We have found Christmas spirit and joy distilled to its purest forms, and you can find it, too. All it takes is a trip to Germany.
Anywhere you go in this wonderful country, there's probably a Christmas market to be found, and therein lies the holiday as it was meant to be. Dating to the Middle Ages, originally German Christmas markets offered villagers and townfolk a final opportunity to load up on goods to see them through the holiday and the harsh winter months to follow. From the first market - Bautzen's debuted in 1384 - the concept spread through trading routes westward and survives today as a magnet for locals and travelers from across the globe alike.
This year, my wife, Andrea, and I set out for Munich to anchor our Christmas experience. Starting in late November, markets are open for business, and we thought Bavaria would be a fine choice for 2018, and we weren't disappointed.
In the U.S., many of us are either Team Christmas or Team Halloween, and work life leaves both of us mostly exposed to the horrors of humanity's underbelly, so we're decidedly Team Christmas. The holiday's focus on the better instincts of humankind is enduringly endearing, and Germany offers us both a chance to connect to the festivities in a way not seen in our home country.
Mind you, the German people are not known for having a warm, fuzzy demeanor, and indeed civic life is a tad more clipped and formal than we find in the States. But when a German inevitably does receive you with warmth, it carries a great deal of impact because the sincerity and depth is genuine and heartfelt.
The same applies to the approach to Christmas, where even within the holiday markets, the embrace of the season is more muted than one finds at home. There aren't as many hyper-light displays, commercialism is not the driving force, and there isn't a terrifying turn on Santa's lap to be found. Comparatively understated as the German approach may be, it nevertheless brings to bear a tasteful and sincere nature that strikes to the very heart of the holiday, and it can be found wherever you go. Nor is there any Christmas-based cultural warfare as the religious and secular coexist harmoniously, complimenting rather than conflicting.
With exceptions for visits to Heidelberg and Mannheim to the north, as well as Salzburg, Austria, we found this unique and pure connection everywhere we went in Bavaria. Munich offered a perfect base of operations with easy airport access and a wealth of public transportation options (I highly recommend downloading the handy Deutsche Bahn app for easy train access from your phone.)
Minus a few days deep in the countryside in Altdrossenfeld at LandHotel Schnupp (https://www.landhotel-schnupp.de/) and an elegant night in Heidelberg (http://www.the-heidelberg.de/), we set up shop at the Cocoon Stachus (https://cocoon-hotels.de/en/) in Munich. The Cocoon folks are a small chain of trendy hotels, so there are others to choose from, but the Stachus location proved to be ideal for us. The neighborhood is on the "up and coming" side, so there's a certain amount of grit to be found, but it gave us easy access to the massive Hauptbahnhof train station as well as the sprawling Marienplatz Christmas market. If grit isn't your thing, perhaps a hotel in the old town Marienplatz is recommended, and train access is equally ideal.
Our Cocoon stay lived up to its name with smallish rooms by U.S. standards, but an extremely comfortable, quiet setting that simultaneously managed to be both natural and modern. Breakfast is an extra 10 euros, but worth every cent.
We spent the first few days of our two-week visit exploring Munich and its marvelous market. Make sure to carve out time to catch the glockenspiel show at the New Town Hall (11 a.m. and noon daily), with a delightful 10-minute ode to a real-life royal wedding that took place on the market square in 1568. Likewise, our stop at the Frauenkirche was breathtaking. The limits of scratch-and-sniff technology curb my ability to accurately describe the wonderful aromas to be found in the market with a variety of sausages cooking on wood-fueled fires, and mulled wine options by the dozen alongside sweets galore. A traditional heart-shaped decorated gingerbread treat (lebkuchenherzen) is a must.
That myriad of intoxicating smells is hardly confined to Munich, however. From the Cocoon, we ventured trips to Salzburg, Heidelberg and Mannehim and found similar treats, but each place manages to offer it's own wrinkle worth exploring, olfactory or not. Heidelberg was a tad more expensive, but quite exquisite, and the mulled wine (gluehwien) there with visiting friends from London was memorable with Heidelberg Castle looming overhead. Nearby, Mannheim's special treat came in the form of the small children's market we found, the Mannheimer Marchenwald (https://mannheimer-maerchenwald.de/), with adorable vintage animatronics telling ancient tales to scores of kids, but the main market can be found under the town's historic water tower.
Salzburg is certainly a unique opportunity just over the border into Austria. It was the only place where we opted for a guided tour, and Lucia from Radius Tours (https://www.radiustours.com/en/) proved to be a valuable asset in the history-laden town, as "Sound of Music" fans can certainly attest. The local twist on the holiday market was definitely found at lunch where Andrea tried, to great acclaim, the regional offering of bosna, a sausage with mustard and chopped onion. I opted for the kasekrainer, a more traditional-looking sausage infused with Emmenthaler cheese and smoked over apple wood. This marvelous option also turned up in other markets in Germany, but was best enjoyed in its Austrian home setting. Without Lucia's guidance, we might have missed these delectable treats, so the tour was money well spent right there. There are all sorts of nooks and small side streets to wander here, so don't be afraid to explore - and don't forget the chocolate cake!
We didn't make the trip to nearby Oberndorf bei Salzburg, a 20-minute taxi ride away, but fans of "Silent Night" will want to make the journey. It was here the song was first performed 200 years ago, on Christmas Eve, 1818. Although the original church was destroyed by flooding in 1899, the replacement honors the staple tune and the men who composed its heavenly peacefulness.
Speaking of music and peace, we found little of the former and plenty of the latter. Nowhere in our travels did we encounter the piped-in carols that are so omnipresent in the U.S., where we can't shop or dine without getting a holiday song stuck in our heads. On this trip, the only seasonal songs we encountered were live performances, be it from busking string musicians in Salzburg, to a children's choir in Bayreuth or a joyful turn at "Jingle Bells" by celebrating Bayern Munich fans on the train-ride home after a 3-0 Bundesliga win against visiting Nuremburg.
The Christmas markets in Bayreuth and Nuremburg both were highlights of day trips we ventured from our three-day stay in Altdrossenfeld. Nuremburg's Christkindlemarkt, in the Hauptmarkt, is the biggest in all the land and is not to be missed. Nicknamed the "most German of German cities," they also have their own sausage offering, known as the Nuremberger, featuring small sausages on a bun. Andrea felt they were too much like the breakfast sausages we get back home, but I couldn't stop eating them and experienced no diminishing returns. Three sausages per bun is standard, but restaurants serve up to 10 - sauerkraut, mustard/ketchup optional.
By rental car from Altdrossenfeld, we also ventured to Bamberg (a personal favorite with a just-the-right-size market), and the medieval delights of Kronach and Rothenburg ob der Tauber, which looks ready to withstand a Napoleonic siege even today. It's certainly under siege from tourists, and was quite crowded (and full of English speakers, unlike many of our other stops) despite our rainy, midweek arrival.
Indeed, no matter where you go, you'll encounter some rainy if not snowy weather, and a good deal of the German language. My broken efforts were enough to get around, order food and handle money, but in bigger cities it's not necessary to know the language, but even a small effort is appreciated, so pick up a phrase book and give it a whirl.
If you're a fan of Christmas, it's certainly worth the effort. We hope to replicate the trip next year in the north of the country from a Berlin base, and we'll hope to cross paths along the way. Until then, a Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good trip!