The last stop on this year’s Christmas market tour takes us 70 kilometers east through the heart of the German state of Thuringia to the small town of Gotha. With a population of 44,000 inhabitants, the city, located between Erfurt and Eisenach may look appalling at first when getting off the train at the station.
Plus a quarter of the buildings in the city may appear run down, like this former publishing house:
Don’t let that scare you. 😉 Speaking from experience with other German cities, you cannot judge one just by the train station alone. One has to go further to see what it really looks like from the inside. 🙂 When walking or even biking towards the city center, you can see that Gotha’s architecture, much of which originated from the days of the Renaissance and the Reformation have been intact. Only a small fraction of the buildings were damaged or destroyed in World War II, including the railway station. Another small fraction was neglected by the East German Socialist government during the Cold War, most of which have been restored since 1990.
Gotha’s cityscape features not only a mixture of old and new buildings, but also seven- count them- SEVEN palaces located in and around the city center! :-O The most notable ones are the Friedenstein Castle and the Friedenstein Towers, located on the hill overlooking the city to the north. Built in 1643, the palace was part of the duchy of Saxe-Gotha (later annexing Coburg) which ruled Gotha until Germany’s defeat in World War I. Ernest Pios of Saxe-Gotha founded the duchy three years earlier. But apart from that, many of the historic buildings in Gotha that are still standing come from this time period, including the Historic Town Hall (built in 1574 and has still been used since 1665), the Ekhof Theater (built in the 17th Century and is the lone theater left that uses the original stage machinery), St. Margaret’s Church at Neumarkt (built in 1543) and one of the youngest from the era, the Insurance Museum at Bahnhofstrasse (built in 1820 and was the site of the Gothaer Insurance Company. Now a combination museum and labor court).
But beyond the history, the insurance and even the distillery Gotano, which produces wermouth for the region, Gotha’s Christmas market provides tourists with a bunch of surprises that will keep them in the city for longer than planned. When looking at the market itself, consisting of three different markets at Butterplatz, Neumarkt and Hauptmarkt/Rathaus, and by viewing the shopping areas in the background, one could say that the markets are nothing spectacular. Just typical small-town markets that come and go every weekend.
Guess again! 🙂
Each of the markets has at least one unique feature that one should visit while visiting Gotha. For instance, looking at Butterplatz, the place is flanked with two pubs but its main attraction is the Medieval theater, where plays and concerts are performed every evening and people can enjoy food directly from that period. It does serve as competition to the pubs, especially the Irish Pub, which is behind the stage, however people staying there can still enjoy the music and other performances while drinking their Snake Eyes and Newcastle Ale.
The Hauptmarkt has their display of items in front of the historic town hall. The first impression of the market is that only small rows of red huts with eateries and mulled wine (Glühwein) make this a pure open-air restaurant. However, there is more to it than just that. This open-air site features the largest Schwibbogen in the world, as seen in the picture above, where visitors can walk in and enjoy a hot drink and a meal in the glass covered facility. The Schwibbogen is eight meters high, 13 meters long and 5 meters wide, providing 65 places for visitors to eat and drink. Opposite the place is the stage where cooking contests with prominent celebrities take place on weekends, competing with various German TV cooking shows that are broadcasted on frequent occasion. Adjacent to the Schwipbogen is a piece of artwork worth seeing. A manger set was created by Rüdiger Noldin and his friends depicts life-size figures of Baby Jesus, his parents Joseph and Mary and the animal figures, all woodcarved using chainsaws. The artwork is remarkable as the details are carved out, lookig like the real scene.
And if you are tired of seeing the red-colored huts with the eateries, you can also purchase souvenirs typical of the town and region at the Gotha Adelt. While not part of the market scene, it is highly recommended if you are looking for items for your loved ones that don’t represent the typical items found in a grocery store or bookshop, like mustard, local beer, Gotano wermouth, liquour, oil and spices, books on the history of Gotha and/or its palaces, refrigerator magnets and the like.
Despite what the Hauptmarkt offered on the north side of town hall, I wished that there were more huts and small shops featured on the south side. Between the town hall and the Friedenstein palace along the former Leina Canal, there is a vast amount of space that is open and could potentially be filled for the holiday occasion. Why this space was not utilised is unknown but the area where the Leina Fountain in front of the Palace is located provides a splendid view of the buildings alongside the streets, leading directly up to the town hall. Looking at the picture below, could you imagine what the area woould look like if the Christmas market extended to here and not stopped in front of the town hall on the north side? 🙂
Thinking about that while leaving Hauptmarkt, we head to the last market square, which is Neumarkt. Surrounded by a mix of historic and modern buildings, the market features a backdrop in the St. Margaret’s Church, which looks splendid at night. However the largest of the huts at the Christmas market are located here. This includes the bumper car hut and this interesting place- a two-story hut that is a restaurant serving local specialties of venecin and wild boar and many varieties of hot drinks. At 7.5 meters high, 15 meters long and eight meters wide, Weisheit’s Schlossmühle, which is the only one known to the German Christmas market scene, can house up to 200 guest.
But what stands out the most at this market place are the various foods that a person can try. It is a well-known fact that the Christmas market in Gotha is laden with stands serving Thuringian Bratwurst and its various sorts. The origin of the bratwurst and why they are very popular all over Europe is one to be written at another time. However another meat product worth trying is the Grillschinken, known as the grilled ham slices. The pork products are grilled on a rotating spit, similar to the one used for döner kebaps, which is typical in Germany. Slices are taken off and with the fixings (onions, barbeque sauce and cheese), become a tasty sandwich. 😀
Having that together with the Erdbeerkönigin, a hot drink mix consisting of strawberry liquour and honey met liquour, it is very hearty and one that puts a crown on a couple hours exploring the market and purchasing last-minute items before Christmas. By the way, the Erdbeerkönigen drink can be bought at the honey stand, where other honey liquours and other honey products (spreads, candles, candies and bars) are available for purchase at the corner of the church.
Given its location in the flat agricultural landscape, the Christmas market in Gotha is best described as one that features unique huts with a historic background, offering local goods coming from local farms which can attract the visitors, providing them with a chance to taste everything. And while everyone is familiar with the Thuringian Bratwurst, Gotha’s products, which one can rarely find, clearly depicts what the town has to offer to the people, when visiting the town. And it is a good thing too, after going through seven palaces and dozens of Renaisance-style buildings, one can use a break by trying something that is not typical for Germany but one for Gotha.
As observed in my visit, Gotha has a lot to offer with the Christmas market, especially given its setting, and it definitely plays down the firsthand impressions of the city, as mentioned at the beginning. There are towns that deserve to be ignored because they are too modern or too dilapidated and unappealing. Then there are towns like Gotha, where going beyond the run-down train station, one can see some jewels of the town just by going 100 meters away from the station. When you see that, keep going. Chances are very likely that more will be found, and with that, more information on the history and culture of the town. So keep looking and start exploring. A lesson learned for the trip home by train……