‘Tis the holiday season. Our first in Spain and our first outside the U.S., thousands of miles from our families and the celebrations that normally come with this time of year. Seeking the holiday spirit and that feeling of coziness that doesn’t seem to come with winter in Valencia (no offense, Spain!) we took off for (cue drumroll), Germany! But why Germany, you ask? Well, Germany just happens to be the king of the Christmas Market.
First stop, Nuremberg, a Franconian city in northern Bavaria of about 500,000 people with a small village, rather than big city, feel. Shortly after landing, we realize that our fears of freezing our asses off weren’t unfounded. It’s cold, grey, and dark. No snow to be found, just a stiff wind that feels like a slap in the face to any exposed areas of skin. But before we start sounding all gloom and doom, it’s important to point out that we chose this. We thought, “Okay, let’s go somewhere cold and cozy for Christmas. That sounds like a great idea. Let’s do it!” Well, we did it. Now we’re strolling the city streets two blocks at a time, before ducking into whatever store, shop, or cafe we happen to walk past just to get out of the cold. You see, we are, collectively, two of the most cold intolerant people you will ever meet. Living in Spain, growing up in California, years spent living in Hawaii, and an 8-month trip around the world that largely avoided any aspect of winter, has led us to a serious place of weakness when it comes to intemperate climates.
But, we digress. You see, as we mentioned, Germany has an answer for this cold+grey+dark combination. It’s called gluhwein. I mean, Christmas Markets, but gluhwein (mulled wine, in German) is really the key ingredient. And Nuremberg’s Chriskindlesmarkt (as it’s called in German) is widely considered one of the best in a country which has the best Christmas Markets in the world. The Nuremberg Christmas Market is held in the Hauptmarkt, the central square of the city’s old town area. Set in the shadow of the spectacular Frauenkirche Church, the market is a wonderland of candy-striped, wooden booths selling everything from the city’s famous gingerbread to ornaments to gluhwein and hot chocolate. There are plenty of other crafts for sale as well as famous Nurnberger sausages (sadly, not many vegetarian options here). Somehow, the thousands of people perusing the market and sipping gluhwein bring a warmth to the market we’d been so desperately missing. Our bellies warmed by this sugary concoction, we wander through the aisles of the Christmas Market snacking on pretzels and shopping for ornaments.
On Christmas Eve Eve we take the train to nearby Bamberg, an incredibly preserved historic city and university town. A short walk from the train station and we find the old town, home to buildings that date all the way back to the 11th century. Bamberg is where the Regnitz and Main rivers meet, but also where the German Christmas Market becomes smaller, more quaint, and significantly more local. Across the rivers and past the incredible, muraled Altes Rathaus is the impressive Bamberg Cathedral and while we’re not the most religious of couples, this cathedral certainly inspires awe. Construction started in the 11th century and its location atop one of the city’s seven hills gives ensures the cathedral’s towers and stone carvings impart their fullest effect.
Bamberg’s also known for its rauchbier and no one does rauchbier better than Schlenkerla, a historic brewpub just a block or so from the river in the city’s old town. Schlenkerla offers a nearly perfect German beer hall experience, full of ancient wood furniture, coved ceilings, and a myriad of different rooms to drink its beer. And while the experience here is not to be missed, rauchbier, which is a smoked beer made by drying malted barley over an open flame, certainly isn’t for everyone. The smell is almost overwhelming and the first sip is a little intense. But once you get used to it, the stuff goes down easy. Still, as we compare the flavor to the sausages we smelt earlier, our feelings remain mixed.
Later in the evening we share a mug of feuerzangenbowle, which is similar to gluhwein but with more citrus (and rum!) before discovering the most unbelievable thing of all time. This, friends, is the quarkballchen, a racquetball-sized donut made of dough mixed with quark (German yogurt-like fresh cheese), fried, then rolled in cinnamon and sugar. We ordered one to start, then quickly realized our ignorance to the majesty of this impeccable creation and went home with four dozen. (In our dreams at least. In reality, we left with four).
Drunk and satisfied, we returned to Nuremberg for Christmas Eve, a day of more gluhwein in the cozy lobby of our boutique Hotel Elch. And for Christmas itself, we relax in our room, peering out over the rooftops of the city’s old town. We head out for an afternoon stroll up to the Imperial (Nuremberg) castle, but that’s all before leaving early the next day for Koblenz and a visit to Marksburg Castle, resting along the Rhine. Although Koblenz isn’t much to write home about, Marksburg, one of the best preserved castles in the region, definitely is. Winter tours are solely in German, but the experience is still pretty rad. Even more, while exploring the castle ‘keep,’ the sun peeks through the clouds and our hearts instantly become full.
Next up, a 7am train ride to Belgium where we continue our marathon of eating, drinking, eating, and drinking some more. Stay tuned!
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