Falling snowflakes always make me smile, but now, at the top of February, even I’ll admit that the snow on the roads is starting to get a bit annoying. Somehow, snow before Christmas always seems like a pleasant surprise, and snow after the New Year just seems to be a hindrance. Yes, I wish it was still December, too.
Last December, Joanne and I went on a bit of a mini-tour of Europe, stopping by several Christmas markets on the way (9 in total). Christmas markets (deu: Weihnachtsmarkt or Christkindlmarkt) are very traditional for Germany and usually coincide with the beginning of Advent. Dating back to the Middle Ages, there’s one in almost every German town (or so I’ve been told). Some were small and quaint and some were massive, taking hours to navigate. Some cities – Prague, Berlin, Vienna – had several. So which one was the best? Find out below…
My Christmas market experience started this year, as it did the year before, in my current place of residence, Saarbrücken. One of the most unique aspects of the market here is that, twice an evening at 17:00 and 19:00, Santa Claus flies across the market in a sleigh running along a wire. Now, I can imagine this would cause a whole slew of legal problems in North America – what happens if the sleigh falls, or something drops on someone from that height, who do we sue – but the Europeans, I find, have a much more lax sense of safety and a greater sense of adventure. He is accompanied by David’s favourite Christmas song (Wi-Wa-Weihnachtsman, komm mit deinem Schlitten an…). There are typical Saarlandisch specialties, a mix of French and German cuisine, including Joanne’s favourite Christmas market snack that year – Schwenker. And of course, there’s always the wonderfulness of standing around drinking Glühwein with a large group of friends =)
The self-titled ‘Capitale de Noël’, in the Alsace region just across the border from where I am, has a number of Christmas markets. The nicest ones are at Place de la Cathédrale and the one at place Broglie (Christkindelsmärik). The one in front of the cathedral is especially breathtaking at night – the glow from the stalls, the smell of tarte flambée (deu: Flammkuchen), ‘Glüe Wein’, four-cheese baguettes, spiced apple cider, and freshly made crêpes.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber
My friend Florian once said to me, “Rothenburg ob der Tauber? Yes, I know where that is. But why would you want to go there?! There’s nothing!” Well, Flo, perhaps you don’t understand their magic appeal on tourists like me Rothenburg fulfils every image I ever had of a quaint medieval Christmas – it’s that good. The market itself is a bit small, since there’s only so much space, but the setting makes it feel very traditional. Be sure to also stop by Käthe Wohlfahrt (Herrngasse 1) for Christmas, any time of the year. And stay away from Schneeballen – you’ve been warned.
The most dominant feature of the Nürnburger Christkindlmarkt is the shear abundance of Lebkuchen, the most famous of which comes from Lebkuchen Schmidt (Plobenhofstrasse 6, am Hauptmarkt). Lebkuchen is a soft, gingerbready cross between cake and a cookie, with honey, nuts, and spices, but without those horrible green and red “fruit” pieces as in fruitcake. Nürnburger Lebkuchen is a Protected Designation of Origin, and is one of the first things that I buy during the Christmas season (I could polish off a 10-pack in two days).
The heart of Bavaria features a sprawling Christkindlmarkt that runs down Neuhauserstrasse and Kaufingerstrasse to Marienplatz, the heart of the city. There, the market lies in front of the Rathaus, lively and filled with Glühwein and grill stands. I found that the Münchener market also had an unusual number of roasted nut stands…not that I’m complaining. There were toasted almonds of all sorts – normal sugar, Nutella, dark chocolate, cinnamon, even a special Christmas blend – and it served as my late-night snack on the overnight train to Rome.
I experienced my first Germanic Christmas market here in 2007 with Candy, and I will never forget the taste of fresh Apfelkrapfen from the Weihnachtsmarkt in front of the Rathaus. I had the unfortunate experience of eating an ice cream cone filled with meringue dipped in chocolate (I can’t remember what it was called, but I didn’t know what it was at the time)…I wouldn’t recommend these. I WOULD recommend, however, you pick up a Käsekrainer at one of the many stands – it’s a delicious cheese sausage in a warm bun jacket filled with ketchup and mustard.
The Christmas market in Salzburg has possibly the most fantastic natural setting of any of the Christmas markets I’ve ever been to. The smell of freshly baked Bretzeln and intricately painted egg ornaments (you break, you buy) are set against the stunning backdrop of the Austrian Alps. Drop by a café anytime for some crisp apple strudel – even better with warm vanilla sauce – “these are a few of my favourite things…”
I absolutely LOVE Prague – it’s one of my favourite cities in Europe – largely due to the hearty Czech cuisine. Trdelnik, Morovian smoked ham on the spit, Goulash with soft bread dumplings to soak up the sauce – all good stuff. The Prague Christmas market sells my number one favourite snack of all the snacks in any Christmas market I’ve ever been to – langosh. This is a Hungarian snack, fried dough topped with garlic oil, cheese, and ketchup. Sure, you may not think that sounds delicious now, but when it’s freshly deep-fried and served straight away, you might not be so sure anymore…
The Berliners sure do love their currywurst, so of course they sell it at the Christmas markets, too. In fact, they even have a machine that chops up the wurst into even pieces in about 2 seconds. They also have an outdoor skating rink at the one by Alexanderplatz. The Christmas market at the Gendarmenmarkt is really pretty, with a huge Christmas tree and all the tents topped with stars, but it’s 1€ admission.
- Best Atmosphere: Wien
- Best Food Overall: Strasbourg
- Best Food: Langosh from Prague
- Best Kinderpunsch: Rothenburg ob der Tauber
More to come in PhooD Adventures!