It’s mid-morning on a December Saturday and Strasbourg’s rue des Orfèvres is rammed with festive shoppers. They’re gawping into patisserie shops and jewellery boutiques, snapping photos and soaking up the festive cheer on this narrow street close to the city’s mighty cathedral. Above our heads, the ancient buildings’ facades are decorated with giant baubles, fat teddy bears and glittery bows and, while you can see a web of fairy lights wound among these arrangements, the lights are decidedly “off”.
Strasbourg, the self-proclaimed French “capital of Christmas”, draws 2.5 million visitors to its world-famous marché de Noël. This year, efforts to make the yuletide fun more eco-friendly are in tune with other city-wide initiatives, such as the 373 miles (600km) of bike paths that saw it crowned “cycling capital of France”. This means those Christmas lights won’t be switched on until sundown and will go off at 11pm (when previously they were on 24/7). Many have been replaced by more energy-efficient LEDs and the city has been clever not to double up by hanging lights where businesses have their own bright decorations.
As I bite into a traditional mannele, a sweet dough figure studded with chocolate chips made in honour of Saint Nicholas, and round the corner to see the gigantic cathedral, my inner Grinch swiftly evaporates, leaving my inner seven-year-old grinning with glee. The Christmas market here dates from 1570 and it’s magical to wander.
There are festive markets in almost every square, and I head next to the Village du Partage in Place Kléber, overlooked by a 30-metre Christmas tree (the tallest in France). Chalets here sell crafts, food and drinks in aid of various local and national charities. In March 2022, French law banned outdoor heaters in public spaces, such as restaurants’ pavement terraces, and this means markets too. As I buy a vin chaud from a volunteer at the Secours Populaire Français chalet, I ask him how he’s coping with no heating this year.
“It’s not too bad; I can warm my hands on the urns,” he says. As we chat, he tells me that the €3 drink (plus €1 deposit for the cup) pays for three meals, and the charity provides for 1,200 people each week. “The Village du Partage is the real spirit of Christmas,” he adds.
For those with more commercial stalls, I expected changes to be more begrudged, but when I speak to deputy mayor Guillaume Libsig later on, he says: “Even the most conservative or unconforming people now realise they need to make these efforts. We have to operate in a more environment-friendly way – we need to protect the change of the seasons.”
I return my cup at the Marché OFF in Place Grimmeissen, where they are trialling a compostable cup as well as the reusable plastic ones. Inside the pink-painted shipping containers there are stalls selling eco-friendly wares made by 30 ethical and sustainable artists and craftspeople. There is also a stage for music and a beer tent, where people are scoffing the local speciality, tarte flambée, a fine, pizza-like tart topped with creme fraiche, onions and lardons.
I do find a vegan option on the tarte flambée menu at Mama Bubbele, but it is perhaps a little soon for veganism to catch on in this land of the baeckeoffe meat stew and pork-laden choucroute garnie. However, many of the local chefs are committed to using very local suppliers, thus reducing the food miles.
So at Maison Kammerzell, the city’s most historic restaurant – built in the 15th century on the cathedral square – I tuck into a starter of snails from a farm 20 miles away as I admire its painted murals and twinkling circular windows. More tradition comes at the winstub (wine bar) Chez Yvonne, where I sip organic wine alongside a dish of choucroute made by a producer that reduced its pollution by 60% when it created a new workshop; and at Marcus, a cosy cave à manger (wine bar serving food), I drink a glass of natural riesling with chef-made wild boar sausage and mash.
Nearby Hotel Tandem is perhaps the most eco-friendly place to stay Manager Carole Geneau tells me how the breakfasts are all made with local products, which means no orange juice (though they make an exception for coffee). There are no coffee machines in the 70 rooms though (only kettles and tea), nor minibars, and there’s a water fountain for refilling glass water bottles. Single-use plastic is banned, while the chemical-free cleaning is done with dry steam and savon noir (natural black soap), and the restaurant’s Mediterranean-inspired menu is all locally sourced and meat-free.
My own abode for the night, Okko Hotels, has green credentials too, and is an easy transfer from the train station by tram. I sleep soundly on the Coco-Mat 100% natural bed linen in a sleek room, that deliberately has no bathtub, to reduce water consumption.
As the daylight fades on my final afternoon, I join the queue and shuffle into the cathedral – its 142-metre, 15th-century spire looming above – and gaze at the soaring arches, flickering candles and bright tapestries. There’s a huge nativity scene depicting Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. Who knows where we will be in another 2,000 years – but it’s comforting to know that Strasbourg is taking steps to lighten its carbon footprint and make Christmas in the city (and, indeed, the whole year) a greener experience.
Carolyn Boyd was a guest of Strasbourg Tourism and Okko Hotels, which has room-only doubles from €76.