The Christmas market has become a staple of the holiday season.
Think holiday markets at Grand Central Terminal and Bryant Park in Manhattan — the latter with its own skating rink. But the idea of these markets dates from medieval Europe. Recently, I had the opportunity to step back in time, as it were, and experience a few of them on a Uniworld River Cruise along the Rhine River, making ports-of-call in Cologne, Germany; Strasbourg, France; and Basel, Switzerland.
We first visited Cologne, a city of a million residents boasting world-renowned dining and no less than 42 museums. Germany’s fourth city is known for a welcoming attitude that invites you in for a drink and its cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city’s market stalls resemble small Alpine huts and the square on the Rudolfplatz had revelers costumed as Grimm’s fantastical fairies. In Koblenz, I sampled, among the many German goodies, stollen and, naturally, aromatic glühwein (mulled wine). Yes, they go very well together.
The city of Rüdesheim am Rhein, another UNESCO Heritage site, has a medieval feel, even though it dates from Roman times. Among its 120 Christmas stalls, 12 countries are represented, including far-flung Mongolia. Then it was on to Heidelberg, home of Germany’s oldest university, and romantic reveries of “The Student Prince,” Sigmund Romberg’s sparkling operetta. There was an open-air ice rink with skaters gliding by as carolers in picturesque Victorian outfits serenaded visitors, making the scene for me a winter wonderland.
In a small corner of France sits Strasbourg, a UNESCO site in its entirety, with markets that have been in existence since the Middle Ages. I will remember Strasbourg for its burnished holiday glow and its food offerings, such as a warm tarte flambée consisting of pastry covered with cream, onions and bacon pieces — every bit as good as it sounds — and some hearty (you guessed it) glühwein.
Last stop — Basel, Switzerland. A small city, Basel is grand in many ways. The Kunstmuseum Basel contains the most important art collection in the country while the city is also home to Art Basel, the international fair. The towering fir tree in the town center cast its shimmering spell over the whole square. The Old Town Christmas markets are thought to be the prettiest, most significant in Switzerland and the waffles smothered mit schlag were not bad either.
Before departing Basel, you must visit Les Trois Rois, the city’s grand hotel. Flanking the door were two dazzling giant Christmas trees, while the reception area gleamed Christmas. What more could I want? Perhaps a glass of bubbly and a seat on a plush velvet sofa in the hotel’s intimate, beguiling bar — a fitting end to my Uniworld European holiday dream excursion.