Christmas markets in Cologne

stars

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.

rink

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.

dom

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.

christmasconcert

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.

christmasgrill

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.

christmasballs

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.

The holy mountain of Heidelberg

heidelbeg

Heidelberg has long been famous for its beauty. In 1843 a guide book on Germany by John Murray explained that Heidelberg “is charmingly situated on the left bank of the Neckar, on a narrow ledge between the Neckar and the castle rock”. Today the soul of this charming old town is lost to the same chain stores which feed like zombies on old town centres in Europe. I walked away to the picturesque banks of the Neckar.

From Bismarckplatz I walked on to the Theodor-Heuss-Bruecke and saw low clouds drifting through the woods on the hill called the Heiligeberg (Holy Mountain). The wooded slopes of the mountain were not bare, as I found eventually when I struggled up the steep Philosophenweg (Philosopher’s Walk). Beautiful as this road turned out to be, the view of the hill from the bridge was more beautiful still, with the fog rolling over the picturesque buildings straggling up the hillside. The old city was rebuilt after it was repeatedly destroyed in the Thirty Years’ War. Many of the buildings date from the Baroque period. The right bank, ie, the buildings in the picture above, would have been built at about the same time.

hdfog

Heidelberg felt cold this week. It did not snow, but the highest temperature stayed below 5 degrees, and the night dipped a little below freezing. As a result, when I woke up on my second morning there, I saw a dense fog over the river. Apparently this is a common occurrence in winter. The right bank was barely visible in the fog. All very picturesque, and to my mind, more atmospheric than it would have been in the clear light of summer.

The little market hall

mushrooms

I always wanted to say "We interrupt our blog on travelling through the Himalayas to bring you breaking news on the market in Frankfurt". Now that I have a chance, I’ll grab it.

One of the attractions of Frankfurt is the fresh produce market known as the Kleinmarkthalle, meaning the Little Market Hall. I walked into this place on a cold day in November. The market was bustling. I was quite surprised to see the kind of fruits and vegetables on display. When I first visited Germany many years ago you could only get potatoes and carrots in winter. Today I found fresh summer fruits: apricots, berries, even spring produce like strawberries. Paces away were the mushrooms of autumn. I really wished I was not in a hotel, but living in an apartment with its own kitchen. My personal favourite is the yellow trumpet shaped mushrooms called pfefferlinge in German and chanterelle in French. I walked very slowly around the market enjoying the memories each thing brought back.

bakery

The baker’s stalls were full of traditional delights. Bakers in Germany have a daily cycle. In the mornings you’ll find the fresh rolls which are so delicious when you cut them open for a long, leisurely, breakfast. There are also other, sweeter, options for different morning lifestyles: good for a quick bag to carry with your coffee on the way to work. Closer to lunchtime the breads give way to sweets: the wonderful German cakes which you see in the photo above. These stay till afternoon tea is over. Then breads reappear: the loaves of warm dark breads which go so well, specially, with the soups and stews which warm you in winter. I find that I always slow down when I walk past a baker’s in Germany.

meats

And then there are the wonderful meat shops. This one must have been very special, because the queue in front of it did not disappear as long as I was in the market. The signboard says birds and game. I did not look closely at it because I would be overcome by pangs of regret at the absence of a kitchen. Instead I wandered past to stalls which served hot lunches. I looked around and chose a plate of matjesfilet with boiled potatoes and a glass of white wine. Matjes is herring which is first ripened for a couple of days after it is caught and then lightly salted and preserved in vinegar with herbs. It is served cold. On this bitterly cold day, the accompanying warm potatoes felt good. The wine was a Rhine valley Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris), a fairly typical pairing with the Matjes.

espresso

With the main part of my lunch done, and at a wonderful cost, I prowled the market again. This is Frankfurt: so there were stalls selling apple wine (not fizzy like cider), and various herb sauces, some of them combinations which are very local. The people at the stalls are good sales people, and are happy to let you taste. Many of them speak English pretty well. If you are interested in conversation but your German is not very good, it still breaks the ice if you start with a few words in German and then switch to English. After this tasting, I walked back to the baker’s and picked up a portion of a red-berry cake. At the center of the market hall is the most important stand: the one which serves coffee. A large espresso goes really well with the cake. This fortified me enough that I was ready to walk back out into the cold and wander around the old town of Frankfurt.