A brief look at how some European countries handle this wonderful time
Our first exposure to how serious some European countries celebrate Christmas was a discovery we made many years ago as we travelled through Rothenburg, on Germany’s ‘Romantic Road’. It was still September, so we hadn’t expected to see much about Christmas. It was the first time we discovered a Käthe Wolfahrt store, a store dedicated totally to all things Christmas. We were staying in Rothenburg for a few days, soaking up the medieval atmosphere of this beautiful, ‘fairy-tale’ village, and we ran across this ‘Christmas Store’. We had never seen a store before that was totally dedicated to selling Christmas items, gifts, decorations, trees, cookies, cakes, etc.
The first “Käthe Wolfahrts Christkindlmarkt” opened in Rothenburg in 1977 after moving from their early beginnings in Herrenberg, and continued to do Christmas market business in specialty stores all over the world. Käthe Wolfahrt died in 2018, and the business is now run by her son Harald. This store is so popular that they now have several stores in Rothenburg alone!
As I said, this was just our first taste of the European love for Christmas . . . and hence Christmas markets. As I mentioned at the outset of this ‘travel tale’, this is just a brief look at this wonderful, fairytale time which is celebrated in every city, town and village in almost every country in Europe. Everywhere you travel in Europe has a Christmas market of one form or another. Some are huge celebrations, sometimes lasting for weeks, and are big attractions for tourists around the world.
Diana and I decided we wanted to taste this ‘Christmas fever’ and enjoy some of the markets. First, we looked at river cruises that visited several countries/cities that had Christmas markets. Sorry . . . you had to book up over a year in advance. So we looked at bus tours . . . much better, and before long we were booked on one that started in Munich, Germany, traveled up through Nüremberg, Germany, then over through Prague, Czech Republic; then Budapest, Hungary; Salzburg, Austria; back to Vienna, Austria, and returning to Munich, Germany.
Of course . . . not satisfied with that itinerary, we decided to add Frankfurt, Germany into the mix . . . after all, we would be travelling through Frankfurt to get to our ‘starting point’ in Munich. Frankfurt has a fantastic Christmas market, and it just happened to be spread out from the little pedestrian street that our favourite little hotel was on, right down a few blocks into the ‘Römerberg’ square, a busy tourist area full of restaurants, museums and shops.
This modest little hotel is one which most people would pass by and never consider. But . . . ever since Diana and I started travelling, we have searched out this kind of family run guest house, B&B’s or just small hotels in great locations. They have good prices, very nice rooms with comfortable beds, and if it gets too noisy out on the pedestrian street, they have roll-down steel shutters outside the windows that cut off all the street sounds. A great German breakfast is included, and like I said, during the Christmas season, the market celebrations are going on just outside the hotel, and we could look out our window down onto the tops of the vendors’ tents. On the year that we decided to take in these celebrations, a cold snap and snow hit Europe, so as we enjoyed the markets, we almost froze, so being close to our hotel was very handy, just to drop back and warm up, or change clothes.
Location? Perfect! A few minutes walk from the S-bahn, the quick train from the airport; and just a couple of blocks from the Römerberg Square and the Main River. The Römerberg Square is a large open square, complete with a Justice Fountain (Gerechtigkeitsbrunnen) in the centre, surrounded by beautiful old half-timbered medieval buildings, each filled with shops, restaurants and Apfel Wein bars. It is also about two blocks from the ‘Kleinmarkthalle’, a fantastic enclosed market building with over 150 stalls and vendors inside.
After enjoying Frankfurt for a few days, we took the train down to Munich to join our bus tour for the rest of the markets.
Munich really does it up good . . . almost the entire length of Marienplatz pedestrian mall was decorated and set up with stalls selling Christmas goodies, decorations and of course, the ubiquitous hot mulled wine.
Frankfurt is known for its apple wine, or Apfelwein, now served hot and spiced . . . delicious! Once we got into Bavaria beer country . . . of course beer . . . but for those braving the cold at the Christmas Market . . . they served a real hot mulled wine, usually spiked with some schnapps or other strong liqueur. All this goes down well with a bratwurst mit brot,the German hot-dog.
After a couple of days, we joined up with our bus tour, and were on our way to Nüremberg, then on to Prague. The tour included an interesting commentary in English as we traveled through each of the countries. Touring through the countrysides of several countries was fascinating, every village or small town we drove by, you could see how they had decorated their village, or set up their own Christmas Market within their town.
Our tour guide was a Hungarian/German lady who was filled with excellent information on our route, and many historical facts about the countries and cities we visited. A lot of the ‘historical’ information . . . especially in Budapest, was drawn from her own family’s experience during the war and the Nazi and Soviet occupations. Stories that were not very nice, but very sobering facts about the area and its history. For each country we visited, she taught the entire busload of tourists how to say ‘Good Morning’, ‘Good Evening’ and ‘Cheers’, just in case we had to make a toast.
Of course we took advantage of this, as most places we visited were handing out free drinks . . . usually very strong liqueurs of that country. For instance: Schnapps in Germany, Becherovka in Czech Republic, more schnapps with our ‘Sachertorte’ in Vienna, and some Unicum and Pálinka in Budapest, Hungary at the ‘Vadaspark’ restaurant , a lovely place way out of town in the woods somewhere. They had wonderful entertainment, music, dancing, and folklore performances, of which I became part of. They had a little routine where they got a patron up on the stage with a flask of wine on his head, then he has to dance around other bottles and glasses of wine on the stage, while blindfolded! I found it quite easy after several samples of Pálinka or Unicum, two very strong liqueurs in Hungary. I found out later, after they removed my blindfold, that as soon as I began to dance my way through the bottles and glasses on the stage, they removed them all . . . letting me think I was working my way around, trying to remember where they were located. Lots of laughs and fun all evening, and a lot of Hungarian “Cheers”!
The entire trip was a combination of European history, food, drink and entertainment, all overlaid with a tapestry of Christmas cheer. Although we chose to add extras on to the tour, I would recommend this kind of tour to anyone, a simple and efficient way to get a taste of the European Christmas Market scene. This tour was put on by Globus/Cosmos, a medium cost tour company. All of the hotels we were booked into were very good, much higher end than we normally use, and the price of the tour was reasonable.
Hope you enjoyed this little tale, Diana & I hope you all stay safe and
have a wonderful Christmas, despite what the world is going through now!
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