Sugarplums and Snow german christmas markets of 2016 - Romantischestraße

This is set to be a landmark year for me to indulge in an unabashed level of Christmas Market experiences. A felicitous combination of events means I have five weeks off work, and no need in the world to do so much as check on email during that time. It’s an unprecedented gift of holiday freedom, and I’m jumping at the chance to devote that time to immersing myself in the fairytale world of Germany’s Christmas Markets.

Frivolous and self-indulgent, at a time when the world is dealing with waves of humanity displaced from their lives; with the rise of a new and unpredictable world order; a time of sorrow and trouble and anxiety for so many? 2016 was a particularly horrible year, after all.

Yes. But with the opening of any Pandora’s box, I can’t forget that the last thing to escape, bright and winged and irrepressible, is hope.

I hope I can maybe create a little brightness, a little seasonal escapism, something warm and sweet and friendly and sparkling. And hopefully, provide a useful guide for anyone else looking for more information about the loveliest Christmas Markets to visit.

A little background, first.

I spent a year studying in Germany, and return to visit regularly. Coming to Germany as a wide-eyed teenager from the other side of the world was like stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia. I arrived in a snowy white world, where the people spoke an incomprehensible language, thought and acted differently to what I’d grown up with, and everything looked like something I’d once seen in a book.

I adapted, and learned. As I’ve grown, I came to understand more deeply about historical and modern Germany and its failings as well as its triumphs. In spite of that, the sense of Germany being a magical and otherworldly place has never left me.

Glühwein, hearts and snow

So I’ll be looking at the Christmas Market experience through the filter of someone who loves Germany; understands it as an outsider maybe a little bit better than the average tourist; but who is certainly not German. I’m also an almost constant traveler, and will be sharing some tips I’ve found useful, and hope you do too. Also, I live in a tropical climate, so the chance to breathe icy air, see the stars in an evening sky, and the snow on pine trees, and warm up with delicious treats and twinkling lights, makes me extremely happy.

Jewels of the Romantischestraße

Deutsches Haus, Dinkelsbühl

The Christmas Markets of Nördlingen, Dinkelsbühl and Rothenburg ob der Tauber

The Romantischestraße, or Romantic Road, is a route stretching from Füssen in Bavaria all the way to Würzburg - 350km of some of the most picturesque and historical towns and countryside of Southern Germany. If you have only a short time to holiday, spending a few days on the Romanticschestraße will give you an excellent taste of the architecture and culture of the south, visiting towns with intact, ancient walls and moats, breath-taking churches, and lots of local festivals at different times of the year. Of course, at Christmas time these towns really come into their own, hosting excellent and often very well-visited Christmas Markets. I'm not alone in my opinion that the three loveliest towns of this road are Nördlingen, Dinkelsbühl and Rothenburg ob der Tauber. I was also lucky enough to live very close by, so I came to know them quite well. So I started my exploration of 2016 Christmas Markets right here, in Dinkelsbühl.

Dinkelsbühl Town Wall and Moat - where even the ducks are picturesque

Dinkelsbühl Christmas Market opened this year on November 24, and runs through to December 21. That's my first tip! Check the opening and closing dates and times of all your Christmas Markets to avoid disappointment. Almost all of them will be closed by December 23 at the latest. A few well-known ones, such as Baden-Baden, will continue through to New Year, but they're few and far between.

It's set up in Spitalhof, just off one of the town's 2 main streets. If you're arriving by car, you'll park outside the town walls and take a short walk in through one of the prominent, easy-to-find towers to the Altstadt, or old town. This gives you a chance to imagine travelers arriving in historic times, entering the warmth and safety of the town walls after an arduous journey through the wild forests where wolves, bears and bandits lurk ....

This Christmas Market is beautifully typical of a small southern town market. It's extremely local (that is, few tourists when I was there), middling size, so quite accessible and user-friendly, and very welcoming. Both stall-holders and townspeople started conversations with me. First, take a stroll through the 2 split-level sections of the market - do note there's a short flight of stairs you need to negotiate, but with a good handrail. Check out the stalls including an extensive array of handcrafted wooden items, an artist creating pastel and charcoal portraits, and a lovely stall with sheep-milk soap.

Small, twinkling and friendly - Dinkelsbühl Weihnachtsmarkt in the Spitalhof
Half-timbered houses are a feature of architecture in this part of Germany

A couple of stand-out additions - St Nicholas, ringing a bell, appears every afternoon around 4pm to hand out a small gift to the children (and to banter with the adults). Live music performances are also scheduled each evening. Check in the tourist office for details. There's a blacksmith's tent, an unusual addition, where children could be delighted to look at reproduction suits of armour, shields and swords. There's also a super model railway, lovingly crafted with a winter scene - and a Bavarian maypole ... a reminder that spring will come.

Food options are very typical; nothing unusual that really stood out. The glühwein had more fresh fruit pieces in it than you usually find in the city Christmas Markets; that was a nice addition. We ate an excellent bratwurst in a crusty, fresh roll. And I'm sorry to say my wicked friend Tonya convinced me to try a Küsse ... when I lived in Germany, they were called something quite different and quite politically incorrect, so it's nice they've been renamed! - and we almost fainted from immediate sugar overload. Don't eat these unless you are ready for an insane sugar rush! They're a totally sinful combination of a dome of soft, uncooked marshmallow with different flavourings (we chose Eierlikör, or eggnog), on a mercifully unsweetened waffle base, covered in thick chocolate. You'll see them at almost every Christmas Market, but these were unusually large and had a real home-made taste.

There are many other things to do in Dinkelsbühl. We chose to stay in the town, as it's mid-way between Rothenburg and Nördlingen; has a nice range of accommodation options that are generally better priced than Rothenburg; and is a little bit quieter as well. St Georg is a magnificent Gothic cathedral, and features a nativity manger with models of the town's buildings and various Old Testament scenes. If you ever wanted to imagine what the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden would have looked like in a southern German town, this is your chance. We joined an evening tour of the Night Watchman, which was extremely funny and kitschy, and took us to all the main buildings, with a sung and spoken commentary at each, as the Gasthof or Stube proprietor emerged to offer us a communal glass of wine to pass round. If you're joining, do note that it went for longer than we expected - allow 1.5 hours - and it's all in German.

Did you know the exteriors in the original (and best!) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory movie, featuring the glorious Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka, were largely shot here? Well, now you do, so if it was a loved part of your childhood, come see if you can recreate the magic. Tip: one of the best shots of the town comes at the very end of the movie, when Charlie, Mr Wonka and Grandpa Joe soar out of the factory ceiling in the glass elevator. In honour of the movie, we had a hot chocolate as soon as we arrived in the town. Because we are no longer children, we added a shot of rum (also; it was cold).

Pretty Tonya, pretty carousel and the famous tower of St Georg in the background - Daniel.

This is a much larger Christmas Market than in Dinkelsbühl and you'll need to allow several hours to really do it justice. It opened on November 25 and runs through to December 23. There's an extensive array of stalls featuring gift options, such as accessories and household goods, and lovely gourmet ideas. Of course, there are also many stalls selling Christmas ornaments. We especially liked the stall selling quince products - quince paste cut into Christmassy shapes; and Quince Liquer - very sweet but so fragrant. We also bought a heap of tiny chocolate cups (with little handles and all) to serve schnapps in at Christmas dinner, from Sweetwolf's stalll (it's a local confectioner). These are so unusual, a fun seasonal way to finish a meal, and they were extremely reasonably priced. While you're there, please stop by the local animal shelter stall and make a small donation. The man I talked to there was so friendly and explained about the great work they are doing - it's a no-kill shelter and they are looking after 120 small animals. Speaking of animals, stop at the manger to pet the sweet sheep and goats, who are more interested in the hay and the passing parade of people than they are in worshipping the baby Jesus!

Stand-out eating options - I cannot recommend highly enough that you stop by the Winterzauber stall for some of the most stand-out spätzle I have ever consumed; and believe me, that's a lot. They have a variation where the noodles are made of chestnut meal. Cooked by a professional chef in a cosy little wooden hut in front of you, he adds cream, glacé chestnuts and crispy fried onion on the top. It is the most delicious dish, and something quite unusual. Please do 76 spin classes immediately afterwards, or don't blame me for the inevitable outcome.

Variation on spätzle - add chestnuts, cream and onion for noodle heaven!

Other things to do in Nördlingen - it has a rare, completely intact town wall that you can walk around, and imagine yourself in a siege. That's a lot of fun. St Georg is the beautiful main church, and you can climb the tower, which is called Daniel, to enjoy a stunning view of the town and countryside. Nördlingen is actually built in a meteorite crater, and is remarkably circular in shape as a result.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber is the best-known of these three towns, and certainly the most visited. Their Christmas Market runs from November 25 to December 23. This is pretty much all I can report on. When we arrived at 11am it was already too late to find a park in the limited parking available outside the town walls (it's a no-drive town, so you must leave your vehicle there). We searched in the side streets for some time, but fruitlessly. As the tour buses continued to arrive, we decided to give it a miss this year. Tip - if you're going, arrive early or stay in the town for easy access. It's a very well-known market, but obviously with this number of tourists, it will be the most crowded, and the least truly local in atmosphere.

My next post on Germany's loveliest Christmas Markets is coming soon - look out for Michelstadt coming next, and follow more pics on my Instagram feed - @jcnsingapore. Bis bald!


All photographs by Julie Cleeland Nicholls

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