Christmas Market Tour 2017: Hof (Bavaria)

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Little is known about the first stop on the Christmas market tour of 2017. Hof is located in Bavaria near the Franconian Forest and the Fichtel Mountains. The city of 47,500 inhabitants is located along the Saxon Saale River near the border of both the Czech Republic to the east and the German state of Saxony to the north. In fact, the city is 13 kilometers west of the former Communist Triangle at Trojmezí (CZ). Hof was the symbol of freedom as tens of thousands of East Germans entered Bavaria by train in 1989. It was followed by the opening of the gates and and tens of thousands of Trabants and Wartburg cars entering Hof when the Berlin Wall fell on 9 November of the same year. All of those fleeing the country wanted nothing more but either freedom to move and live, or the removal of the communist regime led by Erich Honnecker or even both. They eventually got their wish and then some with the German reunification. Almost 30 years later, the borders and fencing have all but disappeared with the exception of a section of a preserved watchman’s tower and fencing north of Hof near Mödlareuth. Hof is now situated at the three-state corner with Bavaria meeting Saxony and Thuringia both former states of East Germany.

When looking at Hof more closely, one can see the historic town center and many antique houses and buildings in other suburbs in one piece. Hof survived almost unscath by the air raids during World War II and has prospered since then, thanks to tourism, agriculture and small industry. The city center is 150-200 meters above the river, anchored by a combination of shopping and religion- the later featuring the twin finial towers of the St. Marion Catholic Church. The shopping mile at Altstadt connects Post Street with Lorenz Church and street via the Catholic Church- a span of over one kilometer.

And this shopping mile is the focus of the Christmas Market at Hof’s Altstadt. Getting to the market by car, let alone by foot is difficult- perhaps the one of the most difficult of the Christmas markets to date. It has nothing to do with the maze in getting to the market, as was the case with the Christmas market in Chemnitz, when I wrote about it in 2015. While the street plans are mainly gridded- similar to a typical American town- the main problem was finding a place to park in Hof, for the parking lot and places along the streets were filled to the brim. When they were not occupied by cars, they were reserved for the handicapped, delivery trucks and bikes. This was compounded by speeding cars, traffic lights and even traffic jams. These are typical scenes of a typical southern German town as the region is the fastest growing in the country in terms of people, houses, and even transportation.  When finding a place to park, it is highly recommended to take your time, find the right spot to park without getting ticketed and impounded, and expect to walk to the Altstadt from your parked car.

This was the case during my visit, but despite this, the walk to the market was well worth it.  🙂

The market itself was really small, stretching from the Catholic Church to Post Street along the upper end of the shopping mile going past the Gallerie Kaufhof. Its aesthetic features include Christmas trees (some decorated) wrapped around street lamps along the shopping mile, LED lighting illuminating the sidewalks with Christmas slogans and light brown pinewood Christmas huts with gabled roofing and decorated with natural pine nbeedle garland and Christmas figures, such as the snowman, Santa Claus (or Weihnachtsman in German) and reindeers. The main attraction is a nine meter high Christmas pyramid, with angelic figures, whose dark brown color with white paintings resemble a gingerbread cake. Yet it is not like in Hansel and Gretel because it holds the largest of the Glühwein (mulled wine) stands at the market.  The backdrop of the market is both the church as well as the historic buildings, minus the rather modern Kaufhof. Still the market is a great stop for a drink and food after a long day of Christmas shopping.

Approximately 40 huts lined up and down the shopping mile as well as the pyramid and neighboring carousel on one end, but gallery of fairy tales and a Children’s train station on the opposite end.  The stands sold many handcrafted goods originating from the region, including the lighted Christmas arch from the Fichtel Mountains, ceramic manger sets that include a real lantern hung over the crib where baby Jesus was born and woolen clothing made in time for skiing. 🙂

But inspite this, one should pay attention to the food and drink available at the market because they are either local or multicultural. Local in this case means, in terms of food, the hot pot Schnitz and the Hofer Bratwurst (the thin version of the well acclaimed Bratwurst whose taste reminds a person of the Nuremberg Bratwurst); for the beverages, there is the local Glühwein from the nearby wineries in and around the Franconian region. Most importantly, one should try the Franconian Punch: an alcoholic drink that features orangesrum and other spices. Some include red wine and are thus renamed orange Frankenwald wine, yet just punch with the rum alone makes it the real thing worth drinking. 🙂

Yet multicultural food and drink mean that stands originating from several different country serving their own form of homemade local delicacies can be found at the Christmas market. From my own observations, stands with goodies from six different countries are worth trying while in Hof. They include those from Mexico, Belgium, Czech Republic, Turkey, Italy and Syria. Ironically, these specialties come from three of the countries that US President Trump detests (both officially and behind closed doors), one of these three is a royal pain in German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s neck. I’ll allow you to figure out which three countries I’m referring to. 😉

While I never had a chance to try all of the delicious delicacies from those stands, I tried the Gözlem (a Turkish Yufka tortilla that is filled with feta (sheep) cheese and spinach) and several small bars that contain pistachio, a nut most commonly found in Syria. The Syrians baker at that stand had a wide selection of pistachio bars, rolls, spaghetti-style bars, etc., that contained lots of these nuts plus sugar, eggs and other sweet spices. It tasted really good- enough to take it home to try with the family, especially my daughter, who is friends with a Syrian in school. 🙂 Syrians, who fled the region because of war and famine and have made their homes here in Europe, are one of the most overlooked groups when it comes to their heritage. From mainstream media, they fled to find a new life but struggle to establish their existence because of hate crimes and fake news from neo-conservative, far-right “news” sources, such as Britain First and Breitbart (US). Yet inspite of attempts of instilling fear and forcing others to turn away and against them, the majority of the public believe that the refugees have as much right to live in Germany as the Germans themselves, let alone other expatriates, like yours truly, who have escaped their home countries and found a better life.  And when looking at them even closer, one can see their special talents and food specialties, the latter of which brought out the Mr Food in me because of their secret ingredient of pistachio and its “Ooh, it’s so good!” comment.

Given the situation they are in, we have to put ourselves in our place and ask ourselves, what would we have done if we were in the crossfires? What talents and special characteristics can we take with so that we can use it for others? After all, every country has been in a war in one way or another. Germany’s last war ended 72 years ago. America’s home turf soil happened 152 years ago, focusing on slavery of the minority.  Both cultures are still alive and stronger than ever before. For refugees, like the Syrians, Turks, Kurds, Iranians and others affected by the war, they too have a right to live and shine for others and therefore, we must respect their rights and talents like we have for our own. We can learn from each other through our actions. 🙂

Summing up the Hof Christmas market, the first in Bavaria since starting my Christmas market series in 2010, I found that despite the problems with traffic, that the Christmas market in the old town was a cool place to visit. Accessible by going up the hill to the church and turning left, the market has a small hometown setting that is appealing to locals and regionals alike. One can try all the local and multi-cultural specialties and talk to people from different regions, while listening to music played or sung on stage (located at the entrance to the mall passage). And while Hof and Bayreuth have some equal characteristics in terms of having a university and similar population size, the arrangement and offer of the Christmas market falls clearly in favor of Hof this time, although admittedly, perhaps Bayreuth has changed since my visit seven years ago.

In either case, as you can see in the pics below and here per link, Hof is one city worth a visit, especially during the holiday season. One can learn culture, history and heritage for one day and come away with a small town feeling, learning a bit and enjoying that Christmas feeling.

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Mr. Food, going by the name of Art Ginsburg, started a short TV show bearing his nickname in 1975 and continued to run it until his death in 2012 due to cancer. Howard Rosenthal now runs the show bearing the name.

 

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2017 Christmas Market Tour Preview

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The huts are open. The mulled wine is flowing into the cups. Seasons greetings are being sung in front of Christmas trees. And new local goods are being introduced to tourists and regular visitors. This means the Christmas markets in Germany are officially open. And for yours truly, this means I will be on the road, profiling the best and finest of Christmas markets in Germany.  🙂

This year’s Christmas market tour is very unique for its main focus is on history and tradition. History because of the interest in typical holiday traditions in the past in comparison with the future. And tradition because of the interest in comparing the family traditions in the past and present. We know that the Christmas markets originated from eastern Germany and most of the popular figures- the Christmas Pyramid, the Lighted Christmas Arch and the incense people were mostly made in the Ore and Fichtel Mountain regions in Saxony and Bavaria. But while we know our Christmas markets based on the ones from the western half of Germany, which includes Nuremberg and Munich, plus the Christmas traditions, which are typical in the same region, we don’t know much about the history of the ones in the eastern half, which had been under Communist rule until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and Germany reunited a year later.  We know that Christmas was more or less not focused on Christianity per se because of the government’s crack down on religion. We also know that despite having wooden products made in the Ore Mountains be sold in markets in the western part but not to the people in the region. However, what makes Christmas in the former East Germany unique from the ones we’re accustomed to?

We can start with a pair of commercials that were produced during that period and focused on Christmas and shopping. The questions we have are the following:

  1. What is meant by Konsum in general and how was it used here? Was it a store or propaganda?
  2. What were the themes behind these commercials?
  3. What gifts were common during that time?
  4. How do you perceive the commercials in comparison to the ones accustomed to from an outsider’s perspective?

Have a look at the two examples:

https://youtu.be/SZ0Sywf-91I

https://youtu.be/AR99HcRjvoo

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A lot of themes were picked up during my last tour in Saxony, in places like Glauchau, Zwickau, Chemnitz, Leipzig and even Freiberg, which leads to the decision to find out more about Christmas during the Communist era. This includes items like Christmas songs, food, incense men, and other items. Therefore, this year’s tour will take us deep in the heart of the Ore Mountains in hopes to find out exactly how Christmas was celebrated before 1989 and what traditions from the past are still alive today.

Many of these factors will be integrated into the markets I visit, yet there are some factors that will be produced in separate articles, whether it is in a form of interviews, short summaries, video examples or other genres. The bottom line is to compare the tradition of eastern Germany to that of the western counterpart and allow ourselves to decide which tradition was better.

So sit back, relax and havge a look at my tour and findings that will help you (re)define the meaning of Christmas. 🙂

Stay tuned! 🙂

Note: Public Radio Station MDR is also doing coverage on Christmas in Eastern Germany, picking up from a few years ago with their podcasts. Click here for previous broadcasts and stay tuned for news coverage that will come beginning December 1st and will be added here.

 

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2016 Christmas Market Tour: Zwickau (Saxony)

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The next Christmas market on the tour takes us back to the Erzgebirge Region- or should I say the gateway to the mountains to be specific?  Zwickau is located in the southwestern part of Saxony, 17 kilometers south of neighboring Glauchau along the Zwickauer Mulde River. Access to the city of 100,000 inhabitants is easy, thanks to access to the Autobahn 72 that connects Hof (Bavaria) and Leipzig via Chemnitz and two key railways: The Nuremberg-Hof-Dresden Magistrate operated mainly by the Mitteldeutsche Railway (MRB) and the Franconian-Saxony Route connecting Leipzig-Halle and Hof with a branch extending to Zwickau from Werdau. Another rail route to Karlsbad (Karoly Vary) in the Czech Republic provides direct access to the mountains.  Zwickau is the gateway to the Erzgebirge region (Ore Mountains) with the historic Silver Road being the western terminus that provides access through the mountains enroute to Freiberg (Saxony), offering tourists a glimpse of the story of the miners and how they lived, in places like Annaberg-Buchholz, Schneeberg, Schwarzenberg, and Tharandt.  Zwickau is also the gateway to the heavily forested and hilly Vogtland region in the south, where Plauen, Greiz and Hof are located, but also the agricultural regions to the north, where Glauchau, Gössnitz and Altenburg are located. The landscape changes when passing through Zwickau, enabling people to choose which region to hike (or bike if you have two wheels). 🙂

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Zwickau is also the birthplace of automobiles and infrastructure. Audi Motors, which was created in 1932 thanks to the fusion with Horch, had its start in the city. The beloved East German car Trabant was manufactured in Zwickau until 1990. Now Volkswagon handles most of the manufacturing of cars at its headquarters between Zwickau and Glauchau. The city is home of very unique bridges stemming from six different eras, including the Paradiesbrücke, Röhrensteg and Zellstoff Bridge (a tour guide of the bridges can be found here). It is unknown whether the largest bridge builder in Zwickau, whose history goes back 160 years may have had something to do with it, but it would not be a surprise.  Yet a surprise to musicians and Germanists would be if they never knew that composer Robert Schumann was born in Zwickau and had his start there before becoming a famous pianist and music writer. The house where he was born is still standing and can be seen while in the city center.

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A specialized oven cooking Mutzbraten at Kornmarkt

Then there is the Christmas market in Zwickau. When compared to the markets in the Erzgebirge or Vogtland regions, let alone in the western half of Saxony (minus Chemnitz), the market is the largest with over 300 stands in two markets plus four different streets connecting them. From the author’s perspective, Zwickau’s market is one of the most centralized markets ever visited on tour, as one needs only two minutes walk between the two markets. It’s comparible to the ones in Leipzig, Halle (Saale), Nuremberg, Quedlinburg and to a certain degree, Freiberg.  Yet in terms of access, when compared to the likes of Chemnitz, Glauchau, Freiberg, Frankfurt (Main) and Weimar, it is very difficult to reach, especially by bike but also by car.  While one can be daring enough to bike the Zwickauer Mulde bike path and access it from Paradiesbrücke, which takes only three minutes to reach, from the train station, let alone the main highway B93, one needs 10-15 minutes to reach. The reason: The market is located deep inside the walls of the historic town, and that is located right next to the river! Allow some time and patience to find it and have your Google Map app handy.

I had two different opportunities to visit the market this year because of my commitments teaching English nearby combined with my plan to visit the markets in the mountain. Both times I came away with the same impression as before, which was very local but diverse, very historical but fancy, very religious but educational, and very wide in selection but also very tasty.  In short, if you want a taste of Erzgebirge and Vogtland and have a time and money budget, you should take some time in Zwickau, as the city provides you with a glimpse of the markets you could (and should) visit when going deeper into the regions.

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As mentioned earlier, the market is divided up into two different ones. The larger of the two markets is located at Hauptmarkt, which is between Alte Steinweg and Marienplatz. At this place, one will find everything typical of Saxony and the Erzgebirge. Like in Chemnitz and Freiberg, this market has its usual black Lichterbogen (lighted arch), laden with stands made of wood from the mountains, all of which have the usual yellowish-brown and mahogany colors and resemble log cabins and huts. The backdrop of the market features the Historic Theater (Gewandhaus) with its white and light brown Fachwerk design, the City Hall and the Robert Schumann House, where he was born.  Looking towards the theater, one will see the large pyramid with its figures of the miners in the foreground; the Christmas tree is in the background. The former is a key eatery, serving traditional delicacies but also a dozen types of Glühwein (mulled/spiced wine), including apple and spice, sanddorn (sea buckthorn) and wildberry. It is also one of three places where a person can find a Christmas market cup in several different colors and designs. Two of them I have at home as souvenirs, btw. 🙂

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View of behind the manger set with a light resembling the star that led the three wisemen to Baby Jesus. Photo taken at St. Mary’s Church.

Crossing Marienplatz and going adjacent from the Hauptmarkt, there is St. Mary’s Cathedral (the official name is St. Mary’s Evangelical Lutheran Church). While visiting the church, one really needs to see the manger set, located behind the church in front of the museum and Brauhaus restaurant and brewery. While the market has more manger sets than any of the markets in eastern Germany (at least five of them are located at the Christmas market in general), this one is the largest as the figures are life-sized and depict the scene where the three wise men visit and bless Joseph and Mary, the proud parents, and baby Jesus. While the site is more visible in the daytime, one can play with photography at night, using the lights to depict the actual scene and the lighted church as the backdrop.

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Side view of the manger set with the church in the background

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South of the church, going 300 meters, is Kornplatz. This section is the smaller of the two markets but serves as a symbol of the more traditional Christmas market on a wider German scale. This goes beyond the pyramid, which has a more modern mahogany appearance, as several gabled dark brown houses sell local clothing and cooked goods, including the Mutzbraten, which is smoked marinated pork that is cooked for 2-3 hours in a wooden stove and is a Thuringian tradition, like the Bratwurst. However there are two more local cooked specialties to be mentioned later that are even local than the Thuringian specialties offered at this Christmas market (no offense to those from Thuringia.) The market has a carousel and children’s railroad track for them to ride the train through the market. The market area itself is more suitable for families with children because of the space and some stands that are children friendly. Also as an incentive to visit the market is the children’s story alley. Located along Münzstrasse connecting the Korn and Haupt markets,  it features a display of 3-4 fairy tales which are decided upon annually by the planning committee.  The artists then construct the mural and the figures depicted in the story, which is recorded by the narrators and played by the tourists.

LOOKING AT THESE DISPLAYS, CAN YOU GUESS WHAT THEY ARE?

Other amusement rides can also be found at the Hauptmarkt, but across the streetcar tracks and on the opposite side of the statue of Robert Schumann. They were purposely placed there to provide better access for children and to avoid overcrowding. The planning of the Christmas market was perfect in a way that the children’s section was placed in the outer portions of the Hauptmarkt while the market itself can focus on local goods from the region. This plus its openness- meaning no fences and key entrances like at the one in Freiberg- enables people to enter and exit the market anywhere freely without overcrowding. It’s convenient and most importantly, it’s safe. This is probably the main reason why Zwickau’s market is so centralized- not to mention well organized. 🙂

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The stand across St. Mary’s Church which sold Zwickau Brühlette. There were three at the market that sold this unique specialty that is typical of the city.

As mentioned before, Zwickau’s Christmas market has a wide selection of food and drink- the more traditional Christmas market foods are at the Kornmarkt, while the more local goods from the region is found at the Hauptmarkt, with a few exceptions of foods from Switzerland and France at a couple booths, including Cheese Fondue.  One of the prized goods worth trying is the Zwickau Brühlette. Based on a recipe dating back to the 1950s, the Brühlette is simply a meatloaf made of ground meet combined with flour, breadcrumbs and spices, but what exactly goes into there and how it is made has remained top secret since it was presented by a married couple who invented this in light of the food shortage during the days of Socialism in East Germany. After the Fall of the Wall in 1989, the unique delicacy became nearly an overnight hit among “Westerners” that eventually, a restaurant was established, which still sells the Brühlette- with or without bread and with or without topping. I tried one at the stand across from St. Mary’s Church during my visit with mustard and it topped all the Leberkäse (basically meatloaf slices) I’ve tried since moving to Germany in 1999! It was a bit spicy but really tasty and one that stands out! When visiting Zwickau, it is recommended to put this food on top of your list of delicacies to taste.

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Not far from the top of the list of foods to taste is horse meat. Regardless of whether they are meat slices or sausage, horse meat is different from other forms of meat that people eat as it has a tender, hearty and somewhat tart-like flavor, regardless of how it is served. The place selling this is Ulrich Engelhardt, and the business has been selling horse meat since 1990, the same time the Zwickau Christmas market started up again! I tried one during my first visit in a form of a sausage on a bun and it tasted similar to Polish sausages, a common commodity sold in American supermarkets. Having that with my dad and brother while growing up, that was quite addicting and tasty! 🙂

Also recommended is the Dresden Landbrot. Originating from the capital of Saxony, the Landbrot is baked bread with filling, cooked in a wooden oven. Filling included cheese and meat, and can be served with sour creme and chives, just to name a few. This bread is best served hot with a good Glühwein to go along with that.  🙂

Despite all that is offered at the Christmas market, sometimes it hurts to say good-bye, especially when the market closes at 8:00pm. Zwickau usually ends its market day on a musical note, singing Christmas carols and a farewell song as a way to signaling the visitors mulling over some Räuchermänner made of Erzgebirge wood, accessories for a doll house, lanterns with a wooden frame, miner figures made of silver or wood and other typical local products to make the purchase and allow the merchants to close their doors to prepare for the next day. Believe it or not, I witnessed this on my visit, especially as the number of visitors had already reached its peak.  But it was a way to look back at Zwickau’s market and summarize it in simpler terms:

Zwickau is one of the largest Christmas markets in a region where the city sits at the gateway to three different landscapes: Vogtland, Erzgebirge and the agricultural plains. Like the markets of the past, Zwickau’s Christmas market provides people with an opportunity to try and purchase products locally. In other words, the market is one of the more local ones when looking at the themes mentioned and the heritage that goes along with that. While some markets are really spread out, Zwickau is one of the more centralized of the Christmas markets, with two key markets, two corridors with only a three minute walking distance and a large church with the largest of the five manger sets to see. Even if it takes a long time to get to the city center where the market is located, the visit in the end is well worth it. Given its access to the three regions and its western terminus to the Silver Road going through the Erzgebirge, Zwickau’s Christmas market provides the tourist with a whiff of the city’s history with the miners and perhaps encourages the person to explore the other Christmas markets and places along the path to look at their history and heritage and learn a bit more about the history of Saxony and to a greater extent, Germany.

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Because of that, I have a lot of towns along the Silver Road to explore, in addition to the Vogtlanders. And what will be interesting is seeing how these markets, like Annaberg-Bucholz, Schwarzenberg, Schneeberg, etc. celebrate Christmas and their miners. Will it be different or similar to what I visited during the tour? My bet is each market will be different but the miners’ legacy will be the same, affecting the lifestyles of the people in the Erzgebirge that is different than the rest of the country. And sometimes a different lifestyle opens new doors to knowledge and understanding. 🙂

Check out the Flensburg Files’ photo album with additional photos of Zwickau’s Christmas market, which you can click here. An ongoing collection of Zwickau at night, taken by the author, can be accessed here. Stop here occasionally as the collection will be bigger. Enjoy! 🙂

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2016 Christmas Market Tour: Flensburg

I would like to start off this tour with a story and a definition of the word punch. It happened at my cousin’s high school graduation reception in 1990 and I was 13. We had a large bowl of fruit punch that was based on a family recipe from my grandmother- basically, fruit juice with ginger ale and ice cream. I drained the lake and wanted more, but in response, my aunt (the proud mother of that high school graduate) decided to give me the punch I deserved, which went along the lines of this…..

You can imagine how I looked like minutes later, with a pair of Ozzy eyes (named after the famed rock singer Ozzy Osbourne)!  😉

The English version of punch is translated into German as Bowle, and with the exception of Feuerzangenbowle (a hot red wine punch with a sugar cone soaked in rum lit above it), a Bowle is a large bowl of sweet non-alcoholic beverage, served with or without ice cream (a typical German gets by without this).  However, punch can also mean Punsch in German, and that has alcohol in there.

The Christmas market in Flensburg is centered around this theme, as I had an opportunity to steal a couple hours to have a look at it. And believe me, having sampled at least five different types while up there, I felt like this afterwards:

I highly doubt Flensburg’s Roter Strasse, which is laden with shops connecting two markets was like Dodge City, Kansas in the Hollywood western films starring John Wayne, however if one is not careful with the punch, one could end up getting sobered up in the icy cold water of the Fjorde, located only 200 meters away. 😉

Overview of the Christmas market at Südermarkt with St. Nicolas Church in the background.

But getting to the real aspect here, Flensburg’s Christmas market is plotted out in a way that all of the  huts are located either in Südermarkt, where the St. Nicolas Church is located, or along the Roter Strasse. Basically, as a friend of mine (who is a Flensburger) suggested in an inquiry: Start at the market and work your way up the huts along the street. 😉 Normally, Flensburg has two markets- Südermarkt and Nordermarkt (at Schiffbrückstrasse). The reason Nordermarkt does not have any Christmas market huts is not just because of space issues, but also because seven eateries are located there. Another open area not used for the Christmas market is the Kanalschuppen am Hafenspitze (will be named Hafenspitze in this article), at the tip of the harbor. Some carnevals and markets can be found there in the springtime, and the space is technically suitable for a few huts and some form of amusement at Christmas time. However, that remained empty during my visit in November before the first Advent. Having the market directly in the city center at Südermarkt and along the main street definitely makes sense because of its location- with stores, museums and other public places lined up and down along the street, safety because of the high density of traffic encircling the city center via Norderhofenden, and convenience as people can shop and taste the punch, like going through revolving doors connecting the shopping center indoors and the huts and eateries outside at the market.

However, as mentioned at the beginning of the article, the theme of Flensburg’s Christmas market is the punch. One will see a booth for every three that sells this unique drink. The origin of Flensburg’s punch is from over 230 years of producing rum by as many as 20 refineries and distilleries owned by 13 different families; the most famous ones were Petersen, Hansen, Jensen, Braasch, Johannsen, Christiansen and Pott. One will see memorials, street names and businesses named after them today, while touring Flensburg.  And while one can take the Rum-Sugar Mile Tour, like I did during my first visit in 2010, that combined with the taste of rum or any form of punch with the beverage in there, provides the tourist with a unique treat at Christmas time. The lone caveat based on my personal experience: no matter what kind of punch a person tries, each one may have a different flavor but they one common ground, which is the ability to pack a punch with every sip. So please, be careful when sampling. 😉

I tried five different types of punch while at the Flensburger Christmas market. They included the following:

Johannsen Rum Punch- I tried this at the Johannsen hut along the main street and it was so powerful, that not even a slap in the face from a furious fraulein would surpass it. It had a citrus, cinnamon and dry red wine taste to it, but with the Johannsen Rum, one sip is enough for a good buzz. The hut was selling bottles of their signature punch when I was there. One of which was bought as a Christmas gift for a family member, who is a rum fan. We’ll see if he gets the same impression as I had. 😉

Braasch Rum Punch- Tasted at the booth near Südermarkt, this type of punch is a bit milder than the Johannsen as it had a taste of raisin, almonds and brown sugar in there. Still one does recognize the taste of rum when drinking it. For those who don’t like dried alcoholic beverage, like wine, this one is worth it because of its sweetness. This one is highly recommended. 🙂

Flensburg Special- This was purchased at a booth along the main street near Nordermarkt. Containing cinnamon schnaps and rum punch, this one has a very spicy but sweet taste to it, similar to cinnamon itself. If you have not tried cinnamon liquor, you don’t know what you’re missing. 😉

Fernwärme Punsch- Like the Flensburger Flotilla (a concoction featuring rum, Flensburger beer and apple juice), the Fernwärme Punsch, a.k.a. Hot Pipe Punch, features the signature products of Flensburg, minus the beer. In this case, Johannsen Rum with apple punch. The taste is sour as Granny Smith’s apples, but it is relatively mild.

Pott Rum Punch- Featuring a combination of der Gute Pott Rum, red wine and the spices that make up the spiced wine, this one is far different from the typical spiced wine because of its rum taste and its spiciness. Nevertheless, one will get a good dose of rum and Flensburg’s heritage with this sip, while trying this at the market.

But not everything is centered around rum at the Christmas market. Aside from the traditional German entrées that can be found at a Christmas market, like the goulash, bratwurst and kabobs, there were several huts that served some delicacies from outside of Germany, including Italy, Scandanavia and Turkey. One of the places worth visiting is a Turkish hut that serves Börek. Börek is a pastry that is made of a flaky dough called phyllo and is filled with either meat or a combination vegetable and cheese- namely spinach and Feta cheese. It can also be served with fruit pending on the appetite. I had a chance to try one while at Südermarkt and it tasted really delicious.

In spite of its fame in the rum industry and its multi-cultural foods the market offers, there are a couple of caveats about the market that the city government and organizers should take into consideration when planning the next Christmas market. One deals with the opening hours of the market, the other deals with spatial issues and possible expansion to make it more attractive.

The first oddity I found with the Christmas market were the hours. Flensburg’s Christmas market is one of a few in Germany that are open beyond Christmas- specifically, until the 31st of December. Most Christmas markets close before Christmas or even on Christmas Eve, thus sticking to the guidelines and observing the holidays, let alone families wishing to celebrate and then go on vacation. However, the opening hours of Flensburg’s market is even more odd. They are open until 10pm daily, even though most stores and shopping areas at and near the market close at 8:00pm sharp, unless some exceptions are noted. Aside from the fact that it was a perfect opportunity to visit during the evening of my visit in Schleswig-Holstein, there are some benefits and drawbacks to extended hours. The benefits include the possibility to eat and drink at the huts with friends, as well as buy any last minute gift items for Christmas, even if it was a bottle of a valuable rum, like Braasch or Johannsen. For many who work long hours or have to travel long distances, a brief stop at the market in Flensburg provides them with a chance to enjoy the view of the city center and harbor, while sipping one of their punches and eating a rare cuisine.

The drawbacks to having extended hours are two-fold. The first one is the conflict between the huts selling their goods, the retailers and the customers. While the market may be open until 10pm, many retailers may feel disadvantaged because of the loss of sales. In addition, many customers would like to do some nighttime shopping in addition to visiting the Christmas market and would see extended opening hours on weekdays as an advantage, especially as they do not have sufficient time to shop for Christmas. On the flip side, however, some huts I observed while touring Roter Strasse closed a half hour to an hour earlier because they didn’t have enough customers to keep their stores open. If a salesperson sees one or two customers stopping at a stand during the last two hours of the market in comparison with over 300 during peak times between 12:00 and 6:00pm, then the question remains if these two extra hours makes sense.  Roter Strasse is known to Flensburgers and tourists alike as the district that never sleeps- not just because of the lighting, but also the bustling nightlife that goes on even after 10:00pm. This is speaking from personal experience after visiting the city for the fifth time since 2010. Even at midnight, one will see people walking around or see some action in one form or another. It is also one of the busiest pedestrian pathways in northern Germany as thousands roam the streets during the day when all stores and eateries are open. Keeping this in mind, businesses and planners need to work on having transparent opening hours at the market. If the stores wish to close at 8:00pm, then the Christmas market should also follow suit and close their shops just like the other markets. If the Christmas market wishes to remain open until 10pm, then at least the shopping centers and key businesses should remain open to encourage shoppers to buy their gifts AND eat or drink at the market. Only with these uniform guidelines will Flensburg win more customers and leave no one out in the cold.

View of the market at Südermarkt and its pyramid from the steps of St. Nicolas Church.

Another critique point of the Flensburg market is the space. The market is concentrated at Südermarkt with some huts lined along Roter Strasse. Despite the main street connecting both markets, there are no huts at Nordermarkt because of its proximity to the numerous eateries nearby, let alone its size as it is at least half the size of Südermarkt. But as mentioned earlier, there is potential for expansion on the opposite end of Süderhofenden, the main highway passing through Flensburg. In the past, the highway was laden with traffic, and crossing the street to the Hafenspitze was dangerous. However, since the Deutsche Bahn has eliminated train service connecting the harbor with the train station a few years ago, plans are in the work to convert the rail tracks to a pedestrian path, thus encouraging more commerce around the harbor and possibly enlarging the Christmas market. Already in the works is the revitalizing of Angelburger Strasse from the former Comic/Bike Shop Bridge at Süderhofenden to Petersen’s Bike Shop at Bismarck Strasse by redesigning the businesses, renovating many of the historic buildings along the street to provide housing and new commerce and encouraging businesses and residents to move to the area, the city council, merchants and planners are working to attract more people and businesses and thus relieving the overcrowding that the business district has, especially at Christmas time. If successful, a row of huts and other forms of holiday entertainment, perhaps around a (cultural) theme could be provided to encourage people to visit there.

Former Restaurant Bellevue now called Heimathafen at Hafenspitze
View of Flensburg’s skyline from the Restaurant Heimathafen. This is the third picture at this site since my first visit in 2010. The Christmas tree is on the far left.

Another sign that an area of Flensburg is being revitalized came with the purchase and reopening of the former Bellevue Restaurant at Hafenspitze in June 2016. As the restaurant is fostering its growth in the number of customers, one could revitalize the area at Hafenspitze by adding an amusement section, like a theater or a few rides, and a few huts to provide food and drink for those interested. During my visit the area was completely empty and what was featured that constitutes a Christmas market was a lighted Christmas tree in the harbor. Great photo opportunity for a dedicated (night) photographer, but Flensburg can do better with utilizing and revitalizing the area, let alone a larger Christmas tree in the harbor.  With this development, the city can attract more businesses, especially from Denmark and parts of Scandanavia. There were only a couple stands selling goods from the region, despite its campaign of being the market with a Scandanavian flair. However, with some redeveloping of the aforementioned areas combined with some incentives, the city can bring in many businesses from up north- be it the ones in the north of the city, at the border in Pattburg or even in other parts of Denmark and beyond. Flensburg’s role as a border town, a multi-cultural community with the largest Danish minority in Germany and its great reputation in many fields makes it a magnet for more people, businesses, and in the end one of the most attractive Christmas markets  in the region. 🙂

Night photo of Flensburg’s City Center and Christmas tree at Hafenspitze

Flensburg’s Christmas market can be best summed up in this way. The market centers around its rum industry and its many types of punch a person can try. It does complement the businesses and historic places the city has to offer and it definitely makes the city center a rather attractive place morning, noon and night. It is a small market with a potential for greater and bigger things, especially in light of recent developments at Hafenspitze and Angelburger Strasse, but it is definitely not small enough to be missed while travelling north to Scandanavia. One just needs to start at Südermarkt and work their way along Roter Strasse. With a good punch in the hand, and a walk along the business strip, visiting each booth, one will not forget this trip. I personally didn’t. 🙂

 

Apart from this, more photos of Flensburg’s Christmas market, taken by the author, can be found on the Files’ facebook page. Just click here and you’ll be directed to the photo album.

 

  DO AGREE WITH THE AUTHOR? 

What things can be done to make Flensburg’s Christmas market more attractive? Do you agree with the author’s critique? Please feel free to share your thoughts and ideas in the Comment section below. But don’t forget, the city council, planners and merchants would also like to hear from you too. 🙂

Prost! Cheers! Salut! Mazeltov! From the two travel companions enjoying a good Flens beer: BamBam and CoCo (brown)

How to Create Your Own Christmas Market

German Christmas markets are one of a kind. They feature unique architecture in the form of Christmas huts, the Christmas pyramid, lighted arches (Lichterbogen), some historic buildings as a backdrop (like the city hall, stores and even churches), murals, a giant Christmas tree and a stage for performances.  The theme of the Christmas markets depend on the planning by local governments and residents, although most Christmas markets follow the models presented by the ones in Nuremberg and Dresden.

 

Yet despite large cities in Germany (and parts of Europe) and the US having the Christmas markets going on during the Advent period, the question that many smaller towns and villages have is can a person create a Christmas market in their community?  When looking at the German-named villages in Minnesota alone, not one of them exists. Not even in New Ulm, which is the most German of these communities.  Yet New Ulm’s population, topography and size is comparable to the Christmas market I visited in Glauchau (Saxony), which justifies the need for a Christmas market to complement the German businesses that exist in the town of 14,000 inhabitants, such as Schell’s Brewery, Veigel’s Kaiserhoff and Domeier’s German Store.

Then again, when looking at a village like Heilsberg in Thuringia, which is only a fraction of the population size of Glauchau and New Ulm, one can see that it is possible to have a Christmas market, if members of the community are willing to cooperate and sell typical items while using the money collected for a good purpose.

 

Located 13 kilometers north of Rudostadt and 25 kilometers east of Stadtilm in the Thuringian Forest, Heilsberg has only 200 inhabitants and has belonged to the community cluster of Remda-Teichel since 1997. However, its existence dates back to the 820s AD, when the city was first mentioned in the record books. The lone attraction of Heilsberg is the St. Boniface’s Church, which was built in 1718, with extensions in 1764. Despite thorough renovations during the 1990s, the church still holds service for the congregation, most of whom are from the village.

 

Since 2011, the village has hosted the Christmas Market, which is held on one Saturday during the holiday season. From three in the afternoon until ten at night, residents of the town, including family members and guests would gather, drink a spiced wine, try a local, family specialty and listen to carols from the church choir. The set-up of the market is rather simple, especially when everyone helps. The venue of the Christmas market is usually the bus stop, which consists of a loop-like parking lot that is not only enough for busses and cars to park but also for adding a half dozen huts, a stage and some entertainment.

The arrangement of the Christmas market is very simple: On the morning of the market, a team of volunteers would arrange the market, where the bus stop is converted into a combination of a stage for performances and a bar which sells spiced wine (Glühwein) and mead (Heisser Met). Next to the bus stop (on the right for this year’s market) would be the Christmas tree, consisting of a pine tree cut down in the nearby forest and hauled into the village, a day or two before. In the middle of the bus stop in front of the tree and stage would be the fire pits, where wood and charcoal are burned in steel barrels and people can warm-up in the evening. Next to them are the picnic areas, where people can sit, eat and converse. And surrounding them and the fire pits are the booths, where eateries and goods are sold.  Arranging them in a horseshoe format, a total of eight booths were arranged, each of which were built from scratch or improvised out of trailers and/or parts of trucks. Each of them is equipped with electricity which is provided through generators and extension cords from nearby houses.  The lone exception is a ninth booth, which is the blacksmith. His is located behind the picnic area opposite the stage and Christmas tree and is also equipped with two fire pits of his own- one of which is of course for the metalwork, making swords, shields, necklaces and figures out of steel.

But the production of metal goods is not the only homemade items one can find in a local Christmas market. Each booth has its own set of products to sell, but it has to be agreed upon between the coordinator and the rest of the community that is involved in setting up the market to avoid any overlapping and competition.   Apart from the booth selling hot drinks, there is one that sells meat products- namely bratwursts, steaks, kabobs and burgers. Another one sells homemade Eierlikör (in English, Advocaat) with original, chocolate and chili flavors. Another booth sells Bratapfel (baked apples with or without stuffing), again homemade and available with almond paste, chocolate, cookie and nuts, as well as with spices. The same applies to another booth that sells Christmas cookies and other candies. There is a booth that sells potatoes in a form of baked, fried in chips or fried French style- homemade and served with mustard, ketchup or even mayonaise. There is one that sells fish products- raw, baked, pulled (like Flammlachs) or smoked. Then there are two booths- one selling used goods and one selling handcrafted items, such as windlights made of glass bottles. There is one selling crepes, which is the French version of pancakes, and lastly, the market is not complete without a booth selling beer and other beverages. In Heilsberg’s case, there was no handcrafted beer, yet with this hobby becoming the norm in American households, one should put that into consideration if the beer crafted in the past has been embraced by those who enjoy a mug or two. Products are sold at a relatively affordable price, and proceeds go to the cause of choice.  While in the case of Heilsberg, the money collected goes to their church for the renovation of the church bell (which is expected to be completed by the end of next year), other Christmas markets in nearby villages have donated money to charity helping the children in need, school or church programs that foster the child’s growth, local sports teams for new equipment. In one case, a nearby village collects money for a children’s hospice care facility in the north of Thuringia in Nordhausen, located west of Leipzig.

And while markets like the one in Glauchau feature a pair of modern pyramids, an Adventskalendar, an ice skating rink, some lighted arches (Lichterbogen) for sale or decoration pending on the size and preference, and Räuchermänner, they are not really a necessity if one compensates these with musical performances from local groups. In the case of Heilsberg, a local church choir singing carols is enough because of its population size. Even a little Christmas comedy and story-telling about the birth of Jesus and miracles at Christmas time are enough to bring in crowds from both inside as well as from surrounding areas.  This is what makes a local Christmas market like this one really special. 🙂 Just don’t forget to invite Santa Claus. 😉

After all the drinking, eating, singing and conversing, the market is taken down the next morning, most likely after the church service, with the Christmas tree being taken to the church for use during the Christmas masses on Christmas Eve and the 1st Day of Christmas. In Germany, we have three days of Christmas from the 24th to the 26th, in comparison to only two in many countries like America. The tree remains there until the Day of Epiphany, when it is taken down. As for the booths, they are converted back to their original uses, the leftovers eaten up or given away to the poor, the unsold goods donated, and the ideas back to the drawing table to see how they can better the market for this time next year.

The advocaat stand, selling homemade liquor

As small as the Christmas market is in Heilsberg, a day for a few hours will do. However the bigger the community the more likely it is necessary to extend the market by a day, another weekend or even more. It depends on how seriously a community takes its Christmas markets. As mentioned in my column about my last Christmas market in Glauchau, as big as the city is and with as much history as it has (read more about it here), one Advent weekend is not enough, especially because of its predominance of Lutheranism. But there may be some reasons behind that. Werdau, located 10 kilometers west of Glauchau, has a three-hour Christmas market that takes place on one Sunday and that’s it. Too short to German standards, but one that best attracts people to this community of 18,000. Having a Christmas market takes a lot of planning, which includes where to have the venue, when to host it, who is ready to sell goods, how many people will come and esp. what will the money collected from the sales be used for. That alone is the core of the market.

 

While only a few Christmas markets can be found in the US- namely in large cities, like Chicago, Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Atlanta, as well as areas strong in German heritage, such as in Wisconsin and Ohio, plus Amana Colonies in Iowa, it doesn’t mean it is impossible to host one in your community. Especially in the German-named villages, like the ones in Minnesota, people will profit from having one, even if it is on a weekend. All it takes is looking at this success story of Heilsberg, look at the recipes for the products typically sold at the markets below, collaborate as to where to have it- be it in the business district, at a park or church, put some booths together, and make it as typically European as possible. With the last one, one might want to look to German communities as references- not necessarily Nuremberg or Dresden, but others that have held these markets for many years in smaller communities to collect some ideas before starting this adventure. There are enough examples to go around, especially when looking at the markets visited and profiled by the Files since 2010. Then it is off to the races.

 

Can you imagine a market in front of a church or at a bar and grill restaurant in Bergen? Or what about Marktplatz in New Ulm? In front of the Catholic Church overlooking the lake in Fulda would be a traditional smash hit. Or at a ski resort near Luxembourg, in front of Heimey’s Bar and Grill in New Germany, in the parking lot of Flensburg’s Bar and Grill- all one hot spots.  Add this to New Trier’s Snow Days and that would really attract a crowd. But then again, other non-German named communities should try the concept as well. All is possible. It’s just a matter of interest, planning and making it happen.

 

Here are some recipes worth trying:

Glühwein (Spiced Wine)

Mead (Heisse Met)

Advocaat (Eierlikör)

Hot Granny (Heisse Oma)

Dresdner Landbrot

Langosch

Homemade Bratwurst

Crepes

Roasted Nuts

Dresdner Stollen

 

All photos and the map are courtesy of Michael Fox, who also provided some information on the Christmas market in Heilsberg. A special thanks for his work and the homemade advocaat that will be tasted over Christmas.  A guide on the Christmas markets including the ones visited this year (so far) is available here. It also has a list of German-named villages in Minnesota worth visiting.