Christmas is coming and the soulless chainstores in my local shopping centre are full of festive tat. It’s at this time of year that I wish I was back in Germany, at a German Christmas Market. If you’re feeling grumpy about Christmas, it’s a trip that’ll restore your Yuletide spirits. It’ll make you remember why you loved Christmas when you were a kid.
You can buy all sorts of seasonal knick-knacks at a German Christmas Market, but for me the biggest treat is the traditional food and drink. Granted, German grub isn’t for everyone (especially if you’re vegetarian) but on a cold night, after a few beers, there’s nothing better than a hot bowl of Gulaschsuppe or a big fat Bockwurst smothered with sweet German mustard.
And then there’s the booze. These markets aren’t just places to go shopping – they’re places to hang out. Germans go there for a night out, or to meet up with friends for a few drinks after work. After my first mug of glühwein, I often wonder: if this sickly stuff really is such a delicacy, as delicious as the Germans make out, how come no-one ever thinks of drinking it at any other time of year? But then I have another, and another, and it begins to grow on me, reviving tipsy memories of Christmases long past.
When I was a teenager you had to go to Germany to find this sort of thing, but now most British cities have Christmas markets, which begs the question: why bother travelling to Germany if there’s an ersatz version on your doorstep? Naturally, it’s not the same. If you’re looking for Christmas decorations, the ones you’ll find in Germany are delightful. Germany’s Christmas markets are the best places to shop for stocking fillers and lasting children’s toys that won’t be in tomorrow’s rubbish bag.
British Christmas markets are better than they used to be, but there are some things we can never replicate – like the language. We tend to think of German as a guttural tongue but it can also be seductive, full of slurs and whispers. Silent Night never sounds quite as good in English after you’ve heard it sung in German. And there’s the weather. Northern cities like Hamburg may share our gloomy winters, but anywhere south of Frankfurt there’s a good chance of a White Christmas. It feels wonderful standing in a medieval Marktplatz, lit up with fairy lights, when the first snowflakes start to fall.
So where to go? When is simple: Germany’s Christmas markets all start at the end of November, and shut up shop on Christmas Eve. Where? Well, any town of any size has its own Christmas market and most big cities have several. Munich and Nuremberg are always popular, and so are Dresden and Leipzig, but it’s often the smaller places that tend to be the most atmospheric and authentic. Advent is a great opportunity to discover German destinations which you might never visit otherwise. Here are my top ten.
If you’re travelling to Germany by train, Aachen is the first place you come to, only an hour or so from Brussels by Thalys, Belgium’s rapid riposte to HS2. This was Charlemagne’s capital, from which he ruled most of Western Europe. His cathedral is still there. You can even drink the hot spring water which brought him here (it tastes revolting, but they say it’s very good for you). Unwind at the Hotel Quellenhof, handy for the nearby spa.
Marlene Dietrich said the Kurhaus in Baden-Baden was the most beautiful casino in the world. You can see why she was so fond of it. It’s not just the grand architecture or the ornate décor, or even the brooding sense of history (Dostoyevsky wrote The Gambler about his ruinous excursions here). Above all, it’s the setting – hidden in a leafy valley on the edge of the Black Forest, a short walk from two of Germany’s finest spas: the modern Caracalla and the historic Friedrichsbad. If you really want to do this trip in style, treat yourself to a short stay at Brenners, one of Germany’s best hotels.
Since Berlin was reinstated as the capital of a reunited Germany, most people have forgotten all about Bonn and that’s just the way most locals like it. The capital of West Germany has reverted to its old role as a university town, but its forty years as the Hauptstadt of the Bundesrepublik has left it with some fine museums and a first rate concert hall, right beside the River Rhine.
The birthplace of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s favourite home from home, Coburg is an enchanting place, but it’s always been well off the tourist trail. Why? Because it used to be so hard to get to. After the Second World War it ended up in West Germany but only just, a dead end at the end of a one way street. Forty years of isolation preserved its character and saved it from overdevelopment, and then the fall of the Iron Curtain put it in the centre of Germany again. You can visit the castle where Albert was born, the palace where Queen Victoria came to say, and the fortress where Martin Luther hid while he was translating the Bible into German.
The Oxbridge of Germany, Heidelberg has always been enlivened by its large student population, but visitors of every age love coming here. Mark Twain spent a lot of time here and Americans still follow in his footsteps, hunting for the places he wrote about. Hike up to the ruined castle in the wooded hills above the town, then cross the river to wander the Philosopher’s Way.
Germans adore the Bodensee, aka Lake Constance, that huge bulge in the Rhine which forms a border with Switzerland and Austria, but most Brits have never heard of it. They don’t know what they’re missing. It’s a lovely lake, one of the biggest in Europe, and Lindau is its prettiest port, perched on a little island, linked to the mainland by a road and rail bridge.
Tourists who travel to Dresden often forget about Meissen, only twenty miles downstream along the Elbe. A cluster of ancient buildings clinging to a steep hill above the river, this medieval citadel is one of the most attractive towns in Eastern Germany. You can tour the factory where they make the eponymous porcelain or hunt for seconds in the curiosity shops around the castle.
Only forty miles south of Munich, Murnau is a handsome market town in a stunning location: beside the Staffelsee, one of Bavaria’s nicest lakes, framed by a backdrop of Alpine peaks. It’s easy to understand why Kandinsky came here to paint. You can visit the house he shared with Gabriele Münter – his creative and romantic partner, and a fine artist in her own right.
Weimar used to be known as the home of two of Germany’s greatest writers, Goethe and Schiller, but nowadays it’s renowned as the birthplace of the Bauhaus. You can visit the university where this revolutionary design school was founded, and the new museum built to mark the movement’s centenary. Stay at the Hotel Elephant, one of Eastern Germany’s finest hotels.
OK, maybe I’m a bit biased, but for me Wismar is one of the most atmospheric spots in Germany – and that’s not just because my grandfather grew up here. With its gingerbread houses and winding alleyways, it’s like stepping into a Breughel painting. Stranded on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, it was the most westerly seaport in the Warsaw Pact before the fall of the Berlin Wall reunited it with its historic hinterland in Western Germany. Sad and shabby after forty years of Communism, it’s since been lovingly restored. Bustling Lübeck (where they make the marzipan) is a short westward drive away, but it’s here in rural Mecklenburg that you’ll find the original Deutschland – a place virtually untouched by the vicissitudes of the last century. Bismarck said that when the world ended he’d go to Mecklenburg because everything there happens a hundred years later. Now I know what he meant.
For more information on travelling to Germany, go to www.germany.travel