If you’re feeling oppressed by tat and tinsel, bothered by obese Santas and fed up with canned Christmas carols, it could be time for a visit to the cross-border triangle formed by Alsace, Basel and the Black Forest. Wooden booths like tiny chalets settle down around cathedrals and town halls, offering goods that privilege the hand-crafted, classy and rare over the cheap, cheerless and Made in China. Better still, Christmas markets over here are not just a buying frenzy, they’re a social occasion, a chance to meet up with old friends – a sort of northerly, wintery version of the Latin summer evening paseo. Feet are stamped, frozen fingers are wrapped round cups of mulled wine, stupendously calorific comfort food with local accents is offered on every corner. For complete perfection, snowflakes drift gently down and muffle the voices and footsteps of the shuffling crowds.
On Basel’s Münsterplatz, beneath trees decked out with twinkly lights resembling giant snowflakes, a queue is forming for raclette prepared the traditional way: a halved wheel of mountain cheese set under a fierce grill till the cut surface is ready to be scraped off and served with tiny boiled potatoes. From the Fonduestübli next door come more insistent aromas of melting cheese laced with Kirsch. Look out for Basel’s two sweet specialities to eat on the hoof or to take home: Brunsli, chunky chocolate and ground almond biscuits stamped in the shape of the Basel bishop’s crook, and Läckerli, honey and spice cookies for dunking in a glass of Feuerzangenbowle, a fiery (not to mention unpronounceable/unspellable) combo of rum, wine, caramelised sugar and spices.
Colmar bursts into light at Christmas, when all its architectural glories are lit up like beacons in the night sky, providing an illuminated backdrop for the five different markets dotted through the town. Around the Dominican church and the Ancienne Douane, the fairy-lit wooden stands are crowned with stained glass reproductions from the Unterlinden Museum. From a flat-bottomed barge on the river come haunting strains of Christmas carols.
The produits du terrroir market on the Place Jeanne d’Arc (right) is a foodie’s paradise, offering duck and goose foie gras, burnished pies filled with Riesling-marinated meat, pork and game pâtés, sundry sausagery, smoked porky pieces and neatly vacuum-packed choucroute. Purchases complete, you can nibble on a soft, salt-studded pretzel and quench your thirst with a bière de Noël, a deep amber, toasty seasonal brew subtly flavoured with orange zest and spices.
Across the Rhine in Freiburg the familiar wooden stands cluster in the old town around the Rathausplatz and adjoining streets and squares. Here the Oberbürgermeister opens proceedings with a ceremonial carve-up of a giant Hansel & Gretel-style gingerbread, which is distributed amongst the expectant crowds. Over the next four weeks, unconscionable quantities of Münsterwurst (also known as Lange Rote, ‘the long red ones’), Kartoffelpuffer (crisp potato patties topped with apple puree), Schupfnudeln (‘finger noodles’, close to gnocchi) and Sauerkraut will be scarfed down, aided by liberal applications of Glühwein and Schwarzwälder Kirschwasser. Haunting seasonal scents of cinnamon, nutmeg and star anise waft out of the specially equipped Backhaus (bakery), where children laboriously stamp out their Christmas cookies ready for the oven. As dusk falls, you can take refuge in the warmth of the medieval Martinskirche where the choir and organ are tuning up for the daily Advent service.
Christmas markets in the Basel region:
Basel: 28 November – 23 December, www.basel.com/en/
Colmar: 22 November – 31 December, www.noel-colmar.com/en/
Freiburg: 25 November – 23 December, www.weihnachtsmarkt.freiburg.de
[A version of this article appeared originally in FT Weekend]