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 (Mittelaltermärkt) and 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: Nov. 25–Dec. 21, 2014. 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. daily. Search for information on all of Germany’s picturesque Christmas markets, visit Germany: The Travel Destination.

Read about other Christmas Markets:

Christmas Market Dazzles in Wiesbaden, Germany 

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

 

Scottish & Sustainable: A Farm B&B Near the Callanish Stones

What could be better than spending three days at the mystical Callanish Stone Circle on Scotland’s picturesque Isle of Lewis? Staying three nights at the nearby Leumadair Guest House, a charming farm B&B where I could see the famous Callanish stones from my bedroom window.

Leumadair Guest House in Callanish, Scotland, is a small farm that takes in visitors. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I couldn’t have chosen a better spot for my visit: the price is reasonable; rooms are homey and nicely furnished; breakfast is outstanding. And this B&B is eco-friendly to boot.

Leumadair is ideal for travelers visiting the Callanish standing stones and other nearby attractions, such as the Doune Carloway Broch Iron-Age tower  and the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village.

I chose not to rent a car, which made Leumadair all the more perfect: it was just a short walk to the main stone site, and not much farther to a couple of the smaller prehistoric circles in the area.

Modern Comforts in an Ancient Landscape

After spending days out in the brisk Scottish air (no rain while I was there), coming back to Leumadair was a slice of heaven. One of the advantages of staying in a farmhouse B&B is that you sleep so peacefully: nights are quiet and dark—so if you have a clear sky you can stargaze or moongaze without light pollution.

Leumadair B&B is located very near the Callanish Standing Stones on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland ©Laurel Kallenbach

Also, owners Donald and Nita Macleod took very good care of me—something you appreciate when you’re traveling singly. There was always plenty of conversation with Donald or the other guests.

And Donald knows so much about this region and is an excellent source of historical and cultural knowledge. He helped facilitate my private tours of the standing stones with local archaeo-astronomer Margaret Curtis, who has studied the stone’s alignment for decades.

My comfy room at Leumadair was spotless, and it had a convenient, very modern ensuite bathroom—and two bunk beds that I didn’t use, but which would have been handy for a family. (The regular single/double rooms were already booked.)

Waking up after a good night’s sleep means something good’s going to happen: an incredibly delicious breakfast awaits. Leumadair’s features fresh eggs (from the chickens that wander about the property—they’re very free-range!) cooked the way you like them, and bacon and sausage from Donald and Nita’s own hogs. The sautéed mushrooms and tomatoes add pleasant flavor, and if you’re up for an adventure, try the Stornoway black pudding. In general, I’m not a huge fan of black pudding (aka blood sausage), but this was blended with herbs and onions and was quite tasty.

I couldn’t say no to the toast either—not with an array of Nita’s homemade jams and marmalade calling to me. I topped it off with Fair Trade teas or coffee. Breakfast was a feast that fueled me for hours of wandering the moors to see stone circles.

Walking through History

Walking from Leumadair B&B to Callanish, I passed a number of photogenic old houses, some in ruins. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Another huge asset for staying at Leumadair—besides its comforts and friendly hosts—was that I could visit the stones during the early morning or late afternoon—after the tour bus mobs have gone home. These times also happen to be when the sunlight is prettiest on the stone circle.

From Leumadair Guest House, the walk to the main Callanish Stones Circle takes 15 to 20 minutes on scenic roads. One morning as I was ambling up the hill to the stones, I encountered local crofters shearing their blackface sheep, using hand shears. I stayed for a bit to watch this snippet of Lewis culture.
 The farmers bantered and made jokes, although the sheep looked none too keen on being trussed and shorn.

Sheep shearing on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland ©Laurel Kallenbach

Leumadair’s Sustainable Efforts:

  • Recycles
  • Composts kitchen waste (and feeds leftover to the pigs, chickens, and dogs)
  • Uses energy-saving CFL lighting
  • Grows and raises some of its own food
  • Additional food is locally sourced
  • Serves Fair Trade tea and coffee
  • Bedroom furniture is crafted from reclaimed wood
  • Is equipped with low-flow toilets and showerheads
  • Uses eco-friendly cleaning products

And just as important as these efforts, the Macleods are good stewards of the land. They raise “heirloom” farm breeds: Highland cattle and Gloucester Old Spot Pigs. Donald grew up on this island, and he loves its landscape, history, and prehistory. He cares deeply about bringing visitors here to support the economy of the island, while also doing so sustainably.

Even if you’re not staying at Leumadair B&B, you might be interested to know that it runs a Sunday coffee shop/restaurant, called Pol’s Place (named after Donald’s Harris hawk). It’s open only on Sundays, when the Callanish Visitor Centre and many other island businesses are closed.

Logistics for Reaching Leumadair B&B: Whether you fly to the Isle of Lewis or ride the ferry (with or without car), you arrive in the island’s primary town: Stornoway. I flew from Glasgow International Airport, which takes less than an hour to reach this remote island. After a quick taxi ride from the little Stornoway airport to the Stornoway bus station, I hopped on the public bus. Thirty minutes later, this bus dropped me off at the Leumadair Guest House driveway. Couldn’t be simpler! (They also make a stop at the Callanish Visitor Centre. )

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

For more information on traveling in Scotland, click on Visit Scotland or Visit Isle of Lewis.

Related posts:

We’re Crazy for Coconut’s Fish Café on Maui

I have a confession to make: I’m nuts about Coconut’s, a casual fish eatery in Kihei, Maui. In fact, Ken and I so loved the fish tacos that we ate them for dinner twice during our vacation.

Coconut's Fish Café, in Kihei, Maui, serves fresh fish in a casual setting. ©Laurel Kallenbach

With fresh-caught local fish and from-scratch cooking, Coconut’s Fish Café gets it right. The locals know it, and so do some tourists, so this restaurant in a strip mall on South Kihei Road is nearly always hopping. Not a problem: folks share the surfboard tables inside and the picnic tables outside.

Although Coconut’s legendary fish tacos aren’t the only thing on the menu—I was tempted by the fish and chips—they’re irresistible. Here’s why: you get two tacos (one per plate) served open rather than folded. On top of two corn tortillas are grilled chunks of mild-flavored mahi and ono, wedges of mango, grated cheddar, a special sauce concocted from 17 different herbs and spices, and a pile of shredded lettuce and tomato. The tacos are served with a wedge of lemon and your choice of hot sauces. The price: $12 (in November 2013).

Folks flock to Coconut's for fresh fish tacos. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Also on the menu are grilled fish burgers, fish plates (grilled the way you like it, including blackened, Asian, or Cajun), garlic ribeye steak sandwiches, veggie tacos, coconut shrimp and more.

Fast, Casual, Incredible

Coconut’s Fish Café (which is named for the owners’ white-and-black cat) has a motto: fresh, local, simple, reasonably priced. While some Maui visitors might pass it over for a fancier restaurant, we loved the shorts-and-flip-flops dress code and the surfer ambiance. And it’s relatively quick.

The restaurant is named for the owners' white-and-black cat, who loves fish. ©Laurel Kallenbach

You line up and order at the counter, then sip your local beer and watch vintage family surfer videos while you wait for your cooked-to-order food. This truly suited us: after a long day of snorkeling, we’d be ravenous by 6 p.m., and the thought of getting dressed up and driving to a restaurant where there might be a 20-minute wait to be seated was unbearable.

And don’t be deceived by Coconut’s casual setting: Zagat’s gives the café a rating of 27 (on a scale of 30), which classifies it as “Extraordinary to Perfection.” I don’t think it’s possible to get a better fish taco on the island.

I loved the fish tacos and the old-fashioned surfboard tables.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

P.S. Healthy & Earth-Friendly Too

There’s even more to love: Besides being locally owned and dedicated to serving homemade, mostly local food (with some gluten-free options), Coconut’s uses biodegradable to-go containers and cleans with earth-friendly products. Plus, all of its cooking oil is recycled into biofuel.

 

 

 

Wisconsin Fish Boil: Local Food with Local Flair

Door County's eco-friendly White Gull Inn serves a local fish boil on Fridays in winter.

Door County's eco-friendly White Gull Inn serves a local fish boil on Fridays in winter.

A local culinary tradition that stems from Door County’s Scandinavian settlers, a fish boil is a concoction of history and culture on a plate. Caught by local fishermen, the Lake Michigan whitefish is cooked outside over an open fire—and half the fun is watching it happen.

My friends and I attended the Friday night fish boil at the White Gull Inn in the town of Fish Creek. When we arrived, the whole red potatoes had already been boiling for a couple of hours over the fire right outside. However, soon they announced that it was time for the fish to go onto the fire, so I bundled up and braved the cold outside to watch. (Even though the flames are warm, the mercury on the thermometer hovered at 11 degrees the night of my fish boil dinner.)

Tom Christianson, the Masterboiler for White Gull Inn for 13 years, lowered a pot filled with chunks of whole fish into the boiling, salted water. Over the 10 minutes that the fish cooks, the fish oil rises to the top of the water. That’s the Masterboiler’s cue to splash kerosene on the fire, which causes the flames to soar (very dramatic on a dark, wintry night!). The super-hot flames make the pot of fish boil over so that the fish oil spills out, and the result is a less fishy taste for the remaining fish.

Curious note: Masterboiler Tom looks like Santa wearing civvies. Could he be moonlighting in Door County? He claims to live in Green Bay, Wisconsin—but can we be sure it’s not the North Pole?

Tom Christiansen throws kerosene on the fire to boil off the fish oils in the pots.

Tom Christianson throws kerosene on the fire to boil off the fish oils in the pots.

Chow Time

After Tom and helpers took dinner off the fire, it was time to go through the buffet line and fill my plate with fish, red potatoes, wintry cole slaw (super fresh, with tangy onion and crunchy cabbage) and lemon. Teapots with melted butter awaited at the table.

When I sat down, I looked in wonder at my fish dinner—the perfect locavore meal. (I was also drinking an Island Wheat beer, which is light in flavor and in its environmental footprint, as it’s made from wheat grown on Door County’s Washington Island.)

The White Gull Inn staff serves up the just-cooked potatoes and fish.

The White Gull Inn staff serves the just-cooked potatoes and fish.

Then I had to come to grips with one of my childhood phobias: fish bones. Nervously I eyed my plate, but just before I panicked, a very nice lady came to our group’s table and offered to de-bone the fish! I breathed a sigh of relief as she deftly peeled out the big bones. (In truth, a few tiny ones remained, so I did have to pick my way around those—but at least I was able to enjoy the flaky, sweet meat.)

To top off the meal: gooey and sweet/tart Door County cherry pie. Mmmm…

Eco-Kudos for White Gull Inn

Though I didn’t stay there, the White Gull Inn looks to be a quaint and comfy B&B, and it’s also earned high scores from Travel Green Wisconsin. Some of its environmentally conscious measures include:

  • Serves local and organic food products
  • Use of energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs
  • Recycling program
  • Dining room provides water on request only

Voice your opinion: What’s been your favorite local food tradition?

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance travel writer