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When I decided to escape to Alsace for my Thanksgiving break, I couldn’t wait to spend a few days in France. Most people with such little time would head to a large city, like spending three days in Paris. As you may have noticed, I like heading to Europe for short periods of time. It’s been ten years since I spoke French on a daily basis and find that I truly appreciate opportunities to use the language. While I intended to spend my days touring wineries and fairytale villages, I did not think I would be leaving France. In the roughly 62 hours I had, I figured I’d hunker down in Alsace. That was the plan, until I stumbled across Alsace Original Experiences’ Three Border Christmas Market Tour.
To be blunt, this is not a traditionally guided tour. There is no guide to recount detailed history and information about each of the towns you visit. Rather, it is a seasoned driver who safely navigates three borders and walks alongside you in the villages, leading you past remarkable sights and noteworthy shops. It would be the perfect spot area to rent a bike and make the most of your short trip. If you are interested in seeing the differences between markets in three separate countries and landscapes in a day, then the Alsace Original Experiences’ Three Border Christmas Market Tour is for you.
One of five Christmas Markets in Colmar, France.
First Stop of the Christmas Market Tour: France
My tour with Alsace Original Experiences started when our driver picked me up in Colmar at 10AM. Unfortunately, we did not have a chance to spend any time to tour Colmar. Luckily, I got to visit with a quick walk through on my own in the morning. While the shops were not yet open that morning, I did “close down” the market opening night. For anyone thinking that it must have been a late night, the Christmas markets close at 8pm.
A peek at one of five Christmas markets in Colmar, France. This was my homebase during my brief trip to Alsace.
Our first stop on the tour was to Neuf-Brisach. Although billed as a Christmas market tour, the stop in Neuf-Brisach did not include a visit to a Christmas market as it is open only three days per year. Instead, it included an unguided walk around the fortifications of the town.
Walking across from the UNESCO Heritage Site of the Fortifications of Neuf-Brisach.
The Fortress of the Sun King
Neuf-Brisach is one of twelve fortified villages designed by the Marquis de Vauban. The Marquis de Vauban was the military engineer of the Sun King, Louis XIV, during his reign in the 17th century. Neuf-Brisach was his prized citadel. Located just west of the Rhine river, defenses were needed against the Hessian and Habsburgs of Germany.
Here, one of the schools of Neuf-Brisach built a 20 foot tall bear out of bales of hay. It is stationed in front of one of the remaining entrance gates that allow access to the interior of the city.
During World War II, German Nazis took advantage of the strong fortifications of walled cities such as Neuf-Brisach. They also set up the only French concentration camp in the nearby Vosges Mountains. They used fortified cities like Neuf-Brisach as intelligence bases for field offices. Nazis built a railroad through Neuf-Brisach, and two of the gates were removed for better traffic flow. Its layout is slightly different than when it was first built, but much of its integrity has been preserved.
Aerial views of Neuf-Brisach, above and below, c/o Tourisme-Alsace
From above, the layers of stone walls surrounding Neuf-Brisach reveal the strength of its fortifications. The innermost wall protects a perfectly octagonal town.
Unfortunately, I do not know the significance of the the Europa Sonore installation behind me. Regardless, here I am walking around the inner wall of the fortified city of Neuf-Brisach.
Hitting the Autobahn
After Neuf-Brisach, our guide Max pulled over to offer us coffee, cookies, and three types of water: sparkling, still, or legère, or, light bubbles. It was a nice bonus. Then we were off. We hopped in the comfortable, nine-seater minibus and headed across the Rhine to our first border crossing. This was my first time on the famed German Autobahn. Our driver and tour leader for the day, Max, was a safe driver and kept up with the pace of traffic.
I did not realize how amazing it would be driving past the Black Forest into the town of Freiburg. Seeing the Black Forest from Freiburg was my favorite part of the tour. It made me really want to visit Bavaria. Perhaps because we explored this beautiful town on a bustling Saturday and saw the lay of the land while it was still daytime. Our guide Max seemed to be most familiar with this town and took us down little walkways and into shops that he recommended.
Second Stop of the Christmas Market Tour: Freiburg, Germany
Our first sight was the main square of town, Münsterplatz, where I was immediately taken with the sight of the Münster Cathedral. Much like a traditional Christian town, all important municipal buildings surround the church.
Construction was started in 1225 and completed in 1264. During World War II, the original stained glass from the thirteenth century was removed and stored for safekeeping.
Looking at the richness and intricacy of each stained pane of glass, it makes sense why they were hidden. While it appeared Freiburg would make it through World War II unscathed, on November 27th, 1944, Allied bombings destroyed 80% of the buildings. Surprisingly, the cathedral escaped unharmed. Many believe it was divine intervention.
Walking Around Freiburg
We had the opportunity to walk around Freiburg as part of our Christmas market tour. It was a Saturday when we visited, so fresh produce stands surrounded the cathedral. It always baffles me why American outdoor markets shut down in early autumn. Much of Europe lies on a more northern latitude than the U.S., yet they embrace al fresco dining and outdoor markets all year long.
A vendor sells pickled vegetables and olives outside of the Münster Cathedral in Freiburg, Germany.
The temperature on the day we visited Freiburg was 30ºF. It happened to also be 30ºF less than it had been the rest of the week. It rained off and on for a just a bit, and I was so grateful to have my waterproof, Timberland boots with faux-fur lining to keep my feet warm. I’ve had these boots for three years and receive questions and compliments about them all the time. If you are looking for comfortable walking boots that will keep your feet warm, consider this pair.
Freiburg is a bustling college town of almost 250,00 people. It has some unique, distinguishing characteristics. First, there is Swabian’s Gate, or Schwabentor. One of two surviving towers from Freiburg’s formerly fortified city, it is a lovely sight to watch trams and cars drive under its arches.
Traditional German Fare
A surprising difference between Freiburg and its French neighbor is cuisine. We ate at a delightful restaurant called Martin’s Brau at Markthalle right off of the main road, Kaiser-Joseph-Straße. It was a traditional Bavarian style market hall with enormous picnic benches for large parties. There were tens of beers on tap, and even a seasonal Christmas porter that we enjoyed.
The four of us split three dishes, clockwise from bottom: breaded pork tenderloin with beer sauce, pork shoulder with traditional German potato salad, and vegetable dumplings. While the beer sauce sounded less than appealing, it was actually quite delicious. It was a smooth, vinegary sauce with a hint of mushroom.
Another unique component of the city happens to be a trademark of Freiburg. The bächle, miniature canals separating the sidewalks from the streets, date back to the 13th century. At that time, they served to protect the timbered homes from fire. Freiburg could dam the bächle to flood the streets and stop the spread of flames. Today they are a unique touch of whimsy that remind visitors of the engineering feats of the past. Legend has it that if you fall into a bächle, you will marry a native Freiburger.
Here, a man walks over the bächle. It is very easy to fall into these tiny canals of Freiburg.
Realities of Modern Day Security at Christmas Markets
On our way to the Christmas market in Freiburg, our guide remarked that it was unusually quiet for opening day of the Christmas market. When we got to our destination, we understood why. The Christmas market wasn’t open! While the tourist board and informational sites listed November 24th as opening day, the signs all changed the dates to November 27th. While we were disappointed by our luck, we understood the cause. In 2016, Lyon cancelled their world renowned light festival for fear of terrorist attack.. This year, the Champs-Elysées market was cancelled. Needing extra time to take security precautions is a necessary reality. Even without the Christmas market, we still enjoyed our time in Freiburg.
The gluhwein hut, waiting to open.
The Final Stop of the Christmas Market Tour: Basel, Switzerland
Discovering a Nighttime Race in Basel.
For our final destination, we were off to Switzerland. As expected, it was nightfall by the time we reached Basel. While I’m sure the expanse of the city over the Rhine is gorgeous by day, the twinkling lights at night were magical. The night we visited was especially vibrant because of a popular race. We visited right in the midst of the Basler Stadtlauf 5.5km race! The city was teeming with excitement and runners. It seemed like the entire city was out for the race. There were thousands of runners, and just as many people cheering from the sidelines.
Once we dodged the runners, we made it to the Basel Christmas market. With the snafu in the German schedule, this was our first Christmas market of the Christmas market tour. The delicate lights against the backdrop of the cathedral and chiming church bells made it feel as if we were walking through a music box. The scent of the sugary roasted nuts, buttery melted cheese, and spiced gluhwein stirred up pleasant memories of past Christmases.
The View of the Middle Bridge in Basel, Switzerland.
A Swiss Feast
With three of us on the tour, we were able to share the various food of the market. First thing on the agenda was to try white gluhwein. I love visiting the Chicago Christkindlmarkt, but they do not have white gluhwein! White gluhwein is a bit milder, smoother, and tastier than its red counterpart. Unlike in Chicago, you can give back the souvenir mugs in Europe. That means while you can use the cup for drinking and for photos, you are able to turn it in and reclaim your deposit.
After gluhwein, we headed to the tastiest smelling tent we could find: the raclette tent. While the raclette in Chicago comes as melted cheese on toasted bread, the Swiss version is no nonsense. It is hot, gooey cheese scooped directly onto a plate. No vehicle on which to serve the cheese, just a plate of steaming cheese. Cornichons and two boiled potatoes accompanied it, but I merely used my spoon to shovel the cheese into my mouth. It was delicious! Afterwards, we headed to the meat tent.
Now this pork on a stick was another first for me. Heavily seasoned and delicious, it was just like a kebab at a Mediterranean restaurant. I’m not sure if this is a traditional Swiss dish or not, but it was fantastic. After any feast, finding facilities is a must. In lieu of portapotties, there were bathroom trailers available with flush toilets and warm water sinks. My impression of Basel was that I wanted to spend more time there. Especially after reading more in this Basel destination guide.
One of the gorgeous light displays brightening up a festive Basel.
Nine Hours Later, Back in Colmar
After a long day visiting three countries in a Christmas market tour, Max our driver dropped me off at my bed and breakfast. While the tour lists itself as a Christmas market tour, it is slightly misleading. It is more of a tour to cross three borders. Even without Christmas markets in two of the three cities, it was a smooth way to visit different countries. While it wasn’t particularly in depth about the history or cultural significance of any of the places, it was fun. Seeing three different countries in a day helped me to better understand the geography of the area, and let me maximize my time abroad.
Thank you to Alsace Original Experiences for sponsoring my participation. As always, all opinions are my own.