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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Christmas Market Tour 2015: Chemnitz

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Christmas market at Alte Markt next to City Hall. Photos taken in Dec. 2015

The first place on the 2015 tour we’ll have a look at is Chemnitz. Located in western Saxony near the Ore Mountains between Dresden, Hof, Leipzig, Zwickau and Glauchau- in other words, smack in the middle of all the action, Chemnitz was first recorded in the 12th Century when Kaiser Lothar III established the Church of St. Benedict. The city plan of the town was presented over a century later. The city’s origin comes from the river running through it, whose name was derived from a Sorbian name meaning stone. The city was substantially destroyed in World War II and the people suffered a great deal afterwards, as it became part of the Soviet Zone, and the city was subsequentially renamed Karl-Marx-Stadt in 1953, named after the founder of Socialism. Like many cities in the former East Germany (German Democratic Republic), the cityscape was transformed rapidly over the next 30 years, as architects placed high rise after high rise wherever the Socialist Party (SED) pleased. That is the reason why the city center and its churches surrounding them are flooded with more high rise buildings than necessary. Can you imagine looking at the city without these concrete slabs just for a second?

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Chemnitz Central Station: looks like an East German gym for sporting events. One needs to subtract the tracks and the platforms.

1990 and the people, fed up with the importance of Marxism and Leninism, were granted their wish, and the name Karl Marx Stadt was converted back to Chemnitz. Yet much of the architecture from the East German period remains today, and people can see them while driving past, especially the statue of Karl Marx at the corner of Brückenstrasse und Street of Nations. Even the Central Railway Station, despite its lounge looking more modern than 25 years ago, looks like a hangar gleaming with yellow sodium lighting. If one takes away all the platforms, it would resemble a sports center, with a wrestling ring and matches featuring the likes of Velvet McIntyre and Mathilda the Hun, two of the many professional wrestling stars during the 1980s. Yet it could also look like an ice skating rink, featuring the likes of Katarina Witt, Germany’s beloved figure skater who was born in the city.

However more modern architecture is popping up in an attempt to drown out the  architecture the SED wanted there at any cost. This includes the expansion of the Technical University in Chemnitz, where because of the increase in students, the campus has expanded to the south, thus leaving the former main campus next to the train station with a purpose of having extra space for classes.  Check your Googlemaps app if you have an appointment at the TU, to ensure you are at the right campus, please, or you will certainly get lost.

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The 1884 Chemnitz Viaduct serving the rail line connecting Dresden and Nuremberg via Hof

Yet despite the concrete settings, which resembles the scenes from the dystopian film The Cement Garden, Chemnitz has several features that standout. The city has the Opera House, Roter Turm at Neumarkt, historic buildings at Schillerplatz and several museums focusing on technology, archeology and art, as well as churches and castles. Even the river Chemnitz features many parks and historic bridges, namely the Railroad Viaduct built in 1884.

And lastly, the city is famous for its Christmas market. Located in the city center at Neumarkt, the market is laid out in three areas: Between the apartments along Am Neumarkt, between the Old and New City Halls and at Roter Turm.  Yet, getting there from the train station or other parts of the city, thanks to the maze of concrete one has to go through, takes lots of navigating, regardless of what kind of Verkehrsmittel a person uses. In my case, despite having my bike companion Galloping Gertie, which always gets me from point A to point B, my sense of orientation was lost in the concrete. So to the city council officials who want a word of advice from me: signpost the directions to the market next time, please!

Barring the author’s critique, I was told that the city had won the prize for the best Christmas market in Saxony. Given the architecture that drowns out the historic nature of the city center- at least the ones that were built before 1914, it was hard to believe at first glance. But then again, learning from my visit in Halle (Saale) and its Christmas market in 2012, one cannot judge the book by its cover but should read the first few pages before making the first judgements. This was why I wanted to take an hour to look through the place.

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After fighting through the concrete maze, my first stop was at Neumarkt. Located adjacent to the Roterturm, the market is the second largest of the city’s Christmas market. Visitors are greeted with the black gate, flanked with Christmas angels holding candles and a large black Schwibbogen, resembling the miners and angels. As mentioned in a previous article, the color of black represents the color of the ore found in the Ore Mountain region, the birthplace of the arched candle-holder. To the right is another typical Christmas figure found in the households in Germany, the Pyramid. More on that in a later article.  The market is at the doorsteps of two major shopping centers, one of which is named after a popular historic landmark, Der Roter Turm. Built in 1230, the tower served as a watchtower overlooking the town as its original purpose. It was later a watchtower for the prison complex, which existed in the 17th to the 19th century. It later became a gateway, welcoming people to Chemnitz before it became a historic landmark in the 1990s. The shopping center, located next to the tower, opened in 2000, mimicking the architecture of the tower and the adjacent city hall.

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The market at Altmarkt. The New Town Hall (left) and the Old Town Hall (right) are in the background

Going left one will find the rest of the market and then some, located at the Market Square. The one at the Alte Markt is the largest and features the Christmas tree and the Spielwerk, a Christmas merry-go-round-like featuring Santa Clause, an Angel, a Snowman and gifts.   Counting the extension along Rosenhof, which has a line of huts, the markets are surrounded by apartment complexes from the GDR era. Judging by the appearance, these modernized apartments are well occupied, which means the families have front-row seating on each floor, especially during the holidays.

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A Christmas market surrounded by high-rise flats.

When looking at the huts, one can see a unique uniform pattern- namely gabled huts with mahogany siding. The color is typical of the wood found in the Ore Mountain region, and most of the products sold at the market- whether they are Räuchermänner, Pyramids, Schwibbogen or even figures for the Christmas tree, are handcrafted with this unique type of  wood originating from the region. Add the red and white lining and lettering and the place looks really Christmassy, even without the snow, as I saw in my visit. Admittedly, it would make the market look really romantic with the snow, even viewing it from the apartments above.

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Das Spielwerk at Altmarkt: another typical feature coming from the Ore Mountain region. 

Most of the huts are lined up into long rectangular islands with the backs to each other. The purpose behind that is to provide more space for people to maneuver towards the stands without the feeling of being crowded. Despite having to fight a maze to get to there, the market itself is rather spacious, enabling the people to move around more freely than in some markets visited until now. That means between rows, the width is equivalent to the width of 3-4 cars, pending on location. Lots of space and less risk of injury by pushing and shoving, or even getting smacked in the face with a heavy backpack. It’s lesson that markets in some cities, like Dresden and Nuremberg should take note, even though the problem with the former is with the Striezelmarkt as Neustadt has a concept similar to this one.

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Typical Christmas market huts with lots of space. 

Despite all the Chemnitz features, many people are sometimes of the opinion that the market is just like any other market: selling items from the Ore Mountain region, having amusements and a large Christmas tree. If that is the opinion, I beg to differ, especially when it comes to food. The market in Chemnitz offers several delicacies one will rarely find at other markets in Germany. Some of the items I tried during my brief stay at the market. Highly recommended is the Bohemian smoked sausage (Böhmischer Rauchwurst), with  or without the cheese filling.  Similar to the Thuringian Bratwurst and the Frankfurter, this sausage comes from the Czech side of the mountains and are smoked to perfection. The sausage has a really tangy taste when biting into it. With the cheese filling, it is even heartier. 🙂   Another delicacy that is a must-eat is the Wickelklöße. Similar to the dumplings, this Sächsische recipe features a combination of dough and pressed potatoes, rolled out and filled with either something sweet, like apple and cinnamon or hearty, like peppers. The recipe on how to make it is here unless you wish to visit one of the booths in Chemnitz to try before doing:

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The market also offers delicacies from the Medieval Ages and from different countries, many of which can be found at the market in Dusseldorfer Platz, whose setting matches the Middle Ages with dark-colored huts covered with darker-colored roofs. This includes the Turkish specialty that sells kebaps and kofta.Koftas are mini hamburger patties with special spices imported from Turkey. When placed in a pita bun and adding all the fixings, they look like the typical kebap but without the sliced meat. Yet they taste like Jennie’s Grinder, a submarine sandwich found at the Iowa State Fair.  And like the sandwich, the kofta is best eaten hot. Taking it to go will mean the loss of taste when it is even lukewarm. This was a lesson I learned upon buying it at the booth to take for the trip home. But in any case, the kofta is one that is recommended if one wants something spicy at the market.

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The Medieval Market at Dusseldorfer Platz

After more than an hour at the markets, it was time to leave for the next market, but not before taking with the impressions from the market. Despite the city’s concrete settings and scars that still remain from the Cold War era, Chemnitz has salvaged much of its pre-1933 past and has built off from it, with modern technology that is attractive and serves as a source of inspiration for future engineers and architects, most of whom are students at the TU. The Christmas market itself, despite being surrounded by many high rises still caressing the city center, definitely deserved the title given out this year. The market offers many local goods and food and beverages from the region and all points in the Ore Mountain region to the south. With its settings, the market is rather spacious, accomodating the residents and visitors. But most importantly, the market does provide a sense of Christmas and hominess for those who love a good Bohemian sausage, mulled wine, kofta and pastries typical of Saxony. If one ignores the concrete settings and imagines the historic places, such as the Town Halls and the churches, one can conclude that the market is typical of the markets one can find in Saxony. It is just the question of finding the way through the maze. But if you do it successfully, the hunt for the market is well worth it. 🙂

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Flensburg Files logo France 15

25th Anniversary of the Fall of the Wall Highlights

BERLIN; ERFURT-  More than 2.5 million people (or 70% of the city’s population) converged on Berlin over the weekend to commemorate the fall of the Berlin Wall. The biggest highlight of the event was on Sunday, where over a million people were on hand during the course of the day and evening as speeches were held to honor those who risked their lives escaping from East to West Berlin, as well as the hundreds of thousands of people who pressured the East German government to open the borders- the demand that Guenter Schabowski, the spokesman for East Germany’s Central Committee granted on 9 November, 1989.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel and many prominent politicians spoke at the ceremony at the Bernauer Strasse Memorial. She was greeted by Michail Gorbachev, the former leader of the Soviet Union whose policies of non-intervention and openness led to countries like East Germany to overthrow their communist leaders and break away from the communist bloc. He spoke at the symposium in front of Brandenburg Gate. Concerts took place throughout the evening by many singers and music groups. Among those performing at the Brandenburg Gate were former East German singer Udo Lindenburg, British pop star Peter Gabriel and German techno artist Paul Kalkbrenner. The events culminated with the releasing of 8,000 balloons along the former border dividing East and West Berlin. The led-lit balloons were established along the border where the Berlin Wall once stood, indicating where and how the wall had divided Berliners for 28 years.

Some highlights of the 25th Anniversary events can be seen in the videos below. Readers wanting to know more about the Wall and the celebrations of its downfall can be seen in the Flensburg Files’ facebook page (click here for direct access). There you can find videos, photos and articles in both German and English of the events. Like to follow as the Files will provide some articles and interesting facts pertaining to the events leading to the reunification of Germany.

The Releasing of the Balloons

Paul Kalkbrenner at Brandenburg Gate

Michail Gorbachev at the Celebrations

 

 

But Berlin was not the only place where the 25th anniversary celebrations took place. Many places along the former East and West German borders, from Lübeck to Marienhof to Modlareuth to Hof commemorated the symbolic event of 9 November 1989 in various ways. Some brief examples can be seen below:

HOF:  As many as 250 East German automobiles, among them the Trabant and the Wartburg, and their owners and passengers made a pilgrimage from Plauen in Saxony to Hof in Bavaria. There, people had an opportunity to reenact history of the event, where residents on the western side greeted those on the eastern side with sweets, champaign and the like. In order for the reenactment to be played in full, organizers reconstructed make-shift borders and inspection buildings resembling those that had existed before being torn down shortly after the borders opened. Hundreds of people took part in the event and had an opportunity to see the display of the cars typical for East Germany but are becoming a rare breed. A video of the event is below for you to look at.

Fast fact: Trabant produced its cars in Zwickau in western Saxony. The company closed in 1997. Wartburg produced its cars in Eisenach in western Thuringia. It was bought by Opel after the border opened and is still in business today.

Trabi Caravan from Plauen to Hof

 

MODLAREUTH: A caravan of Trabants and some local celebrations in the village of 60 people commemorated the opening of the border. Located on the border to Thuringia and Bavaria, Modlareuth was divided by the border as East German soldiers forced many residents to move to higher ground, while they tore down houses along the creek that flows through the village to erect the barbed-wire fence and border towers. For 28 years, this village became known as Little Berlin because of the Wall. Yet despite still being divided in terms of jurisdiction, the people consider Modlareuth one home and one village. Celebrations commemorating the opening of the gate included a tour of a portion of the border and control tower, which was given to the German-German Museum and has been preserved for visitors to see.

 

VACHA:  State ministers Christine Lieberknecht (Thuringia) and Volker Bouffier (Hesse) were at the Vacha Bridge, spanning the Werra River between the Thuringian village and Philipsthal in Hesse, laying a wreath at the center of the span and honoring those who tried to flee to the western part of Germany during the Cold War. Severely damaged and impassable because of World War II, the bridge was closed to all people when the borders were put up in 1961 and remained so until 1989. The bridge was later rebuilt. “November 9th was a lucky day,” said Lieberknecht in her speech to hundreds of people at the bridge. “The strive for freedom and democracy defeated socialism and a state-controlled economy.” More on the speech here.

 

For those who could not attend any of the events, there were plenty of opportunities to watch the events on TV, let alone the facts about the East-West Border and the Berlin Wall. This included the children’s TV series “Die Sendung mit der Maus,” which featured a special on the border between then and right now, based on the travels of one of the moderators. A link is available for you to watch and listen to the stories behind the border crossings chosen for the trip:

Summer Tour along the Former East-West Border with the Maus:

http://spezial.wdrmaus.de/sommerreise-2014

 

The rest of the programs can be found in the Flensburg Files’ facebook page. There you can access the programs in either language and learn about the Fall of the Wall and the celebrations that followed then as well as yesterday.