When we were packing our stuff for our move, my husband and I agreed on whether most items belonged in the shipping or storage category. Our holiday decorations, however, did not go so smoothly. He was afraid of storage constraints, (a valid fear considering we didn’t know if we’d have enough closet space or not, turns out we would). I didn’t care where we stored it for the other eleven months, I just wanted a little continuity over the holidays, and it was only a few boxes after all. In the end, I caved when he said, “We’ll buy new stuff in Europe when we see how much room we have.” Immediately images of snow-covered Christmas markets and hand-made ornaments sprung to mind. I looked innocently into his eyes and said “Okay, we’ll shop there.” I think he was too high on victory to realize what he had gotten himself into.
And that’s how we ended up in Germany in early December, more specifically, the Christmas markets of Bavaria. We’d like to thank Ryanair, Hertz, and off-season hotel prices for making this trip possible. We flew into Frankfurt-Hahn (which isn’t actually that close to Frankfurt), rented a car and drove to Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Munich, and Hohenschwangau. If flying into Frankfurt sounds a little out of the way, for our itinerary, that’s because it was. The cost of flying into Frankfurt on our dates with Ryanair was less than 80 euro, roundtrip, for two people, including tax. Flying into the much more central Munich was roughly eight times more on the same dates. We were willing to sacrifice a few extra hours on the road to save over 400 euro. Thank you, Ryanair.
This is the first trip where we traveled by car instead of trains and buses, but for the timing of this trip to work out it was essential. We arrived at the airport around 2:30pm. If we had taken the hour and half bus to Frankfurt, ran to the train station, and connected twice more, we would have made it to Rothenburg around 11pm. By driving we made it around 6pm, checked into our hotel relaxed instead of exhausted, and had time to see Rothenburg at night. This is the way to do it. Germany has one of the best rail systems in the world, but the Autobahn is one of the best highway systems in the world – no potholes, no trash to speak of, minimal traffic, and breathtaking views. Not to mention it was so liberating to not be a slave to the timetables.
But enough about logistics. We started with Rothenburg ob der Tauber…
I wasn’t sure what to expect with Rothenburg. Even Rick Steves says it’s one step away from becoming a medieval theme park, but still worth seeing. That wasn’t exactly my impression. Rothenburg is a genuine walled medieval town that was once a center of trade in Europe, perfectly preserved through poverty and misfortune, and revived by the tourist trade in the mid 1800s. Forty percent of the town was destroyed during World War II, but saved by the American Secretary of Defense because he knew it by reputation. Today, all damage has been meticulously restored to the point where it’s nearly impossible to tell which building is eight hundred years old, and which is fifty. Most shops and restaurants are geared toward the tourists, but with quality in mind.
Our one and only below freezing night in Rothenburg began with a twinkling romantic stroll that evolved into a frantic search for a warm restaurant. We ended up at a cozy dimly lit, powder blue restaurant whose name has more syllables than I could ever remember. This is where we kicked off our tour of hearty German cuisine. Think potato dumplings, bratwurst, sauerkraut, schnitzel, and you’ll have an idea. The food was good, and the calories were essential, especially when considering that this evening in the upper 20s was the warmest of the trip.
Afterwards we recommenced down the street and followed the glow and voices to an animated outdoor bar on a small square outside St. Jakobs church. Well insulated travelers from all over the world and locals alike congregated around fire pits and Christmas trees, laughing and sipping from steaming mugs with a large silver screen of old Christmas films reeling in the background. It’s name was Kuchenmeister, and it was my fantasy Christmas bar come to life.
Kuchenmeister is also a hotel and restaurant, both looked very nice and the location is ideal. We didn’t stay here so I can’t say I’d recommend it, but if we ever come back I may make a reservation just for proximity. Hot libations were another recurring theme on this trip, on this occasion we drank the house specialty, which seemed to be the German version of a hot toddy – another eight syllable name that I will never be able to recall. (Note: At first most street food and drinks in Germany seem rather expensive, but they’ve built in the price of the mug or plate you were given with your purchase. You may think “ugh, six euros for mulled wine, no thank you.” But when you turn your mug back in you get three euros back. So it’s not as bad as it looks.) We decided we loved Germany, power sipped our toddies, turned in our mugs, and walked one block over for the beginning of the Nightwatchman’s Tour.
Don’t judge me. I know the cool kids go to Germany to seek out ancient breweries, dine in secluded foodie chalets, and tour Bauhaus masterpieces… but I’ve wanted to go on the Nightwatchman’s tour of Rothenburg since I first saw it on PBS in the nineties. For seven euro each, we had an entertaining, tongue-in-cheek, hour long tour from a very entertaining guide that took us through Rothenburg at night. And in this city that seems to be the model for all gingerbread villages, minus the gumdrop trim and candy cane lanes, we were not disappointed.
Frozen, we made our way back to my new favorite bar. This time we drank some really outstanding local beer and had a surprisingly deep and enlightening conversation with a pair of Germans working in the local economy. Most Germans speak perfect fluent English, which was very convenient in most cases, but at the same time very humbling considered we didn’t bother to learn much beyond basic greetings like “Guttentag”. Around eleven, we were ready to feel our noses again, so we called it a night and headed back to the hotel.
The next morning we had breakfast with fresh rolls, homemade cherry preserves, smoked ham, cheese, fruit, etc. It was the best hotel breakfast we’ve had in a while. We checked out, placed our luggage back in the car and walked back to the city center with a singular purpose in mind – to conquer the Christmas Markets.
At first the market didn’t seem that big, maybe twenty booths in the main square. Then we realized it went done several other streets, along alleyways, into hidden courtyards, and back out into other squares. And it wasn’t just outside, the Christmas empire Kathe Wohlfahrt has made Rothenburg their flagship, and their shops line the same market streets as well. (Beware, only a few of the stores are called Kathe Wohlfahrt, others have different names, but they are the same store.) We stood in the center and momentarily let ourselves be intimidated by the variety of ornaments, Christmas pyramids, nutcrackers, incense smokers, advent calendars, Russian dolls, music boxes, nativity scenes, lace, cookie cutters, and general Christmas cheer. Foolishly we thought we’d get our bearings inside one of the stores, which happened to be the main Kathe Wohlfahrt store.
I don’t have any pictures of the store because pictures are strictly not allowed. This is the mother of all Christmas shops. Once you enter there is no turning around. A one-way lane winds you throughout multiple stories of what looks like a normal building from the outside, but inside is a heavily curated Christmas explosion. No surface is untouched, especially the ceiling. Longing for the comparable simplicity of the outdoor market, I numbly picked up a shopping basket, and placed the first ornament into the basket. The rest is a blur of tinsel and pine. We arrived at the register with what seemed like a modest few purchases, but added up to small fortune.
Confused, we stepped outside wondering how that had happened and not sure how much time had passed. It had only been an hour, it felt like longer. We wandered over to a stand selling our new favorite street foods: Fire-grilled bratwurst on a bun, with steaming gluhwein (mulled wine).
We walked the streets and got to know Rothenburg a little better, and made a few more purchases now feeling fully educated by our time in the Christmas time warp. We came across one of our friends from the night before. He asked if we had heard of the big storm that’s coming. No, we hadn’t. At that time a strong wind and snow storm was pounding northern Germany and was well on its way to the south. This was bad news for our itinerary. We planned to go to nearby Nuremberg for the afternoon and early evening, and then drive down to Munich. Now it looked like we had to out-drive the storm. Too bad, we would have liked to have seen it, maybe another time.
We took our last look around Rothenburg ob der Tauber.
From its reputation, I was expecting to be tangled in pushy crowds, served off the tourist menu, and swindled by local merchants. Maybe stuff like that happens in July, but for us none of that stuff happened. The sidewalks had enough room for everyone, we were definitely getting the same German menu everyone got, we found the prices to be less than what we experienced Munich, and the locals to be extremely friendly. Package all that in Rothenburg’s half-timber glory and I’d say we had a charming stay, I recommend it.
Now we had a storm to out-drive.
Next exit – – > Munich.