by Donna Manz
I started a new holiday tradition about five years ago…although I didn’t realize at the time that’s what I was doing.
In 2006 I took a river cruise on Germany’s Main River, docking in medieval towns that looked as if they were the inspiration for Grimm’s fairytales. It was December and Germany’s Christkindlmarkt season had begun.
In cities along the way we discovered Christmas markets in which stall after stall was filled with twinkling blown-glass ornaments, whimsical wood toys and hundreds of other creations for the holiday season. As the aroma of grilled sausages wafted through the market, I drank my first glühwein, the steaming-hot spiced wine served in a keepsake logo Christkindlmarkt mug.
I was hooked after that trip, and every year since then I’ve made an excursion to Europe in December, occasionally being welcomed with a snowfall. In Germany I’ve wandered down streets in Regensburg and Bamberg that were as narrow as a city sidewalk, and through squares graced with the spires of towering medieval churches. I loved the Christkindlmarkt in Nuremberg, one of Germany’s largest, with its finger sausages and lebkuchen, the traditional holiday cookies. You’ll find Christmas markets all over Germany, in cities and towns ranging from Berlin to little Goslar in the Harz Mountains.
This year, just two weeks ago, my husband and I, along with our son and his wife, spent four days in Munich. Following tradition, we visited the city’s Christkindlmarkt and soon realized that Munich outdoes them all.
Munich’s main market centers around the Marienplatz – famed for its Glockenspiel – and the Tal thoroughfare. Unlike most of the other ‘platz’ markets, though, Munich’s spills out into side streets and courtyards and we wanted to investigate all of it. Off we went, knowing the Deutsche Museum, the Residenz palace, the collection of carriages and sleighs in the Marstallmuseum and all the rest would have to wait for another time.
Across the Marienplatz we found the Viktualienmarkt, Munich’s oldest food market. It was a cornucopia of poultry, game, fish of every known and unknown kind, beer, wine, cheese, meat and wurst, which rambled in every direction, with butcher shops lining the street leading to the square. We made squares around blocks, discovering restaurants and more platzs, even an ice rink we weren’t looking for.
Everyday we hit up a different brauhaus for lunch and dinner, looking for restaurant names that echoed the beer the brau specialized in. We went to places like the Augustiner, Lowenbrau and Paulaner, all authentically German, and, as dictated by local custom, shared tables with other diners. I ordered goulash and goulash soup as often as I could.
I think my favorite restaurant was the Ratskellar behind the Rathaus. Its menu was exhaustive and its Bavarian specialties delicious, and the only thing richer than their goulash soup was their cream-of-potato.
It was cold for us, and both I and my daughter-in-law Gisele, a Brazilian who bundles up during winters in San Diego, had dressed in layers. Even though heavily bundled, there was more than one occasion when we needed to draw our coat’s hoods over our hats. But it was the conversation with a couple of glühwein sellers at their booth that opened our eyes.
“It’s not cold enough,” said one of the two woman behind the counter.
“What isn’t cold enough?” I thought. “Does she think her glühwein is too hot to drink?”
Then, it occurred to me. “You’re talking about the weather, aren’t you?” I asked. She nodded yes. “It’s normally colder this time of year,” the younger woman told us. “Usually, we have snow.”
Standing there — each of us wearing two sweaters, thermal tights, heavy pants, socks, fleece-lined boots, scarves, ear-covering fleece hats, and ankle-length down coats — Gisele and I were stunned. “This is freezing cold,” we protested.
The first woman looked at us in astonishment. “Where are you from?” she asked.
It was then we realized just how wimpy we were…something we later assuaged with another mug of glühwein.
If you go:
Really…if you make the trip to Munich for the Christmas festivities, concentrate on the historic heart of Munich. If you use the underground rail system, you will get to the Marienplatz faster and warmer but you’ll miss the quaint detours along the way. Walk whenever possible.
Bundle up. Even if it’s very cold outside, there’s no reason that you have to be very cold. Wear thermal layers, sweaters, fleece-lined boots, ear-covering hats, knitted scarf and a down coat. It helps if your coat has a hood to cover the hat. And carry an umbrella because, in December, it’s going to either rain or snow in Munich.
When you’re hungry, look for restaurants featuring a prominent Bavarian beer. The ambiance, the food and the beer are usually quite traditional and authentic. Don’t be shy about sharing a table, either. It’s part of the local experience and culture.
Bring home Bavarian beer you certainly cannot buy in the United States. Markets such as Kaufhof and HIT have enormous varieties of Bavarian beer, most produced by breweries that are centuries old. And remember that liquids have to be in checked baggage so don’t forget your bubble wrap.