Dresden Christmas Markets

Striezelmarkt Dresden

When tourists come to Germany, it is usually to one of the larger cities: Berlin for culture, Munich for Oktoberfest, and Hamburg for the delicious fish. Many people skip over the beautiful “Florence on the Elbe,” Dresden. Located about two hours by train south of Berlin, Dresden is a well-connected and beautiful city along the Elbe River. Many Americans will recall the name of this German city from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, but the Germans know one of Dresden’s best kept tourist secrets: the beautiful medieval Christmas markets.

Stollen at the Dresden Christmas Markets

One of the most popular delicacies at the Dresden Christmas markets is stollen. This cake, originally made only from flour, yeast, oil, and water, is a Saxon delicacy that can now be found throughout the Dresden Christmas markets. Similar to the American fruitcake (but so much more delicious!), it is now made with anything from marzipan to dried fruits and nuts, and the oil has long since been replaced with butter to make the cakes moist and flavorful. There is a stollen festival during the Dresden Christmas markets every year, where a 3-4 ton piece of stollen is paraded through the town.

Buying Gifts at the Dresden Christmas Markets

Some of the most special Christmas gifts can be found at the Dresden Christmas markets. The markets are so large; there is something there for everyone on your Christmas list. German handmade crafts are one of the most popular choices. These can include anything from blown glass ornaments to hand knitted socks and gloves for the winter. At the Dresden Christmas markets especially, the Weinacht Pyramiden, beautiful hand crafted wooden pyramids that showcase different Christmas scenes, are one of the most traditional and beloved gift options.

Weihnachts Pyramiden at the Dresden Christmas Markets

Speaking of the Weihnachts Pyramiden, the largest pyramid in Germany can be found at the Dresden Christmas market’s Striezelmarkt. This 14m high wooden pyramid consists of lighted structures, wooden Christmas scenes, and a beautiful spinning fan at the top. It is especially lovely with the background of the Kreuzkirche, a baroque church in Dresden. Dresden’s restored architecture is not to be missed while you’re there—take a stroll around after visiting a Dresden Christmas market!

Be sure to check out a food tour while you’re in Dresden as well—it’s a great opportunity to get to know a different side of the city.

Gruene Woche: A taste of the world in Berlin

I know we’ve blogged about Berlin not too long ago. But this topic is right on time. The Gruene Woche is going on through this week and it’s a great event to see. There was a protest staged against it last weekend, and it gets huge press here in Germany.

What is the Gruene Woche?

Gruene Woche translates to Green Week. It’s  an opportunity for the world’s food, farming and gardening industries to show off. The green doesn’t mean eco-friendly, here, just having to do with food, agriculture, or gardening. And it takes place for a week (longer, actually!) A ticket to the Gruene Woche gets you access to hundreds of informative stalls and displays. You can hear local music, taste regional food, buy flower seeds, test an in-home sauna, see organic cooking demonstrations, and go eye-to-eye with prizewinning livestock. And, there’s a whole hall devoted to beer.

Gruene Woche Overlook

The photo’s a bit old, but it still looks much the same. Photo by: _raina_

What happens at the Gruene Woche?

It’s part convention, part massive international market. (Here at germany-travel, we go for the market part!) On the grounds of Berlin’s convention center, exhibitors from literally all around the world flock to the Gruene Woche to show sides of the countries you’ve never seen. Last year I discovered cheese from Romania and reindeer from Norway, while this year I sampled tagine from Morocco and pickles from the next state over in Germany!

Gruene Woche 2013 - Norway

Norway’s setup in 2013. Photo by: Landbruks- og matdepartementet

When’s the best time to visit the Gruene Woche?

In general, weekdays will be less busy than weekends. But I went on a Saturday and survived. If you go on a weekend, the key is to get there as early as you can – the later you go, the more crowded it will be.

Gruene Woche 2013 - Plants

An oasis in the convention center: the plant showcase. Photo by: Anagoria

 

Top Tips for Gruene Woche 2014

  • There’s folk dancing at Greece’s area, and don’t miss the creatively-named olive oil company nearby.
  • Take a tour of Germany without leaving the city. Each state has its own snazzy setup. It’s a great way to discover regional foods and traditional costumes. I recommend Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, try the turkey salami products and the Störtebeker beer!
  • For a natural break, make your way to the plant showcase. The air is fresh, the plants are lovely, and they have water dispensers.
  • Avoid the Austria exhibition if you can. I’m only saying this because one end of the hall narrows and causes a horrible bottleneck. It took us 15 minutes to herd our way out of that 50-f0ot-long human traffic jam.
  • Buy eggs from a vending machine in the organic hall.
  • Or, for the pescatarians, chow down on a fish-based currywurst!

All in all, the Gruene Woche is a fun experience for the whole family and a really interesting way to see a snapshot into other countries you might not have known about before.

7 Quirky German New Year’s Traditions

2014 is just around the corner. Some German new year’s traditions are pretty familiar – drinking sparkling wine, watching fireworks – but a few others might make you shake your head and say, “Wie, bitte?” Here are a few offbeat German new year’s traditions… and the stories behind them.

New Year’s Eve is called Silvester in Germany. This name comes from Pope Sylvester I, who lived in the fourth century. He was canonized by the Catholic Church, and his saint’s day is December 31. No actors or cartoon cats to be found. That fact was for free and doesn’t even count towards our list! Here we go…

German new year’s traditions: melted lead, good slipping, sweet pigs, a lady and her butler?!

German New Year's Traditions: Lead pieces

Is that a spoon, a deer or a star? Photo by: Eric Delcroix

1. Bleigießen

What does the new year have in store for you? Germans have a funny way of predicting the future. They melt bits of lead over a candle flame, pour the lead into a bowl of cold water, then find what shape each re-hardened piece looks like. A lion predicts you’ll make good friends, while a bell means you will inherit some money.

2. Guten Rutsch

Second in our list of German new year’s traditions is to wish people a “guten Rutsch” (a good slip). Why would you want to slip into the new year? The best guess is that it comes from the Yiddish phrase “Rosh ha-Shana tov” (a good new year, or literally, a good head-of-the-year). So a guten Rutsch is really a wish for a good start to the year.

3. Glücksschwein

The tastiest of the German new year’s traditions is to give your loved ones a lucky pig, often made out of marzipan. Not full-size, please!

German New Year's traditions - Watching Dinner for One

Photo by: Luke Montague

4. Dinner for One

This has got to be my favorite of the German new year’s traditions. It is a German tradition to watch the recording of a play called Dinner for One on New Year’s Eve. Miss Sophie is hosting a dinner for her 90th birthday. But she’s outlived all her guests, so her butler James plays the parts of all four gentlemen, PLUS his butler duties. Each guest has a different accent, and of course each of them gives a toast to Miss Sophie at each course of the meal. With each guest’s toast, James gets more toasted. I won’t spoil the ending for you, though! Once you’ve seen the original, try the Lego version.

German new year’s traditions from Oma

I asked a couple of Germans for some family traditions, and here’s what I got.

5. Don’t do laundry!

Don’t wash your bed linens between Christmas and New Year. The superstitious believe that if you do, someone in your family will die. One friend’s grandma would give her clean bedsheets for Christmas, just so she’d have an extra set. You can survive a few more days in those sheets!

6. The food also rises

Have some bread on January 1. If you eat food that has risen (dough, noodles, anything with yeast), your money will also “grow” in the next year. And here are some other German new year’s traditions around food!

German New Year's Traditions: pig and chimney sweep

Photo by: Margrit

7. Mary Poppins had it right

Chim-chim-cheree! Remember the chimney sweep who said touching him brings you luck? Or blowing a kiss? It’s even luckier at New Year’s. They make party poppers (crackers) which burst out with chimney sweeps for the new year. Quadruple your luck by kissing a chimney sweep on Silvester. Pucker up!

There you have it: seven German New Year’s traditions you probably never knew about. Now go melt some lead, follow the same procedure as every year, and have a good slip into 2014!

Lubeck Marzipan: Almonds as you’ve never imagined

Germany’s best-known marzipan comes from Lubeck, on the Baltic Sea. Read on to learn a German New Year tradition featuring Lubeck marzipan and some interesting marzipan facts.

 

Marzipan was brought to Europe by the Crusaders, but it’s popular around Europe and has left traces and traditions all over the world. Countries from Germany to Italy, Estonia, Portugal, Cyprus, the Netherlands and Belgium all have special ties and traditions with marzipan, and marzipan-like sweets can be found in Iran, Latin America, India and the Philippines.

 

Lubeck marzipan fruits

Why are those fruits plastic-wrapped? Look closer… that’s not fruit, it’s marzipan! Photo by: GaijinSeb

 

What makes Lubeck marzipan so special?

Within Germany, Lubeck marzipan is such a tradition that it has its own protected geographical indication (PGI). That’s the same name protection as Champagne and Roquefort cheese. Some Lubeck marzipan makers have been at their craft for more than a century. That’s a tradition with a history.

 

Traditions with Lubeck marzipan

The New Year is around the corner. Have you got a German you want to impress? Be prepared as the clock’s counting down. Germans have a tradition of giving out pigs made from Lubeck marzipan at the new year. There’s still enough time to get all your pigs in a row (get it?), but only if you hurry! So where should you rush to find the best Lubeck marzipan?

 

Lubeck marzipan schweinchen pigs

Photo by: Alice Wiegand

 

The best place to get Lubeck marzipan

First, get yourself to Lubeck! Lubeck itself is well worth a visit. It’s a lovely city with a gorgeous Old Town and beautiful architecture. One popular spot is Niederegger, which hosts a Lubeck marzipan cafe and a well-stocked gift shop. They’ve even got a cool quiz machine where you can win your own piece of marzipan if you answer three questions in a row correctly. And don’t miss the special tea offerings, flavored with – what else – the house’s own marzipan.

 

Lubeck marzipan variety

There is something there for everyone. Unless they don’t like marzipan at all. Photo by: Susie Wyshak

From fruits to Marzipankartoffeln (yes, that’s marzipan potatoes… just don’t try making potato pancakes out of them), to solid logs flavored with chocolate or booze, to colorful animals, seasonal decorations and even dinosaurs: The makers of Lubeck marzipan are nothing if not creative! While you’re getting your Lubeck marzipan piggies, snap up a few other tasty companions for those oinkers. One bite will have you saying “wee, wee, wee” all the way home.

German Potato Pancakes

Who doesn’t love German potato pancakes? Crispy, fried medallions of goodness are a wonderful treat for the winter, using seasonal vegetables (potatoes and onions) and always served hot. You can find them at any Christmas market. German potato pancakes are traditionally served with applesauce, but you can try topping them with jam or sour cream.

What’s special about German potato pancakes?

If you have to ask, you haven’t had one. German potato pancakes are easy, tasty, and filling. As they’re fried in lots of oil, they’re not too healthy, but they are a great indulgence now and then. You can count the number of ingredients on one hand, and all they require is to throw everything into a food processor (or grate by hand), mix, and fry.

How do I find German potato pancakes?

Lots of stores sell potato pancakes in the freezer, but they’re very easy to make yourself. Here’s a favorite, easy recipe for traditional German potato pancakes! They’re also quite in season, as they’re sold not only at Christmas markets but also cooked as a treat for the Jewish holiday of Chanukah, where they’re called latkes.

German potato pancakes by lynn.gardner

Photo by: Lynn Gardner

German potato pancakes

Ingredients:

1 kg waxy potatoes

1 large onion, halved

1 large egg

2 tablespoons flour

Salt and pepper, to taste

Freshly ground nutmeg, to taste

1 tablespoon fresh parsley

Vegetable or canola oil, for frying

Applesauce, for serving

 

Directions:

Peel the potatoes. Grate them with a food processor or grater. Grate the onion as well.

Empty the potatoes and onions into a strainer over a large bowl. Squeeze out as much water as possible and collect it in the bowl.

Give the water a few minutes to settle. The potato starch will sink to the bottom. Empty as much water as possible from the bowl while keeping the potato starch.

Mix the potatoes and onions with the remaining potato starch. Mix in the egg, flour, spices and parsley.

Preheat 1 inch (2 cm) of oil in a large skillet on medium-high heat. When the oil is very hot, form the potato mixture into patties with your hands and carefully place into the oil – or, put large spoonfuls into the hot oil and form into a round shape.

Fry for 5-8 minutes on each side, until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. German potato pancakes can be kept warm in the oven for up to an hour, but they’re best eaten when fresh! Serve with applesauce, sour cream, jam or kimchi.

Berlin Christmas Markets: ‘Tis the Season!

Berlin Christmas Markets at Potsdamer Platz

Photo by: onnola

Yesterday was the first of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. Here in Germany the start of Advent is a big deal. It means the festive season can really start – and the doors of more than 60 Berlin Christmas markets open in earnest. Whether you’re shopping for unique holiday gifts or just want to enjoy a glass of mulled wine, you can find it at one of the dozens of Berlin Christmas markets. As the days get shorter, tourists and locals alike flock to Berlin Christmas markets to enjoy a warming glass of mulled wine and special winter treats: candied nuts, gingerbread, and lots of Wurst! No two Berlin Christmas markets are alike. Read on for some ideas on how to make the most of the Berlin Christmas markets, whether you’re here for a weekend or the whole season.

Berlin Christmas markets are something special.

From arcades and thrill rides to Scandinavian charm to outdoor skating rinks, Berlin Christmas markets are incredibly diverse. And if one of them doesn’t tickle your fancy, there’s bound to be another one within just a few subway stops. The nights are long and many Berlin Christmas markets are open from early afternoon until 10 PM. When the sun sets early, the best cure for darkness-induced blues is the sparkle of Berlin Christmas markets, the sugar rush of sweet treats, and the buzz of the festive atmosphere.

Surviving Berlin Christmas markets – Tips for your wallet and your waistline

The biggest shock for many visitors to Berlin Christmas markets (or Christmas markets anywhere in Germany) is the concept of Pfand. It’s a deposit for the charming mugs they serve mulled wine in – anything from 50 cents to a few euros. It’s not included in the price of the wine, but it’s always written somewhere. If you give your mug back, you get your money back – but for the price of the Pfand, you can also bring the mug home as a keepsake. It makes a lovely gift, too, if you don’t have room for German beer steins in your suitcase! You can scout out the Berlin Christmas markets to find your favorites. Some Berlin Christmas markets have mugs with pictures of nearby landmarks (like the TV tower at Alexanderplatz), or write out the location and sometimes the year (which you can find on the mugs at Gendarmenmarkt).

Like in any market situation, I suggest making your way around the market square first and having a look at all the options. There’s a huge selection of food and drinks at all of the Berlin Christmas markets, and with so many standard Christmas market offerings there are always a few repeats. It’s all too easy to be caught up by the first stalls, then see a tastier-looking option just a few meters away.

Berlin Christmas markets are a hotspot for pickpockets. Keep your valuables close and safe! Stay alert and follow the precautions you’d take in any bustling urban space. Zip your bags and pockets, keep camera straps around your wrist or neck, and so on.

This is wintertime, and the food is rich. You won’t find many healthy options at Berlin Christmas markets. Carnivores can feast on dozens of sausages, while dairy lovers will have their fill of cheese from vendor stalls or raclette to go, smeared on slices of dark bread. The classic meat-free option is a crispy potato pancake slathered with applesauce, but a big bowl of sauteed mushrooms with garlic sauce is also delicious and easy to find at any of the Berlin Christmas markets. Keep your hands warm with a hot drink: apart from mulled wine, the more adventurous can try mulled beer or mulled apple wine with cinnamon. Cookies, waffles, candied almonds and roasted chestnuts are par for the course, and there are always plenty of samples to taste. Load up on your healthy foods during the day, then eat your heart out at the Christmas market!

The best Berlin Christmas markets

So, now you’re ready to experience Berlin Christmas markets for yourself. But with so many to choose from, where do you start? Here are a few special Berlin Christmas markets to get you inspired.

The Lucia market in Prenzlauer Berg’s Kulturbrauerei specializes in Scandinavian and Nordic specialties. Stroll around the candlelit square for a charming atmosphere with Scandinavian music playing and vendors offering Finnish honey, Swedish elk bratwurst, and a dozen variations on mulled wine, glogg, apple cider, mulled beer, or hot chocolate. Of all the Berlin Christmas markets around, it’s particularly intimate and special.

The WeihnachtsZauber market at Gendarmenmarkt is a perfect example of how Berlin Christmas markets should be – offering dozens of vendor stalls, a stage hosting neverending performances, classic Christmas music on the speakers… and with such a perfect atmosphere, it’s packed elbow-to-elbow with other eager visitors. Sandwiched between the French and German Cathedrals and charging a 1-euro entrance fee, the Gendarmenmarkt market also stands out for its upscale offerings: sit-down restaurants, a heated tent of artisan vendors, and costumed performers interacting with the crowd. Be sure to visit the Fassbender & Rausch chocolate shop-cum-cafe nearby to see some of Berlin’s most famous landmarks erected in solid chocolate.

Berlin Christmas Markets at Gendarmenmarkt Weihnachtszauber

Photo by: Gertrud K.

Finally, the be-all and end-all of Berlin Christmas markets – well, it’s a tie between Alexanderplatz and Potsdamer Platz. Alexanderplatz’s market is larger. Along with every sort of vendor you could imagine, it’s home to a carousel, thrill rides and arcade games, an outdoor skating rink, a snow-producing Christmas pyramid, and the huge Alexa shopping mall nearby. Get in a bit of sightseeing by checking out the TV tower while you’re there. Meanwhile the Potsdamer Platz market opens its gates in late November and boasts a massive onsite snow-tubing hill. After a mug of mulled wine, you could catch a movie in English or German at the Cinestar theater nearby.

Berlin Christmas markets at Alexanderplatz

Photo by: Charlott_L

That’s all you need to know to get started in the Berlin Christmas markets. Which are your favorites?

German Beer Steins & You

Photo by: Celia Esguerra

All across the world a very specific stereotype of Germans and Germany has developed. This stereotype most likely consists of a man wearing Lederhosen, an alpine hat; maybe he has a mustache or a potbelly, but he is definitely humorless and eating a huge pretzel or sausage with one hand, and drinking a strong beer from a gigantic stone mug(German beer stein) from the other. Basically, this guy.

But anyway, that’s just the stereotype. Most of these elements have been taken from Bavarian or south German culture (i.e.: lederhosen, alpine hats), some of them are just random (what do mustaches have to do with one country specifically?), but a couple of them might have a bit of truth behind them. There are bakeries with Brezel brot, or what us non-Germans would know as soft pretzels, on just about every corner of larger cities, walking sausage stands in front of every mall, and beer pretty much wherever you could want to find it (bless the Späti culture). But one thing that I’m honestly a little bit sad and disappointed for never seeing in Germany is German beer steins. I personally have lived in Germany for a year now, and I have yet to see something that I would put under the ‘German beer steins’ category in the wild. So this got me to thinking:  Do people use them at all anymore? Where did these things even come from? Why do my German friends look at me like that when I use the word ‘stein?’ And, of course, germany-travel is all about answering these kinds of queries: this week we present to you a little trip into the truth behind German beer steins.

German Beer Steins: the English Language Strikes Again!

When I first was deciding to write this article, I was surprised by the reaction of my German colleagues and friends when I started talking about German beer steins: mild confusion and apathy. So it turns out, the English term ‘stein’ is basically gibberish in modern German. As beer stein can be simply shortened to ‘stein’ in English and still refer to the huge stone mug, it’s what is referred to as a neologism, or new meaning for a pre-existing word. In German, the word ‘stein’ means ‘stone’ with no reference to the large drinking vessel, so when an English speaker says they want to talk about ‘German beer steins’ the aforementioned confusion and apathy make a bit more sense.

Why German Beer Steins?

With this confusion out of the way, we can discover that this tradition of earthen or stoneware mugs makes perfect sense in the context of German and European history. Simply put, it was the best crafting medium available to the majority of Europe for a very long time.  Glass and glass blowing was only really perfected and easy (or easier) to utilize beginning in the late 1800s with the technological advances brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Before this, ceramic, stoneware and porcelain were the best and cheapest ways to make dishes, cups and other house hold items.  For example, the now famous glass beer steins seen at Oktoberfest celebrations across the globe were only introduced to the festival in Munich in 1892. Before this the festival used heavy plain stoneware mugs.

But what about the monstrous, heavily decorated German beer steins with the funny little lids, you might ask? Well, it’s a little story that involves the Black Plague (probably). Legend has it that in the 14th century when the Black Death was running rampant in Europe, the lid was devised for beer mugs to keep the fleas and flies that were crowding the city air at bay, in order to prevent infection or contamination of the brew. There is no proof for this tale, but the logic stands. With so much death in the streets of European cities and villages (more than 25 million people died in the span of a few years), and what with the sanitary standards of the 14th century being what they were (mainly, non-existent) it makes sense that hoards of flies and insects were swarming across the continent. It’s easy to imagine being a city dweller at that time, just trying to go about your daily life, trying to survive and getting more than a little bit annoyed with corpse flies landing in your beer. Though there is no real evidence to this Black Plague origin story, I’m more than happy to believe it.

Where Have All the German Beer Steins Gone??

Sure, they are readily available at memorabilia shops across the globe (fun fact: the world’s leading producer of ‘German’ beer steins is Brazil), but steins, especially the lidded versions, have fallen heavily out of fashion. They are still being produced, especially in the Westerwald region of south Germany that is famous for being the original producer of German beer steins, but mostly these heavy mugs have become another souvenir option for tourists. Especially because of the low cost and easy production of simple, lightweight beer glasses, German beer steins have somewhat gone the way of the dodo as far as everyday use is concerned.

I don’t know if it’s a symptom of my disappointment of never seeing them used in pubs here in Germany, but I think it’s a shame that German beer steins aren’t more popular. They’re a pretty interesting part of the European beer culture, especially if you know the reason that they gained such cultural recognition (and even their own word in English) over the years.  Then again I can’t complain too much. At least German beer is still popular.

Lindt Aachen

Lindt Aachen
Photo by: Martin Abegglen

We love chocolate here at germany-travel, and it’s all we’ve got in mind for our Aachen edition. Fellow chocolate enthusiasts traveling to Aachen are guaranteed to satisfy cravings with a stop at the Lindt Aachen cholocate factory.

Only located 61 km west-southwest of Cologne is Aachen, the westernmost city of Germany. Situated on the border of Belgium and the Netherlands, it’s a city that enjoys a long history, once the favored residence of Charlemagne and the place of coronation of the German emperors. Its economic history doesn’t pale in comparison, with its strategic location in a coal-mining region and in Europe altogether.

There are many things to do in Aachen, a city where you can revel in sights that include the Cathedral, the city hall and medieval gates. But once your eyes are satisfied, treat your stomach and fill your suitcases at Lindt Aachen chocolate factory. Discover a wide assortment that is sure to put your supermarket’s selection to shame. The store is quite large, so prepare to spend some time perusing the shelves where you’ll find varieties you’ve never seen. The best part is everything is available for such low prices you won’t see anywhere else; huge bags of chocolates can be purchased for 5 euros. 5 euros!!!

In case you’re still not convinced to visit (in which case we suggest therapy), enjoy free parking during a visit to Lindt Aachen, though don’t go on Sundays and holidays because the factory is closed. A final tip: watch out for the expiration dates, since most bags (at least one visitor reports) expire in two months. But then again, is eating chocolate ever a problem?

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