One year ago today, we left our home in Prague to begin this journey of ours. Our first stop was Dresden, Germany where we found the Christmas spirit in its Advent markets on our way to Southeast Asia.
We have a soft and nostalgic spot for Christmas markets. We were first hooked by our experience nine years ago at the markets in Munich (Germany), Salzburg and Hall (Austria). The storybook images in our heads sprang to life there in the midst of snow-capped mountains as communities gathered at dusk to drink spiced wine, eat freshly roasted chestnuts out of small paper bags and shop for handmade decorations. Spices wafted from stalls serving waffles and candied almonds and gift stalls burst with nutcrackers and wood-carved incense-burning Santa figurines.
Since those inaugural Advent market experiences, we had taken the opportunity to discover other markets including those in Nuremberg, Vienna and what had become our hometown of Prague.
Last year, on our way to Southeast Asia we used our early December flight from Dresden as an excuse to arrive there a day early and avail ourselves of its Christmas market offerings.
A Visit from St. Nikolaus
After we arrived in Dresden by train from Prague, we left our belongings at the Raskolnikoff Pension where we were staying for the night. With the Advent season just getting underway, we eagerly embarked on an evening of exploration.
Before we exited, however, we apparently interrupted our host’s holiday chores.
“I am Saint Nikolaus, but you are not supposed to see me,” she offered coyly while crafting little hand-made bundles of chocolates swaddled in thick red holiday napkins.
She made her guest list, checked it twice and snuck off to quietly deposit bundles outside each of her guests’ rooms – all in the spirit of the German tradition of St. Nikolaus who visits children on the night of December 5th and “fills their boots” in a sort of pre-Christmas warm-up.
The following morning, Susanne, a woman we met at breakfast at the Raskolnikoff cafe, spoke to us about St. Nikolaus while her five-year old son dug deep into his Nikolaus stocking which was still loaded with the previous night's treats. Perhaps most interesting is the end, where Susanne shares a candid view of the apparently universal challenges of modern day Christmas.
Dresden's Advent Markets
Dresden, like its Central European siblings nearby, seems to take Christmas and its markets quite seriously, making sure that just about every neighborhood has one. Its most famous, the Streizelmarkt in the Old Market Square, offers a wide variety of traditional Christmas market attractions in line with its 573 years of existence.
Food and drink play a significant role in market life. Find out how large a role by composing a meal from the different stalls. Bratwurst and other sausages find temporary homes in fresh mini loaves of white bread called semmel before they are devoured by hungry market goers. Semmel loaves don’t measure to the meat, ensuring that customers get a few bites of pure sausage, unencumbered by bread. Roasted potatoes, sautéed mushrooms and savory crepes round out a savory offering.
Satisfy your sweet tooth (and use your children as an excuse) with sugar and cinnamon roasted almonds, caramel apples, chocolate dipped fruit or freshly baked stollen, a Christmas sweet bread. Perhaps it’s the season, but everything seemed to go down perfectly with spiced punch or hot gluhwein (mulled, spiced wine).
European Christmas markets are designed for community. Adults gather around tall, wooden tables, cupping their hands around steaming mugs of gluhwein to ward off the winter chill. Children circulate, making their way to the children’s bakery, the candle maker, or the ornament shop. If all this food and activity doesn’t tire them out, maybe the performances on the main stage or an amusement ride will.
Armed with full tummies, we sought out the gift stalls filled with handmade wooden toys, Christmas tree ornaments, candles, and a dizzying choice of nutcrackers. We still marvel at the array of smoking men, incense burning figures made of wood depicting a variety of notorious professions – mushroom gatherer, card shark, baker, gardener and Santa Claus (if that can even be considered a profession, since there is only one).
The smells of sandalwood incense and frankincense blend with that of smoked meats, freshly baked gingerbreads and spiced wine all conspire to provide a perfectly scented fairytale backdrop. If only our recording devices could capture smells, we might begin to tell a complete story of these Christmas markets.
After being overwhelmed by the lights and crowds at the Streizelmarkt, we took a short walk to the market that the locals recommend, the Advent Spectacle, Dresden’s medieval Christmas market. The Courtyard of Dresden’s Royal Palaces and surrounding towers make for a regal yet intimate setting. This is a Middle Ages Christmas – a wonderland of tented stalls, candlelight, men in tunics and women in traditional Hanseatic dresses made of heavy cloth. Candlelight complements the wood carved signs whose traditional lettering appears as though it was just freshly carved by a Black Forest hermit. Gluhwein comes served in rough ceramic mugs and candied nuts are turned in wood fired aluminum tins. Traditional toy stalls and a man-powered Ferris wheel frame a conduit that allowed us to step back in time through this medieval Christmas portal. The Advent Spectacle reasonably suspends your disbelief to draw you into its Christmas nostalgia.
We eventually departed Dresden after fully absorbing one last dose of European Christmas for the foreseeable future.
After a half-day of trains, flights and buses, we arrived at our guest house in Bangkok. There, a Christmas tree decorated in tinsel stood in the lobby. Tiny plastic Santa Claus figurines hung from its branches. This was Christmas, but it just wasn't the same.
This year, we're not certain where we'll be for Christmas, but it is unlikely we'll be drinking gluhwein or smelling the incense of smoking men.