A Troika of Treasures in Germany, France & Switzerland
During the Christmas season, typically from mid-November through 23 December, all Europe comes alive with holiday festivities and none are more joyous and all-encompassing than the Christmas markets. I had the opportunity to experience these merry events when I joined a Uniworld River Cruise and sailed down the Rhine, visiting cities from Cologne to Strasbourg and all the way to Basel, in Switzerland.
Heedless of the Wind and Weather
During this season, town centers, market squares and narrow cobblestone lanes come alive with brightly decorated stalls, offering regional food, Christmas decorations, sweet confections, crafts, and live entertainment. Oh, and let’s not forget the Glühwein, that spicy, hot mulled wine that is reason enough to visit the markets – and it banishes the cold quite handily! On my excursions into several enchanting German, French and Swiss medieval castle towns, I celebrated the magic of this season in a memorable way. An added plus was learning some background and history of each metropolis– and meeting warm and hospitable locals in the bargain.
Popularity of river cruising is on the rise, as continued news of mega-liners’ disasters at sea lure us toward more intimate, smaller craft like the SS Antoinette—Uniworld Boutique River Cruise’s 164-passenger vessel. The company has been in business since 1976 and currently has 18 ships, including the all-inclusive SS Catherine which launched this year. From the moment I stepped on-board I was giddy with excitement, and that high never flagged throughout the cruise. High above me in the two-storey lobby hung a shimmering light fixture, which I later learned was the 10-foot, blue Strauss Baccarat chandelier. Resplendent with sapphires, it originally graced New York’s famed Tavern on the Green. Checking in at Reception, I gaped at the Brazilian marble on the walls and floor and was captivated by a 19th century Venetian glass mirror mounted behind the receptionist.
Entering my stateroom, I felt I’d stepped into Chateau de Versailles. My room was decorated in 18th century French furnishings, with perhaps my very favorite feature being a mini-conservatory. Heavy toile draperies enclosed this French balcony with two cozy chairs, a soft cashmere throw and a floor-to-ceiling window that, at the touch of a button, lowered half-way, providing a wonderful view of the Rhine and its myriad fairy tale castles. Bikes were available for our cycling pleasure port-side, and each day there was an engaging tour excursion into town to visit the markets, the cathedrals, or just saunter and shop till sailing on to the next port.
This Little Trekker Went to Markets
Our first stop: Cologne. This city of just a million inhabitants boasts 42 museums and a sophisticated dining culture, as the cuisines of all Cologne’s 181 nationalities are represented. A leader in culture and art, it is Germany’s 4th largest city with a bustling center for trade fairs and conventions. Its party-going mentality encourages visitors to join in the fun and have a drink. There’s also a spectacular UNESCO World Heritage Site: the famed Gothic Cathedral of Cologne. Construction began in the year 1248, was halted in 1473, then finally completed in 1880. A visit here is at once empowering and overpowering. Among its treasures I found my favorite in the Lady Chapel – an important triptych alter painting done in 1442. A portion of the work depicts the legend of St. Ursula and her 11,000 virgin companions, who were murdered in Cologne by the Huns. The cherubic faces of Ursula’s girls are sweet and poignant. Cologne’s markets glowed with pre-Christmas excitement and its stalls were small, Alpine huts. I was smitten by the market at Rudolfplatz, which transported me into a world of Grimm fairy tales. Costumed Grimm characters paraded the streets – a fantasy world for kids of all ages.
Next up – Koblenz. Talk about old. This city celebrated its 2,000th (no, seriously) birthday in 1992. It lies at the confluence of two rivers—the Rhine and the Moselle—and is considered the “corner of Germany.” Its market’s 130 gaily-decorated, wooden stalls offered an extensive range of hand-made goods and Christmas decorations, hot, aromatic Glühwein and bakeries selling Stollen—a fruit-cake like bread covered in powdered sugar or sugar icing—and other German goodies.
Rudesheim is a medieval city at the southern end of the Rhine Valley in Hesse. UNESCO World Heritage rewarded it for its wine making that dates back to the Romans, who grew vineyards here in the 1st century. Drosselgasse is considered the “party lane” of the town, with taverns and restaurants offering regional cuisine famed Rudesheimer wine, live entertainment and dancing. 120 stalls represented 12 countries and presented Christmas customs from around the world, including specialties from far-flung Finland and Mongolia! I loved the life-size figures on Market Square, the largest Nativity scene in all of Germany.
I was looking forward to touring Heidelberg and it did not disappoint – in spite of a freezing, drizzle throughout the tour. I just pulled up my hoodie and was off to the markets. Heidelberg is home to Germany’s oldest university and, of course, immortalized by Sigmund Romberg and his sparkling operetta The Student Prince. The town center sported a lively open-air ice rink and carolers who serenaded in colorful Victorian garb. As far as the castle, it would be hard to find a more striking location than the one it enjoys. Set against the deep green forests on the Königstuhl hill, its red sandstone ruins towering majestically over the entire Neckar Valley. First mentioned in writings in 1225, this monumental pile was destined to become one of the grandest castles of the Renaissance.
Our voyage touched a small corner of France – Strasbourg – which has the oldest Christmas markets in the country. The city walks a tightrope between France and Germany, straddling a medieval past and its progressive future, all the while pulling off this act in inimitable Alsatian style. The markets were situated close to Strasbourg’s inspiring cathedral and the old town’s twisting alleys, which are lined with crooked half-timbered houses à la Grimm. One wonders how a city that does Christmas markets and gingerbread so well can also be home to the glittering EU Quarter and France’s second largest student population. Well, that’s Strasbourg…all the sweeter for its contradictions and cross-cultural quirks. The whole island of Strasbourg is a World Heritage Site, and its holiday bazaars have existed since the Middle Ages. I indulged in one of the region’s specialties: tarte flambée. This confection consists of a thin pastry covered with cream, onions and bacon pieces (every bit as outrageously good as it sounds!).
Certainly Not Least
Our last port of call: Basel, Switzerland. It’s the country’s third most populous city located where the Swiss, French and German borders meet. Though not a particularly large city, it is grand in countless ways, not the least of which is its Kunst Museum. It houses the most significant public art collection in Switzerland with works from 1661 up to the 19th and 20th centuries. No surprise here. This is, after all, the home of the famous ArtBasel. The Christmas markets at Munsterplatz and Barfusserplatz in the old town are considered to be the prettiest and largest in Switzerland. Each displayed a towering tree that glowed and shimmered at night, casting its spell over the entire square. The wares offered here were of very high quality, and the mulled wine I quaffed was maybe the best of all the ones I sampled (yes, there were many). More indulging: warm, sweet waffles smothered in whipped cream. And why not? It was the end of the trip and when in Rome – or Vienna – or Basel for that matter…..
Les Trois Rois is Basel’s grand hotel. No, let me amend that. It is one of the grandest hotels in the whole wide world! The first official record of it dates back to 1681 and some of its past guests include Napoleon, Queen Elizabeth II, Picasso – the list goes on. In fact, one could say that every renowned, celebrated person for more than four centuries has guested here. Les Trois Rois (The Three Kings) enjoys a prime location in the city’s center and directly on the banks of the Rhine. On the day I visited, it was decked out in holiday finery with two huge Christmas trees that flanked the steps to the entrance. The property belongs to the first generation of urban grand hotels and truly exemplifies the pinnacle of le grand Swiss hotel. In the plush lobby/bar, I stopped for a glass of bubbly. What a sparkling way to end my Uniworld European holiday happening!
If You Go:
Uniworld Boutique River Cruise: www.uniworld.com
Les Trois Rois: www.lestroisrois.com
Photos -“Courtesy of Michael Sloane Travel Photography”