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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.

Sparkling Stuttgart

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It’s impossible to photograph the elaborate decorations on top of each of the 250+ booths at the Stuttgart Xmas Markets. Photos don’t do any of it justice.  The crowds and the lighting just can’t be mastered with the iPhone camera I am using for this trip (decided not to haul the Nikon around the markets).

The booths of the Stuttgart Christmas Markets meander through the central part of this contemporary city, through an exclusive shopping district and around a few historical buildings that survived WWII.  Along the way there is a large model train display, complete with a child-size train for kids to ride, a very busy ice rink, and of course, the requisite dozens of food and drink options.

I hesitate to even call these booths, because many are more like small pop-up stores.  These structures are substantial and the fact the operators seriously compete for best decor honors is obvious.  The lush greenery is all real and every one of the booths is different and unique. Although vendors sell the usual Xmas decorations, angels, candles and toys, oddly, this market also has items usually found at a home show, or maybe an infomercial (think devices to keep pots from over boiling and special chopping tools).  Knives, spatulas, pots and bathroom cleaners notwithstanding, the lights and decorations produce a magical effect.  Several mammoth Christmas trees add to the ambiance as does an Advent Calendar in the windows of City Hall.

Based on the massive crowds around every Gluhwein stand, I wonder just how much is consumed in Germany during the four market weeks . . .

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A small section of the decorations atop a booth selling wild game food products.

 

Nuremberg’s Symbolic “Christkind” (Golden Angel)

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To break away from the Catholic tradition of gift giving on St. Nicolas’ Day, December 6, Martin Luther (1483-1546) switched festivities in his home to Christmas Eve. He told his children the Christkind brought their gifts. The practice quickly took hold and spread throughout Nuremberg. The fictional gift-giver took form through the years and is represented by the Golden Angel today. Occasional visits by Christkind to the Children’s Christmas Market in Nuremberg is a huge attraction. A new “Angel” is selected every two years. We considered ourselves lucky to be in the area during one of her special appearances.

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.

The Largest Model Train Display in the World: Hamburg, Germany

Of course, at the center of it all, is the trains.   They are running everywhere around you - but you never seem to see the same train twice.

Of course, at the center of it all, is the trains. They are running everywhere around you – but you never seem to see the same train twice.

I counted 78 monitors in the impressive Control Centr.

I counted 78 monitors in the impressive Control Center.

The Miniatur Wunderland is a lot more than model trains, anything you imagine can probably be found within this massive display – but more on that in a moment.

My husband is crazy about model trains. He has meticulously restored and maintained, vintage Lionel trains running around our study and on display. Even though he favors the larger O gauge, popular when he was a kid in the 50’s, he loves any well-done train exhibit.

Since opening in 2001, the Miniatur Wunderland attraction has constantly grown.  Current displays (in HO scale), are inspired by scenes from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Scandinavia and the USA. The newest feature is a working model airport; Italy can be seen under construction.

To get an idea of the massive scope of this attraction, let’s review a few facts we learned on our “Behind the Scenes” tour with Marius, our knowledgeable guide:

Miniatur Wunderland Fun Facts

  • 950 trains
  • 14,450 train cars (wagons as they say in Europe)
  • More than 8 miles of track
  • 3,050 switches
  • 335,000 lights
  • 3728 miles of cable
  • Longest train is a 47’ coal train in the USA section, with 66 cars and 5 engines

Four times every hour, each display changes to dusk for about a minute, then night for about three, and sunrise for another minute. Interactive buttons trigger all kinds of surprise actions (just in case you don’t have enough to watch).  Along with all the kids, my favorite had to be the Swiss chocolate factory that wraps a small Lindt chocolate and drops it into the hand of each chocoholic visitor.

One of the big crowd-pleasers is the airport, where 40 different planes pull up to terminals, take-off and land.  Video monitors, just like those in a real airport, display flight schedules and video of planes. Planes are all types and sizes and include occasional appearances of an emergency landing of the Space Shuttle and a comical flying bee.

In Scandinavia they use real water to maneuver large shipping vessels and passenger lines and even feature a beach with a rising and falling tide. Throughout the displays visitors will find countless surprises and hidden visual treats.  Every employee of the attraction is encouraged to submit creative ideas for inclusion.  You can tell they have fun – you find yourself constantly smiling when you spot things like a couple of nuns sitting on a bridge, an office worker zipping around the office in their rolling chair, torch-lit skiers coming down a slope, the Coke polar bear, or a couple having “fun”.

A great place to visit if you like trains, or any type of models; the kids and their adults, were all having so much fun. It truly is an incredible engineering, electrical and technological wonder.  My only criticism is the gift shop – a very odd collection of not-so-great “stuff”, they are surly missing a huge opportunity. In the past couple of years, we had viewed a number of You Tube videos about the attraction and, I am happy to report, the actual experience exceeded all my husband’s expectations.

Tips:  Go early or late to miss the big crowds, if you travel as far as we did, take the Behind the Scenes Tour – it was well worth the $15 fee. If you want the tour, book it in advance, unless you speak German, or it may not be available. They do have senior discounts and you can buy your admission tickets (regular 12 Euros), ahead of time, on-line.  www.miniatur-wunderland.de

There is More to Hamburg than Toy Trains

Hamburg is Germany’s second largest city and is filled with tree-lined streets and green spaces. It is biker-friendly, runner and walker-friendly and a very pleasant place to visit. Anchored by the centrally located lake (Alster) and the Elbe River, Hamburg is a port city whose residents seem to be embracing their waterfronts.  We are staying by the lake and it seems to be busy every minute, and this is during the week. We’ve watched sailboats, crew teams, kayakers and paddle boarders everywhere.                                                          

The Hop-On bus tour is a great option and can get you around key areas. There seems to be a good public transport system – but it is also a great city for walking. If time, you can get out on the lake and/or river for a water tour.

Small bistros, cafes and bars dot the lake-front. We had a lovely dinner at the charming Kajute. No English version of the menu, but we figured it out. In fact, you won’t find as much in English here, but everyone is eager to please and help.  We also find this city refreshingly less formal that some other German cities we have visited in the past.

 There are dozens of hidden surprises tucked into the detailed displays at Miniatur Wunderland. I'd like to know exactly how many adventuresome couples there actually are  but here is one, up high on a roof top.  Others were, under trees, along riverbanks, seen trough apartment and office windows and even cavorting in a field of sunflowers.  We even saw a threesome, and I don't mean golfing.  I've rated this couple PG to show here.  Not all the hidden treasures are sexual.  We spotted a giraffe being loaded on a plane, a penguin family, a corpse in a river, and more.  But we missed the crocodile and dinosaur . . .

There are dozens of hidden surprises tucked into the detailed displays at Miniatur Wunderland. I’d like to know exactly how many adventuresome couples there actually are . . . but here is one, up high on a roof-top. Others were, under trees, along riverbanks, seen through apartment and office windows, and cavorting in a field of sunflowers. We even saw a threesome, and I don’t mean golfing. I’ve rated this couple PG to show here. Not all the hidden treasures are sexual. We also spotted a giraffe being loaded on a plane, a penguin family, a corpse in a river, and more. But we missed the crocodile and dinosaur . . .

See that cute little tuxedo kitty in the tree?  The Fire Department comes to the rescue!

See that cute little tuxedo kitty in the tree? The Fire Department comes to the rescue!

One of the 150 interactive buttons, triggers response to a church fire.  Others play music, start a SWOT team shootout, a knight's jousting tournament and lights on for a sneak peak in an apartment building, and much more.

One of the 150 interactive buttons, triggers a response to a church fire. Others play music, start a SWAT team shootout, a knight’s jousting tournament and turns lights on for a sneak peek into an apartment building, and much more.

Along the shore of the beautiful Alster Lake, right in the middle of this very green city.

Along the shore of the beautiful Alster Lake, right in the middle of this very green city.

For my pirate girlfriends - just had to post this flag, seen along the Alster lakeshore at one of the many small marina/bistros.

For my pirate girlfriends – just had to post this flag, seen along the Alster lake-shore, at one of the many small marina/bistros.

 

A Final Toast Goodbye in Munich

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Off to Venice’s Marco Polo airport early this morning to get our daughter off on her flight home and our flight back to Munich where we began this journey.  In Munich we are staying at he  Kempinski Hotel Airport to make sure we have a relaxed, no pressure exit for our flight home in the morning.

Once we landed, we dropped off our luggage and, since we are now experts at the European train system, we hopped on the S-8 Bahn into the center of town.  We spent about an hour riding around (in the open-air second level) one of the Hop-On buses to show Mom the sights. Munich is pretty torn up at the moment, many of the historical buildings are being renovated and the subway system is being enhanced. It was actually hard for the bus to get around a few spots. Apparently this work is in support of the city’s bid for the 2018 Winter Olympics.

We ended up in the Old Town at the Marienplatz, walked around a bit and then over to the Hofbräuhaus for an early dinner. As expected, the place was packed, the music was good and the mix of locals in costumes and Saturday evening tourist-crowd was a sight to see. We stayed inside, since the smokers were out in force in the garden portion of the restaurant. It was fun and we had a very satisfying, if totally unhealthy and excessive, meal.

A prominent slogan above the oompah band at the Hofbräuhaus translates to: “Thirst is worse than homesickness.”  At this point I can safely say, our thirst is quenched and we are all ready to get back home.