December 18th-21st, 2014.
Europe is miserable in the winter. There isn’t any point in denying it. Not only is it hats-and-gloves-and-scarves type of cold, but it is wet. It rains almost every. single. day. The days that aren’t rainy are cloudy. But every once in a while, you will get a sunny day. Then you’ll blink four times, and the sun is already sinking below the horizon. I can’t believe when we lived in the States that we ever complained about the days getting short in the winter. We had no idea how good we had it. If Stephen hadn’t gone outside during lunch time, he would have literally gone all day without seeing sunlight. When he woke up for work, it was dark. When he came home from work, it was dark. Winter is one long drudge, and everyone spends it grouchy, cold, wet, and Vitamin-D deficient.
But if you’re about to start feeling all sorry for them, don’t. In the middle of this miserable slog, the whole continent turns into one big Christmas festival. Since they don’t have Halloween or Thanksgiving to look forward to, they turn the best holiday of the entire year into basically a winter-long event. Lights and decorations start to come up in late October/early November and don’t come down until Twelfth Night. I was stocking up on Marks & Spencer Christmas puddings, brandy butter, and mince pies long before my friends on Facebook even started to complain about those people who start celebrating Christmas before Thanksgiving is over. Oops. Guilty as charged. I can’t even begin to tell you how bearable all of the Christmas lights, trees, cakes, pies, mulled wine, holly, and garland makes the long, dark winter. I almost found myself feeling happy that it was dark for most of the day; all the better for seeing the Christmas lights lining the streets! (Dark for most of the day- that doesn’t even make sense, does it?)
This is where the Christmas markets enter into the picture. It isn’t enough to have all sorts of decorations, lights, and speciality foods to celebrate the season. They go one step further. For the whole month of Advent, cities around Europe open up markets where you can buy decorations, winter clothing, tree ornaments, candles, and gifts and eat and drink to your heart’s content. We decided to go to Cologne’s.
Cologne had seven markets set up all around town, and it took us two and a half days to visit them all. The market with the most impressive backdrop was located directly beneath Cologne’s enormous gothic cathedral. According to Wikipedia, the cathedral (Kölner Dom) is Germany’s most visited landmark. Would you believe we didn’t even go inside? We were so busy with the eating, drinking, and shopping that it didn’t even occur to us. It was rainy and cold all of the days we were in Cologne, so the wet stone and grey skies made the spires and spiky buttresses even more imposing. None of my photos show its two towers or do it justice (so it might be worth it to do a google search.)
The markets are usually set up in public squares or on pedestrianized shopping streets. They consist of sometimes hundreds of wooden stalls, all selling different wares. This particular market had hundreds of lights strung over it so that it looked like a net of Christmas lights above our heads.
I don’t have pictures of all of the market that we went to in Cologne, but I do have a few of our absolute favorite market, which was located in Cologne’s Alstadt (Old Town). Some of the markets had themes, like angels; this market’s theme was gnomes! The entranceway had gnomes standing guard above it, and even the stained glass in the panels featured the little guys.
Since it is so cold outside during these markets, everyone buys hot beverages to warm them up. The most popular beverage is glühwein (mulled wine) and eierpunsch, a warm eggnog-like drink. The drinks are served in that market’s own distinctive cup, and you can either return the cup and get your deposit back or keep it and forfeit the money you put down (usually only a few euro). These gnome cups were too cute to resist! We kept one of both colors. My favorite drink was the feuerzangenbowle, where a rum-soaked tiny sugar loaf is placed in a special holder and then lit on fire, letting it drip into the glühwein.
The markets usually always sell nativity scenes, carved nutcrackers, toys, decorations, and ornaments. We bought a little gnome ornament and a Christmas pyramid, which is a traditional German Christmas decoration. These wooden decorations are shaped more like a carousel than a pyramid and have a little propellor at the top. Candles are placed inside the carousel and lit, and the rising heat causes the blade to spin. We were so excited to get such a unique souvenir from the markets and packed it very carefully for the long journey home in our suitcase. Once we got it home and lit it, though, we realized it didn’t spin! We went through four candles total, and the propellor didn’t even move so much as an inch. We hope we can one day by another one that actually works!
Besides the wonderful drinks and shops, the markets also have fantastic food, almost all of the unhealthy-variety, which is what you want at Christmas time anyway. Besides buying a ton of marzipan and stollen to take home with us, we had waffles, chocolate and oreo-covered strawberries, and our personal favorite, reibekuchen, fried potato fritters. We ate so many over the course of the four days that by the end of it, we couldn’t even stand to look at them anymore.
One of those four days, we took a day trip to Düsseldorf to go to their markets. That will be my next post, so stay tuned!