In the winter, the people of the Netherlands for good reason generally seem to seek someplace warmer. Our neighbors went to the Canary Islands. The French Riviera is popular. Some even fly all the way to the Caribbean and pass the days laying on a beautiful sandy beach in America. So naturally, when our family considered where to spend our Christmas, we chose one of the coldest spots in Europe: the Bavarian Alps.

Choosing Winter Wonder over Warmth

On the morning of our departure, I found myself at the Hertz desk, talking to the kind lady about snow tires and German chain laws while most of our neighbors were packing up to go to a faraway beach. It’s often something that I’ve imagined: a Christmas European road trip. The snowy castles perched atop steep mountains, the Christmas markets, hot wine and cozy fireplaces along the way as we weaved our way through the alps. So we packed up the car and set off with the two boys with this all in mind. 

Historical Detours

Our first stop was Bastogne, Belgium. Jenn by now is no longer fooled when I book us a place to stay that is somewhat along our route that “just so happens” to also be a World War II battle site or some other historical landmark or setting of a Hemingway story that I know she has little interest in seeing. Needless to say, she knew it was more than just a “half-way” point for me, but it was close enough to it that it did not amount to a significant detour so she didn’t raise a fuss. I convinced her that Jacob would dig the Battle of the Bulge museum, with its tanks, heavy guns and dioramas taking you back into the lives of the Bastogne townspeople and American Army as the the Germans laid siege to the town in 1944. 

We arrived at the museum after a few hours on the road and the lady at the desk warned us that we’d only have about an hour and a half to visit as they were closing soon. With a slight chuckle we looked down at the children, who have a maximum 30 minute attention span in places such as this (which works out nicely for Jenn as it is also her’s) and said with a smile, “I think that will be just fine.” 

Sure enough, we covered what probably should have been a two hour visit in about 20 minutes and frantically made our way into Bastogne to find a restaurant before the kids melted down from hunger. Not what I had been picturing of our time spent in the Ardenne forest, home to some the most pivotal battlegrounds in the First and Second World War and one that has lived in my imagination for decades even as I walked through the pines of our family farm in Indiana, imagining them splitting under the impact of mortar and artillery fire just as they did in 1944.

Believe it or not, Jenn nor my seven or three year old shared in this imaginative throw back to the past, but luckily the hotel had a large pool, so the stop was not a total loss. (As I recount here, I had been here before by myself and was able to take it all in it at my pace so I was not disappointed about this quick visit)

And on we went. One day down, snow tires still not put into use. 

Christmas “Magic” in Strasbourg

Our next destination was perhaps the main reason for the trip: the Christmas Markets of Strasbourg. Sitting in the Alsace region just on the border of Germany and France, it has a distinct German feel to it even though it is French, so much so that I am slightly ashamed to say as a geography nerd that it took time for me to break the habit of typing in Strasbourg, Germany into Google maps, forgetting that it was, in fact, French.

From what we had heard, the city is home to one of the most spectacular Christmas markets in Europe, the whole city center shuts down to cars and becomes an authentic winter wonderland of merchant stalls, Christmas carolers, dazzling lights and anything winter related you could imagine purchasing. This is by no means a well kept secret, we would discover, as we would be enjoying this “wonderland” with thousands of others, in many cases packed shoulder to shoulder scooting their way through the aisles of the markets like a giant colony of penguins. 

In my infinite wisdom, I decided that it would be best to be as close to all this as possible so I booked a hotel within the car-free city center, leading to some uneasy conversations with French police using Google Translate, and at one point putting the hotel staff on the phone as they did their best to convince the police to let these clueless tourists drive into the pedestrian zone; after some moments which seemed like hours, we found ourselves driving on a sidewalk, at times with no where to go but to backwards through a crowd likely yelling French obscenities at us, which if not for the associated angry looks I may have mistaken for Christmas carols. French is such a beautiful language. And so began our fairy tale Christmas market experience in Strasbourg. 

Arriving in the evening on the last Friday of the festival, the market felt more like a gigantic street party, and there was certainly some unspoken thoughts among Jenn and I that we may have made a huge mistake coming here. This was not the quaint dose of holiday cheer we had been hoping for. But as the snow which we did not have melted into the next bright morning, a clearer and more pleasant outlook emerged: one filled with those beautiful carolers singing songs in French, peaceful playgrounds, steaming hot chocolate and mulled wine. The idyllic picture of a European Christmas market.

We went back to our hotel that evening and Jacob got to do several laps around the tiny ice skating rink, and the boys played hide and seek in the hotel room (which takes a shockingly long time to get old despite the lack of hiding spots). Strasbourg in the books, we left ready for our next adventure. 

Deutschland über Alles

The original plan for our next destination was Chamonix, France. Sitting high in the Alps at the junction of France, Italy and Switzerland, and living in my imagination as a place that a young Hemingway had frequented with his son Bumby and wife Hadley, my logical side eventually prevailed that dragging the family to this beautiful, yet likely unbearably packed ski town when we had no plans of skiing was an ill advised stop. So when a few years ago we may have scoured a Rick Steves or Lonely Planet travel guide for an alternative destination, I naturally turned to the most obvious solution to this question of where to go next: Chat GPT. Prompting my bestie robot friend for a suitable alternative, Garmish-Partenkirchen, Germany became our new destination.

The last few days were spent enjoying a tiny pool, exploring this quaintly beautiful Bavarian town, and summiting the tallest point in Germany aboard the Zugspitse cable car and a cog wheel train. And yes, we finally got our snow. We had our first snowball fight in Europe scraping up the remains of a long since past snowstorm with its piles scattered amidst the streets on the walk home from our dinner in Garmish. There was laugher, lederhosen and cuckoo clocks in the windows, the cars tires never having seen the snow, but we finally found the winter we had been looking for. 

Last Stop: Luxembourg

The last day was more of a stop over than a destination in itself… and despite never having been and a serious consideration to drive straight through from Garmish to Amsterdam, we stayed in Luxembourg City. I admit, part of it was the “check one off the list” mentality and driving home and sleeping in our own beds did have an appeal. Despite the exhaustion of having travelled all day and the added stress of driving the Autobahn with the constant worry that somebody from the Fast and the Furious was going to rear end us, we arrived in Lux City late and with just enough energy to see one last Christmas Market. 

And what a city it is. Founded as a fortress in the 10th century, the city grew strategically due to its position atop a rocky outcrop, surrounded by cliffs and the Alzette River. It’s a beautiful fortress turned city and unlike anything I’d ever seen. Over the centuries, sandwiched in between much larger France and Germany, it has stood proud and distinct from its neighbors. We arrived in the evening and left before the sun even rose – but we left with high spirits and some light up balloons which entertained on the walk home to the hotel, but did not survive the car ride home. 

And so we made our way back north through Luxembourg, retraced our path through the Ardennes, and slowly the forested mountains of southern Belgium gave way the familiar foggy flat plains of the Netherlands. In just a few days we had made our way from the highest point in Germany to our home in Amstelveen, which in some places is literally below sea level.

Those fancy expensive tires never drove in snow, and we didn’t see a beach like our neighbors did. The “magical” Christmas markets and fairy tale snowy castles may have alluded us, but we came out alive on the other end and as with many of our other trips, we found that the journey mattered more than the destination. 

9 Responses

  1. The cathedral in Strasbourg for different events will do light shows at night on it. I wasn’t even there on a holiday and they did a music and light show which was a very cool surprise. Love the videos – the opening shot of the street with trams and bikers made me think you might be auditioning for NJB! My only request (I assume you are taking requests right?) is give the camera to Jenn on occasion – the people want to see Kurt too!

    1. Yes the cathedral in Strasbourg was incredible.

      Also.. NJB? I googled it and ‘nice jewish boy’ came up… i assume thats not what you meant 🙂

      Haha. Of course i take requests, but people dont wanna see this mug! I’ll keep it in mind in the future…

  2. i’ve been to garmish but never chamonix. guessing it was a welcome, quainter alternative. loved all the hemingway shoutouts. feel like we would have been good european backpacking buddies 🙂

    1. Glad a fellow Hemingway fan can appreciate. Yes, after Strasbourg a little slower place was very nice. What brought you to Garmish?

  3. Amazing!!! what wonderful memories you’ve made. Can’t believe the kids traveled that far without any fights (haha)
    I love your story telling Kurt!

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