Four years ago, when the Files was in its infancy, the author did a small segment on the Christmas market in Jena, in eastern Thuringia. Since the time it was written (which you can click here for details and photos) and the present, things have changed to a point where a re-write is justified. Here’s why:
What constitutes a good Christmas market from your perspective? Or if you want to be specific, what elements should be in a Christmas market in order to make it a really attractive one? On my fifth year of writing reviews of the Christmas markets in Germany, I’ve created my own set of requirements in order for a Christmas market to be attractive. From my point of view, a Christmas market:
- Should have a background that is appealing to the tourists, whether it is a church or two, like the Christmas market in Halle (Saale), or the historic truss houses like the market in Quedlinburg
- Should have local specialties that you cannot find at any other Christmas market, like the Pulschnitzer Gingerbread Cookies at the market in Dresden or the Domino Steine at the market in Erfurt,
- Should have some tours showing people the history of the town and its Christmas market, as seen in Rothenburg ob der Tauber,
- Should be spread out with sections representing different themes, as seen with Dresden (once again)
- And should not be too commercial and crowded, as seen with the markets in Nuremberg and Magdeburg.
Jena has been one of the regular stops on the Christmas market tour because of its layout and small town atmosphere that people can see. Yet the reason for this stop and tour is because of this question: Is Jena the Christmas market to visit, sticking out in front of the aforementioned Christmas markets in Germany, PLUS the ones in Birmingham (the UK), Paris and Zurich? According to Buzz Feed, a tourism website that promotes places of interest, it is. However, if it really is the hot spot of 2014, on what grounds is it attractive? I decided to check it out.
Jena has changed a great deal in the last four years, for the Christmas market has grown in size and color. Plus the people have put plenty of effort into this year’s market, in the face of proposed changed by the Jena City Council, which was put down unanimously earlier this year. More on that later.
Jena’s Christmas market has four different places that are worth visiting, especially if you have children. The main attraction can be found at the market square, Am Markt. There, one can try the local specialties, ranging from Thuringian bratwurst to sautéed mushrooms, as well as Heisser Met, Snowflake, Egg nog and organic mulled wine (Glühwein). You can purchase some ceramic ware from the local dealers, LED glass lamps, and paper stars in various colors. If you want entertainment, there is the grandstand where local musicians and dancers can entertain the audience throughout the day and weekend, while enjoying the backdrop of well-restored historic houses. The last of the historic houses was restored last year as part of the project to reconstruct the Sonnenhof complex, located north of the tram stop Löbdegraben. There, a constellation of modern black and white buildings and the restoration of the Medieval building facing Am Markt not only provides people with a sensational view of the city center in general, but also direct access from the tram stop to the market square through a wide corridor filled with local businesses. One should also not forget the brass musical group playing traditional Christmas songs at 5:00pm every evening during the time of the Christmas market. Like the cuckoo clock, these people come out of the windows of City Hall and the adjacent City Museum with their brass instruments to impress the audience with some Jingle Bells. If you want to be in a Christmas mood but have to worry about the crowds at the grandstand, then this is the place and time to do that, for 20 minutes of brass always makes a person feel rather Christmassy. It is also in the same City Hall, where children have an opportunity to do some artwork, visit Santa Claus or even enjoy some Christmas entertainment in the reception hall. This year is the first time that the weekend events are taking place there, for the city government and mayor’s office relocated to new, modern complexes at Am Anger, located northeast of the market square, thus leaving the historic 13th century City Hall, one of the oldest in Germany, open for other venues.
If one is interested in amusement, head 100 meters up the street to Eichplatz, with the tallest building in the city, the Intershop Tower (now known as Jentower), as its backdrop. There, one will have an opportunity to try out the rides and the 15 varieties of Glühwein, while challenging others in bumper car racing and other activities. Eichplatz itself has a unique history that is tied to the tower. During the era of Erich Honnecker, the Intershop tower was constructed at this location in the 1970s. Originally in the planning were twin towers with a skyway connecting them that would resemble binoculars because of the city’s traditional optical industry, lack of money and resources, combined with the revolution 25 years ago that led to German Reunification, resulted in the city having only one tower. For many years, the Friedrich Schiller University had classes and other facilities in that building before dispersing to various locations in the early 1990s, leaving the building vacant. Yet the tower and facilities were remodeled in 2003 and now, a shopping area and several offices now occupy the facility, while the tower has an observation platform, which provides a panoramic view of the city and its hilly landscape.
The open space, where the second tower was supposed to be built, has a double role as a parking area and place where markets would take place. Yet that area came under threat with a proposal to build housing and other “green” sites, thus having the parking area be placed underground. Despite the year-long campaign, which featured prominent figures backing the proposal, almost 70% of the population of Jena voted against it this past May, making it clear that the parking lot and green facilities are fine. This mainly had to do with Jena’s problem of freely spending money on facilities that are not needed, such as the already approved modernization of the sports complex and soccer stadium, and not paying attention to the needs of the community, such as a new high school, two new elementary schools, a renovated swimming pool and an improved infrastructure to make the city more accessible. In either case, the plan was scrapped and there has been no talk on reusing Eichplatz since then- a clear and positive signal that the amusement section of the market will remain for many years to come. Judging by the observation at Eichplatz, many people roaming around the area in a holly mood is a clear sign that they like their space instead of having many houses there, eventually forcing the venue to be relocated to the Inselplatz parking area near the university- 500 meters from the market square!
Closer to Ernst Abbe Platz is the newest of the Christmas market- the medieval market at Johannestor (St. John’s Gate). Established in 2012, the market features food, goods and entertainment pertaining to the medieval period, using the remains of the western wall between Johannestor and Pulverturm as its backdrop. That section was restored in 2010 and now houses a museum. Originally, Jena was a walled city, first mentioned in the 11th century. Yet all but four sections were destroyed in World War II. The remains were either rebuilt or restored, including this section. The market is quite small in comparison to the one at Am Markt, yet it provides people with a reenactment of what the medieval times looked like. One can see the entire market from the wall to see how impressive it is. Yet because of its growth in popularity, it is most likely that that market will expand to include the corridor between Johannestor and Abbe Platz in the near future. But for now, one should enjoy the entertainment in that small pocket of history as it is.
Shopping possibilities are big here in Jena. The Goethe Gallery shopping center at Abbe Platz is the main attraction for food and presents. While there are a few Christmas huts on the ground floor and the area is most crowded, the shopping area is covered with various colors of gold and silver, thus making it a very attractive spot. New this year is the Christmas Calendar, were people can participate and open the calendar to see what he/she gets. This usually happens in the evening when people are done with work. Entertainment in the form of concerts and comedy can be found in the basement section next to the supermarket Tegut.
Keeping the overview in mind, we come back to the question imposed earlier on whether Jena deserves the number one spot, let alone even be listed in the international ratings. The city has improved its image a great deal in the past four years with new faces on the scene and a more colorful and diverse Christmas market, as mentioned here. The Christmas market attracts many people from many countries, in addition to the city’s locals and the German tourists. Yet as some people pointed out, there are other Christmas markets that are more attractive than that of Jena’s, including the ones mentioned previously, as well as those in Leipzig, Erfurt, Hamburg, and along the Rhine corridor between Frankfurt and Cologne. Even though it is unclear how the Christmas markets are rated according to Buzz Feed, it is imaginable that on a small to medium size scale Jena would be in the top five for sure. Granted that a lot of improvements have been made over the years, putting Jena at the top is a bit too far given the competition and some shortcomings the city still has to deal with- among them, space, parking and selection. But it is agreeable that the city is worth mentioning in the guide. And even more so, if one wants a small town market instead of dealing with overcrowding at the Christmas market in big cities, then one should try the Christmas market in Jena. Everything is close and it is diverse, no matter where you go. And it is open to everyone young and old, as well as those who have never seen a Christmas market in Germany before.
Closing this first stop on the Christmas market tour for 2014 by revisiting Jena, here are a couple questions to ask you:
- What is typical of a German Christmas market in your terms? What would you like to see in a Christmas market?
- Do you think Jena deserves the top spot? If not, which Christmas market should take the top spot and why?
- And lastly, what are Heisser Met and Snow Flake (Schneeflocken)? They’re both hot alcoholic beverages but what are made of?
Please place your comments either here in the comment section below or in the Files’ facebook page. Looking forward to your comments.
A gallery of photos of Jena’s Christmas market can be found in the Flensburg Files’ facebook, which you can access here.
The Flensburg Files will be doing its 2014 Christmas market tour a bit differently this year. How will this be carried out and why will be explained in future articles. In either case, like the Files on facebook and follow on twitter to receive some information on this year’s Christmas market tour.