You could drop a cookie on a map of Germany and be pretty sure that wherever the crumbs fell there would be a town with a Christmas market. But nowhere is there a more varied and interesting group than in Baden-Württemberg.
Baden-Württemberg is in the southwestern corner of Germany that borders France and Switzerland. It includes well-known tourist destinations of Heidelberg and the spa town of Baden-Baden – both of which have good Christmas markets of their own.
But the part I like best at Christmastime begins in the region’s capital, Stuttgart, and includes the beautiful Medieval towns of the Black Forest. These villages of half-timbered buildings seem to have been designed as stage-sets for a Christkindlmarkt, those clusters of colorful cabins fragrant with fresh-cut greens, roasting chestnuts and spicy ginger cookies. And each market has a different way of celebrating the season.
We stepped back six or so centuries into the half-timbered squares of Esslingen, a short train ride from Stuttgart. Its location at the crossing of trade routes made Esslingen a prosperous market town from as early as the 8th century, leaving it with an eye-catching center filled with original medieval buildings. These form the setting for the Mittelaltermarkt, an authentic Medieval street market, where merchants and craftsmen dress as their counterparts would have dressed in medieval times.
Under canvas market tents are handcrafted leather cases, silverwork, calligraphy, hand-bound books, clothing of handwoven wool and linen, wooden bowls, handspun and plant-dyed yarns. Many craftspeople work as they sell: a blacksmith forges ornamental hooks in front of his forge, basket makers weave and you can have your own incense custom blended as you watch.
Entertainment and children’s games are all authentic to the era — stilt walkers, minstrels, fire walkers, troubadours and jugglers — as are the foods. We feasted on venison goulash and roasted meats, munching on bread baked around a stick, and sipping berry wines in a square lit by torches.
A shuttle bus took us up to the crest of a steep hill, where the beautifully preserved castle of Burg Hohenzollern opens in December for the Royal Christmas Market. Inside its thick stone walls, wooden cabins in the forecourt serve thin German pancakes and glass mugs of hot gluhwein. The castle’s elegant halls are filled with high-quality local crafts and art. This is a juried market, with beautiful works, many original designs and one-of-a-kind works in wool, silk, leather, glass and wood. Here we found the most perfect springerle – white anise seed cookies formed in intricate hand-carved wooden molds. Much too pretty to dunk in coffee – as they are designed to be eaten.
Even deeper into the Black Forest, in a steep wooded valley under the stone viaduct of the 190-foot-high Devil‘s Valley Railway bridge, is the Ravenna Gorge Christmas Market. We visited at night, walking up the hill on a path behind the historic Hofgut Sternen inn to a clearing where 40 stalls are lit by lanterns and twinkling lights. Every now and then a train would rumble far overhead as we munched our way past cabins selling Black Forest specialties, including the famed hams we’d savored at dinner in the inn below.
The smallest Christkindlmarkt we went to, in St Blaisen, was also the most endearing. It reminded me of a traditional New England church Christmas bazaar. All the little cabins were local craftspeople or civic groups, but that didn’t diminish the quality of the work we found there. Exquisitely embroidered fabric-covered buttons, colorful felted wool jewelry, hand-made wooden toys, shimmering jellies and tangy mustards, fragile herbal wreaths, bundles of mistletoe, and on the church steps the warmest hand-knit wool sox we have ever worn. They were made by a local group and the proceeds go to fund a job training program for farm women.
As we shopped, a choir of school children sang carols. It was small-town at its best, and we left St Blaisen with warm feet and warm hearts.
For more information, visit Baden-Württemberg Tourism.
[All photos © Stillman Rogers Photography]