Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Land of "Les Fêtes"

The French really do love their holidays! Almost every month in the year has some kind of a "jour férié"-- religious, cultural, remembrance -- that call for parades (Armistice Day), or bouquets of Lily of the Valley (May Day), or at the very least a day or two off work. In the month of May, there are so many holidays that most people manage to work only three days each week. For the past month, though, it's been all about la fête de Noël, and la fête de la Nouvelle Année.

La fête de Noël begins in earnest in early December when the big department stores on the Boulevard Haussmann transform their windows into glittery winterscapes, with lively marionette figures...

...or with electric trains running around a snowy landscape, dotted with dozens of expensive perfume bottles.

Outside the Galeries Lafayette, there's almost always a figure painted entirely in gold, standing on a box, gently shaking the hand of young children.

By the third week of December, every respectable patisserie has a massive display of "Bûches-de-Noël" (highly decorated chocolate log cakes) on display in their windows...

...and butcher shops are filled with hanging turkeys and capons, most of them still partially brightly feathered!

But one thing Paris did not have this year was the famous Champs Elysées Christmas markets, cancelled due to security fears. How sad is that! In fact, even our local Choiseul market, at the Metro Quatre Séptembre, did not appear. So we decided to seek Christmas markets elsewhere, and took the train from the Gare de l'Est to Strasbourg for a mid-December weekend visit to their world-renowned festivities.

Home to the European Parliament, and a centre of manufacturing and engineering, Strasbourg lies on the eastern-most side of France in the Alsace region, just a couple of miles from the German border.

Our destination, though, took us to La Grande Île, the historic centre of Strasbourg where, since 1570, there have been street markets around the cathedral to celebrate la Féte de Noël. It is by far the oldest Christmas market in France.

Today, centuries later, crowds in their thousands upon thousands--bundled up against the cold-- still flock to wander through the stalls. The hot wine "Vin Chaud" stalls are usually the first stop. You hear French, German, Italian, Spanish, English, Chinese, Japanese, Polish, and many other foreign tongues. For three weeks, this little historic island becomes a veritable United Nations.

With this iconic giant Nutcracker figure standing guard, we made our way through the crowds till we were right in front of the stalls, and could really see what was being offered.

Here we found row after row of locally made delicacies, like these jolly gingerbread men...

...very pretty, brightly painted, candle lamps that glowed ever brighter as the sun went down.

There were stalls that it seemed sold nothing but white angel ornaments for your Christmas tree...

...or jolly red Santas to add color to your tree!

Many of the stalls were run by pretty young Alsatian "maids", all decked out in their traditional dress, full of smiles and good humor, offering more gingerbread men, cookies, tortes, and -- most particularly...
...Kugelhopf, a favorite local delicacy! A sweetened bread, similar to brioche (although not as rich), it is flavored with raisins and almonds, baked in a ring-shaped earthenware mold, and usually dusted with powdered sugar before serving. It is a popular breakfast choice, or late afternoon "gouter" (snack). Germany and Austria offer a similar item, with names like "gugelhoupf" or "gouglof". In Austria, they were traditionally known as “turban cakes.”  The shape was apparently created after the Turks were defeated at the gates of Vienna in 1683, and Viennese bakers made a victory cake to resemble the sultan’s turban.  Or so the story goes…

No matter where you are on La Grande Île, you have only to look up to orient yourself to the predominant building for miles around: La Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg, a 12th century eye-popping marvel, said to be among the finest examples of high, or late, Gothic architecture. For over 200 years, from 1647 to 1874, it was the tallest building in the world (142 metres!). Today it is the sixth-tallest church in the world and the highest surviving structure built entirely in the Middle Ages. During the French Revolution, however, it came close to perishing. In April 1794, the "Enragés" (a radical subset of the "Sans-Culottes" of the Revolution) who ruled the city, started planning to tear the spire down, on the grounds that it hurt the principle of equality. Luckily, a group of citizens came up with the smart idea of crowning the cathedral with a giant tin Phrygian cap of the kind the "Enragés" themselves wore, thus saving the Cathedral. Human ingenuity at its best!

We could have spent several hours just gawking at the facade, there was so much to examine and look at. Goethe described it as a "sublimely towering, wide-spreading tree of God". Its pink sandstone hue glowed in spite of the cloudy skies and rain showers. Visible across the plains of Alsace, it can be seen from as far off as the Vosges Mountains or the Black Forest on the other side of the Rhine.

The interior was equally as impressive, with its soaring vaulted ceiling and a spectacular display of tapestries telling the story of the Visitation of Mary by the Angel Gabriel, through the birth of the baby Jesus.

At the far end of a side aisle, this magnificent astronomical clock attracts a daily audience of people, waiting for it to chime the quarter, half, three-quarter, and hour. This particular clock dates from the 1830s replacing an earlier 16th century version.

I especially liked the "day" symbols, way up high, that are timed to appear and make their way around during their 24 hour "show time". Here we have "Saturne" or "Samedi" or Saturday. And it was indeed Saturday!

Stunning stained-glass windows line the aisles, a way for earlier (illiterate) congregations to follow the stories and the teachings of the Bible. During WWII, the windows were all removed and secreted away by the German Army, but happily discovered by the "Monuments Men" after the War, and re-installed in their rightful places.

An elaborate "crêche" took up most of another aisle, with all the familiar figures of La Fête de Noël.

As dusk falls, the stalls glow red and cosy, and the Vin Chaud sales grow. It's cold in Strasbourg!

At night, the streets in this historic old town are lit up with strings of lights, sparkling stars, and swooping angels to show us the way back to our hotel.There are many beautiful old buildings in Strasbourg that were hard to appreciate in the crowded streets on this visit. We'll just have to return in a different season!

But we still had the actual Fête de Noël to celebrate! Taking a deep breath, we rented a sturdy Clio car from the Avis office at the Gare de Lyon, carefully navigated our way out of Paris, and headed south to Burgundy to spend the holiday with our East Coast Robbins Family, some of whom live in France.

On the way down, we drove through many acres of vineyards, and in one spot, a handsome hawk made sure we noticed it, and posed politely for its snapshot.

Our destination was "Les Arcis" a country home in the hamlet of Hautrive, Yonne, that at one time was the hunting lodge of Monsieur Colbert, CFO to Louis XIV.

Here, we decorated a very pretty Christmas tree with bright colored ornaments and Christmas lights...

...we hung our stockings by the chimney, with care...

...we checked we had the annual Poinsettia and the box of Crackers...

...we feasted on our very own Bûche de Noël, made by a talented member of the family...

...we paired our delicious cheese plate with a very special wine...

...yes, these are 1997 Tertre Roteboeuf Saint Emilion Grand Cru Bordeaux, that a member of the family had the super smarts to buy many years ago, and brought out for this happy occasion. They did not disappoint!!

Santa also did not disappoint, with these "animal suit" PJs that became almost the most popular item under the tree for the five cousins (two cousins from Berlin, three from Paris).

But it wasn't all interior fun and games. We took a field trip to nearby Auxerre, once a flourishing Gallo-Roman centre, now one of the larger cities in Burgundy and a centre of wine cultivation in the Yonne River valley since the 12th century. And home to another impressive 12th century Gothic style cathedral: La Cathédrale de St.-Étienne.

Again, beautiful soaring ceilings, reaching almost to heaven...
...and curved stained glass windows that cast their lovely blue light, despite the heavy rain outside.

But the Cathedral was not heated, so for a while several of us stayed close to the lighted candles by a side chapel, dropping a euro into the box every now and then, and lighting another one, just to keep warm!

We all agreed that as far this Féte was concerned, a very good time was had by all, and as we head into the New Year's Eve Fiesta, we send warmest wishes to family and friends for a happy and healthy one.

But, never fear, it might be the end of the year, but it's not the end of the French Fétes. In just a few short days...'ll be time for La Féte de la Galette des Rois, on January 6th, the Day of the Epiphany, also known as Twelfth Night. Another big holiday here in France, it celebrates the arrival of the Three Wise Men in Bethlehem. This time, we'll be eating these flaky pastry cakes and whoever gets the slice with the hidden little porcelain lucky charm -- "la fève" -- is crowned King for the day.  Vive la France!

À bientôt!


  1. Beautiful!!! Happy New Year Janet and Matthew. Lots of love
    Anne-Marie and Andrew

  2. Thanks for the tour of Strasbourg, and for sharing your holiday fete with us!
    Fondly, Randi & Rick

    1. Thanks, Rick, and all the best to you both!

  3. How perfectly lovely. Dull and dry here but we surround ourselves with family and friends. Thanks for your post.

  4. Lovely. Thanks for sharing! And. Happy New Year!!!