- It is a Sunday morning in mid-December. We are in Köln (Cologne) in western Germany, wandering along the Rhine, with our hands buried deep in pockets, and scarves wrapped almost up to our eyebrows as an icy wind whips around our ears. Despite the risk of frostbite, the promenade is surprisingly well frequented with families, young lovers, elderly couples.
Walking through the streets of the old town last night, it was seriously cold. Frigid, in fact. Like everyone else, we huddled together around the stands selling local beers, glühwein and eierpunsch (eggnog). It was a simple a survival technique. And we were hardly surprised to see a frosting of snow on the roofs this morning, much to the delight of our Number One Son who had recently arrived from a 40’C summer in Australia.
Since the beginning of the month, friends from Luxembourg have been travelling far and wide to shop at every Christmas market they could find, and the reports have been enthusiastic and varied. Having a very low tolerance for Christmas shopping, I waited to realize a long-standing plan to meet old friends in Cologne, where, it turns out, there is not just one Christmas market, but a clutch of them: Weihnachtsmarkt Altstadt, in front of Cologne´s town hall; Weihnachtsmarkt am Dom, with the largest Christmas tree I have ever seen, dwarfed only by a backdrop of the huge cathedral standing proudly behind it; Stadtgarten; Neumarkt’s Market of Angels, and a colourful gay and lesbian market… the list goes on.
Having met our friends at the hotel, we headed first to the Cathedral, struggling not to lose each other in the dense crowds. My extra tall friend and my One & Only were understandably smug about their superior view of the world, while her shorter husband and I linked arms for moral support, well below the surface of the human tide.
Around the base of the Cathedral clustered the Weimersmarkt stalls, and breathing space was at a premium. To move forward was to squeeze through bodies like blood through a clotted artery. But the bodies were friendly and the mood happy. It was a crazy, but surprisingly contented crowd. No one was pushing or shouting, everyone waited patiently and politely for service, however long the queue. There was no ounce of aggression, or drunken rowdiness, but a real sense of goodwill in the air.
We tried a couple of the local specialties to assuage hunger: flammkuchen and gebrannte mandeln (candied almonds), wurst in a variety of sizes and kartoffelpuffer (potato pancakes), schupznudeln (potato gnocchi and bacon) and crepes. We are in the land of pork and carbohydrates, and in this chilly weather, it is a perfect diet, although my jeans may beg to differ. Craft stalls, too, were plentiful, but it was around the food and drink that the crowds converged. Fairy lights hung above our heads, coating the mighty tannenbaum in the centre of the platz, even twinkled on our heads, in the shape of a spiral-topped, red headband. Now there would no losing one other.
At centre stage, a band was singing Christmas tunes, as we sipped glühwein from rather garish, festive mugs that we will undoubtedly take home as souvenirs. A group of geeky Santas were warming up beside us, their cotton wool beards already askew, their glasses steaming up. A Christmas bucks night, perhaps?
Christmas markets have been popular in Germany since the late middle ages, all through the four weeks of Advent. In the twenty first century, their popularity has expanded across Europe. Now, the festive season is ushered in with a plethora of Christmas markets across Germany, Austria and Switzerland, Belgium, Spain and France. Luxembourg City alone has four or five. In Place Guillaume II there is a skating rink popular with the kids, and the Place d’Armes has a bandstand for live performances and a carousel or two, not to mention all the pretty wooden huts lined up neatly around every city square. And it is such fun and provides such childish delight to see the city streets humming with activity even on these dark, dull winter afternoons, while the forest of pine trees decked in fake snow and baubles give off a nostalgic scent of Christmas to warm the cockles of the heart.
Merry Christmas everyone!