Thursday, December 2, 2010

Alsace, Nancy, and animal heads

Of all the places I’ve traveled in Europe, France’s Alsace and Loire Valley regions tie for the places I’d most like to rent a car and just putter around for weeks on end. The city of Nancy in particular is a great base from which to explore diverse places like festive Strasbourg, Saarbrücken, Luxembourg, and the great champagne town of Epernay. Alsace is a magical place to celebrate Christmas, if that’s your chosen holiday—and even if it isn’t. Small, jolly cabins fill various squares and parks in Strasbourg, where afternoon shopping turns to evening cups of hot, spiced mulled wine (vin chaud) enjoyed whilst watching bad ice skaters near the cathedral. Cross the border into the village of Kehl, Germany, to both say you did and visit the bakery near the bus stop on the main drag for treats to munch as you wander down the avenue toward the town’s park.

But it’s Nancy that’s the crown jewel. Here, finally, is a French city (that is not Paris) with decent Christmas decorations. (Honestly, I have always been pretty underwhelmed, and I’m not alone.) A stroll down the wide boulevards surrounding the stark but beautiful Place Stanislas turns up sheets and halos of white lights draping streets. On nights thick with potential snow, they seem to hover, the cables holding them aloft invisible. You should walk down Rue Saint-Catherine and take in the colorful storefronts. You should stop for a chocolat chaud (hot chocolate) at the art deco Excelsior and sit in the front window near a rickety heater. And you should, without a doubt, eat at the taxidermy-filled, Snow White-meets-TGIFridays-meets-cartoonish saloon Taverne de Maitre Marcel, where you’ll have beer and a tarte flambee and be served by an attentive waitress, to whom you'll be faintly rude since you can’t take your eyes off the stuffed pheasant behind your date’s head.

After dinner, you’ll head down to Place Stanislas again for the evening’s holiday performance, a dreamy affair featuring acrobats floating around on wires and stilts with lights on their tights and wings on their backs. There’ll be fake snow, heckling, cheering, classical music, and fireworks. And then you’ll take your date’s hand, head over to that very hip bar on the corner, notice there’s a white rhinoceros head on the wall for decoration, and wonder what’s in the water here that makes the citizens of Nancy display animals instead of, oh, paintings or non-furry sculpture.

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