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European Xmas Markets: Auf Wiedersehen/ Au Revoir

 

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Hard to believe the week is over and we are headed back to the USA. It’s been a terrific trip!  Using the MOVES app on my iPhone, it registers we have walked in excess of 110,000 steps, which translates to about 55 miles. We believe it – we never walked so much; basically all day and then, all evening.

Our last stop, in Frankfurt, involved a few uneventful changes on the train and a more eventful trip to actually find the cityIMG_4686 market. Once we did, we were glad to have made the effort.  It was incredibly jam-packed with a well-dressed crowd of all ages and an impressive array of food offerings.  At this market the ratio of food to décor seemed to be about 80/20.  It was beautiful with lots of lights and the section in the historic area was particularly interesting. Lots of fun to people watch and sample of final treats of the trip.

In summary, we are now totally in the Christmas spirit and hope it will last, as we head back to our own pre-holiday chaos.

To all my readers – Merry Christmas!!

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Karen & Sarah, Strasbourg.

Christmas Market Redux

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World conditions may not be ideal, but I am going to stick to our plan to visit European Christmas Markets again this year.

My friend and I are headed off to Germany today for a girl’s trip of super-sized, festive, cold, delicious Christmas overload.

I know from previous experience that Germany is really where many of our beloved Christmas traditions began and the Alsace region of France, enhanced those traditions with taking tree decorating to the next level.

Since I have been reading all the global stories about security warnings, I have learned that Germany has 2,500 Christmas Markets.  We will focus on just a couple of dozen.

The markets run during Advent, from late November until just before Christmas, and all feature stalls stocked with every imaginable kind of ornamentation and decorative item. About half of the markets are devoted to an incredible array of food, baked treats and goodies of every description.  Not to mention the famous hot mulled wine, Glühwein, (not my fav, I poured it in a bush the last time I visited); I will stick with hot chocolate. I will also collect more of the cute mugs that are traditional market souvenirs and customized for each different location.

A few interesting hallmarks of early Christmas traditions:

  • Nativity Cribs have been set-up since the year 360
  • St. Nicholas (with brown cape and mitre) was first depicted in the Alps in the 13th century
  • Earliest Christmas markets date back to Vienna’s “December Market” in 1294, followed by many throughout Germany in the 1200s and 1300s, and in 1570, France’s oldest market in Strasbourg
  • First documented tradition of Christmas gifts, 14th century
  • Oldest decorated tree on record was in 1419, on the edge of the Black Forest; baker’s apprentices used fruit, cookies, nuts and paper flowers
  • First Advent wreath (with 24 candles), 1833
  • Colored glass balls were first created in 1870
  • First printed Advent calendar, 1908
  • New York holds the honor for the first electric lights, in 1912 on Madison Square

So we begin in Munich tomorrow, then onto Nuremberg, Stuttgart, and a side trip to Strasbourg in France, before returning to Germany’s Frankfurt.

Large and mid-size cities often have multiple markets and many smaller towns are a short train ride away.  So we will see what the next few days bring and will try to post colorful photos and brief descriptions to help everyone get into the holiday mood (particularly all our warm-weather friends).

Frohe Weihnachten, Joyeux Noël, Merry Christmas.

Xmas on the Rhine: Strasbourg & Petite France

Whimsey at it's best.

whimsy at its best.

Bon Jour!  Well if yesterday was the most dismal, today was the most glorious!
We had sun and NO rain, despite predictions to the contrary.

I have a new favorite: Strasbourg has, hands-down, the best Christmas decorations I have ever seen; creative, colorful, humorous and bountiful are just a few adjectives to describe them.

We started the day with a canal cruise into Petite France, a very historic area with wonderful, half-timbered houses, cobble streets and willow trees along the canals. Strasbourg is considered the “Crossroads of Europe” and houses the 46-nation Conseil De L’Europe (including Russia) and is also the seat of the 27 member European Union Parliament.

Shortly after leaving the quay we saw many of these beautiful modern government buildings – such a contrast for what was about to come.

Once off, we did a short walk to the Place de Cathédrale and the majestic Notre Dame. At this point we took off on our own Xmas Market adventure. There are 12 markets in Strasbourg and we saw at least 6 (maybe a couple more, I lost track). The amazing thing about this city is the incredible decorations on all the buildings; beautiful creations on all the windows and entries, one building better than the next. From street-to-street we were constantly delighted with the variety and ingenuity of the displays.

And the Christmas lights of each street were gorgeous, elegant designs – each street different. Photos don’t really begin to capture the total scope and incredible ambiance. Overall, the holiday feeling here is lush, colorful and fun. White bears, santas, stars, ribbons, multi-colored balls and twig designs are used liberally; lights are still all white. It makes a glorious impact in a very charming setting.

We started with the market around the main cathedral and then visited the Place du Chateau, with its ice rink for adults as well as a small one for the tiniest skaters. During our journey, we found a St. Nicholas chatting with visitors and enjoyed window shopping. We then wandered over to the Swiss Village in Place Gutenberg and stayed in that area for lunch at restaurant Au Gutenberg for delicious quiche and tarte.

Once fortified, we took off towards the Place Kléber to see the Great Xmas Tree & Share Village for local charities. The tree was the tallest we’d ever seen; I tried to take a picture looking up from the base but it was impossible, and from a distance you can see it was casting its own shadow. Around the square were dozens and dozens of flocked firs and when you got close, you could hear the lovely sound of small birds singing; I guess they have found a safe place to hang out for these chilly days.

We also saw the specialty markets in the Place Benjamin-Zix/Place de Meuniers featuring flavours of Alsace. In addition to the markets we ducked in and out of a few of the terrific shops along the way; we could do some serious damage to the bank accounts here. We finished our market visits with Christkindelsmarik in Place Broglie, site of the original local market, since 1570. It was large and festive, with lots of goodies, colorful lights and for the first time, we saw Christmas trees for sale. It was about €70 for the smallest size tree we would buy for our home and they did not have larger trees. We also bought a dark chocolate Bredle Cake to taste-test later (and it was so light and delicious – a real surprise).

If you want to really get into the Christmas spirit – you have to put Strasbourg on your list.

Petite France at it's Xmas best.

Petite France in full holiday mode.

Xmas on the Rhine: Heidelberg

One of the small Xmas Markets scattered in the center of Heidelberg.

One of the small Xmas Markets scattered in the center of Heidelberg.

Today had to be our dreariest day. Originally we were going to take a bus from Speyer to Heidelberg, but the low water levels have resulted in the need for a longer trip (2 hours) and later, another 2 hour trip to Strasbourg and our new home, the River Princess. It has rained all day.

Heidelberg is a beautiful city, much of it untouched during the war. It was terrific to see the Heidelberg Castle and reacquaint myself with the fascinating and complex history of the German/English royal family. Fortunately, the rain broke for a few minutes and we were able to see the beautiful views from the Castle looking across the rooftops of the city and across the Neckar River. It reminded me of the views in Florence.

We lunched at the historic (1592) Ritter Hotel and then checked out a few of the central markets, and watched the kids skating on the ice rink. The little ones were so cute pushing around their little ‘training penguins’!

The Christmas markets here are scattered through the squares, but all in a central area and easy to get around from one to the next. Due to time and weather conditions, hard to know if we found them all, but we sure tried.

I would’ve loved to have more time to discover (and photograph) this charming spot on a better day. While at the castle, I did partake of the local legend and placed my foot in the impression of the knight’s footstep left in the stone of the terrace. It is said if you do this you will return to Heidelberg and also live a happy life. So, here’s to returning!

Finally, into France and back on board ship – this time the Uniworld River Princess. The ship is decorated in a beautiful Art Deco style and is very nice. Our room is a bit smaller on this ship – but we managed to efficiently stow everything and were soon off to a wonderful dinner.

PS – News Bulletin: we hear the big bomb of Koblenz has been successfully defused and removed!

Xmas on the Rhine: Rudesheim

Drosselgasse alley in Rudesheim.

Drosselgasse alley in Rudesheim.

Rudesheim was my favorite spot so far. A small medieval town, our visit was enhanced by the fact we were there on a Saturday and stayed after dark so we got the full effect of a festive, very crowded scene with a lively street-fair ambiance. It must be the custom for groups to all wear matching hats and it was fun to see the different types of Christmas-themed hats including: cowgirl, Christmas trees and, of course, funky elf caps.

We had lunch at the Schloss Restaurant located on the famous Drosselgasse, a very narrow alley with dozens of shops, restaurants and wine bars. During lunch we had some local beer and Riesling and listened as a band played a wide variety of international music – oddly enough, even Hava Nagila (Rudesheim is known for a very international Xmas Market). Once out in the street our group made a quick visit to Siegfried’s Mechanical Music Museum. We almost didn’t go, but it was worth the short investment in time to see the incredible mechanical instruments in action, all housed in the 16th century home of a medieval knight. Then we were back out with the crowds to visit the shops and market stalls including the well-known Kathe Wohlfahrt store (one of several throughout Germany) to do some serious shopping for German-made Christmas items. Entertainers were singing Christmas music from a stage set up near the chairlift and even the weather cooperated by giving up a reprieve from the rain.

Eventually we had to get back to the bus and travel a bit more up the Rhine, crossing by ferry to return to our ship.

I think Uniworld has done a good job under the circumstances getting us to all our planned markets. Tomorrow we will change ships to finish the trip. Even though we will have to pack and move, and have had to use a bus to get around today, they’ve also done a great job of getting us down the Rhine to see the castles on a smaller boat, as well as given us complementary lunches, drinks and cash credits. I have been impressed by the calm, thoughtful and efficient staff. A few people did take the pre-cruise option to cancel – and as a result the two of us are traveling with 118 very nice people!

Xmas on the Rhine: Mainz

Mainz Market in the center of town.

Mainz Market in the center of town.

Another re-built city on the Rhine, Mainz is most famous as the home of Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of the movable-type printing press in 1456. We started our brief time here with a visit to the Gutenberg Museum. We watched a demonstration of the printing process on a replica of the early hand press. Most significantly, we saw one the few remaining (maybe there are 46 of 180)original Gutenberg Bibles – simply beautiful. We learned that the Bibles were all customized at the direction of their owners and so no two are alike.

The ride to Mainz from Boppard was beautiful along the Rhine, even thought it was still raining. On the way, we drove along the river and saw more castles and many slopes with vineyards, mostly for Riesling in this region.

Dodging rain showers, we checked out the colorful Xmas Market held in the town’s main market square in front of the thousand-year-old cathedral. I would’ve loved to see it fully lit up, since there were lights strung everywhere. Two features were the large ‘Pyramid’ on one side of the square and the life-sized manger on another.

We are getting to these towns by bus, since the low water has made the Rhine unnavigable for riverboats. Barges are only able the get down the river with about ¼ of their normal load. From our bus, we could see the exposed rocks and sandbars in this section of the river. When we left Mainz we crossed the Rhine by bridge and continued our trip back in the direction of Boppard, to Rudesheim.

 

Xmas on the Rhine: Koblenz

Just before the heavens opened up . . . .

Just before the heavens opened up . . . .

From our riverboat, now docked on the Mosel River, we ventured out on a dark and dreary morning to see the sights of Koblenz. Any city more than 2,000 years old has a lot of history to cover and we just scratched the surface with our guide who conducted a brief tour concentrating on giving us a quick overview of how the city developed. She also showed us the core of the city, founded by the Romans. Most of Koblenz has been beautifully reconstructed since WWII, much of it since the mid-80s. They have very successfully mixed old and new with reconstructed and managed not to lose the threads of their interesting history.

I loved the whimsy of the city – including the Napoleonic-era Schangelbrunnen, “The Spitting Boy” mascot who statue adorns a local fountain (and whose likeness is on the manhole covers). Another favorite was the comical face on the clock in the main square, whose eyes move constantly back & forth and whose tongue sticks out, four times a day, to mark the time.

We saw the small Christmas markets scattered around town, but did not get to linger since the rain began to come down really hard. They need the rain desperately in this region, so it really doesn’t seem justified to complain too much. We did get to see Koblenz’s large Christmas “pyramid” constructed of wood, fan blades and lights. Another Koblenz Xmas tradition is to open the windows of a local government building on the main square – one each day of Advent – today is day 2.

Even in the rain it was a really charming experience.

After lunch on board the S.S. Antoinette, we sailed on a smaller ship down the Rhine to St. Goar to see . We saw the castles of Marksburg, Stolzenfels, Sterrenburg & Liebenstein, Rheinfels and Maus & ‘Katz’. At the cliffs of Lorelei the captain played the sailor’s ballad lamenting the siren’s call to destruction on the rocky shores.  on a week like this, the sailors would have no trouble seeing even the gravel, not just rocks on the shores of the Rhine.

Castles in the rain.

Castles in the rain.

While we were on the Rhine, our ship repositioned to Boppard the better to avoid the Koblenz evacuation and bomb disarmament scheduled for this weekend. We did get to see the area where the 1.8 ton bomb, and its smaller companions, are buried in the shallow water and mud.

Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction.  What a Blast!

Xmas on the Rhine: Bon Voyage!

Gingerbread. Christmas Cookies. Hot Chocolate.  That’s what we had for lunch today . . . snacks . . . and tea.

It’s late afternoon and rapidly getting dark. Now we are watching the pastry chefs demonstrate cookie-making techniques and share their recipes. We are also learning how to make the aforementioned gluhwein – but I am not paying attention. I have decided I don’t even like the smell of the gluhwein.

Goodies galore.

Goodies galore.

We deserve all these treats after walking around Cologne all day. It stayed cloudy, but only drizzled a bit midday (during which we hid out in a cafe with a luscious hot chocolate), so we were very lucky. This morning’s walking tour took us through Altstadt (Old Town), and by some excavations of the old Roman city and original synagogue, as well as the Cathedral. A major port in Roman days, this is now the fourth largest city in Germany and the capital of the Rhineland. Almost all of the city was destroyed in WWII, but the cathedral was spared and survived largely intact. To preserve the beautiful glass windows, they were all removed at the start of the war and stored underground.

Koln was one of the primary destinations for religious pilgrims; the relics of the three Magi put the city on the map along with Jerusalem and Santiago de Compestela. The Cathedral was built over centuries (a la the one in Pillars of the Earth) from 1248 until completion in 1880, specifically to house the famous relics. They are in a solid gold, three-part coffin still on prominent display today.

Those of us who speak English call the city Cologne, which is actually the French name for Koln; this is indeed where the term cologne comes from. A wonderful example of re-branding occurred when a liquor-maker found his product outlawed and decided to turn it into a perfume. One can only imagine what the odors in the city were like when wearing liquor was a good thing.

We found our way back to our favorite market – the Alter Markt and saw another portion in Heumarkt, geared towards children, with an ice rink and small Ferris wheel. There must be some sort of school holiday in Europe because there were many groups of young children around today, including groups speaking French and English.

We circled back to the Rhine and made a brief visit to the newest market, which is by the chocolate Museum along the Harbour. Hafen Markt has replaced the Medieval Market of years past and may not have been the best business decision; it was certainly not very Christmassy. We then made the lengthy walk along the Rhine back to our ship. I popped back out to see the last of the Cologne Xmas Markets – the Floating Christmas Market on the MS Wappen von Koln. An odd combination of vintage, Christmas and craft items, it is the only market that charges admission (€2 for UNICEF) and the first time I fell victim to the claustrophobic feeling when you enter a way-too-warm enclosure wearing a lot of clothing. I didn’t stay long.

Off to hear some more lovely piano melodies, hear a port talk about Koblenz and dinner. We
actually sail tonight – a rare occurrence on this voyage!

On the Uniworld S.S. Antoinette

Carollers at the Alter Market entrance.

Carollers at the Alter Market entrance.

I’m sitting by myself – listening to the most wonderful pianist play Christmas music . . . it’s like I have a private performance. Even though Uniworld is a British company (owned by South Africans), I feel like I’m in a salon at Versailles; we have boarded the beautiful S.S. Antoinette riverboat for our adventure along the Rhine. While Mom is having a little reading and resting time, I’m taking care of business trying to get us organized and check in with my emails.

The ship is fully decorated for Christmas – all in a white/snow glittery theme – it’s lovely and somehow very tranquil.

While I’m on the topic of decorations let me explain how they do things here . . . there are dozens of healthy looking evergreens pretty much everywhere you look. Of course, trees are in the Christmas Markets, but also around every corner and placed up against the multitude of construction barricades around downtown. Lights are white and used much more sparingly than we do in the USA. Ornaments generally are a single color and large with colors of choice being red, blue, silver or gold. It’s a beautiful effect.

We’ve had another sunny, beautiful day, but with the angle of the European winter sun you find yourself generally in the shade. The temps are in the 40s during daylight, 30s at night. It’s completely dark here by 5pm. Of course, the better to see the Christmas lights!

We got two more Christmas markets under our belts today – the Neumarkt (also known as the Angel Market) and the Rudolfplatz (aka Fairytale Market). Although named the Neumarkt, this is actually cologne’s oldest market launched in the 70s, and features really beautiful decorations on the top of each stall and lots of lights and stars in the huge trees. As with the other markets we’ve seen, there is a huge focus on food and there seems to be lots of locals taking advantage of the culinary opportunities. Even though these markets attract tourists, it’s all very German and most of the visitors seem to be German. I have made one significant discovery – I do NOT like the Gluhwein – in fact, I find it a little nauseating. Heat up and spice your next glass of red wine and see what you think. I do love the cute little mugs, however.

We had a lovely walk to the Rudolfplatz through an attractive, high-end shopping area on Mittelstrasse, but the market itself was very disappointing. It was a much smaller market and even seemed a little seedy compared to the others.

Knowing us, you will have guessed that to fortify ourselves for all these new experiences, we began the day at a wonderful bakery/coffee shop . . . then off to catch the cute “Christmas Market Express” train that gets you to the main markets efficiently. Roundtrip tickets were €7, and one way tickets are €4. The little yellow cars are enclosed and keep you warm while listening to Xmas music. Our route took us down by the Rhine, past the Chocolate Museum and Cologne’s newest market: the Harbour (sometimes called Port) Market.

Our hotel graciously extended out check-out time until 2pm, making it really easy for us to have a leisurely market experience, get back, reorganize and take a cab over to our ship. It was a good thing I called to double-check the ship location, because it was not where I had been told.

Of course, we had to have a light lunch right after we boarded . . . .

We spent the rest of the day learning about our ship, how the crew has planned to deal with the low water situation (good news – I think they have everything beautifully worked out), making new friends and enjoying a lovely dinner. Since this is one of the only riverships with an actual swimming pool, one way they have made our ship lighter in order to navigate the lower water levels, is to empty the pool. The Captain joked that if we had to evacuate the ship while sailing, we would be able to just walk off. In any case, we will still be changing ships in four days.

Gute Nacht.

Xmas Markets on the Rhine

Welcome to Koln.

Welcome to Koln.

Are You Ready for Some Xmas!

We headed off to Germany with the Rhine River at its lowest level in decades. A few days before our trip we got word about the river conditions and reviewed our options. River traffic will not be able to make it all the way up or down the river, so at the very least, we will need to change ships at some point. Deciding to go for it, we have arrived in Cologne. We flew into Frankfurt on the huge Lufthansa 380 and hopped a quick train down to Koln, the largest city in the Rhineland.

Although not being covered in the U.S., the Rhine is so low that there are sandbars in places and the water is less than four feet in others. Never a deep river under normal circumstances, a severe drought and no snow in the Alps has created the current situation. One particularly unsettling consequence is the revelation of unexploded ordnance from WWII strewn along the riverbed. Of significant note, is an “enormous” RAF bomb and two smaller bombs (at least one from the USA) embedded in the mud near Koblenz. The Germans plan to evacuate about ½ of that city (45,000) including hospitals, a jail and the train station, in order to diffuse the larger bomb this weekend.

We have come in a day ahead of our Uniworld River Cruise; now settling into our lovely hotel, the Excelsior Hotel Ernst, in the center of the city and organizing our attack on the first of the Christmas Markets. Cologne has seven.

We started with the closest ~ the Weihnachtsmarkt am Kolner Dom (Cathedral Christmas Market). This market was festive and colorful, but did not really feature any distinctive merchandise. My favorite part was the plentiful food stalls and all their associated fragrances – licorice, gingerbread, warm pretzels, giant potato pancakes frying, nuts, chocolate, gluhwein; all in all, an amazing and wonderful assault on the olfactory senses.

But the best part of the day was yet to come . . . we wandered on over to the Alter Markt near the Old Town and were instantly transported back in time. Old fashioned wooden stalls, pine greens everywhere, woodland carvings, staff in period-costumes and beautiful lights and decor ~ all under the watchful gaze of the cute Koln Gnomes.

Back to the Excelsior for afternoon high tea – our chosen alternative for dinner tonight (did I mention we ate a cheese pretzel at the market?) A wonderful way to end the day ~ stuffing ourselves with all those wonderful goodies.

By the way, it’s really cold, our long-coats and gloves are perfect!