Stuart Forster takes a look at reasons to visit the Christmas markets of Munich, Germany.
Cinnamon’s aroma is something I associate more with South Asia than southern Germany, but traces of its pleasant scent waft through the crisp winter air of the Christkindlmaerkte, the Christmas markets of Munich in Bavaria.
The nights are growing longer as mid-winter approaches. Munich residents meet at the Advent markets to socialise and enjoy a post-work cup of Gluehwein (mulled wine). Some nibble from cone-shaped packs of warm gebrannte Mandeln (roasted, sugared nuts) or share sweets such as Pfeffernuess or Magenbrot, varieties of spiced gingerbread traditionally associated with the season.
The scent of cinnamon drifts away, replaced by the delicious, hunger-inducing aroma of sausages grilling. I stamp my feet against the cold and look at the smiling faces of the market’s visitors. Noticing the plumes of condensation rising from their cups of mulled wine, I decide to order one for myself mit Schuss – with a dash of rum – before setting off on a tour of the city’s seasonal markets.
Christmas markets in Germany
Some people see Germany’s advent markets as the ideal solution to their Christmas shopping needs; opportunities to buy hand-crafted gifts and souvenirs. I view them an opportunity to enjoy a series of seasonal gastronomic treats.
Rather than sitting down to a single hearty meal, I enjoy mooching around the stalls to see what snacks I can find. Walking between the stalls means that I’m burning off the calories I take on, right? Maybe not, but wishful thinking is all part of the season.
Having just enjoyed a portion of tender roasted chestnuts from a stall crowned by a sign saying “Maroni”, the German name for the delicacy, I find it impossible to resist the opportunity to try Reiberdatschi, one of Bavaria’s many culinary treats. Reiberdatschi is a type of potato fritter served with pureed apple. It’s popular and, tasting it, I can understand why.
Jaegertee and mulled wine
I still haven’t moved 50 metres forward since deciding to explore and I could do with a refreshing cup of tea. The stall in front of me serves a special form of Alpine tea, Jaegertee. Sipping it, I note it’s a potent cocktail of warm, herb-infused alcoholic spirits. Very tasty and something that helps put the merry into a visit to German Christmas markets.
The stalls are a well-established seasonal attraction, drawing people from around the world. The main Christkindlmarkt has been held annually since 1806. Since 1972, the year the city hosted the Olympic Games, it’s been held on Marienplatz.
As I stand munching yet another snack I hear Italian, Spanish and Russian spoken. Since the 1970s, when Christmas market tourism really began to boom, the Christkindlmaerkte have been responsible for drawing millions of winter visitors to Munich.
Almost three million people will make their way here this year to visit Munich’s advent markets. Some, like the Christkindlmarkt on Marienplatz, in front of the imposing Gothic style new town hall, are geared up for tourists. Others, such as the market at Rotkreutzplatz, have a distinctly local feel.
Alpine huts at Marienplatz
The stalls on Marienplatz, Munich’s biggest Advent market, resemble traditional Alpine huts. Over 100 of the wooden stalls pack onto the square. Wandering between the stalls, looking at the seasonal decorations and hand-crafted goods – from places such as Oberammergau, South Tyrol and Iron Mountains – I try to fight the temptation to pick up presents. But a couple of ornate candles prove too attractive to resist.
Marienplatz’s Christkindlmarkt is at its most magical as dusk turns to darkness, especially following snowfall. Each evening, choirs sing and musicians perform on the town hall’s balcony. Locals describe the blend of atmosphere and charm as altbairisch (meaning “traditional Bavarian”) and I’m suitably impressed.
A 30 metre high fir tree dominates the centre of the square. 2500 lights twinkle among its branches. This tradition can be traced back to 1830, when Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen, the wife of King Ludwig I, brought the first decorated Christmas tree into the royal palace.
The history of Munich’s Christmas markets
Over the years, Munich’s seasonal markets have undergone change. The city annals of 1642 record that a so-called Nikolaidult, meaning “Nicholas Market”, was held on the centrally located Kaufinger Strasse. That is the first written record of any such market, but historians believe a version of it existed in the 1300s. By the mid sixteenth century stalls were being set up by local traders each 5th and 6th December; the eve and Feast of St Nicholas.
Gradually the belief that St Nicholas delivered presents gave way to the idea that the Infant Jesus, known as the Christkind in German, did so. Consequently the seasonal market’s name evolved into the present form; Christkindlmarkt.
Would they have sold Bratwuerste – grilled sausages – at those medieval Advent markets? I’m off to find a stall, to try some of its produce and to ask the vendor if she knows the answer.
See the Munich website for information on the Christmas markets and other attractions of the city.
Photos illustrating this post are by Stuart Forster.
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