Who lives in these towns and what do they do for a living, I wonder as I watch the landscape roll by. I’m on a train headed to Regensburg to visit my friend Michaela and the Christmas market. I was looking forward to two hours of reading time, but couldn’t keep myself from looking out the window at the never-ending beautiful scenery. Gently rolling hills and pine forests alternate with now-empty fields. Because of the glaciers that covered the land 10,000 years ago, the soil is so fertile in Bavaria that it’s black. Fairy-tale villages rise out of the fields, their church spires reaching up from the highest hill in their center.
The inhabitants of those villages can’t all be farmers, but they can’t all be remote workers, either. Life outside of metropolitan Munich is very foreign to me and the sights outside the train window never cease to capture my imagination. I can’t get over how this landscape consistently scores 100 points on the picturesque scale, which cannot be said about the landscape seen from the trains where I come from in the U.S. Oh wait, we don’t have trains; I forgot.
Many villages and just two and a half pages later, I arrive. Regensburg is the perfect place for a nostalgic Christmas market, especially since it is a real-life Sleeping Beauty. A bustling, profitable town in the Middle Ages, it has the reputation of being Italy’s northernmost city, a tribute not just to its beauty but to Germans’ wistful penchant for Italy, the land where the weather is warm and the waiters are friendly, two things unattainable in their own country. With no money to renovate, it wasn’t until the 1960s that Regensburg attracted major companies that brought much-needed tax revenue. By then, the city had come to value its unique character and chose to restore the city instead of modernizing it.
I now stood on Germany’s oldest stone bridge, built in 1146, looking down at the churning confluence of the three rivers that made the city so important in the Middle Ages: the Danube, the Naab, and the Regen, which gave Regensburg its name. I imagined how for centuries, boats carrying valuable salt from the Alps would have traveled right under us, making the city rich with customs duties. In the summer this bridge is mobbed with tourists, but now it was mostly locals scurrying across to escape the cold wind.
I already knew the Christmas market in Munich, a giant red beast of shiny trinkets and lights, spreading its tentacles farther and farther every year. Beginning from the center at Marienplatz, it creeps down side streets, up the pedestrian zone, and spills into inner courtyards. They sell arts and crafts, glass and wooden Christmas ornaments, fake Fabergé eggs (which my daughters convinced me to buy one year), lambskin slippers (I bought those once too, for my niece) and lots of mulled wine (I’ve bought tons of that. Come to think of it, that might just explain the purchase of the Fabergé egg).
There is endless food: all kinds of sausages, Flammkuchen (sort of a French pizza), French fries, crepes, apple fritters, potato pancakes, and much more. People gather at stands to drink mulled wine, stamping their feet to keep warm. The scent of sugar-coated nuts is everywhere. But best of all, there are Lebkuchen, a cake-like cookie dating back to the Middle Ages that is central to German Christmas culture.
For a sweet-toothed American like me, learning to like Lebkuchen consists of several stages.
Stage one: You take a bite of a Lebkuchen under the expectant gaze of the German in charge of acculturating you. When I first tried one, I struggled to be polite, as we Americans often do.
“Mmm, it’s, uh, chocolate…” I said. But it was dry and crumbly, full of nuts and spices. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t exactly good. “Interesting…” I continued, but was thinking “Sorry, Americans like really sweet stuff, and this cookie thingy needs a lot more sugar.” After all, a normal American starts their day with a hearty bowl of Sugar Bombs for breakfast, served with milk and a sprinkling of sugar, followed by a frosted pastry.
Stage two: Your sugar addiction has subsided somewhat, after having been subjected to less sweet German cakes and desserts for a prolonged period of time. You are beginning to appreciate the flavor for what it is: hazelnut, chocolate, orange, lemon, and various spices. The spices in a Lebkuchen were once a status symbol, the Mercedes of the Middle Ages, if you will, since they used to be very pricey.
Stage three: In the final stage of Lebkuchenology, you can’t wait for Christmas to come so you can get good Lebkuchen again. They start selling the cheap ones in the supermarket in September, but the good ones don’t arrive in bakeries until November.
Back in Regensburg, I wanted to get some mulled wine and try my luck at one of my favorite games: speaking Bavarian dialect without anyone noticing that not only am I not Bavarian, I’m American.
“A’ Haferl Glühwein, bitte!” I say to the burly guy at the stand, smiling nonchalantly. A mug of mulled wine, please. It looks like I‘ve pulled it off, since he gives me what I ordered, no questions asked. It helped that I only had to say four words.
With another Christmas market under my belt, I board the train home, basking in the afterglow of the mulled wine. The warmth of the train makes me realize how cold I am. Nestling down in my seat, I’m determined to make up for lost time, cracking open my book before we’ve even hit full speed. And within 10 minutes, I’m asleep.
Photo credit: Yours truly
Check out these other posts, too:
Christmas in Germany lasts half the winter – but why? The 37 Days of Christmas
This is what happened when I couldn’t find canned pumpkin: What happened to my pumpkin pie?
And speaking of spices: Spicing up an e-mail is as easy as 1-2-3