2016 Christmas Market Tour: Zwickau (Saxony)

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The next Christmas market on the tour takes us back to the Erzgebirge Region- or should I say the gateway to the mountains to be specific?  Zwickau is located in the southwestern part of Saxony, 17 kilometers south of neighboring Glauchau along the Zwickauer Mulde River. Access to the city of 100,000 inhabitants is easy, thanks to access to the Autobahn 72 that connects Hof (Bavaria) and Leipzig via Chemnitz and two key railways: The Nuremberg-Hof-Dresden Magistrate operated mainly by the Mitteldeutsche Railway (MRB) and the Franconian-Saxony Route connecting Leipzig-Halle and Hof with a branch extending to Zwickau from Werdau. Another rail route to Karlsbad (Karoly Vary) in the Czech Republic provides direct access to the mountains.  Zwickau is the gateway to the Erzgebirge region (Ore Mountains) with the historic Silver Road being the western terminus that provides access through the mountains enroute to Freiberg (Saxony), offering tourists a glimpse of the story of the miners and how they lived, in places like Annaberg-Buchholz, Schneeberg, Schwarzenberg, and Tharandt.  Zwickau is also the gateway to the heavily forested and hilly Vogtland region in the south, where Plauen, Greiz and Hof are located, but also the agricultural regions to the north, where Glauchau, Gössnitz and Altenburg are located. The landscape changes when passing through Zwickau, enabling people to choose which region to hike (or bike if you have two wheels). 🙂

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Zwickau is also the birthplace of automobiles and infrastructure. Audi Motors, which was created in 1932 thanks to the fusion with Horch, had its start in the city. The beloved East German car Trabant was manufactured in Zwickau until 1990. Now Volkswagon handles most of the manufacturing of cars at its headquarters between Zwickau and Glauchau. The city is home of very unique bridges stemming from six different eras, including the Paradiesbrücke, Röhrensteg and Zellstoff Bridge (a tour guide of the bridges can be found here). It is unknown whether the largest bridge builder in Zwickau, whose history goes back 160 years may have had something to do with it, but it would not be a surprise.  Yet a surprise to musicians and Germanists would be if they never knew that composer Robert Schumann was born in Zwickau and had his start there before becoming a famous pianist and music writer. The house where he was born is still standing and can be seen while in the city center.

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A specialized oven cooking Mutzbraten at Kornmarkt

Then there is the Christmas market in Zwickau. When compared to the markets in the Erzgebirge or Vogtland regions, let alone in the western half of Saxony (minus Chemnitz), the market is the largest with over 300 stands in two markets plus four different streets connecting them. From the author’s perspective, Zwickau’s market is one of the most centralized markets ever visited on tour, as one needs only two minutes walk between the two markets. It’s comparible to the ones in Leipzig, Halle (Saale), Nuremberg, Quedlinburg and to a certain degree, Freiberg.  Yet in terms of access, when compared to the likes of Chemnitz, Glauchau, Freiberg, Frankfurt (Main) and Weimar, it is very difficult to reach, especially by bike but also by car.  While one can be daring enough to bike the Zwickauer Mulde bike path and access it from Paradiesbrücke, which takes only three minutes to reach, from the train station, let alone the main highway B93, one needs 10-15 minutes to reach. The reason: The market is located deep inside the walls of the historic town, and that is located right next to the river! Allow some time and patience to find it and have your Google Map app handy.

I had two different opportunities to visit the market this year because of my commitments teaching English nearby combined with my plan to visit the markets in the mountain. Both times I came away with the same impression as before, which was very local but diverse, very historical but fancy, very religious but educational, and very wide in selection but also very tasty.  In short, if you want a taste of Erzgebirge and Vogtland and have a time and money budget, you should take some time in Zwickau, as the city provides you with a glimpse of the markets you could (and should) visit when going deeper into the regions.

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As mentioned earlier, the market is divided up into two different ones. The larger of the two markets is located at Hauptmarkt, which is between Alte Steinweg and Marienplatz. At this place, one will find everything typical of Saxony and the Erzgebirge. Like in Chemnitz and Freiberg, this market has its usual black Lichterbogen (lighted arch), laden with stands made of wood from the mountains, all of which have the usual yellowish-brown and mahogany colors and resemble log cabins and huts. The backdrop of the market features the Historic Theater (Gewandhaus) with its white and light brown Fachwerk design, the City Hall and the Robert Schumann House, where he was born.  Looking towards the theater, one will see the large pyramid with its figures of the miners in the foreground; the Christmas tree is in the background. The former is a key eatery, serving traditional delicacies but also a dozen types of Glühwein (mulled/spiced wine), including apple and spice, sanddorn (sea buckthorn) and wildberry. It is also one of three places where a person can find a Christmas market cup in several different colors and designs. Two of them I have at home as souvenirs, btw. 🙂

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View of behind the manger set with a light resembling the star that led the three wisemen to Baby Jesus. Photo taken at St. Mary’s Church.

Crossing Marienplatz and going adjacent from the Hauptmarkt, there is St. Mary’s Cathedral (the official name is St. Mary’s Evangelical Lutheran Church). While visiting the church, one really needs to see the manger set, located behind the church in front of the museum and Brauhaus restaurant and brewery. While the market has more manger sets than any of the markets in eastern Germany (at least five of them are located at the Christmas market in general), this one is the largest as the figures are life-sized and depict the scene where the three wise men visit and bless Joseph and Mary, the proud parents, and baby Jesus. While the site is more visible in the daytime, one can play with photography at night, using the lights to depict the actual scene and the lighted church as the backdrop.

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Side view of the manger set with the church in the background

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South of the church, going 300 meters, is Kornplatz. This section is the smaller of the two markets but serves as a symbol of the more traditional Christmas market on a wider German scale. This goes beyond the pyramid, which has a more modern mahogany appearance, as several gabled dark brown houses sell local clothing and cooked goods, including the Mutzbraten, which is smoked marinated pork that is cooked for 2-3 hours in a wooden stove and is a Thuringian tradition, like the Bratwurst. However there are two more local cooked specialties to be mentioned later that are even local than the Thuringian specialties offered at this Christmas market (no offense to those from Thuringia.) The market has a carousel and children’s railroad track for them to ride the train through the market. The market area itself is more suitable for families with children because of the space and some stands that are children friendly. Also as an incentive to visit the market is the children’s story alley. Located along Münzstrasse connecting the Korn and Haupt markets,  it features a display of 3-4 fairy tales which are decided upon annually by the planning committee.  The artists then construct the mural and the figures depicted in the story, which is recorded by the narrators and played by the tourists.

LOOKING AT THESE DISPLAYS, CAN YOU GUESS WHAT THEY ARE?

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Other amusement rides can also be found at the Hauptmarkt, but across the streetcar tracks and on the opposite side of the statue of Robert Schumann. They were purposely placed there to provide better access for children and to avoid overcrowding. The planning of the Christmas market was perfect in a way that the children’s section was placed in the outer portions of the Hauptmarkt while the market itself can focus on local goods from the region. This plus its openness- meaning no fences and key entrances like at the one in Freiberg- enables people to enter and exit the market anywhere freely without overcrowding. It’s convenient and most importantly, it’s safe. This is probably the main reason why Zwickau’s market is so centralized- not to mention well organized. 🙂

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The stand across St. Mary’s Church which sold Zwickau Brühlette. There were three at the market that sold this unique specialty that is typical of the city.

As mentioned before, Zwickau’s Christmas market has a wide selection of food and drink- the more traditional Christmas market foods are at the Kornmarkt, while the more local goods from the region is found at the Hauptmarkt, with a few exceptions of foods from Switzerland and France at a couple booths, including Cheese Fondue.  One of the prized goods worth trying is the Zwickau Brühlette. Based on a recipe dating back to the 1950s, the Brühlette is simply a meatloaf made of ground meet combined with flour, breadcrumbs and spices, but what exactly goes into there and how it is made has remained top secret since it was presented by a married couple who invented this in light of the food shortage during the days of Socialism in East Germany. After the Fall of the Wall in 1989, the unique delicacy became nearly an overnight hit among “Westerners” that eventually, a restaurant was established, which still sells the Brühlette- with or without bread and with or without topping. I tried one at the stand across from St. Mary’s Church during my visit with mustard and it topped all the Leberkäse (basically meatloaf slices) I’ve tried since moving to Germany in 1999! It was a bit spicy but really tasty and one that stands out! When visiting Zwickau, it is recommended to put this food on top of your list of delicacies to taste.

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Not far from the top of the list of foods to taste is horse meat. Regardless of whether they are meat slices or sausage, horse meat is different from other forms of meat that people eat as it has a tender, hearty and somewhat tart-like flavor, regardless of how it is served. The place selling this is Ulrich Engelhardt, and the business has been selling horse meat since 1990, the same time the Zwickau Christmas market started up again! I tried one during my first visit in a form of a sausage on a bun and it tasted similar to Polish sausages, a common commodity sold in American supermarkets. Having that with my dad and brother while growing up, that was quite addicting and tasty! 🙂

Also recommended is the Dresden Landbrot. Originating from the capital of Saxony, the Landbrot is baked bread with filling, cooked in a wooden oven. Filling included cheese and meat, and can be served with sour creme and chives, just to name a few. This bread is best served hot with a good Glühwein to go along with that.  🙂

Despite all that is offered at the Christmas market, sometimes it hurts to say good-bye, especially when the market closes at 8:00pm. Zwickau usually ends its market day on a musical note, singing Christmas carols and a farewell song as a way to signaling the visitors mulling over some Räuchermänner made of Erzgebirge wood, accessories for a doll house, lanterns with a wooden frame, miner figures made of silver or wood and other typical local products to make the purchase and allow the merchants to close their doors to prepare for the next day. Believe it or not, I witnessed this on my visit, especially as the number of visitors had already reached its peak.  But it was a way to look back at Zwickau’s market and summarize it in simpler terms:

Zwickau is one of the largest Christmas markets in a region where the city sits at the gateway to three different landscapes: Vogtland, Erzgebirge and the agricultural plains. Like the markets of the past, Zwickau’s Christmas market provides people with an opportunity to try and purchase products locally. In other words, the market is one of the more local ones when looking at the themes mentioned and the heritage that goes along with that. While some markets are really spread out, Zwickau is one of the more centralized of the Christmas markets, with two key markets, two corridors with only a three minute walking distance and a large church with the largest of the five manger sets to see. Even if it takes a long time to get to the city center where the market is located, the visit in the end is well worth it. Given its access to the three regions and its western terminus to the Silver Road going through the Erzgebirge, Zwickau’s Christmas market provides the tourist with a whiff of the city’s history with the miners and perhaps encourages the person to explore the other Christmas markets and places along the path to look at their history and heritage and learn a bit more about the history of Saxony and to a greater extent, Germany.

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Because of that, I have a lot of towns along the Silver Road to explore, in addition to the Vogtlanders. And what will be interesting is seeing how these markets, like Annaberg-Bucholz, Schwarzenberg, Schneeberg, etc. celebrate Christmas and their miners. Will it be different or similar to what I visited during the tour? My bet is each market will be different but the miners’ legacy will be the same, affecting the lifestyles of the people in the Erzgebirge that is different than the rest of the country. And sometimes a different lifestyle opens new doors to knowledge and understanding. 🙂

Check out the Flensburg Files’ photo album with additional photos of Zwickau’s Christmas market, which you can click here. An ongoing collection of Zwickau at night, taken by the author, can be accessed here. Stop here occasionally as the collection will be bigger. Enjoy! 🙂

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