Christmas Past and Present in a Medieval German Town

Esslingen’s Old Town Hall presides over the Medieval Christmas Fair. ©Esslinger Stadtmarketing & Tourismus GmbH

In an old-town square in Esslingen, Germany, a jester on stilts roams the cobblestones, stopping to juggle and pose for photos with wide-eyed children. Musicians on a stage play ancient, nasally instruments and sing bawdy songs. (Although I don’t speak German, naughty humor seems to be universal.) A woman in a long skirt and laced-up bodice carries a basket of elegant, hand-dipped candles for sale.

Colorful scenes like these unfold before me as I eat homemade suppe und brot—soup and bread—served in handmade crockery bowls in the medieval part of the Esslingen Christmas and Medieval Market.

Medieval drummers and musicians entertain in Esslingen. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Held annually from late November until December 21st, the Medieval Christmas Fair (Mittelalter-märkt) and the traditional Christmas Market have lured me to historic Esslingen am Neckar, a 1,200-year-old town near Stuttgart in southern Germany. Just a 2.5-hour train ride from modern Frankfurt, old-town Esslingen feels centuries away, with its medieval churches and colorfully painted, half-timbered houses with crisscrossed beams.

Esslingen has hosted a Christmas fair since the Middle Ages. Called Weihnachtsmärkte and Christkindlmärkte in German, Christmas markets originated as town fairs as long as a millennia ago so that villagers could stock up on supplies for the oncoming winter.

The medieval streets of Esslingen. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Esslingen is the ideal location for this annual celebration, and I’m among hundreds of delighted visitors exploring the exotic booths and huts in the costumed medieval portion of the market—while also appreciating the Christmasy atmosphere in the “contemporary” part of the market, which itself is actually quite Old World and old-fashioned.

Going Medieval

The Medieval Market—a cross between a Renaissance festival and Christmas fair—has the appeal of craftspeople dressed in period costumes demonstrating revived old art forms and trades. During my two days in Esslingen, I watch calligraphers, candle makers, blacksmiths, knife grinders, soap makers, bakers, tanners, brush- and basket-makers, and mead brewers plying their trades as they might have 700 years ago.

I linger at a number of tents and rustic huts and buy gifts: herb-scented soaps, a fudge-like Afghani sweet called shirpera flavored with cardamom, rosewater, and pistachio. (Such Middle Eastern treats came to medieval Europe via the Silk Road.)

A baker checks on fresh bread baked in a wood-fired oven. ©Laurel Kallenbach

In a special kids’ courtyard, children play Old World games such as hatchet-throwing, egg-breaking, and archery, and they ride a wooden Ferris wheel.

Give Me That Old-Time Christmas

In the traditional part of Esslingen’s Weihnachtsmärkt, rows of wooden huts (called stuben) are so thickly decorated with evergreen and pinecones I think of fairytales—the ones where the forest magically engulfs the kingdom, which sleeps for centuries. If that’s what happened in Esslingen, the town joyfully awakened to celebrate Christmas.

A fir-covered “stube” selling candy in the Christmas Market in Esslingen. ©Laurel Kallenbach

From the elaborately embellished huts, local vendors sell chocolates, pretzels, stollen, wood and glass ornaments, jewelry, and regional specialties such as handcrafted schnapps, honey, jam, and wild boar meat.

Browsing through Esslingen’s traditional Christmas market, I pause to watch as an old man in a Bavarian hat carves a bird. With fine-edged knives spread on his worktable, Helmut Höschle removes bits of wood from the feathers with a surgeon’s skill. His handiwork is quintessential Old World carving, much like the Nativity set my parents have at home—a gift from relatives who brought home figures of shepherds and the three kings decades ago from their travels in West Germany.

Gluhwein mug, Esslingen ©Laurel Kallenbach

Walking through a Christmas Market is a sensory carnival, with elaborate decorations to gaze at, special holiday foods to sample, gifts to shop for, and all manner of music and entertainment.

When you get a bit overwhelmed, it’s time for a mug of glühwein—hot, spiced wine (pronounced “gloo-vine”), which is surprisingly sweet with hints of cinnamon and citrus. It can pack a punch, too, depending how long it’s been since you ate a bratwurst or currywurst.

In Esslingen, there are several glühwein vendors. My favorite is the giant Glühwein Pyramid: an outdoor tavern topped by a giant multi-tiered “carousel” with carved motifs such as angels, snowmen, toy soldiers, or manger scenes and a propeller on top.

Closeup of the Pyramid atop the gluhwein bar. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The bar also serves beer, alcohol-free drinks, and Kinderpunsch (berry juice for kids). At German Christmas markets, you pay a deposit for the commemorative mug. I keep mine as a souvenir, but you can return the mug in exchange for your deposit.

Time Out from the Market

Thoroughly chilled and footsore from hours of exploring the old town and the markets, I take respite at a 150-year-old Schwaben restaurant (the region where Esslingen is located) called Der Palmscher Bau. 

Located in an 18th-century building, its comfort-food recipes, served in rustic-tavern ambiance, are a hit with me. The hot, creamy forest-mushroom soup thaws me out, and I love the Schwabian rostbraten (roast beef) with grilled onions and a dark sauce served with noodles and sauerkraut. (A dry Esslingen Riesling accompanies my dinner, naturally.) For dessert, I choose apple küchle, a roll-up with thin layers of dough and subtly spiced apples. Every sweet morsel gets forked into my grateful mouth.

Even a market as dramatic as Esslingen’s requires a few timeouts from the revelry. My choice: soak in the natural thermal waters at Merkel’sches Baths and Pool, about 10 minutes away from the Old Town center. The saunas, steam rooms, mineral baths, and massages are divine. (Most Germans don’t wear bathing suits except in the large sports pool. Check the schedule for women-only hours if you’re the modest type.)

Another diversion: a tour through the Kessler wine cellars to see how the oldest sparkling wine in Germany is fermented. A guide takes me down into the 13th-century vaults where bottles of the wine ferment. From the damp ceilings, cellar mold hangs like Spanish moss; it’s not cleaned away, the guide explains, because the growth absorbs stagnant air and releases oxygen, which freshens the air. After the tour, the tasting room is a revelation. I sip the 2009 Pinot Blanc, which tastes of apples and herbs in the midst of December.

The chestnut seller peels off the outer husk of the winter treat before roasting. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Grand Finale

After sunset, I pull my wool cap farther down around my ears. The smell of roasting chestnuts lures me. A man calls out to the crowd: “Heisse Marroni! Hot chestnuts!” He removes the lid off the three-foot-diameter pan and stirs the browned chestnuts, their skins popping open. I buy a paper cone of the hot nuts and gingerly peel one. My fingers blacken from handling the charred skins, but they’re warm. I pop the smoky, starchy chestnut meat into my mouth. It’s bland and dry, but everywhere people are gobbling them, so I figure it’s an acquired taste.

After dark, the Christmas Markets blazes with colored lights. In the pulse-quickening medieval streets, however, only a few are electric; the rest are flaming torches and braziers, which lend an ancient mystery and romance to the place. Musicians pound on drums while a fire-dancer snapped sparks into the air with a bullwhip.

The astronomical clock on the front of Esslingen’s Old Town Hall marks the hour with the animated flapping of the eagle’s wings. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Then the church bells peal to announce 5:00 Mass. A crowd forms around the Old Town Hall with its wedding-cake curlicues on the façade and its astronomical clock (built in 1589), which still keeps exact time and displays positions of the sun, moon, and zodiac constellations.

What everyone cranes to see is the mechanical Imperial Eagle above the clock as he flaps his wings. Even though today’s crowd wears Gore-Tex parkas and snaps pictures on cell phones, we’re collectively enthralled by the magic of an antique clock. It just goes to show that Christmas beauty and merriment have lasted for centuries … and will continue on, I hope.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Esslingen Medieval and Christmas Markets: 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. daily from late November until a few days before Christmas. Search for information on all of Germany’s picturesque Christmas markets, visit Germany: The Travel Destination.

Read more about Germany’s Christmas markets:

Helmut Höschle, a local woodcarver, works on his beautiful figures in his cheery Christmas hut. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Originally posted in December 2014

Sleep in the Straw in Switzerland

Spending the night in a Swiss barn is fun and adventurous. Photo courtesy Schlaf im Stroh

When I travel, I’m always on the lookout for unique and independently owned places to stay that will benefit the local economy. Switzerland offers a sustainable, economical, family-friendly bed-and-breakfast experience I’ll never forget: sleeping in the straw on a farm.

Switzerland’s Sleep in Straw association (it’s called Schlaf im Stroh in German) consists of 150 Swiss farms and helps travelers easily connect with the hayloft of their choice.

Bed in a Barn

At Bruffhof Farm in Switzerland’s cheese-making Emmental region, the sound of cowbells and mooing woke me at dawn. I sat up in my sleeping bag, shook the straw from my hair, and looked around the hayloft to see if my friends were up.

Bruffhof Farm, in Switzerland’s Emmenthal region, was flowering and beautiful when I visited. Photo © Laurel Kallenbach

Bruffhof is just one of Switzerland’s Sleep-in-Straw network in which visitors bed down in the barn—not with the animals, but sometimes in an adjacent area. (At most farms, restrooms and showers are located in separate buildings.)

Guests can volunteer, if they like, to help out with farm chores: collecting eggs, picking vegetables, helping milk cows. The side effects: plenty of fresh air, a lot of fun (provided your loft-mates don’t snore too loudly), and a better understanding and appreciation about where your food comes from and the hard work that farmers do.

For breakfast: fresh-baked farm rolls. The food at Bruffhof was outstanding. Photo © Laurel Kallenbach

My breakfast at Bruffhof was heavenly, with homemade bread, jam, and muesli. The cheese, yogurt, butter and honey were from the farm’s own cows and bees. “Families stay here so their children learn where food comes from,” said farmer Franz Schwarz (who spoke just a little English).

Bruffhof Farm grows organic herbs—many for the Ricola cough-drop company, based in Switzerland. The rest of the farm is certified as “Integrated Production,” a Swiss designation that allows only minimal pesticide/herbicide use. Farmer Franz and his equally hard-working wife, Rita, also raise goats and dairy cows.

How well did I sleep in the straw? Pretty well, actually. The fresh, sweet-scented hay was soft, and I managed to arrange it beneath me in a relatively comfy contour.

How Farmhouse B&Bs Work

At a Sleep-in-Straw farm, there’s always the possibility you’ll be sharing the hayloft with strangers. I traveled with a group in late September, so we had the entire sleeping area to ourselves, but if you’re traveling singly, as a couple, or with a small family in the busy summer, you’re likely to get to get acquainted with fellow snoozers from all over the world.

This beautiful, handpainted sign pointed the way to the Signer farm B&B in Switzerland’s Appenzell region. © Laurel Kallenbach

To make reservations, you choose a farm in the region of your choice and book your “sleep in straw” experience directly with the host family—they’re the ones who benefit from the fee.

(These days, running a family farm requires entrepreneurial ingenuity, and the farm owners truly need the extra income generated from this B&B program. One of the joys of staying on a farm is that you’re experiencing a different place in an authentic way—and your money goes to a great cause: the continuation of small-scale, responsible agriculture.)

It’s best to book in advance. You bring your own sleeping bag or pay a bit extra to use one of  the farm’s. Blankets are provided by the hosts. Many of them also offer pillows; if not you can always bunch up straw inside a blanket for that purpose as well.

The Details

  • Sleep in Straw: The per night fee is economical and includes breakfast. Some Sleep in Straw farms offer other amenities (such as dinners and even beds in bunkhouses) for an extra fee.
  • If you’re not comfortable communicating in German, French, or Italian (Switzerland’s three national languages) be sure to find a farm with English speakers. At Bruffhof, where the family was German speaking, it was easy communicating with hand signals, and one of the Schwarz daughters was a excellent student of English at school.

    My friends and I felt like kids at a “lofty” sleepover! © Ursula Beamish

  • Many Sleep-in-Straw farms are accessible by bicycle. Eurotrek rents bikes, maps out self-guided routes for you, and organizes daily luggage transfers between accommo-dations, including farm-stays.
  • For more information: Schlaf im Stroh (click “Catalog” for downloadable, multilingual information on the farms).

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance travel writer and editor

Originally posted in July 2013.

Read more about my travels in Switzerland:

 

Eating Raclette in a Swiss Castle

The “national” dish of the Swiss canton of Valais is raclette (AKA: pools of melted alp cheese), and the best place to eat it is the Château de Villa in the winemaking town of Sierre (not far from the cantonal capital of Sion).

Raclette is a traditional Swiss melted-cheese dish. Here, Alex Aldel scrapes the bubbly raclette onto a plate at the Château de Villa. Behind him, you can see another half-cheese heating under the raclette-oven burner. ©Laurel Kallenbach

By the way, in Switzerland I heard the dish pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable: RAH-clet. And the name is from the French word, racler: “to scrape.” (Keep reading! You’ll see why soon.)

The Château de Villa is a restored 16th-century castle, so you’re dining in ancient ambiance. The Château’s restaurant was established in the early 1950s to promote local, traditional foods: specifically Valaisian wineair-dried beef and raclette made using raw milk from alpine meadows.

The 16th-century Château de Villa in Sierre serves raclette; it also specializes in Valais wine, which it sells in its extensive wine cellar. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Château’s literature proclaims itself as “Le Temple de la Raclette,” and it’s earned the designation: Both Swiss gourmands and visitors (like me!) flock here to worship its gooey cheese. In fact, the Château de Villa is so popular that you should book a reservation a month in advance. They serve 15 tons of cheese a year!

How the Cheese Bubbles

Château de Villa offers a special tasting of five mountain-alp cheeses for 31 CHF (Swiss francs) per person. You can see on a map the tiny villages where each cheese is made.

Tonight, Alex Aldel is our racleur (the scraper of the raclette), and he can keep multiple plates going at once. He’s like a master of ceremonies; he keeps the cheese rolling. I have privately dubbed him The Cheese Meister.

The melted raclette on my plate with boiled potatoes, cornichons, pickled onion, and a small bit of the cheese’s crust. This heat-crisp crust is called “la religieuse” (the nun). ©Laurel Kallenbach

Here’s how the raclette process happens:

1. The racleur selects a half-cheese (Cheese #1) and places it under the raclette-oven burner. He also sets out a row of plates to warm.

2. He checks the cheese from time to time, watching until the surface starts to bubble. Meanwhile, he’s usually watching other varieties of cheese in process.

3. When the cheese is bubbling, the racleur uses a small knife and deftly scrapes a portion onto a plate, usually with one swoop.

4. The racleur whisks the warm plates to the table, and we diners scramble to add boiled potatoes, cornichons (teensy pickles), sourdough rye bread (another Valais specialty), and pickled onions to eat with our cheese while it’s still hot.

5. When you’ve finished your plate, the whole process starts over with Cheese #2.

Half-wheels of raclette cheese from all over the Valais region await melting. Each tastes slightly different. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Tonight, I sample nutty, buttery, toasty raclette cheeses from the Bagnes Valley, Les Haudères in the Hérens Valley, Les Marais in the Anniviers Valley, Turtmann, and the Goms Valley.

They’re all delicious. Some are mild, some more strong. I can detect differences in flavor, but honestly my palette isn’t as tuned to the distinctions as a local would be.

Martin Hannart with Sierre-Anniviers Tourism says: “We people of Valais learn how to make raclette before we learn to walk!”

And that, in a nutshell, sums up how the Swiss feel about their cheese.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally posted in October 2010

Read more about my travels in Switzerland:

Swiss Farms: The Source of World-Famous Cheese

Ask a Swiss person about the flavor of a cheese—especially the local specialty—and he or she will invariably say it depends on what the cow (or goat) is eating and where she’s eating it. Grass? Flowers? Hay? In the high-mountain pasture? Down in the valley?

The aging room at Champasse farm in the French-speaking Valais region of Switzerland. The large wheels are raclette cheese, and they’re labeled “Euseigne” (on the edge) because the farm is located near the town of Euseigne. ©Laurel Kallenbach

To truly appreciate the cheese on your plate, you need to go to the source: the farm. I visited two in the French-speaking Val d’Hérens, (the Hérens valley, famous for its black fighting cows) for a glimpse at the farm life.

Champasse Dairy

Swiss dairy farmer, Francois Morend-Gaillard ©Laurel Kallenbach

Claudia and Francois Morend-Gaillard raise diary cows about 12 miles south of Sion at Champasse Farm, near the village of Euseigne.  Their 20 red-and-white Montbèliard cows supply the milk for 14-inch wheels of handmade raclette cheeses, a regional specialty. (Read my post about how raclette is served and eaten.)

Claudia and Francois are among a new generation of farmers who are boosting their farm income with “agritourism.”

They’re also committed to sustaining themselves through farming and to caring for the land in the way of their ancestors.

Claudia Morend-Gaillard serves Champasse Farm’s cheese with fresh baguette. ©Laurel Kallenbach

They invite visitors (reservation required) to see how and where they make the cheese by hand, sample the farm’s products (including raclette, goat cheese and tommes, a smaller cow cheese), enjoy views of the lush valley, and possibly meet their three formidable Hérens cows. In 2011, they hope to build a tasting room and small restaurant at the farm.

Visitors can buy cheese from the farm for a special price of 18 CHF per kilo. The raclette is also available at shops in Sion.)

The couple make great hosts. Claudia speaks fluent English; Francois, who speaks some English, is a chain-smoking jokester who exchanged the life of a policeman for working in the mountains, tending cows, baling hay and perfecting age-old cheese-making skills. Francois looks out of his cluttered dairy shed at the sun-drenched peaks at the other end of the valley. “Holy smoke!” he quips. “Mountains!”

Ossona Farm and Gîtes

A few miles outside of the village of St. Martin is another working farm—one with historic cabins/cottages for overnight stays and a restaurant that specializes in farm cuisine made primarily from its own produce.

A cow at Ossona Farm, overlooking the Val d’Hérens. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Ossona is a private/public cooperative project between St.-Martin and farm managers Daniel Beuret and Maria Pires. Originally a farming village, Ossona became a ghost town in the 1960s as young people left this isolated area. Recently, the village of St.-Martin bought the land from and held a contest in 2003 to turn Ossona, including its 200-year-old buildings, into an agricultural project.

Ossona farmer Daniel Beuret ©Laurel Kallenbach

Daniel and Maria won the chance to fulfill their dream of creating a working farm and dairy while receiving financial support to operate the gîtes tourism.

Guests stay in rustic but beautifully situated historic houses for the week or weekend. There’s hiking throughout the alpine valley, and overnight guests can also help out with farm chores such as milking goats, making jam, helping make hay or harvesting fruit from the orchards.

“This is an ideal way to preserve farm life for future generations,” Daniel says over an espresso. (He speaks a little bit of English, but is much more comfortable with French.)

Ossona’s gîtes (country apartments) sleep four and include a kitchen, bathroom, and free WiFi. There are also nightly dorm accommodations for backpackers.

Gites with a view: Overnight guests can stay in Ossona’s historic houses. ©Laurel Kallenbach

To reach Ossona, you drive the gravel road from St.-Martin and hike downhill for about 30 minutes to the farm. (Daniel will pick up your luggage for you if necessary.) Or, you can take a bus to St.-Martin and then hike all the way to the farm.

Meals are separately priced, and I can vouch for the wonderful home cooking. (In fact, the restaurant is so popular that the day I visited a hiking club of about 30 people were having a leisurely lunch there.)

I enjoyed a garden-fresh salad and a cassoulet (baked ham, potatoes, and cheese) eaten outdoors on the sunny patio.

There’s nothing like mountain air and a farm setting to stimulate the appetite.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally published in October 2010.

Next up: Where Ricola cough drops come from (hint: from Switzerland!)

Read more about my travels in Switzerland:

Ossona’s homegrown bounty was featured in this fresh salad. ©Laurel Kallenbach