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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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