Christmas in Germany

We’ve been into the everyday grind of the New Year for nearly a month now, so a flash back to Christmas magic is most welcome! This year we were in Germany for the entire Christmas season, which is a very special time of year.

In South Germany in particular, Advent (the month before Christmas) is widely celebrated. This time of peace and platzchenjoy is marked by a flurry of activity, whereby young and old alike partake in many traditions. One of these is Christmas baking – there are entire cookbooks dedicated to “Platzchen” which are small christmas cookies, usually with almond, cinnamon and similar spiced flavours. People set aside entire days to bake five + different types of these early in advent, and then take them to friends and family, work, school etc.

We are all familiar with advent calendars – the cardboard frames with a piece of chocolate behind each day’s little door. Here, it’s a bit more involved downloadthan that! Advent calendars are more often than not handmade, for children the presents are often in knitted socks, sewn bags, clay figures or houses… and although little, the gifts are usually more varied and personal than chocolate. Many adults make advent calendars for each other too; James and I attempted to join in this year although we were a little underprepared. We might not have had our gifts wrapped and ready before the start of advent, but we still had fun presenting each other with chocolate, fancy teas, books etc each morning. Each of the four Advent Sundays are also marked, by lighting another candle in the wreath households have set up on the table.

The 6th December is when St. Nikolaus comes, and children receive presents in shoes that they leave outside the door – another version of Santa putting presents in stockings.

Something which has become synonymous with Germany and Christmas, are of course the Christmas Markets! No xmas 1 IMG_4001matter how grey and cold it is outside, how stressed people are with work or holiday organisation, a Christmas Market will transport anyone to another realm for a couple of hours. Market Squares are sectioned off and dressed up with glittering lights, green boughs and colourful decorations. They are filled with stalls, each made from wood and shaped like a little hut, with elaborately decorated roofs depicting Christmas scenes. The smell of mulled wine, grilled bratwurst and spiced IMG_4174cookies hits upon entrance, and the magic begins! Stalls sell anything from handcrafts to commercial items, but most people attend the markets for the food and drink…. specifically the Gluhwein (mulled wine)! There is nothing like sipping on a hot, spiced sweet wine whilst watching your breath escape into the frigid air, listening to the hum of people and the background Christmas music and spending time with friends.

Each Christmas market tends to have its own flair, and we visited a few! In Stuttgart, there is a section for the Finnish market where stalls are decorated in a more rustic style and smoked fish is for sale. Ludwigsburg is distinctly baroque, and Esslingen has a famous Medieval market every year. This is one of our favourites, as actors wander the place dressed in traditional costumes, jugglers and minstrels perform regularly, there is an “arcade” section where hay lines the ground, furs hang on the walls and guests can have a go at shooting bows and arrows, throwing knives and bowling with handmade balls for prizes. My favourite game is mouse-roulette, where players choose a numbered house, a mouse is let loose on the game board and the winner is whoever chose the number house into which the mouse chooses to run. Stalls sell leather goods, 13th century dresses, games, hand carved wooden bowls and knives and lots more.

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A week before the Christmas season starts, Tubingen holds its famed Chocolart festival. Similar to the Christmas markets, the theme here is… you guessed it, CHOCOLATE. Along with mulled wine, they sell hot chocolate with rum, liquid chocolate to eat with a spoon, chocolate liqueur shots served in chocolate shot glasses…. Every single stall sells chocolate of some description, from elaborate moulded designs to 99% dark chocolate from Equador. There are artworks from chocolate paint, live demonstrations of chocolate making and various cake stalls. Almost every stall provides samples!schoki 2 schoki 1

At the end of Advent, comes the actual Christmas period. In Germany these days are distinguished by “Holy Evening” (Christmas Eve), “The First Christmas Day” (Christmas Day) and “The Second Christmas Day” (Boxing Day). On Christmas Eve, the day begins as any other but in the evening the fun begins. Traditionally the Christmas Tree is decorated during the day, hidden behind doors and unveiled in the evening. Many people visit relatives and friends specifically to admire their trees and share a drink. This is the time when gifts are exchanged, and a simple meal shared. We spent Christmas Eve at my aunt’s with my grandparents, where we had a traditional meal of frankfurters, potato salad and stuffed dates. The tree was gorgeous as usual, and something special for us was that it had real candles (no fire hazard here!). Later we went to a carols service at the church, which was so full people had to stand.IMG_4002

Christmas day brought the feasting as we know it, and we travelled to my Uncle’s brother’s to spend the afternoon. With more than 10 people we had a delightful afternoon and evening, drinking champagne, watching old shadow puppet movies on a projector, eating gulasch and chocolate pudding and singing christmas carols around the tree late into the night. The next day was another celebration, at my cousin’s house. With 10 adults and 6 children, it was the best kind of chaos! Another tradition on either the last christmas day or new years, is to eat Raclette. This is a Swiss meal where chopped meat, veges, potato and bread are laid out on the table. Each person has their own little pan in which they grill a special kind of cheese on the grill which sits in the middle of the table. The cheese is scraped over whatever bits they have chosen – this works especially well for potatoes, or bits of ham, onion etc are added to the cheese while it is grilled. Eat, grill, repeat!IMG_4032

As we were leaving my grandparents’ to head back home, the snow began to fall. Within hours, our town was buried beneath a deep layer of pure white. The lake was dusted as though with icing sugar, the trees were white skeletons and the ground crunched underfoot. It was still, peaceful and although a day late, finally a white Christmas!

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A few days later we flew to London to bring in 2015 with friends at a New Years Ball! We delighted in the familiarity of people, language and food for a few days, not least barista coffee (namely, Flat Whites!). Upon arriving back in Germany 2015 began properly. This year, we aim to visit a different country every month. January saw us visiting the U.K; the closest thing to going home for a weekend without the 24 hour plane trip. We’re on the lookout for a good February destination, so watch this space!

Love in Lucerne

This month, we had a weekend away to a place quite special to us. Four years ago we were on holiday in Chapel BridgeEurope in winter, and whilst visiting Lucerne, we were suspended in a private Gondola above the snowy Swiss landscape when James proposed to me. We were also married in December (two years later, in NZ on a hot summers day) so it was the perfect time now to go back for our wedding anniversary.

_MG_3459For once, we managed to make our train connections so it was a very relaxing trip from Tubingen to Lucerne, taking just under 4 hours with two quick changes. Our hotel upgraded us to a Junior Suite as an anniversary present, no small thing given the prices of … well… EVERYTHING in Switzerland! We arrived in the evening and didn’t have to venture far from our hotel to find wine and Italian food, so it was a good start!

Lucerne is one of the most picturesque cities I have ever visited, with its charming wooden bridges and centuries old houses, serene lake, abundance of fairy lights and of course being surrounded by snow capped _MG_3503mountains. Even the train station is magnificent! Similar to many European towns, the “Old Town” is a collection of cobblestoned alleyways and market squares, although these are lined with high end watch, chocolate and fashion stores which ooze sophistication. There are two wooden footbridges bridges running across the river which separates the Old town from the New town. The most famous of these is the covered Chapel bridge, built in 1333 as part of the town fortifications. As well as the ceiling being adorned with colourful paintings about historic events in Lucerne, the bridge is interesting because of its connection to the “water tower”. This existed before the bridge, and has been used for everything from a torture chamber to a gift shop, but not as an actual water tower. _MG_3510

While we were in Lucerne, the snow had not yet arrived for the season so we couldn’t ski or toboggan like during our last visit. We did however take a 10 minute train around the lake to the Hergeswil Glassworks. These have been in existence since 1817, when they produced craft glass like that in Venice. Soon they were producing glass for industry such as bottles _MG_3426and jars, and during the war provided many jobs to create preserving jars and similar essentials. The Glassworks were a representation of the social system of the time, with the workers being very separated from the upper class owners in their work, their pay, their living conditions and even a physical wooden railing in the director’s office where they went to collect their wages. In 1975 the factory stopped being able to compete in the market and was nearly closed down. It has however been preserved as a historical location and produces beautiful glass pieces once again, such as platters and wine glasses. We visited the museum, which was a unique exhibition. Visitors enter at timed intervals, so that they have the place to themselves. Only one room or section of a room is lit up at a time, and a voice-over narrates the story of the Glass Works as  the visitors walk through. As the light fades from one exhibit, it starts to illuminate another, guiding the visitors through. Doors opened automatically and it felt a little like being Alice in Wonderland! _MG_3433

After the museum, we ended up in the factory where we could watch workers blowing glass and creating the actual products for sale.

It is fascinating to watch the molten liquid glass (a mixture of sand, minerals and old glass) being wielded by the workers, poured into moulds, beaten into shape and solidified to create recognisable forms of plates and glasses. _MG_3422There were no delicate figurines being made here as there are in Venice, but it was no less impressive to watch the strength required for some of the massive creations, and interesting to see how easily a piece could be ruined by not pouring the liquid just right. To the side, was a place where I could blow my own glass ball… yes, it may be touristy but I couldn’t resist! I had to blow surprisingly gently, and the difficulty was in turning the stick evenly and quickly so that my ball wasn’t lopsided.

Towering PeakWe of course rode up the Gondola, for nostalgia. The view from nearly 2000 metres up Mt Pilatus is stunning, and we enjoyed a peaceful walk together through the snow (not enough for the pistes to be open, but still enough to be magical). Crunching snow underfoot, green pine trees overhead, the blue water of the lake, the pitched roofs of the town in the distance and mountains as far as the eye can see.

What better place to take a breath and recharge?!_MG_3471

In the evening on Saturday we went out for dinner to celebrate our anniversary. The “Thai Garden” was beautifully presented, with live background music, water features and three different dining areas. The food and experience lived up to the reputation… as did the price. Compared to Germany, Switzerland is extremely expensive, however we found the prices to be similar to Auckland in a relative sense. For example a coffee in Auckland can easily cost $4.90, and it cost 4.90 francs in Lucerne. If you are earning in dollars and pay for your coffee in dollars, vs earning in francs and pay for your coffee in francs, that’s pretty similar. Of course visiting Switzerland with dollars (or in our case, euros) means it is very expensive!

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On Sunday we leisurely wandered around town, Lion of Lucernechecking out a craft market and visiting Lion Monument (a tribute to the loyalty and bravery of the Swiss Guard during the French Revolution, carved in 1820).

A stroll around the edge of the lake, watching a lone fisherman on the water, children playing on the tree lined avenue and a mixture of tourists and locals going about their day, was the perfect way to end a relaxing weekend together in Lucerne. After leaving on Friday afternoon, we arrived home on Sunday evening – we are so lucky to be able to just pop to another country for weekend away!_MG_3485 _MG_3460