German towns know how to put together a Christmas market. After visiting holiday markets in Copenhagen and Prague in December, I went to Dresden’s, just a two hour bus ride from Prague. Of the three cities, I think I liked Dresden’s markets the best.
Nice weather improves any experience, especially outdoors and it was sunny and crisp on this Saturday. The trip itself provided some idyllic scenery, too. The route paralleled the Labe (Elbe) River where morning mist hovered high above the water. The river’s calm surface provided a perfect mirror for the houses, trees and hills on the opposite bank. An occasional castle towered above the roadway, looking impregnable and stirring up visions of knights, sieges and heroic battles.
Armed with a map that included all the market locations (Dresden had five!), I followed the path from the bus drop-off point to the main market, past several beautiful Baroque buildings surrounding the Theaterplatz, a sprawling pedestrian plaza: the Hofkirche (the main Catholic church), Semper Opera House, the Old Masters Picture Gallery. The buildings are in dire need of a thorough scrubbing, an impression I had in Prague, too. I assume that modern pollution from filthy fuels is to blame. Even before catching sight of the Christmas markets I’d come to see, I was in love with this city. The narrow lane called Augustusstrasse leads to the impressive Procession of Princes, a stuccoed wall mural almost 400 feet long done in shades of black and white against a mustard background reminiscent of an old Wedgwood pattern. More than 120 years old, it miraculously escaped WWII without damage – something that cannot be said of much of Dresden.
The main Striezelmarkt, the oldest (1434) Christmas market in Germany, occupies a modern plaza across from the Tourist Information office and alongside the Altmarkt indoor shopping center. This last was noted on my map as a place with free toilets, something not always available in Europe. As it turned out, they were free only in the sense that you could use the facilities without paying first. Instead, there was a small dish at an occupied desk as you exited. Most people, myself included, put the ‘suggested’ 20 eurocents in the dish, in full view of those still waiting in the queue. When in Rome… or any other part of the world, for that matter.
OK. Time to hit the markets. The Striezelmarkt was not huge; it could have easily fit into Times Square. Small huts were strung together to form little streets. At one end, Arne Schmitt, a young German pianist who bills himself as a street musician, played a string of dreamy instrumental pieces for an appreciative crowd. His music starts with a pop tune and embellishes it romantically to the point that you don’t always recognize the original melody. It makes for some refreshingly new-sounding music, so I bought a couple of CDs.
The day was going to be shorter than I’d have liked – arriving at 9am and leaving at 4pm for the return to Prague. Time to get cracking. First order of business – Glühwein! One thing I really liked was the souvenir ceramic mug the wine came in. Technically, the wine was 2 euros 50 and the mug was also 2 euros 50. Hand the lady 5 euros, get your glühwein and keep the mug.
The real surprise? As soon as I tasted the glühwein it reminded me of Brotherhood’s Holiday wine, a product of the Brotherhood winery in upstate New York. As a result, I skipped buying the wine in Germany and bought a bottle of the domestic stuff when I got home. A large bottle. Happy memories with every cup that comes out of the microwave. A feature of all the markets I visited was the tall, tiny tables near the food stalls where you could stand and eat or drink. People seemed to consume the food sequentially. That is, get something to drink, stand at a table and drink it. Later, get a bratwurst or some roasted nuts or a pastry and stand at another table to eat that. The tables were not really large enough for multiple food items and it was risky to juggle more than one snack given the close quarters in the market and the need for table-sharing.
The iconic image of this market is the giant tapered tower that mimics the smaller, candle-powered tabletop toys that you can find even in the U.S. Another feature of both Prague’s and Dresden’s markets (and probably many others) is the viewing platform near the center of the market. It’s only about 8 feet off the ground and always packed with people, not just along the top of the walkway mostly taking photos of the crazy quilt of the market below but even squeezing up and down the stairs at each end. Every stall had its own roof decoration.
There were tiny houses painted in fanciful colors housing different activities, some with food demonstrations, others set up for craft-making and many designed for children to participate. Santa was around somewhere and elves, too. A small train pulls a half dozen children around a small paddock as parents called to them, hoping to snap a happy picture.
The 200-plus stalls sell traditional holiday foods to eat there or take home, as well as toys, clothing, Christmas decorations for your home or tree. The wares are German made, some by small-scale artisans. Wooden ornaments range in size from flat Ritz cracker-sized discs with laser-cut scenes to large, three-dimensional pieces in a range of sizes. These include the well-recognized nutcracker, in all sizes and colors, hollow figures designed to cover a bit of incense so the smoke comes out of the figure’s mouth or nose and candle-powered pyramids and carousels that rotate with the heat of the candles placed on the base. Gingerbread hearts (liebkuchen) decorated with hard icing, stiff lace ornaments and soft lace pieces, tables filled with all sorts of hard candy to scoop into bags, miniature wooden chalets carved with such accuracy
and precision that it’s hard to imagine the effort. Having decided I didn’t need to buy the bottled glühwein, I became mesmerized by the guy at the largest salami booth. He bellowed out the names of each type of cured meat as he held it up, showing the crowd just what they could expect if they bought this large variety pack. He could have fit right in with the other food stalls at an American country fair. I briefly contemplated the purchase, even though I’d have been eating salamis around the clock for the rest of my vacation, since I could not have brought them back to the U.S. Nutsy; just plain nutsy.
One food I did buy to bring home was the Dresden stollen. Different families sold these breads made from family recipes and there were different kinds, not just ‘plain’ but also almond, poppy seed, orange and, my personal favorite, marzipan. Covered in confectioners sugar, my half-loaf kept me happy into the New Year, slice by tiny, rationed slice.
After making a final circuit around the Striezelmarkt, I headed over to the recently rebuilt Frauenkirche, site of another Christmas market. I took some photos of the horse-drawn carriage clip-clopping past the market and a couple more of the crosswalk signals called Ampelmännchen, a holdover from the old East Germany. He’s the little green man striding off to the left alternating with the red one standing with outstretched arms to stop pedestrians. And
always wearing his hat. When it was suggested during reunification that he be replaced with the wimpy, androgynous crossing-signal figure used in the West, there was a huge uproar. He has stayed and become a permanent part of the cultural landscape.
On the other side of the street, a small group of guys set up for a street-side serenade. Not just Christmas carols but, dressed in Soviet Army uniforms (I’ve no idea if they actually were or had ever been soldiers), they launched cheerfully into robust renditions of Russian folk tunes, reminding me of the Russian folk album Paul Mauriat produced back in the 1960s. The crowd they attracted seemed to enjoy the music, undisturbed by the clothing that at one time must have had very negative connotations.
Just a hundred yards or so down a side street, the Frauenkirche soars, large and majestic, in gleaming white marble. Completely destroyed by Allied bombs in WWII, reconstruction of the church was finally completed in 2005. I wanted to see the interior, but a closed musical rehearsal meant it would have to wait until next time.
The market next to the church was tiny compared to the main market. As I stood at a raw wood plank table eating my bratwurst and mustard, I noticed others drinking glühwein from white ceramic mugs, rather than the cobalt blue ones from the main market. Hey! Nobody told me you should be collecting the set!! The other nice touch was hurricane lanterns on the tables with real candles burning in them. I couldn’t help thinking that fire regulations would not allow such risky decoration in a similar setting in the U.S. Our loss.
The more time I spent at the Christmas markets in these magical cities, the more I longed for 1) more time to savor it all, meaning, really, a longer vacation – something I always long for when I travel – and 2) a larger suitcase that I could fill with loads of glittering holiday trinkets and ‘allowable’ food goodies. And shall I tell you another silly secret? The only German I know is what I picked up from Hogan’s Heroes. “Please” and “Thank you”, the German words for beer, the numbers 1 thru 5 and a few others. A tiny start but with those words and plenty of exact change I managed to enjoy the markets without feeling a complete dolt. I have much more Spanish after 8 years in high school and college and my German is, perhaps obviously, a good deal less than the miserable amount of French I’ve tried to acquire over the years, but my experience has been that each time I visit a country, I add a few more words and phrases to my linguistic arsenal. I should be able to speak four or five languages fluently by the time I’m 180 or so!
The day ended with the ride back to the hotel, listening to a Christmas CD which included Good King Wenceslas and some more traditional carols, along with the holiday tunes from some rock biggies like the Ronettes, Brenda Lee, Elvis and John Lennon. I didn’t recognize some of the songs, probably because I’ve been out of the pop/rock loop for a long time. I seem to remember the CD included one of my favorites – Santa Baby. The full moon rode high in the sky all the way back. All in all, a terrific day surrounded by happy people in a beautiful new (to me) city that I want to visit again.
I’ll post more photos of Dresden separately.