Christmas Market Tour 2010: Frankfurt (Main)

Despite having to put up with overcrowding trains as well as trains arriving two hours later, I did make it to the last Christmas market on my places to visit list- in Frankfurt am Main.  A couple of interesting points about Frankfurt that one should know about: First and foremost, there are two Frankfurts- one in the western half of Germany in the state of Hesse, and one in the far eastern part of the state on the border to Poland. When the Iron Curtain sliced the two Germanys into two resulting in 45 years of hostility between the Communists and the Westerners, the people in the eastern part of Germany (known at the time as the German Democratic Republic) could not imagine that region to not have a town called Frankfurt. Therefore, they fought to keep the name Frankfurt, which after the Reunification of 1990 became known as Frankfurt an der Oder. Both Main and Oder are rivers that flow through the cities respectively.  Another point about Frankfurt am Main that is well-known is the fact that the city is the third largest in Germany (in terms of the population), is the headquarters of the European Central Bank and the German Stock Exchange (DAX), but yet despite being the largest city in Hesse with a population of over 600,000 (minus the metropolitan area), it is not the capital of the state. That honor goes to the one of the Twin Cities straddling the Main and Rhein Rivers, Wiesbaden (ironically, its sister on the other side of the rivers, Mainz is the capital of Rheinland Palatinate).

The Frankfurt Christmas Market, which is located along the Main River at Römerplatz between the St. Paul’s and St. Nicolas Cathedrals was touted by many as the cream of the crop with regards to the Christmas markets in Germany- even more popular than the Nürnberger Christkindlsmarkt. Yet still, despite its size and various shops located in three different areas around the two churches, the market still offers the same goods as the ones in Nuremberg and Erfurt, which doesn’t really make it that spectacular to begin with. Furthermore, for those who are claustrophobic, most of the area is located in tight quarters, which does not provide for some breathing room to manoever; especially when it is on a Saturday, when most of the people do their Christmas shopping. It is even more depressing when the weather is gloomy, as it was the case when I visited the market. And finally, for those wanting to stay longer at the Christmas market- meaning beyond closing time for most shops- so that they can enjoy their last cup of Glühwein, they are more or less screwed for when the clock strikes 9:00 at night, the shops and food/drink areas close almost simultaneously! It is not like in Bayreuth, where Winterdorf is open longer than the shops, or in Erfurt where every food and beverage stand is open longer than the shops (even at Domplatz). This caused some considerable anger among those wanting to grab one more Glühwein or visit one more food stand only to find that the lights are shut off and the windows and doors hastily shut right before their eyes! I found the experience to be rather disappointing for someone who has visited the market for the first time but has seen other Christmas markets that were more flexible and relaxed than this one. I can imagine when the market is open and in full action that a person can get a considerable amount of aggression after a short time, which is easily comparable to the market in Nuremberg although the latter is more genuine than the one 3 hours to the west (by train, that is). For a person living in or near Frankfurt and does not like to travel that much, this market will provide people with a taste of typical German goods, although almost all of them originate from the south and far northwest of the city. However, if one wants to see a real market and find genuine goods, than they should look elsewhere as there are enough places to go around. It does not mean that a person should avoid the Frankfurt Christmas Market altogether. One could use the place as a venue for meetings over Glühwein and pretzels or other local specialties from Hesse and the surrounding area. The people at the stands would benefit from listening to all kinds of negotiations that take place in front of them, while at the same time, listen and learn the different languages, such as English, French, Spanish, Arabic, etc. It is also a place for any last minute Christmas shopping ideas, although you have to put up with some elbowing and some lectures on how to be polite, which is something that many in Frankfurt have forgotten about. But like the city itself, the Christmas market is something that you see only once and never again. It is like living in the city- you only live there for a short time and then you move on to greener pastures unless you are: 1. A naturally born city slicker, or 2. You were born and raised in Frankfurt and you would never trade it in for anything else.

With that said, I went back to the hotel where I could try and get a good night’s rest before taking off for home, which is in the great state of Minnesota. As I was going back by light rail and subway, I was thinking of the events that occurred earlier in the day, where I befriended a German police officer who originates from Saxony but works in Frankfurt, and her company I got while drinking a coffee and a Glühwein, while waiting for the next ICE Train to get us to where we wanted to be. I thought to myself that good company from someone you never met before can create paths that you never knew existed. Seeing the Christmas markets in Germany are only a side dish to having some good company from your family, friends, and people you meet along the way. There are times in your life that people come in and out and don’t think about who you really are until they’re gone. However there are some who come into your life and stay there because you are who you are and they like you for that. This was probably the most rewarding effects when you go to a certain event or place, like the Christmas market in Germany.

Entering the honey shop, only to get the lights turned off as they entered and shown the door a second later.

 

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Christmas Market Tour 2010: Bayreuth

Overview with the Christmas tree Photo taken in December 2010

After putting up with the overcrowding visitors at one of the most popular Christmas markets in Germany, the next stop on the Christmas market tour is an hour to the north in a small and quiet town of Bayreuth. The capital of the region Oberfranken (Upper Franconia) is located not far from the source of the Main River, which slithers its way for over 400 kilometers down to the mouth of the Rhein River in the twin cities of Wiesbaden and Mainz (both are west of Frankfurt/Main).  Like Jena, Bayreuth is one of those forgotten cities where people pass through enroute to either Berlin or Munich along the North-South corridor A9, and there is a good reason for that. Bayreuth is one of the biggest sleeper towns in Germany with most of the recreational possibilities located in the Fichtel Mountain region to the north and east. Its population consists mainly of those ages 40 and up and even though its main attractions include the university and the places associated with Jean Paul and Richard Wagner, the town almost always sleeps early every night of the year. That means after 7:00pm, when the stores close their doors for the evening, the whole city center becomes silent in a fashion resembling Steven King’s The Langoliers- the silence when walking through its main street Maximilianstrasse is as eerie as it gets.

However, not all of Bayreuth is as silent as the airport where the passengers were stranded in, like in the film The Langoliers. There are two time periods in the year where the city of 70,000 inhabitants is the liveliest (that is, if you subtract the basketball season in the winter time and the professional basketball team BBC Bayreuth). The first one is in July, when the Wagner Festival takes place at the Festspielhaus, located on the hill overlooking most of the city. The second one is the Bayreuther Weihnachtsmarkt, which takes place the same time as the market in Nuremberg. Like the lighted garland which runs along the Maxmilianstrasse through the city center, the Christmas market consists of booths running along the main street beginning at the west end where the Hugendubel book store and the Karstadt department store are located and ending at Sternplatz on the east end, where the bar complex Winterdorf is located. While most of the booths close up early at 7:00pm every night, the Winterdorf part of the Christmas market is open until late into the night- far later than the Glühwein booths at the Christmas market in Erfurt, which really took me by surprise given the fact that Erfurt is three times as big as its Franconian counterpart and has a very stark contrast in terms of its liveliness as a whole. If one wants to try all the concoctions in the world, ranging from Feuerzangenbowle in a cup to Winter Dream, to Nürnberger Glühwein (see the attached links for the recipes of each) then Winterdorf is the place to be, where the female bar attendants are nice looking and customer friendly, and the reunions with old friends and colleagues take place. I had the opportunity to meet up with my friends and former students at the Winterdorf, as I taught for two years at the university and they were my regular customers in all the English classes I taught there. It was a fun time as we talked about our lives in English and provided each other with some laughs and memories of the times together in the classroom, drinking all the beverages possible. Many of them I still keep in touch with through all forms of communication, as I made a difference in their lives during my two years in Bayreuth, and they made my stay a memorable one.

But aside from all the memories, another reason for nominating Bayreuth as one of the pics is its improvement with regards to city planning. In the past five years, the Maximilianstrasse was converted from an underground bus station with through traffic on the surface to one which presents some unique lighting and sculptural designs with two thirds of the street now being converted into a pedestrian and bicycle zone. The bus station is now located just off the bypass Hollernzollern Ring, which runs along the Main River. During the time I was in Bayreuth, much of the street was ripped apart for the beautification process, and most of the small shops at the Christmas market were relocated along the side streets. The entire stretch of shops between the west and east ends was completely blocked off. When I visited the market this time around, it was a whole different story. New lighting, new trees lining up along the streets, and the stretch of small shops was reestablished, making the Bayreuth Christmas one of the most hidden treasures that a person has to take a couple hours to see. While many students have claimed that Bayreuth has only Richard Wagner to offer and that the city should do more to improve its image, they are only half right. Little do they realize is that Bayreuth does offer one thing that will make their stay a wonderful one, which is its Christmas market. After all, it is the place where friends meet and/or reunite and for those without a partner, one might get lucky there.

And now the last stop on the Christmas Market tour, which requires a good 400km trip down along the Main River in one of the most popular metropolises in Europe, Frankfurt am Main. But before that, here are some recipes of beverage mixes worth trying for the holidays.

Feuerzangenbowle:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feuerzangenbowle

Winter Dream:

http://www.channels.com/episodes/show/12678283/How-To-Make-The-Amaretto-Sunset

Glühwein (EN: Mulled or Spiced Wine):

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mulled_wine

Reference to the Langoliers:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Langoliers

More pics:

West end overlooking the book store and old town hall.
Winterdorf at Sternplatz on the east end of the market
Inside Winterdorf, where the drinks run wild and the guest are even wilder.
Ah yes, the Feuerzangenbowle!

 

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Christmas Market Tour 2010: Nuremberg Christkindlsmarkt

Frauenkirche view of the Main Market Photo taken in 2010

After enjoying some music over a Glühwein and listening to people talking about how Carl Zeiss Jena and Erfurt are struggling to make a name for themselves in the 3rd League of the German professional soccer league (DFB), the next stop on the Christmas market tour is Nuremberg (Germ.:  Nürnberg).  A brief overview of the city itself, the city of over 500,000 is the second largest city in Bavaria, behind Munich, and is the capital of Franconia. The city has a colorful history both positive as well as bad (and I believe we all know about the bad part, so I will not mention it here). It is the birthplace of the railroad in Germany, where the first rail line was created in 1835, and it is home to the German railroad museum. Furthermore, the FC Nürnberg from the German Premier League (1st Bundesliga) is a regional favorite as despite the fact that it does some league hopping between the 1st and 2nd leagues, it can be a royal pain in the butt to some of the elite teams, like Munich, Bremen, and Berlin, just to name a few.

But the Nürnberger Christkindlsmarkt is perhaps the most popular and one of the largest Christmas markets in all of Germany. Located in the heart of the city in the old town, the Christmas market ties together tradition, multiculture, and fun for the more than 5 million people who visit the place in the 1 ½ months that it is open, ending on Christmas Eve. The Christmas market is divided up into four parts. There is the main market, where every square meter of over 300 booths fill up the 350+ square meter market square, located in front of  Frauenkirche (a catholic church). To the right of the main market is the Kindermarkt, located behind the church on the east side, where all the children’s rides and booths are located. There is the food market, located along Maximilianplatz, parallel to the Pegnitz River, where different varieties of food are served. And finally there is the Markt der Partnerstädte located in front of City Hall at Rathausplatz, where each of Nuremberg’s 16 sister cities from around the world display their own products for sale. This includes some from Greece, Romania, France, Turkey, Sri Lanka, and Cuba. There is also one from Cordoba (Spain), Edinburgh (Scotland), and Atlanta (USA). Even Gera, which is located in eastern Thuringia (about two hours east of Erfurt), is a sister city to Nuremberg and offers its local specialties at the market every year, including the typical Thuringian Bratwurst.

Children’s section of the Christmas market

But there is more to the Nünberger Christkindlsmarkt than just the types of markets that are worth seeing. Since its first inception in 1610, the Christmas market in Nuremberg offers a wide array of  homemade products which one will not find elsewhere, except at some of the other Christmas markets in Germany. In particular, handcraft products made of wood are very popular as Christmas decorations, Räucherhäuser (incense houses), and even mini toy products for the doll house, such as furniture, appliances, and mini-food products can be bought at the stands. Even alphabet trains are common to pick up and even my daughter has a set which resembles her name plus the locomotive and caboose. Another tradition that you will find in Nuremberg is the famous Lebkuchen, which are gingerbread cookies covered with a coating and whose bottom side is covered with a disk-like white sugar covering. All assortments of Lebkuchen can be found here as well as the other Christmas markets in Germany, at the booths throughout the Christmas market. However, if you want something rather warm and hearty, then the two products you should definitely try at the Nuremberg Christmas market are the Pfannkuchen and the Glühwein. The Pfannkuchen is a dough resembling a cross between a pizza and a tortilla but is filled with toppings at your request, and baked in the oven so that in the end, you can have it hot and crispy. Most of them consist of vegetables, cheese, and meat slices, but there are some with fruit and chocolate should you have a sweet tooth but want to forego the Lebkuchen and another specialty well-known to the Christmas market, the fruitcake. The Glühwein (a.k.a. spiced or mulled wine) from Nuremberg is the most popular throughout all of Germany and parts of Europe. There are different types of Glühwein that one can try, whether it is homemade, or if it is combined with other forms of liquour. This includes one with a shot of tequilla, which I tried at the stand representing one of Nuremberg’s sister cities, Cordoba, Spain. This is probably the most lethal as despite the taste (which was really good), it can put you out until the next week, even if you don’t feel the effects of it at first. This was the case with yours truly, as he suffered a hangover for a couple days, although admittedly, it was well worth the experiment.

Mini-toy pieces for the doll house
Nürnberger Pfannkuchen

Finally, one has to look at the origin of the Nürnberger Christkindlsmarkt. Christkind, when translated into English means Christ Child, and every two years, a girl is nominated to represent the Christ Child at the Christmas market. The girl must be between the ages of 16 and 19 years and must have a “clean record,” meaning the girl must be pure and rid of all the giddiness. She is responsible for opening the Christmas market with a processional, which attracts thousands of people, plus other events throughout the season, which usually starts at the end of November and ends on Christmas Eve.

Despite all this excitement involving the Christmas Market in Nuremberg, it does have an Achilles heel which may be fatal if the issue is not settled in the future. Despite the fact that over 5 million people visit the market every year, there is the problem of overcrowding , as many people push and shove their way through the markets, making the experience of visiting one of the most famous markets in Germany (and to a certain degree, Europe) rather uncomfortable. The worst time is during the weekend and especially on a Saturday, when people don’t work over the weekend and use this time to do the Christmas shopping. Whenever there is crowding in a public place, it is almost certain that there will be tempers flying from those who are impatient and sometimes inconsiderate towards others.  It is worse after a few rounds of Glühwein or other warm drinks, because that is when most of the mischiefs happen. While we will never have the incident like we had with the Love Parade Dance in Duisburg (east of Cologne), where overcrowding resulted in a stampede and the deaths of 144 people and hundreds of injuries in July of this year, the overcrowding may have a potential of becoming dangerous in the future unless the city of Nuremberg either controls the flow of people going through the market through entrance fees, or enlarges the market to include other areas even outside the old town. However, until this problem is resolved, the author here can offer you some tips to make sure that your experience at the Nürnberger Christkindlsmarkt is a wonderful one and not a nightmare. These tips are based in my experiences visiting the market twice within a span of a year and whether they are useful or not will all depend on when you visit it and how you like it.

Overcrowding at the Main Market. Note: The Lorenz Church is in the background

So without further ado, here are some useful tips to consider:

  1. The best time to visit the Christmas market in Nuremberg is either on a weekday or weeknight, as this is when the activity is lightest.
  2. The worst time to visit the Christmas market is on a Saturday; especially because many department stores and other permanent shops are open at the same time, many people like to push their way through to get to their goods they want. Plus one has to be aware of the overcrowding that is involved.
  3. If you insist on visiting the Christmas market on a Saturday, you may want to consider lodging the night before so that you have enough time to spend the next day.
  4. Always make sure you have enough money in your possession so that you don’t come up short and have to fight through the crowd just to get to an ATM machine
  5. Make sure you be polite to others when getting through and show an example to the rest of the bunch so that it is known that pushing and shoving are just simply not allowed.
  6. If it is too crowded and you cannot get through, always remember: the Christmas market is not going anywhere. It’ll be there the next time you visit Nuremberg.
  7. Never rush through the Christmas market. Take your time, enjoy the booths, buy some things for your loved ones, and have some fun, and lastly,
  8. Never try Glühwein with tequila unless you are man enough to take it and the hangover that accompanies it.

Keeping those points in mind and after trying some goodies, my next trip is north to another Christmas market, where I have friends waiting for me. Until next time folks and friends, enjoy the flicks provided by the author of the Files.

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German Christmas Market Tour 2010: Erfurt

The Main Christmas Market at Domplatz at sundown.

Well here I am, on the road again, this time to hunt down the finest Christmas Markets in Germany, and the first one on my to visit happens to be the one not far from my backyard, in the state capital of Thuringia, Erfurt. There are a lot of interesting points of interest which makes Erfurt one of the most preferred places to live. It has the oldest bridge in the state and the last of its kind in Europe with the Krämerbrücke; it has one of the largest cathedrals in Germany the Erfurter Dom, and it has two universities each located on opposite poles of the city with 250,000 inhabitants (minus the suburbs). But when it comes to Christmas time, all of the city is wild and crazy in its Christmas market. For those who have never visited the eastern part of the country, apart from trying its regional specialties, like Vita Cola (equivalent to Coca Cola) and Born mustard, one should take at least a half day to visit the Christmas market in Erfurt. Basically, the Christmas market is divided up into three different segments. There is one in the city center known as Anger. This is strategically located next to the shopping center Anger 1 and it is easily accessible by street car as the two main lines meet here. Going a bit further to the north, one will see another segment of the Christmas market at Wenigermarkt, which is located next to the Krämerbrücke at the east entrance to the structure. There and on the bridge itself, one will find the local specialties in terms of beverages and food, including a local chocolate store, which makes Brückentruffels (thimble-like chocolate lazmoges which melts in your mouth and not in your hand) by hand. But the main attraction is 10 minutes by foot to the west, where the Erfurter Dom is located. 250 square meters of food, folks, and fun are all located right in front of the steps going up to the doors of the cathedral. One can try almost everything at the booths, from Langos (a Hungarian specialty), to Eierpunsch (heated egg nog with whipped cream), to the local Glühwein (mulled or spiced wine). My favorite of these specialties are the Erfurter Domino Steine. To understand what a Domino Stein is, it is a chocolate covered pastry cube with a spread of filling inside it. Germany is famous for its western kind of Domino Stein, made in Lübeck (which is east of Hamburg and Flensburg) and Aachen (which is west of Cologne and Düsseldorf near the border to France). This is made with a thick layer of marmalade sandwiched with pastry on the bottom and marzipan (an almond-flavored paste) on top. However despite the fact that this type of Domino Stein was part of the East German culture and was deemed irrelevant in the eyes of many who just wanted to see a reunited Germany without the socialist mentality, the Erfurter version of Domino Stein exists at the Christmas market in Erfurt! The pastry is not so sweet and there is only a thin layer of marmalade sandwiched between two layers of pasty and covered in chocolate made locally! When I first tried it back in 2001, I fell in love with it right away. Recently, while having an Erfurt English Roundtable at the Christmas market, there were many students who had never tried this specialty before. Therefore, it was my duty to take them there so that they can taste it. Many of them really liked it and some wanted to buy them to take it home with them to share with their families. I usually take 3-4 bags of them to the US when I spend Christmas with my family in Minnesota as they too relish at trying something that is not common over there and can rarely be found in Germany.

But even if you don’t want to try the Erfurt Domino Stein or any of the specialties there, the landscape at Christmas time in Erfurt, and the holiday joy that goes along with that is something that you must see. One can get a picturesque view of the main Christmas market at Erfurter Dom at any hour of the day. Even when the Christmas market closes at 9:00pm at night and the booths are closed up waiting to be opened again the next day, there are still many people who celebrate over Glühwein and another Thuringian specialty that is very common, the Thuringian bratwurst, as the lights on the huts and the Christmas tree keeps shining through the night, the steam from the chestnut locomotive continues to emit the smell of holiday incense, and the cathedral is lit up to a point where one can see it from the plane when taking off or landing at the airport in Bindersleben (a suburb to the north and west of Erfurt). Going through the Christmas market at any time of the day, one will hear the bartender of the Glühwein booth holler at the top of his lungs “Ich habe Trinkgeld bekommen!” (I got a tip) every five minutes, or listen to local musicians play on the streets or in the shopping center Anger 1. Going into the cathedral, one can pay their respects to their loved ones by lighting a candle or see an annual Christmas tree display in the church cellar.  And lastly, one can also see friends and family gathering at the tables of the booths, drinking a Glühwein and reminiscing about the past, talking about the present, and thinking about the future; especially when it comes to children and grandchildren. In either case, if there is an unwritten rule when it comes to visiting the eastern part of Germany, never forget to visit Erfurt; especially at Christmas time, because that is where the Fs are: food, family, friends and especially, fun!

Entrance to the Wenigermarkt part of the Christmas Market from Krämerbrücke
Stores and huts lining up towards the Anger 1 Shopping Center in the city center
Christmas tree overshadowing the huts at the Main Christmas Market at Domplatz
The Christmas tree and the chestnut locomotive oven in the middle of the Main Market at Domplatz

The Dos and Don’ts of Biking in Germany

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It’s that time of year. The shovels are being put away. The chains are oiled. The brakes are checked. And now with the sun coming out, the bike trails and streets are filling up with a pair of wheels, ridden by people with helmets; some of whom are towing trailers with children while others are carrying baskets full of food and other supplies.

It’s spring time, and with it, the season of cycling. And while biking is the best alternative to the car, like the car, German laws apply to bikers to ensure that both the cyclist and the others are safe.  In Germany, there are strict guidelines pertaining to bike safety that apply. Those violating the laws are subject to fines and penalties. In serious cases, one can get a point from the German Department of Vehicle Registration in Flensburg (Kraftfahrtbundesamt- KbA) and possible a ban from driving (or in this case, biking).

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To give you an idea of what to be aware of, here are some examples of guidelines to pay attention to:

  1. Thou must have proper lighting.  What is meant by that is that you must have a functioning head light and tail light- operated by a battery or a dynamo (which activates the lighting as you pedal your bike). In addition, you must have reflectors (nicknamed in German as cat’s eyes) on your bike pedals, spokes, tire rim as well as your head- and tail lights. Some of these are integrated in the lighting already. All new bikes have these components installed already.  However, for used bikes, they are a must.  Penalty for having improper lighting, including those that don’t work is 20 Euros per part. That means if you have absolutely no lighting or reflectors on your bike, you could face up to 80 Euros! In other words, light it up and make it work for your bike. 😉
  2. Thou must have functioning brakes.  Here, both the front and rear brakes must be present and in working condition. That is very obvious when you have to use them for unexpected circumstances. No brakes and you could break someone.  No brakes and it’s 20 Euros- sometimes per brake. So brake it in and have it ready for use.  🙂
  3. Thou must have a functioning bell or horn. Imagine you are biking and you encounter a person listening to music and not paying attention. Hollaring and screaming don’t help. But the bell does! The louder, the better and the safer both parties are. Without the bell, you could have 20 Euros sucked out of your wallet. That’s equivalent to 10 packages of Ricola cough drops, if you think about it. Save your voice and ring a bell, will ya? 😉

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While the Danes are really good about alerting their bikers to pay attention, as you can see in this picture, sometimes we just need to learn common sense when it comes to where and how you bike. We all know that showing off and even overloading your bike can give you some problems- both with the bike as well as with the law. For instance:

4. Biking on a sidewalk (Bürgersteig) is definitely NOT allowed, unless you can prove  that you are a child.

While some cyclists have tried imitating a seven-year old in   front of a police officer, they were greeted with a pair of high-fives in cash- equivalent to 10 European clams. 😉  If you nearly cause an accident, it’s 15 and if it  actually happens, it’s 25 plus a date with Judge Marilyn Milian from the People’s Court. And you can imagine how that would turn out, as you can see in the clip below:

So don’t do that.

5. Biking with no hands on the handlebar:

If you want to impress a girl, you might as  well impress Mr. T, whose reaction will come down to “Gimme Five, fool!” Do you want to give the man in a police uniform a high-five? If so, I guess you won’t be  having a date with that girl after all. 😉

6. Also not cool is biking through a traffic light when it is on red.

One has to remember,  when you have red, then cross traffic does NOT stop for you- not even the moose, like in the film below:

Here is where the lovely Danes at the KbA will get you. If caught alone, it’s 60 Euros            plus a point on your record. If you nearly cause an accident- meaning other drivers            have to slam on their brakes and swear at you (YOU SON OF A B****!) it’s 100 and a            point. Yet if you cause an accident, it’s 120 Euros, a point and you get to meet Judge            Marilyn Milian of the People’s Court- again. You can imagine what her reaction                  would look like:

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And lastly, for the rules of the road, you should have all eyes on the road. They are antennas- they detect everything right away- some of which can even save your life. Ears are good for listening to anything coming your way. That means without the two, you’re bound to go down like the rest of the fools trying to break the rules. For instance:

7. We’re in Germany and we are to the Right.

To the right is both a literal phrase and also a figurative. Just ask Kim Darby whose character Maddy Ross used it in True Grit in 1969. To the right means when traveling down a street with marked bike lanes, you go with traffic- meaning on the right. To attempt to pull a Mr. Bean and bike on the left will result in a sequel to Planes, Trains        and Automobiles (see the scene from the original below) plus 20 Euros to watch the sequel, produced by a police officer leacturing you about it,  when it  is done. 😉 Oh and by the way….. doing the same procedure while on a one- way street means an additional 15 to the 20 you owe them- 35 in total!

8. The No-Bike Zone.

Just as bad as biking the wrong way is biking in a pedestrian zone, or as I call it, The No Bike Zone. Guarded by the Klingons dressed in a police uniform, if you enter this zone, stop! Go back and find another way! Otherwise, you might want to learn a few words of Klingon, like the lady at the Volkshochschule in Vienna (Austria). You’ll need it to pay         them 20 Euros for the fine.

9. E-biking is not cool!

We’ve seen a lot of E-bikes on the trails; but we’ve seen the other version of E-bikes, meaning people listening to music on their iPhones or biking while talking or even texting. If you think you can multi- task, remember these German words: “Es geht nicht!”  If you bike and listen to music, it is 10 Euros, however, if you have your iPhone or Smartphone in your hand even, it is 55 Euros. Why? Because texting and biking can kill a friendship. Communication is key! Put the phone down!

10. Put the beer down!

While biking with a Radler (English is Shandy) is a common German culture associated with biking, too much shandy is not a good thing. Just like with drinking and driving, drinking and riding will cost you dearly. Pending on the severity and the number of related offenses, one will face at least 2 Flensburg Points, hundreds (or thousands) of Euros in fines, a ban from the road, a seminar on how to properly behave on the road,      and finally, a lecture of a   lifetime in court. And you can imagine how this                             would turn out:

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If you follow these ten commandments, you will be able to govern the bike trails properly and enjoy a tour around the lake or in the city, pending on how you bike and where you go. Biking is a priviledge that reaps rewards when you are out there. However, as there are many people around, the world does not evolve around you as the biker, but the others as well. So when you follow the rules of the road, the world will be yours and you will have the best time cycling on Germany’s bike trails, be it on the bike motorway, in the city, in the country side or wherever you may go this spring and summer.  So get out there and happy trails until we meet again. B-)

 

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Christmas Market Tour 2017: Hof (Bavaria)

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Little is known about the first stop on the Christmas market tour of 2017. Hof is located in Bavaria near the Franconian Forest and the Fichtel Mountains. The city of 47,500 inhabitants is located along the Saxon Saale River near the border of both the Czech Republic to the east and the German state of Saxony to the north. In fact, the city is 13 kilometers west of the former Communist Triangle at Trojmezí (CZ). Hof was the symbol of freedom as tens of thousands of East Germans entered Bavaria by train in 1989. It was followed by the opening of the gates and and tens of thousands of Trabants and Wartburg cars entering Hof when the Berlin Wall fell on 9 November of the same year. All of those fleeing the country wanted nothing more but either freedom to move and live, or the removal of the communist regime led by Erich Honnecker or even both. They eventually got their wish and then some with the German reunification. Almost 30 years later, the borders and fencing have all but disappeared with the exception of a section of a preserved watchman’s tower and fencing north of Hof near Mödlareuth. Hof is now situated at the three-state corner with Bavaria meeting Saxony and Thuringia both former states of East Germany.

When looking at Hof more closely, one can see the historic town center and many antique houses and buildings in other suburbs in one piece. Hof survived almost unscath by the air raids during World War II and has prospered since then, thanks to tourism, agriculture and small industry. The city center is 150-200 meters above the river, anchored by a combination of shopping and religion- the later featuring the twin finial towers of the St. Marion Catholic Church. The shopping mile at Altstadt connects Post Street with Lorenz Church and street via the Catholic Church- a span of over one kilometer.

And this shopping mile is the focus of the Christmas Market at Hof’s Altstadt. Getting to the market by car, let alone by foot is difficult- perhaps the one of the most difficult of the Christmas markets to date. It has nothing to do with the maze in getting to the market, as was the case with the Christmas market in Chemnitz, when I wrote about it in 2015. While the street plans are mainly gridded- similar to a typical American town- the main problem was finding a place to park in Hof, for the parking lot and places along the streets were filled to the brim. When they were not occupied by cars, they were reserved for the handicapped, delivery trucks and bikes. This was compounded by speeding cars, traffic lights and even traffic jams. These are typical scenes of a typical southern German town as the region is the fastest growing in the country in terms of people, houses, and even transportation.  When finding a place to park, it is highly recommended to take your time, find the right spot to park without getting ticketed and impounded, and expect to walk to the Altstadt from your parked car.

This was the case during my visit, but despite this, the walk to the market was well worth it.  🙂

The market itself was really small, stretching from the Catholic Church to Post Street along the upper end of the shopping mile going past the Gallerie Kaufhof. Its aesthetic features include Christmas trees (some decorated) wrapped around street lamps along the shopping mile, LED lighting illuminating the sidewalks with Christmas slogans and light brown pinewood Christmas huts with gabled roofing and decorated with natural pine nbeedle garland and Christmas figures, such as the snowman, Santa Claus (or Weihnachtsman in German) and reindeers. The main attraction is a nine meter high Christmas pyramid, with angelic figures, whose dark brown color with white paintings resemble a gingerbread cake. Yet it is not like in Hansel and Gretel because it holds the largest of the Glühwein (mulled wine) stands at the market.  The backdrop of the market is both the church as well as the historic buildings, minus the rather modern Kaufhof. Still the market is a great stop for a drink and food after a long day of Christmas shopping.

Approximately 40 huts lined up and down the shopping mile as well as the pyramid and neighboring carousel on one end, but gallery of fairy tales and a Children’s train station on the opposite end.  The stands sold many handcrafted goods originating from the region, including the lighted Christmas arch from the Fichtel Mountains, ceramic manger sets that include a real lantern hung over the crib where baby Jesus was born and woolen clothing made in time for skiing. 🙂

But inspite this, one should pay attention to the food and drink available at the market because they are either local or multicultural. Local in this case means, in terms of food, the hot pot Schnitz and the Hofer Bratwurst (the thin version of the well acclaimed Bratwurst whose taste reminds a person of the Nuremberg Bratwurst); for the beverages, there is the local Glühwein from the nearby wineries in and around the Franconian region. Most importantly, one should try the Franconian Punch: an alcoholic drink that features orangesrum and other spices. Some include red wine and are thus renamed orange Frankenwald wine, yet just punch with the rum alone makes it the real thing worth drinking. 🙂

Yet multicultural food and drink mean that stands originating from several different country serving their own form of homemade local delicacies can be found at the Christmas market. From my own observations, stands with goodies from six different countries are worth trying while in Hof. They include those from Mexico, Belgium, Czech Republic, Turkey, Italy and Syria. Ironically, these specialties come from three of the countries that US President Trump detests (both officially and behind closed doors), one of these three is a royal pain in German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s neck. I’ll allow you to figure out which three countries I’m referring to. 😉

While I never had a chance to try all of the delicious delicacies from those stands, I tried the Gözlem (a Turkish Yufka tortilla that is filled with feta (sheep) cheese and spinach) and several small bars that contain pistachio, a nut most commonly found in Syria. The Syrians baker at that stand had a wide selection of pistachio bars, rolls, spaghetti-style bars, etc., that contained lots of these nuts plus sugar, eggs and other sweet spices. It tasted really good- enough to take it home to try with the family, especially my daughter, who is friends with a Syrian in school. 🙂 Syrians, who fled the region because of war and famine and have made their homes here in Europe, are one of the most overlooked groups when it comes to their heritage. From mainstream media, they fled to find a new life but struggle to establish their existence because of hate crimes and fake news from neo-conservative, far-right “news” sources, such as Britain First and Breitbart (US). Yet inspite of attempts of instilling fear and forcing others to turn away and against them, the majority of the public believe that the refugees have as much right to live in Germany as the Germans themselves, let alone other expatriates, like yours truly, who have escaped their home countries and found a better life.  And when looking at them even closer, one can see their special talents and food specialties, the latter of which brought out the Mr Food in me because of their secret ingredient of pistachio and its “Ooh, it’s so good!” comment.

Given the situation they are in, we have to put ourselves in our place and ask ourselves, what would we have done if we were in the crossfires? What talents and special characteristics can we take with so that we can use it for others? After all, every country has been in a war in one way or another. Germany’s last war ended 72 years ago. America’s home turf soil happened 152 years ago, focusing on slavery of the minority.  Both cultures are still alive and stronger than ever before. For refugees, like the Syrians, Turks, Kurds, Iranians and others affected by the war, they too have a right to live and shine for others and therefore, we must respect their rights and talents like we have for our own. We can learn from each other through our actions. 🙂

Summing up the Hof Christmas market, the first in Bavaria since starting my Christmas market series in 2010, I found that despite the problems with traffic, that the Christmas market in the old town was a cool place to visit. Accessible by going up the hill to the church and turning left, the market has a small hometown setting that is appealing to locals and regionals alike. One can try all the local and multi-cultural specialties and talk to people from different regions, while listening to music played or sung on stage (located at the entrance to the mall passage). And while Hof and Bayreuth have some equal characteristics in terms of having a university and similar population size, the arrangement and offer of the Christmas market falls clearly in favor of Hof this time, although admittedly, perhaps Bayreuth has changed since my visit seven years ago.

In either case, as you can see in the pics below and here per link, Hof is one city worth a visit, especially during the holiday season. One can learn culture, history and heritage for one day and come away with a small town feeling, learning a bit and enjoying that Christmas feeling.

 

 

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Mr. Food, going by the name of Art Ginsburg, started a short TV show bearing his nickname in 1975 and continued to run it until his death in 2012 due to cancer. Howard Rosenthal now runs the show bearing the name.

 

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2017 Christmas Market Tour: Preview

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The huts are open. The mulled wine is flowing into the cups. Seasons greetings are being sung in front of Christmas trees. And new local goods are being introduced to tourists and regular visitors. This means the Christmas markets in Germany are officially open. And for yours truly, this means I will be on the road, profiling the best and finest of Christmas markets in Germany.  🙂

This year’s Christmas market tour is very unique for its main focus is on history and tradition. History because of the interest in typical holiday traditions in the past in comparison with the future. And tradition because of the interest in comparing the family traditions in the past and present. We know that the Christmas markets originated from eastern Germany and most of the popular figures- the Christmas Pyramid, the Lighted Christmas Arch and the incense people were mostly made in the Ore and Fichtel Mountain regions in Saxony and Bavaria. But while we know our Christmas markets based on the ones from the western half of Germany, which includes Nuremberg and Munich, plus the Christmas traditions, which are typical in the same region, we don’t know much about the history of the ones in the eastern half, which had been under Communist rule until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and Germany reunited a year later.  We know that Christmas was more or less not focused on Christianity per se because of the government’s crack down on religion. We also know that despite having wooden products made in the Ore Mountains be sold in markets in the western part but not to the people in the region. However, what makes Christmas in the former East Germany unique from the ones we’re accustomed to?

We can start with a pair of commercials that were produced during that period and focused on Christmas and shopping. The questions we have are the following:

  1. What is meant by Konsum in general and how was it used here? Was it a store or propaganda?
  2. What were the themes behind these commercials?
  3. What gifts were common during that time?
  4. How do you perceive the commercials in comparison to the ones accustomed to from an outsider’s perspective?

Have a look at the two examples:

 

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A lot of themes were picked up during my last tour in Saxony, in places like Glauchau, Zwickau, Chemnitz, Leipzig and even Freiberg, which leads to the decision to find out more about Christmas during the Communist era. This includes items like Christmas songs, food, incense men, and other items. Therefore, this year’s tour will take us deep in the heart of the Ore Mountains in hopes to find out exactly how Christmas was celebrated before 1989 and what traditions from the past are still alive today.

Many of these factors will be integrated into the markets I visit, yet there are some factors that will be produced in separate articles, whether it is in a form of interviews, short summaries, video examples or other genres. The bottom line is to compare the tradition of eastern Germany to that of the western counterpart and allow ourselves to decide which tradition was better.

So sit back, relax and havge a look at my tour and findings that will help you (re)define the meaning of Christmas. 🙂

Stay tuned! 🙂

Note: Public Radio Station MDR is also doing coverage on Christmas in Eastern Germany, picking up from a few years ago with their podcasts. Click here for previous broadcasts and stay tuned for news coverage that will come beginning December 1st and will be added here.

 

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