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 This cake, originally made only from flour, yeast, oil, and water, is a Saxon delicacy that can now be found throughout the Dresden Christmas markets.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.

A Go Trabi Go Roadtrip

Go Trabi Go: A working Trabi from a spy museum

Photo by: Elizabeth Suckow

There have been some pretty strange German things that I have noticed since moving here. Curry ketchup is one of them; it’s the only kind of ketchup I’ve ever requested on fries in my life. Hefe beers are another; who knows how I survived so long in California, the land of IPAs (bleh). There’s also one non-food item that I have to think of when I think of Germany, and especially Berlin: the Trabi. A semi-affectionate name given to the Trabant, even the word ‘Trabi’ has the ability to take some people right back to Germany before the wall fell. This frankly matchbox sized car is the subject of much nostalgia and quite a bit of joking, especially with former owners of the spunky soviet car. This reflection on Trabi’s for me inspired something, though. Having never owned one, I decided to do a bit of research.  Luckily Google brought me the classic 1991 film Go Trabi Go. Go Trabi Go was one of the first films made in Germany after reunification, and follows a family (the Struutz’) on a Goethe (yes the philosopher) inspired roadtrip in their Trabi (that is at least 20 years old) from their home in Bitterfeld to Naples. Yes that Naples. The one in Italy. It is a genuinely enjoyable movie to watch, and I wholeheartedly recommend checking it out. But seeing how this is technically a Germany travel blog, and not necessarily a Germany culture tchotchke survey (like it has been for the past couple weeks) I figure I’d try my hand at crafting a roadtrip guide based off of Go Trabi Go. So here it goes. Here’s my version of a Go Trabi Go Trip!

Go Trabi Go Trip: Get to Know A Trabi! 

A little background: the Trabant was the only car produced in East Germany, and this made it the fastest and most readily available car to most East Germans when it was first released in 1958. Further more, the production methods and designs for this crazy little car hardly changed at all over the car’s nearly 30 year lifespan. But, as you might notice, 1958 was a while ago; to put it nicely the Trabant did not age well. This made Trabi’s and their two cylinder engines look like toy cars next to the gas guzzling sedans of the 70s.  By the 80s, Trabis were something of a joke, as they were mostly famous for falling apart really well, going slower than anyone in a car ever needed to go, and belching an oily smoke at any sign of effort by the engine. They also became a sign of the inefficacy of the East German government; production shortages often meant month or even year long waiting lists for parts and new cars. And yet, Trabi’s still have their little tires hooked into the hearts of some Germans. However, to their benefit, as seen in Go Trabi Go, the car is insanely easy to put together again, and seems to have the suspension of a monster truck. Also the Franken-Trabi they end up with in the end looks pretty sweet.

And now to begin the roadtrip! Firstly, I want to say I do not recommend finding a Trabi to take you on this journey. No offense to any Trabi die-hards out there, but they really are unreliable vehicles, especially today. Secondly, I’m not even going to provide direct map directions here. As I don’t even know how to drive in my native California I think it would be irresponsible to dole out driving instructions in a foreign country. For the sake of this article, and everyone on the roads, I’m just going to provide links to bus lines that run between these three cities. Also thirdly, if you’ve seen the film you will realize that the story follows the Struutz family from Bitterfeld to Naples, but I’m only going to guide you through the German portion of their trip from Leipzig to Munich.

Go Trabi Go: Okay this one is definitely a toy

Photo by: János Rusiczki

Go Trabi Go Trip: Leipzig →Nuremberg

What the Struutz’ did in Leipzig:

  • Stayed: Well, they kinda live here, in the nearby town called Bitterfeld
  • For fun: Well… They left to start their great Go Trabi Go journey…

What you should do:

  • Stay: For the budget crowd, the Say Cheese is a fun, cheeky hostle in the city center that is clean, cozy and modern. And for those of you who can enjoy the better things in life, one of Leipzig’s nicest five-star hotels is the Steigenberger Grandhotel Handelshof.
  • For Fun: Take a stroll through the city center and enjoy the marvelous 16th century architecture that survived in this majestic city through the Second World War. It’s also worth mentioning that Bach, Wagner and Goethe himself all lived, studied and worked in this city at some time in their lives, so many museums, monuments and exhibitions can be found dedicated to these great minds. If you’re a fan of literature, you can visit the setting of a scene from Goethe’s Faust, and if you’re crazy for classical music, the church where Johann Sebastian Bach worked as Cantor still stands in the city center.

After a few days soaking in the greatest of German culture, head south to Nuremberg.

What the Struutz’ did in Nuremberg:

  • Stayed: With their annoying (not to mention racist) relatives in a creepy trailer in the relative’s backyard
  • For Fun: Tried not to punch said annoying (racist) relatives or piss off the gigantic dog who lived in said creepy trailer

What you should do:

  • Stay: Hostel goers should check out Arthotel for a great value and location, while Le Méridien Grand Hotel provides an amazing five star experience. And feel good in the fact that no matter where you stay, you’ll probably be doing better than the Struutz clan.
  • For Fun: Nuremberg is a city with a lot of history, like a lot of German cities. While you’re here you can enjoy the castle towers scattered around the city, and see the location of the Nuremberg trials of World War II. There are also some great museums to check out in this small city, including one dedicated to toys.

Once you’ve enjoyed a bit of a history lesson and a view, head even further south to Munich.

Go Trabi Go Trip: Nuremberg → Munich

So the Struutz family was lucky enough to have their Trabi towed for this part of the trip, by a jovial truck driver who really never stopped laughing. Highlights of this amazing scene include this fantastic Trabi joke:

-How do you double the value of a Trabi?

-Fill it with petrol

Too bad we didn’t get to hear the other 117 Trabi jokes that driver had up his sleeve!

What the Struutz’ did in Munich:

  • Stayed: In their Trabi (yes, three grown adults slept in a miniture sized four-seater overnight) unknowingly on a nude beach (which I might mention has the fittest bathers in the world. Seriously, I thought nude beaches were all over-fifty-and-you-should-have-pants-on kind of places. Well done for proving me wrong, Munich!)
  • For Fun: Go shopping! The ladies head to the mall to shop for bathing suits to begin their Italian portion of the trip, while the father heads to the scrap yard to find a new bumper for their poor Trabi they call ‘Georgie.’

What you should do:

  • Stay: While I couldn’t find any rooms near nude beaches, the Wombats City Hostel in Munich provides a comfortable, hip atmosphere that the Wombat hostels are known for.  If you’re into living it up, head to the München Palace for a charming stay you’ll not soon forget.
  • For Fun: Munich is definitely a great city for shopping, so if you’re inclined to follow the Struutz’ lead, Neuhauserstraße and Kaufinger Straße are famous for their offerings. But Munich has more to offer you than a lighter wallet. It is easily known as one of the most beautiful cities in Germany. Take a lovely stroll through the English Gardens, or if you’re lucky enough to visit in late September remember that little thing called Oktoberfest? Well it was invented here (more info about this traditional festival can be found here at our previous post on Munich’s Oktoberfest)!

And who knows, maybe by the time you get to Munich you’ll also have the road-tripping bug under your skin and head even farther south to Italy just like the Struutz family did in Go Trabi Go.

But hey, that’s a whole other blog, isn’t it?

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.

What’s the deal with Black Forest cuckoo clocks, anyway?

Photo by: James O’Rear

I don’t know about everyone else, but when I think of cuckoo clocks, or more specifically Black Forest cuckoo clocks, I think of retirement communities and cartoons.  The retirement community probably comes into play because my grandfather was a woodworker, and I’ve always associated fine wooden objects with my grandparents, and the communities they lived in when I was a child.  The cartoons, on the other hand, are maybe easier to explain; simply put, I think I watched one too many old cartoons as a kid.  So all in all, Black Forest cuckoo clocks (or any other kind for that matter) don’t really piqué my interest, so to say.  But, being that we at germany-travel are an open minded, open hearted bunch, and that I’ve been living in Germany for exactly a year now, I figure it’s fair that this American gets familiar with least one (maybe slightly obscure) German original. As a totem for German history and innovation, there are actually few other objects that say so much about this great (and sometimes weird) country than the Black Forest cuckoo clock.  So, as I throw off the shackles of preconception, join me on a Black Forest cuckoo clock fact finding mission that turns out to be surprisingly fascinating, and undeniably impressive.

The Origins (or maybe not) of Black Forest Cuckoo Clocks

One of the silliest and most intriguing things about the Black Forest cuckoo clock story is the origin, or more specifically, the debate on the origin. So it goes that there are two main origin stories for the Black Forest cuckoo clock.  They both take place in the early 17th century, but while one story claims that it was a German invention, the other say that it was a copied design from a Bohemian craftsman traveling through southern Germany.  The first story, penned in 1810 by a priest, states that a gifted German watchmaker was inspired by a church organ to invent a clock with a small cuckoo bird to announce the hour. This story sounds all well and good, until we learn that Franz Anton Ketterer, the aforementioned gifted clock-maker, wasn’t even born when the cuckoo  clock was first invented (in the early 18th century), so that rather deflates that claim.

And on the other hand, the idea of a German craftsman buying and copying a Bohemian cuckoo clock is somewhat unbelievable as well, as there is no evidence of Bohemia (what is now the Czech Republic and South-East Germany) ever having a significant trade or tradition of watch or clock making.  However, no matter the origin, the Black Forest, or Schwarzwald, region of southwestern Germany is without a doubt responsible for the development and popularization of the cuckoo clock.

How Do Black Forest Cuckoo Clocks Work?

On first glance, your basic cuckoo clock may not seem so impressive, but there is an astounding level of engineering that goes into that tiny bird counting out the hours.  Imagine, if the first Black Forest cuckoo clocks were inspired by massive organs in churches, the first clock-makers to craft cuckoo clocks had to harness, and scale down the bellows and pipes that usually fill an entire wall, into a small box that can easily fit in the home, and that’s not to mention it having to share space with the clock gears themselves. And these clocks were invented long before computer aided drafting, calculators and even penicillin.  If that’s not impressive, then I don’t know what is! If you’re still curious as to the actual mechanisms that go into classic Black Forest cuckoo clocks here’s a fun video that shows the inner workings of this type of historic timepiece.

Where to Buy Your Black Forest Cuckoo Clock

Photo by: North Coast Imports

As far as finding the perfect Black Forest cuckoo clock for you during your trip to Germany, it’s obvious in the name that you have to go to the source: the Black Forest.  Because the Black Forest area has such a long tradition of fine woodworking, and clock-making, it should be easy to find a well crafted time piece along your trip.  However, you should be prepared for a few things. First, these timepieces can be astounding, but also pricey.  Prices can range anywhere from under a hundred euros, to thousands.  Also, because these pieces are hand crafted, you should be prepared to take extra precautions when transporting it to your final destination.  More tips on buying and caring for a Black Forest cuckoo clock can be found here.

However, if you are prepared to hunt a little bit, and pack lightly, you should be able to find just the right Black Forest cuckoo clock for you.  Because of their popularity, too, there are thousands of different styles to choose from; everything from the traditional cuckoo bird cuckoo clock, to clocks that tell fairy tales (like the picture above, don’t forget to read the tale at the link!) and little stories every time the hour turns.

So it’s still true, cuckoo clock’s aren’t exactly en vogue right now, but that’s no matter.  They’re impressive and important in their own right. And I mean, if I can learn to appreciate them after a couple of Google searches, anyone can!

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