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.
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.
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.
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).
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.