What comes to mind when you think of Christmas? Christmas Trees? Nutcrackers? Mulled wine? Many traditions of the Christmas season that we hold dear in the USA have a very German origin.
As I mentioned during the discussion of the Austria adventure, I had spent some time in what was then West Germany back in the late 1970’s as a member of the US military. One of the highlights of that time was seeing how much the locals enjoyed Christmas. The entire month of December became idolized in Advent Calendars. Wooden decorations, decorated trees and bright candles appeared in even the humblest and most unlikely of places. Despite many lovely Christmases in the USA, Germany had taken this holiday to a whole new level. Even then I was driven to open my wallet as part of the experience, resulting in my still having a rather expense ($80, a lot of money to a single GI in 1979) nutcracker that I purchased at the Kaiserslautern Christmas Market, smartly dressed with his Prussian uniform and his real human hair.
After surprisingly little discussion, and perhaps driven by a desire for a more complete vacation than the week in London that we had spent with our son Austin, Diane and I decided somewhat spontaneously to spend two weeks immersed in a German Christmas. Diane had never seen much of Germany besides Cold War era Berlin, so I thought perhaps southern Germany would be a nice counterpoint to Berlin. A quick Google showed Nuremberg to be one of the oldest and largest Christmas Markets, so I decided that Nuremberg was the one location that had to be on the list. (Please note that I will use the English spelling for German cities due to an English keyboard and an intrinsic laziness.)
In a departure from previous Tom’s Travel Adventures, I decided to forego my trusted Rick Steves guidebook and instead looked to the broader internet for ideas. TripAdvisor, Frommer’s, Fodor’s and Rick Steves websites (yes, I couldn’t leave Rick completely) provided a wealth of information. Gradually I leaned more and more towards Bavaria’s famous Romantic Road and the areas not too far from Nuremberg.
I suppose there are three approaches to this sort of adventure. One notion is that you can spend lots of time travelling from one location to another and see Christmas in the major cities, such as Berlin, Cologne and Munich. Another thought is too see as much as you possibly can, spending one or two nights and then moving on. I don’t like either of those options. I prefer to go fewer places, spending more time at each. Those places do not have to be big – just interesting.
The closer international airport to Nuremberg is Frankfurt (on the Main River), so I decided to make a loop of sorts that would begin and end in Frankfurt. Munich would probably have worked as well, but in the interest of less travelling time and more exploring time, Frankfurt was the airport of choice.
Knowing that the first day involves lots of jet lag, I picked a mid-sized city that I was reading great things about and appeared to have nice Christmas Market (Weihnachtsmarkt), Wurzburg. Indications were that it was a quick one hour Inter City Express (ICE) train ride from Frankfurt, and so should not be too painful after a night of flying. It appeared to have a nice old town (Altstadt) area and decent accommodations.
Next up would have to be the target, Nuremberg. My parents had visited me while I was stationed in Germany in 1979, and we had done a road tour of southern Germany in September of that year. That trip was guided almost entirely by a dog-eared copy of the Michelin Road Guide. There was no internet back then, of course, so accommodations were very much on a catch-as-catch-can basis. One of the cities we visited was Nuremberg, and the towers of the old town and its imposing fortress are still a vivid memory, though at that time much of the old landmarks were still being reconstructed after the devastating Allied bombing during World War II. Back then we stayed at the unknowingly famous Deutscher Hof Hotel (Hitler stayed there). The Deutscher Hof is no longer a functioning hotel, but thanks to the internet there are plenty of options in or near the old town.
Another classic near Nuremberg is Rothenburg on the Tauber River. As with Nuremberg, I had visited this small but very medieval city with my parents those many years ago. It is such a unique town, much like Colmar in Alsace with its timbered buildings, but even more so with the surviving town wall and towers. I wanted Diane to experience that atmosphere, despite Rothenburg’s popularity as a tourist destination. There’s a reason why certain locations are popular with tourists, and that reason is often good enough for me.
I agonized a bit over the last spot. So much of even northern Bavaria and Central Germany is worth seeing that choosing can be difficult. There are famous cathedrals in Speyer and Worms, famous spas in Baden-Baden, and lovely small towns basically everywhere. Again, I opted for a safely popular location that I knew Diane would enjoy – Heidelberg. Heidelberg has gotten a bad rap in recent times from Rick Steves and others, marking it as an over-hyped and over-touristy cliché. I knew, again from having visited with my parents in 1979, as well as other visits with friends while stationed nearby during that same timeframe, that Heidelberg has a lovely old town and truly picturesque Castle ruins that still overlook the city. I also saw that it was known for its Christmas Market, so that sealed the deal for me.
Reading that Frankfurt itself has a popular Christmas Market in the reconstructed old town area of Romerberg, and in keeping with my idea that the last night of an adventure should be spent at or near the airport, I decided to make the last two nights at Frankfurt.
The choices looked good on the map, creating a triangle of sorts, anchored by Frankfurt, Nuremberg and Heidelberg. Theoretically no train times should be more than a couple of hours. I was feeling pleased with myself. Who needs Rick Steves, anyway? Ha ha.
Well, naturally the best time to visit German Christmas Markets is during December. I wanted to be back at my home in Florida for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and I wanted to give the Markets a chance to be in full swing by the time we visited.
Despite our success with flying Virgin Atlantic from Orlando to London on our previous adventure, I opted for the more traditional flight from my little Destin airport to Atlanta, then Atlanta to Frankfurt. There’s always that unknown of weather, so I was gambling that Atlanta would not have any early winter difficulties. Delta again had the cheapest options on that route, so I stuck with the known good service that Delta normally provides (our previous adventure to Scotland notwithstanding when we spent the night at JFK).
Since airfare tends to be cheaper during the middle of the week, and two weeks still seems to be the best length for a visit, I chose December 3rd, a Tuesday, as our start date.
As with other adventures, avoiding an automobile is often one of the best choices you can make. My Florida driving skills would probably not measure up to a snowy country road, so the obvious choice seemed to be the Deutsche Bahn government-owned rail system.
We were flying in to Frankfurt, but I was saving the Romerberg Market to the end of the visit. The ride to Wurzburg should only take one hour on the Express.
Knowing the first day is sometimes too lagged out to enjoy, I decided three nights in Wurzburg would be good, with perhaps a day trip somewhere close but well thought of, such as Bamberg.
Given the many sights in Nuremberg, plus the large Christmas Market, plus a possible day trip to Regensburg, I guessed that three nights would be required.
Being a small town and relatively close to Nuremberg, I estimated two nights for Rothenburg. Unfortunately I did not realize until after booking the hotel that there is no direct train from Nuremberg to Rothenburg. The circuitous route back through Wurzburg would take 3.5 hours.
I figured three nights in Heidelberg, with another potential day trip to Speyer. So then again, I did not realize that despite the relatively close geographic proximity of Rothenburg to Heidelberg, the train would be required to backtrack again to Wurzburg. This resulted in an even longer train time of 4 hours.
Thus the final itinerary for our German Christmas Market Sampler, at the risk of being redundant, was:
One of the important things to resolve quickly, and I’m afraid I don’t emphasize it enough, is to book your lodging quickly after deciding your itinerary. This is especially true if you are planning a trip less than six months in advance. I started planning this adventure in August for a December execution. Already many of my first choice hotels were not available, even going a bit off season. I did manage to get some good ones, as I will discuss later, but the point is that once you know your dates, book your hotels as quickly as possible.
The Big Question: Will the weather hold? We had not traveled during December in Europe in decades. Would Atlanta get shut down by a winter storm? Would the trains continue to operate in Germany if a big storm hit? I knew from previous experience that European trains could be relied on, barring disasters. I knew that I could count on most Europeans, especially the younger ones, to know at least enough English to get through the basics (unlike my German, the mention of which reminds me of our Austria adventure and likewise provides a good segue to the next topic).
There’s that Language Thing
Answer: Once again, time to brush up on some German! I replayed much of our previously purchased Fluenz German coursework, although I’ll admit being somewhat jaded by our previous adventures to the point where I knew that I would end up relying on the Germans with their much better English skills. I don’t want to say that I feel entitled as an American, but I’ve seen too many examples of English being used as the common tongue between people whose native language is not English. Still, it never hurts to brush up on the basics.