Ryan and I decided to celebrate our last holiday season in Europe by exploring the best that the region has to offer. We’re still not sure what kind of Christmas season we’ll have next year so we packed December with all that we could.
Christmas season started as soon as Thanksgiving was done in the Monette/Dau household. Good timing worked out for us and Ryan and I were able to visit his friend from college (and one of our honeymoon adders-on) in Brussels, Belgium. Since we hadn’t had a chance to see the EU capital before, we were excited to take the three hour drive over for a quick visit.
Our trip started later than expected after some unanticipated work. We still made it to our AirBnB by 9:30 pm. Standing outside, I called the AirBnB owner and said (in English) ‘Hello, we are outside.’ There was a short pause before, “Uh, parlez vous francais?” Cue a moment of panic. “No,” I admitted, “sprechen Sie Deutsch?” That was a negative. We ran through his repertoire of romantic languages and settled on the best we had in common – Italian. Luckily I had a chance to brush up the week before!
We headed up to our second story apartment and settled in for the night. Early the next morning, Ryan headed out to pick up his friend, Max, and bring him back for breakfast at our apartment before we ventured out for a tour of the city. Max had been in the city for a week so he was our tour guide extraordinaire. We headed down to the main square, walked through the old, cobblestone streets, and headed directly for the highlight (I guess…) of the city tour – the Manneken Pis. Yes, that is a statue of a peeing boy…
After taking our requisite pictures in front of the statue, we continued to bop around the city, enjoying the architecture, storefronts, and the sounds of various languages floating through the air. The city was a delightful blend of old and new and it was exciting for Ryan and I to be back among ‘modern’ buildings for the first time in a while.
After stocking up on a few months’ worth of Belgian beer (and quite possibly meeting the daughter of the famous Hoegaarden beer buying her own) we headed back to the apartment for a relaxing afternoon. As the sun began to set, we headed back out into the streets to enjoy the holiday spectacle. There were stalls dotting the streets but the crowds, nonexistent earlier in the day, were nearly impassable so we avoided those and headed to the square. Every half hour, the square was transformed by hidden lights and speakers into a spectacular light and sound show. We marveled for ten minutes as the whole area was transformed into a Christmas wonderland before heading back into the tangle of streets to find some food.
Max had to head to the airport early in the morning. After dropping him off, Ryan and I checked out of the AirBnB, dropped our luggage in the car, and went for a last walk through the city. We stopped at an empty pub to get some mussels and try a Delirium beer. (Belgian mussels are a can’t-miss if you ask me!) We had some extra time and energy in our day so we decided to take on a tour of the EU Parlimentarium, an interactive exhibit highlighting the work of the EU parliament. We spent an informative hour there before piling in the car and heading home.
Our Christmas adventures were far from done for 2019. Friday afternoon, after surprisingly busy weeks for mid-December, Ryan and I were ready for a weekend away. This time, we headed East, driving four hours to Nürnberg Chistkindlemarkt. I had dreamed about visiting Nürnberg’s Christmas market since watching Rick Steve’s European Christmas, when he referred to it as the Gingerbread Capital of the World! This was a four hour drive so it was already quite late by the time we pulled into Hotel am Jakobsmarkt. I successfully checked in completely in German (just in time to move away from a German-speaking country) and Ryan and I made our way into the annex building, built in 1552. We laughed up the crooked staircase and settled into our charming little room before watching some golf (for Ryan) and heading to bed.
The next morning promised some rain and a whole lot of comfort food. After breakfast in the hotel, we bundled up and headed out into the street. It was a 15 minute walk to the heart of the Christmas market. I can see why this is one of the more popular markets. The stalls were already cooking up sausages, promoting piles of gingerbread and fruit cake, and dripping in Christmas decorations. We did a slow snake through all the aisles, admiring the ornaments and ogling the piles of cookies and candy. We plotted our purchases as we slowly wound our way through. The whole market was in the shadow of a cathedral and a castle on the hill. After warming up with some spiked hot apple cider, we worked up our way up to the castle and did a quick trip through the courtyard, enjoying the view over the city.
The wind and rain were starting to pick up so we headed back down to the market, working our way through the aisles in reverse. This time, we did some shopping. We stocked up on gingerbread of every type, fruitcake (surprisingly good!), and ornaments. We worked our way home, laden down with goodies, and enjoyed some Nürnberg sausages on the way back. We took a few hours to warm up in the hotel while the sun set and the night got colder. When we felt sure the market would be all lit up, we headed back into the streets and headed for the market.
The crowds had more than doubled and walking through the crowded aisles was much less enjoyable this time. Luckily, we had done all of our shopping so our trip through the market was more to admire the lights and fill up our stomachs. We had more Nürnberg sausages before moving on to a steak sandwich and a half meter weiner (yes, that is what it was called!). We topped it off with some hot chocolate (chocolate disks melted in hot milk) in adorable little mugs, and some Christmas songs played by a brass band before calling it a night.
The next morning, we took a slight detour on our way home and stopped by Rothenburg ob der Tauber. I had read about and seen pictures of the tiny market town since we moved to Germany and I couldn’t miss the opportunity to stop by on our way home. We parked in the nearly-full parking lot and headed through the medieval town wall, straight small market square. The town itself was small enough to walk through in just a few minutes. We enjoyed the charming streets, musing about the towns we had seen in Germany, and made our way to the central square. It was easy enough to follow the crowds of tourists heading to the charming, decorated plaza.
We did some window shopping then headed to Käthe Wohlfahrt, a famous chain of year-round Christmas stores which opened in Rothenburg ob der Tauber in 1977. They had not one but two stores packed with Christmas goodies across 2 or 3 floors. We explored the glittering glory of both, picking out just a few ornaments to decorate our own tree, before checking out and heading to the market again. We opted not to get any more sausages but did try some Schneeballs – special pastries made famous by the town. We got a traditional Schneeball and then branched out with a nougat-filled, pistachio-covered Schneeball. Then we got back to the car, in time to avoid the rain, and finished the drive home.
It was with growing nostalgia that we headed into our last weekend of Christmas markets. After another full week of work, we braved the rain (which didn’t last long) to head 15 minutes up the river to Bernkastel-Kues for, arguably, our favorite Christmas market. There wasn’t much to see and do but we had the perfect few hours, walking through the adorable little square and up and down the charming streets. We got a bratwurst, currywurst, and pommes, topped with a steaming glass of Glühwein. Warming up with that, we headed back to the market to watch the opening of the advent calendar doors. This time, there were three little girls, wearing light up headbands, adding their own songs to the usual program.
It was with a sinking heart that we called it a night and left the last of our familiar little Christmas markets. It is strange to think of the things that are now coming to an end. The Bernkastel Christmas market had become our annual tradition. We’ve celebrated each Christmas that we’ve been married by watching the advent calendar door open with a steaming mug of Glühwein. The list of things we’ll miss are already starting to add up.
Saturday brought the last of our German Christmas markets. We headed 20 minutes up river to Traben-Trarbach for some underground Christmas markets. The wein-nachts-markt (a play on the usual Weihnachtsmarkt or Christmas market) took place in 6 different wine cellars across the city. We wandered through all six cellars, admiring the goodies to buy. We got a glass of wine in one cozy cellar and enjoyed a goulaschsuppe and Rindwurst with a glass of Glühwein in another. After exploring all six, we turned the page on Germany Christmas markets, reminiscing on all the holiday cheer we’ve had over the years.