiting Nonnberg and the Hohensalzburg, we headed back down into town and eventually found ourselves at the Sacher Cafe– world famous for its Sacher Torte. We ordered a myriad of desserts and nibbled off of each plate. The cakes were brilliant and the coffee was outstanding. We had no luck getting a table in the restaurant for lunch (reservations needed, at least during Christmas week), but I’m so glad that we made our way back for dessert. In a city of fantastic food, this cafe ranks among the best of the best.
Honestly, I don’t remember what happened after our afternoon nibbles. I expect we toddled back to Villa Trapp for a moment’s rest before hitting an evening of Christmas markets again.
Another night to wander the markets under the stars. We spent a lot of time doing that, in various locations, during the Christmas season. But it never got old. Salzburg’s market offered so many tasty delights, and so much “eye candy”-old-world-decoration that it was impossible not to be enrapt by it all. My favorite shop window on our last night in Salzburg was a confectionery shop that boasted a sugary replica of the Oberndorf Chapel, just outside of Salzburg. This is the chapel where the Christmas hymn “Silent Night” was written.
After an evening of wandering, ogling Christmas baubles, eating, and drinking, it was once again off to Villa Trapp for a long winter’s nap.
We woke slowly Christmas Eve morning, some of us taking breakfast in the von Trapp’s dining room, and then set out (our bags packed for home) to visit Mondsee before the long ride back to the Rhineland-Pfalz in Germany. Mondsee’s cathedral is probably best known as the wedding chapel in The Sound of Music, and it’s a stunner. It was a treat to see it decked out for Christmas. And, as always, it was a treat to stop by Cafe Braun before leaving town and eat breakfast and some of the best apple strudel to be found on the planet. (I ordered the strudel with both ice cream and cream–I don’t know if they make these out of an egg custard recipe or with some liqueur I can’t quite pin down, but they are incredible.)
Cathedral at Mondsee
We left for home with tired feet, full bellies, and a storehouse of wonderful Christmas memories. Next year I may be celebrating Christmas far from Salzburg, but I feel certain that Salzburg will be there in spirit– I’ll perfect my strudel and custard recipes, I’ll drink my mulled wine in a Salzburg gluhwein mug, and I’ll carry a certain old world spirit. Like Hemingway’s Paris, Salzburg in this season will be my moveable feast.
Hellbrunn Palace was built 400 years ago by the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg as a summer residence and pleasure palace, and I’m sure it fit the bill perfectly. The palace is stunning and the grounds are lovely, boasting fountains and an outdoor theater (and today a children’s play area). Plenty of tour buses make this stop while zipping around Salzburg–often to pay homage to the gazebo that now stands on its property. It’s the gazebo from The Sound of Music movie.
What drew us in yesterday was the Christmas Market. As we pulled into Salzburg for a few days, we made this our first stop, and it surely did not disappoint. Hellbrunn has one of the nicest Christmas Markets I’ve ever seen– local craftsman and bakers selling really nice goods and delicious food. There’s also a small animal petting zoo/creche area that is absolutely charming and really sets the tone for the season as we creep up to the humble nativity scene of Christmas day.
Now that we are knee deep in December, Christmas Markets are in full swing. So far, I’ve cruised through four of them. Here are some photos and observations.
Our first market of the season was Bernkastel-Kues, on the Mosel River, which I wrote about in my “And the Season Begins” post. It’s one of my favorite small German towns, and the market is equally fabulous. Being there in the evening, or just as dusk falls, is the best–the markets (all of them, as far as I’ve seen) really become magical when the lights are twinkling at dark, or in a hazy swirl of snow. Plus, Bernkastel has an old world feel that’s undiluted here, but often more watered down in larger cities (where busy, modern shopping areas stand side by side with older architecture).
My next adventure in Gluhwein and Gingerbread was in Luxembourg City, the week of Thanksgiving. It was a sleepy Monday, and the market was just beginning to wake up for the season. The day was bitter cold, so the hot gluhwein and potato pancakes there were greedily gobbled out of both desire and necessity. And after a glass of gluhwein, I wandered into a store with a friend and bought a big fuzzy mohair sweater. Later that night, I wondered if that was a wine-induced mistake: I look a little like giant grey blueberry (greyberry?) in it. . . but I’ve worn it a lot since then.
Turns out that, ridiculous as it looks, it is very warm and cozy on a winter day, and sometimes that’s not a bad trade off for looking like a Fruit of the Loom character. It also hides any extra pounds you might accumulate walking around markets eating potato pancakes and gingerbread.
On to the third market of the season: Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany. If you grew up on Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, then you’ve already caught a quick
glimpse of Rothenburg– a charming, walled, 13th century town in Bavaria.
Any time of year that you visit Rothenburg, you will feel that you’ve stumbled on to Christmastown. It is quaint and visually perfect, and peppered with small stores selling Christmas decorations. It’s also famous for Schneeballs (“snowballs”) –a fried doughball covered in (most often) chocolate, cinnamon sugar, or powdered sugar. They can be delicious, but on our first trip to Rothenburg a schneeball single-handedly took down my husband for an entire evening.
We skipped the schneeballs this go round and headed straight for the market and the spiced wine and candies. The town was crowded, but not overly, and we enjoyed just milling about, eating, drinking, and taking in the sights. On our first trip to Rothenburg (over a year ago), the kids and I had taken the Night Watchman’s Tour at about 8 pm (while my husband was at the hotel in Schneeball hell). It was fantastic–lots of history very charmingly and entertainingly told by an actor in the character of the town’s medieval nightwatchman. We weren’t in town overnight this time, so we took a daytime tour of the city with a German woman who was probably well schooled in her history, but was
fairly hard to understand. Some of her phrases just didn’t translate. No worries, though–a stroll through Rothenburg ob der Tauber is never a mistake. The view from each corner is fantastic.
And trip number four? Metz, France. Metz market has an ice skating rink which our kids enjoyed last year. This year, it has added an ice sculpture exhibit (Disney themed). The market is actually multiple markets in different squares around the city, but we lingered longest near Place St. Louis–home to stalls with table linens, butter biscuits, and outrageously good candied fruits. Candied fruits are rarely featured in the German markets, so they were a special treat!
Place St. Louis was also home to one of the most beautiful carousels I have ever seen. (We’ve noticed vintage carousels in so many French cities–always a delight for the eyes. One of my favorite photos of my kids around age 4-6 is on a carousel in St. Malo, France.) This carousel in Metz boasts a balcony–fancy stuff!
Truth be told, most Christmas markets have a similar feel. They are best suited to a day (or better yet, an evening) of meandering, nibbling, and sipping. The ambitious (or tipsy) among us may revel in the shopping experience, but it’s the general atmosphere that most of us go for.
Frohe Fest (Happy Holidays!) and see you at the markets!
We woke this morning to a dusting of snow and ice in the Rhineland-Pfalz. The cold had swept in yesterday, and we were beginning to feel the holiday spirit.
Late yesterday afternoon, we zipped over to Bernkastel-Kues, on the Mosel River, to catch the opening salvo of their Christmas Market. We drove from cold and drizzle, through a snowy pass, and down into the town of Bernkastel, which seemed to be gripped in an arctic cold.
The market opened just that day (and will continue through December) and it was much less crowded than when we visited last year– which left us able to enjoy the beauty of the town without having to dodge the crowds. All sorts of food and gluhwein were on offer– and we sipped the hot wine, but not too quickly (it was a great hand warmer!).
At one point, we had to clear a narrow lane to let St. Nikolaus and his horse-drawn carriage and entourage of mariners and fire fighters pass. We had read that St. Nick was the patron saint of mariners. In fact, I read that last year after visiting Bernkastel’s Christmas market and seeing Nikolaus and his sidekick Knecht Ruprecht in a boat. Here’s a photo of last year’s boat display with St. Nick and his ominous sidekick (the mannequin to the left, in the black cape and boots).
It’s too bad that I didn’t have my camera with me yesterday because Knecht Ruprecht was even more ominous this year. This year, that sack he’s carrying wasn’t just stuffed with something out of sight (coal and switches was my assumption). This year, someone’s been really naughty–there was a child’s leg and boot sticking out of the sack. Yikes! These draconian sidekicks of St. Nikolaus (Knecht Ruprecht, Krampus, or Schwarz Peter, depending on what region you live in*) often whip naughty children or give them coal and switches instead of candy. But occasionally the children have been so bad that they are abducted (dragged to hell?) or carried off to be thrown into the cold river. This could make a good child of the worst of us, because the Mosel River is VERY cold right now–polar bears aside, no one wants a dip in that.
I am breathing a sigh of relief today, because Nikolaus gave me a friendly wave as his carriage passed last night. Pretty sure I’m on the good list this year.
Being American, my family begins our Thanksgiving week today, so the holidays are now in full swing for us–how nice to have that echoed by the weather and the Christmas markets here. My oven was cranked up to full tilt today, the house smelled great, and the holiday candle arches were set up in the windows. We’re getting ready!
Now, if we could just conjure up a little Peace on Earth . . .