Strolling the large space outside City Hall filled with neat lines of little wooden huts, we stop at one booth or another to sample Stollen, steaming hot pretzels, gingerbread, and, of course, the celebrated Glühwein. Jewelry designers, wood sculptors, glassmakers, and other artisans chat happily with us about their work. The air is redolent with the aromas of roasted almonds in cinnamon, hot chocolate, crepes, and sauerkraut. In the background, a recorded voice croons in German, “Tomorrow Santa Claus will come,” as sleigh bells jingle in the background.
This German Christmas market resembles others that I’ve visited in Germany. Yet we’re not in Germany. Or Europe. We’re not even in New York or Toronto. We’re in Québec.
I’ve come to the capital of Québec to try to recapture some of the magic of Christmas I discovered when I lived in Germany. Since I can’t afford to fly to Europe this year, I thought I’d return to Québec City, North America’s urban Winter Wonderland, where I spent Christmases as a child visiting my mother’s family.
No Christmas in Québec City would be complete without a visit to the storybook Château Frontenac, so we decide to base ourselves here for the duration of our stay. On Saturday morning, my mother and I have breakfast in the Château’s dining room, seated in one of the glassed-in alcoves overlooking the Dufferin Terrace, a large wooden boardwalk which looks out to the mighty St. Lawrence River. After stuffing ourselves from the expansive buffet, we go our own ways. My mother goes off for a day with her childhood friends, and I head out on my own, on foot to the Basse Ville — the lower town, and the prettiest part of Le Vieux Québec.
The area known as the Petit Champlain, named after French founder and explorer Samuel de Champlain, is a maze of charming cobblestone streets, narrow two- and three-story greystones with dormer windows, gabled roofs and large chimneys. Place Royale, from which several streets radiate, is the historic administrative center of the city where Champlain originally set up camp. Today the square is dotted with pretty boutiques, bistros, and restaurants, but there are still people residing in the apartments above. Adding to the Old World France feel of this area, I spot a resident with a baguette under his arm.
Despite it being unseasonably warm for December, and though bundled in layers and ski pants, my toes, nose, and fingers are cold. Time for a hot chocolate. The Café Maison Smith in the square is bright and welcoming. I sit facing the windows, so I can watch the people go by and indulge in my warm drink and an almond croissant.
Fortified, I make my way back toward the rue du Petit Champlain. At the bottom of the Escaliers Casse-Cou, on the rue du Petit Champlain itself, young carolers sing to passersby. The atmosphere is festive and the narrow pedestrian street is chockablock with people happily strolling arm-in-arm, popping in and out of artisan shops and galleries whose storefronts are adorned with Christmas decorations and illuminated fir trees. It’s easy to see why this street was recently voted Canada’s prettiest.
It’s 4 p.m. now and almost fully dark. Rather than trudge back up the little hill to the Haute Ville — the upper town — I decide to take the Funiculaire. Opened in 1789, the funicular railway is 210 feet long and 194 feet high and travels at a 45 degree angle, linking the lower town with the upper town.
Back in the Haute Ville, I’m tempted to return to my beautiful room with its view of the St. Lawrence, but I’m drawn to the fairy tale spirit of the German Christmas market (pictured below). Things were relatively quiet on Friday evening, but on Saturday the market is hopping. There are couples and groups of friends and young families lining up at various kiosks to buy German sausages and sauerkraut, maple ice wine shots, Lebkuchen, Glühwein, apple strudel with whipped cream, and hot punch for the kids. Negotiating a pathway becomes difficult in the tight space of City Hall’s gardens, and inside the heated BMW “alpine chalet” there isn’t a single available seat.
While most of the vendors at the market are Québec-born, many are European. One German-born vendor I chat with is Peggy Gunther Paquet, an artist and ceramicist who has her own shop in Québec City. Paquet, who was born in former East Berlin, came here “for love.” As soon as the East German borders opened up, she left to go traveling and met her Québecois husband on the road. She’s been in Québec 24 years.
Québec City is not known for having a large German population. In fact, there are only about 2,000 German-born residents in the capital. But what the city’s German community lacks in numbers, it more than makes up for in enthusiasm.
Britta Kröger is president of the German Community of Québec City and has been involved in the organization of the German Christmas market since its modest beginnings in a church basement eight years ago. She says, “Amongst our committee, despite coming from different corners of Germany, we all have the same childhood memories of the Christmas markets, and it’s this magic we want to re-create.”
And this they have done with aplomb. If anything, Québec’s German Christmas market seems more authentic than its Old Country predecessors. Perhaps that’s because it remains small. There is no glitz here. No Ferris wheels or other amusement rides. Yet. The mayor has plans to expand and imitate the Brussels model. Kröger wants to take things slowly, so that the original spirit of this magical little market is not destroyed.
Let’s hope tradition wins out.
QUÉBEC CITY GERMAN CHRISTMAS MARKET Thu-Sat 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Sun till 6. Through Dec. 20Elizabeth Warkentin can be reached at email@example.com.