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

 

A Welsh Castle Ghost Story

In 2007, Ken and I spent two nights at the haunted Gwydir Castle in the foothills of Snowdonia, North Wales. Even though the place is called a castle, the Tudor-era structure feels more like a manor house or mansion than the towering medieval fortress ruins that dot the region.

Gwydir Castle in north Wales is a lovely bed and breakfast—and home to several ghosts.

(If you’re a castle lover, northern Wales is your dream destination.) Gwydir is a private home, a museum, and a bed-and-breakfast (with two rooms)—all historically decorated in antiques.

Yet, this charming Tudor “castle” has a ruined past. Built around 1500, it was the ancestral home of the powerful Wynn family, descended from the Kings and Princes of Gwynedd. It was rat-infested, crumbling and damp—and being used as a night club when Judy Corbett and her husband-to-be Peter Welford bought it in 1994.

There are 10 acres of gardens at the historic Gwydir Castle. Peacocks roam the grounds. At night, their haunting cries seem to call "help, help!"

(For a vividly written account of Judy and Peter’s process of bringing Gwydir Castle back to life, read Judy’s memoir, Castles in the Air.)

The couple had little money but a passion for history, so they spent years living in a construction zone doing much of the painstaking historical restoration themselves. In the process, they encountered a number of ghosts with hundreds of years worth of sitings.

Meet the Ghosts

There’s a female spirit who is reportedly a victim of her lover, one of the Wynn baronets, who stuffed her body behind the wall in a passageway—or possibly in a secret enclosure within the wall called a Priest’s Hole. (A Priest’s Hole was a hiding place for Roman Catholic priests during the turbulent Tudor years when Britain’s “official” religion vascillated between Protestantism and Catholicism, depending on the monarch.)

This behind-the-wall Priest's Hole was possibly the hiding place of a murdered mistress in the 1600s.

Many people report a foul smell in one of the house passageways—the centuries-old stench of the woman’s corpse. Ken and I smelled nothing, but the passageway certainly feels colder than the rest of the house.

There’s also a ghost of Sir John Wynn—possibly the murderer—who is often seen on the spiral staircase. Gwydir even has a ghost dog, a large one. Judy and Peter actually dug up the skeleton of a large dog years ago in the basement.

Ken and I didn’t do any actual “ghost hunting” at night. Instead, we slept cozily in our four-poster canopy bed in the Duke of Beaufort’s Chamber, a lovely large room furnished with antiques and a private bath in the hall.

Our castle room: The Duke of Beaufort's Chamber

Except for the bedrooms, the castle does not use electricity (to keep it authentic). And, at night, the alarm system is activated, so one doesn’t want to creep about and wake the whole house. Besides, why would ghosts appear only at night?

The closest I came to an apparition was when the castle’s two large lurchers (a British breed of dog I’d never heard of before) bounded through the breakfast room. A moment later, a third dog nosed through the breakfast room door and streaked across the room. But, there were only two dogs that I knew of! Could the third have been the ghost dog wanting to join the living pair in play?

Malevolent Lady Margaret

The wisteria-surrounded doorway into the B&B section of Gwydir Castle

There is (or at least was) one sinister spirit at Gwydir Castle, a woman who haunted Judy for months early during the renovation. Lady Margaret followed Judy everywhere and triggered a series of “accidents” apparently intended to harm Peter.

Fortunately, Lady Margaret Cave—whose good nature darkened radically after the birth of her son in the early 1600s—has not appeared since. She was married to the philanderer Sir John Wynn, so perhaps being married to him sent her into an eternal rage against the man of the house.

Dream Come True: Sleeping in a Castle

There’s nothing nightmarish about staying at Gwydir. In fact, spending two days among its archways, mullioned and wisteria-covered windows, and Tudor-style beams was a dream come true. It’s a little like sleeping in a museum—a fantasy of mine since I was 10 and read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

The dining room is lavishly restored with its original wood panels, which were spirited off to America by William Randolph Hearst in the 1920s.

The castle dining room has a story so long and fascinating I can’t even go into it here. Suffice it to say that its glorious Tudor panels were bought by William Randolph Hearst in the 1920s and stored at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for decades. Now they’re magnificently back in the castle.

Gwydir Castle is three miles from the resort town of Betws-y-Coed and 12 miles from the medieval walled town of Conwy, so it’s a great B&B to stay at while exploring the North Wales castles. It’s also within walking distance of the market town of Llanrwst, which has train and bus connections plus several good restaurants and pubs.

Gwydir Castle is open to the public (admission fee) March through October. Check for times.

P.S. I highly recommend Judy Corbett’s book, Castles in the Air: The Restoration Adventures of Two Young Optimists and a Crumbling Old Mansion (Random House, UK, 2004). I bought a copy while staying at the castle, and I read it on train rides across Wales and on the plane home.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Spooky Postscript

In gathering photos for this blog entry, I noticed that a number of them have round, ghostly patches of light. At first I thought they were shiny flash spots or reflections, yet most of them are against backgrounds with no reflective surfaces. Then I thought they might be dust motes or raindrops on the camera lens.

But they appear in indoor photos and those taken on sunny days. Could they be blobs of ectoplasm? Were Gwydir’s spirits dancing around us?

You decide. Let me know what you think by leaving a comment below.

Here I am in the lovely breakfast room. Note the halo around the unlit candlestick behind me. For comparison, the candle on the table is lit—and has a simple glow. Methinks there's a spirit lurking.

Gwydir Gate, with some white, round lights. Are they ghost entities or merely raindrops on the camera lens?

Glass Sculptures Bloom at the Denver Botanic Gardens

"Summer Sun," a glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly, at the Denver Botanic Gardens ©Laurel Kallenbach

Late summer is a great time to visit the Denver Botanic Gardens, and until the end of November, the gardens features an exhibit of glass art created by Dale Chihuly.

My husband and I attended on a warm, sunny September day and reveled in the late-summer colors—golds, yellows, reds—as the flowers have a last hurrah before the coming cold weather.

Chihuly’s somewhat avant-garde glass sculptures are integrated into the floral color schemes of various gardens and ponds. They sometimes augment the flora—but more often eclipse it, usually being bolder and brighter than the foliage around it. That was OK by me, although I did still appreciate the less flashy shows of dahlias, black-eyed susans, mums, cacti, and more.

A stunner, “Summer Sun,” was possibly my favorite of the glass sculptures with its spherical nest of spirally, curly-cue, fire-colored branches, both treelike and solar.

"Float Boat" is a rowboat full of playful glass bubbles. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Water art was likewise appealing. The Monet Pool, with its stately water lilies, featured a whimsical rowboat overflowing with brilliant, swirl-colored bubbles. Nearby, the Japanese Garden pool was the location of a sapphire-colored amphibious boat, with onion-shaped “bobbers” in the water.

Wandering from sculpture to sculpture was a treat—especially after a week of dreary rain. So, a Sunday afternoon stroll in the sunshine was welcome respite—and the glass was certainly photogenic. Lots of other people had the same idea, so at times there were crowds, which abated about the same time as kickoff for the Denver Broncos game.

Dazzling dahlias at the Denver Botanic Gardens ©Laurel Kallenbach

I hear a reliable rumor that nighttime is an even more breathtaking time to visit the Chihuly exhibit at the Denver Botanic Gardens; lighting on the glass would be even more impressive.

I’m checking the calendar now to plan that after-dark excursion.

Green at the Gardens

A few words about the sustainability aspects of the Denver Botanic Gardens. First, its Visitor Center is powered by a solar photovoltaic array located on the roof. The array currently in place produces 10,000 watts, one third of the Gardens’ planned total. Ultimately, the solar system will be enlarged to produce 30,000 watts of solar panels, enough to completely power six Denver homes. This will reduce CO2 emissions from burning coal for power by 90,000 pounds per year.

"Polyvitro Crystal Tower" and "Blue Crystals" by Dale Chihuly ©Laurel Kallenbach

Another eco-friendly aspect of the Gardens is that it showcases water-efficient gardening practices—important in Colorado and the West, where water is a precious resource.

A number of gardens are created with climate-appropriate, low-water plants. Several gardens require no irrigation at all. Visitors can get tips from the Botanic Gardens on how to practice water-efficient gardening in their own yards.

The Dale Chihuly “Garden Cycle” glass exhibit will run at the Denver Botanic Gardens through November 30, 2014.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

 

Bampton, England: Film Location for “Downton Abbey”

St. Mary's church in Bampton, Oxfordshire, is a film location for the Downton Abbey TV show. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The spires of Highclere Castle set the elegant tone of the PBS Masterpiece TV series Downton Abbey (see my post: “My Pilgrimage to the Real Downton Abbey”) but fans of the show want to know more. Anytime one of the show’s characters has business in Downton village, the Oxfordshire town of Bampton gets its turn in the spotlight.

So far, a fair, two weddings, and a funeral are among the big events filmed in Bampton, just 20 miles west of the city of Oxford. When my husband and I discovered that the National Trust cottage we rented for three days was just 15 minutes away, we were ecstatic that we could see another piece of Downton Abbey lore.

A Photogenic Church

We arrived in town just about teatime, parked in the market square, and had tea and scones at the Bampton Coffee House. There we got directions, but as we left, the church bells began tolling exuberantly.

Bampton's church has been the setting of Grantham family weddings. ©Laurel Kallenbach

We simply followed their sound as we wandered down pretty Church Street until we arrived at St. Mary the Virgin, a 12th-century parish church with Romanesque architecture. No doubt about it: this was the church where Lady Edith took Matthew sightseeing during Downton Abbey’s season 1—when she was hoping he would woo her instead of her sister Mary.

The church’s TV-land alter-ego is St. Michael’s and All Angels, and its interior and exterior have appeared on American tellies most famously as the scene of Lavinia’s burial (season 2), Mary and Matthew’s nuptials (season 3), and Edith’s jilting at the altar (also season 3).

On the August afternoon we visited, the church bells were pealing for a real wedding. We watched as the bride and groom had some last photos taken before braving the gauntlet of rice-throwing wedding guests and into a vintage Rolls Royce.

I’m standing at the gate where Lady Mary entered the churchyard for her wedding to Matthew Crawley. ©Ken Aikin

Then Ken and I wandered inside the church as the wedding candles were extinguished and the flower arrangements carried away. The sanctuary has a lovely pipe organ, elegant stone arches, vaulted ceiling, stained glass, and ornate pews. (We also picked up a free, photocopied guide of Downton Abbey locations in Bampton, which helped us with the rest of our impromptu tour.)

Outside, the little churchyard is dotted by lichen-covered tombstones and a few red-berried hawthorns. We speculated that Matthew and Mary would be wed in this church—but we had to wait until January 2013 to confirm that.

Strolling with the Granthams and Crawleys

Churchgate House, the exterior film site for the Downton village home of Isobel Crawley. ©Laurel Kallenbach

All the Downton Abbey scenes filmed in Bampton are confined to the picturesque Church View lane, a row of old buildings, houses, and stone walls. Right beside the church is Churchgate House, which serves as the exterior for the Crawley house where Isobel and Matthew lived in seasons 1 and 2. (The interiors are filmed elsewhere.)

This bench shows up in a number of Downton Abbey episodes. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Just outside the churchyard walls is the church green—with a huge tree and park bench that often shows up in the TV series. This area was the setting for the fair, which was featured in a season 1 episode in which Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper, met an old beau.

Next comes the Bampton Library, which for TV’s purposes sheds its literary facade and poses as a medical building. The library is the exterior for Downton Hospital where Dr. Clarkson treats villagers and the wounded soldiers during WWI.

Bampton Library, just down the block from the church, serves as the exterior for Downton Hospital. ©Laurel Kallenbach

So, when Mrs. Hughes walks up to the hospital for her cancer checkup, that’s Bampton’s library you see. If it’s open, visitors can go in; the library sells souvenir postcards there.

Finally we ambled down Church View Road, noticing doorways that become the Downton Post Office and the Dog & Duck pub. It’s fun seeing locations that look vaguely familiar…but not quite. After we returned to the States, we watched reruns of the early episodes and paused the DVD player so we could see spots where modern fire hydrants were covered by bushes or fake postboxes to complete the early-20th-century look.

Bampton's Church View Lane gets used in numerous shots. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Before the Downton Abbey craze hit, Bampton was a sleepy town known for its morris dancers (traditional folk dancers who wear bells on their shins), its May flower-garland festival, and the colony of swifts that nests in the village every summer. Bampton was quiet when we visited, but with the show’s popularity, occasional tour buses now stop there.

Bampton, in Oxfordshire, is a beautiful village. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Bampton, one of England’s oldest towns, has a number of pubs, inns, and B&Bs, so it would be a nice place to spend a few days. (It’s within an easy drive or bus ride from other quaint Oxfordshire Cotswold villages such as Burford, Lechlade-on-Thames, and Minster Lovell, so there’s plenty to do in the area.)

Who knows, if you visit Bampton this spring, you might be there during the next season’s filming!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

For more information, check out Visit Oxfordshire’s website.