December 5th, 2018- the day before St. Nicolas Day. It is a quarter past five in the afternoon, the city center is lit with a wide array of colors, from the buildings flanking the Market Square to the City Hall, to the Church of our Lady. The tree is lit but in a much greener fashion. Huts are filled to the brim with people drinking mulled wine, hot chocolate and tea using the cups that are locally made. Mushroom Hotdish and Hirtenkäserollen (a meat roll with cream cheese filling) are being dished out and people are having a great time, talking, eating and drinking. The mood is very cheerful and there is not much crowding.
Suddenly, the attention turns to the stage and the city hall- each window converted to a day in each month of December, thus turning the entire building into a giant Advent Calendar. The window of the Fifth opens and a unique form of artwork is presented with the question: From which fairy tale does this piece come from?
The Answer: The Princess and the Pea, a work written by Hans Christian Andersen.
Each open window has a unique drawing and/or painting, all of which are homemade just like the postcards and paintings done by a family that has resided in the community for at least three centuries. The backdrop of the market is the castle and cathedral on the hill, overlooking a major waterway and the rest of the community. It used to house a royal dynasty until a century ago when they were forced to abdicate because of the Treaty of Versailles.
People associate the city of Meissen, located 23 kilometers along the River Elbe northwest of Dresden in the German state of Saxony, with its world-famous ceramics, as the Meissen Porcelain Company produces and exports pottery worldwide. Yet they still don’t know what they are missing. As a tip, if one visits Dresden to see the Christmas markets there, one can afford a half-hour trip to Meissen to see this one. There are many reasons to visit Meissen in general, aside from the ceramics:
- Albrechtsburg and Meissen Cathedral (Meissner Dom): One cannot miss seeing this tall Gothic architectural artwork which is right next to the Elbe. The castle needed 53 years to be built, having been completed in 1525. It housed the House of Wettin, a dominant force that played a role in the Kingdom of Saxony and later the German empire before 1918. The castle houses the Meissner Dom, which was completed in the 13th Century and is the tallest cathedral in the eastern half of Germany.
- The Church of Our Lady (Frauenkirche): This is located on the western side of the market square. The official name is the St. Afra Church and the church is famous for its organ and especially the bells, all made with Meissen porcelain. The bells play every quarter hour. That church is one of over a dozen that have a historic flavor for Meissen.
- The Historic City Center: Featuring the City Hall, several restaurants that have existed for over a century, the Theaterhaus and countless historic houses, people can spend a whole day window shopping, visiting ceramic and painting exhibits and enjoying the culinary dishes that are typical for Meissen and the region.
- Domherrenhof: Dating back to the Baroque period (and even further back), this area features a series of walls, steep steps, walkways and bridges surrounding the historic city center and extending from the St. Afra Church, all the way to the Alrechtsburg and Cathedral. The whole pathway provides visitors with a splendid view of the entire city from down below, as well as regions along the Elbe and beyond.
- The Meissen Vineyards: This is the signature of the region along the Elbe. Known in Europe as the northernmost vineyards, this area extends for over 60 square kilometers, along the Elbe and deep into the Spaargebirge. Festivals in the spring and fall are dedicated to the planting and harvest of grapes and the production of the wine, most of which you can only find in Saxony.
But when it comes to Christmas markets and the like, Meissen brings out the best, not just in terms of its porcelain but also in the form of artwork. It goes all the way down to artwork on the Christmas market cups, where each year has a commemoration of some sorts, a different design that includes anything typical of Christmas and Meissen and the writing which turns the standard fonts of Times New Roman into shame. You can have a look at a pair of cups I got from there to find out.
If you collect Christmas market cups, then Meissen is the place to stop for them.
Another feature of Meissen that one will not see is when visiting Brück and Sons, a store that was established in 1723 and still serves today as not only a bookstore- one of ten that serve the city of 28,000 inhabitants- but also a publisher. Brück and Sons’ bookstore also has a function as a Christmas specialty store and a local shop. In other words, the store has everything but all homemade.
What does the store have? Nicht leichter als folgendes:
The store features homemade Christmas cards, Advent Calendars and other paper items, all handpainted and all have different themes, whether it is with a Christmas market scene, or a historic place of interest or even a general theme. The artwork there is genuine and is as good or even better than the works of the late Tom Kincade because of its realistic setting and the use of lighting. If one is looking for something for Christmas, this is one of the seven wonders of Meissen that is worth seeing, especially as the store also offers homemade products, such as liquours, jams (some with whisky in it) and praline candies. The lone exception of products offered at the store are the products imported from Sweden, yet they appear to be homemade.
But the store is not the only place where a person can stop to shop. Homemade products can also be found at the St. Afra Church. Open every day until 6pm, the church’s basar sells a wide array of products that are handmade by several different groups, whether they are homemade Christmas stars, paper stars for the Christmas tree, homemade jam, Christmas cards and even some winter-wear, even though during my visit, the temperature was a couple degrees above zero and quite mild. As a bonus, one can be greeted with some organ music from time to time.
The booths at the market itself offers a lot of Christmas products that are made from the Ore Mountain region as well as the Vogtland, mostly from the latter. A real treat are the mini-Räuchermänner at a stand at (….). These are mini-incense men which uses mini-cones, half the size of a Räuchermann on average. Also found there are the Christmas Gnomes, which use the normal cones. In Germany, gnomes are becoming popular year round for they used to be found in most gardens in the summer time. Yet in the past five years, the gnomes have found their way to fame on the Christmas stage, either as incense figures or decoration on the Christmas tree. Yet at the main market, one will find most of the city’s culinary foods, such as mushroom hotdish and Hirtenkäse-Rollchen, and pastries. Yet much of the mulled wine are produced locally, in addition to the hot chocolate.
The only caveat to Meissen’s Christmas market is the parking. Because of the narrow streets and the close proximity of the buildings, parking and even driving is restricted when going through the Meissen Christmas market. Even the streets leading to the two markets- the smaller one included, is blocked off to ensure the safety of the visitors passing through. Henceforth, it is recommended to use the parking garages to the south and the east of the Christmas markets, including those along the Elbe, and walk to the places directly. They will save the person a lot of time and headaches, especially as the areas are restricted as is. Because most of the buildings are rather historic, there is no leeway in terms of providing better parking possibilities.
However, this may not be even necessary given the charm that Meissen has in general. When walking through the city center for the first time, there was a sense of going back into time where cars were non-existent, and the only way to get around anywhere was on foot. Even the bike trail system is rather restricted because of the narrowness of the streets, combined with the steep grades. Just add the Christmas market in Meissen to the scenery of the old town and one will be in Winter Wonderland. It’s like leaving the stresses of city life and entering a different world when walking through Meissen. While one could add another theme to the market, such as something Medieval, etc., but it would be somewhat overkill, given the sittiing Meissen has to offer, combined with the points of interest the city has.
To sum up this visit, there are enough reasons to visit Meissen and spend the day there. The Christmas market is one of the key reasons. It features locally handmade products that go beyond the ceramics the city prides itself on- namely artwork, clothing and anything related to paper. It offers food and drink that is based on what is offered in the region. It has a large, life-sized Advent Calendar that people can look forward to everyday. Even the market itself features events that extend until January 6th. And lastly, the market has a small-town feeling which is atypical for a town as big as Meissen itself is. One does not need to have an overcrowded but popular Christmas market, like in Nuremberg, Berlin and even neighboring Dresden. It just needs that perfect touch that makes the market the place to spend the whole day in. And Meissen is just that when looking at just the Christmas market, alone. The rest is already a given.
More about Meissen can be found through the following links:
More photos on the Christmas market in Meissen can be found via facebook (here) and Google (here)