Author’s Note: This is the first of five series on this year’s Christmas market tour in Germany. This year’s tour focuses on two themes: locality and rural. The tour through the German state of Saxony-Anhalt with stops in Magdeburg, Quedlinburg and Halle (Saale) will address these two in full detail.
Here’s a Flensburg Files Frage for the Forum question to start off this tour: When you encounter the word Saxony-Anhalt, what are the first three words that come to mind? What would you expect to see when passing through the state by car or by train? There are very few tourists who have visited or even stayed in the state bordered by Lower Saxony, Upper Saxony, Brandenburg and Thuringia, three of which were part of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), together with this state. Saxony Anhalt is the crossroads between industry in the south (near Halle (Saale) and Merseburg) and agriculture in the north, and in terms of landscape, mountains in the west (near Halberstadt and Quedlinburg) and the plains region in the east (including the Elbe River which flows northward through the capital of Magdeburg and beyond). The state has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country at an average of 12%, competing with the likes of Mecklenburg-Pommerania, Berlin and Brandenburg, and North Rhein-Westphalia. It also has one of the largest demographic changes in the country as the population is getting older more rapidly than in other regions in the former GDR and more younger people are flocking to the western half of Germany and beyond for better employment chances and prosperity.
But beyond that, there are some unique features about the state that are worth noting, and one should never underestimate the people and the culture that greet you when you pass through the state. The Christmas markets are one of those features that makes Saxony-Anhalt the place to visit around Christmas time. Our first stop on the tour was the capital of Saxony-Anhalt, Magdeburg. With a population of 232,000 inhabitants and home of the Otto von Guericke University (which has 13,000 students and has produced over 11,000 publications world wide), the city has a lot to choose from. It has over 20 churches, many dating back to its founding by Charlemagne in 805 A.D. Among them include the Magdeburg Cathedral, which took over 300 years to build (1209-1532). The city prides itself on its sculptures and other forms of artwork, spanning over 90 years, including the Hundertwasserhaus building, located next to the Cathedral and the adjacent state parliamentary complex, one of two of such elaborate pieces of architecture in the world (the other is in Vienna). Historic bridges along the Elbe River are easy to find and plentiful in number (please see the article on this topic through the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles found here.)
And the Christmas markets?
While there are a few suburbs that have markets lasting just one day, as we will see with the next article on the one in Buckau, the Christmas market in the capital is a must see for those staying for a couple days. The layout of the market features the stands being clustered together in an area that covers all of the Alter Markt Market Square (north of Ernst Reuter Strasse), all the way towards the Johanneskirche, which overlooks the Elbe River, and including the Carré Shopping Center. The Alter Markt features many wooden huts selling traditional goods one will see at the Christmas Market, with some exceptions to the rule. These exceptions include the goods one can eat while in Saxony Anhalt, such as the Salzwedel Baumkuchen and the Magdeburger Prileke. Originally from Salzwedel in the Harz Mountain region, the Baumkuchen features a ring with 2-3 layers of pastry covered in vanilla or chocolate coating. The Prileke is deep fat fried pastry covered in powdered sugar. There is also the incense men and special Christmas candle holders from the Ore Mountain region, but that can be found in another article. The market fills the entire market square and overlooks the house of the city’s Burgermeister (EN: mayor) with a gold statue of von Guericke located at the front entrance to the building.
Toward the southeast end of the market is the Renaisssance section, where one can find hand-crafted items and homemade specialties that fits the time period, together with the music that is typical for that time period. Two of the most important points to see were the manger, featuring the wooden carvings of the arrival of Baby Jesus, His parents (Joesph and Mary), the Innkeeper and the Three Wise Men. That can be found between the entrance and the performance stage. The other point of interest is the church booth, featuring a rather unique Spanish style architecture with stained glass windows, but inside it is actually a bar serving its famous Gluehwein (mulled or spiced wine) and other warm alcoholic goodies. The setting reminds me of the Church Brew Works in Pittsburgh, a church that was converted into a restaurant and microbrewery. And while the church/brewery goes by the motto “On the eighth Day man created beer,” one can also use the “And on the ninth day, man created Gloegg,” for outside the Renaissance section of the Christmas market, there is the North Pole section, where little red huts feature hand-made products from Sweden, among them, the fruity mulled wine with spices one can only find in that rather popular Scandinavian country. One can buy it with or without vodka. If one is into whiskey, one can find Swedish whiskey at the booth. While I only tried the Gloegg, which is rather tasty with the Vodka, I bet the Swedish whiskey is better than the Scotch version. But I’ll let the whiskey lovers try it for themselves.
Apart from trying love handles (churros with caramel dip) and getting a free ceramic toy for bringing a kid to the booth, for children, the Magdeburg Christmas Market also featured an array of displays in connection with fairy tales written by many German authors, including Goethe and the Grimm Brothers. They were found at the main market, but also at the two shopping malls in the city center: the Carré located across the main street from the main market, and the shopping mall next to the central railway station, 10 minutes by foot west of the main market. These serve as main stopping areas for children to listen to fairy tales while taking a break from all the Christmas shopping.
Despite all that is offered at the Magdeburg Christmas market, the layout was rather compacted, resulting in the overcrowding of people going through, especially in the evening. One of the main causes was the fact that at the time of the visit, the Magdeburg Cathedral was undergoing extensive renovations, which included closing and barricading the Domplatz square in its entirety. This has affected many businesses in the area, including stores in the Hundertwasserhaus building which normally would see more customers at this time than in any other season of the year. By reducing its space to just the city hall and Alter Markt, it increased the chances of people veering away from the market at night because the crowd was huge, thus making passage impossible. The late opening hours (11:00am until 11:00pm) combined with the shopping malls’ opening hours (closing at 8:00pm) did not alleviate the problem of overcrowding. However, once the renovations of the cathedral is completed, chances are most likely that the market will be shifted to extend along the Elbe River, from the Alter Markt all the way to the Cathedral itself, a distance of almost 1 kilometer. This would make the city center more attractive and brighter, and it would make visiting the market more bearable. Also included in the suggestion is to coordinate the opening hours between the market and the shopping malls to make it more transparent and convenient for shoppers. Only then would there be an equilibrium in terms of crowd control versus opening hours versus profit. The more the people stream through the market does not necessarily mean more profit. In fact it will more likely turn people away because overcrowding can lead to potential outbreak in panic and a stampede that would turn Magdeburg into another Duisburg Stampede. Note: The incident happened in July 2010 at the Love Parade inside the former freight train station in the city along the Ruhr River, killing 22 and injuring over 200.
All in all, Magdeburg’s Christmas may be small and crowded, but its attractions make it worth visiting while traveling through Saxony-Anhalt in December. However, as we will see in the next article, the markets in the smaller suburbs, like Buckau make it even more attractive to see, especially since it presents a nice warm feeling of home and homemade. But before going to the next article, here are some pictures of the market with some attractions worth seeing while in Magdeburg.