Holy Week Processions in Antigua, Guatemala

Antigua, Guatemala, is a stunningly beautiful colonial town with cobbled streets, glorious cathedrals and colorful markets filled with exquisite Mayan textiles. In 2008, I was lucky enough to spend a number of days in Antigua during Lent.

It must be quite an honor to take the center position at the head of the float. That man or woman carries the float with their arms spread wide in a position reminiscent of a crucifixion. ©Laurel Kallenbach

It must be quite an honor to take the center position at the head of the float. That man or woman carries the float with their arms spread wide in a position reminiscent of a crucifixion. ©Laurel Kallenbach

On Sundays throughout Lent, there are 10-hour processions up and down the streets of Antigua. They usually start at 1:00 in the afternoon and last until 11:00 at night.

This small float is probably Mary Magdalene. The sousaphone behind her is another band of musicians. ©Laurel Kallenbach

This small float is probably Mary Magdalene. The sousaphone behind her is another band of musicians. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Hundreds of participants dress in regal robes and carry gigantic floats (andas) as onlookers watch. The floats are filled with sculptures of Jesus dragging the cross, the Virgin Mary looking beatific, and scores of angels playing herald trumpets.

Antigua has one of the most elaborate Holy Week (Semana Santa) celebrations in the Americas, and the city’s hotels are filled to bursting throughout the week.

For Semana Santa, carpets of sawdust paintings fill the streets as the processions walk through; that doesn’t happen on Lenten Sundays, but would be quite a sight. (A small sample of a sawdust carpet was preserved in the cathedral, and it was amazingly intricate and colorful.)

Mary, the Queen of Heaven looks mournfully down upon the spectators while women shoulder the burden of her holiness. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Mary, the Queen of Heaven looks mournfully down upon the spectators while women shoulder the burden of her holiness. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Some of the floats weight as much as 3 tons, so it takes quite a few people to bear them on their shoulders. The float-bearers take shifts to spell each other, but they all keep shuffling slowly through the streets to the dirges played by marching musicians.

I watched the procession four times along various streets. Because the parade moves so slowly, it was easy to watch it pass, then walk six or eight blocks around the route, and catch the whole pageant somewhere else.

The final time I saw the procession pass by was from the window of a restaurant at about 8 p.m. In the dark, the floats were lit and had a different aura than they did by day. Night or day, the procession is quite a spectacle.

Many of the celebrants were boys in their early teens, all wearing robes?either purple (the color of the Passion) or white like shepherds. Some wore pointed hoods that remind Americans of the Ku Klux Klan. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Many of the celebrants were boys in their early teens, all wearing robes?either purple (the color of the Passion) or white like shepherds. Some wore pointed hoods that remind Americans of the Ku Klux Klan. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The parade begins with blocks of processing boys and men in robes, hoods and cassocks. That’s followed by altar boys swinging the incense burners. The streets of Antigua fill with the smoky aroma, turning the entire city into a cathedral-like setting.

Then comes the massive float with Jesus carrying the cross over his shoulder. This is followed by musicians.

Next, the Virgin Mary float arrives, borne by women in somber gray and black dresses with lace on their heads. Although the Virgin Mary float is smaller, it’s impressive to see women in heels and skirts carrying what is still a massive burden.

All the locals take these processions very seriously—even mournfully. Bystanders in their jeans and flip-flops (or Mayan clothes if they’re visiting from a small village) gaze meaningfully at the floats. The participants are all very proud and solemn about their jobs.

However, there’s also an air of festivity: hawkers sell cotton candy, toys and sodas. As you’re in the large crowds, you’re shoulder-to-shoulder with other bystanders on the sidewalks trying to glimpse the floats and take photos.

Cotton candy and balloons added to the celebration of the Holy Week procession. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Cotton candy and balloons added to the celebration of the Holy Week procession. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Pickpockets make a healthy living on procession days. Although I felt nothing, for some reason I looked down at my fannypack and noticed the zipper was open—not the way I left it. I checked, and the only thing missed was the granola bar that I had tucked in at the last moment on top.

A friend of mine was not so fortunate. Her wallet disappeared from her purse, but fortunately her passport was safely back in the hotel safe.

Watching the processions made me truly feel like I had sampled a bit of the local culture of Guatemala, a fervently Catholic—and Mayan—country.

Women wearing heels carry the Virgin Mary float through Antigua's bumpy, cobblestone streets. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Women wearing heels carry the Virgin Mary float through Antigua’s bumpy, cobblestone streets. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Laurel Kallenbach, writer and editor

Read more about my travels in Guatemala:

Originally published in April 2009

Banner carriers in the Holy Week procession, Antigua, Guatemala ©Laurel Kallenbach

Banner carriers in the Holy Week procession, Antigua, Guatemala ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Vibrant Women of Guatemala

I visited Guatemala in 2008 for a writing and yoga retreat, held at a yoga center on stunningly gorgeous Lake Atitlán, which is surrounded by volcanoes. A Nahuatl word, Atitlán means “the place where the rainbow gets its colors,” and the Maya believe Lago de Atitlán is the umbilicus of the Universe—the birthplace of the soul.

I soon discovered that the soul of Guatemala lies in the strength and creativity of the women whom I met and photographed.

This woman, wearing a traditional Mayan hat, met our water taxi at the dock of the town of Santiago Atitlán. Widowed during the Guatemalan Civil War, she supports herself by selling her beadwork to tourists. © Laurel Kallenbach

This woman, wearing a traditional Mayan hat, met our water taxi at the dock of the town of Santiago Atitlán. Widowed during the Guatemalan Civil War, she supports herself by selling her beadwork to tourists. © Laurel Kallenbach

Years after taking these photos, I’m still awestruck by the colorful clothing and warm, wise faces of these women, many of whom speak the traditional Tz’utujil language.

Many of the women I met live in Santiago Atitlán, a thriving town that’s accessible by water taxi from other parts of the lake. The majority of the residents are indigenous Mayans. In pre-Columbian times, this was the capital of the Tz’utujil people, a Mayan sub-culture.

Our group visited the parish church in Santiago ©Laurel Kallenbach.JPG

Our group visited the Church of Santiago Apostol, a Catholic church in Santiago Atitlán, where these three girls giggled at meeting us American women. ©Laurel Kallenbach

While visiting, I got a chance to meet and photograph a few of Guatemala’s indigenous women artists who make the most amazing textiles on the planet. Most of them support their families by creating beautiful weavings in the ancient Maya tradition.

It’s courteous to pay a small amount of money to photograph a women wearing an ornately embroidered huipil blouse. And I loved taking a picture of women whose handiwork I bought. Doing so helps me remember each individual face that goes along with the scarves, tablecloths, and purses I purchased. That year for Christmas, many friends and family members got a beautiful, handmade souvenir from my trip to Guatemala—along with the accompanying snapshot of its respective creator.

Tour guide Dolores Ratzan Pablo wears a "huipil" embroidered with Guatemalan birds. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Tour guide Dolores Ratzan Pablo wears a traditional head-covering and “huipil” embroidered by her mother with Guatemalan birds. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Handcrafting textiles isn’t the only way indigenous Guatemalan women support themselves and their families. On our trip to visit Santiago Atitlán, our group hired tour guide Dolores Ratzan Pablo, who speaks Spanish, Tz’utujil, and English.

Dolores lived for several years in America after she and her then-husband, shaman Martín Prechtel, fled the pueblo during the violent Guatemalan civil war to live in the United States. Dolores shared her insights into the culture of Santiago Atitlán, including the unique fusion of Catholicism and ancient Maya religion. She took us to the Church of Santiago Apostol, the shrine of the Mayan “trickster” deity, Maximón (who drinks liquor and smokes cigars), and to the  workshop of her mother (pictured below), who creates fantastic works of textile art.

The mother of Dolores Ratzan Pablo wove this red table runner that I bought. © Laurel Kallenbach

The mother of Dolores Ratzan Pablo wove this red table runner that I bought. She had her own humble shop in Santiago Atitlán where she displayed all her textile art and demonstrated the backstrap loom. © Laurel Kallenbach

Many of the women in Santiago Atitlán were affected by brutal, government-backed violence during Guatemala’s civil war, which lasted from 1960–1996. Indigenous people in the highlands of Guatemala were especially at risk. In 1981, Roman Catholic priest Stanley Rother (from the United States), was assassinated by right-wing death squads. In 1990, the Guatemalan Army opened fire on a crowd of unarmed civilians.

These Mayan women came to Villa Sumaya, the yoga retreat center on Lake Atitlán to sell their artwork. © Laurel Kallenbach

These Mayan women came to Villa Sumaya, the yoga retreat center on Lake Atitlán to sell their artwork. © Laurel Kallenbach

Though many women sell their textiles at the town mercado (market), some take their work to places where tourists come. The women above got permission to bring some of their best work to Villa Sumaya, a retreat and wellness center located in Santa Cruz la Laguna on the shores of Lake Atitlán. I have one of their brilliant-blue woven cloths on my dining-room table.

Women carrying their wares on the streets of Antigua ©Laurel Kallenbach

Women carrying their wares on the streets of Antigua ©Laurel Kallenbach

After leaving Lake Atitlán, I spent a couple of days in the colonial town of Antigua, where visitors can find bright, indigenous clothing, popular over centuries, alongside fancy modern hotels. As you can see from the picture above, some spots in the old Spanish part of town still have cobblestone roads. Boutiques often sell traditional Maya handicrafts, but there are also textile cooperatives where women can display their art in a large space.

Weaver woman in Antigua ©Laurel Kallenbach

Woman weaving on a traditional Guatemalan backstop loom in Antigua ©Laurel Kallenbach

At Trama Textiles Cooperative in Antigua, I watched this woman weaving on a traditional  backstrap loom (see above). The loom is light and portable so that she can work in a tiny, single-room house. The loom, often made with sticks and rope, is easy rolled up when not in use.

Trama Textiles Co-op consists of about 400 women, forming 17 groups of weavers from five different regions in the western part of the Guatemalan highlands. It’s an association of women that promotes artisan development in backstrap loom weaving as a way of providing women with a livelihood in a country with a high rate of crime and violence against women and children.

These women are carrying a float during a Holy Week procession in Antigua, Guatemala. ©Laurel Kallenbach

These women are bearing a religious float of Mary, Queen of Heaven, during a Holy Week procession in Antigua, Guatemala. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I happened to be in Antigua for Semana Santa (Holy Week) in 2008, so I got to see the grand procession in the streets of this Spanish-colonial town (founded in 1542), which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Though men are typically float-bearers, the floats of female saints and the Virgin Mary are the domain of the women. What strength and faith!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about my journeys in Guatemala:

Market beneath the ruins of El Carmen Church in Antigua ©Laurel Kallenbach

This open-air market in Antigua is at the feet of the ruins of El Carmen Church, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The church was built and destroyed by earthquakes several times over the centuries. ©Laurel Kallenbach

 

 

A Museum of Her Own: Women Artists Shine in Washington D.C.

 If you’re visiting Washington, D.C. for the Women’s March—or for any other reason—take time to bask in the vibrant National Museum of Women in the Arts, an entire building devoted to female-created paintings, sculpture, photography, book-art, multimedia art, and film through the centuries.

Closeup of Frida Kahlo's "Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky"

Closeup of Frida Kahlo’s “Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky.” See details below. ©Laurel Kallenbach

A few blocks off the National Mall, this museum is a gem—and it doesn’t attract the huge crowds that the Smithsonian Museums do, which makes it pleasant—though I wish this museum were better known. Every time I’m in Washington, I set aside time to visit and see some of my favorite permanent pieces as well as the unique temporary exhibitions.

I also support this museum by buying an annual membership, which gains me free access. The National Museum of Women in the Arts is, after all, the only museum in the world dedicated exclusively to recognizing the achievements of female artists.

With its collections, exhibitions, and programs, the museum advocates for better representation of women artists and addresses the gender imbalance in the presentation of art by bringing to light important women artists of the past—while promoting great women artists working today. Here are a few highlights from one of my recent trips:

Judith Leyster (1609–1633) 

Yes, you read the dates correctly! Judith Leyster was a Dutch woman who lived before Vermeer and was a contemporary of Rembrandt.

"The Concert" by Judith Leyster, was painted circa 1633.

“The Concert” by Judith Leyster, was painted circa 1633. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Leyster established her painting career independently and was the first woman admitted to Haarlem’s prestigious Guild of St. Luke. She was also the first woman to maintain a workshop with students and to actively sell art on the open market. In The Concert (pictured here), the sitter on the left has been identified as her husband, and the central figure may be the artist herself.

Frida Kahlo (1907–1954)

Like many Mexican artists working after the Revolutionary decade that began in 1910, Kahlo was influenced in her art and life by the nationalistic fervor known as Mexicanidad.

"Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky" by Frida Kahlo, 1937

“Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky” by Frida Kahlo, 1937. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The artists involved in this movement rejected European influences and favored a return to the country’s native roots and folk traditions.Kahlo often wore the distinctive clothing of the Tehuantepec women in southwest Mexico; she also looked to pre-Columbian art and Mexican folk art for forms and symbols in her paintings.

The compositional elements of the stage and curtains, for example, draw upon Mexican vernacular paintings called retablos, devotional images of the Virgin or Christian saints painted on tin, which Kahlo collected.

Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky (1937, oil on Masonite) commemorates the brief affair Kahlo had with the exiled Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky shortly after his arrival in Mexico in 1937.

In this painting, she presents herself elegantly clothed in a long, embroidered skirt and fringed shawl. She holds a bouquet of flowers and a letter of dedication to Trotsky that states, “with all my love.” Although this isn’t one of Kahlo’s more visceral images, it’s still amazing to see the work of the great maestra.

"La Llamada" (The Call) by Remedios Varo, 1961

“La Llamada” (The Call) by Remedios Varo, 1961. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Remedios Varo (1908–1963)

One of my favorite painters of all time is the Spanish Surrealist, a woman named Remedios Varo, who fled to France to escape the Spanish Civil War and then left France for Mexico during WWII, when modern artists were persecuted.

This painting, La Llamada (The Call) hangs prominently in the National Museum of Women in the Arts and is my favorite of all her works. Because of this work, visiting the museum is always a bit of a pilgrimage for me—a chance to experience her vision firsthand. (In the early 2000s, the museum had a temporary exhibition of about 30 of her works, and I flew to Washington, D.C. specifically to view that show.)

Like many figures in Remedios Varo’s paintings, the subject of The Call (1961) is intensely and solemnly focused, as though she were in the middle of an adventure. Wearing flowing robes and carrying alchemical tools, including a mortar and pestle hanging like a necklace, she traverses a courtyard. Her hair forms a brilliant swirl of light, which seems to bring her energy from a celestial source.

Closeup of "The Call" by Remedios Varo. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Closeup of “The Call” by Remedios Varo. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I love how the woman in the painting is illuminated in fiery orange-gold tones and walks fearlessly and purposefully past the shadowy men entombed in tree bark. I feel like she has a creative spark—in fact, she is herself a creative spark connected to the heavens—and she seems determined to follow her own magical creative path, undaunted by the onlooking men.

Varo created this work near the end of her life, while living in Mexico where her artistic reputation was growing. It reflects her Surrealist influences and her interests—she dabbled in alchemical experiments—as well as her talent for evoking ambiguous narratives through art.

Faith Ringgold (b. 1930)

When I walked into the room with this seven-foot wide creation, I couldn’t help but smile. It’s the bold and lively creation of Faith Ringgold, who trained as a painter but originated the African-American story-quilt revival in the late 1970s.

"Jo Baker's Bananas" by Faith Ringgold, ©Laurel Kallenbach

“Jo Baker’s Bananas” by Faith Ringgold, ©Laurel Kallenbach

This piece, Jo Baker’s Bananas (1997), depicts Josephine Baker, the famous American entertainer who became a stage legend in France where she lived most of her life. Baker’s figure is represented five times across the top, implying movement across a stage. The so-called “Banana Dance” she performed in 1926 at Paris’s Folies Bergère music hall cemented her fame. Off stage, Baker used her fame to support the burgeoning Civil Rights movement in the United States.

Jo Baker’s Bananas is actually an acrylic painting on canvas, but the border is quilted. Don’t you love the color and movement in Ringgold’s creation?

Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923)

"After the Storm" by Sarah Bernhardt ©Laurel Kallenbach

“After the Storm” by Sarah Bernhardt ©Laurel Kallenbach

Internationally known as an actor in 19th-century Paris, Bernhardt was also an accomplished sculptor.

Bernhardt witnessed a Breton woman holding her dying grandson, who’d become entangled in his fishing net. She immortalized that scene in her sculpture After the Storm.

The artist chose a classical composition that recalls the Pietá by Michelangelo, in which the Virgin Mary cradles the crucified Christ. Done in marble, this piece was created circa 1876.

Maria Martinez (1887–1980)

Maria Martinez portrait taken in 1965 by Laura Gilpin. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Maria Martinez portrait taken in 1965 by Laura Gilpin. ©Laurel Kallenbach

For years I admired the shiny-black Native American pottery I saw when visiting New Mexico, but only a decade ago did I realize that most of it was created by a woman who lived in the San Ildefonso Pueblo, a community 20 miles northwest of Santa Fe.

Maria Martinez learned to make pottery from her mother and grandmother, and she became legendary in the Southwest, especially for her black-on-black pottery.

Although this ancient pottery style had been used by ancestors of the Pueblo people, knowledge of how to create it had been lost. Through study and experimentation, Maria and her husband, Julian, perfected their process for making it in 1921. Throughout her life, Martinez collaborated with a number of members of her family.

Polished blackware pottery with matte slip paint (circa 1939) by Maria and Julian Martinez. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Polished blackware pottery with matte slip paint (circa 1939) by Maria and Julian Martinez. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Because of her work, Puebloan traditions continue to thrive today, helping preserve the heritage of this often female-made art form in an era when clay pots have been replaced by modern cookware.

The photo of Maria Martinez (above) is by photographer Laura Gilpin (1891–1979), who created a female vision of the American Southwest, which was typically depicted as a masculine place of rugged conquest. She and Martinez were longtime friends, and much of her work highlighted the native people and art-making traditions of the American Southwest. She distinguished herself as a platinum-print photographer, and her work appears in museums around the world.

Lee Krasner (1908–1984)

I love how the curators at the National Museum of Women in the Arts juxtaposed the two pieces of art shown below. The painting on the wall that combines circles, ovals, and chevron shapes is by Abstract Expressionist painter Lee Krasner. Her canvas is titled The Springs (1964), which refers to the village near East Hampton, Long Island, where Krasner and her husband, artist Jackson Pollock, moved in 1945. After his death in 1956, Krasner began using the small barn on the couple’s property as her studio. The nature-based hues in The Springs, along with its arcing lines and interlaced forms, are reminiscent of a wind-blown landscape.

Lee Krasner's "The Springs" and Frida Baranak's" "Untitled" sculpture. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Lee Krasner’s “The Springs” and Frida Baranak’s” “Untitled” sculpture. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Frida Baranek (b. 1961)

The Brazilian artist’s Untitled sculpture (1991) looks as if it were flying in the wind. Though it appears to be light, Baranek’s sculpture is actually made of rusted iron wire and rods—and it weighs about 90 pounds. The museum notes that the interweaving of wire and rods gives the sculpture a linear quality, as if it were a “drawing in space.” Baranek is interested  in using her art to comment on environmental issues in her native Brazil and globally.

Polly Apfelbaum (b. 1955)

Inspired by Andy Warhol, Polly Apfelbaum often incorporates flower forms into her compositions. The custom-carved woodblocks made for her flower prints—this one is titled Love Alley 4—are based on her hand-drawn doodles and printed on handmade paper.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

"Love Alley 4" by Polly Apfelbaum, 2012. ©Laurel Kallenbach

“Love Alley 4” by Polly Apfelbaum, 2012. ©Laurel Kallenbach

 

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