As a child I remember looking forward to the holidays with an almost nervous excitement and anticipation, giddy about what the season would bring – long sled rides down my grandfather’s mountain driveway in Vermont, colorful platters of butter and springerlee cookies, games of dreidel with chocolate gelt as the candles melted in the menorah, stockings bulging with fruit and canned sardines (which I only found out in middle school was not what everyone got). As I grew older though, the holidays came and went faster and faster, seeming to pass much like any other week, and it felt nearly impossible to recapture the nostalgic spark in the air that I remember so strongly from childhood, no matter what we did. Shortly after moving to Europe, I read Saveur’s article about Bavaria at Christmastime, which painted a picture not just of a magical winter wonderland tucked into the mountains halfway between Geneva and Berlin, full of twinkling lights, hot spiced wine, gingerbread cookies, and laughter, but of a place where the elusive spirit of the holidays has been preserved despite the commercialization and materialism that is so hard to escape. I was mesmerized, finding myself grinning every time I so much as thought about this fantastic place. So I convinced Chris that it was imperative that we go and see for ourselves if this world that sounded like something I could only dream up could actually be real.
The pressure was on, but the stage was set early as Air Berlin served mulled wine on the flight to Munich, the first stop on our tour. Arriving late on a Friday, we find our cozy airbnb in the heart of the city where our host recommended that we eat at a traditional bavarian restaurant next door, the Paulaner Brauhaus. Like walking through the wardrobe into Narnia, we pass under the archway of the huge stone entrance into the brewery and the world suddenly transforms into a festive scene of rows of long wooden tables roaring with laughter from people with huge beer steins sloshing over the top, many plates piled high with steaming dumplings, pig knuckles, duck breasts and pretzels coming from the kitchen. We let ourselves soak in this first taste of Bavaria during the holidays. After sampling some homemade brews and a wonderful dessert that our waiter brought, on the house, when he learned it was our first time to Bavaria, we turn in for the evening with high hopes for what the next few days might bring.
The next morning we set out to find a few of the highlights of Munich:
Our host gave us walking directions along his favorite scenic path, leading through an old walled cemetery full or ornate tombstones to Marienplatz, home of Munich’s main Christmas market (or “christkindlmarket”). The good cheer is palpable and I can’t help but feel giddy as we near the square. We wander through rows of wooden stands with slanted roofs covered in tree bark shingles, decorated with pine branches and twigs on each side, a river of well-dressed people passing through holding steaming mugs of gluhwein. It would be easy to view this place as another commercialization of a holiday, but somehow it feels different. This is not a cheap reproduction, but an authentic acient tradition that is designed to combat the long winters and dark nights.
Christmas markets have been around since long before anyone celebrated Christmas as we know it on December 25th. In the Late Middle Ages in Europe, special open-air street markets were set up for a day or two in early winter to allow people to stock up on food and supplies to last them through the cold winter months. One of the first was Vienna’s Dezembermarkt, which began in approximately 1294/1296. Over time, craftspeople began setting up stands at winter markets to sell baskets, toys and woodcarvings, cloth, nuts, and baked goods which people bought as gifts to be given out for Christmas or on New Year’s Day. These winter markets were the precursor of contemporary Christmas markets.
It’s hard to fathom that this was a part of my family’s normal lives just a few generations ago. While growing up in Germany, my Oma came to these markets with her father every year as a child, where he sold cloth from one of the traditional stalls. He built Oma her own child-sized stall with tiny bolts of cloth so that she would feel included, and I am fascinated by this vision as we tour the markets while re-reading the moving book she has written about her family’s experience in Germany and during the war .
After a while, we tear ourselves away from the chaos and hop on a train to Kloster Andechs, a beautiful monastery/ brewery on a mountain in the countryside. From there, a small bus drops us of at a cobblestone path that led up to the monastery overlooking the surrounding green hills. As we hike to the top of the small hill, the alps are faintly visible in the distance. We hear hymns from behind a set of double doors to the church, which sits at the top of the hill. The first set is open and we pass through into a small marble hallway, then take a few steps and push on a carved wooden lions head in the middle of the second set. The door gently opens to reveal a congregation, mostly married couples in their 60s, standing and singing along with an organ. The music from the instruments and voices echoes off the incredibly decorated wall and tall arches and ceiling. We linger for a moment in the back when the bell rings above us, indicating that it’s nearing 4 PM. With the sun setting early these days, we head back down the stone pathway, to the monastery’s two brewhouses.
The monastery seemed oddly empty but we find the crowds as we enter the brewhouse just down the cobblestone path. They serve four of their own brews, and one combined with apple juice (for women they say). Seating is at long tables for eight people and smaller groups share a table. No hostess, no waiting times. You ask people to please make room if you see open spots at the table. We walk around one brewhouse and then to the second, more “recent” addition, built in the early 20th century. We each order a very large beer, the “small” size, then spot a table with only two people and attempt to sit. One man seems to say yes, but did not respond to my lost look and questioning thumbs up sign. The man looks at his watch and shows it to us, but we are still confused. He repeats a few German phrases, slowly, as though that was the problem. People at the neighboring tables are now looking at us so we sit down, embarrassed. The men at the table just stare at us confusingly in response. Clearly we have misunderstood something. Another couple gets up from their table to leave, so we move over, luckily, as the family of the two men fill their table shortly after.
We take the train back to Munich and on our walk home, stumble upon a more modern version of a Christmas Market, the Tollwood market, made up of neon-lit tents sheltering a mix of local and international crafts and food. It almost feels like we’re in a club as we push through the younger crowd huddled around the tents and stands serving hot drinks. We pause for a second to order a Fuerzangenbowle, a traditional drink I’ve heard about where a sugar cube is lit on fire and slowly drips into spiced wine before you drink it all down.
On Sunday, remembering how my dad patiently rented my favorite movie Sleeping Beauty weekend after weekend as a child, we decide that we should make the tourist pilgrimage to Disney’s inspiration, the Neuschwanstein castle. A 2.5 hr train takes us to the south west of Munich towards the mountains bordering Germany and Switzerland. The bright sun, not filtered or restrained by any clouds today, illuminates layers of green fields covered in frost, interspersed patches of dense evergreen forests packed tightly together like match sticks, with the occasional onion-shaped church steeple in the distance marking a village.
The regional train makes a few stops at the towns along the way but it’s already overflowing with people leaving Munich. We grab a couple lucky seats, but now the seats are full and people must stand or sit on the floor for this journey. The British passengers next to us become our narrators for observations out the window as we overhear their conversation along the way. “Load of moles” one observes at the turned up mounds of dirt that dot the fields we pass; “Christmas dinner” another says when we pass a field of geese. These observations are only met with the slightest head nod of the fellow brits. We follow a small creek for most of the way that oxbows every 20 feet or so, winding through open fields like a drunk snake or a piece of spaghetti dropped on the counter. I watch pensively, wondering if maybe we all feel similar sometimes, winding our way through, the soil of the terrain of life determining how straight we can go. The scenery changes to fields of rolling hills. The grass has been cut for hay and no animals are in the field. All the preparation has been done for winter but it hasn’t come yet. It’s still 50 degrees and sunny in late December.
Finally, we catch a glimpse of the castle perched high on a distant mountain. It is the most perfect looking castle I have ever seen. King Ludwig II of Bavaria built it over a period of more than twenty years, continuously making it more extravagant as he went, though to date, only two rooms are complete and the king only lived there for 120 days. He felt he deserved a “storybook palace” suited for a king, and he decimated Bavaria’s economy to finance his vanity project. Perhaps the number of people we saw using selfie sticks to photograph themselves in front of this beautiful palace is fitting for such a place (we had to take a selfie too, but without help from a stick).
Ludwig II’s inspiration for Neuschwanstein came from the equally picturesque Hohenschwangau Castle, his childhood home perched on a hill directly across the valley, which also served as his primary residence.
We watch Hohenschwangau growing larger as we descend from Neuschwanstein, until it is looming in front of us. As we approach, our attention is captured by music and cheerful voices luring us around the corner. We are led to a quartet cheerfully playing christmas carols on alphorns, and a festive christmas market selling hot chocolate, wine, and knitted items. We revel in this joyful discovery for a moment and continue to a path around a sparkling lake. Walking alone along the lake, the music playing in the background provides a soundtrack reminding us of the visit to the monastery the day before. However, here, the music echoes off the glassy water, the tall trees, and the cliffs, creating an almost spiritual effect, a natural church of sorts.
An hour-long train ride takes us to Salzburg (salt city) the following day, where we notice that the same large tour group we sat next to on our train to the castle was now beside us again (without our british impromptu narrators unfortunately). Typically, following a group of tourists means that we’re doing something wrong. But this time we conceded that we’re all trying to squeeze in as much of the holiday spirit as possible before time is up.
Between the train and downtown, we walk through Mirabell palace and gardens, one of the main filming sites for The Sound of Music. This elicits more fond childhood memories, and I can’t stop singing “My Favorite Things” for the rest of the afternoon. We cross the Salzach river to a maze of narrow streets with strands of yellow holiday lights criss-crossing overhead. An alley, or more like a tunnel, appears every 50 feet or so that cuts through the buildings to the next parallel street. Eventually they lead to the city’s Christmas market, which resembles Munich’s. It starts to rain so we duck into a traditional Austrian cafe for reprieve. The cafe is decadent, just like the desserts: beautiful cherry wood paneling reaching almost to the ceiling, leather benches around marble-topped tables, brass coat hangers, and crystal chandeliers. I try to contain my excitement as we order a sacher torte (originally developed by Hotel Sacher in Vienna), a flourless chcolate cake with apricot glaze and chocolate ganache that was my annual birthday cake request for many years, which my mom has mastered. We sip coffee and savor this treat while watching the tourists filter in and out of the cafe.
Afterwards, we meander along the cobblestone alleyways made up of worn square stone blocks, passing doors that open to apartments, restaurants, homes, and stores. No doubt these stores have changed many times over the centuries of conflict we think as we pass under the old wall and out of the gate entrance in search of the small tavern we’ve read about in the NYT 36 hours. It is dark outside as we enter, and we are greeted by a cozy space basked in the glow of candles and small Christmas lights, with old wooden floors and handmade drapes in the windows. With 30 people inside, the place is almost full. We sit at a small table and are poured a glass of Austrian red wine. The menu is traditional Austrian comfort food. A while later, the pounding sound from the kitchen let us know that our schnitzel is being prepared. We don’t want to leave this warm refuge, but we have a train to catch so we head to the station for our late train to the last stop of this tour.
We wake up in Nuremburg, the second largest city in Bavaria, and home to one of the most traditional Christmas markets. A sunny walk down the stone streets of our hotel guides us to the heart of the market, where we were welcomed by the site of hundreds of red and white striped booths selling colorful local goods and traditional foods such as gingerbread and elisenlebkuchen, a flourless cookie made of nuts with a deliciously gooey center. The aroma of spiced sausages and frying onions, mixed with wine wafts through the market, making us hungry.
The market fits every image that I’ve hoped for, but the beauty of the city catches us off guard. Surrounded by huge stone walls on all sides, with an impressive fortress between them. A maze of old brewery cellars turned bomb shelters lies hidden underground.
We hike around the fortress until we become hungry late in the afternoon. We know just the place, following a recommendation from Saveur for traditional Nuremberg sausages. In the middle of the bustling market, we find ourselves stumbling into a small wooden cabin filled with dirndl-clad women and a sizzling grill in the center. We are immediately seated among strangers around a wooden table, a basket of freshly baked rolls and pretzels in the middle. We order a beer and sausage plate. A few minutes later, our waitress brings two metal plates that feel oddly medieval, piled with hot browned sausages, fresh potato salad dotted with whole spices, and crunchy sauerkraut. This is the type of meal that warms you up from the inside out, and will carry us all the way home tonight on the high speed train back to Berlin.
It has been a long time since I’ve felt that mysterious anticipation and excitement for the holiday season that I once felt as a child. In recent years, the holidays have snuck up on us and then passed uneventfully, feeling much like any other time of year. But there really is something special about the holidays in Bavaria that recaptures the magic in the world before we know too much. I have finally found a place where I feel like a child again, and I am already anxiously awaiting next year’s holiday season.