The shopping spirit

To Market, to market:

The shopping spirit

Across central Europe, Christmas markets prove a popular draw during the Advent season. Some of the best visited and most atmospheric are located within Germany, whose heritage of such markets is centuries long. To experience the markets, I head to Stuttgart in the south-western state of Baden-Wuerttemberg.

The earliest document mentioning a Christmas market in Stuttgart dates from 1692, but historians believe the tradition of hosting Weihnachtsmaerkte (Christmas market) — as the markets are known in this part of the world — is significantly older. Over the centuries, the markets have evolved. They started as places for locals to buy seasonal foodstuff, including lebkuchen (spiced ginger bread), and to socialise. Today, they also stock handcrafted gifts and decorative items, including glass baubles and wooden stars that can be hung from Christmas trees.

Culinary bliss
Wandering between wooden stalls ranged on Schlossplatz, the square that marks the heart of the city, I inhale the distinctive clove-and-cinnamon-laced aroma of glühwein (mulled wine) as it rises into the cold, late afternoon air from mugs gripped by people wearing woolly hats and standing and chatting in small groups. Some things about Christmas markets have changed little over the centuries. People still meet by rustic, hut-like stands that are rich in the scent of pine. They also tuck into seasonal cuisine, including kaesekrainer — grilled sausages laced with cheese and served in a bread roll with a squirt of mustard — plus deliciously aromatic, lightly spiced caramelised nuts sold in conical paper bags.

The popularity of Advent markets has seen a marked upsurge over the past couple of decades, drawing millions of visitors to Germany, and even spawning replicas abroad. Remarkably, a Frankfurt Christmas Market that is held in the British city of Birmingham now pulls around five million visitors every year. It may well be worth seeing, but surely there’s something to be said for visiting the original?

In comparison to Birmingham’s popular seasonal attraction, the total of three million annual visitors to Stuttgart’s Weihnachtsmarkt may seem modest. But if you’ve inhaled the city’s chilled evening air when it’s laced with the scent of cinnamon from roasting nuts and seasoning from slowly grilling bratwurst sausages, you’re also ensuring that a long-established tradition continues to live and breathe on.

With the cold causing my nose to tingle and my breath billowing cloud-like in front of me, I enjoy browsing the attractively ranged work of craftsmen who’ve produced items such as multi-coloured glass candle holders, silver jewellery and Christmas baubles crafted from pinecones. But it’s the food stalls I return to in order to spend my money.

The market has more than 280 stalls. They will stay open till 9 pm each day, until December 23. In Germany, the evening of December 24 is the most important day in the seasonal celebrations, so many people prefer not to go shopping on the day that many places regard as Christmas Eve.

The huts are clustered into rows on the market square — in front of the city hall — and on Schillerplatz, the square named after Friedrich Schiller, the poet and author who was born in nearby Marbach am Neckar in 1759. They also snake along Kirchstrasse, so that the seasonal mood in not lost in between, and down Hirchstrasse. By the Christmas tree within the colonnaded courtyard of the AltesSchloss, Stuttgart’s Renaissance-style palace, you can take a pause from shopping and listen to regular concerts, seasonal music and songs.

A medieval retreat
To gain an impression of how Advent Markets may have looked back in the Middle Ages, you don’t necessarily need to head to a museum or leaf through a history book. In the nearby town of Esslingen am Neckar, 15 km from Stuttgart, you can gain an impression of medieval-style markets in action. Stalls are ranged along the cobbled streets and marketplace of Esslingen, whose tall, half-timbered houses survived World War II largely undamaged. The medieval-themed market has more than 200 stalls.

Jesters in colourful costumes provide street entertainment, telling stories, jokes and interacting with members of the public. They juggle, swallow fire and play musical instruments including bagpipes, drums and wind instruments resembling clarinets. Their presence adds to the atmosphere of the market and crowds gather around to watch their shows.

Warm mead — a drink made by fermenting honey with water — is served in red ceramic mugs made in the style of drinking vessels used centuries ago. During medieval times, meat was a treat that many people could rarely afford, saving it for feasts on holy days, the origin of the term ‘holidays’.

A man turns a spit-roasted piglet by an open fire on the market place. I order a portion and he serves it with soured cream in warm bread that’s over-baked with cheese. Appreciating the heat of the fire on this cold December day, I linger close to the flames in an effort to warm myself.

At a large stall with iron-doored ovens reminiscent of a kitchen in bygone days, a team of bakers in white jackets are at work. They are making flammkuchen, a pizza-like dish topped with lardons and onions baked on a thin layer of cream. They might not be ideal if your doctor warns you about your cholesterol levels, but anyone living to 35 during the early 1500s might have been regarded old; the long-term effects of tasty, hearty food was not a concern back then.

As in Stuttgart, Christmas carols and musical performances are also a part of the Esslingen Market. Yet, arguably the most spectacular event is the evening parade to the castle, illuminated by flaming torches carried in the hands of participants. 

I decide to mingle into the market’s growing crowd and to observe proceedings from a safe distance while warming myself with a gluehwein. As I do so, I soak up the atmosphere, something that’s available in abundance as dusk falls on Christmas markets in Germany.

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