Christmas Market Tour 2011 Nr. 2: Weimar

The Statue of Goethe and Schiller at the National Theater

Weimar is one of those hidden treasures that we never know about until the first words come to mind: The Weimar Republic, the period between 1919 and 1932 where democracy was in its trying times because of hyperinflation and the rise of xenophobia, which reached its zenith when Adolf Hitler marched on Berlin and took control of the country starting his 13-year reign of terror. The name’s origin came from the fact that an assembly took place in and near the National Theater in 1919 to create the new constitution, which was passed on 11 August of that same year. The statues of Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller that stand in front of the theater symbolizes the meeting of the two scholars in the late 1700s.  The city is one of the most artistic in the country because of its architecture and fine arts, plus the fact that a music school and a Bauhaus University are both located there.  And lastly, an average of 2-3 million people visit the Onion Market, taking place at the end of September each year.

The signature of Weimar today that can be seen at the Christmas Market: The Onion Plait

Yet one should not forget the Christmas Market, for reasons that are stated on the Flensburg Files’ next stop on the Christmas Market tour for 2011. Weimar is located between Jena and Erfurt, both of which have large and very popular Christmas markets. Yet one should not underestimate what the town has to offer for goods that will make everyone happy. It is only a matter of 10 minutes by foot down the hill from the train station along Meyerstrasse, past various multi-cultural eateries, including El Nino (a Spanish Restaurant), a Greek specialty store, an American diner, and Subway, just to name a few. Then a couple twists and turns past the old Goethe Gymnasium and Musikschule, as well as the Atrium shopping center, plus various store-window art galleries and you will arrive at Goethe Platz- and the entrance to the market consisting of St. Nick selling Christmas trees near the post office.  While Weimar’s commerce is concentrated at or near the National Theater and Goethe Platz, most of the action is to the south and east of there, and if one believes that the Christmas market is located just at the National Theater and that is it, one is sorely mistaken.

National Theater and the Theater Square

In the past, most of the action did take place at Theaterplatz, where numerous huts, a carousel, Ferris wheel and other Midway-style places could be found. But today, most of the action can be found to the south and east of the National Theater, along the Wielandstrasse and Marktstrasse, where one can find numerous huts offering various products, some of which can be found outside Germany, like Finnish honey and specialties originating from the East. Part of the reason for the multicultural booths was in connection with the Advent Festival, which took place on the 3rd of December in all of Weimar, which featured entertainment by music groups originating from Weimar and elsewhere.  During the recent trip to Weimar with my wife and daughter, there was a vintage carousel located along Wielandstrasse which was operated by hand and the children can ride them for a small fee, while enjoying a few minutes of riding inside a relict of history which one will never see elsewhere.

The antique carousel on Wielandstrasse

With the book stores open even on weekends, one can purchase works from artists and poets who either originate from Weimar or happened to pass through, or even a tour guide to some of the most spectacular places of interest in the city, including Belvidere Palace and points of interest connected to Schiller and Goethe.
But the hottest spot on the Christmas market tour is the Market Square, located just off Marktstrasse to the southeast. While most of the booths offer traditional goods from Thuringia, including the food and the amphitheater, where most of the entertainment occurs during the market on a regular basis, the highlight of the place is the Gothic Weimar Town Hall, where building was converted into a life-size Advent Calendar with its 24 windows, one of which is open every day by the children selected at random and each one representing a theme of the day at the Christmas market. On this day, the number 11 was located on the third floor and therefore, a fire truck was needed to hoist two children selected and two firemen to the window. There, the kids who opened the window were greeted by St. Nicholas and were presented with a present for the day. What a way to make the Second Advent a memorable one. (Please refer to the Flensburg Files’ Fast Facts about Advent and Advent Calendars.)

Market Square and the Town Hall (left) masquarading as an Advent Calendar. The Pyramid Candle is on the right.

 

Kids being greeted by Santa Claus at the door to the 11th day of December

It would be a sin not to try any of the specialties at the Christmas market and therefore, at the conclusion of the tour of the Christmas market in Weimar, we tried one specialty that originates from the Medieval times, but one can easily make at home, which is “Handbrot.” It is a roll made of sourdough bread with filling inside it, namely cheese and one other ingredient, and topped with sour crème. One has to roll the sourdough out on a cookie sheet, add the filling, roll it back in, put it in the oven for 30-45 minutes and when finished, cut it up into slices. At the booth, there were three types of Handbrot one could try: cheese with ham, cheese with salami, and cheese with vegetables. And the dinner should not be complete without a cup of Met- honey wine with a high alcohol content (12%).  After two helpings and some met, we were full , but given the sites and sounds of the Christmas market, it was an afternoon worth spending in a small town of Weimar on the second Advent.

One of many booths along Wielandstrasse offering Christmas goodies from the region.

Weimar may be a small and somewhat quiet town, like Bayreuth, Bamberg and other medium-sized towns in Germany, but the city of 65,000 inhabitants is full of surprises. One should not only associate the city with its history, architecture, and the Onion Market, as they are the only characteristics of the city. There is much more to the city than meets the eye, and the Christmas market is definitely one of those surprises one will see when walking through the city during the holiday season.

Weimar had its annual Advent Festival on 3 December. Still one can see the posters and the programs around as a theme is presented every day until Christmas Eve.

 

FLENSBURG FILES’ FAST FACTS:
Advent is a big celebration in Germany as the Advent wreath, consisting of four candles and decorations resembling a Christmas wreath, is used to celebrate on each of the four Advents taking place on Sunday before Christmas. One candle is lit every Advent beginning with the first Advent until all four candles are lit on the fourth Advent, which is right before Christmas Eve. Most stores are closed on these days, leaving the huts as the main place of commerce. However, the laws regulating the store hours have been laxed over the years so that on one Sunday every month, the stores can open their doors to the customers, but these regulations vary from state to state.
Also common during this period is the Advent calendar, where there are 24 doors, each one representing a day beginning on 1 December and ending on Christmas Eve. Every morning, a door is open and a small gift appears for the taking. It is a treat especially for the children to open a gift every day in December. Weimar’s life-size Advent calendar at the District Court Building was the first one ever seen while on the Christmas market tour, yet there may be other towns that have similar calendars of that size.

Christmas Market Tour 2011 Nr. 1: Rothenburg ob der Tauber

 

This is the first stop on the Flensburg Files’ Christmas Market Tour for 2011

The first stop on the Christmas market tour for 2011 is a small Bavarian town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Located southwest of Nuremberg in the district of Ansbach, Rothenburg may look like a typical small German town on the outside; especially when you get off the train. It takes only five minutes to travel from Steinach to this town. The town of 11,025 inhabitants does have a special place in the hearts of many tens of thousands of tourists from all over the world, when one walks about 5-10 minutes from the train station, which is its historic city center. This is perhaps one of only a handful of city centers left in Europe, which is fortified all around and whose wall and towers date as far back as the Medieval Ages.  Yet the town came so close from becoming rubble at the end of World War II that had Major Thömmes of the German not agreed to surrender to the Americans under John Devers, who surrounded the entire town, it would have ended up like Dresden and unfortunately the unique features of the town would have been lost forever. It would not have even been considered a place to stop during the holidays as it would have been rebuilt to a point of no recognition. That plan to escape being completely annihilated was the worst of the close calls the town had since its creation in 970. There were wars in 1167, 1408, 1520, 1552, 1631-48 and the earthquake of 1356 which inflicted damage on the city and its people.  But once the town was annexed into the state of Bavaria, the age of tourism and preservation of the city took shape.

Today’s town center resembles exactly that of the one that was bustling with activity in the 13-1500s. It has two sets of fortresses- the one that was  built in 1172 and passes through the White Tower, Markus Tower and Röder Arch- consisting of the oldest building in the city Zur Hölle (In Hell), created by the monastery in the 1100s- and an even larger one in 1204 to accommodate a larger population and passes through  gates of Kobolzellar, Würzburg and Klingen and the towers of Siebers and Röder. The churches dominate the inner city with the likes of St. Jacob’s, Franciscan, St. John’s, St. Wolfgang’s. There’s also one of the most gothic city halls one will see in Germany (which was built in the 1200s, and lastly the buildings that have existed since the 1300s and have been restored to make it look like the ones that contributed to the success of the city as an international point of trade during that time. One has to take into account that two of the major roads intersected in Rothenburg, making it the international place of commerce: the one from Munich and points to the south to the ports of Hamburg and beyond, and the east-west route connecting France and Frankfurt in the west and Dresden and Prague in the east. That meeting point has recently been shifted to present-day Nuremberg in the form of the Autobahn motorways connecting Prague and Frankfurt on the east-west axis, and Flensburg/Hamburg and places in Austria (west of Munich) on the north-south axis. The end result is the town that has since lost its importance as an international trading point but has embraced itself in tourism thanks in part by the attempts to preserve it and make it attractive for everyone.
Especially at Christmas time.

As a general rule for Christmas markets in a small German town, they usually take place on only one weekend and offer just the basic localities. They are not as representative as some of the ones that are common, like Nuremberg, Frankfurt, and Dresden, just to name a few. One would be lucky to attract just a handful of tourists from outside the district (Landkreis)- that is unless you live in the Rhein corridor between Frankfurt and Cologne and people spend a few hours at the markets in Bingen, Neuwied and Lahnstein, just to name a few. Rothenburg is the exception to the rule for the Christmas markets take place from the last week in November til right before Christmas Eve. However, if one chooses to pick a better time to visit the city and not deal with the overcrowding and the overbooked hotels during that time, then between Christmas and New Year is perhaps the best choice to visit the city for there is a lot to see and one still has the feeling of Christmas when exploring the historic city center.  This was what I felt, when my wife, daughter and a couple friends from the US visited the town a couple Christmases ago, while touring northern Bavaria.
This leads me to the question of what is there to see when one wants to forego visiting the city between Christmas and New Year. My answer is plenty. I decided to put together a nice program for you to tour the city and still enjoy a bit of Christmas. You have to be forewarned of the fact that it takes 2-3 days to tour the entire town and absorb the heritage that Rothenburg has to offer, let alone imagine yourself living in the town during the Medieval times.
Start off by having a nice breakfast at one of the fanciest old-time bed and breakfasts in the old town, like the Pension Birgit, where we stayed- a typical German breakfast consisting of meat and cheese slices on a roll along with real Nutella chocolate spread (made in Germany and not in New Jersey by Kraft Foods) and homemade jam.  Then take a nice tour around the two walls of the old town, passing through each tower and getting the feel of what it was like being the guard of one of the towers and enjoying the view from both the outside as well as the inside the city.  Some of the interesting sites worth seeing include the Wolfgang Gate and Church, once deemed as a place of refuge by those whose villages north of the city were threatened with attack by the invading armies.  Then there is the Röder Gate and Tower, which is the main entrance point from Ansbacher Strasse, the main road that connects it to the station and one that serves as an awesome overture for tourists before entering the old town.  When Kobozellar Tower and Gate and the wall connecting the Reichstadthalle provides a person with a view of the steep Tauber Valley and the gardens that line up along the hillside. One can see the Double-Bridge (a 1328 stone arch bridge) and the Kobozellar Castle and church from up above. The castle was a place of quarantine for those affected by the Plague that wiped out over half the population in the 1300s. And lastly, there is the  Spital Bastion, with its seven gates that made entering the old town from the southwest rather torturous for any visitor or invader.


After a couple hours of walking, stop at one of the finest cafés in town for a cup of coffee and a snowball. Snowballs are a signature of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, consisting of cookie dough rounded into a ball together with various chocolate fillings, and covered in sugar, chocolate or other toppings.  I was introduced to them in 2002 while at the Christmas market in Jena with my wife but neither of us had an idea where it originated until coming to Rothenburg, even though one can also find them at the market in Nuremberg. Having one of them will get a tourist full in a hurry- as they are way too luscious to pass up- but they give you enough energy needed for the next round of touring in the old town- the museums.

While one will learn a lot of Medieval Times and how Rothenburg played a role in it through the Crime Museum or the Imperial City Museum, at the heart of the Old Town; especially at Christmas Time are the Christmas Museum and the Doll and Toy Museum. The Christmas Museum is open every day of the year- even on Christmas Day- and has a gallery of decorated Christmas trees from all over the world as well as those resembling the trees that were decorated in the past, both in Germany and the US as well as elsewhere. It provides the tourist with a special holiday feeling regardless of when he/she visits the place. Furthermore it is a place where one can learn about Christmas and its origins.  These are even more so when walking through the Christmas Village, located right next to the museum and featuring the works of Käthe Wohlfahrt. Both of these places, located in the Herrengasse next to the town square represent a special point in the old town where Christmas runs year round, and after visiting the two places, tourists will have a lot of creative ideas of how they want to make their house more Christmassy- meaning away with the tacky stuff on the houses and embrace Christmas with a truer meaning.
Not far from Herrengasse is the Doll and Toy Museum, where 200 years worth of dolls from Germany, France and other places are on display for people to see and awe from. Many are handcrafted and appear to have their own life when looking at them, which is impressive from a tourist’s point of view.


After eating a traditional Franconian (or even a Medieval-style) dinner at one of the restaurants in the Old Town (and there are over two dozen to choose from), the day should be wrapped up with a tour of the town with a Night Watchman, who speaks many languages and has the voice of doom in him that makes the tourists think they are watching a Halloween thriller on TV, narrated by the guide.  But he provides the tourists with some interesting facts about the city that not many people knew about beforehand, like how salt was used as a commodity for transaction during the Medieval Age, how the town helped the poor lurking both inside and outside its gates, how outdoor plumbing during the 1300s would not be acceptable to today’s standards, and most shocking: where the children’s song “Ring Around the Rosie” originated from! Let’s just simply put it this way: it is ok to sing it when the child is small, but please do not tell him/her how the song was created unless he/she is old enough to swallow it! The guide who led the tour while we were there in 2009 has done this work for over 20 years, and judging by his experience in this profession and how he led this tour, one can tell that the longer he has been doing the guides, the more experienced he is with getting the tourists involved, and the more he has become part of the culture and heritage of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, that a tour guide with him is a must for anyone happening to pass through the town.
When finishing the tour of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, one will receive impressions of the town and its history that the experience will be shared with those who love history and want to visit the town. While Rothenburg is one of the hot spots to visit during the holiday season because of its Christmas market, it is a must-see place to visit year round for the tourists from all over the world because of the awesome architecture that the city has worked hard to preserve and the unique features that the city has to offer. One of those is Christmas, which can be found year round in the Herrengasse, for apart from its Medieval heritage, that is what Rothenburg ob der Tauber stands for; especially now as the holiday season takes hold on all aspects of life and people are preparing for holiday travel with family and friends, some choosing this town as the point of destination.

Useful links to Rothenburg ob der Tauber (including facts about Käthe Wohlfahrt):

http://www.rothenburg.de/index.php?get=171

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rothenburg_ob_der_Tauber

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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%C3%A4the_Wohlfahrt

http://www.weihnachtsmuseum.de/e/home.asp?spr=d&a=10