When I think back to the two beautifully fun-filled exchange trips I took to Germany as a teenager, I have always idolised the Christmas markets- then I was in Holzwickede, near to Dortmund and we travelled into the city to see the enormous Christmas tree (1,600 mini trees strapped to a frame, all of them real) and went as far as cologne to experience the market sprawling under the famous Cathedral, and of course to smaller, twinkling local affairs too. However this year when, probably at the end of August, I was already fantasizing about the markets I asked my flat mate which was her favourite, the response I got was: Urgh, I can’t bear Christmas markets, they’re too busy, too cold and I don’t like Glühwein, I just don’t see the point.
These polar opposites can be found on every theme surrounding the markets; the Nürnberg markets are supposed to be some of the oldest and most beautiful, most highly visited Christmas markets in Germany and some people still warned me profusely from daring to enter the jam-packed pre-Christmas nightmare (imagine taking the Trafford Centre or Westfield outside). Ditto some local markets I was recommended as being beautiful and quaint were, quite frankly a let down. I do still love Christmas markets though, they give me such a buzz, so here is my do’s and don’ts guide to visiting one of Germany’s most famed spectacles.
1. DO go during the week. Especially if you are going to one of the well known Christmas
markets there are simply substantially less people during the week, and it makes the
experience altogether more relaxed and less claustrophobic. After work hours things get
busier with locals and tourists pour in from other towns and other countries to make the
weekends occasionally unbearably busy, but a week day evening is a much quieter way to
soak up the atmosphere- but have no worries, the market will probably never be empty to
the point of soulless.
2. DON’T be afraid of the cold. It’s atmospheric! Or character building my mother would have probably said, but regardless it’s certainly helps build a magical feeling to the markets. Everything has that slightly smudged, sparkling tone when it’s shrouded in a chill, breath steams and Glühwein is ten times more enjoyable when it’s kindling a little fire in your stomach, it feels very comforting. And of course it’s cold walking along the street alone but you’ll be surprised how much warmer the body heat of a few hundred, sometimes thousand, people can make you; huddling round wooden tables like slightly lost penguins with steaming drinks and wriggling your way arm to arm to view a popular stall is all part and parcel of the experience.
3. DO try different kinds of markets. Yea, there actually are several kinds of Christmas market often within the same town. Large tourist markets such as Nürnberg, Dortmund or Köln are enjoyable for the experience, for the scale of the decorations and often for the quality of goods- they’re popular for a reason. But there is also a Children’s market- it’s okay, you don’t have to be in possession of one to get in- which is definitely less packed and more relaxed, although try not to trip over anyone who is knee height. It’s pretty magical too because of the extra details leant to the decorations to keep the magic of Christmas burning. There is also a Partner Town market, where traditional and seasonal produce from Nürnberg’s partners from around the world is sold. In Regensburg for example you can find the normal market and a ‘romantic’ market too which is famed for its particular beauty and atmosphere, and its popularity with couples; in other towns there are historical or middle ages (nope, not middle-aged) markets to get a flavour entirely different from the larger experience.
4. DON’T think this is the cheapest option. It isn’t. A lot of what you’re seeing is local, hand produced or practically unique; which can either end up very reasonable or at the other end of the mountainous scale. It’s worth being a bit discerning- can what you’re looking at be bought cheaper at a department store or online?
5. DON’T (or DO) buy at the first stall. The first stall that drifts past your consciousness will (hopefully) be stunningly beautiful or delightfully cute, but trust me they are all going to be like this. If you spend €30 on the first stall you will regret it when the next six stalls all also contain something you want to get as a gift. The best thing to do is probably to go to the market twice- once to look, once on a mission. On the other hand the worst thing I did this year was ‘just look’ at markets that I wasn’t able to go back to again sometimes impulsive gift buying is the best kind, especially when that gift is unique.
6. DO keep the glass. I mean it! There’s this fantastic thing called Pfand here which means that when you order a Glühwein from your preferred Glühwein dispensing portal (there will be an almost unbelievable amount I promise, from wooden huts, to ice-cream-shops-turned-glühwein-experts, to vans) you actually pay more than the displayed price for your beverage. So it’s about €2-3 on top of the price, and before you get irate because believe me the whole thing will suddenly seem extortionate, you get that money back when you return your adorable little mug or glass to the stall. Or- €2 is not bad for a festive mug, it’s even a pretty cheap Christmas present for someone, just saying.
7. DO try things that aren’t Glühwein. Glühwein is traditional and beautiful, and comes in many flavours. My favourite is Heidelbeer which is a rich, deep fruity taste, whereas several of my friends prefer cherry because it’s sweeter and lighter. However, other weird and wonderful concoctions are available for your sampling (please not if you’re driving); Feuerzangenbowle is some kind of rum punch (some translations also gave me brandy?), the one I’ve witnessed being made was rum and wine, with fruit and spices like cinnamon strewn liberally over the top, then a cone of sugar is set above it, doused in more rum and set alight so that it slowly caramelizes into the drink. The result is strong, fiery deliciousness which can be found at most Christmas markets to warm the cockles of your…heart? Liver? Equally strong but not at all to my taste is the Jägertee or Hunter’s tea, I’m not entirely sure what it is but I optimistically ordered one at a Christmas market last week and found I could barely raise the glass to my mouth. It is possibly just whisky mixed with boiling water- try at your own risk.
With lots of fröhliche Christmas Cheer 🙂 Jessie