German Christmas Markets

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In October, we revisited our adventures in Thailand.  We thought we should give you a glimpse of what we were up to a few Decembers past.  In 2010 Katie and I went to visit Calder, her fiancé (they’re married now), who was living and working in Germany.  Our trip was amazing and I think it had to do with a few key factors: Katie, C and I all get along really well, C is fluent in German (hellllllo helpful!) and we kept the trip spontaneous and largely unplanned.  Mix great buddies with little stress and lots of snow and you have a Christmas adventure that will never be forgotten.  Oh and breakfast!  Almost every hotel offered a complimentary breakfast, which consisted of a big deli platter with lots of yummy meats, cheeses and the best baked bread.  You are also offered eggs, cereal, yogurts and fruit.  We started each day with coffees and cheese, please tell me how we could have possibly had a bad time? I actually had such a blast that I completely forgot to e-mail a final paper to a professor during the trip! Yep, I wrote a ten page research paper and forgot to turn it in that’s how awesome our Christmas trip to Germany was.

Now when I think of Christmas traditions, I actually think of the German Christkindlmarkt.  I feel like visiting the markets is the most historic lens I’ve ever looked through when it comes to the holiday season. The markets are held in the center of villages, towns and cities.  The backdrop and surroundings of each market is historic and stunning in itself.  Every Christkindlmarkt has a variety of gifts and holiday goodies.  The markets are a glimpse of the past; you won’t find tacky Christmas commercialization here.  Over the course of a week, we visited five markets ranging from enormous to quaint. Each market had crib figurines, ornaments, toys, wood carvings, decorations, candles, furs and a variety of other crafts and goods.  The markets also had the most amazing food.  It kicked any American fair food’s behind.  We usually ate some type of bratwurst and sauerkraut on a fresh, crusty roll. We kept warm by sipping glühwein and sampling dozens of treats throughout the day.  Each city’s market had a slightly different vibe and while I loved visiting every one, Esslingen’s medieval market may have been my favorite.  Read on to see why…

Since there are at least a hundred different markets, I thought it could be fun to lightly outline the ones we visited during our week in Germany.  I also happened to save a couple pamphlets and business cards from our trip, so I’ll highlight a few of the hotels and activities that we really enjoyed during our stay.

After a funny and fearful four hour drive from the airport, we made it to Gottingen, the town where C was living.  Let’s actually take a minute to talk about our drive from the airport because it was hilariously horrific.  If you’re more interested in the Christmas markets than random sister shenanigans, skip ahead to the next paragraph 😉  If you have ever rented a car in Europe, more than likely it was a manual.  Back in 2010 (and now kind of…) I couldn’t drive a stick so weary little Katie had to get behind the wheel.  This was after a missed connection flight where we sprinted Amazing Race style to the gate and still missed the flight (cue a six hour layover) and lost luggage, which means we were running on empty and still had four hours of foreign navigating to go.  We start the drive by misreading the signs and circling right back through the parking garage, once, no make that twice.  After about an hour, it starts to get dark and it starts to snow pretty hard.  This is when we realized the windshield washer fluid had ran out.  We pulled off at a fahrt, went to a gas station and looked for windshield washer fluid.  We thought it would be an easy task, but antifreeze and windshield washer fluid look a lot a like when you can’t read the label.  Long story short, we wandered around in the store for a good fifteen minutes until a woman saw we were noticeably confused.  She comes up behind Katie and says something like, ‘are you lost?’ but before she could get the second syllable out Katie shrieks and jumps out of fear! We were so on edge about the scary driving conditions that Katie screamed in a gas station.  This stands out as one of the funniest travel moments I have ever had.  I can just see this poor sweet woman’s confused face, I think she felt like the hunchback of Notre Dame for a second there.  In the end, she helped us buy washer fluid (as I fought back laughter the entire time) and we were on our way.  After we figured out how to open the hood of the rental van (it was dark, windy and dumbfounding) we saw that the washer fluid was completely full, like whattt the what?! For some reason the washer fluid just wasn’t working.  For the remaining three hours of the trip, I would transfer washer fluid from the big jug into a small water bottle which I would then stick out the window and splash onto the frozen windshield.  I was pretty good at it by the end of the drive.

Once we made it to C’s apartment we bundled up and headed to the market.  Gottingen is an old University town filled with many young scholars and families.  The market in Gottingen was smaller than most yet it offered a great variety of food and handmade crafts.  The market featured a small Ferris wheel and merry-go-round for the kids.  I should mention that we were kids and totally rode that Ferris wheel.  We even have a poorly shot photograph to prove it.  There was also an enormous advent calendar on one of the buildings near the perimeter of the market.  Crafters presented hand carved mushrooms, figurines, instruments and candleholders.  Other vendors made handmade puppets, pottery and knitted clothing.  Among the crafts there were many stands offering Glühwein and bratwursts.  The Gottingen market was filled with older ladies and their children during the day and at night with hundreds of younger people, middle-aged professionals as well as families and friends catching up after work.  Gottingen is a quaint little town with a romantic Christmas atmosphere.

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The next stop was the ancient city of Dresden.  The Dresden market featured an enormous Christmas pyramid complimented by an even larger Christmas tree.  A large Ferris wheel was also glowing in the chilly night air at the main market in Dresden.  This market was truly for the children.  Kids were welcomed into small wooden workshops where they made cookies and gingerbread and painted fragile ornaments.  There was also an extensive portion of the market dedicated to children’s rides like a small train and merry-go-round.  Besides the main market in Dresden, there were also smaller markets with varying themes.  One market was set near a large cathedral and it had an undertone of religion throughout the stands and also in the carols heard throughout the market.  Another market was completely dedicated to the past with a medieval theme.  Vendors were covered in furs and worked to keep their wood fires burning throughout the day as they worked with wood and metal to make ancient crafts.  Another little market called the Weihnachtsmarkt was nestled in an alley.  This market encouraged shoppers to rub shoulders while shopping for goods or eating roasted chestnuts.

After a long day at the Dresden markets we drove to Nuremberg to spent the night at the ArtHotel.  The next morning we experienced the crowded isles of Germany’s busiest market.  Nuremberg is in southern Germany and because of this we heard many different languages from nearby countries as we perused the stalls.  This market sold unique items like plum and prune figurines, something you couldn’t find at any other market.  The Nuremberg market also had a large stage where carolers and bands would play throughout the day.  It was nice to hear authentic music flowing throughout the isles as everyone shopped for Christmas presents.  Nuremberg was also very lively at night so when the market closed promptly at 9 p.m., the crowds moved to the bars on the perimeter and continued to drink Glühwein and chat.

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After spending over ten hours in the Nuremberg market it was time to move on.  Munich was the next destination.  Munich’s market is relatively large in size, but it is very spacious so it was rather easy to explore over the course of five hours.  Bakeries were big in Munich as well as stands jam packed with ornaments.  Often times you could catch vendors working on their wares.  I was able to squeeze into a crowd that was watching a glass ornament maker at work.  I also spotted a pair of Krampus impersonators in Munich that delighted the crowd by sneaking up on little ones and unsuspecting shoppers.  One Krampus actually snuck up behind me as I was filming his counterpart, everyone had a good laugh.  Munich is also home to the Kripperlmarkt, a market dedicated to nativity scenes.  Stands upon stands have every thing you could every want for a small or large nativity.  Kids were often the most intrigued by this market, begging their parents for one more animal or a couple more props for their nativity.  Open and airy isles, blue skies and an enormous city hall that served as a beautiful backdrop for the entire scene complimented a long day at the Munich markets.

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The next day we explored a very small town named Garmisch that sits on the border of Germany and Austria.  We stayed at the sweetest little hotel, that had the cutest hosts and a really nice sauna.  It was also a block away from a yarn shop!  Garmisch offers the highest point in Germany, a mountain named Zugspitze that reaches to 2,962 meters and overlooks beautiful Austria.  The market in this town was extremely small.  There were only about ten stands there and I had the feeling it was thrown together simply to boast that there was a market there rather than to celebrate German traditions, which was totally fine with us.  We came for the real gem, which was of course, Zugspitze.  We all rode the tram up to the peak and observation deck.  You could see tiny skiers having a blast below in Austria.  The view was remarkable and one that I’ll never forget.  We had a really lovely day walking around in Garmisch, breathing in the fresh air and eating at cool little bakeries.

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Lastly, we visited Esslingen where we stayed at the EcoInn.  We also visited an amazing bath called Merkel’sches SchwimmBad.  Esslingen’s market is medieval to the core.  Vendors wear furs and really get into the persona of their ancient ancestors.  Many market workers were very uncomfortable with my camera and I had a feeling that it went along with the old world vibe throughout the market.  Esslingen offered the most delicious food in the form of macaroni and cheese, potato wedges, and of course bratwurst.  There was also a section for the children filled with medieval games and old world crafts like candle making and broom weaving.  Maybe the best part of the market was the performance that swept through the aisles every so often featuring creatures like dragons and fawns playing old instruments and horns.  Esslingen’s market seemed small and romantic because it wound through the square and several other streets, but it actually had over 200 market stalls!

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The authentic  and historical holiday atmosphere at these German markets is something I haven’t felt since in the U.S.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy big decorated Christmas trees and those crazy blow up lawn ornaments that I see in my hometown, it just doesn’t feel the same.  The entire week that I spent in Germany I felt full of holiday cheer.  I was Will Ferrell in Elf.  It simply felt good to peruse the markets even if I wasn’t shopping-could you imagine going to the mall in December just because?! I couldn’t.

Over the course of the week, Katie and I found a present for everyone in our family.  We bought plenty of little smoking men and although I don’t see myself collecting anything (as I typed that I realized I currently collect books, old cameras and globes, hah!), I would make an exception for these guys because I wanted each and every one.  I settled for a little man with brown hair holding a basket full of wooden mushrooms.  We also bought plenty of wooden ornaments, beeswax candles and wooden decorations.  If I lived in Germany I would certainly buy an ornament every year as there where hundreds of precious painted balls and figures to choose from.

Walking through the markets, I could feel the happiness and gratitude of the other costumers and market merchants.  It all seemed like we were part of something bigger, there were no individual shopping lists and self-centered motives (ok, I’m sure there was some of that I just didn’t see it), but there were many smiles, well wishes, and holiday cheer being spread around.  If you ever have a week or two off during December, I urge, insist and highly recommend taking a trip to Germany and experiencing some Christmas market magic for yourself.

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