Tuesday, November 15, 2016

the 4 best things about Frankfurt

Sachsenhausen at night
Frankfurt is a proud home of apfelwein. Where most of Germany is enamored with beer, Frankfurt went its own way on this front. We first tried a taste of it at a café, just to consider it. It was something like an uncarbonated cider. When I say cider, I mean like the proper alcoholic drinks of Europe, not the hot apple tea of the United States.

In Frankfurt, the apfelwein is also commonly served as “ebbelwoi” and the pubs brewing and serving it tend to be located in the beautiful and more picturesque neighborhood of Sachsenhausen, which still preserves many of its older half-timbered houses, served in brew houses called “apfelweinwirtschaft”. The drink also gives Frankfurt another New Yorker appeal, gaining it the name of “the Big Ebbel”.

We found the Kononesteppel restaurant to get the true tipple of ebbelwoi and to stock our stomachs up with some schnitzel. Kononesteppel was in the style of a classic German pub, with long tables filling the room, and stuffing in every person they could, even if it meant sharing a space with an elderly couple—as we did—or a group of partying bachelorettes. The ebbelwoi was cheap and seemingly endless, while the schnitzel also was priced around 10 euros—a real steal in Germany. It came served with the famous Frankfurt “grune sosse”, a slightly bitter green sauce containing as many herbs as Jägermeister and looks like something that's dripped out of my nose during one terrible winter. It tastes at least three times as delicious, albeit.

Sachsenhausen imbiberies
Though there is local beer, it’s not abundant. We did make our way to naiv Bar, which is an attempt at an American style microbrew bar, complete with the faux industrial look so common in all the hip places in the hippest cities that maybe you haven’t heard of yet, and they even served their brews in American sized glasses charging American prices. Very cute. 6 dollars for a thimble. I drank something with “hops” in the name, like “Hopmeister”, but found it not really a master brew of hops, so then we headed on out in search for more of that apfelwein goodness.


Being a major business center of the Continent, Frankfurt is overflowing with hotels. But most of them service at a pretty penny, even booking a year ahead of time. There are some hostels, but for the aging folk like myself, one needs something a bit more comfortable than a flea bag roach motel filled with Australian’s in a stag party in order to properly rest ones achy back and such and such.
From the hotel room
We stayed at the Leonardo Royal Hotel. It’s one of the few towers that don’t look miniature and is a bit on the outskirts of town, just across from the South Cemetery, but therefore also being a hotel on the cheaper side for Frankfurt. It’s about a fifteen-minute walk to Sachsenhausen and to the tram lines and subway, and right on a major bus route, with free parking on the street around it. And it’s best to park it in Frankfurt, since they figure one way of keeping their river clean is by cleansing it with all the milk they get from their visitors.


Once upon a time, Frankfurt was known for its huge, sprawling medieval center, and its romance rivaled that of the few towns left like Rothenburg. But then came the Nazis and Frankfurt went the way of Aleppo and Mosul, incinerated into a crumbling bucket of blood and rats. This made way for that miniature skyline, and gives it a look and feel of any American city center, except that it’s clean and has great mass transit, and is somewhat thought out for pedestrians.

Luckily though, the non-medieval center was mostly left alone, and the Sachsenhausen district still preserves the look of the 1800s. It quickly became the financial city of Germany, as its main rival, Berlin, was divided and in part held by people with no sense of budget or business. They also managed to recreate at least the main square, trying to grasp some of the charm the city once had.

A bird taking in the view
It is an extremely walkable city. Sachsenhausen is the best place for a stroll, and the river has a historic-looking bridge with views of the new skyline and the old churches that managed to soldier on through the smoke and dust of worse years. A park stretches all the way up and down the Main River, which is at all times full of joggers and couples. 

Overall, Frankfurt is perhaps not a destination city. At least not these days. But if you've got an overnight layover, or are looking for the world's largest book festival, then it's certainly not a bad city to find yourself in.   

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

ways 18th century high Germans appropriated street culture

Frankfurt at night
The skyscrapers looked immense as we sped down the Hessian autobahn. They call it the New York of Europe because of the skyline, tower after tower lined up like they were stacked in an IKEA box ready to be unpacked and screwed together in a mesa of steel and concrete. It’s quite in a way that’s completely foreign to Europe, un-European almost in the sense that it’s very much American looking. But as the car drove up closer and closer, our speed was scaling down, trees thinning and gathering in orderly lines as they do in organized cities, the city also began scaling down.

These weren’t the massive towers of American cities, these were like those towers, but in miniature. Every tower there I had recognized the life-size version of, some modeled after the ones of New York, others from Chicago or Houston or Denver. But they all seemed like bizarre model replicas. Scaled as they were, from a distance they seemed to be massive, but up close there was something tiny about them. It wasn’t the New York of Europe, it was a mini-New York, like the casino in Vegas. Indeed, as Frankfurt was the home of the European Central Bank, it was very much like a casino in Vegas. 

Frankfurt isn’t only known for its New Yorker qualities—though they also have a Wall Street bull statue, but here, in typical European pessimism, it stands next to a bear statue—but also for its history. They managed to salvage a lot of it from the firestorm of World War II, and that included the birthplace of the great poet and founder of modern German literature, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Cultural appropriation

The Goethe House Museum exists, though not in the original condition. A bomb fell on it during the war, but they were able to salvage a surprising amount of furniture. Even more surprising is that the beds must have been the main pieces that were completely destroyed. The other furniture, armchairs, tables, and the like, were found and restored, and the house replicated to look as it was, and it all generally resembles what most upper-class families of the 1800s of Germany must have looked like.

Imitation Goethe's kitchen
Goethe didn’t live there long though. It was only during his childhood. As most things German, even literature comes with a name resembling a heaving force of nature, and Goethe was soon at the front of the movement called Storm and Stress, which related to the violent upheavals against the authoritarian monarchic regimes of Europe in a drive towards freedom and democracy, the American Revolution inspiring the continent to take up arms against their own slave masters.

Just like in America, the rich folk are always trying to appropriate urban culture and it was the same in the Germany of the 1800s. Most of Germany—even the nobility—were inspired by these young Storm and Stress artists. In Bavaria, for instance, King Ludwig II was throwing flowers at Wagner’s feet. The same courtship endured with Goethe when Karl August, Duke of Saxe-Weimar, brought him to Weimar and slowly wheedled down his Romantic nature, eventually leading him to a noble investiture. It was at this point that Goethe went the way of Kanye West and Jay Z, going from street player to boring rich guy. His literature got soft and he shared the pansification that Schiller also went through.
Imitation Goethe's dining room

The biggest hit though for the European Romantic was the rise of Napoleon and the spread of his empire, when every educated man then began to understand the fate of democracy. A radical democracy, exposed to the whims of a stupid and ignorant common folk, will devour itself and offer itself prey to an infernal regime, ready to renew the authority of a monarchy, though without the chains of tradition. The serpent can renew itself.

Do you think appropriation can be applied in this context? Let me know what you think in the comments below.

You can read more about why I was at Frankfurt in the first place, or keep in touch at www.saintfacetious.com.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Frankfurt Buchmesse: a very short guide

Huge hall after huge hall, packed with thousands upon thousands of people, shoulder to shoulder, a mess of bodies pushing and squeezing, trying to find something for sale, something for some sort of satisfying satiation. Some people in costume, playing out pittances of their favorite characters. Some people in suits. Others in sweats. Some seemingly on their way to fancy soirees, others like they’re off to work out. Such a conglomeration one might normally find in a mall in the US on Black Friday, but I found this in Frankfurt at the annual buchmesse--the largest book festival in the world--a gigantic hub for publishers, distributers, agents, and with a small touch of afterthought, writers. There were about three halls for German books, two for English language literature, two more for international works, one for children, one for education, one for religion. Pretty much any category you can imagine had its own massive trade hall. It’s hands down the largest affair of bound paper you can ever consider existing.

In one of the German halls
It's also quite appropriate that the world’s largest book fair would be held in a city known for being the birthplace of Goethe, the father of German literature, who spent his early years there until carting off to Weimar when he was brought into the nobility by the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, thus forever becoming “von” Goethe for-von-eva.

We went there for two days. Friday and Saturday. We didn’t quite know what to expect, so we went thinking it would be purely an exploratory mission, a kind of literary reconnaissance on the field of publishing. And to that extent, it was a success. We understand now a bit more the workings of the publishing industry, and some things to keep in mind so that next year can be more successful. So here is some information we gathered.

Trade Days

The Buchmesse, unlike Gaul, is divided into two parts, trade days and visitor days. The trade day entries are more expensive. This year it was 45 euros to get in. They’re meant for those in the trade: publishers, distributors, writers, agents, and so on. Each booth throughout the numerous halls contains three or four chairs and tables—the bigger publishing companies might have twenty or thirty. Interviews are going on at those tables. Publishers, agents, or whomever, are holding meetings there, discussing contracts of any sort. To get those meetings, a person should make appointments some three to six months ahead of time

There's a large courtyard in the middle of the conference center, filled with beergardens, reading tents, etc.
This is especially important for any budding writer: one must have their interviews with agents and publishers scheduled far in advance. Of course, we didn’t know the first thing about finding an agent even. I even had it in the back of my head that pitching would be possible, but the festival is so massive that this would be pure chaos. If you want to make unsolicited pitches, it’s better to attend the small festivals. My wife boldly asked a host from a publishing house, “We’re new at this, how do we get an interview with an agent?”

The above information was revealed.

“And how do we find those agents to get appointments with them?”

The answer? The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook was apparently the best source. This is especially true in the European front. The Writers’ Market for the American side of the big old pond.

It’s not really possible to set up an interview while you’re there. Everyone is already too busy with their own affairs and goings-on that maybe the greatest literary genius of their time could be walking around a bit lost and nobody would even know it.  

Many of the booths are designed to look like bookstores
Visitor Days

The visitor days are held on the weekend. I’m not precisely sure what they’re for except cheaper entry. It seemed it was mostly for those who couldn’t afford the 45-euro ticket and still wanted to wander around those halls of thinly sliced wood. It’s entirely too packed and crammed to get anything done, and at least on Saturday, nothing was for sale. If you want to buy the latest books about to go on the market, perhaps the newest in the upcoming 40 something of Grey series, then go on Sunday, by all means necessary. Saturday only exists for presentation, and for dozens of girls to run around in Harley Quinn costumes.

We spent some time at the Georgia booth, naturally. Most of the books on display were in Georgian language. Some were translated into English. I found one I was considering buying, but then discovered, “Sorry, the English language books aren’t for sale. Just the Georgian ones.” I hope they weren’t expecting large sales.

The Frankfurt Buchmesse happens every year in October. Next year it will be held on the 11 to the 15. Ticket prices can range from 15 euro to thousands, and tend to go on sale in the summer. Check out their sight and sign up for updates about tickets.

Monday, June 20, 2016

escape from castle wolfstein

St. Michael's, Schwabisch Hall
Our way back from Strasbourg wasn’t nearly as nice as the way there. After seeing all the villages of the Alsatian countryside, we were a bit spoiled on beautiful villages, so we didn’t care much for stopping for the Bavarian roadside attractions. But rest stops were in order for the 5-hour drive, so we did decide on a couple. The first stop was going to be Schwabisch Hall—neither of us had ever heard of it, but it certainly had a fun name to say and the visit would include a huge fortified monastery—and the next was to be Neumarkt in der Oberfalz, which we had passed on several occasions, so it had a something of a “why not?” quality to visiting there. The pictures of the town looked nice enough and if our visit to Nordlingen could be a judge of Bavarian towns, then there was sure to be at least some ice cream available.

Schwabisch Hall

Schwabisch Hall is located at about the halfway point between Strasbourg and Nuremberg. For short, locals call the name Hall, giving it something of a Tolkien feel to it—though this was actually its earlier name, as the Schwabisch part wasn’t thrown on until the Nazis. Hall was built on the steep valley walls of the Kocher River in the 5th century and expanded as a salt production center. It now serves as a university town, much like the nearby city of Tubingen.

A channel off the Kocher

We parked our car on the East side of the slowly meandering river, in a garage that appeared to be a half-timbered house from the outside. The wood-roofed pedestrian bridge took us to a small island where there’s a beer garden and a scaled-down replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, where they must do scaled-down versions of his comedies and tragedies. It’s a fantastic view from the beer garden, seeing the old stone walls holding the city above the Kocher and the houses hanging over the walls. 

On the other side of the river, there’s something of a switch back road, walled on either side by towering half-timbered houses, until at last you reach the main square with the 15th century St. Michael’s Church high up on a storm of stairs—the Freilicht Spiele, used as an outdoor theatre since 1925—and opposite and much lower, the 18th century city hall.

View from St. Michael's

The best times to visit Hall are on Whitsunday (the seventh Sunday after Easter) for the Cake and Source Festival, where some 500 people dress up in costume for the salt mine cleaning ceremonies that have been going on for some half a millennium. Then there’s the International Muzzleloader Shooting festival, which is enough to make any American-liberal-worried-overmuch-about-cultural-appropriation blush quite red in the face. At this festival, there’s a bunch of Germans who are celebrating the American Wild West by dressing up as Native Americans, sleeping in teepees, and having a musket shooting contest. This weird awesome sounding fest isn’t complete without country music bands and cowboy boots for sale.

Comburg Monastery

If you get at just the right angle from the island, you can sort of make out a castle on a hilltop up the valley. Otherwise though, you could visit Hall without even knowing there was a massive castle-monastery a 3-minute drive away. The monastery was founded back in the 1070s by the Counts of Comberg-Rothenburg on the site of their castle. The monks there were all of noble birth, the rejects of the family that didn’t fall in line with primogeniture and whose father’s thought it best that they at least become esteemed maesters of the royal families. Wait – no I’ve got my real history mixed up with my Game of Thrones again. Or vice versa. But really, that sort of thing actually happened. Making your other sons monks did have a way of settling squabbles of inheritance.

The entrance of the monastic castle

The monastery was secularized in the early 19th century and is now used as a teaching school, where they have various teachers’ conferences year round. It would certainly be pretty awesome to have a week long training conference in a castle! I’m waiting for my company to get around to doing one of those…

The outer courtyard

Neumarkt in der Oberfalz

Finally, our driving adventure brought us to Neumarkt in der Oberfalz. Despite being founded in 6th century AD, Neumarkt looked as though it were only just built. Clean streets, freshly painted and built houses, the town looked like it had recently underwent a renaissance. The streets were quiet and nicely paved with a large and busy town center. The town is mostly famous for its Nazi past—Dietrich Eckart, one of the founders of the party, was born there and one of the first local chapters of the country formed there.

the town gate from the main parking garage

The most interesting site in the town we had to miss though, since we were pretty ready to end our trip and get back to the regularly scheduled program in Prague. We could see Bergruine Wolfstein as we passed on our way back to the autobahn, its crumbling towers standing over us. The place has supposedly been pretty incredibly renovated, so I regret that we didn’t get to stop, but home was waiting.

the town square

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

a longing and south Germany

The canal of Nordlingen
It was time to get out of the house again and this time – out of the country! We both had a longing to go do a road trip across southern Germany and to Alsace. Strasbourg has long been one of my favorite French cities, so much better than the overrated Paris. In Paris one finds all sorts of things to hate about France, but in Alsace – and I imagine in the other French regions – one finds all sorts of things to fall in love with the culture. France should hold some sort of special place in my heart – I see all these American and British expats here who have Czech blood and have been pulled back to their motherlands that their parents fled during Communism. I have mostly French blood, with my ancestors having left during the Wars of Religion and other periods, but haven’t really had any sort of feeling of longing to get back; no sense of connection. That, I have for Louisiana a bit, but still, it’s not home. Home really is wherever my sweet wife is and that’s all the longing I need.

So, with our new style of stopping at various villages and towns, in this blog chapter I’ll bring to you the various places we hit in Germany on the way to Strasbourg. Next week all about Strasbourg itself. Then the villages of Alsace and finally, about our return trip. We’re talking lots of pictures of really ridiculously cute looking places, folks, so buckle your safety belts, grab a beer – it is Germany, after all – and enjoy the ride.


the main town gates
Amberg has the looks of an altogether new town with some sort of weird old town vibe to it. There’s a wall and some towers, but otherwise everything looks fresh and modern, like some sort of weird corporation-built suburb of Dallas. There are surprisingly a lot of towns like this in Germany. I’ll readily admit that if you’re in the Upper Palatinate, then you should definitely visit Regensburg first. But if you’ve been there already, Amberg isn’t a bad visit, though it’s certainly a small place by comparison.

Amberg has a history stretching back to the 11th century and was the site of a huge battle between France and Austria during the French Revolution. Fast forward to the modern era and it was notable as the home for the U.S. Army at Pond Barracks. The barracks closed after the end of the Cold War and transitioned to social housing.

the town hall
Remaining from the old days are the town hall and the Gothic church on the main market square, the walls and tower fortifications, and a fortified bridge that guarded water access into the city. Nearby is Walhalla, an exciting place that we missed. It was built by Bavarian King Ludwig, grandfather of the more famous Ludwig II, as a dedication to the heroes of Germany, starting with a bust of Arminius who defeated the Romans at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD. There is also a Franciscan monastery on a nearby hill which was emptied out after being struck by the Bubonic Plague, and so it goes.


looking at one of the gates
I’ve seen on various tourist sites that Nordlingen rivals Rothenburg on the cuteness and fairy-tale factor. Both of these are a lie. Rothenburg is far superior in both of those forms – closer rivals are Regensburg, Bamberg, Tubingen, and Schwabisch Hall. Nordlingen also has the stench of a brand new corporation-town, besides its huge towers and wall. The place lacks the real cobblestone streets that the other towns have, and just seems too… new, despite having recently celebrated its 1100th-year anniversary. How they managed that, I can’t tell.

That’s not to say that there are no cute parts of Nordlingen. But where Rothernburg is overrun by tourists, Nordlingen seems quite incapable of having them. As we walked around, there was a total lack of shops, cafes, and restaurants, and it came off as a very quaint and sleepy town, which is great for maybe older folks and those who are just tired of the tourist scene. In the pedestrian areas, as my wife and I were wandering around starving for a sausage, all we could find were about 100 ice cream shops. So, if you’re really into ice cream and city walls, add this town onto your agenda.

the town wall and a tower

There is a huge and impressive church with a 90-meter steeple in the city center, St. Georg’s Church. The town is also said to have one of the larger Christmas markets in the area. And of geological note, it was built near the site of a recent huge meteor impact from some 14 million or so years ago. For that reason, most of the stone in the houses of Nordlingen have traces of diamonds in them. Those must be some expensive houses!


This must have been the most exciting town on our German route and is indeed, a hard town in all to beat for its beauty. It’s a university town in Baden-Wurttemburg on the lazy Neckar River, which is filled with Stocherkahne boats – like punts with high-backed seats – that wander up and down the length of the city with people relaxing between the beautiful weeping willows that line the shores. One side of the town is situated on a steep cliff, filled with narrow allies winding between half-timbered houses. There’s an island in the center of the town which is a park stuffed with trees and trails, and finally a flat side where the train station, a large pond, and much of the housing are situated. On the old town side, there’s a castle that overlooks all the student activities that go on through the bustling little town.

Tubingen has been settled since the 12th millennium BC and was the site of a Roman fort in AD 85. The town itself came into being with the settling of the Alamanni tribe in the 6th century. The name first appears in 1191, though the castle of Hohentubingen goes back to 1078. The town is filled with historical places and was the home to many famous Germans – Freidrich Holderlin, Hegel, Friedrich Schelling, Johannes Kepler, Hermann Hesse, and let’s not forget, Alois Alzheimer. The old town survived WWII because of the lack of heavy industry and armaments and many of those people’s houses can still be seen and visited. 

a Stocherkahne boat 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

sieze the marketen!

Drinking mulled wine at the Nuremberg market
All across Europe – or at least the German influenced Europe – was the season for Christmas markets. They begin four weeks before Christmas during the time of Advent, an ancient church tradition representing the four thousand years of Earth’s history before Christ. The world is obviously older than 5,000 sum-odd years, but this is the tradition, so that’s why we keep it at four weeks and don’t let Advent-creep go on too much up to and past Halloween. The twenty-fifth is also – surprise! – not the actual date of the birth of Christ. But hey, it’s tradition and there doesn’t seem to be any reason to change it, other than to get away from the now-established Hallmark Holiday season. 

I'm writing this technically on the last week of Christmas, before 3 Kings Day comes around rears its ugly hydra head around and ushers in Orthodox Christmas. Living in a mixed Christian household, I get the best of both worlds and celebrate both Christmases, which means you, dear readers, get to celebrate both with me as I reminisce about my December travels through the Christmas markets.

There are several names for Christmas markets in Europe and more specifically in Germany where there are as many as there are varieties of wine – which come served hot at the markets. There’s the well-known name Christkindlmarkt, which is typically reserved for the Nuremberg market, where the Christ-child Himself comes down and waves His hands signaling the beginning (usually played by a local child). Then there’s the Weihnmarkt, which is the more common term for the Christmas market. This isn’t a politically correct version of Christkindlmarkt and indeed, not some sly why for the liberal atheist legion to weasel the religion out of the tradition in their all-out war that will only end when all Gods are dead (I’m told). Weihnmarkt, which many Americans think translates as “Winter Market”, actually translates to “Holy Nights Market”, directly referring to Advent. I asked a Muslim what he thought of the Christkindlmarkt once and he said it was a great place to bring the kids, but “it’s unfortunate they felt the need to change the name to Weihnmarkt so as not to offend us”. Frankly, most people in Europe don’t really care what it’s called or what activity happens in European markets as long as there's plenty of hot mulled wine to go around. I for one agree with the average European.

Because of the Christmas markets, the Advent season is one of the best and most romantic times to come to Europe, and thanks to global warming, it’s not even that cold these days. So save your mittens and grab your piping hot mulled mead and wine, here are some of the best of the winter marketen!

1. Prague, Czech Republic

Overpriced birds eye view
Prague is consistently rated as having the number one Christmas market. Despite it being in the Czech Republic, the region has had a deluge of Germanic influences, being a part and partner of German territories for over a thousand years. Though the old town square is indeed dressed up in lights, a giant, orchestra blaring Christmas tree, and wood stalls everywhere, it’s not just the market itself that wins people over. Indeed, the whole city turns into a Christmas market, as stalls and lights are put up in every square in the city, making it entirely possible to traverse the entirety of the urban area with a fresh cup of svarak – pronounced "svajack", the local word for hot wine – in hand at all times. It also brings in a lot of green and other colors to the much needed city, with all the trees barren and the sky always grey and overcast otherwise.
To beer or to wine?
Normally on the first week of Advent, there’s a huge celebration involving lighting the Christmas tree. This year, they canceled the celebration because of the threat from terrorists that never really happened. The forces of the President, in their zeal and eagerness to increase the number of supporters, decided to cancel the event to stir up some fear and loathing against the refugees, since clearly terrorists and refugees, have so much in common – neither are really at all in the Czech Republic!

The drink of choice in Prague is usually beer, but at the Christmas market, you’re forgiven for drinking a glass of mulled wine. However, the markets usually don’t have the good stuff, as I discovered the other weekend. Instead, go on to a potraviny or shop along any number of side roads in the old town. At their doors they’re often selling some more properly mulled wine for much cheaper!

2. Nuremberg

Come early and beat the crowds
Nuremberg has one of the largest Christkindlmarkts in the Continent (indeed, one of the only). As mentioned, a local dressed up as baby Jesus comes out to start it up and at nearly all times there’s a brass band playing Christmas carols on the packed square. The square has a giant monumental fountain from the 13th century on it, and it looks like a Gothic spire went missing from a local church. Perhaps it even fell from the grand Marienskirche that overlooks the site. Walking around the Marienskirche, there is a children’s market, complete with rides and more hot wine, and the market extends all the way up Marientorgraben to the train station, packed at all time with revelers and shoppers.

Bridge Over the River Pegnitz
Our drink of choice here was the hot spiced apple cider, which for Americans, isn’t the dull powdered stuff you get at Walmart, but from actual fermented apples - a proper cider. I’m not even sure why Americans think apples come from paper packets of powder, but they don't. They come from trees and are freshly picked by a desirous and nude woman.

Think to reserve a hotel nearly six months out. If you want to make a proper tour of Christmas markets and still be situated in a good-sized, not huge town, and still be in Bavaria and Franconia though, Nuremberg is a pretty good starting point, being pretty central to the region. It’s a direct train ride from all the airport cities – Munich, Frankfurt, and Berlin – and a direct, 3 hour bus ride from Prague.

3. Rothenberg, Germany

Fairy tale Christmas village of Rothenberg
Rothenberg at any time of year is a trip back in time and during Christmas it’s almost like a trip into Santa’s workshop. The place is well-known for being the center of sales and possibly production of souvenir Christmas ornaments, clocks, and spinning things year round, with a shop right on the main square devoted to it all. During the Christmas season, the town gets decked out with boughs of holly, branches and poinsettias hanging down every window where there were once balcony geraniums, each house framed with large light bulbs wrapped in pine needles. If only there were some snow in the season any more then this would be the perfect snow time getaway.

Rothenberg certainly doesn’t have the biggest Christmas market in Germany, especially since there is hardly much room in the tight pedestrian streets of the old town – the main square even is one of the smallest in Europe. But it’s certainly one of the more romantic ones, especially with its giant, sagging Christmas tree standing before the town hall which seems to fill up half the square, while stalls of souvenirs and sausages cram the tiny alleys that spider-web out from the center.

Main square of Rothenburg
Characteristic of its time-away-from-time atmosphere, nothing is modern in Rothenberg except for the rare taxi trolling through the crowds, bringing some lazy tourist to their hotel or picking them up. Don’t expect to pay for things with your credit card – except maybe your hotel room – and especially don’t expect anything to be on the Internet. Despite there being probably hundreds of hotels in the town, there are less than ten listed on Booking.com, and those are often booked up to a year in advance. But don’t worry, you can always just stay in a nearby village, which may even offer something much more romantic and much cheaper, and since the sun goes down at 4, there’s still plenty of time to enjoy the Christmas lights in Rothenberg and make it back to your hotel.

The drink of choice here is the Feuerzangenbowle. It’s a hot mulled wine, red and white, that is simply insanely delicious. Perhaps the best hot wine I’ve had in all my Christmas marketeering days – and I drink a lot! Meanwhile, the snack of choice is the Schneeball, which is a kind of cookie wrapped around itself until it comes to the size of a fist. I’m not overly impressed by the taste and it’s a real mess to eat, but you’ve got to try one when you’re in their hometown.

5. Bamberg, Germany

Bam, the father of Bamberg
One of the best surprises of my travels was the town of Bamberg. You don’t normally read about Bamberg on the main trails, usually the cities mentioned in Franconia are Rothenberg and Nuremberg. It’s a mistake though to miss out on the Bamberg Christmas market. Bamberg itself is a beautiful medieval town hugging closely the banks of the Regnitz River, pedestrian only bridges – from stone to steel – making an intricate lacework over the rushing waters. The Christmas market here is huge – almost the size of the one in Nuremberg – but the market also winds down the side streets, making it feel as warm and cozy as that of Rothenberg. It’s the best of both worlds really, and since it’s not on the primary tourist track the prices of souvenirs are quite competitive.

Neptune, the God of Christmas
Given that this was the last town I visited on my Christmas market tour, I can’t remember what I drank, but I do remember detoxing at some café near a donut shop. I was thinking fondly of donuts, since they’re hard to come by, they taste better than Schneeballen, and my stomach was still sick off eating too many of those fried doughy things. And then there was more wine, or punch, or something and oh, a guy dressed as Grandfather Frost!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

the Castle and the old town festival of Nuremberg

The Castle from Am Olberg street
From the last blog, we went around Nuremberg from the trainstation to the Tiergartentor, one of the prettiest and oldest-feeling squares in all of Nuremberg, with its tall stone tower, it's stone tunnel of a gate, and its medieval cottage style buildings crammed together. When I was there with my parents, we went to my favorite spot for coffee and strudel: Kuchlbauer's Gastehaus. As it was already cold on that cloudy and wet September day, my mom was wanting some mulled wine and my father and I - being that it wasn't noon yet - were looking out for some coffee. 

"Haben sie gluhwein?" I asked for mulled wine. 

"Was?" was the response from the waitress. "What?"

"Gluhwein?" I said, trying to pronounce it a different way. And again. And again. Finally she understood. 

"Ja ja," she said. 

"Und zwei kaffee," I said. "Haben sie americano?"


"Espresso lungo?" 

"Was? Espresso?"

"Nein, nein, espresso lungo. Um, kaffee mit wasser. Lungo. Americano."

"Was? Espresso?"

This clearly was not working.

"Fine, ja, ja." I gave up and ordered my dad and me some espresso, then went off to the restroom. When I came back up, there was a glass of red wine in front of my mom - not hot red wine, just red wine - and two espressos. Another family came in and had been served americanos, what I was trying to order. I scratched my head. Later the mystery had been unraveled - what internationally is usually known as an Americano, and what some places, like in Italy, might call an espresso lungo, they call in Germany a cafe creme. Won't make that mistake again. But despite this difficulty, the cafe remains a goto place for me, simply because of the beautiful interior and atmosphere.

From the Tiergartentor, there are two ways to continue to the castle. You can go through the city gates: a long tunnel through the city walls that winds around the moat and then another entrance in the back side of the castle complex or you can go to the main castle gates by following the staircase behind the Zum Albrecht Duhrer (or the more common path down Obere Shmiedgasse). The advantage of the moat path is that you get to see the weird little gardens down below in the greenery of the moat where locals have allotments and tend to vegetable gardens. The other path takes you above Nuremberg where you get to climb up the steep driveway of the castle and then look out over the city. Generally I prefer this path, since its more of an epic and grandiose entry into the castle, and then taking the moat path on the way back.
The Castle from the tower
The imperial castle was built back in the days back when Nuremberg was an Imperial Free City of the Holy Roman Empire. Truly, those were its glory days, when each emperor would always convene their first Diet in the city and in the Emperor’s absence the mayor got to rule the sprawling city in his stead, with no other feudal powers overseeing him. The museum itself I had been to before and there honestly isn’t much there to enjoy. It has a wonderful exhibit on the history of the Holy Roman Empire and of Nuremberg’s place in it, but you can learn the same from a history book or Wikipedia. The original building received a lot of damage from the Allied bombing campaign and the only building to survive its true form was the chapel, which is admittedly quite a gorgeous piece of stone work with three levels and a center well, allowing for the Emperor to attend mass in a nice, heated room above the second floor, undisturbed by the filthy peasantry that chose to attend down below. 

Inside the chapel
From the castle we walked down the Burgstrasse, passing on the left the nice ornamental courthouse which was not the one made famous after the fall of Nazi Germany, where the famous Nuremberg trials were held. That one is the Palace of Justice, just outside of the old town, about a 15 minute walk away. The notorious room can still be toured, but only at very specific times, since it is still an active courtroom. The furniture has all been replaced and really, there’s nothing original there, but you get to at least see the same walls that the defendants were staring at as they were condemned to death for their war crimes. Finally we made it to the Hauptmarkt, which was the main town square, with its Schoner Brunnen standing as a crown over the city. The Schoner Brunnen – literally “Beautiful Fountain”, the Germans weren’t so creative on names – was built in the 14th century and is adorned with the symbols of the Holy Roman Empire.

At the head of the Hauptmarkt is the Frauenkirche, the weirdly small and country-chapel like, yet Gothic, Catholic church built in the 14th century. I say weirdly small because from the outside it doesn’t really look that large. But once you enter, it seems fairly large, like a brick built Gothic TARDIS, but the only time travel here is in the feeling of antiquity. Most of the statues were restored after World War II, but you can at least glimpse where many of the imperial ceremonies were held in Nuremberg from the time of Charles IV and onward, and this is where the Emperor Charles IV had his son baptized. 

The Frauenkirche and Old Town festival
Also at the Hauptmarkt is where most of Nuremberg’s cultural festivities are held. In the winter, this is where the sprawling Christkindlmarkt is. But as this was in October, we were there for the Old Town Festival, thinking that this would be Nuremberg’s version of Oktoberfest. It isn’t. If you’re reading this thinking about going, then let this blog be a great let down to you. The Old Town Festival is a giant flea market, with various crafts and junk made in China and Turkey for sale. You can get things from gloves, to purses, to jackets, to spatulas here. There really was no consistent theme, and unfortunately it was equally lacking in beer. No beer. Anywhere. I was baffled. How could there be a German festival without beer? How useless! Unless you are looking for a cheap plastic spatula made in China. After our fierce and frivolous search for beer, I apologized to my father and we headed up the Konigstrasse, which was curiously lacking in pubs or bars. As our last ditch effort to have a beer before catching our bus back to Prague, we went back to the cutsey medieval looking Handwerkhof, where unfriendly women in dirndls with overflowing breasts slammed beers down on our table, the frothy head dripping over, down the sides of our plaster steins. Finally, a place to rest and relax, before getting on the 4 hour DB bus, direct to Prague.