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A German getaway: Munich, Christmas markets, castles among highlights

Neuschwanstein Castle is shown in fog.

WORTHINGTON — For several years, my husband, Colin, has wanted me to accompany him on a trip to Munich, Germany. He travels to Germany several times a year, and Munich is his favorite city.

On the Monday after Thanksgiving, we were finally able to make the trip together. We spent two days in Cologne, where Colin had a conference to attend, and then took a six-hour train ride to Munich.

I had been to Cologne before, briefly, as I lived in West Berlin for my last two years of high school, but I had never been to Munich. Berlin, being such a big city and full of people from all over the world, can make you forget that you’re in Germany. Not so with Munich. Munich is everything that Germany promises to be, and I now understand why Colin likes it so much. It’s a comfortable city. A friendly city. A city I’d be willing to go back to time and time again.

Yes, we visited the Hofbrauhaus, the quintessential “beer hall” of Germany. That was fun, mostly because the food was good and genuine but also because we were joined at our table by a lovely older German couple who chatted away with us and were very welcoming. We also visited the town of Oberammergau (site of the famous once-a-decade Passion Play), Linderhof castle (home of King Ludwig II), and Ludwig’s other castle, Neuschwanstein, pattern for Walt Disney’s castle and the imaginations of little girls everywhere. That was something to see! It’s huge, ornate, grandiose, and it nearly bankrupted his family. I’m glad we went, even with the long and steep hike up the mountain to reach it, as I’d wanted to see it my whole life.

But castles were not the focal point of our trip. Given the time of year, I was most excited to visit the Weihnachtsmarkts, the Christmas markets.

And visit them I did. Four in Cologne, then, after the train ride to Munich, another four or five, and then one more in Nuremburg for good measure. I found that each market I visited was full of people, music, and interesting scents and sights.

I had been to a German Christmas market before, but that was 29 years ago when I lived in Berlin. That market, the same one that was attacked by a terrorist driving a semi two weeks ago, is small, compared to some of the ones we visited on this trip.

The markets in Cologne, Munich and Nuremburg were all quite large, but each one was, in essence, similar in feel and appearance. The markets are all located in a city square or in the wide pedestrian avenues typical to European cities. Each one consisted of temporary but sturdy booths, equipped with electricity, and decorated to the nines with evergreen boughs and whatever theme was particular for that market. One in Cologne had a gnome theme, one in Munich a Renaissance theme, some had nativities or angels or, as in the case of the one on the Rhine River in Cologne, maritime themes. It’s a little hard to judge the numbers of booths, but the smallest had maybe 25 and the largest 150.

One other common theme in every market is their content. I would say that the booths were evenly divided, half sold ornaments/decorations/Christmasy things, and the other half sold food. Of the ornaments, many were traditional glass, many were carved wood, some were straw. There were oodles of “raucher” men, the incense smokers typical in Germany, and yes, a few “nussknackers,” nutcrackers, which are, of course, almost mandatory for a German market. A few booths had toys or hats or German lace.

And there were the food booths, of which bratwurst (sausages) reigned supreme. But there were many other choices: pretzels, pastries, candy, chocolate covered fruit, hot flavored almonds, and chestnuts.

Let me just say that The Christmas Song got me all excited for something which was, upon eating, weirdly textured and — I admit it — a little bit yucky. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire do not deserve to be so memorialized, in my opinion.

But I digress.

Far more tasty was the Gluhwein. Gluhwein is a spiced red (occasionally white) wine, served hot, which not only warms one’s hands with the hot mug but one’s insides as well. I am not normally a wine drinker, but wow, that was some tasty stuff, I’ve got to admit. One mug of Gluhwein cost anywhere from six to 11 Euro, but if you returned the mug after drinking it you got half your money back, so that made it a little less expensive. If you loved the design of the mug — different each year — and wanted a souvenir, you kept the mug; if not you brought it back.

There were so many scents filling the air in addition to the spiced wine — onions from the brat booths, licorice from the candy booths, and pine from booths selling wreaths. The sounds, too, were everywhere. Not just people talking and selling and buying, but often there were children’s activities like Ferris Wheels or puppet shows, and always there was music — sometimes even live bands. Mostly they played Christmas songs but once, inexplicably, “Proud Mary” poured out of the speakers from a band I never did see due to the crowds, but we sure could hear them.

The crowds were ever-present, though far smaller in the morning than at night. Every market we visited was busy, but the last market we visited, in Nuremburg, was so cram-jammed with people that we were, literally, carried along by the crowd a time or two. This was partly our fault, as we visited it on a Sunday.

Due to the crowds that day, we decided that an early al fresco lunch sounded good so, despite the 30-degree temps, we sat outside and ate a plate of famous Nuremburg sausage, drank Gluhwein, and listened to a brass quartet playing Christmas carols and watched horse-drawn carriages amble through the crowds (sounding a horn as they did so). The busy shoppers carried on their business just far enough away that we could see them but not be bothered by them. It was delightful.

It was funny how words came back to me on the trip. Even though I had lived in Germany for two years, I attended an American school, which meant that my German never had much of a chance to develop. Sure, I could say, “Wo ist die Toiletten?” when in desperate need, but I couldn’t necessarily understand the reply. Still, being back in the country I found myself saying “Danke” with the best of them; never mind that once, inexplicably, what came out was “merci”. Oops. Wrong country. I also, logically but incorrectly, spoke of how many “marks” a thing cost when, for more than a decade, it’s euros that Germany has used instead of the mark as their unit of currency.

Again, oops. But thankfully Germans are friendly and they never gave me a disgusted look, as the French tend to do when foreigners try to speak their language.

Our trip, thankfully free of terrorists and blessed with good weather, was one I will never forget. Seeing the Cologne cathedral as the backdrop to the Kolner Dom Markt was beyond gorgeous. (Plus an adorable little tourist train will take you through to all of the Cologne markets, which was rather fun.) Despite the crowds, the Christmas markets are worth it. If you ever plan to go to Germany to see the markets (typically open for the four weeks of Advent), be sure to wear comfortable shoes, bring your phone with a good camera, and don’t forget to keep an open mind.

Who knows? Maybe you’ll even like the chestnuts.

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