Alsatian markets: The merriest Xmas for craft-fanciers

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NEW YORK -- The Alsace region of France is renowned for its medieval capital of Strasbourg, its picturesque villages, its luscious foie gras and its fruity white wines. Less known, but well worth tooting a holiday horn for, are its "Christkindelsmariks" or Christmas markets.

market They are open for business sometimes by the end of November but more often about Dec. 6 (on the feast of St. Nicholas) and continue through Christmas Eve. There are dozens of these traditional fairs, but the most famous are those in Strasbourg and Kayserberg in Alsace; also recommended is the magical market town of Montebeliard, a half-hour drive south of Mulhouse in the neighboring province of Franche-Comte.

For collectors of custom-made Christmas ornaments, there is no better place to be. On sale in town squares are wooden decorations in the shape of traditional biscuits, angels blowing trumpets, miniature rockinghorses and little statues called santons to create at home Nativity scenes.

Other traditional crafts include embroidery and stone-wares. There are selections of foie gras and sausages; the latter, unless tinned, will not clear U.S. customs.

You can almost follow your nose to these outdoor Christmas emporiums, where smells are a mix of gingerbread and spice cookies, bredele (small seasonal cakes), fragrant hot wine and freshly cut fir trees.

Strasbourg claims the oldest of the Alsatian special markets, first held in 1561, which takes place in Place Broglie in front of the City Hall and in Place de la Cathedral, in front of the famous church.

Christmas also shines from the 90-foot tree in Place Kleber, around the Marche des Petits Gateaux at Place de la Gare and at the Christmas Beers Fair held at the Strasbourg Chamber of Commerce. The superstar of Le Noel in Kayserberg, a medieval vineyard town and the birthplace of Albert Schweitzer, is an indoor exhibit of a dozen Christmas scenes.

Villages such as Turckheim, Eguisheim and Riquewihr -- all along Alsace's famous Wine Road -- are masterpieces of Yuletide decor, and Munster, home to the province's most famous cheese, has a very special bredelamarik (cookie market) of traditional sweets as well as a live Nativity scene.

To these outdoor emporiums of specialized shopping, add several picturesque towns, centers of production of traditional Alsatian crafts that make unbeatable take-home presents.

There are beautiful fabrics and household linens made in Ribeauville and stoneware and fine painted pottery (particularly culinary pieces) in Soufflenheim and Betschdorf.

Decorative lighting is a hallmark of eastern France Christmas markets, and few towns do it better than Montebeliard, a half-hour drive south of Mulhouse in the province of Franche-Comte.

Throughout the old town, pedestrian ways are roofed over with thousands of colored lights, fashioned into stars, angels and bells.

Artisans work at traditional Christmas crafts in the main square, and Santa sits in a decorative sleigh, listening to children's wish lists.

Let it be said that there is little to praise about the pre-Christmas weather in eastern France. It is best to wear full rain gear when you go to market.

However, you are never far from a cafe serving up steaming cups of hot tea, coffee and chocolate as well as steaming wine for the Yuletide season.

Montebeliard takes first prize in places to warm up. For example, there's the Tea Room Debrie at 12 Rue de la Velotte, owned by Jean-Pierre Debrie, master chocolatier. During my visit, I saw a parade of pastries, chocolates and hot chocolate concoctions.

For further information, contact the Eastern France Tourist Board office in New York at phone-fax (212) 838-6798.

A time and place for warm wishes

In the Montebeliard Christmas market, I stopped to admire the little wooden votive figures being carved by an old gentlemen, who looked a bit like a slim Santa.

(The French rarely believe that anyone speaking French can be an American. In my case, they have a point: I am fairly fluent, my grammar is atrocious, so I just roll along, quickly.)

He asked me if I was Dutch. I said no. Danish? No? Then who was I? "I am an American," I said.

He put down his tools, came out from his covered stall into the pouring rain, took my hand and said, "Your country saved my town in World War II."

"I know," I said, "my father was killed just over the border during the Battle of the Bulge, the reason I had always avoided most of eastern France."

He put his arms around me and said, "Thank you for coming." We wished each other Merry Christmas.

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