By Carl and Jamie DombekEvery European country and culture has its traditions associated with Christmas. In Germany, Christkindlmarkts, or Christmas Markets, have been part of the culture for centuries, having begun as places where townsfolk could stock up on the provisions that would see them through the long, cold winter months ahead. Over approximately the last quarter century, however, they have become a seasonal phenomenon, with virtually every city of any size offering one of its own, to tempt tourists and locals alike.
Recently, we decided to visit several such markts in the month before Christmas, then compare and contrast.
|Wurst being grilled at Frankfurt's Christkindlmarkt
We visited four markts in cities ranging from Frankfurt, which claims to have the country’s largest markt, to a small village called Rüdesheim. Each markt shared several similar traits, but each also had something that made it unique.
With the exception of Rüdesheim, each markt we visited was located in the “old town” part of the city. In the cases of Frankfurt and Nürnberg in particular, the buildings and plazas in the center of town have been restored to their pre-war beauty, and the quaint surroundings added to the charm of the markts.
Beautiful churches, cobblestoned streets, and elegant buildings glowed in the evening, along with the cheerily decorated and lit stalls of the markt. The lights and sounds of music, church bells and laughter mingled with scents of glühwein, freshly baked cookies, and roasted almonds and chestnuts to create a magical atmosphere. Visiting the markts is somewhat like visiting a county fair: plenty of street food, treats for adults and children, and a couple of carousels or carriage rides adding to the fairy-tale holiday feeling.
Our first markt was in the city of Frankfurt. With its population of about 700,000, Frankfurt is Germany’s fifth-largest city and the country’s financial center. Its markt centers on the Römerberg area north of the Main River near the Dom, or Catholic cathedral, and is also adjacent to several other churches including Paulskirche (St. Paul’s Church).
|Lighted tree over the Frankfurt markt
This year’s markt in Frankfurt boasted 220 stalls selling a range of merchandise from glühwein to wurst to chocolate, candy, crafts and a wide variety of Christmas-themed treasures – ornaments, candles, cards, etc. Most of the stalls occupied the town’s main plaza, though a handful extended outward onto adjacent streets, drawing you into the center of the markt.
The following day, we took an hour-long train ride to the tiny village of Rüdesheim, which lies on the north bank of the Rhine River. This town of about 6,000 lacks the large, central square of Frankfurt, so the 120 stalls of its Christkindlmarkt lined many of the town’s main streets and side alleyways. Like all markts, glühwein, wurst and snacks were everywhere.
|Rüdesheim markt at night
Rüdesheim’s markt included stalls operated by representatives of several countries outside Germany, making it a truly international market. In addition, the town’s businesses are owned almost exclusively by locals, giving the markt a much more intimate and less corporate feel than larger markts.
Rüdesheim’s narrow streets were crisscrossed with overhead strings of lights, inviting visitors to stroll through the town and explore what surprises might lie around the next bend. Throughout the town, Christmas trees were tucked into small corners along the streets, each decorated with ornaments handmade by the local schoolchildren.
Rudesheim is located at the gateway of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, in addition to being in the heart of Germany’s wine country. Even in winter, Rhine cruises are available by day to observe the ancient castle ruins along the river, and there are excellent restaurants in the town as well, making this a popular tourist town all year long.
Our next stop was Nürnberg. Like many, its markt is centered in the town’s main market square, near the central church but it also extended down many of the side streets. While the Nürnberg markt’s 186 booths included stalls from about 12 different countries, there were some other features that made it unique.
The Nürnberg markt features the Nürnberger rostbratwürstchen, which are small bratwurst about the size of breakfast sausages and served three on a roll, as opposed to the larger sausages served elsewhere.
The Nürnberg markt also features a Children’s Christmas Markt called “Kinderweihnacht,” and a “Christkind,” a girl who is elected to represent the market for a period of two years. With blond curly hair, a golden crown and golden white gown, the Christkind is the symbolic figure for Christmas in Nürnberg.
|Nürnberg's Christkind and attendants
The Nürnberg markt offers horse-drawn carriage rides and features the Gothic Schöner Brunnen fountain. Originally built in 1385, the original was replaced with a replica during the 20th century. Set into its railings is a golden ring, and legend has it that visitors who turn the ring three times, then make a wish, will have their wish granted.
In addition, the market itself abuts the German Railway Museum, the spielzeugmuseum (toy museum), and the Goldenes Posthorn, which claims to be Germany’s oldest weinstubbe, or wine bar.
Our final stop was in the town of Würzburg. Located about 1-1/2 hours east of Frankfurt by train, Würzburg’s Christkindlmarkt and its 115 stalls might be more accurately described as a combination of a Christmas markt and farmer’s market, as it had more stalls offering fresh produce and other items than any of the other three markets we visited.
Most of the stalls were located in Würzburg’s Marktplatz and extended along the city’s newly designated pedestrian mall.
|The Residence at Würzburg
Würzburg’s markt is close to another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Würzburg Residence. Located less than a kilometer from the Christmas markt, it was a “must see” for Jamie, the history aficionado of the two of us.
|Carousel at Würzburg's markt
While these are just four of the literally hundreds of markts around the country, they form a representative cross-section of the markets to be found across the country.
We spotted some small wooden tannenbaum (Christmas trees) that we wanted to take home for family members. We spotted them in the first three markets, so Carl decided that we would wait until the last one to avoid having to carry them around longer than necessary.
Our last markt, in Würzburg, did not have them, nor did our guide know where we could find them, so we decided to get off the train in central Frankfurt and buy some at its markt before heading back to the hotel to pack.
Due to a delay in our return train (no, German trains are not always on time!), we got to the markt at about 8:50 p.m. No problem, we thought; it’s Friday night. Surely they’ll be open until at least 10.
|Traditional next to modern in Würzburg
Turns out most of the merchandise stalls closed at 9, so we scurried around in the few remaining minutes, but to no avail. We headed back to the hotel, disappointed that we had not seized the opportunity to buy those items when we saw them.
However, waiting for our plane at Frankfurt Airport the next day, we found the items we’d been seeking at an airport gift shop … and at €4 each less than at the markts! Buying four for family and friends, we managed to save €16.
The lesson here is really two-fold: First, if you see what you want at a price you’re willing to pay, buy it! Don’t wait, because it may not be at the next markt, or may not be there tomorrow. Second, the markts don’t necessarily have the lowest prices. Go to them to have fun, enjoy the scene, shop, drink some glüwein, eat some wurst. But expecting to score a bargain should be low on your list.
Enjoy, and frohe weihnachten!
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Photos and video by Carl Dombek