Stories of this Canadian girl's adventures exploring Europe...join me!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

christmas on the mosel...uncanny, underground, unequalled.

An underground Christmas market? What? Why? France for the day? Okay!

For the past three weekends I have been on tour. One of the best things about Germany (for a travel lover) is its size (small!) and its location (central!). For a Canadian driving two hours to get somewhere is...totally normal. So, the chance to drive to France for the day, to an old old city, at Christmastime, sounded perfect.

Germans do Christmas, well, differently than North Americans. Think less giant blow-up lawn Santas, and more white twinkle lights, wooden ornaments, and alcohol...hot alcohol.

When I heard about the Christmas markets along the Moselle Valley, as the river makes extreme switchbacks through steep vineyard-covered hills, I knew I wanted to check them out to see what the fuss was all about.

So, join me, won't you, as I show you three unique cities along the Moselle ('Mosel' in German) which are all decked out for Christmas...each interesting in its own way - food, architecture and location.

Metz, France



Let me begin by saying that the city of Metz has aged well. It's over 3000 years old. It also wears its very important past as gracefully as a once-famous actor who hasn't turned to drugs and alcohol. Like Grace Kelly, Metz just moved on to other important things, not needing to be in the spotlight anymore.


I visit France any chance I get. The atmosphere, the language, the people (really, we were walking down the street and a mother, wearing the cutest outfit of pea coat, boots and little hat, comes skipping by us, hand-in-hand with her young daughter, her left arm out and her head back..I thought, am I in a movie?)...and the food. Or should I say, the food style. In France, it's the style of everything that's different...the French do everything with an élan that stands out from the rest.


Which brings me to the most stylish of cookies. The Jackie O of cookies. The macaron. ('macaron' or 'macaroon' in English). A meringue cookie filled with ganache or cream, they are sweet, expensive and really hard to make. It's one of those DIY projects that I won't attempt again. Mine tasted okay, but I never knew a cookie could have the colour of death. The sad grey discs that came out of my oven were so unappetizing to look at I had to eat them all myself. To think that such an elegant confection had a birthplace other than Paris, can only mean one thing...Venice.


Metz was once the hub of Gaul and then Roman activity. Walking the narrow, cobbled streets in the shadow of massive stone structures, you feel the presence of a thousand ghosts. Even more so wonderful then to turn a corner and see a gorgeous patisserie! Each item displayed as if in a showcase...the key to the French diet: savor what you eat. Indulge in excellence in tiny bite-sized portions. Quality over quantity. Personally, I usually opt for both.


Slabs of nougat, candied ginger and all sorts of fruit, and giant marshmallows are some of the sugary treats found in the wooden huts at the Metz Christmas market. The French like to experiment with flavours so that you'll find yourself saying 'Oui' to a foie gras macaron or a whiskey-infused marshmallow. You'll eat it and most likely enjoy it because it has a certain something...it has flair!


What I didn't expect at a Christmas market was escargots! We were in France and so it shouldn't have come as a surprise. These little suckers are the perfect le snack!


With the aromas of roasted almonds, skewers of marinated beef, all sorts of baked goods and chocolate; not to mention the trails of wafting goodness from the glüwein (mulled wine) stands you will want to snack a lot....at least un petit peu.


After a vin chaud blanc (mulled white wine... oh so good) at Place Saint Louis , my French-speaking, Germany bestie made quite the unattractive face as we came across the stand with big white letters:
cuisses de grenouille.

My French isn't that great and I didn't realize 'cuisses' meant 'legs' until she tentatively moved to take a closer look at the nice gentleman who was swiftly turning small v-shaped bundles in fine breadcrumbs. Now I do realize the irony...what's the difference between consuming plates of wings from a chicken and legs of a frog? Nothing. Except that one I'm used to and the other not so much. Usually, I'm very much a when-in-Rome-let's-try-it traveler, but on this day I couldn't bring myself to nibble at these former little hoppers.

While I was doing a little background-check on Metz for this post, I came across the following piece of trivia, and actually had a physical reaction:

„Frog muscles do not develop rigor mortis as quickly as muscles from warm-blooded animals (chicken, for example) do, so heat from cooking can cause fresh frog legs to twitch.“ - wikipedia



No matter what you eat or drink, there is something magical about a Christmas market - everyone huddled together, friends and families greeting each other, the crisp cool air mingling with the steam of mulled wine, the sun going down and twinkle lights appearing as if by magic.


In the darkness, the city takes on a whole new look. At the Place de la Comedie a park of winding pathways through truck-sized lit characters awaits kids of all ages. It feels fairytale-ish, probably due to the excited children running amok and the warm glow of christmas lights. One last parting look backwards at the Cathedrale St. Etienne. Now back to Germany...the perfect daytrip.


Bernkastel-Kues, Germany

As the Moselle River winds into Germany it carves out a steep path amidst vineyard-covered hills. This is one of Germany's oldest wine-making regions, with Riesling being the star of the show. If you get the opportunity to visit this area, make you explore a town or two.


I think the word 'cute' originated in the town of Bernkastel-Kues (okay, I do know that it didn't, but it should have). The half-timbered houses seem to lean into each other for support...trying to stay standing after all of these hundreds of years. For the tourists, ya know.


Christmas spreads into every narrow space here, oozing along the Gassen (lanes) and up the housefronts. The Christmas market stands are set up, really anywhere there's room. Coming from the river, you wander criss cross inbetween these ornate buildings, all eyes up, while Christmas vies for your attention...ever the diva.


The half-timbering building traditon can be found all over Germany, and into France and Austria. On a foundation of brick or stone, a frame is constructed using whole, squared timbers. The frame was often left exposed from the outside, while the spaces were filled with straw, plaster or layered sticks.


These 'spaces' were then, depending on the region, often decorated with patterns, often looking like the most beautiful x's & o's board you've ever seen.


There is a fairytale-feeling you get wandering among the buildings here, as if Alice herself had taken up architecture and practiced it here. One of the most photographed houses is the 'Spitzhäuschen' (the pointed house) which is fairytale exhibit A.


It was built in 1416 in the middle of the Old town. Even though it looks so whimsical, it's origin was absolutely practical. Back in the day, home owners here were taxed by the amount of surface area they built upon. Therefore, many of the still-standing, centuries-old houses grow wider, not just taller, as you look up.


Much of the region's slate was also used in building the houses' wine cellars or used for delightful facades. Taking a riesling break in one of these weinstuben (tavern) is a treat.


And as I was about to leave for the hour-long drive home, I got another pleasant surprise. I came upon this little guy busily writing down all of his Chrismas wishes into the wishbook for the Christkind to bring on Christmas Eve. I think he'll become a writer when he grows up.


Traben-Trarbach, Germany


 

A colleague mentioned that the Traben-Trarbach Wein-Nachts-Markt takes place underground in a maze of the town's wine cellars and I came to see it the very next day. Christmas underground has a lovely ironic feel to it, and with the weather as dreary and rainy as ever, there was no reason not to spend some time as close to the underworld as I'm comfortable getting.


Don't get me wrong, this is in no way similar to the Paris catacombs experience. These cellars are large, cavernous, rooms, which stretch on seemingly for miles, but there wasn't anything creepy about them. No bones, just wine barrels, as we made our way down the tunnels.


As I've already mentioned, this area is prime wine-real estate, with a fragrant history. It was the monks (it's always the monks) who began a thriving business of producing great wines here. In the 19th Century, Traben-Trarbach was the biggest wine trading point on earth, second only to Bordeaux.


The Christmas markets spread through four underground locations of interconnecting cellars. Filled, not only with families, couples and shoppers, but also with every handmade item you can think of to wear, eat or put on a shelf.

 

Jewellery, leather, stoneware and pottery. Italian pastries, chocolates, candies and cakes.


Wine, wine, and then some more wine. Schnapps, liquors, and glüwein...all to taste first, of course!


The air was warm, stuffy at times, but the aromas of Christmas - roasted almonds and glüwein, the standard must-haves - found their home underground. Combined with twinkle lights along the rounded cavern walls, adorning the massive stone pillars and many of the stands, it was as merry a feeling as any other market I've been to.

It was honestly, just much more interesting! I followed the crowds through the tunnels, slowly moving from one cellar to the next, with no one really knowing what to expect around each corner.


Opening into one such space...really, I have no idea how vintners used these insanely long cellars...was an elderly man standing beside four overflowing tables of the most intricate woodwork the likes I haven't seen since being in the mountains of Bavaria. He was a crochety man, which I can't blame him for. Being stuck with Christmas shoppers and tourists, all-together in an underground hole for three days must not be much fun...especially in your golden years.


He grudgingly nodded when I asked if I could take some photos. I smiled and thanked him. He turned away. Okay, so he's not into sales. I find overbearing salesmen so annoying anyhow - this is almost better. So I focused on his craft, which was incredible to say the least. If great guy wouldn't have kicked me right out of the house, I would've bought a whole forest of these most-lovely wooden trees. No decoration needed.


A couple of cellars later, I was herded into a long and very narrow room filled to the arched ceiling with the aroma of sausage. I got hungry. The urge to move along and get out of this packed stone coffin was high, but instead I waited patiently to buy a small meat present for great guy.


The choices were mouth-watering, some very peculiar. Donkey or Kangaroo sausage, anyone? I opted for walnut, but it was a tough choice. Camembert, fig, haselnut, elk, paprika...the list was a table long, and the line double.


Moving down from sausage, was cheese and then bread. If all of the people had left, I could've easily spent quite a few days making myself comfortable. These simple, homemade foods piled high against a raw, stone wall reeked of a simpler time, when what we ate didn't all come enclosed in plastic; when we knew the names of the those who made what we took home to feed our families. I had that lifestyle in Saskatchewan and I want to find that again here. It's important...and lovely.


Waffels are also important - pronounced 'vuffel' auf deutsch. And these little boys waited very patiently for the waffelman to finish building theirs. The wait was worth it judging by their satisfied smiles after the waffels were history. Off to the next underground tunnel!


As dusk approached I came up for air and was greeted, again, by this lovely river. The Moselle, a slower, calmer cousin to the hectic Rhine, looks as serene as a lake in places. The people of Traben-Trarbach festively lit their houses and hotels in soft colours, while trees everywhere were adorned in white twinkles.

With a chilled Riesling and family, Christmas can come.

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12 comments

  1. Oh Nina, you did it, I am on the next plane to Weihnachtsmarkt. Oh ,how I miss the various aromas mingling and cometing in deliciousness, caramelized onions , ripe cheeses, mulled wines , never tries white before, and the preciousness in it all. You captured it all and I am sorry that you had to finish your blog, I could have read forever.

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    1. Thank you so much! I'm so glad you felt all that I was trying to describe! Yes, jump on the next plane...you still have a couple of days :)

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  2. Now I am hungry and actually WANT to go shopping!

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    1. Ha ha...I bet even you would've had fun picking up one or two things in the underground market! Your kiddies would have for sure!

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  3. Never mind the super quaint city streets, I would visit Metz just for the food. Those escargot to go and macarons look amazing. And mulled white wine, I've never heard of it. Hunting for a recipe tout de suite!

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    1. Yes, the food is a great reason to visit! Mulled wine is perfect on a cold winter's night...will warm you right up and bring a smile to your face! Enjoy!

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  4. These places look awesome! I spent 3 months in Europe recently and it wasn't nearly enough time!

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    1. I know, there are so many great places to see...all of these small towns are each their own gem. I need to get out there again...another weekend, another town :)

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  5. The food and festive feel makes this a great time to visit Metz. Your post has got me thinking of travel plans for next Christmas!

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    1. I'm happy to hear that! Yes Christmas is a beautiful, magical feeling to be in Europe. Even the smallest of towns knows how to create a beautiful festive feeling!

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  6. Germans are definitely the best at doing X-mass markets! The underground one looks amazing!! And yes, the French do everything with style, I'm not a fan of the "cuisses de grenouille" though, never had the courage to taste them, but I love the snails!

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    1. I couldn't bring myself to try them either! But everything else was no problem! Now I have get me to the gym :) Merry Christmas!

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