(German Christmas Markets)
December, 2014

Click on ThumbnailBy Jack Welsch


Having enjoyed the Christkindlemarkt in nearby Bethlehem, PA for decades, we had wanted for some time to visit the Christmas markets in Germany.  Last year, when our German friends, Karl & Gisela, spent Christmas with us, Linda mentioned that we were considering a riverboat tour of the German Christmas markets. They insisted that we travel by car with them instead and so the die was cast.

My Journal

Tuesday, Dec. 2 - Home to Newark

We were actually scheduled to fly over on Monday but a pilot's strike changed our plans for us.  There's a long about our tribulations related to that but you don't want to hear it. 

Our driver, Joe, picked us up at 11 and we were at EWR by 1:00.  Check-in was frustrating because we had paid extra for exit-row seats and, since this was a day later, the seats were unavailable. While the agent was helpful, there was nothing she could do. She could not even give us a refund; we have to contact Lufthansa upon our return.  The agent was great but the airline not.  We tried to upgrade to Business but it would have cost us 5K each for one way!

After lunch at Chili's, we got through security and chilled at the gate.  Once onboard, we saw that there were right-side bulkhead seats just forward of us that remained empty so we grabbed them; a minor victory.

Wednesday, Dec. 3 - Düsseldorf

We arrived promptly at 6:00 and got through immigration quickly but it took a while for the bags to come so it was 6:45 by the time we got to Karl, who was awaiting us.  He drove us to their apartment for a welcome crémant and a nice breakfast and we were in our room at Landhotel Am Zault shortly after 9. We've stayed at this hotel before and really like it.  The property is pleasant and well maintained, the staff is friendly and the location is convenient for us.

Following our normal practice of a short nap upon arrival to Europe, we slept 'til 12:30 and were showered and dressed when Karl picked us up at 1:15.  Went first to Füchschen in Düsseldorf's Altstadt for a nice lunch in this brew pub where we had eaten years ago.  Food and beer were excellent.  After lunch we headed for Keiserswerthe for their Christmas market but the market was tiny and there was no parking so we returned to the Altstadt in Düsseldorf for the market there.  This was our first experience in a German Christmas market and it surpassed expectations; it was GREAT! We had glühwein with amaretto, roasted almonds, glühwein with Killepitsch, potato pancakes, brats, and glühwein with Cointreau (Lin had Eierpunsch) before giving up for the night. 

Back in the room before 8, I wrote and transferred pix before earning a good night's sleep.    

Thursday, Dec. 4 - Düsseldorf

We both awoke at 2:00 and had some trouble going back to sleep but obviously we did 'cause we were both comatose when Karl called at 9:45 to see if we were alive!  He picked us up at 10:45 for breakfast at their place, after which we headed for Cologne and the area near their magnificent Cathedral.  There is a Christmas market there so we had some glühwein with Amaretto.  Lunch was wurst at the nearby Cölner (sic) Hofbräu Früh.

Back at our hotel at 4:45, we re-packed more compactly for tomorrow's trip, got cleaned up, changed and were picked up again at 4:45 for dinner.

Traffic leaving Düsseldorf was horrible so we had to abandon hope of visiting the market in Aachen and drove directly to Larnaken, Belgium for dinner at La Source, a Michelin 1 star restaurant located in the hotel La Butte aux Bois. Dinner was absolutely perfect.  I had a menu of turbot with goose foie gras, langoustines, hare, cheese and a "Truffle with truffles".  That last was a chocolate truffle with black truffle in it and sprinkled liberally over it.  It was absolutely decadent!  It was after midnight when we returned to the hotel.

Friday, Dec. 5 - Dusseldorf to Berlin

I slept poorly but allegedly snored a lot as Linda said she slept very poorly as a result.  We were up at about 8, had breakfast in the hotel and relaxed in the room until Karl picked us up at noon.  

The drive across Germany was interesting, though not picturesque as it was cloudy and a bit foggy.  After Hannover, I drove for about an hour and a half and, as luck would have it, I was driving as we crossed what had been the East German border. There is still a large installation where the control point was though it is now just a rest stop. Traffic was pretty heavy the whole way and there were speed limits as low as 80 KPH.  The best Karl could manage was a short burst at 240 (150 MPH).  I never got past 200 (125 MPH) but, as it was dark by that time, that was plenty for me!  When we had to slow to 100 (62.5 MPH) it seemed like we were walking.  The driving speeds seem high to most Americans but they are not extraordinary there, especially when the car is a VW Phaeton, an absolutely magnificent driving machine. [As a product development professional, I need to sneak in the comment that I was not the least bit surprised when the Phaeton failed commercially in the US after only 3 years. When they were introduced here I commented that few Americans would pay nearly 150K for a car with a VW badge on the front. It was, I believe, a classic branding failure.] They are, however, still sold in Germany and elsewhere.  You'll hear more on that when I talk about our visit to the factory in Dresden.

Arriving in Berlin was a moving experience, especially as we drove though the Tiergarten and around the Brandenburg gate. We stayed at the modern Maritim proArte hotel at Friedrichstrasse 151 in Mitte, not far from the gate. After dropping the bags we headed for "WeinachtsZauber" at the Gendarmenmarkt.  Being Friday night, it was absolutely jammed but we had some nice glühwein and wurst.  Back at the hotel we had one last glühwein (Lin a white wine) in the lobby and headed up. 

I took an ibuprophen PM and slept like the dead.

Saturday, Dec. 6. - Berlin

I set the alarm for 8:30 but awoke at 8:20 and we met Karl & Gisela in the breakfast room at 9:30. They offered a very wide and nice selection.  Afterwards, we grabbed a cab to the Neues Museum in time for our 11:00 reservation.  This is a great museum and its highlight for us was the Egyptian collection.

After a short walk to the Radisson Blu the girls and I waited while Karl got the car.  He gave us a good tour of East Berlin, stopping eventually in the Jewish quarter where we walked around. If course, we had to stop along the way for glühwein!  Eventually the girls and I had a drink in a local bar while Karl got the car.  We stopped near Galeries Lafayette and walked there to eat in one of their restaurants. Lin had onion soup while the rest of us had excellent bouillabaisse.  Of course, his went down with some white wine and crémant.

Driving some more, we saw Checkpoint Charlie and stopped again at Potsdammerplatz to have a look at the Weinachts markets there.  The market and venue were both spectacular.

Karl drove us around a bit more but we were beat so when he mentioned another stop for glühwein, I asked that he drop us at the hotel.  Got there at about 9.  While Linda slept I transferred pix and wrote for a bit.

Sunday, Dec. 7 - Berlin

The alarm was set for 8:45 and I was up at 8:44. Met for breakfast at 10:00 and were in the car by about 11 for the short drive to the Brandenburger Tor. Karl let the three of us out and went to park the car.  While we were waiting for his return, we walked through the gate and I walked around, taking lots of pictures.  When Karl found us, we walked through the Tiergarten to the Reichstag building, then into the government area, turning right at the Spree and then right again on Wilhelmstraße.  I was looking forward to a visit to the Stasi museum but we searched for it without success. Eventually I Googled it and found it had moved. Karl read further and realized it was also closed for renovation. Damn!

Walked to the Hotel Adlon for a drink but mostly to use their rest rooms.  Leaving there it was back through the Tor and through the holocaust memorial to the car.  Drove around some more and over to Bornholmerstraße where the wall was first opened on November 9, 1989. Karl and I got out and walked around.  I had always thought that the wall was first opened at the Brandenburger Tor and I am apparently not alone as this historic place was deserted and devoid if souvenir shops and other tourist traps.  There were, however, signs and pictures depicting the event.

Back on the road, it was off to Potsdam where, after driving around a bit we stopped near a Weinachtsmarkt.  However, we stopped first tat the Weisser Schwann for a drink and to use the rest rooms, then walked around the market.  As expected, we drank a lot of glühwein, shared some Thüringer brats, Lin had a waffle, I had some chestnuts, all had some kartoffelpuffer (AKA potato pancakes) and, as always, Karl got some almonds.

Drove back by way of Ku'damm and yet another huge market.  We had expected one last glühwein from the stand in front of the hotel but it was closed so we settled for drinks in the bar.  In the room shortly after 9:00.

Monday, Dec. 8 - Berlin to Dresden

Since it was 10 when we met, there was not enough time for breakfast in the hotel so, after putting the bags in the car we walked to the Friedrichstraße Bahnhof to get croissants for breakfast.  Unfortunately, I lost my black leather cap in the confusion before leaving the hotel.  I bought that cap in Titisee, Germany in 2002 and love it.  Damn!

Karl took a circuitous route out of Berlin to show us another section of the wall and also to pass Templehof airport, where the Berlin airlift terminated.  It was a beautiful, clear day for our drive to Dresden. 

Our hotel in Dresden was Schloss Eckberg, on a bluff across the river from the city.  It is a spectacular venue.  Walked from the building where our rooms were located to the Schloss itself for a look across the river from the terrace. 

In the car again, we stopped at Dresdner Molkerei Gebrüder Pfund, a famous dairy. The interior is amazing and we were fortunate to get there between tourist busses.

I was still looking for a hat and Karl said that he saw a men's hat shop across the street.  Leaving the girls in the dairy, we set out for it but then realized that he had read the sign incorrectly. It turned out that the sign actually read "Herrnhuter". Karl and I walked across the street and found it was a Moravian (Herrnhuter) bookshop that had a lot of what we call Moravian stars displayed! Living close to Bethlehem, PA, which was founded by Moravians, we use them as Christmas decorations. It turns out there is a Moravian village just 80 km from here and where they hand make the stars. I bought a small one.

Arriving in town, we had some tea in the Grand Hotel Taschenbergpalais before our 4:30 reservation in the "Green Vault".  There we saw an amazing collection of objects of the aristocracy in this restored building that was largely destroyed in WWII.

We walked first through the Frauenkirche Weinachtsmarkt and then to the famous Striezelmarkt. The Striezelmarkt is the oldest Christmas market in Germany and now in its 580th year!!  That was an amazing place that needs to be re-visited.  At one point when Karl & Gisela were having a glühwein, Lin and I walked around an I found a great new hat for only 19.95 Euros!

Dinner was at a table with a couple from Cologne at "Augustiner an der Frauenkirche".  Linda enjoyed her Tafelspitz and I my HUGE half duck.

Back in the room I downloaded my pix wrote some e-mails.  I finally got to bed after 11 and was still awake after 1:00! Ugh!

Tuesday, Dec. 9- Dresden

We awoke to a cold but strikingly clear morning.  Karl had a business appointment in Dresden so Gisela, Lin and I had breakfast in the schloss at 9:00, then Gisela and I took a walk in the grounds while Lin rested in the room.

Karl came back just before noon and we headed to the VW factory tour.  It was absolutely fantastic and, for me, a highlight of the trip!  No matter how you look at it, the place is absolutely amazing.  Architecturally, it's spectacular and, from a manufacturing standpoint, it's incredible. Having spent my entire career in manufacturing companies, I could have spent days there. As an engineer, it would almost be worth paying for the privilege of working there!  My words will fall short so, if you have not already seen the videos, either click here or Google it yourself.  You'll find a lot on YouTube. My only disappointments were that the tour was not a LOT longer and that I could not take pictures from within the factory itself.  I was able to "legally" take some through the glass walls, however.  While Karl and I were taking the one hour tour, the girls were not suffering; they were enjoying some snacks and a bottle of sekt in the factory's restaurant.

I've recently read that VW may try another US launch but my prediction is another failure. China, however, is another matter.  We were told that a whopping 60% of production goes to China and that most of those cars are stretch versions in black.  Thirty percent stay in Germany with the remaining 10% scattered around.

Leaving VW, we drove around a bit and ended up at the Striezelmarkt where we bought four Santa Claus smokers, one for us and one for each of the kids. We had planned on waiting until we were in the Erzgebirge where they were made but fell in love with some at a stand here so bit the bullet.
We returned to the hotel for a short rest, then left at 6:30 for dinner. We struck out in Neustadt and ended back near Frauenkirche for dinner at Freiberger Schankhaus.  My goose leg was great!  Lin had goulash and liked that as well.

After a short walk in the closing Frauenkirchemarkt and were back in the room before 11.

Wednesday, Dec. 10., Dresden to Oberwiesenthal

We were up at 7, had breakfast in the schloss at 8:00 and were on the road with me driving at 9:00.  I'd expected some autobahn but it was all small roads so after less than 2 hours, I switched places with Karl after a stop at a small workshop of a woodcarver. 

Our major stop was at Seiffen, an amazing town right from a storybook.  Karl parked by the little octagonal church often seen in music boxes, etc and we walked into the town where we bought WAY more stuff than we should have, including a base for the schwibbogen that Karl & Gisela gave us when they visited for Thanksgiving several years ago.  The car was JAMMED!

Next stop was at Crottendorf and a factory that makes the incense for the smokers.  There we got an explanation of manufacturing and bought lots of incense for the many smokers we'd bought.

Next it was a short stop in Annaberg where all we had was glühwein and potato pancakes before setting out for our hotel in Oberwiesenthal.  After some glühwein in the markt and maronen (chestnuts that were the best I've ever tasted) for me, dinner was beef in glühwein sauce at Cafe Zentral.  One more glühwein in the tiny markt and it was time for the room as Karl & Gisela went to park the car.  However, I was looking at some DDR propaganda posters in the lobby when the very nice wife of the owner stopped to chat with Linda and me.

Thursday, Dec. 11 Oberwiesenthal to Bamberg

We were up at 8:00, had breakfast at 9:00 and were on the road shortly thereafter. Packing the car, however, was real treat because of all the large stuff we'd bought!  The day started with snow and it was really pretty.  By the time we stopped at the railroad station to take some pix for Earl, stopped at a workshop making schwibbogen, and headed out of town, the sun started to break through. It didn't last, however. 

I'd asked Karl whether it would be convenient to visit the Czech Republic and he decided that was a good way to travel anyway.  A lot of what we saw there was pretty dismal and yet more proof that communism is a flawed dream.  At one point we crossed back into Germany to a ski resort at Figtelberg we here the wind, snow and ice made amazing natural sculptures.  I've seen a lot of snow and ice but nothing like this.

Back in Czech Republic, we proceeded to Karlovy Vary for a snack at GrandHotel Pupp, an absolutely opulent place that as, according to Karl, a favorite the Russian aristocracy.  I confess to enjoying our time there but he contrast with living condition of "normal" people was striking. By this time it has started to rain and the rain continued to increase. 

By the time we'd checked into the Residenzschloss Bamberg and dropped the bags it was raining steadily and the rain increased as we walked through the Weinachtsmarkt.  Had some glühwein, wurst, chestnuts and roasted cashews, then had a hell of a time trying to find an opening in a restaurant, all the time getting soaking wet.  We finally found sanctuary at the Hotel Brudermühle.  Service was friendly if less than speedy but the meal was great.  Since goose is popular here during this season and I'd never had it, I gave it a try.  It was magnificent but the portion was huge and I was sorry that I was unable to finish it.

Back in the room by 8:00, we crashed.  I transferred pix and wrote while Lin played on her Kindle Fire.

Friday, Dec. 12 - Kirchleus, Nurnberg, Lengenfeld

This was a very special day for me.  We were up at 7, ate breakfast at 8 and were on the road at 10, headed for Kirchleus, where my great grandfather was born.  All we knew was his birthday but, armed with that, Karl had contacted the pastor at the local church who, in turn, did some research for us.  He had a meeting scheduled for the AM and said he'd be available around 11:30 or 12:00. 

We got to town about an hour early and drove around with me taking pictures.  The church is located on a hill and primary access to it is via a variety of foot paths.  We had a tough time accessing it by car but eventually Karl parked at a house above the church.  We talked to its owner, who said elderly people park there and access the church across his property. I'm afraid we qualify!  Incidentally, the property he owns was once owned by three brothers who emigrated at about the same time as Johann Welsch, my great grandfather.  His wife gave us a key to the church and we gave ourselves a tour. The church's exterior is unremarkable but the inside is magnificent!  I'm always floored by the splendor of the churches in Europe, even those in small villages.  There are TWO balconies and on the upper one is a organ that is apparently operated with the help of a pump lever on the side of the pipe box.

At the front of the church is a series of plaques memorializing soldiers lost in WWII, among them 2 by the name of Welsch.  The churchyard contained the graves only of former pastors so none of our family were there.

Leaving there, we still had some time to kill so we stopped at the Gasthaus next to the pastor's house.  It was closed but Karl knocked and the woman opened it so we could have some glühwein.  While we were waiting, I saw a plaque with photos of soldiers lost in WWII and found 3 named Welsch.  When I told our hostess that my name was Welsch, she said, "Oh, you belong across the road."  Later we learned that my forefathers did, indeed, live on the other side of the main road through town.

Our hostess stayed and chatted with us but the conversation was in German so I picked up only a little and Linda virtually nothing.  As noon came and went with us still drinking, Karl called the pastor and he said he'd been detained and would join us shortly in the Gasthaus.

Pastor Schmidt was an absolute delight.  He had found the record of Johann Welsch's birth and baptism so we got his exact birth date and even time and the names of his mother (Katherina) and father (another Johann) as well as the date of baptism and the name of his two sponsors, both men named Johann. He gave us a book published by one of his predecessors. In it was a history of who had lived in the houses over the years.  Johann and his father had lived in House number 2. His mother had lived in house 27 before her marriage.  We walked to No. 1 and, since the pastor knew the people who lived there, we were shown inside. I have to say that was a great thrill. As we were walking, he asked me about my first name.  Though people call me Jack, my legal name is John (Johann in German) and I'm named for my grandfather.  I guess the family got stuck on that name.

From there walked to the last working farm in the village where they were selling Christmas trees.  The amazing thing was that the trees come from land that they bought from the Welsch family.

Leaving Kirchleus we drove to Nurnberg and walked through their Christmas market but, compared to others it was not as good.  Looked to us a lot more commercial. I'm afraid that if we'd visited the markets by river cruise, this is more like what we'd have seen.  While it was certainly nice, others were much better.

Our last leg for the day was to "Winkler Bräu, Privatbrauerai und Gasthofhotel" in Lengenfeld.  The hotel was absolutely perfect. We had some downtime before dinner in their stube.  I had never had schweinshaxe (AKA ham hocks or pigs knuckle) but decided to try it.  It was great. 
What a day!!

Sunday, Dec. 13 - Lengenfeld to Düsseldorf

We were up at 8:00 and I took my camera for a walk before breakfast.  Breakfast at 9:00 and, for the second day in a row, I had weisswurst and mustard, a Bavarian staple. This time I had a pretzel also. It was 10:20 by the time we were on the road.  The route was almost entirely A3 and I drove the entire 4 hours non-stop.  Weather was initially nice but we ran into heavy rain and even snow as we approached Köln. As a result, the highest speed I achieved was 200 kph in the beginning. After that it was mostly 160-180 and sometimes much slower, especially in the frequent construction zones.  At one point we hit a traffic jam so I dove off onto a detour.  As was passed Dettelburg, Karl suggested a further brief detour to see it.

We arrived in Düsseldorf at 4:20, dropped our bags at the hotel and went to Karl & Gisela's to sort out the loot we'd all bought and have a glass of sekt.

Karl and I went to his office to pack our loot into 2 of the large suitcases he had there. The base for our Schwibbogen JUST fit diagonally in the largest suitcase and, even then, I had to remove some internal fitting from the suitcase.  If the piece was 1/16 inch larger, it would not have fit! I cut my finger quite badly in the process.  I have a bad record on that point.

Dinner was at La Rucola, a trattoria/pizzeria near their house.  I had veal in gorgonzola sauce and it was absolutely outstanding.  It was an interesting place with lots of dogs, kids, and friendly people.

We were back in hotel by about 9:30. 

Sunday, Dec. 14 - Düsseldorf

I was awake at 5:45 and could not help stewing over potential issues with luggage and finally got up at 7:15 to write and play solitaire.  We went for breakfast at 9:30 after beginning the task of repacking.  Linda had a brainstorm as to how we could rearrange things to eliminate one of Karl's suitcases.  Fortunately, her idea worked and saved us almost 100US in excess baggage charges.  Afterwards, we completed the job as far as was possible.

Karl picked us up on schedule at 2:00 and took us to their apartment for dinner.  After some "Welschriesling" that we bought in Lengenfeld we enjoyed a wonderful Rheinischer Sauerbraten that Gisela had prepared.  We simply cannot get sauerbraten that good in our area. . It was a great afternoon but, sadly, our last together for a while.

Karl had determined that we could deliver our suitcases and check in between 6:00 and 8:00 so we returned to the room, rearranged the packing of carry-ons and headed to the airport.  We were able to check the bags (paying 75 Euros for the extra one) and get our boarding passes but were unable to process the VAT refund.

Back at the apartment we had some cake and cookies and one last glühwein before returning to the room a bit after 9:00.

Monday, Dec. 15 - Düsseldorf to home

Wakeup was set for 7:30.  I got out of bed to check the time and, before I got to the phone, the alarm went off.  Dressed, got everything into the carry-ons and had breakfast in the hotel.

The flight departed on time and arrived at about 2:45; 15 minutes ahead of schedule.  As always, immigration was a mess but at least the bags were on the belt shortly after we arrived there.  I called Joe and he said Joe Modzeleski was picking us up and he arrived about 10 minutes after we got to the curb.  Traffic was heavier than usual but we were home shortly after 6 and went to Mendocino's for dinner, then crashed and burned.

The Bottom Line

This was a fantastic if exhausting trip.  Karl and Gisela are great hosts and even better friends and we had a wonderful time together.  The only problem this time around is that Christmas will never be the same.