Our European Christmas Market Trek – Lille, Cologne, Luxembourg, Strasbourg & Zurich

Sunday 13th December 2015

On Monday morning our taxi for St Pancras Station arrived on time and the trip into the city went smoothly, leaving us plenty of time to catch the Eurostar to Lille. Security to enter the Eurostar area has increased since the last time we were here; cases and hand luggage all through the screening process – as luck would have it, my handbag was pulled aside for examination. After much mumbling by the security person at the computer screen as well as pulling everything out of my bag, he finally said to me “Where is the knife?” My response that “I don’t have a knife” resulted in his going to chat (putting it politely) with the person who had pulled the bag out of the screening; turns out they were looking at the wrong bag – the one they wanted was a suitcase, it bore no resemblance to mine at all and the person with the knife was long gone. With no apology, he just mumbled something at me and walked away; I took that to mean “Thank you and I apologise for the inconvenience”; guess I should be grateful I was able to put things back as neatly as they had been.

The travelator to the platform was steep and a struggle to manage, but we made it to the train and left on time. We were soon speeding through the suburbs of London, followed by some less densely populated rural areas before going into the tunnel for the 20 minutes it takes to travel from England to France under the English Channel. The French countryside was looking really green and lush with signs of recent rains.

We arrived at Lille on time and were soon in a taxi on our way to our hotel. Our room was overlooking the square where part of the Christmas markets were – mainly a Ferris wheel and side-show entertainment with a merry-go-round visible through a lane way. There were Christmas carols being played and it was very pleasant having the balcony door open listening and watching. After a walk around the local area we found a crêperie and indulged – they were delicious!


Tuesday we planned to take to Tour Bus around Lille; this was delayed by the tour bus being caught in a traffic jam on the motorway and not arriving until lunchtime. The Tour Bus left on time for the afternoon trip; we had the usual audio guide with the added bonus of being supported by relevant images being displayed on screens throughout the bus. The drive also stopped at most of the major locations to give people time to take their photos and have a good look.

After the bus tour we walked through the Christmas Markets; must say I was a little disappointed again. These markets were predominantly food and handcrafts with two stall the only ones with what I call Christmas items – perhaps my expectations were unrealistic, but I remain optimistic.

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The next day was bright and sunny and the crowds were out today. We began with a ride on the Ferris wheel and that gave a great view over the city (at least as far as the smog) because at the top of the wheel we were higher than the buildings of the old city. We then headed through the streets of the old city into areas we had not seen and came across the Cathedral Notre-Dame de la Treille; from the outside the church looked quite austere, what appeared to be heavy metal doors in a concrete block façade turned out to be something quite different – the doors were made of glass blocks and the “concrete blocks” were marble cut finely enough to allow the sunlight to illuminate the beautiful patterns in the marble. The inside of the Cathedral was filled with amazing muted, natural light from this clever use of materials and quite unlike anything we have previously seen.

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After lots more walking and some shopping we came across the Saint-Maurice Church – plainer than the Cathedral, but it contained some beautiful stained glass windows.

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A cloudy morning Thursday as we left Lille by car; we had tried to book train tickets via the Internet some time ago, but that proved too difficult. The car’s navigation system worked well (or we were successful trying to program the thing) and we were soon on the Motorway out of Lille and on our way across Belgium into Germany and finally arrived in Cologne.

Being unsure of the hotel entrance John parked just before the hotel and walked along to check it out; he returned with the hotel valet who drove the rest of the way to the hotel, summoned another valet to unload our luggage and escort me into the hotel lobby while he drove John and the hire-car to the depot!IMG_0212 Talk about luxury – our room was extra large with a separate sitting area and the biggest bathroom I think I have seen! Our surroundings as well as the staff were all very pleasant and genteel.

The next morning, our first task was to walk to the railway station (just to the left of the hotel) to organise tickets for the remainder of our trip to Zurich. From there we walked across the square to the Cologne Cathedral (opposite the hotel). IMG_0088In all the churches we have seen over the years, you would thing there would have to be many the same – but that has not been our experience. Many have had similar features, but each one unique in its use of materials and decorations – amazingly ornate through to rather plain. Sitting and pondering in this mazing building once again brings serenity.



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Later we walked across the Cathedral Square for a stroll through the Christmas Markets; thank heavens, my faith was restored – this was what I had been expecting / hoping for! These markets were all about Christmas – the lovely decorations, special food, mulled wine, roasting chestnuts and smiles on faces; while the crowds were a challenge the experience was welcomed and enjoyed. Needless to say, we made to odd purchase.

The remains of a Roman village established here in 50AD

The remains of a Roman village established here in 50AD

Saturday morning we joined the City Tour bus around Cologne and after a lap of the tour that lasted for one and half hours we left the bus at the Angel Market; once again filled with Christmas items and lovely to just wander and look at everything.

From the markets we walked across to St Columbus Church for a look and a needed sit-down before walking back to the hotel. Another stroll around the Cathedral markets in the evening, but the crowds had really built and it became nearly impossible to move.


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Drizzle delayed our start on Sunday morning to walk part way over the footbridge on the side of the railway bridge behind the Cathedral to have a look over the area – it also provided a really good view of the Cathedral and the Golden Cross. This bridge is also groaning under the weight of padlocks.

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Cologne has been touched by many wars throughout the centuries, but non worse than in 1945 when 90% of the city near the Cathedral was destroyed including this bridge


This year is the 200th anniversary of the Prussian invasion lead by Leopold










Parking is a problem, but you get one best way you can

After a stroll down along the riverbank we called into St Mark’s Church – a more modern building after some remodelling; its history going back to the 6th Century. As well wandered through the streets back toward the hotel we came across another Christmas Market and managed to restrict ourselves to just another couple of items for our Christmas tree – next Christmas our tree will have quite a few new items to admire and reminisce about as we trim the tree ready for our family to visit.

Monday morning it was time to catch the next train – this time to Luxembourg.


Saturday 19 December 2015

Monday we managed to complete our train trip to Luxembourg in spite of confusion as we changed at Koblenz; the indicator board on the station platform did not have Luxembourg listed, but it was written on the front of the next train that arrived so we clambered on hoping it was the right train. The journey included many stops and at Trier confusion reigned again when an announcement was made that the train was being divided, with half going to Luxembourg and half to Saarbrucken – they just forgot to say which half was going where! Luckily we were in the correct half so there was no need to move.


The German ICE train between Cologne & Koblenz


A village on the Mosel River with grape vines up the side.








Our hotel was in the city centre, making it convenient for wandering and exploring. There were two main Christmas Markets – one just opposite the hotel with the other just up the walkway in the old city (not to be confused with the old town / quarters). These stalls were more about amusements for the family, handcrafts, food and alcohol but were interesting to wander through on several trips past them – John also quite liked the steak sandwiches they sold and the crowds were no where near as thick as in Cologne.

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IMG_0263 IMG_0262The tourist bus only runs in summer in Luxembourg so it was follow the map and walk to the things that we wanted to visit – mainly the old town: when first viewing from above, we marvelled at the buildings, fortifications, roadways and canal – what was achieved in seemingly impossible locations with the equipment available at the time!

City of Luxembourg: its Old Quarters and Fortifications

Because of its strategic position, Luxembourg was, from the 16th century until 1867, when its walls were dismantled, one of Europe’s greatest fortified sites. It was repeatedly reinforced as it passed from one great European power to another: the Holy Roman Emperors, the House of Burgundy, the Habsburgs, the French and Spanish kings, and finally the Prussians. Until their partial demolition, the fortifications were a fine example of military architecture spanning several centuries.

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City of Luxembourg: its Old Quarters and Fortifications (Luxembourg)

The Old City of Luxembourg is located at the confluence of the Alzette and Pétrusse Rivers, on a very steep rocky outcrop which is somewhat of a natural fortification that only needed to be completed on the west side. Due to its exceptional strategic position, the City of Luxembourg was one of the largest fortresses of modern Europe which was constantly strengthened and reinforced as it passed successively into the hands of the great European powers.

Originally, the City of Luxembourg comprised only a small fort (the castle) built shortly after the middle of the 10th century on an almost inaccessible rock.  In the 12th century, the settlement that developed near the castle was protected by a stone fortification wall, which was extended in the 14th and 15th centuries. In 1443, the city was taken by the troops of Burgundy. Through inheritance it passed to the Habsburgs and became Spanish until 1684. During this period, the site was transformed into a veritable fortress. After the conquest by King Louis XIV, Vauban extended and reinforced the fortifications. In the 18th century, the Austrians continued his work and created the “Gibraltar of the North”. After the Congress of Vienna, the Prussians created new military structures until the dismantling was decided in 1867. Following the Treaty of London in 1867, the majority of the fortifications were demolished but many vestiges representative of all these eras remain, of which a number of gates, forts, bastions, redoubts and casemates.

The city also retains the layout of its streets and many public buildings, important testimony of its origins and its development since the 10th century. Inside and at the foot of the ramparts, quarters where people lived and engaged in trades or crafts developed.  They also kept places of worship, such as the Church of St. Michel, now a veritable museum of sacred art, or the Church of St. Nicolas, subsequently transferred to the sanctuary of the Jesuits, the present cathedral. The ancient Abbey of Neumünster is a landmark in the borough of Grund. In the Upper Town, in the shadow of the walls, aristocratic families and the major religious communities built their mansions called “shelters” to be close to the administrations and official institutions. The old quarters still bear the imprint of their former inhabitants and their activities.

Despite the dismantling of the fortress, the fortifications and the old quarters, today the city is a historical ensemble of prime importance. It is an outstanding example of a fortified European city and host to an exceptional variety of military vestiges illustrating a long period of Western history.

While we were wandering along the escarpment on the City Promenade, the Parks and Gardens team were abseiling over the cliffs to prune and clean ready for the dormant winter months ahead and then the new spring growth.

Something you don’t see in every hotel – each day when you step into the lift here you are greeted with a message on the mat telling you to enjoy the day – with the days named Lundi, Mardi, Mercredi and Jeudi.

Wednesday was drizzling so a good day for indoor activity – a visit to Luxembourg Notre Dame Cathedral; while there, we noticed there would be a lunchtime recital.

We then caught the lift down to the Neimenster area through the cliff and wandered through the cobblestone streets to the St John du Grund Church – it reminded us of the many ornate churches we had seen while travelling the Romantic Road in Germany


The inside of St John du Grund Church


A little Chapel built into the side of the cliff







The church of St. John was built at the same time as the Abbey of Neumunster in 1606. The current appearance of the church dates back to the years 1688 and 1705. It contains very fine Baroque-style furniture, an organ dating from 1710 and a black Madonna.

When we finished here it was time to go back for the lunchtime recital by the Cathedral’s Acappello Group

In the afternoon I took a hike across to the suburb Kirchbert dedicated to the activities of the European Union that has a big presence here. Departments here include EU Investment Bank, Court of Auditors, Court of Justice, The Commission and The Parliament as well as a Convention Centre.

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Crops were sown prior to winter as it is too wet now.

Thursday we travelled from Luxembourg to Strasbourg by train – the older carriages on this train made climbing on and off a challenge, but helpful bystanders once again lent a hand to this older couple with lots of luggage. Thankfully we had a comfortable six-seat compartment to ourselves so our luggage being on the floor was not a problem.

Traffic has been banned in the city centre in Strasbourg, so our taxi ride ended about 400 metres short of our hotel, leaving us to negotiate cobblestoned streets, lots of pedestrians as well as trams and tram-tracks dragging our luggage.

Strasbourg tourist information tells us they were the Christmas Market Capital as well as the winner of the best European Christmas Markets for the second successive year – some 300 stalls in 11 different locations through out the Grande Ile. I think we covered about half the different markets and managed to buy another couple of decorations and found it a pleasurable experience, particularly when the sun was shining. In Place Kleber there is an enormous 30 metre high Christmas Tree totally covered in lights which included dozens of “candles” that change from red to pink to mauve, blue, green, yellow and back to red; each cycle takes about 20 minutes – had to sit and watch just to see!

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IMG_0443As we walked back to our hotel the local movie theatre was advertising “Star Wars: and had eight characters dressed in the appropriate costumes and brandishing their “light sabres” and happily posing for photos.

Thursday was bright and sunny for a walk to look through the Strasbourg Cathedral and be ready for the Astrological Clock Audio-Visual Presentation at 12md; the Cathedral was closed until 2pm but the queue for the Astrological Clock was already right across the Cathedral Square; the audio-visual presentation was well done and gave us a better understanding of the meaning of this magnificent work.

The Astronomical clock

Principal work of the Renaissance, this mechanical astronomical clock is an invention put together by various artists, mathematicians and technicians. Swiss watchmakers, sculptors, painters and creators of automatons all worked together to build this amazing automate. The present mechanism dates from 1842 and is especially attractive for the work of its automatons, which, every day at 12.30 pm, all start their show.

The first Strasbourg astronomical clock, L’horloge de Trois Rois, was being built from 1352 till 1354, but it stopped working in the beginning of 16th century.

According to a legend, the local authorities of Strasbourg ordered that the constructor of the Astronomic Clock should be blinded so that he could not try to build something like it ever again. This first clock was equipped with various mechanical details that were very rare in that time, such as calendar and astrolabe, as well as very interesting miniature statues. The main statue of the clock was representing Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus in her arms. In front of her, every hour, the three Kings would step out of their chambers and the music announces the time (this automate is now being shown in the Strasbourg museum of Decorative Arts).

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A closeup of the clocks workings


A later ceramic creation on the opposite wall.

At this moment, astronomical clock offers you a view of different stages of life, which are personified by a child, a teenager, an adult and an old man, who pass before Death. Above this are the apostles who walk before Christ; the beating of wings and the song of a large rooster punctuate their passage. In front of the clock is the marvelous Pillar of Angels, which, in a very original manner, represents the Last Judgment


Pillar of Angels






Following this presentation the Cathedral was emptied ready for the doors opening at 2pm so John and I joined the Canal Cruise around the Grande I’Ile, a World Heritage site, and down to the I’lle basin and the European Parliament Precinct.

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Strasbourg Cathedral

Strasbourg Cathedral de Notre-Dame is known as one of the most beautiful gothic cathedrals in Europe. The Cathedral stands on the exact site of a roman temple built on a little hill above the muddy ground.

The first version of the church was starting to be built during 1015 by proposal of Bishop Werner von Habsburg, but fire destroyed most of the original Romanesque building. By the time that cathedral was being renovated (at the end of the 12th century, this time with red stones carried from the nearby mountains of Vosges), the gothic architectural style has reached Alsace and the future cathedral was starting to develop all characteristics of gothic aesthetics. The project of the first cathedral in Alsace was handed to craftsman and stonemasons who had already worked on the also famous gothic cathedral in Chartres. 

Although the cathedral was at first financed by the local prince bishop, after his defeat, the municipal bourgeoisie took charge of the work themselves. Also, due to the lack of money, the citizens decided to contribute to the building fund with their private donations.

The person who was 1284 selected as an organizer of the whole procedure was Erwin von Steinbach (he himself wanted to donate some money for the building of the church, but as he was penniless, he donated his horse!). He imagined and designed the magnificent west front of the cathedral and its main entrance. By the time of his death, building had progressed the rose window was being completed and so were his towers. In 1399, Ulrich von Ensingen, the architect of the Cathedral in Ulm, supervised the building of the octagonal base of the spire which was completed after his death by Johannes Hültz from Köln and which soon became the symbol of Strasbourg.

For the next four centuries, due to the height of its tower (142 m), the Strasbourg Cathedral was considered the tallest building in modern world! Furthermore, it was unique because it was one of the few gothic churches equipped with only one tower.

Under the Reformation, in 1521, the cathedral became a Protestant church. After the incorporation of Strasburg into France in 1681, the cathedral was returned to the Catholics and dedicated to the Virgin (the double doorway of the south transept depicts in the tympana two scenes commonly used to honour her death and her coronation in Heaven). 

The cathedral greatly contributes to the history of Gothic sculpture. The façade of the southern cross bar is decorated with the famous Church and Synagogue from the same workshop than produced the remarkable inside pillar of the Angels (1230-1250). While previous façades were certainly drawn prior to construction, Strasbourg has one of the earliest façades whose construction is inconceivable without prior drawing. The statues, dating from the 13th to the 15th century, located above the triple portal of the Gothic façade, depict the Prophets, the Wise and Mad virgins and the Virtues and Vices.

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Inside, it is possible to admire the high Gothic styled baptistery made by Dotzinger (1453), the magnificent pulpit decorated with numerous statuettes sculpted by Hans Hammer in 1485, the Mount of Olives in the northern transept by Nicolas Roeder (1498), and the St. Lawrence’s portal dating from the middle Ages. IMG_0774

The cathedral has many other treasures: stained glass windows dating from the 12th to the 14th century, the St. Pancrace’s altar (1522) from Dangolsheim, the 17th-century tapestries forming the Virgin’s wall covering purchased in the 18th century, and finally a very popular curiosity, the astronomical clock set up in its own 17th-century case decorated by Tobias Stimmer and using an 19th-century mechanism devised by Schwilgué. To its left, there are 15th-century mural paintings.



The 15th-century mural paintings


The presence of an organ is attested as early as year 1260. There were also two other instruments built and modified in 1291 and 1327. The oldest sections of the actual organ case are not older than 1385. The bird’s nest was built in the same period. It is built in fir and is hung from the wall by a very large vertical oak beam down to the Samson’s statue. To the right, the mobile character depicting a pretzel dealer was the famous Rohraffe (crying monkey) who, with his arm and head, punctuated the insults shouted by a cathedral’s servant hidden in the loft during the procession on Pentecost Sunday. The city herald’s right arm (on the left) and the lion’s mouth are also mobile.

The famous tower was once almost completely destroyed during the French Revolution, inspired by anti-religious believes, some revolutionary leaders ordered its demolition. But, a local locksmith conceived a brilliant scheme of making a huge Phrygian cap made of metal to cover the tower.

The bomb shelling of 1870 and 1944 caused some damage of the Cathedral, but after few renovations and the replacements of missing statues, the Cathedral regained its original look.

The beauty of Strasbourg Cathedral inspired many famous men in history. Here are some of theirs impressions:

Stendhal: “The vault of Strasbourg is one of the most striking monuments I have ever seen”.

Goethe: “The more I contemplate the façade of the Cathedral, the more I am convinced of my first impression that its loftiness is linked to its beauty.”

Victor Hugo: “The church portals are beautiful, particularly the Roman portal; there are truly superb figures on horseback, the rose-window is noble and well-cut, the entire front of the church is a clever poem. But the true triumph of this Cathedral is the spire. It is a veritable tiara of stone with its crown and its cross. It is a gigantic and delicate marvel. I have seen Chartres, I have seen Anvers, but I needed to see Strasbourg… From the belfry, the view is wonderful. Strasbourg lays at your feet, the old city of tiled triangular rooftops and gable windows, interrupted by towers and churches as picturesque as those of any city in Flanders. Personally, I would go from one turret to another, admiring one by one, the view of France, Switzerland and Germany via one ray of sunshine.”

Salvation Army personnel have been outside the Galleries Lafayette, next door to our hotel, ringing their bell as well as their band playing or the choir singing Christmas Carols all day Friday and Saturday providing some beautiful music.

This afternoon I took a two hour walk over to the Railway Station and back via the Canal and then a final visit to the Cathedral Square.


“The COP21 climate-change conference took place in Paris early December. To mark the occasion and underline the importance of art and imagination as powerful tools for driving change, SNCF, the French national railway company, has teamed up with the City of Strasbourg to cover the whole of the glass facing of Strasbourg train station with a huge reproduction of a photograph taken by Thierry Suzan.

While some 50,000 delegates from 195 countries are getting together for COP21 to try to reach a global agreement to control climate change, thousands of penguins will be staring down at travellers and passers-by to remind us that we live in an extraordinary world, which is our responsibility to help and protect” Extracts from the Strasbourg Welcome Guide.


This glass over has created much needed additional cover of passengers at the Rail Terminal


An underground tram station was incorporated to provide access to the city and suburban tramway.


Part of the river system & Fort around Strasbourg


The Cathedral dominates the Strasbourg skyline


Part of the old city wall across the river.







On my last visit to the Cathedral I found these drawings

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Tomorrow we travel to Zurich.

Saturday 26th December 2015

Sunday we travelled to Zurich by train that necessitated a change at Basel. The train from Zurich was 20 carriages long and we were right at the other end of that train and that meant walking the full length of the platform into the station at Basel, find where we were suppose to be, walk to the other end of the tunnel to the required platform and then walk to the other end again! We just managed to find our seats and sit down before the train departed – thank heavens we had 20 minutes between trains.


A view of the southern French countryside from our train.


Heavy industrial area between Basel and Zurich, not sure if this power station was nuclear or not?








Our hotel was just across the river from the station and it was easier to walk than try to take a taxi – negotiating all the tram tracks while pulling suitcases was a challenge. Added to which there was no signals to tell you when to cross the tracks, you just see where the trams are and cross when you think it is safe – John just forgot to look right and lots of people yelling “Achtung”, “Achtung” didn’t register at first – thankfully he finally saw the tram!


Our hotel in the central hub of Zurich


The night view from our triple glazed window.







After settling into the hotel, we went looking for the Christmas Markets in the old city; the stalls were spread out as the streets were very narrow and there were frequent small squares with a few vendors selling their wares. Once again, mainly handcrafts, food and drink. We did manage to find one item to purchase before we finished.

IMG_2753Monday was raining and that allowed us to visit the station to see the 30 metre Swarovski Christmas Tree – it was just stunning! Thousands of crystal stars shimmering and sparkling and the breeze gently moved them. There were lots of Christmas stalls at the station markets and I even managed to find another item to purchase.

From the station we walked the Tourist Information Stop to take the Trolley Bus Tour around Zurich followed by the Lake of Zurich Cruise.



Zurich’s old-fashioned trolley departed from the Sihlquai Bus Terminal near the station and looked like a streetcar from a bygone era, but with all the modern comforts.

While the Trolley was driven through the streets we listened to the audio commentary on the buildings and history of the city attractions including Church of Our Lady (Fraumunster) with its beautiful stained-glass windows, pretty Limmatquai, the university district (where Albert Einstein and six other Nobel Prize winners attended), Bahnhofstrasse shopping district as well as many of Zurich’s finest museums; through Munster Square in Zurich Old Town and admired the architecture, the beautiful hillside villas on the Zurichberg and panoramic views of the Alpine peaks from the lakeside., at least when the rain clouds lifted.


A postcard picture of Zurich


A city view from our cruise boat.

After the Trolley we caught the Lake of Zurich Cruise for an hour and half cruise along and across the lake and back to the city stop.

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IMG_2763After dark I went for a walk through the shopping district to capture a view of their lighting. Tomorrow we fly to New York for Christmas.