Every German town has a Weihnachtsmarkt, ie, a christmas market. I’ve bought chili-coated almonds in Frankfurt, sipped Gluhwine in Heidelberg, shivered in the cold breeze blowing through the lit up market in Hamburg, and warmed myself with a hot chocolate in Bremen. But the christmas markets in Cologne are special, partly because they attract a huge crowd of tourists, but also partly because Cologne brings the fun atmosphere of its carnival into the market. I was a little surprised to see the market already, but after a little conversation with friends, I realized that they are usually open for five weeks, ending in Christmas. The technical counting is that they open the weekend before the beginning of Advent.
It was a cold day in Cologne when we walked into the beautifully lit market in Neumarkt (photo on top). I’d skipped lunch and was ready to eat something. A stall selling flammkuchen seemed attractive; these are pancakes made from very thin rolled bread dough, topped with onions, specks of pork and cheese, everything warm from the oven. After that we slid through the crowd to the main attraction: gluhwein. This is hot red wine with added spices and sugar, and created to make you feel warm in the cold dark days before Christmas.
Cologne has a series of christmas markets near each other. We crossed the pedestrian zone to one in Heumarkt. This had a skating rink where you could hear a lot of Dutch. This is not surprising, given that Cologne is perhaps two hours from the Netherlands. The crowds tended to lump up near the most popular stalls. We squeezed into a tiny open space near the counter of a bratwurst stall. This has to be the most successful German export: the sausage inside a little bread-roll with mustard and ketchup is known in the English-speaking world as a hot dog. We wolfed ours and then began to flow through the crowd again, fetching up eventually (surprise, surprise) near a gluhwein stall. This was different: the wine was white with an enormous dose of nutmeg.
We exited from this market within view of the Cologne cathedral. At the base of the cathedral was the largest of the markets we had seen till now. A huge christmas tree looked over it, and I did not get a real sense of the scale until we got nearer. The base of the tree spanned a circle of stalls with a concert stage at the centre. The band was tuning up as we approach, and pretty soon launched briskly into their first number. The audience broke up laughing, because it was a song for the carnival which they were playing, not a christmas song. Those came later.
As the evening progressed the crowds grew. The stalls were doing brisk business: everything from crepes to grills to chocolates, coffee and gluhwein. A festive atmosphere enveloped the whole crowd. These are some of the most interesting weekends that you can see in Germany. Families are out together: adults and children alike enjoying the festival. It seems that even the people running the stalls enjoy themselves: many are dressed as if for a preview of the carnival.
It is not only food and drink you can get here: in principle you get a whole range of christmas decorations. One stall sold only the lights which you might want to hang on your christmas tree, others did brisk business selling stars. There were stalls which sold elaborate paper cutouts which you could hang on a tree. There were wonderful stuffed toys and puppets. I could hear so many languages: Tamil, Gujarati, Russian, French, Dutch and English, in addition to German were what I recognized. It seemed that the world had converged on these markets.