By Roshan Sukhla
Experience a taste of Germany and a sleigh full of Christmas spirit as you tour some of the best Christmas markets in the land in a luxury private coach.
As I wander around the WeihnachtsZauber, one of Berlin’s biggest Christmas markets, I stop and smile. I’m in a shopper’s heaven – to be more precise I’m in a Christmas-themed shopper’s heaven. Everywhere I look there is stall after stall of handmade ornaments, tiny trinkets, sugary treats and festive treasures.
I stare in wonder at the goods on offer, from all varieties of nougat at one stand to tiny wooden Christmas trees at the next. The white tent stalls are all trimmed with greenery, silver baubles and twinkling lights, topped off with a bright yellow star on each roof.
There are around 50 Christmas markets in Berlin alone, varying in size and atmosphere, but the WeihnachtsZauber is definitely the one to put at the top of your list. It can be found in the historic Gendarmenmarkt square. The markets lie in the shadows of three beautifully-restored buildings – the Konzerthaus, the Deutscher Dom (German Cathedral) and the Französischer Dom (French Cathedral). This mix of history and festive cheer is one of the reasons I am here in Germany’s capital.
A traditional European Christmas has always had such a romantic appeal for me – warming up by the fire, carolers singing in the cold and snow falling lightly to the ground. Having grown up in Australia means that a hot Christmas on a sizzling summer’s day is all I’ve ever known, but for a while now – just like the song says – I’ve been dreaming of a white Christmas, so I have joined an Insight Vacations German Christmas Markets tour to not only indulge my love of shopping but to get a feel for how the Europeans celebrate Christmas time in this idyllic winter clime.
From Berlin, we board our luxury heated coach and make the journey to Leipzig. There’s ample legroom to stretch out as our tour director Kari-Anne fills us in on the long and interesting history of Germany.
When we arrive in Leipzig, we head to the beautiful Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church). It is here where famed composer Johann Sebastian Bach was Cantor, as well as principal music director of all the churches in Leipzig, a position he held for 27 years until his death. The church features a new ‘Bach organ’ and ornate stain glass windows.
The Leipziger Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas market) is a large marketplace over several city streets containing oodles of goodies from wreaths of fresh greenery, candles and baubles; to gingerbread hearts of all sizes and designs featuring messages like ‘I heart Leipzig’. There are stalls with intricate wooden tree decorations and chocolate-coated apples. I find myself purchasing a candle shaped like a pine tree with a frosted snow top. With an old-fashioned carousel, a tableau of Brothers Grimm fairy tales, a separate medieval market, street performers, musicians and a giant Ferris wheel, these markets have a fun festival atmosphere.
The historical city of Dresden is our next stop. Situated on the River Elbe the city radiates grandeur through its Baroque and Renaissance architecture. Our guided walking tour takes us past the Procession of the Princes mural, which features over 24,000 porcelain tiles; the Semper Opera; and the Frauenkirche with its famous bell-shaped dome dating back to 1726.
Dresden is home to the oldest Christmas market in Germany. Dating back to 1434 the Dresden Striezelmarkt is a Christmas wonderland, which celebrated its 580th market in 2014. The name ‘Striezelmarkt’ even refers to the famous Dresden Christollen cake (striezel being old German for stollen). It is here we get to meet with a stall holder and try christollen for ourselves. Stollen is a speciality of Dresden and there are many different types. The traditional Christollen tastes like a cross between bread and cake with raisins, almonds, meal and butter. The same traditional recipe has been used since the 1450s.
The market is noted for its 14-metre high wooden candle pyramid, featuring six levels and 42 carved figurines. The wood used for the pyramid, and for many of the smaller wooden figurines and toys sold at the market are made in the nearby Ore Mountains. At the Striezelmarkt you’ll find the Moravian star for sale, a traditional Christmas decoration featuring 26 points. Also keep an eye out for the Pflaumentoffel figures. These small stick figures, made from prunes, resemble the young chimney sweeps of days gone by and are said to be a lucky charm.
By night the Striezelmarkt exudes a different sort of magic entirely. It’s crowded with families and locals gathering after work buying Christmas gifts and sipping glühwein (mulled wine) to stay warm. With the candle pyramid and large Christmas tree all lit up, it’s really a sight to behold. A true winter wonderland if you will, all that’s missing is the snow. Head to the entrance and climb up the giant Schwibbogen (arch) candle holder gateway, which offers great views back over the entire market.
The optional excursion to the village of Meissen, where porcelain has been produced since 1710, is well worth the trip. We stop in at the Museum of Meissen Art for a demonstration of this decades-old tradition. The process from start to finish is complex and intricate, and you could even purchase a piece for yourself from their store.
Meissen has a charming village atmosphere with quaint cobblestoned streets. The town square has a small Christmas market, and a unique full-sized advent calendar on the side of a building. Locals gather each evening as the 24 windows are opened, one on each day of the advent, to reveal a picture underneath.
There are a number of other optional excursions that can be added to the tour to enhance your experience. You can visit the Dachau concentration camp memorial just outside of Munich, which is a very moving experience; or take a highlights tour of former East Berlin, including Checkpoint Charlie and remnants of the Berlin Wall.
Back in the comfort of our coach, we head down the autobahn to Nuremberg, and one of the most famous Christmas markets in all of Germany. Behind the historic walls of the town centre you’ll find the Christkindlesmarkt, with its renowned red and white striped stalls. In the shadows of the Frauenkirche (Church of our Lady), the market is bustling with locals and tourists on the Saturday that I visit with the smell of chestnuts roasting wafting above our heads. There are Christmas decorations galore, including many wooden toys and carved wooden ornaments. As I walk through the crowded marketplace I try some delicious tiny Nuremberg sausages and munch on the town’s famed lebkuchen (gingerbread).
If you haven’t got your Yuletide fix by now, you will definitely get it at Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Inside this walled medieval city is a year-round Christmas village, featuring a German Christmas museum and Käthe Wohlfahrt’s incredible Christmas store featuring handcrafted German treasures. The Christmas markets here may be full of tourists, but the views of the green countryside and the chance to taste a schneeball (snowball), a deep fried dough creation, makes the trip to Rothenburg ob der Tauber well worth it.
As the tour draws to an end I’ve come to appreciate the little things that have made this trip very enjoyable. The seat rotation policy on the coach means you aren’t stuck in one seat for the whole trip and you come to know different people each day. Most tipping is already included in your tour price, and the porter will pick up your bag from right outside your luxury hotel room on travelling days.
Munich is our last stop and it’s here I farewell my newfound friends with a traditional Bavarian celebration dinner. The next day, after my tour mates have all left, I am walking alone through the English Garden, Munich’s answer to Central Park. The quiet serenity of the park lets me reflect on my German journey, and I may not have had my dream white Christmas this year, but that just means I’ll have to come back and do it all again next year. •
Photography by Roshan Sukhla and German National Tourist Board
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Insight Vacations’ eight-day German Christmas Markets escorted journey travels from Berlin to Munich, visiting Leipzig, Dresden, Nuremberg and Rothenburg, with a highlight stay at the five-star Swissotel Berlin.
Signature Experiences include meeting a market stall holder to taste the local Stollen in Dresden and visiting the 500-year-old Reiterlesmarkt in Rothenburg. Guests will be accompanied by an experienced Tour Director, enjoy many included meals and authentic dining experiences. They will travel by luxury air-conditioned coach with Business Class legroom and discover cities with guided tours from local experts. Departures available in November and December 2015.
Insight Vacations: 1300-301-672; insightvacations.com
German National Tourist Board: germany.travel