Fragrant steam rises from kettles of simmering mulled wine, sparks fly from burning logs stacked in iron braziers, and the scent of sizzling sausages fills the air at Germany’s fabled Christmas markets.
In the tiny town of Kelheim, gingerbread is baking and lights are being lit, while in the city of Ulm on the Danube, thousands gather at crowded stalls in front of a Gothic minster dating to the 14th century.
German Christkindl markets are a tradition dating back to the Middle Ages, when merchants set up their stalls in front of the town church and locals would gather to eat, drink, shop, and celebrate the season. During the three weeks of Advent, town squares in major cities across the country become festive Christmas bazaars—decorated with trees, lights, and a carousel for children.
To see what Christkindl is really all about I spent a week with friends visiting small towns along the Danube, where people hugging mugs of gluhwein (mulled wine) are neighbours, and the carved angel for sale was made by the local carpenter.
From Donaueschingen to Regensburg
Flowing through the southern states of Baden-Wurttemberg and Bavaria, the Danube cuts across Germany, separating the cultures of the Protestant north and the Catholic south. Our route ran from Donaueschingen in the west to Regensburg in the east, where every year the hereditary princes of Thurn and Taxis host a gala Christmas market. Along the way were dense storybook forests, snow-covered fields, wayside shrines, and gnarled apple trees hung with snowflakes like white blossoms.
Donaueschingen, home of the princes of Furstenberg since 1723, is the source of the Danube, which rises from the waters of 15 natural springs. The Furstenberg family’s 50 or 60 horses lead privileged lives in palatial stables. Although far too opulent to stand in for Bethlehem, those stables host a lavish three-day Christmas market. Vendors bring their best offerings. Handmade jewelry competes with beeswax candles, elegantly sculpted wooden bowls, and hand-knit sweaters for best in show.
In one corner, I watched a man selling amaryllis bulbs in tiny clay pots as if they were gold, frankincense, and myrrh. At the waffle stand, where they were making waffles using dinkel or spelt—an ancient wheat that dates back to the Neolithic—the wafflemaker remarked, ‘You must be visiting family,’ as though I was one of the locals. This made me feel right at home.
An hour’s drive to the east of Donaueschingen lies the 1,000-year-old castle of Sigmaringen, a huge medieval fortress that sits perched high above the town and in Advent is decorated for Christmas. Here, dressed in 19th-century robes, St. Nick himself was waiting to welcome us with gifts of punch and gingerbread.
Less than an hour’s drive away in the tiny town of Oberstadion, a barn dating to 1612 has been repurposed as a manger or Krippen Museum. Nativity scenes are another German tradition, and Sicilian artist Angela Tripi has sculpted, especially for the museum, exquisite figures of exceptional realism.
Gluhwein is the drink of choice at Christmas markets, but who can go to Germany without sampling some of the 5,000 brands of beers brewed here? Not us. At the Kuchlbauer brewery in Abensberg, landmarked by an eccentric 70-metre tile-studded tower, we sampled a variety of wheat beers, or weissbier, a southern German specialty. The brewery tour didn’t take us too far from Christmas markets, since there was one nestled at the foot of Kuchlbauer Tower.
Down the Danube at Vilsofen lies Bavaria’s only floating Christmas market. Vilsofen is the terminal for riverboat cruises and one of the small fleet was tied up at the dock doing double duty. Here we feasted on grilled bratwurst in homemade buns, gluhwein, and baumstrietzel, a cone-shaped cake dating back to 16th-century Transylvania. Rolled in cinnamon sugar, it’s the Christmas version of a donut.
Our final stop was in Regensburg, an ancient town that has seen Neolithic, Celtic, and Roman settlements and was once the capital of Bavaria. Four Christmas markets were in full swing, and at the Palace of Thurn and Taxis a trumpeter played fanfares from the balcony, a live Christmas angel greeted visitors, and a brass ensemble entertained the crowd. A blacksmith was at work in one of the stalls, his metal hammer ringing out a regular beat beneath the music of the band.
Oldest monastery in Germany
To take a break from the crowds, we decided to stay outside Regensburg at the guesthouse of the Benedictine monastery of Weltenburg. We had visited other monasteries like Schweikelberg Abbey, near Vilshofen, but Weltenburg was special.
Located right on the Danube and founded by Irish monks around 600 C.E., Weltenburg is the oldest monastery in Germany. It also has the oldest brewery in the world, dating back to 1050. It was a cold night. Ice crystals glittered in the air above the river. Through my window I could hear the church bells ringing out the hour, and then all was quiet—the silent night of a German Christmas.
Susan James is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She has lived in India, the U.K., and Hawaii, and writes about travel, art, and culture.