When it comes to seeking that Christmas buzz, forget battling the heaving masses on Henry Street where you’re afraid even to look up at the lights for fear you’ll lose your children or your wallet, forget beating your way into Smyths toyshop or onto an overcrowded ice rink or pushing your way through an outrageously overpriced Santa’s Grotto – and instead consider transporting your family to another part of Europe, where, nestled in the ‘green heart’ of Germany, the true spirit of Christmas still reigns.
In former East Germany, in the province of Thuringia, old St. Nick is still king and every town square is transformed into a dazzling winter wonderland for adults and children alike. Many of Germany’s favourite Christmas traditions had their origins in Thuringia. In 1816, Weimar hosted the first public Christmas tree, erected in the Market Square for the children of parents who could not afford their own.
The capital, Erfurt boasts the oldest, biggest and best Christmas fair. The Cathedral Square and historic heart, dating back 1,260 years provides an atmospheric setting for the more than 200 stallholders offering local specialities from handcrafted wood and glass decorations to blue print textiles and fine ceramics. In this medieval old town, smell the roasted almonds and marvel at the huge candle-lit tree and the almost life-size wooden figures around the nativity scene. Munch on riesenbratwurst (huge veal sausages served on mini baguettes) or the delicious stollen (fruit) cake and sip the potent glühwein (mulled wine). Enjoy music recitals, choirs, fun fair rides and, at weekends, the Christmas Market Express road train fills up with families and passes by all the key attractions.
In nearby Weimar, once home to literary giants Goethe and Schiller, the star attraction at their Christmas Market is the enormous advent calendar on the town hall. With the help of Santa Claus, children are carried to the windows to see what secrets each day will bring in the magical countdown to the December 24.
And the entertainment doesn’t stop at the Christmas Market, if you’re looking for culture, castles, good restaurants, endless nature trails, thermal spas and all at very reasonable prices – you might want to visit Weimar, Erfurt or Leipzig, all within easy reach of each other.
It is fascinating to imagine all these places were patrolled by the Stassi (secret police) in communist times. You see traces of it – the enormously dull and imposing rectangular tower block apartments that were built and our guide (who had been a protester and had American friends) told us that when the Wall came down and people received their files that she discovered her best friend in the world had been informing on her to the Stassi all along. To this day, they have not spoken to one another. I got chills – freedom is so taken for granted in my generation.
But the transition to tourism seems to be working well. Goethe, who studied in Leipzig referred to it as his ‘Little Paris’. Situated in the province of Saxony, it may not be as majestic or as cosmopolitan as Paris but it certainly has a buzz about it. As well as being surrounded by wonderful parks and gardens, the shopping is excellent and the people are friendly. It offers a great variety of restaurants and the many Art Nouveau style coffee shops – we sat in the oldest one in Germany, dating from 1711 called At The Arabic Coffee Tree – a pleasure to sit in and watch the world go by. The nightlife is booming because bars operate under the Freistiz rule – they stay open as long as their guests want! Music from classical to jazz is everywhere is the city and if you prefer to clubbing you can check out the 450-year old underground vaults of the Moritzbastei harbour – Europe’s biggest club with a diverse mix of dance and live music catering to all tastes.
But all visitors to Leipzig are drawn to the St. Thomas Church, home of the world famous St. Thomas Boys Choir and where Johan Sebastian Bach was employed for 27 years as organist and choirmaster. The motets performed every Friday and Saturday by the choir as well as the concerts in front of the statue of Bach just outside in July and August are especially popular.
I couldn’t help noticing a couple outside the church, wrapped in each other’s arms. But once I noticed them, I started noticing couples canoodling right left and centre. Then I passed a beautiful old-fashioned shop called The Love Shop – dedicated to passion. Hmm! I thought, I understand now why Bach who lived here for 27 years managed to father 20 children – there’s definitely something in air in Leipzig!
Other Leipzig musical highlights include Sunday recitals at Mendelssohn House, where the composer Felix Mendelssohn used to live. The most prominent music festivals in Leipzig are the International Bach Festival in June, the A Capella Festival in April, the Leipzig Jazz festival in October and the Mendelssohn Festival in October/November.
One province over, in Thuringia, the town of Weimar there is hardly a building or a street that doesn’t reflect its history. For a town of just 70,000 inhabitants it’s extraordinary that it has 27 museums. There is a surreal, if a little overwhelming feeling to the place – you feel as though, even walking among the pretty squares and tree-lined streets, that the entire town is somehow a museum. You’d certainly want your culture vulture boxing gloves on to even get through this town. Among the many sites worth visiting are the Goethe National Museum, Schiller Museum, Belvedere Castle, Lizt House, Nietzche Archive and the Bauhaus Museum.
However, on the town’s outskirts lies the Buchenwald Memorial, which keeps the memories of one of the darkest chapters – the Nazi period – in Weimar’s history alive. It was here the former concentration camp operated between 1937 and 1945 and where upwards of 250,000 people were imprisoned and it is estimated that 56,000 were exterminated. It wasn’t technically an extermination camp but many of the deaths were the result of medical experiments carried out by Nazi scientists and doctors. It is possible to visit the site which houses a museum and information centre.
Annual cultural highlights in Weimar include the Arts Festival, which is organised around Goethe’s birthday every August. Dance, theatre, outdoor concerts and readings are a magnet for the locals as much as the guests. The historic Onion Market on the second weekend in October is devoted to more rustic entertainment. These are no ordinary onions lumped together in crates; these are onions plaited together with dried flowers of yellow or white or lilac. They come in all sizes from the very tiny to enormous ones that get auctioned off for charity. Next year’s market will be the 354th Annual Onion Market and will feature more than 500 stalls offering onion plaits, crafts, the famous onion bread and other tasty treats.
Neighbouring Erfurt is the capital of Thuringia and has a population of 200,000 and this town was my favourite. Despite, the October chill, everyone was licking ice-cream! Families, couples, groups, no matter where you looked they were all licking ice-cream. It is a relaxed town and one of the best preserved medieval cities in Germany with a delightful blend of wealthy patrician townhouses and restored half-timbered buildings. The Krämerbrücke (Merchant’s Bridge) – with 32 houses built along its 120-metre length – rivalling Florence’s Ponte Vecchio, is Europe’s longest inhabited bridge. It is a university city with a fascinating history, a magnificent cathedral and important connections to Martin Luther – it was here in Erfurt where Martin Luther entered the Augustinian monastery for six years. We had coffee and cake in that same monastery where you can now also book a room. Luther was later ordained a priest in Erfurt Cathedral.
Every summer, the Cathedral steps, which run between the magnificent architectural ensemble of the Cathedral of St. Mary and the Church of St. Severus are transformed into one of the world’s most beautiful festival stages. It is traditional for the Festival Plays to bring together artists from all genres in way which unites singers, choirs and orchestras, theatre and ballet. In August 2007, the town promises to present an unmissable production of Cavallera Rusticana (check spelling).
Of course, if the thought of all that German Enlightenment is too exhausting, you can always just descend one of the wine cellars in the region, go cross-eyed sampling the sparkling wines, and then stagger blindly towards one of the many healing thermal baths and spas to snooze it off.
(c) Amy Redmond October 2006
For information on Christmas Markets, festivals, castles, thermal baths & spas, package specials and outdoor activities contact any of the tourist offices listed below.
Lufthansa operates regular flights from Dublin to Frankfurt and connections can be made to Leipzig or ICE trains can be taken direct from the airport
Ryanair also offers flights to Altenburg (Leipzig) from London Stanstead