German towns host Christmas markets brimming with medieval merriment
By NINA PEACOCK | Special to Stars & Stripes | Published: November 21, 2012
Sometimes tied to a historic castle or a city’s history, sometimes staged for the sake of hobby or fun, medieval-themed Christmas markets abound in Germany.
The markets evoke the European Middle Ages within a festive Christmas context. Expect to see a lot of natural materials: wood and iron tools in the hands of guild craftsmen, games played with stones, hand-crafted goods made of wool. The lighting at some markets is soft with the glow of fire pits and candles. Aromas wafting through the air might include a pig roasting on a spit over an open fire or bread baked in a log-fueled clay oven. And there is garb, so much garb: pointed princess hats with flowing tails, heavy wool cloaks, patchwork pants and vests, wooden shoes and maybe even a knight’s clanking armor.
Dispersed throughout Germany, some medieval markets are events unto themselves, while others are tucked within the diversely themed markets of their cities. So dig out your habiliments, grab a lute and head out to celebrate Christmastime, Middle Ages-style. Costumes are not necessary, but period inspiration and charm might encourage a yearning for days of yore.
If you can make it to only one medieval market, go to Esslingen, a suburb of Stuttgart. The old inner city was not damaged in World War II, and the town preserved about 1,000 historic houses, according to Anja Scheurenbrand at the city’s tourist center. Walking the narrow streets took me back in time. Craftsmen demonstrated and sold unusual goods. Entertainers in medieval attire wandered the market. Every vendor and craftsman wore a medieval costume of natural fabric and color. I even spotted some elf ears, perhaps to mimic fantasy stories of the time period. Children played games with rope, wooden tools and stones. Some used a bow and arrow to shoot at a lemon in the center of a bale of hay covered in burlap or bowled with a wooden ball. A small wooden Ferris wheel had a sign that read, Original Historisch, though it couldn’t possibly have been truly from the Middle Ages. Such is the fun of this fanciful market.
Could there be a more perfect setting for medieval Christmas markets than in an authentic castle from the Middle Ages? Two in western Germany offer fests that are small in size but big on atmosphere.
The market at Burg Lichtenberg, just northwest of Kaiserslautern, is a local affair with some unique aspects and open only one weekend, this year on Dec. 1 and 2. Men dressed as knights will perform a sword-fighting demonstration. Visitors can eat Eifel Rahmflecken, a traditional puffy pizza-like bread cooked in a wooden stove and served with toppings.
The festival’s highlight is a fire show Saturday at 7 p.m. Participants gather at the castle’s main gate to lead a torch-lit walk to the performance deep inside the castle.
At Burg Satzvey, the medieval Christmas market helps fund the castle’s preservation. Some of its special activities for children include decorating freshly baked gingerbread cookies and a visit from Santa every Saturday at 3 p.m. Academics may wish to watch the biblical version of the Christmas story acted in Latin and High German. A live Nativity scene with real animals and detailed costumes helps tell the story.
Sankt Wendel in Germany’s Saarland holds a traditional Christmas market, but tucked inside is a special area of medieval guild craftsmen eager to demonstrate their skills and give children a chance to try their hands. Ramstein military spouse Jennifer Brown’s children enjoyed dipping and decorating candles at last year’s market.
Other crafters who invite participation are a jewelry-maker, a soap-maker and a metal forger (with guidance, of course). At the Drachenschmiede, “dragon smith,” visitors can watch crafting of everyday medieval objects.
Enjoy medieval-themed entertainment each weekend: jesters, comedic jugglers, fire shows, magicians, stories and puppetry from ancient times and music on “lutes, flutes, bagpipes and percussion,” according to Leonie Paqué at the town’s marketing office.
The Dresden medieval market at the Stallhof is one of many in the city’s lovingly rebuilt old town, but it has a special charm because it is surrounded by the tall walls of Dresden’s palace stable yard. Ramstein military spouse McCullough Wells recalled stumbling upon the market at dusk, a captivating time to fall victim to its spell. Wells and her husband, Paul, enjoyed a loaf of freshly baked olive bread and blackberry Gluhwein from Stefan Schmitt of Gambrinus Gastro, the market tavern operator. Many fruit-flavored wines were available, something Wells had never tried. The couple shied away from the public bathhouse, two wooden washtubs available to brave souls who wished to enjoy the festival a bit exposed.
As in Dresden, Munich’s medieval market is one of many in the city, but it is set apart by the passion of its organizer, Diego Ertl, whose fascination with the medieval era inspired the market’s creation. Ertl was an architecture student; the stalls are of his design. He builds them with help from a “family” of carpenters and other medieval enthusiasts, using tools and instruments from the time period to make the work authentic. Sculptures integrate angels, gargoyles and other medieval symbols into the market’s design, and market vendors, entertainers and guests participate by wearing period costumes. Find the market in Munich’s Wittelsbacherplatz.
Finally, Lübeck, which appeals to visitors with its self-proclaimed title, “Christmas Capital of Northern Germany,” is another city with multiple markets, but its historic market is set in the courtyard next to St. Mary’s Church. While visitors can find the usual medieval attractions here — copper and silver craftsmen, jugglers and musicians, mead to drink and more traditional garb — it may be worth a visit to see the town’s Gothic churches and to meet some of the many Scandinavians who like to attend.
Not medieval, but still an attraction, is the fairy-tale forest just around the corner from St. Mary’s, where children can see classic stories represented in very large dioramas. The exhibit began in 1963 and some of the displays are original, although most have been renovated, according to Doris Schütz at the Lübeck tourist office.
Nina Peacock is a military spouse and a journalist living near Kaiserslautern, Germany. She plans to attend many Christmas markets this year.
• Esslingen Mittelaltermarkt und Weihnachtsmarkt:
Entrance fee: None.
Where: Marktplatz and historic old town.
When: Nov. 27 to Dec. 21, 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Details: (+49) (0) 711-3969-3969; info@ esslingen-tourist.de; esslingen-tourist.de.
• Burg Lichtenberg Mittelalter Weihnachtsmarkt:
Entrance fee: None.
Where: Burg Lichtenberg, 66871 Thallichtenberg.
When: Dec. 1, 2-8 p.m.; Dec. 2, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; fire show Dec. 1, 7 p.m.
Details: (+49) (0) 6384-514565; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://tinyurl.com/ccsag2t.
• Burg Satzvey Burgweihnacht:
Entrance fee: Adults 6 euros, 6 to 12 years old 4 euros; under 6 free.
Where: An der Burg 3, 53894 Mechernich-Satzvey
When: Saturdays noon to 8 p.m.; Sundays noon to 7 p.m., Dec. 1-Dec. 23.
Details: +49) (0) 2256-95830; email@example.com; http://tinyurl.com/ch8p9qc (German only).
• Sankt Wendel Weihnachtsmarkt & Mittelaltermarkt:
Entrance fee: None.
Where: Pedestrian areas near the Rathaus and Dom and on these streets: Schlossstrasse, Fruchtmarkt, Balduinstrasse and Luisenstrasse.
When: Dec. 8-16, daily 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Details: (+49) (0) 6851-809-1800; info@ sankt-wendel.de/en/culture/markets/christmas-market.
• Dresden Stallhöfischen Adventsspektakel:
Entrance fee: 3 euros on weekends.
Where: Dresden Royal Palace Stallhof, Augustusstraße 1; city transit to Altmarkt or Theaterplatz.
When: Nov. 28-Dec. 23 and Dec. 27-Dec. 30, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Details: (+49) (0) 35150-160-160; firstname.lastname@example.org; mittelalter-weihnacht.de/en/startseite.html.
• Münchner Adventsspektakel:
Entrance fee: None.
Where: Wittelsbacherplatz, Brienner Strasse 6-10; city transit to Odeonsplatz.
When: Monday-Dec. 23, daily from 11 a.m.
Details: (+49) (0) 89568-24660; email@example.com; mittelaltermarkt-muenchen.de.
• Lübeck Historischer Weihnachtsmarkt:
Entrance fee: None.
Where: Courtyard of St. Mary’s church, Schüsselbuden 13.
When: Nov. 28-Dec. 23, daily 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays until 10 p.m.
Details: (+49) (0) 45188-99700; http://tinyurl.com/d8fmjq6.