Christmas markets in Germany go beyond shopping and make the senses swirl with lights, music, aromas and heady mulled wine
Peppy, foot-tapping music fills the air. The tunes are familiar, the words are not, but it hardly matters. It is early December and darkness is looming though it is not even late evening. The cold air is fragrant carrying whiffs of roasting chestnuts, baked goodies, frying meat, spiced mulled wine and several other unidentified delectable aromas. It feels like I’ve stepped back in time: All around are people dressed in medieval clothes, hawking horns, swords, furs and handmade iron tools, playing wooden instruments and selling medieval food. The Mittelaltermarkt or Medieval Christmas Market in Esslingen am Neckar, about 30 minutes southwest of Stuttgart in Germany, is a surreal experience.
At the heart of Esslingen are the fort walls with a massive watch tower and a bridge that leads to the market square where the medieval Christmas Market is held alongside a regular Christmas market every year. These are surrounded by the town’s other landmarks: four medieval churches over 200 half-timbered houses. While the rest of the market has bright beautiful lights, the medieval market is dim, lit with candles, oil lamps and charcoal fires in keeping with the theme. There are pelt-clothed traders, costumed craftsmen, role-playing traditional blacksmiths, felt-makers, leather makers and wood carvers. In one nook, an archery stall encourages people to try their hand at shooting. Elsewhere, a medieval bathhouse offers hot baths. I am drawn by a cauldron bubbling away with red mulled wine where I get mug full of the potion. It is hot, subtly spiced, flavourful and potent, burning a delicious path, just the thing for the chill that hangs in the air. Next door, a couple work a blazing wood-fire oven, selling maisfladen, a kind of pizza made with corn and topped with onions, carrots and lamb. It goes perfectly with the mulled wine. All around me, people mill about, downing copious amounts of mulled wine, while conversations flow and the tempo of the music gradually rises. Clearly, it is the event of the year and I can detect several languages apart from German.
While the whole world has embraced the concept of the Christmas market, it holds a special place in Europe, especially in Germany. Its exact beginnings are hazy but there is general consensus that they were born sometime in the 15th century when German territories covered a large part of Europe. One estimate says Germany holds around 2500-3000 holiday markets across the country, possibly the highest number, and each city has something unique to recommend its own version.
In the spa town of Baden-Baden, close to the French border and overlooking the gorgeous Black Forest, vestiges of the town’s decadent history are everywhere. Hot thermal baths, a chic casino, a 350-year-old 3km long avenue of pleasure gardens called Lichtentaler Allee through which the river Oos flows languidly… This was the playground of Russian royalty and noblemen, a connection that is still displayed on a plaque to Nikolai Gogol, a bust of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and the Faberge Museum on Sophienstrasse. As night falls, the winter-themed Christmas market of Baden-Baden comes alive. I get a paper packet full of hot roasted chestnuts, compelled by their seductive aroma and wander the rows of shops strung with pretty lights. The stalls and little alleys are decorated with trees laden with golden presents, bright red balls, angels, elves, reindeer and Santa Claus figures as well as nutcracker statues.
An array of eclectic things are on offer: wooden, plaster and ceramic figurines and dolls, chimes and dreamcatchers, all kinds of boots, jewellery, pottery, bags and knick-knacks. I am more attracted to stalls selling mulled wine, German sausages and flammkuchen (a kind of thin-crust pizza). An open air stage is taken up by a local band that is belting out lively songs and has the crowds swaying and stamping their feet. I join them in a shouting a raucous version of Jingle Bells, they in German, me in English.
In Stuttgart, the city’s bright and cheery Christmas market wraps itself around a set of equally spectacular monuments: Renaissance-style 14th century Altes Schloss (old castle), the 18th century baroque Neues Schloss (new castle) and the Stiftskirche (collegiate church) which goes back almost 800 years. Stalls are spread all over Schlossplatz, the main square, and along Konigstrassee, the city’s swish high street. They are elaborately made up with the nativity scene being a leitmotif, while Santa and his reindeer, nutcrackers, windmills and white winter provided stiff competition. A ferris wheel with bauble-shaped capsules in bright colours is a hit with children, but I am utterly fascinated by an elaborate toy-train set up that occupies several square metres with several kinds of trains plying on multiple tracks across various miniature landscapes.
Where Stuttgart is happy with tradition and sense of charm, everything in Cologne is set to dazzle. It boasts of over half a dozen markets, most of them modern and arty. The main one sits in the imposing shadow of the Kolner Dom or Cologne Cathedral, the 13th century Gothic structure that towers into the sky. The Weihnachtsmarkt am Kolner Dom or the Christmas Market at the Cologne Cathedral is a series of over 150 stalls with hip handicrafts and regional culinary delicacies, a children’s carousel and ice-skating rink. I manage a quick peek at two other markets. The Kolner Alstadt Heimat der Heinzel at Heumarkt is overrun by hundreds of elves, while Kolner Hafen-Weihnachtsmarkt (Cologne Harbour Christmas Market), located on the banks of the Rhine against the backdrop of the mid-19th century Malakoff Tower, is nautical-themed and noisy. I sample sausages, cakes, cookies and popcorn, and wash them down with fragrant mulled wine.
After more than a week of traipsing around some of Germany’s Christmas markets, I realise my list of pending ones is longer than when I began, thanks to helpful suggestions by locals. The on in Dresden takes place in the Altmarkt, and is the oldest, being held almost continuously since 1434. Nuremberg follows an angel theme, while Leipzig, held in the Marktplatz, draws on its long musical history to showcase a lyrical holiday season. I leave these for another visit and pack up, head swirling with lights, images, beautiful music and the aroma of roasted chestnuts and mulled wine.
Anita Rao Kashi is a Bengaluru-based journalist and travel writer.