When I was 13 I was working on an obsessive little project that had nothing to do with food. The only food I was interested in then was eclairs, lemon meringue pie, my home made toffee and taytos (Irish cheese and onion crisps, as many as I could get, however possible). This project was unrelated to all of that but I was fascinated. It was a school project about Bach, for music class. All my research was piled into a bright red binder all about the baroque period. I have loved Bach since, music keeps me sane and as with food, I am not a music snob. Some of it grabs me by the gills and I love it, from Bach to Kate Bush to The Shins.
If you love Christmas, you will love the German Christmas Markets. Joyful and embracing of all things festive, German Christmas markets are also historic, starting in the late middle ages with the first recorded at Munich in 1310. We always try to recreate them here, but they are never as good in my experience. You need kitsch, and you need no barriers. You have to throw yourself in.
The Christmas markets (Weihnachtsmarkts) start with advent all over Germany, most quite traditional and some niche (some focussed on crafts, some are medieval with no electricity). Some cities have more than one, Cologne has 7, one of which is a gay and lesbian Christmas market. They are a perfect spot for Christmas shopping or just throwing yourself into Christmas with abandon and a glass of glühwein.
Most markets have gorgeous wood fired bread ovens, terrific German sausages, spätzle (a Bavarian homemade noodle made fresh and served many ways, my favourite is with speck and cheese), lots of pork (I saw a few roasting hogs), and wild meats like goose and deer. There are lots of sweets like handmade marzipan potatoes and lebkuchen or printen (German gingerbread). To keep warm and festive there is glühwein (German mulled wine, both white and red), eierpunsch (a warm egg punch, think egg nog), boozy hot chocolate and of course and lots of lovely German beer. Make room in your suitcase for some souvenir mugs which you can buy there.
Hattingen is a lovely historic town with a compact and charming Christmas market. Worth visiting anyway to wander the gorgeous narrow streets with leaning old buildings and to see the Bügeleisenhaus, a half wooden house built in 1611 and precariously slicing two streets, now a local museum. The Altes Rathaus is transformed into a giant living advent calendar, and Frau Holle, a character from a Grimm fairy tale, opens a window every day to the delight of the local children. Glühwein is served from cheerful colourful boots and one of the food stalls cooks local game. I had a lovely wilder bratwurst (70% wild deer), reibekuchen (potato fritters) and apfelmousse (apple sauce).
Essen used to be one of Germany’s most important coal mining centres, there are still many busy coal chimneys piping smoke enthusiastically on the horizon. One of the coal mines, the Kokerei Zollverein, has been transformed into a UNESCO world heritage site with a fantastic museum (I knew nothing about coal mining prior to this) and a large ice skating rink in the winter. The Essen market is quite large with lots on offer, including some lovely smoked eel.
Siegburg has a medieval Christmas market focussed on traditional craftsmanship and foods. There is no electricity or artificial light, there are only candles, and a wonderful atmosphere. Brace yourself and prepare for the merry-go-round with stuffed animals (spot that boar!). Don’t miss the spätzle, made fresh and medieval style in an enormous wooden press or the hog roast, which has a cured pig cooked over fire, very hammy and gorgeous. The glühwein is served in beautiful handmade pottery mugs.
Cologne is dominated by its large gothic cathedral, beneath which is one of Cologne’s 7 Christmas markets arranged around an enormous Christmas tree. We visited 3, two downtown, and one a little further out, the Weihnachtsmarkt Stadtgarten Köln, a craft focussed market which is perfect for present buying (I left with lots of handmade marzipan potatoes and some gorgeous star shaped lampshades). Be warned if you plan to drive there, Cologne is an old Roman city and is famous for its roads, drivers are called artists there as it can be a skill to navigate them. Dinner at Peter’s Brauhaus is a must, I had wild boar, lots of kölsch (a clear warm fermented Cologne beer) and schnapps.
Gingerbread fans should all beat a path to Aachen which is famous for its Aachener printen, a form of gingerbread. It is everywhere, in every shape and the market itself is dominated by a giant inflatable gingerbread man. There was particularly good German sausage here too and lots of wonderful Christmas decorations. There is lots of printen on the market but do allow time to explore the printen shops too.
St Wendel Christmas market has over 120 wooden huts, and the three wise men and their camels pass through every afternoon accompanied by musicians and fire eaters. It is a medieval market also, so there are lots of craft stalls. There is a lovely Christmas pyramid too.
Düppenweiler is a little out of the way but I was utterly charmed by the locals commitment and passion for their small market next to the old copper mine which is also operated as a tourist attraction by volunteers. A procession called mettenschicht (the name for the last shift before Christmas which traditionally ended early with a celebration) sees the town locals march from a large spinning structure through the market finishing with a speech from a local dignitary and a feast at the old church. This fabulous gentleman was selling his own home cured meats (which he does for a hobby and sells to support the market) and a brilliant homemade chicken soup for €1 for a massive cup. I posted a picture on social media and a follower cheered, I know him, that is Eddi and he is one of my customers! What a small world we live in now.
What German Christmas Markets do you love? Are there some I shouldn’t miss elsewhere? And are there good Christmas Markets in the UK and Ireland that you would recommend?
With thanks to the German National Tourist Board, who sponsored my trip.