By Dolly Michalczyk
“Oh, goodie! More shopping!” a former traveler (male!) exclaimed tongue-in cheek on one particular Christmas Markets trip through Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. But this is about a different trip and “magical” describes this winter wonderland trip. The charming buildings and landscape of the area are magical 365 days a year, but enhanced by Christmas markets, decorations, and huge carved, wooden, Nativity scenes they are even more special.
Although we have been on many Christmas Markets trips, this one stands out because our friends and past travelers Ted and Jerry Blakeslee joined us, along with Bev Petrini, who soon became one of my best friends. She and I relive these warm, wonderful memories frequently.
Our most poignant memory is a train trip through the Black Forest, arriving in a gentle snowfall to a lit and decorated town, Seefeld in Tirol. Magnificent horse-drawn carriages greeted us, where we nestled in cozy, plaid wool blankets and white fur throws. A glass of Schnapps added to the coziness!
In the midst of the forest, we arrived at Hofgut Sternen – the Black Forest village whose roots can be traced back 700 years! Located under an impressive viaduct in the Ravenna Gorge, our resort consisted of less than a dozen beautiful, traditional Black Forest buildings. One looked like a large cuckoo clock and on the hour large figures, dressed authentically, danced out and across the roof.
To our delight, we visited the Kuckucks Nest to check out one of the largest collections of hand-carved cuckoo clocks, grandfather clocks, nutcrackers, and smokers. At the GlasManufaktur we watched glass artists at work creating fascinating exclusive decorations, ornaments, and jewelry. The best news – all were tax free and shipping was provided!
The three “Stuben” (parlors) – the places to eat – featured authentic and typical Black Forest interiors, decorated with a lot of wood and an original working tile stove. We cooked our dinner on hot stones, on the table, and finished with delicious homemade Black Forest Cherry Cake.
Following dinner, we joined authentically dressed staff as we climbed a mountain, following torches and flashlights to the ever-increasing sounds of Christmas carols. We arrived at the small, candlelit St. Oswald’s Chapel, the oldest (1148) church in the Black Forest. In the small darkened chapel, local carolers entertained us with a holiday concert. We then trekked down the somewhat dangerous path and were greeted by lit decorated buildings, warming fires, and hot mulled wine and hot chocolate.
Common to all the Weihnachtsmarkt or Christkindlmarkts, first introduced in the Middle Ages, are open air wooden stalls or huts. Many feature handcrafted wooden tree ornaments and traditional decorations, along with wooden candle pyramids and nutcrackers.
To keep warm, gluhwein–red wine spiced with cloves, cinnamon, orange, and lemon peel–is ever present. It typically is served in a special souvenir mug unique to each yearly Christmas market, and shoppers can choose to keep and collect the mugs, or return them for a refund.
Typical market fare includes wurst (sausages) usually bratwurst or weisswurst , served on hard roll with spicy German mustard and schnitzel, thinly pounded breaded and pan-fried pork often served on a stick or in a bun to facilitate shopping. Other specialties include: kartoffelpuffer (German potato pancakes) with apple sauce or crème fraiche; Gebrannte Mandeln (sugar-and-spice-roasted nuts); realistic looking molded and decorated marzipan (a sweet almond paste); the German version of gingerbread, lebkuchen, glazed in sugar or dark chocolate, and highly decorated lebkuchenherzen, or gingerbread hearts.
Bavarian house paintings, “Lüftlmalerei,” colorful frescos decorate many old-world cottages and shops in Oberammergau. Home of the every-10-years Passion Play, the town features religious montages, Snow White scenes, Little Red Riding Hood, and other children’s colorful frescoes as well as the Christmas themes.
Jeff. our tour manager, invited us to dinner at one of his favorite local restaurants. I followed his recommendation and ordered pork knuckle, which was delicious until I turned it over and discovered bristles in my dinner! The homemade strudel almost made up for it!
We were terrorized by Krampus on Dec.5th and 6th, the feast of St Nicholas. Known for his generosity and love of children, Nicholas fills shoes or stockings and leaves treats for small children on his feast day. In Germany, he is accompanied by Krampus, an ugly half-man, half-goat creature, carrying whips and chains, who helps St Nick deal with naughty children!
In Innsbruck, Austria’s golden roof, ski jump, and St James Church were amazing, but Swarovski’s Crystal World captured our imaginations and wallets. Tiny, unique crystal creatures and snowmen settling in loose snow just seemed to be the perfect present. Rooftop Santas and windows transformed into giant Advent calendars decorated the town.
After a panoramic tour featuring the Marienplatz, the Glockenspiel and Olympic Park we had time to explore Munich’s historic area and the Christmas market. A winter wonderland was created in department store windows featuring charming, stuffed moving, miniature teddy bears, monkeys and other animals engaged in all sorts of winter activities. We visited the Ratskellar and Hafbrau Haus for lunch, where dirndl-clad waitresses tended to our many needs and also sold huge pretzels to enjoy with our steins of beer, and oversized gingerbread hearts.
Gliding swans and ducks greeted us on our visit to Nymphenburg Palace. As we traveled the Romantic Road, we were looking forward to seeing the majestic white castle, tucked into the hills, Neuschwanstein Castle. The inspiration for Disneyland‘s Sleeping Beauty Castle, proved to be a disappointment; it was entirely covered in white and under renovation. King Ludwig II’s childhood home, Hohenschwangau, provided a much better photo op.
On our visit to Alsace, we experienced the Roman, French, German and Alsatian influences in Strasbourg, France. We enjoyed a guided tour of the Old Quarter, “Petite France,” featuring the magnificent Cathedral of Notre Dame before heading to the wonderful Christmas market and returning to Germany.
One of our favorite towns is the storybook-like Rothenburg in the Franconia region. This town, the most well-preserved medieval walled town in all of Germany, is Christmas-like year-round with its half- timbered buildings, working Glockenspeil, and many Christmas stores.
In Würzburg we enjoyed a free evening shopping at the lively Christmas market which surrounded the
Town’s church. Christmas songs and church bells filled the air.
Following a city tour of Nuremberg’s 900 year old ramparts, the Imperial Castle and Justice Palace, site of the War Crimes Tribunal in 1946, we headed to one of the oldest (1628) and most famous markets. The historic Nuremberg Christmas Market hosts over 200 wooden Christmas stalls, giving the market its name – “Little Town from Wood.” Gluhwein, roast sausages, Nuremberg spicy gingerbread, fruit loaves, bakery goods, sweets, Christmas tree angels, and toys were offered everywhere. Lunch at Bebbes, proved a challenge for Ted, who attempted a song on the very long alpenhorn with the hosts, dressed in cow hide patterned pants.
“Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh! My!” Well, no tigers, but we did search for the bears in Bern, and visited the famous Lion Monument in Lucerne, one of the best known in Switzerland. A carving of a huge dying lion in the face of rock is a remembrance of the heroic death of Swiss guards killed during an attack on the Tuileries in 1792.
A visit to the beautiful Jesuit Church and photos on the medieval Chapel Bridge, one of the oldest covered bridges in Europe, was next on our agenda. We were pleased to see it that after the devastating 1993 fire, it has been painstakingly restored, including the lovely, historic triangular paintings in its gables.
During our farewell dinner, we sadly said good-by to our wonderful Collette tour manager Jeff, after enjoying traditional fondue.
For those looking for a Christkindlmarket closer to home, a computer search will lead you to some great Pennsylvania Christmas markets to get into the holiday spirit in a big way, such as Christmas Village, Philadelphia; Christkindlmarkt, Bethlehem, and Mifflinburg Christkindl Market, and locally Clarks Summit and Moscow, to name a few. Also, rumor has it that the Michalczyks may be leading a river cruise to the enchanting Christmas Markets of Germany, Austria, and Prague in 2023.