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Chasing Christmas Lights Across Europe Trip

Just returned from a girlfriends trip I’m calling “Chasing Christmas Lights Across Europe” and want to share some ideas if you're planning a winter trip next year. Every other year I organize a German Christmas market trip to show friends some of my favorite places from the years we lived in Germany. But since this year’s group had already done the highlights of Germany with me, this trip was something different - - a quick landing in Stuttgart, then on to Colmar, Paris, and London, all by train.

I’ve always driven before, because many of my favorite German destinations are along scenic country roads, but trains worked well for connecting cities on this one. We probably packed even lighter and accumulated less, knowing it all had to be packed up and carried, with no car to leave it in.

We flew into Munich from Atlanta on Delta, because we found decent fares when we booked flights last summer. Since Christmas market dates are set with Advent, I try to leave early in the week after Thanksgiving which gets us there as the first markets open, and back home by December 13-15.

From Munich’s airport there are frequent S-Bahn trains to the downtown main train station, but one of the perks of traveling in a group of four friends is taking taxis when a fare divided by four just makes life easier. I make all our reservations and everyone writes me a check before we leave. We work out of a kitty from the moment we land, and the CPA or math person in the group pays for everything. I love the planning and don’t mind the driving, but really love not dealing with the money.

Stuttgart is only a couple of hours from Munich on a fast train. It’s one of the markets I’ve never visited, and Sarah from Stuttgart always gives it high marks. We stayed two nights at the City Hotel Stuttgart, which was less picturesque than its online pictures, but still a pleasant, friendly place, with compact rooms, an included breakfast, and an easy walk into the heart of the city.

The market is a big one, and unique because all the stalls have elaborate decorations on their tops. Loved the gigantic elephant and red Porsche done all in lights in the big open air space in the centrum. A very festive atmosphere in the food stalls and we heard a wonderful free big band concert in the courtyard of the schloss one night. We discovered that restaurants in Stuttgart book up even on weeknights, so make reservations. We were lucky to finally get into the Alte Kanzler for a very good dinner.

Second day we took a quick train to nearby Esslingen for their traditional market and Medieval Market. Very different from Stuttgart, this is a well preserved smaller town with half-timber houses and a river running through it. Pretty town; calm, uncrowded market. Fun street entertainers in the medieval part. In combination with Stuttgart, three very different market experiences.

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Next afternoon, the ICE train to Strasbourg, then the 30 minute local train on to Colmar. I bought these tickets well ahead; not sure if prices increase closer to date of travel. When we arrived about 5PM, it was pitch dark and raining, and confusing about which way to head out, even with GPS. A local businessman leaving the train Immediately offered to show us the way toward our Airbnb, a pattern of friendliness that continued throughout our travels in France. (It’s been a long time since high school French, and even my most basic questions are a bit of a mess.)

We stayed three nights in Michel and Cathy’s beautiful 3BR apartment in the historical center of pretty Colmar. It’s on a pedestrian street right off the main street of Colmar and across the street from l’Atelier du Pientre, a Michelin starred restaurant that is actually fairly reasonable, and I’m so sorry we confused its closing day and missed a dinner there!
Colmar at Christmastime is magical. The windows and storefronts are wonderfully decorated, and small markets are scattered throughout the town. (We ran into our train businessman working the Rotary booth!) There’s an especially good indoor fine crafts market and a big indoor food market open daily. The children’s area has a ride with full size mechanical horses that gently trot along a curving track. The Unterlinden Museum has the famous Isenheim altarpiece, and you can visit the Bartholdi Museum in the house of the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty.

One afternoon we took a taxi to nearby Eguisheim, one of the pretty wine villages, and another we took the train to Strasbourg. We were there a week before the terrorist shooting, and security was high. The tram skipped the stop nearest the main market, and then another tram was emptied because of a suspicious package. Once again, it took the kindness of an international village to help us figure out what was going on and get us to the stop nearest the cathedral. I had read about the beautiful illuminations projected on the buildings. We were there on a Sunday. The overhead street lights were wonderful, but there were no projected lights on the cathedral. When we came out of our restaurant at 8PM, the market was closed. Considering it took a standing room only train to get there, I would rethink this one next time. I clearly missed something!

Our hosts in Colmar left us a list of ideas that could have taken a week to cover. Of all the Christmas market towns I have visited over the years, Colmar is now one of my favorites! Highly recommend for something a little different than Germany.

On Monday morning we took the fast non-stop train to Paris Est, then a taxi to our hotel on the Ile Saint-Louis. On previous trips to Paris we’ve always used hotel points for one of the Marriotts or Hiltons, but I loved our five nights at this small Hotel de Lutèce. It’s on a quiet pedestrian street (until the morning garbage trucks, anyway) filled with boulangeries, tiny grocery shops, boutiques, and many restaurants. Notre Dame is about a ten minute walk, and two Metro stops, St Paul and Pont-Marie, are each within ten minutes.

Rooms are traditionally Paris-sized (small) but very pretty and well organized with plenty of storage. Our room had huge windows overlooking the street that opened for more air or closed to shut out any street noise. The bathroom was modern and well lighted. The lobby desk was always attended, and unfailingly friendly and helpful. Highly recommend this one.

We ate at the Saint Regis down the street several times, Les Fous de I’ile around the corner, and a festive last night dinner up the street at L’ilot Vache, all places I would recommend and return. There’s also a good gelato shop on the street, and plenty of places serving Bertillon ice cream. This is a great area and a fine small hotel.

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On previous trips to Paris I’ve relied more on taxis and the occasional Metro, mostly because I didn’t have time to waste getting lost. This trip we used the Metro more because of the helpful Paris Metro app on my phone. (I still find the London tube easier and more useful.) But the Paris bus system remains mostly a mystery.Finding the correct bus stops for the bus we wanted was the big problem. I need an app for that but haven’t discovered one. I’ll still default to a taxi anytime over confused wandering.

With only a few hours of daylight left, Notre Dame was our first destination. At Christmas there’s a great sparkling tree in front, and a huge nativity village inside. I think the Baby Jesus does not appear in the scene until Christmas Day, but in place of the manger, the Notre Dame nativity had a small open Bible, possibly open to the account in Luke, something I had not seen before. We saw posters inside the church for a Sankta Lucia concert on Monday night and bought tickets, not knowing this would be one of the highlights of our trip.

Tuesday morning we did a great walking tour of the Marais with Cerise from Paris Walks, ending in the Place des Voges. Lots of early Parisian history in this one. She’s an art historian and a knowledgable, interesting guide. One place she showed us from the outside is somewhere I want to return when not on a festive Christmas trip. The Memorial de la Shoah is a research center for France’s role in the Holocaust. I think there may be special emphasis on the fate of French Jewish children. She inferred it is a powerful although gut wrenching experience, but one that should be understood. On the wall outside, there are a series of bronze plaques with names of those who sheltered or saved French Jews at great risk to themselves. She left me wanting to know more. Will return.

Our afternoon was for something lighter, Christmas windows and decorations in the grand department stores on Boulevard Haussmann. Galleries Lafayette had the best interior, with the huge suspended tree in the atrium, and Printemps had the great view from their rooftop. Both had over the top windows, many animated. If you need a quick, reasonable lunch in this pricy area, there’s a Pret Manger on the foods floor of Gallery Lafayette.

The evening concert at Notre Dame in candlelight was magical, with the young Swedish choir in white robes, singing a cappella in their pure beautiful voices. They were joined at the second half by a French children’s
choir. Seats were not reserved, and we underestimated how early the queue would begin. We found seats pretty far back, but the Notre Dame acoustics are wonderful wherever you sit, and there was a nearby monitor we could watch for a closer view. A beautiful concert, musically and visually.

Wednesday morning we took the Paris Walks tour of Montmartre with Chris, a very entertaining guide. This one starts at the Metro station and winds uphill through small backstreets until you reach Sacre Coeur at the peak. Chris has a wealth of knowledge about the Impressionist painters who lived in and were inspired by the village of Montmartre. He pointed out places they lived and showed us reproductions of paintings made in the places we were standing. If you are a fan of Impressionist art, I think you will really enjoy this tour. He also pointed us to a small local restaurant around the corner from the Metro stop where we had incredible cassoulet and Beef Bourguignon for small prices. I’m so sorry I don’t remember the name of the restaurant, but my food pic has the address 8 Rue des Abbesses. It was a left turn from the Metro stop, only a few storefronts down the street. Best I can do!

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The rest of the day was for Saint Chapelle’s stained glass while there was good light to see them, another dinner at Saint Regis, and a night time, open air, top of the bus ride to see Christmas lights. The first part through the grand department stores in the 2nd arr., Place Vendome, the Champs- Elysées, and M. Eiffel’s tower was spectacular. The second half was stop and go traffic and freezing, but overall, glad we saw it all.

Thursday we had planned to do the St. Germain-des-Pres with Paris Walks, but realized we had to make a choice between this and some museums that were high on our list. We chose walking through the Tuileries, visiting the waterlillies at l’Orangerie, lunch and Lauduree macarons on the Rue Cler, and a sunset trip up the Eiffel tower. (I took a chance it would be a good weather day and made advance reservations, but in winter the lines aren’t awful, and you can probably just show up.)

Friday was Musee d’Orsay day. After lunch in their cafe we took a taxi out to the 11th arr. to a spectacular new art exhibit called L'Atelier des Lumières. Difficult to describe, but it’s digital projected art on the walls, floor, and you, in a darkened industrial space, set to surround-sound music - classical to electronic. The current program is Gustav Klimt, Hundertwasser, and a digital artist who is triggered by mathematical algorithms. They limit the number of people who can enter, and you sit on the floor or the occasional concrete block or lean on the wall (or annoyingly walk in front of people.) The overall experience is beautiful and mind- expanding. I think the lineup of artists changes every few months. I know they are looking for a space in NYC. I could have stayed hours!

It’s walkable from the Pere Lachaise Metro stop, but it’s not easy to find. I suggest you go there by taxi and take the Metro home, or you may still be wandering through your entrance time. It’s the hot new thing to see in Paris according to my hotelier.

Late Friday afternoon we finally caught up with the elusive Bus #69 for a short but scenic drive through parts of St Germain-des-Pres. That night was our last, and we celebrated with a great dinner at L’ilot Vache on the street of our hotel.

A few thoughts about the recent turmoil in Paris. I made many of our reservations months ago, and les gilllets jaune were not even on my radar until a few days before we arrived in Paris on Monday, Dec 3. I think our timing was fortuitous. I knew the Arc de Triomphe had had problems on Saturday, so we just steered clear of that area, as did our Christmas lights bus tour. We never saw any evidence of protesters or damage during our five days in Paris. However, by Friday, the news of expected problems for the coming weekend and the long list of closings had been made public. We had 10:15 Eurostar tickets leaving Paris Nord on Saturday, and it seemed best to have our hotel arrange a driver for 8AM in case there were traffic delays. There weren’t, but I’m glad we were on our way out on Saturday morning. (The hotel was concerned enough that they told us they would monitor the situation overnight and let us know if we needed to change our plan.) Even though I would have found things to do if we were staying on in Paris, it would have been disappointing to know so many major sites were closed. Feel bad for first time visitors who arrived to that.

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This was my first experience with Eurostar, and it was great! Bought our tickets in August for a very reasonable price. It goes up as travel date nears. Will never fly between London and Paris again, and not just because
CDG is my least favorite European airport. Takes a while to complete security in Paris, but nothing compared to an airport. Loved it.

Eurostar goes to the St Pancras station in London, and it was a fast taxi ride to our apartment in Covent Garden. This is the third time I’ve rented from London Connection, and I recommend them. We had a modern 2BR/2 bath flat up one flight of stairs on Drury Lane, not far from the Royal Opera House. An awesome location! If you don’t need much help from an onsite concierge, I really think an apartment is the way to go for a group needing two bedrooms. Probably less money than two nice hotel rooms, and comes with a sitting area, a kitchen, and a washer!

Covent Garden has much to see, plenty of pubs and eateries, and an easy tube station. One of my favorite London restaurants is the new Wagamama on Bedford. Beside being decked out to the max, Covent Garden was filled with Santas on this Saturday afternoon. Who knew it was the annual Santa Pub Crawl!?! By evening there were at least a thousand Santas (in various states of inebriation) filling Trafalgar Square. Amusing to watch for a while, but we had better plans for the evening.

Months ago I bought tickets for A Festival of Carols, the candlelight concert in St Martin-in-the-Fields featuring the New London Singers. With this venue’s stellar acoustics, this vocal group’s amazing musicality, and a wonderful varied program including 19th century carols with audience participation to Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols to Ian Humphris’ complex arrangement of The Twelve Days of Christmas, this was my favorite Christmas concert ever, and I’ve attended (and sung) in a lot of them. Just to see next year’s performance here would be enough to draw me back to London next December!

Sunday was a beautiful sunny day. We attended the 11:15 service at Westminster Abbey then took a taxi to the Coal Shed, near Tower Bridge, for a traditional Sunday Roast Dinner. This is not the easiest place to find, as it’s in the base of a high rise, in an area that probably more populated on work days. A lovely dinner, one of the best Sunday roasts I’ve found. The walk back to the Tower tube station took us over Tower Bridge with a great view of the Thames, but the wind nearly blew us off.

Afternoon was for some Oxford Street shopping and the rock and roll windows at Selfridges. Overhead Christmas lights on Oxford and Regents streets were in full color when we headed back to our apartment, with a quick stop at a Pret for takeaway sandwiches.

Monday mornings Covent Garden has a small antiques market that often yields a treasure or two. Next to the National Portrait Gallery, then by tube to the East End to my favorite London fish and chips place, Poppies. It’s close to Spitalfields Market, which has dozens of take-away food counters and gift sellers, and there are many interesting shops nearby. Caught a bus back to our apartment, and scored the front upstairs seats for a long joyride.

Monday night our plan was to check out the much-hyped Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park. The walk into the park from the Knightsbridge tube was easy enough, but as we neared the entrance, there was a massive scrum of people and plenty of signs warning to watch out for pickpockets. All we could see in the distance were ferris wheels and carnival rides. Unanimous decision that maybe this wasn’t what we were expecting, and a reverse walk through the park to go see the Harvey Nichols and Harrods windows instead. Another top of the bus joyride to Piccadilly Circus and a late dinner in Soho.

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Tuesday was another brilliant sunny day for some Covent Garden shops and the National Gallery. The Impressionist paintings from the temporarily closed Courtald Gallery are on special exhibit right now, and my favorite Degas painting - La Coiffure - which has been either in a closet or on loan for at least two years, was back on the wall. We focused our visit only on the Impressionist rooms, and even the non-artists among us enjoyed it. (I’ve learned it’s better to lure one’s friends into enjoyment rather than beat them into submission in an art museum.)

Tuesday lunch was gelato from Venchi, the famous Italian chocolatier with a shop in Covent Garden, and dinner was tea at the St. Martin’s Hotel. The theme was The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and the setting was very comfortable, with sofas and armchairs around a low tea table, but the food leaned heavily to sweets, extremely rich sweets. Best we could
manage were a few tastes of a few of them, and even that sent us off to the night’s big entertainment on a sugar high!
So happy finally to be in the room where it happened! Hamilton, from really good seats in the stalls. Even on a second viewing, it’s magic.

Wednesday was our last full day in London, and we fit in the V&A, a last bus top joyride, and a pub lunch before heading out to Kew Gardens on the tube for the Christmas Illuminations, which seemed a fitting end to our “Chasing Christmas Lights Across Europe” adventure. We all decided London is an especially festive destination before Christmas. Days are short, but nights are beautiful with all the lights, and there is so much to see and do, and none of the crowds of summer. Hope this might have given you a few ideas for your next winter trip to Europe!

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Wow Ruth, you really planned a wonderful trip for your friends this year. You were very resourceful to buy what you needed to ahead of time and atune to plans that might need to change on a dime. Your friends are lucky to have you as an organizer.

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Ruth, I'm loving your trip report! Can't wait to read about the last stop in London. I too think about people that go to an area for the first time and find out about closures. That's the bad thing about booking so far ahead of time. I love your system of using a "kitty" for expenses and having one person take care of all the payments. Was this a first-time trip for your tour mates? What were their impressions? I'll keep a lookout for London. In the meantime... Merry Christmas!

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Fantastic trip report. Happy to hear you liked the Stuttgart, Esslingen, & Colmar markets. They are truly at the top of my list for best markets. Another fan of decorated roofs of stands (Frankfurt has them too). Nuremberg looks so boring in comparison.

Got a kick out of that horse ride in Colmar! Would have loved that as a kid and it is so different from all the other rides.

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What a wonderfully planned trip. I so enjoyed reading your report.

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What a beautiful trip. I know all of you must have enjoyed this time together. The festive lights just add to the atmosphere and this sounds like a fabulous adventure.

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Ruth - what a wonderful trip report. If you ever need a substitute friend to round out your group let me know! Or if you ever want to guide a Christmas Market tour...

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@Mary - I'm right there with you!

Thanks, Ruth. I am bookmarking for my Colmar trip next Christmas.

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@Ruth, thank you for a wonderful trip report. This is a trip that I would love to do someday.

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Wonderful report, Ruth!I’m so impressed you wrote it up so soon after your trip, especially during such a busy time of year!

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Thanks for sharing your wonderful adventures! I really enjoyed reading about places on my dream list for our next trip, as well as reading about places that I’ve seen in Paris and London. Now I am totally convinced I would like to stay in that Hotel de Lutèce on Île Saint-Louis next time thanks to you.😀

This was a very nice way to end a really busy day. Thanks again for your detailed report.

Laurie

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Loved your trip report. I just returned from a winter trip to Vienna, Salzburg and Nuremberg. While Christmas markets were not the goal of my trip, I did enjoy visiting many. And I got a big laugh out of your comment about art museums — “I’ve learned it’s better to lure one’s friends into enjoyment rather than beat them into submission in an art museum.”

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Thank you for the wonderful, detailed report. I too am bookmarking it for future reference.

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Ruth, I am such a fan girl of your trips and trip reports. Many, many thanks for all of them. As others have said, if there are ever any openings on any of your trips, sign me up. This one sounded so lovely. You and your gals just do it right.

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Ruth- I loved reading your trip report. I was so surprised and pleased when you mentioned Cerise from Paris Walks I your report. She gave my family of 4 a private tour of the Louvre a couple of years ago and she was wonderful. Thanks for putting in so many lovely details!

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Ruth, that's quite a trip! I'm envious of your planning skills.

I'm glad you enjoyed Stuttgart and Esslingen's markets! I think they're really special and you were lucky to experience Esslingen without crowds - weekday nights and weekends just get more brutal every year!

The lights at the Schlossplatz in Stuttgart were new this year but I hope they keep them - it's a great use of the space.

And in Germany in general but Stuttgart in particular yes, it's always a good idea to make reservations, especially during the markets and especially Thurs-Sun regardless of time of year. Alte Kanzerlei is one of my favorites for their diverse menu of both Swabian and International dishes in the beautiful historic old barracks/orphanage. Plus their kaesespaeztle is one of the best in town!

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Great report and spectacular trip. I was just searching for ideas for a Christmas themed trip for my family and now I have so very many!

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Hi Ruth,

We must have crossed paths in London in December as we also saw thousands of Santas (and one person dressed as a tree) in Bloomsbury for “Santacom.” My husband and I had taken the RS Germany-Austria trip in December 2017 and loved the Christmas markets. We both love London and decided to go for a leisurely week on our own in early December last year. I was too late to get tickets for St Martin’s but we really enjoyed the lights at Kew Gardens. We also headed out to Watford Junction and Warner Brothers studios for “Hogwarts in the Snow,” a must see for Harry Potter fans. We were disappointed with the Christmas markets which can’t compare to those we saw in Munich, Salzburg and Vienna but London more than made up for it with their lights! Just beautiful. On our last night we saw “A Christmas Carol” at the Old Vic. Riding across Waterloo Bridge at the top of the double decker bus we could see the lights from the London Eye, St. Paul’s and all the way down to Tower Bridge. It was truly magical. Thank you for your report, especially for your insights on the towns and markets in Germany and France.

Lesley