Sweet Dreams at “Downton Abbey”

Highclere Castle is the film location for the "Downton Abbey" television series. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Highclere Castle is the film location for the “Downton Abbey” television series. ©Laurel Kallenbach

If, like me, you’re addicted to British costume drama Downton Abbey, why moon around watching past episodes? Just go for a visit and live it for real! You can see Highclere Castle’s gorgeous rooms and experience its real-life history through the eyes of your favorite TV character. You can’t help but visualize Mr. Carson presiding over the dining room or Cora Grantham having tea in the library when you’re there.

(You can also live vicariously by reading about my own personal Downton Abbey pilgrimage a couple of years ago.)

If you really want an immersion into the estate where the Downton Abbey TV series is filmed, you can now also spend the night on the property—not at the big house, but in London Lodge, accommodations built into the imposing arched entryway to Highclere Park.

London Lodge, on the Highclere estate, is built around a grand, arched entryway. Photo courtesy Highclere Castle.

London Lodge, on the Highclere estate, is built around a grand, arched entryway. Photo courtesy Highclere Castle.

London Lodge is decorated like a casual, contemporary cottage—with a sitting room, bedroom and full kitchen on one side of the archway, and the comfortable double bedroom, bathroom and dressing area on the other. London Lodge just opened in early 2015—and it’s already booked for the year!

Simply elegant, a stay at London Lodge offers a chance to stay on the Highclere grounds where there are acres of forests to ramble and lovely, expansive views of the castle from a distance. Guests can meander to Dunsmere Lake, The Temple of Diana, and tour the house and King Tut exhibit (ticket required).

Built in 1793 by the first Earl of Carnarvon, the London Lodge arch is made with Coade stone with heavy iron gates, and it frames the grand entrance used by family and visitors Highclere Castlle. The individual lodge rooms to either side were added later, probably around 1840. Over the past two years they’ve been restored by the current earl and his wife to provide unique and luxurious accommodation for two.

I haven’t been to London Lodge, but it sounds just smashing!

Written by the Countess Carnarvon, "Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Read Downton Abbey" chronicles the history of Highclere Castle during the 1920s and '30s.

Written by the Countess Carnarvon, “Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Read Downton Abbey” chronicles the history of Highclere Castle during the 1920s and ’30s.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

P.S.: If you can’t get reservations at London Lodge, you might enjoy Highclere’s 20th-century history in the books written by the Countess Carnarvon: Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey and Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey.

The second book tells the story of one of Highclere Castle’s more famous inhabitants, Catherine Wendell, a glamorous American woman who married Lady Almina’s son, the 6th Earl of Carnarvon. Catherine presided over the grand estate during the tumultuous 1920s and ’30s, a period when many of England’s great houses faded as their owners’ fortunes declined. As WWII loomed, Highclere’s survival as the family home of the Carnarvons was in the balance.

Read more of my Downton Abbey posts:

Photo of the Week: Castle Mountain, Banff National Park

Castle Mountain, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada ©Laurel Kallenbach

Driving on the Trans-Canada Highway between Banff and Lake Louise, my husband and I were treated to several miles of spectacular views of Castle Mountain, located within Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies.  A well-positioned pullover gave us the chance to stretch our legs and view this section of the scenic Bow Valley.

Read my posts about the Canadian Rockies:

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor 

Photo of the Week: A Colorful Breakfast in Jamaica

Tastes of the tropics: watermelon and star apple fruit, with grapefruit on the far platter ©Laurel Kallenbach

On a Jamaica visit, I spent a week at a yoga and creative writing retreat at Bromley, a historic estate perched high in the hills in the St. Ann area. Every morning a platter of fresh tropical fruit appeared on the table. On this day, we dove into grapefruit, watermelon and star apple fruit—along with Jamaican coffee, of course.

Read more about my travels in Jamaica:

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

 

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