Basel’s Christmas market is the largest and most traditional in Switzerland. The merchandise on offer is of high quality, albeit pricey, and I always find something worth taking home. Last year it was a hat made by a milliner in nearby Dornach. This year…well, I’m still looking and trying to make up my mind.

The market centers on Barfüsserplatz, in the heart of the historic Old Town. There, more than 150 vendors ply their wares from little wooden huts crowding the square and lining the narrow streets behind Barfüsserkirche: ornaments and candles, hats, glittery glass balls and folk art, spices and woolly clothing, wooden toys and more.

Basel also boasts Europe’s longest illuminated Christmas street. The lighting is white, understated, and familiar: they’ve used the same array ever since I moved to Basel more than a decade ago. Lights are everywhere, festive, and just right for illuminating the long nights of December.

And then there’s the Christmas market food. Stands selling sausages and sweets, mulled wine and hot chocolate do a brisk business. The wine is heated in copper kettles over gas flames…and ladled into mugs by guys wearing Santa outfits.

The food is mostly local, all traditional, and always includes favorites from across nearby European borders. There’s Stollen from Dresden, the fruit-laced bread dusted with powdered sugar; Flammkuchen from Alsace, savory with toppings of cream, onions and bacon; and all manner of cookies and other sweets.

My favorite stop on a cold evening, though, is at the stand dishing up potato puffs accompanied by apple and garlic sauce or smoked salmon and horseradish cream. Deep-fried, they’re not the healthiest of offerings, but once a year, who can resist?

The market atmosphere is quite different at the Messeplatz in Klein Basel, across the Rhine, in a modern setting plunked in the middle of the city’s congress-hall complex. There are some of the same vendors represented here, as at Barf?sserplatz, but the energy level is perceptibly higher. There’s a grown-up Ferris wheel here, an ice bar, and live entertainment.

Beneath the Ferris wheel, on a circular track fringed with Christmas trees, there is kiddie action, as children take to the ice for some practice time. I wonder if the little penguins might make it possible for me to learn to skate at this late date. Probably not.

More to my taste is the changing roster of musicians performing on an outdoor stage at the center of the Messeplatz, with the music broadcast on loud speakers across the square. I especially enjoyed two guitarists and singers from Argentina, with their tangos and husky-voiced renditions of songs from Latin America. Very danceable!

Before heading home, and to appease the health gods, I pick up a loaf of unsugared-but-sweet fruit bread, and a bag of organic dried apple slices. It’s a timely move, as the bread sells out well before the market ends its run on December 24th. Moist and chunked full of dried fruit and almonds, it keeps well, and will be yummy with tea or coffee in the dark days of early January.

Here along the Rhine, there’s plenty of slipping and sliding to go around this holiday season. Still, we’re spared the big-time hassles of airports and iffy road conditions. In a Europe bedeviled by wintry travel conditions, I am thrilled to sit tight this Christmas. Being able to tuck in for the holidays is a pretty nice gift.


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