The gray mist obscuring the turrets and half-timbers of Colmar’s Petit Venise was bone-chilling. What happened to the promised sunshine for our outing to the Christmas market?! After disembarking from the train and a 20-minute walk across town to the atmospheric medieval quarter, we were shivering. So, we made our first stop, a restorative cappuccino at the cozy Jadis et Gourmande, with its plank flooring and teddy-bear decor. We quickly realized that finding a warm spot to thaw out would be a recurring theme throughout the day. Happily, a visitor to Colmar is spoiled for choice when it comes to “cozy”.
A bustling Christmas market
Colmar’s medieval heart is a treat any time of year, but has an especially welcoming vibe at Christmas. Market stalls–whether food and drink, arts and crafts or Alsatian kitsch–are part and parcel of the townscape. The Christmas season, with its holiday decorations, mulled wine and attractions for children, is every bit as evocative as the flower-filled window boxes and terraced cafes of summer.
Colmar’s Christmas market is actually five small markets in one, some of them located side by side. In the evening, buildings are illuminated with spot lights, creating a special atmosphere. In addition, the season features a skating rink, Christmas wine cellars, and Sunday opening hours for shops around town. And if that’s not enough, children caroling from boats floating through Petite Venise, or one of the many Christmas concerts, are sure to put visitors in a holiday mood.
No matter the weather, and whether you visit by day or in the evening, here are a few of the many reasons to put Colmar’s Noël celebrations on your holiday tour of Alsace.
The artisan’s market at the Koïfhuis (the old customs building) is a trove of gift ideas: woolly hats, unique jewelry pieces and contemporary decorative items. It’s especially enjoyable to stroll through this indoor craft market while sampling irresistible pistachio-coconut macaroons, fresh out of an oven just inside the front door. The aroma alone is worth a stop!
As we strolled the cobbled streets, the strains of “Waltz Across Texas” wafting past the cars and trucks of a children’s ride caught our attention. A bit down the street, Bing, Dino and Elvis accompanied riders on “bucking” horses of a western-themed ride, offering up White Christmas, Blue Christmas and other oldies.
On the first floor of the Koïfhuis, a model train on loan from the Musée du Jouet toy museum zipped along its tracks, beneath gondolas scaling a tiny mountain and the turning wheel of a mill replica.
In Petite Venise, children from a local pre-school serenaded Saint Nicholas, who led them around the displays. These simple pleasures are practically free for anyone accustomed to theme-park prices. In addition to Petite Venise, attractions for children feature at the entrance to the Koïfhuis, and at the Christmas skating rink at Place Rapp.
Good food and drink
The aroma of mulling spices and tarte flambée beckoned to us from a number of stalls. Just a few of our options: mulled cider and sweet treats from Brittany, sugar “pretzels” and warming drinks–spiced orange and apple juice, as well as vin chaud–not to mention sliced sausages and cheeses, mannala and bredale, local biscuits. Alsatian cremant, Edelzwicker and Rieslings were there for the tasting, and packaged for gift-giving. We made several cafe stops for coffee, tea and cakes and for lunch, sat around a wooden table, each of us with an individual tarte flambée–my choice, as ever, topped with a lashing of Munster cheese.
For me, the best aspect of Colmar’s holiday celebration is its small-town vibe, in a setting that brings out the best of Alsace. More than a village, there are many opportunities for good food and wine in this little city. I always enjoy tarte flambée with a glass of cremant or Edelzwicker, and after exploring the market, am happy to head inside, to one of the many good restaurants.
If you go
Colmar is just a hop and a skip from Basel, half way between Strasbourg and the Swiss border. Its human-sized Christmas market is a delightful contrast to the bright lights of the Alsatian capital. To get the most out of your time in Colmar:
- Leave the driving to SNCF (French rail system) and enjoy a carefree side trip from northwestern Switzerland, southern Germany, or an overnight along the Alsatian Route de Vin. Trains run frequently and in all directions to/from Colmar and special Christmas market tickets are available.
- Be prepared to walk. Most market venues are located close together, about a twenty-minute walk from the train station.
- Nibble at the market, but leave time and room for a proper meal in an atmospheric restaurant in town. Brasserie Schwendi is a tasty option for tarte flambée or Backaoffe, and is located at Place de l’Ancienne Douane, near the Koïfhus and right in the midst of the Christmas market action.
- Go undercover, with stops at Colmar’s covered food market and the Koïfhus artisan’s market. Indoor food stalls offer all manner of seasonal and fresh goods–oysters, pates and cheeses from across France–not to mention excellent cakes if you’re feeling peckish.
- If time allows, take in one of the choral group performances or Christmas concerts.