There were the usual security questions at the Zurich airport before flying home in December. (No, I hadn’t accepted packages from strangers.) Then the smiling official asked a new one: “What did you enjoy most in Switzerland?”
Easy: The Christmas scene.
Each town celebrates the season with fir trees lining sidewalks and decorating every square. Twinkle lights form festive canopies above the streets. Special concerts, cruises and light shows are on offer, augmenting the season’s culinary treats.
Hotels leave St. Nick’s traditional gifts — nuts and tangerines — near your bed. Above all, each city boasts a jolly Christmas market, or five or six.
Unlike here at home, store windows display pines and stars and baubles rather than cartoon-y elves and Santas. No canned Muzak spoils the scene.
And things don’t get going right after Halloween. The celebration is kept to a few weeks in December.
And it’s magical.
Pinpointing the land where Switzerland meets Germany and France, the Old City in Basel (population 170,000) is spruced up (literally and figuratively) to celebrate the holidays, starting with Christmas markets on Marktplatz and Barfusserplatz, where 155 stalls — rustic log chalets — sell knitwear, leather goods, wooden toys, pewter Christmas figures, paper stars, candles, baubles, cards and calendars.
And there’s food, too! Marzipan and nougat, cheesy raclette and fondue, special cookies, hot chocolate and mulled wine — the makings of a wintry meal while strolling.
Or you can step inside a cabin to share tables with locals as you summon hearty spaetzle noodles to accompany a local beer. Look outside to see a three-tiered Christmas pyramid, with swirling life-size figures, including Mary dancing with her donkey.
Munsterplatz welcomes skaters (rentals available) to its ice rink, while others are invited to make their own candles and decorate cookies while kids ride a miniature train. New last year, a Nativity trail links up 20 shops showcasing impressive stable scenes.
In this city of 80,000, the famous lake refuses to freeze, but there’s an impressive ice rink where it laps the shore near the train station, illuminated by a Live on Ice show of swirling, giant snowflakes.
Outside the beautiful Baroque Hofchurch, where an organ concert welcomes Advent, we spied St. Nick in his long red coat on his annual Father Christmas procession. Accompanied by his notoriously mischievous sidekick, Schmutzli, he parades amid a raucous following of clanking drums and bells, handing out nuts and tangerines to delighted kids. Nearby, aside the river, the Lucerne Theatre showcases an Advent calendar by opening a different window scene each evening.
The cozy city hosts seven Christmas markets, some with themes such as artisan crafts or designer goods. Others, like the ebullient market aside Frauenkirche, feature a carousel and life-size Nativity scene amid the many stalls with alluring gifts and the ubiquitous mulled wine. A dining cruise aboard the newly launched MS Diamant showcases elaborate lighting displays decorating facades all along the harbor.
From Lucerne, it’s an hour’s train ride through the snow-clad pines of the pre-Alps to Einsiedeln (14,000 people) and its famous monastery, whose grand approach is second only to Rome’s St. Peter’s. The Hauptstrasse, connecting it to the railway station, hosts a Christmas market that explodes into the square itself. This breathtaking Baroque church climaxes in a chapel dedicated to the famed Black Madonna, dressed for success in gilded couture.
Daily its monks offer Gregorian chants, and in summer, weekly organ concerts. The monastery’s Rococo library contains priceless tomes such as the illuminated parchment volume created right here in 950 A.D.
Meanwhile, pilgrims of the athletic persuasion head here for its many ski resorts and snowshoe trails.
Another hour-long train ride leads to Engelberg (3,700 folks), famed also for its ski slopes and its own glorious Baroque abbey. Affable Brother Benedikt, one of its 27 monks, joined us in a warming lunch of pea soup and pasta and before guiding us through another wondrous library, whose treasures include a volume from 850 A.D.
Intricate inlaid wood is the handiwork of another talented brother. In the ornate white and gold chapel, where Mendelssohn once played the organ, Brother Benedikt awoke the keyboard for guests. The brothers also own the property’s cheese shop, where we were met by a horse-drawn sleigh for a tour of the snow-kissed valley beneath the slopes.
Switzerland’s biggest and buzziest city (population 400,000), excels in fostering the Christmas spirit, too. Christmas markets hug nearly every square in Old Town, the biggest and liveliest near the waterside Zurich Opera House. Even the railroad station is stuffed with myriad stalls of Christmas goods, punctuated by a sky-high tree glistening in crystal stars.
The lights spanning classy Bahnhofstrasse wink bright as diamonds — thus its nickname, Lucy in the Sky.
Nearby, a huge pine, dubbed The Singing Christmas Tree, hosts nightly choirs.
The Swiss National Museum enters the spirit of the season with its facade enrobed in a light show. Enter the courtyard for more spellbinding illuminations and a tent offering mulled wine and hot chocolate.
Can’t wait? Can’t blame you.
Learn more at visit myswitzerland.com.
Carla Waldemar is an award-winning food/travel/arts writer. She edits the annual Zagat Survey of Twin Cities restaurants and writes food and travel articles for publications around the world. She lives in Uptown.