Last year we wanted to spend Christmas in Germany. Traditional Christmas Markets beckoned and we were not disappointed. Also known as Christkindlmarkt or Weihnachtsmarkt, these street markets spring up in many towns and villages all over Germany, Austria and Switzerland during the four weeks of Advent leading up to Christmas.
The history of Christmas markets goes back to the Late Middle Ages in the German-speaking part of Europe and in many parts of the former Holy Roman Empire that includes many eastern regions of France and Switzerland. The Vienna “December market” was a kind of forerunner of the Christmas market and dates back to 1294.
Although Düsseldorf has some lovely little markets strewn throughout the Altstadt, Cologne would get my vote if you’re looking for atmosphere. Located beneath the towering spires of Cologne Cathedral, this market has a huge variety of handicrafts interspersed with just the right amount of Gingerbread hearts, Glühwein and Würstchen stalls, all below an array of twinkling Christmas lights. The sounds and smells of these markets instantly put us into the Christmas spirit.
After celebrating a very traditional German Christmas , we were ready to make our escape and travelled along the Autobahn towards the River Rhine. The Middle Rhine Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage site and stretches about 100 kms from Bonn to Bingen. With many castles, historic towns and vineyards we were soon immersed in its history and legends, the inspiration of many writers, artists and composers.
The Rhine has served as a transport route and has linked the southern and northern halves of the European continent since prehistoric times, enabling trade and cultural exchange, which in turn led to the establishment of settlements, which eventually joined up to form villages and small towns. For over 1,000 years the steep valley sides have been terraced for vineyards, heralding some excellent vintages.
Some 40 medieval hill top castles and fortresses keep a silent watch over this mighty waterway. Most were abandoned, and many are left only as picturesque ruins. The 19th century saw restoration and reconstruction and today some of the castles have been converted into hotels or conference venues.
We thought we’d spend a night in a castle on top of a hill. Driving up the narrow, winding, icy path was an adventure in itself! We arrived in the late afternoon and the place was very spooky in the twilight. This castle was built in the 13th century, and its owners looked like they had always lived there. They showed us the dining room – a grand hall furnished with a huge long table and the ancestors sternly looking down from their paintings on the walls. The hallways were freezing cold – no central heating in the middle ages – and the guest rooms were decorated in heavy brocade and velvet. This seemed like a great place for Halloween … but we decided to stay in a little hotel down by the river. What a charming place it was! We had balcony overlooking the Rhine, two castles and a cloister, and the owners could not have been more hospitable. The kitchen was excellent too – no wonder the restaurant was so busy at this quiet time!
In summer this is a popular area for hiking and exploring. But by the time we arrived the vines were bare, grapes were fermenting in their wine vats and most tourists had moved on to warmer climes. The first snowfall of the season had given the castles and surrounding vineyards a light dusting and made for some great photo ops. This is a wonderful time to travel – everyone is happy to welcome a traveller out of season.
Of course we visited the famous statue of the Lorelei. Legend has it that her beauty distracted the captains of the ships plying the river and caused many a boat to sink.
In Rüdesheim we stopped off at the Niederwald Denkmal, a 125 ft tall monument commemorating the foundation of the German Empire. The first stone was laid in 1871 by Kaiser Wilhelm I, but more importantly for me, my grandparents visited this place on their honeymoon in 1930. Here they are on their motorcycle!
Next time I might consider taking a River Cruise to explore more of the River Rhine – quite a few ships passed us, as we drove along the river. For those interested in history, tradition, wine and good food, this area will certainly not disappoint.
Feel free to contact Christine Boecker for some great travel ideas – I look forward to arranging your perfect Rhine tour.