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Secrets of European Christmas Markets

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I’ve had the good fortune to make two trips to see Europe’s fabulous Christmas markets.  Once with my Mother on a river cruise and once with a girlfriend. Both trips were kaleidoscopes 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 by taking tree decorating to the next level. Germany alone has 2,500 Christmas Markets.  This entry will give a recap of my market experiences and tips for markets in Germany, France, and Switzerland, listed in alpha order by city. Find out about markets in: Basel, Cologne, Colmar, Frankfurt, Heidelberg, Koblenz, Lucerne, Ludwigsburg, Mainz, Munich, Nuremberg, Rudesheim, Strasbourg, and Stuttgart.

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, of which I am not a fan – I’ll stick with hot chocolate. I love that the Germany markets sell cute mugs as traditional market souvenirs. They are customized for each location and year. Large and mid-size cities often have multiple markets and many smaller towns are a short train ride away.  They generally open around 11 AM till 9PM in the evening.  But times can vary, so be sure to check the links provided for current info.

Many markets only take cash, so have your Euros ready, and lots of items are easily available in the U.S. with no savings evident, this is NOT bargain shopping. Look for the special, locally made items and know you will pay a fair price. Be wary of anything electrical, it will not work if you bring it back to the U.S.

While you make your way through the markets here is a list of local treats to taste-test:

German Christmas Markets

  • ֎ Chocolate-covered gingerbread
  • ֎ Springerle
  • ֎ Lebkuchen cookies
  • ֎ Weckla – Nuremburger sausages in a hard bread roll
  • ֎ Bredle cookies
  • ֎ Brenton (marzipan) cookie
  • ֎ Snowball

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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.