There is an old stereotype that many Americans go by when they hear of Germany, which is beer, bratwurst and Bavaria. Everything else is backwards and is not worth the time or money to visit. This was the stereotype I had encountered among my compadres during my days at my alma mater in Moorhead, Minnesota (Concordia College) and learned during a month long seminar on public policy when we visited Munich and Berchtesgaden. So it is no wonder why the Christmas markets in Nuremberg, Rothenburg ob der Tauber and Munich are so popular among the Americans passing through the region. Little do they realize is the fact that even though these markets- and in particular the one in Nuremberg- may be the most marketed and beloved by so many people, there is one Christmas market in Germany that tops the one in the district capital of Franconia in terms of size, diversity and even popularity.
Go three hours to the northeast by train on the Franconia-Saxony Express and you will end up in Dresden. With a population of over 400,000 inhabitants and located on the Elbe River, Dresden is the capital and largest city in Saxony. While it may be the meeting point for multi-culture and technology- thanks to its proximity to Poland and the Czech Republic and two technical institutions (the Technical University of Dresden and the Dresden Institute of Science and Technology), it is Germany’s crown jewels with regards to history and architecture as they both go hand in hand. But when the holiday season comes around, millions of people from all over the world flock to this city of crown jewels to visit the Christmas market. From the columnist’s point of view after visiting the place, the Christmas markets in Frankfurt and Nuremberg (which I saw last year) may be big in the eyes of the residents living there, but in Dresden, the Christmas market is huge! And when one sees all the places connected to this historic and most popular Christmas market in Germany, one can only say it is awesome!
Dresden’s Christmas market is the oldest in the world with the first one dating as far back as the 900s. The Striezelmarkt, located in Dresden’s Altmarkt, is the oldest annual market in Germany with its origins dating as far back as 1434. There are eight different markets throughout all of Dresden’s immediate city limits and dozens more in the city’s suburban areas, making it one of the largest Christmas markets in Germany. And given the various themes and settings of each market, one does have the right to boast about it being perhaps the most multi-cultural of Germany’s Christmas markets, overshadowing the Nuremberg Christmas market by a long shot.
Given the size of the Christmas market in Dresden, there is really no choice but to cut them down to bite-size articles so that the reader can picture what the place looks like from the eye of both the columnist and the photographer. I will start with the Christmas market in general, which will feature the specialties that are offered in Dresden, using the smaller markets as examples- namely, the market at Dresden-Blasewitz, the corridor between Dresden Central Railway Station and the Striezelmarkt (but minus the latter as there is a separate article on that) and the one in front of the Residential Palace. The second article will feature the Medieval-style Christmas market, located in front of and along the Frauenkirche (Church of the Ladies) when facing the Elbe. The third article will deal with the Christmas market at Dresden-Neustadt, while the last article will explain about the Striezelmarkt, located in the Altmarkt.
DRESDEN- RESIDENTIAL PALACE:
Walking towards the Elbe River and the promenade that runs alongside the river, if one wants to walk into or around the palace on the left side towards the Augustusbrücke, one will be greeted with a market similar to the one at Weimar’s Theaterplatz in terms of size, which features local specialties from Saxony. In particular, one can take advantage of the pastries from a bakery in Pulsnitz. Established in 1909, the Gräfe Pastries Company produces a wide array of pastries going beyond the beloved Dresdner Stollen, a fruit cake coated with powdered sugar, and Saxony’s only version of Lebkuchen (Gingerbread biscuits). It produces and sells a wide array of honey bars, Spitzen (small bars with filling in them) and Baumkuchen (a donut-shaped stacked cake with a chocolate covering). If one thinks that they taste the same as the ones at the Christmas market in Nuremberg, think again. Each Christmas pastry tastes different in each region and the one in Dresden is one that is unforgettable. That combined with a cup of Dresdner Glühwein (mulled wine) makes an afternoon lunch (Kaffeetrinken) a memorable one. The market at Residential Palace serves as a break spot for people touring the historic buildings or visiting the other markets in the city and is one that is a must-see if one wants to try the specialties from Saxony.
This is one of a dozen examples of suburban communities holding a Christmas market during one or two weekends, but during the rest of the holidays, is a farmer’s market offering local specialties that is typical for the suburb. This includes goods from local meat butchers, bakeries and the local produce stands. What is so special about this market apart from the Christmas tree? Simple. Apart from the surroundings consisting of historic buildings dating back to the 1800s with its ornamental appearance, the market is located next to one of Dresden’s beloved bridges, the Loschwitz Bridge (a.k.a Blaues Wunder or Blue Wonder/Miracle), an 1894 cantilever bridge spanning the Elbe River that is famous for two reasons: 1. Legend has it that when one painted the bridge green, it turned to blue when the sun shone on it, and 2. A last ditch effort to diffuse the explosives- set by the fleeing Nazis during the last month of World War II in an attempt to prevent the oncoming Russian soldiers from marching into the city- was successful and the bridge was spared from becoming a pile of twisted metal and rubble. One can see the bridge today either from the market or from the terrace of the Schiller Restaurant located on the southeast end of the structure.
DRESDEN CENTRAL STATION AND CORRIDOR:
When getting off the train at Dresden Central Station, one will be greeted by a gigantic Christmas tree that is in the station building. Yet it is not the only greeting you will receive when you leave the station enroute to the city center. Just outside the the entrance to the station and along Prager Strasse to the Striezelmarkt one will be greeted with a row of Christmas market huts located along the corridor. If one chooses not to take the tram to Pirnaischer Platz (which is the stop closest to the Christmas markets at Altmarkt and in front of the Frauenkirche), one can walk straight to the Altmarkt along the corridor where one can see the huts lining up on each side, offering specialties and merchandise pertaining to the city of Dresden. This includes Radeberger Beer, merchandise pertaining to the professional soccer team Dynamo Dresden, or souvenirs from the city. In either case, one can easily try the local specialties before entering the city center or pick up something to remember on the way out of the city, as a way of showing the friends and family back home that they were at the Christmas market in Dresden.
(Written as a co-column with sister column The Bridgehunter’s Chronicles)
People take pride in gardening, a pastime where they plant whatever they want, make their houses and apartments attractive enough for others to admire and envy, and present their prized product at various competitions at the local, state, and even national level, be it at a local festival or a county or state fair. Gardening provides people with a chance to enjoy the great outdoors, meet new people and be creative, no matter how.
In Germany, this is especially noticeable despite the close quarters residents have to endure. While private property in Germany may be a quarter of the size of that of the US on average and the majority of the population live in apartments and duplexes, the people there treat gardening like it is sacred, and experiment with various plants and vegetation even if they originate from places far away. And when it comes to an event like the German Garden and Horticulture Show (a.k.a. BUGA), people flock there to see the finest plants and vegetation from all over the world.
Founded in 1951, the event takes place every two years and serves as a trio function. The first is to encourage cities and regions to spruce up their land and cityscapes and make it attractive for people visiting or wanting to live there. The second is to provide additional income for the tourism industry and encourage the areas to use it to improve areas for people to see. And lastly, environmentally speaking, it provides people with an opportunity to showcase how the host cities/regions make their landscapes more energy efficient and environmentally safe. An example of how these theories come into practice is the 2007 BUGA in Gera and Ronneburg in eastern Thuringia, where the former lead mine near the latter host town was converted to a large park with lots of vegetation for people to enjoy. The city of Gera reshaped itself from a run-down former Communist town into one that presented a classic example of how history and modernization harmonize with each other with renovated ornamental buildings, former East German buildings being reused for recreational purposes and a revamped infrastructure which featured two new train stations and several new bridges along the White Elster River, including the Textima Suspension Bridge at Hofwiesen Park Park and the Dragon’s Tail Bridge near Ronneburg.
For the city of Koblenz, this year’s BUGA is a special one for the community of over 106,000 inhabitants. Established between 18 and 10 BC, the city is home to the German Corner (Deutsches Eck), where the Rhein and the Mosel Rivers meet. This is the site where the city center was created by the Teutonic Order in 1218, and the statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I. was created in 1897 and reestablished again in 1993 after he was knocked off his horse during World War II. There is the old town with many churches and buildings dating back to the Renaissance- almost all of which have been restored and are livelier than ever before. The Ehrenbreitstein castle, located on the east end of the Rhein opposite the city provides tourists with awesome views of the city and the deep river valley, known as the main corridor for shipping traffic between the Alps in northern Switzerland and the mouth at the North Sea near Rotterdam in the Netherlands. The newly restored castle with its large gardens is one of the largest castles to be seen along the mega-river. All three of these areas were the venue of the flower and horticultural exhibits with the Ehrenbreitstein and the old town hosting multicultural events held almost every day between April and the weekend of 16 October. Koblenz is the first city in Rheinland-Palatinate to host the 30th biannual event, even though it is the third largest city in the state behind Trier and Mainz (the state’s capital).
Yet if one is not interested in the large garden display with observation deck at Ehrenbreitstein, the flower garden at Deutsche Eck or some of the culture events occurring in the city center, there is plenty to do and see while in Koblenz. Take for instance the tour of the castles along the Rhein and Mosel Rivers, for example. One can take a 2-3 hour boat trip to see the likes of the Marksburg and Stolzenfels along the Rhein and the Thurant and Metternich along the Mosel while at the same time, enjoy a typical Rheinland-Palatinate meal and a Königsberger beer, locally brewed at the company just outside the city. This is one of the things that one must do; especially when the weather is schizophrenic like it was during the visit recently. And while there may be some people who want to crash the party while intoxicated, like it was the case during the boat tour, the trip with the wild breeze hollowing through the Rhein is worth every minute of the trip, together with a little bit of brain food on the history of the region.
Doing some comparison between this year’s BUGA and that of 2007 in Gera and Ronneburg, one can see stark contrasts with regards to the city and landscapes and the way the government on the local level worked to bring the BUGA to their venues. Gera and Ronneburg for the most part was built from the ground up with some places being rebuilt to look more attractive for the tourists. The park near Ronneburg used to be the site of the former lead mining facility which emitted harmful fumes in the air and whose chemicals seeped into the ground water, causing pollution never before imagined, and cutting short the lives of thousands of workers and those living in surrounding areas by up to 30% because of various forms of cancer and other respiratory diseases. It took more than 15 years and hundreds of millions of Euros to clean up the facility and convert the area into a place of recreation not only for the BUGA but afterwards. This included turning areas that were altered through strip-mining into artificial valleys filled with plants and wildlife, which support the creek going past the former site and into Ronneburg. Three bridges were constructed in and around the areas, two of which span the newly built valley including the Dragon’s Tail Pedestrian Bridge, one of the longest in the state of Thuringia.
With this year’s BUGA, it represents a mirror reflection to the one in 2007 as the infrastructure and the architecture of Koblenz has already been provided. It is more of the question of making a name for itself and bringing out the best in the city and its heritage. Up to 500 million Euros (or $710 million) was spent sprucing up the city center and Ehrenbreitstein Castle by renovating the buildings, redesigning the streets to make it more pedestrian friendly and in cases, like the castle on the hill of the Rhine, rebuild in many places so that the guests can ooh and aah at the city and the river valley from up above. There was little need to renovate the train station, like in Gera and Ronneburg, and there was no need to build new bridges as the existing ones serve traffic over the Rhine and Mosel, including the Balduin Bridge, a stone arch bridge over the Mosel that has been in service since the 14th Century. As a bonus, a cable car line runs from the Deutsche Eck directly over the Rhine and up to Ehrenbreitstein. As a finish product of all the renovating that was done to the city, one will be amazed at the beauty the city has to offer, not only on the outside but also on the inside. While one will find the likes of the Residential Palace, the Church of our Lady and the city center of Münzplatz inspiring on the outside, one will feel like walking into the city’s past and seeing what the city was like in the Renaissance Age, even though much of the city was in fact severely damaged and destroyed in many parts during World War II.
When the 2011 BUGA ends during the weekend of October 14-16, all the newly renovated places will become the care of the local government, whose responsibility will be to upkeep them and prevent them from becoming something similar to the prairie flower “Hour of Fame.” This means that the places that have been newly established from the old or constructed from scratch must be maintained in order to prevent negligence and vandalism. The difficult part about this task is the financing for the maintenance of these places. This is one problem that Gera and Ronneburg have with the park with the Dragon’s Tail Bridge, as attempts to sell it to private groups have failed up to now due to lack of funds and interest from the tourist. The future of the place at the moment is in doubt. What the city of Koblenz must avoid is following a path similar to what happened as a result of the “BUGA-Hangover-Effect.” The difference between the two venues is clear and works to Koblenz’s advantage quite well. Tourism is well-established in the city thanks to its heritage and its proximity to the Rhine and Mosel Rivers and the places that are offered within spitting distance of the city. Also helpful to the city is the fact that events like the Christmas Market (which takes place from 18 November to 22 December this year) will draw in more tourists and revenue, which means more flexibility in terms of keeping the places clean and looking like they were during the BUGA. This is something that is still being worked on in Gera and Ronneburg, as the venues are looking for ways out of two problems that they have at the moment- reshaping the city and landscapes and population loss as many people are emigrating away from the region for better job prospects. Both of these have resulted in the loss of revenue that is badly needed.
While Koblenz will be left to run its course, the next two BUGAs in Germany will be in the northern parts of the country. In 2013 the event will take place in Hamburg. It will be the fourth time the city hosts the event (the last one being in 1973 ), but the city of 1.5 million inhabitants- the second largest city and city-state in the country- is transforming itself both architecturally as well as infrastructurally, from an industrial port to one which holds character regarding its heritage as well as one that is working on becoming a carbon neutral city, like Copenhagen. Already the International Building Expo has been working on reshaping the cityscape of the city center known as Hafen City and its southern suburb of Wilhelmsburg, with the goal of having the area ready to take on many garden-lovers and environmentalists in two-years’ time. After that event, it moves southeast to the Havel region in the state of Brandenburg in 2015. That region is rich with forests and lakes, and with Berlin and Potsdam located nearby, people will have more than what they bargained for with this year’s BUGA in Koblenz.
There are many ways to look at the BUGA this year and how Koblenz has benefitted from it. Given its location and its heritage, the city benefitted from the surge of tourists and revenue, which can be used for future projects. The city has already taken advantage of the event by showcasing its finest plants and flowers, while presenting the treasures of the city- the old town (with its churches and the Residential Palace, the Deutsche Eck, and the Ehrenbreitstein Castle to those who want to see it. And for those like yours truly and the people who accompanied me on the trip, the incentive is there to see the region again, while at the same time, see if Hamburg and the Havel region can copy the successes displayed by this year’s BUGA in Koblenz. We will have to see when travelling to the next one.
FLENSBURG FILES FAST FACTS:
While at Ehrenbreitstein Castle, there was a showcase on forests in Germany and the facts are rather interesting to note. Despite being just a tad bit bigger than Thuringia and smaller than Hesse, Rheinland-Palatinate is tied with Hesse with the largest percentage of forests existing in the state with 42%. Bavaria comes in third with 36% and Thuringia with 23%. Schleswig-Holstein is last with only 10%, which also ranks it second to last if one includes the three city-states (Bremen has only 5%).
Interesting Facts about Koblenz’s places of interest- The Ehrenbreitstein was first built in 1000 AD, extended while under the control of the Archbishops of Trier 20 years later, destroyed by the French in 1801 after a long siege, and rebuilt massively using its original foundations in 1816-32. Much of the castle was rebuilt after World War II which includes three new additions, one of which houses an eatery. Apart from the beautiful courtyard, the castle today holds two museums (Rhein and the state) and hosts numerous events both inside as well as outside at the amphitheater.
Just south of the city there is the Stolzenfels Castle, which was built in the 13th Century. Napoleon I donated the ruins to the city in 1802, which then gave it to King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia in 1823. It was rebuilt under his control from 1836 to 1842. Much of the castle was rebuilt using the design from the one built in the 13th Century but was destroyed during Napoleon’s siege of the city in 1801.
The Residential Palace overlooking the Rhein was the last building that was contructed before the French Revolution, as it was built for the last Prince-Elector of Trier from 1777 to 1786. It was completely destroyed during World War II but was rebuilt from scratch in 1951. Most of the public offices are now housed here today. Distinctive of the palace is the beautiful court facing the city (was filled with flowers and a beautiful pool) and the promenade facing the river to the east, where a statue of Josef Görres (1776-1823), a prominent Koblenzer overlooks the river. Görres was an elementary school teacher, writer for the city’s newspaper, and a philosopher.