Three years ago I was able to spend December traveling throughout France; I wandered the streets of the sparkling “Capital of Christmas” (known as Strasbourg for the rest of the year), the marché de Noël in Toulouse, and, of course, came to Paris as the winter solstice arrived. Christmas Eve and Christmas day were spent in rural France, enjoying locally grown and homemade meals. Christmas in France isn’t subtle in any way – bright lights, emphasis on family time and the meaning of the season, and certainly big business.
If anything, here in Germany, Christmas is even bigger.
Known throughout the world for the Weihnachtsmärkte (Christmas markets) that pop up in the last week of November until a day or two before Christmas, Germany plays host to over 85 million visitors in the span of one month, all of whom come to see what it is that makes these villages-within-cities so special. Frankly, the influx of tourists has gotten so large that Deutsche Welle, Germany’s version of NPR, posted an article last year begging visitors to stop coming. This doesn’t seem to have deterred anybody – so I recommend that, if you do visit next year, plan your market time on week days, not weekends!
Stuttgart’s street corners grew both greenery and little lights, while ornately decorated stalls popped up throughout the center of the town. Selling everything from Glühwein (mulled wine), Stollen, and Flammkuchen (an Alsacian specialty that, grossly oversimplified, ressembles a pizza) to candles, carved wooden figurines, and handmade brushes. Suddenly, walking through the Schlossplatz (the park in the center of the town) took nearly a half hour instead of the usual 10 minutes – initially because of these distracting and scrumptious delights and, later, because of the sheer volume of people there. I quickly learned to visit earlier in the day (the markets opened at 11am) because as the day wore on, the markets became a game of dodging wine-toting, Bratwurst-eating shoppers. Perhaps a new Olympic sport?
Esslingen, a beautiful town merely 20 minutes outside of Stuttgart via the S-Bahn, has its own special kind of magic. When the bones of Saint Vitalis were brought to Esslingen at the end of the 8th century, this small settlement quickly grew into a pilgrimage site, a market town and, later, city. Esslingen survived strife in southwestern Germany, including emerging from the Second World War with very little damage, with its half-timbered architecture and two stunning churches giving an idyllic setting to the Mittelalter Weihnachtsmarkt (medieval-themed Christmas market) — a nod to the fact that this town has held this Christmas market since the Middle Ages!
Every turn reveals torches beside smithies, an archery tournament, basket-makers, felt-makers, and traditionally-dressed singers and dancers, adding an agèd tint to the scene. It was impossible to tell who “worked” at the market and who was not, as attendees and stall vendors alike wore cloaks, laced gowns, and feather-bedecked hats. I wonder if many were the same folks who wore Lederhosen throughout Oktoberfest only two months ago. Who knows what attire I’ll see two months from now!
One of the best surprises of these markets is stumbling upon a children’s choir serenading market attendees, amateurs and professional buskers alike giving often unique renditions of carols, and ornately dressed women on stilts. The rivers of people draw everyone throughout the town and between these spectacles, but a quiet corner for a coffee and cake can always be found.
One of the most amazing parts of living in Europe is how easy it is to travel! Three and a half hours after boarding a train in Stuttgart, I was in the train station of Liège, built by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and opened in 2009. The space-age feeling that you can see in the photos of the incredible, expansive space was extended as I left the track and went underground to the station – through an exhibition on E.T.!
An hour later, I was in Hasselt, a city in the heart of Belgium, with much heart of its own. The weekend I spent there was full of local specialities, hours spent on the 1878 Cavaillé-Coll at the Provinciaal Heiligdom Heilig Hart (stay tuned for a post about this!), and purchasing a new hat in honor of (and because of) the cold in both Germany and Belgium.
Arguably (although not argued by me) considered to be the best beer in the world, Westvleteren XII made an appearance, as did scrumptious mussels, courtesy of my sweet hosts. This beer is made by the Trappist Abbey of Saint Sixtus, in the westernmost part of Belgium, and is so limited that, usually, one can only buy one order per license plate and phone number per 60 days, with one order being one case of beer.
A local Kerstconcert (Christmas concert) at a Lavendelhoevee (lavender farm) capped off my time in this beautiful city, featuring soloists from the area as well as the a cappella men’s choir Het Volgende Punt (literally, The Last Point). Between carols from around the world, beers, and love songs appeared Santa Claus and good spirit!
According to statistics, the world is, on average, safer than it’s ever been. I feel comfortable traveling most everywhere, whether within large crowd or between empty (but well-lit streets), and when tickets have been booked, I always try to follow through. So, when there was something leading me to keep my plans on December 12 to see the beautiful town of Strasbourg on December 12, which had been so vibrant when I visited three years ago, I went. This time, however, I visited a city in mourning from the previous day’s attack.
The streets were empty and all of the markets were closed in this, the so-called “Capital of Christmas.” Soldiers with machine guns walked the streets, both giving an air of protection and a reminder of the potential dangers of living in this world. A minute of silence, held throughout France, brought tourist, local, stranger, and friend together in remembrance and, one hopes, in promise for moving onwards.
The city was still beautiful, albeit quiet, with the combination of architectural styles and languages bringing a feeling of unity to those who did visit on this day. All had a different idea of how to cope with the fear and sadness, and all found their own solace, whether in the company of others, the quietness of the Cathedral, or in being alone.
I was able to visit the Cathedral for the first time during this visit, although time at this organ bench will be for the next visit. Marveling at the sheer immensity of the building, which was tallest in the world from the mid-17th century until the late 19th century, I explored the crèche that ornamented the southeastern wall with symbolic beauty in each detail. Towards the top of my list of things to see was the astronomical clock in the south transept; an astounding mechanical marvel from the 19th century (although there was originally a 16th century clock that now is housed in the Strasbourg Museum). Each hour signals a different intricate figurine to action! The clock is currently under restoration, but still visible, and well worth visiting.
The cathedral’s construction took no fewer than 260 years, following the destruction of the Romanesque cathedral that had stood on this spot from 1015-1176. There is evidence of an instrument in the cathedral from 1260, but the three-manual, 47-stop swallows-nest organ, suspended on the side nave, is a 1981 Alfred Kern instrument, housed in a breathtaking case 1491, built by Friedrich Krebs. Since much of the extant stained glass windows date from this period, the harmony of styles is undeniable.
Eight hours after arriving in Strasbourg, it was time to head home – feeling like it was an important day to come to this beautiful city that was hurting, yet still whole and trying to find light in a dark time.
Back at home, Stuttgart was waiting with its open Christmas markets and bright lights. The Alsacian delicacies beckoned and the children’s train, set up in the center of town, piped steam into the cold air and invited curious sightseers to examine its fascinating details. Between the nearly 300 stalls, a strange, animated Nutcracker (no fewer than eight feet tall) stood as what appeared to be a mascot for at least part of the market, with a nut that rotated from its midsection up to the mouth, through the inside of the statue, and back out to do its rotation again. There’s no way that this didn’t cause many onlookers to question how better to create such an effect!
Stuttgart extends its market to include international foods as well. One of the best things I tried were Flammlachs, which were toted by stalls with Norwegian flags. This salmon was fire-roasted sideways on a wooden plank, right before your eyes, then served either on a plate with sides such as potatoes and salad or given to you on a Brötchen, a “small” bread roll, with pickled onions and mayonnaise. I also couldn’t resist the previously mentioned Flammkuchen on several occasions – as evidenced by the fact that one slice had to be consumed before I could even take the below photograph!
On this Christmas day, as I am back in my childhood home of Maine following a Christmas Eve spent at my most recent home at the Church of the Advent in Boston, all of these different celebrations of Christmas remind me of how this season brings everybody together. Perhaps we might even use this reminder to bring ourselves closer together even other times of the year, when the “Christmas spirit” isn’t evident in storefronts or market stalls. The light is always on, at least in my Christmas stall – although I can’t promise that I’ve adorned it with Santa Claus or polar bears!