The Christmas markets of Germany I

Posted On December 30, 2006

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Outside the train window, bare tree branches wore a rock-candy coating of ice. Field furrows curving into view were planted ankle deep in snow. Village whistle-stops took on passengers and the subfreezing chill of late December that hounded them into the compartment all the way to their seats.

Nothing sounded more comforting than the thought of a long soak in a hot bath once I got to town, after town, after town.

I was touring the Christmas markets of Germany. Not all 2,500 of them, you understand,  even the German National Tourist Office doesn’t recommend that, but as many as I could fit into a seven-day trip in December and still savor the atmosphere, sample the refreshments and maybe do a little shopping.

Germany’s 32-page English-language guide to the Christmas markets pares the list of towns to about 100 countrywide. I needed to cut that to seven or eight. Should I give up shopping the booths aboard a Cologne riverboat in favor of hearing the boys’ choir in Regensburg? Ought I forgo seeing the 9,225-square-foot Advent calendar in Leipzig in order to buy Christmas cards printed at the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz? Would the half-timbered houses in Hildesheim be more quaint than those in Quedlinburg?

If I had been going as part of an organized tour, that decision would have been made for me. On a guided motor-coach itinerary, I could have just about counted on visiting at least one of southern Germany’s most important Christmas markets, if not all three: Nuremberg, Rothenburg ob der Tauber and Munich. Mainstream American tour operators such as Collette, Gate 1, Globus, Insight Vacations, Maupintour, Trafalgar Tours and Uniworld offer escorted Christmas market tours, though few confine themselves to a single country, as I did. I studied their itineraries, however, to get an idea of what was doable in a day’s time, then struck out on my own, riding trains from town to town. Along the way I became a statistic: one of the 160 million visitors a year to Germany’s Christmas markets, doing my part to generate about $7.7 billion in annual Christmas sales.

Only a few time-honored market items can be bought for less than $10 or $12: things like small beeswax candles, tree ornaments made of straw and the ubiquitous and dearly beloved prune men (dolls made of fig bodies with prunes for arms and legs, and walnuts for heads).

The preponderance of market goods are of the highest craftsmanship and considerably more expensive: $70 and up for hand-painted nutcrackers and hand-painted glass ornaments; at least $135 for the nicer “pyramids,” candle-powered windmills that revolve angels or shepherds or reindeer ’round and ’round inside a multitiered, conical frame.

In contrast, a serving of three potato pancakes with applesauce costs $3 at one Nuremberg booth; the price was the same for potato pancakes in Heidelberg, with a choice of currants or garlic sauce. A mug of gluhwein, spiced wine served piping hot, goes for $3 to $4.

All the shopping and eating is most delightfully done in the evenings, from dark until 8:30 or 9, when you get the full effect of the lights and the camaraderie of local Germans who stop by after work. That leaves the days free for sightseeing and getting from town to town.

Rothenburg, the village > Europe doesn’t get any more village-y than this. Cobblestone lanes, medieval walls, turrets, towers and half-timber houses make tiny Rothenburg the Christmas market for those who believe life is an eat-dessert-first affair. Pass through the gates to the old city, and you enter a snow-globe world of jaunty rooflines and lights glowing opaquely behind bull’s-eye window panes.

The market here, called the Reiterlesmarkt, is small, filling only the narrow alleyway behind the town hall and the clearing, you couldn’t call it a plaza, between it and St. James’ Church.

The larger, and proper, market square is reserved for a giant Christmas tree in front of the Counselors’ Tavern, with lots of room for people to gather for walking tours such as those led by the medieval-era night watchman on his nightly English-speaking lantern route past houses that have stood since at least the 1500s.

Rothenburg is the hometown of Kathe Wohlfahrt’s Christmas Village and the adjacent German Christmas Museum. I don’t know how a complex that looks so small on the outside can be so cavernous and time-consuming on the inside, but you’ll need something to eat before tackling it. Now’s as good a time as any to have a schneeball, or snowball, a softball-size confection made from strips of sweetened dough formed into a ball, then fried and covered liberally with confectioners’ sugar, cinnamon or chocolate. No Rothenburg Christmas would be complete without making a mess trying to eat one.

Before the wave of pogroms that began in 1298, this also was the center of medieval Jewish scholarship. By 1511, the town council forced surviving Jews to wear a mark on their clothing. Ironically, Allied bombing in World War II destroyed much of the old Jewish ghetto, but a restoration project has[since transformed that into what some believe is Germany’s best preserved medieval Jewish quarter.

Orderly Nuremberg > You know you’ve got a successful market when the clergy start complaining. One of Nuremberg’s men of the cloth once lamented that he couldn’t hold afternoon church services on Christmas Eve because all his parishioners were out shopping, and that, so the story goes, was way back in 1616. These days, the market attracts some 2 million visitors each season.

Nuremberg has a knack for bringing glorious order to the chaos of Christmas.In what was once a Jewish ghetto until the pogroms of the mid-1300s, vendors in 190 booths cover 27,000 square feet of the Hauptmarkt, below the Gothic spires of the Frauenkirche, or the Church of Our Lady. Every booth is hung in red-and-white striped awnings, which may be the reason people have nicknamed this “the little town of wood and cloth.” But little it isn’t.

The old town has a craftsmen’s market at Kings Gate, literally in one of the gate houses in the city walls, and a separate children’s market, with modern amusement rides, on the back side of Frauenkirche in Hans Sachs Square. But what distinguishes Nuremberg’s market in the main square is its adherence to strictly traditional standards. Stalls are decorated with garlands of real fir boughs, not plastic ones. Cardboard boxes can’t be shown. Recorded background music is forbidden. Mulled wine must be served in ceramic cups. Only time-honored market items such as nutcrackers, prune men, candles, glass ornaments, nativity sets, cookies and sausages, make that regulation Nuremberg sausages may be sold.

The market, of course, is at the center of a Nuremberg rebuilt from the shambles of World War II, when 90 percent of the old town was destroyed. A stroll here brings you in contact with building facades restored to the high Middle Ages, yet occupied by comfortably modern shops, restaurants and hotels. It’s a place of strange-but-acceptable contrasts, where the riverside Starbucks on Hauptmarkt Street seems as much at home as the vast Imperial Castle perched high on the city walls.

Munich: It’s more than beer > They say Munich’s Christmas market goes back about as far as its breweries, which would date both enterprises to the 14th century. It’s safe to say the two grew up and came of age together, making Munich’s Christkindlmarkt in Marienplatz the place for people who like to wander aimlessly and feel they’ve made wonderful discoveries in the process.

Here, it’s natural to go with the flow of foot traffic, which seems to move counterclockwise through the Christmas stalls of Marienplatz, down to the nativity-set booths in Rindermarkt and swinging back around to finish among the butcher shops and bakeries of the Viktualienmarkt, or victuals market.

Historically, Munich’s central Christmas market, there are several elsewhere in the city, was held outside the Frauenkirche, whose twin towers define the city’s skyline. In the 1970s the market moved a couple of lanes over to the Marienplatz. The stalls here are neither as orderly as Nuremberg’s nor as cozy as Rothenburg’s. But Munich’s trump is the ornate neo-Gothic New City Hall: both backdrop and star attraction, at once imposing and comforting. With little interruption in their browsing, shoppers can crowd beneath City Hall at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. to watch the Glockenspiel mechanically recreate a 1568 jousting tournament. Choirs sing from its balcony at 5:30 p.m.; and there’s a seasonal post office in one of its courtyards, where letters get a special Christkindl postmark.

If you don’t let yourself be distracted by the windows of the big department stores, it’s easy to find yourself drawn from Marienplatz down pedestrian Rosenstrasse to the booths of Rindermarkt (the lane), aka Kripperlmarkt, where all the shops and booths sell wood manger pieces hand-carved in Bavaria and the Tirol.

Follow Rindermarkt (the street) on around, shift one street over to Sparkassentrasse, and your wandering will be rewarded with 140 stalls and shops stocking meat, fish, butter, honey, bread, cheese, flowers, vegetables, fruits and wine, all more enticingly displayed than any of the Christmas booths in Marienplatz.

More markets to explore > An hour west of Munich by train, Augsburg promises to lower 24 living angels once a week from the rooftop of City Hall, which is transformed into a giant Advent calendar for the season. That’s what I went there for. I must have arrived on the wrong day, because I never saw the angels or the Advent calendar, despite making several market runs during a two-night stay.

But if you’ve ever wondered what happened to Woolworth’s, the old dime-store chain, I can tell you that Augsburg has got one of those; and it sells the same kinds of stuff, place mats, greeting cards, aluminum cookware, shampoo, yarn, coloring books. It’s only a couple of lanes behind Augsburg’s Christmas market, which, now that I think of it, sells some Woolworth-worthy items in some of its booths, practical things such as socks, gloves and sweaters, along with Christmas stock. Augsburg’s specialty food seems to be a hamburger bun-size dumpling drizzled in plenty of steaming-hot vanilla sauce.

The university town of Heidelberg is more convenient to Frankfurt than Munich. I spent more time and money on the train ride than the trip deserved. Of its several markets, I was attracted to the one by the university: lots of bicycles, clock towers, church spires and good times, judging by the animation level of the shoppers. Maybe you could chalk that up to the multicultural university atmosphere that flaunted booths selling things like natural-bristle brushes, trinkets from Tibet and scarves from Tunisia. Or maybe the drinks were to blame. Heidelbergers apparently don’t mind spiking their hot chocolate with rum ($4) and their gluhwein with amaretto, Cointreau or vodka ($4).

I traveled too late in the season to catch the markets in Nordlingen and Dinkelsbuhl, both walled villages on the old Roman Road. Their markets closed a day before I arrived. The two have much in common with Rothenburg ob der Tauber, small population, medieval turrets and half-timber buildings intact, nice little bakeries to drink coffee and eat strudel in. But in contrast to the crowds elsewhere, they felt practically deserted. Any other time of year I’d have enjoyed that, but less than a week before Christmas, it seemed too lonely.

2 Responses to “The Christmas markets of Germany I”

  1. Patty

    I once owned two Nuremburg Prune People. How can I purchase more?

  2. Carolyn Hatling

    Do you happen to know where I might get a snow globe of Regensburg, Germany? I know this is a long shot, but I thought I’d ask anyway!