Members of a band wearing Tyrolean style felt hats stand playing jaunty, accordion-led music under the entrance to the log cabin. The scent of pine makes me think of the Alps but this is the Roncalli Christmas Market in central Hamburg.
People are milling about, enjoying the festive atmosphere while chatting over mugs of warm Glühwein (mulled wine) and tall, curving glasses of wheat beer, Weißbier as they know it here in Germany. I’m standing on pine chippings in the back corner of the open-fronted, rustic stall. Temptation won; I’ve just bought myself a Glühwein and I’m enjoying warming my hands on the mug.
Dusk is Glühwein Time?
Dusk is settling over the city. This is my favourite time to be at Christmas markets. As the sky darkens the atmosphere seems to becoming ever more seasonal. You could, of course, argue that my perception is skewed? Relational to my intake of Glühwein?
Moving to the front of the stand I see the clock tower and Gothic facade of Hamburg’s grand, 647-room town hall. A brochure that I picked up in my hotel boasts that the sandstone building has more rooms than Buckingham Palace. I wonder what Queen Elizabeth would think if she could see a Christmas market like this one from her front room.
Three Million Visitors a Year
Around three million people visit this Christmas market each year. Also known as the Weihnachtsmarkt am Rathausplatz, because of its location on the town hall square, the Roncalli Christmas Market opens late in November and usually closes on 23 December. If that seems a day or two earlier than you might have expected, it’s worth remembering that the evening of 24 December is the most significant time in Germany’s Christmas calendar.
200,000 fairy lights help this market look particularly attractive on evenings. 20,000 of those are mounted around the wrought iron of the market’s main gate, above which a model of Santa Claus is perched, driving a reindeer-pulled sleigh.
It’s under the gate that I meet Frau Mömbacher, the market’s spokesperson. She explains that the market is named after the Roncalli Circus, whose director, Bernhard Paul, came up with the concept.
Wooden Stalls and Toy Trains
As we wander along the four main lanes between the market’s wooden stalls Frau Mömbacher pauses and points towards the roof of one of the stalls. We’re in Spielzeuggasse (meaning ‘toy street’). “Keep watching,” she says enthusiastically. A toy train chugs around the corner and past us. Onlookers attempt to grab a picture and a wave of cameras and mobile phones tracks its progress.
“We have a no plastics policy and our stalls sell only goods hand made by craftspeople,” she explains while we’re between stalls selling colourful glass candle holders and carved wooden Christmas decorations. Gingerbread baked in the cities of Nuremburg and Aachen catches my eye over on a stall selling Stollen, traditional German marzipan-filled Christmas cakes dusted with icing sugar.
Leaving the market I walk past a crib bearing large carved wooden figures of animals, cherubs and kneeling adults gathered around a baby lying on straw. These are characters I never see while out Christmas shopping in my home town.
Find out more about visiting Hamburg on the city’s travel and tourism website.
Learn more about tourism destinations in the country on the Germany Travel website.
Photos illustrating this post are by Stuart Forster.
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