Northern Lights and Christmas Markets, 2018 travel blog

Celebrating my 60th birthday

Inside the toy museum, Colmar

Yellow vest protestors (including a dog), Colmar

Hotel Oberkirch, Freiburg, gave me a birthday present!

View of the cathedral from my hotel room, Freiburg

Hotel Oberkirch is the yellow building

Shop window, Freiburg - pity the shops were closed for 3.5 of...

Christmas market, Freiburg

City tower, and unusual McDonalds building, Freiburg

Christmas dessert, Freiburg

The gorgeous town hall, Basel

Basel and the Rhine river

A lovely tower, Basel

Memorial to recent deaths, terrorism, Strasbourg

Christmas market stalls, Strasbourg

Christmas decorations, market stalls, Strasbourg

Bakery window, Strasbourg

There’s no calories in photos! Enjoy!

Christmas decorations, foie gras shop, Strasbourg

Gingerbread and mulled wine were everywhere

I liked this Hermes shop window, Strasbourg

Father Christmas letter box, Strasbourg

Chestnut stands, another Christmas staple

Christmas lights, Strasbourg

Christmas lights, Strasbourg

30m high Christmas tree, Strasbourg

My half-completed Scandinavian cross-stitch, sewn in about 4 weeks on this holiday

My 60th birthday was spent in two countries - the morning in Colmar, France and the evening in Freiburg, Germany. To celebrate that I’m still a child at heart (!), I went to the toy museum in Colmar; it had a great exhibition of space-related toys and games, mechanical toys (remember those wind-up cycling monkeys?) and my favourite childhood toy, meccano. On my birthday, I also saw two groups of the ‘yellow vest’ protestors who continue to demonstrate against the French government.

Arriving in Freiburg, I was warmly congratulated by the hotel staff on my birthday. They had put a wrapped birthday present in my room - so sweet. It was some shot glasses with the hotel’s name and a book on guest houses and boutique hotels in southern Germany. And at dinner that evening in the hotel restaurant, they brought out a dessert with a birthday candle and again congratulated me on my birthday. The Hotel Oberkirch is family-owned and the warmth and hospitality of all the staff was wonderful - a very cosy place to spend my birthday and Christmas. I also really enjoyed the location: the hotel directly faced the cathedral, so I was woken each morning at 6.45 with about 10 minutes of pealing bells, calling the faithful to mass. I loved the church bells so much that I made a short video; however, this blog won’t let me upload it to share with you.

Unfortunately, Freiburg was completely shut for most of my 4 night stay. I arrived late on Saturday 22nd and next morning discovered that all the shops were shut on Sunday, presumably as the south of Germany is quite religious. And, as Christmas Eve is more significant here than Christmas Day, the shops only opened for 4 hours from 10 to 2 on Monday, Christmas Eve. You obviously don’t do much last minute Christmas shopping here!

I had booked dinner in my hotel restaurant for my birthday and Christmas Day. But on Christmas Eve, almost every restaurant and cafe were closed, including my hotel. I had read the signs in advance, so had a big lunch and bought some food at the supermarket to eat in my hotel room on Christmas Eve.

After two very quiet days in Freiburg, I started looking at what else was nearby and might be more lively on Christmas Day. Basel is only 40 minutes by train and I discovered online that the main art museum was open on Christmas Day. So I made the decision to go to Switzerland and did a day trip to Basel on Christmas Day. While the shops were also unsurprisingly not open, there were more people wandering around. I spent a very pleasant couple of hours in the art museum. Amazingly, they offered their usual Tuesday discount, even though it was Christmas. Then I strolled for a few hours, discovering the historic old town, the very impressive and bright red Town Hall and the very muddy looking Rhine river. It’s one of the things I love about being in Europe - being able to quickly hop on a train, a plane or a bus to so many destinations. When I was transiting Helsinki a few weeks ago to come here, I saw a flight to Funchal, Madeira and thought, that sounds great (I have started researching cruises to the Azores and the Canary Islands, off the coast of Spain and Portugal, perhaps to visit in 2019).

On Christmas evening, I had another lovely dinner at my Freiburg hotel. They didn’t offer any particular Christmas menu, except for my dessert. The dessert was called a Speculaatius Parfait - it comprised white Valrhona chocolate ice cream, surrounded by gingerbread biscuits (specula biscuits), with a red sauce of pomegranate arils. Delicious!

On 26 December, I transferred to Strasbourg for the last two nights of my holiday (I had spent one night here after arriving from Finland, before my one-week stay in Colmar and Freiburg). Once again, all the shops and museums were shut on 26 December. Note to self: choose a less religious area if I travel again at Christmas time!

Of course, I mainly chose the Alsace region for the Christmas markets. And these have been spectacular, in both Colmar and Strasbourg, each of which are listed in the top 10 best Christmas markets in Europe. As the home of the European Parliament and the capital of the Alsace region, Strasbourg is much larger than Colmar. Accordingly, it had more ornate Christmas street lighting and a huge Christmas tree. The sign indicated that the Christmas tree in the main square was 90 years old, 30 m high and 12 m wide, as well as identifying the forest from which it had been harvested. I’ve also included several photos of the incredibly decorated shops in Strasbourg - I thought they were particularly beautiful in the evenings. The other Christmas traditions relate to food - including the chestnut roasting stands, gingerbread and mulled wine. Last night, I was very pleased to have a glass of hot red mulled wine (better than the overly sweet mulled white wine I had a week earlier), when I came into the hotel, chilled after wandering around the markets for a few hours.

The Alsace region seems to combine the best of French and German food traditions. The French patisseries are sensational. I had a regular bakery in Colmar where I enjoyed a daily lunch of a baguette with goats cheese, tomato and pesto, followed by a decadent coffee eclair and an espresso. However, the main meals seem to be more German, in style, which I prefer. It’s a shame I can’t capture the aromas of the foods, especially from the Christmas market stalls.

The terrorism attack that occurred in Strasbourg two weeks ago has resulted in heightened security. Machine-gun armed police wandered the streets, both here in Strasbourg and in Colmar. They conducted security checks (bag searches, opening your jacket) on entry to the main Christmas market in Strasbourg. There were also many floral tributes to the victims at different locations throughout Strasbourg.

My final photo shows you the progress I’ve made on the Danish cross stitch kit that I bought in Bergen, Norway. It’s a very recognisable Scandinavian style cross stitch with its lovely red colour, and has a Christmas feel. It’s designed to be either a long table runner (16 x 44 inches for the Americans, 40 x 110cm for everyone else) or a wall hanging. I’ve stitched just over half of the design - the other half is a mirror image of the already completed section. I did considerable stitching in the evenings, as well at airports and during the enforced Christmas downtime. It will definitely be a special memory of this eventful holiday.

In a few hours, I’m heading home and so have been reflecting on the highlights of this trip. My top highlight was definitely the reindeer experience - feeding and sledding - in Tromso. Second, experiencing the Northern Lights in the Lofoten Islands, Norway in snow-covered fields, where the lights just danced and sparkled, changing shapes and direction for an hour. And, finally, Colmar - one of the most picturesque and charming villages I have ever visited. I love it so much that I did another day trip to Colmar yesterday, during my two night stay in Strasbourg. While it is even more special at Christmas with the Christmas markets, carols and lights, I would definitely recommend Alsace, and especially Colmar, to you all.

I expect to have some serious weather shock, coming from 2C in Strasbourg to 25C in Melbourne on Sunday. I’m grateful to have missed at least some of the 35-40C heatwave that has been sweeping the southeastern states.

Happy New Year!

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