Some time in 2008 or 2009, when I was thinking about what I might want to do for my 30th birthday, I decided I’d like to visit some German Christmas markets. This was meant to happen at Christmas 2009 (i.e. just before my 30th) but due to not being able to find time (and being very disorganised) it never happened. Earlier in 2010 I vaguely decided to do it this year but things got in the way and then it was November and I thought ‘oh well, maybe another time’. Then I thought again and realised my first year module had a couple of weeks where I wasn’t teaching and my second year module has (for me) only one lesson a week. My third years are all dissertation students, so as long as I worked things around my second years I could actually find the time this year, and might not be able to again. Of course, the money’s a bit of an issue, but pffft, I’m going to be at the end of my PhD in the summer, I’m hardly going to be holidaying then. So, three weeks ago, while I was mid-chapter writing procrastination, I found that I’d booked myself some flights and a hotel for late November. When I got home, I discovered my hotel booking was a day short, but a quick google for hostels sorted that extra night out – and there you go – Christmas market shopping trip booked.
Of course, this then happened to be the week that this year’s Apprentice candidates went to Germany, which was the week after they and I had been to the Trafford Centre. Apparently I am weirdly in sync with Liz Locke, Stubaggs, Stella and co.
I decided to go to Cologne (which I can’t help but call Köln, because it’s a) its proper name and b) what it was always referred to in Einfach Toll! and Zick Zack, our beloved German textbooks from school) and Düsseldorf. I essentially chose these places by a quick google to find out where in Germany hosted Christmas markets, and because they’re two places with markets that are relatively close together. My first night was spent in a hostel in Düsseldorf, which was reasonably priced, with lovely staff and had the added bonus of free wi-fi – a rarity in the Rhine, apparently, even the likes of Starbucks and McDonald’s, so reliable in the UK for such things, don’t have it (on the subject of Starbucks, I went in one once for some water and their cakes are ridiculously stodgy in Germany – marzipan muffins? There also seems to be no Starbucks card – a shame as I could use my UK one in America). The staff at the hostel were lovely. I didn’t really speak to the other residents but my room was under a staircase, not much fun when a bunch of very young people get in at 2am.
My next three nights were spent in a hotel, which was a bit more expensive, but I hadn’t really thought about the whole hostel thing when I first booked. I took the cheapest hotel I could find, an ACHAT hotel in Monheim, about half way between the two cities, which seemed OK given I was flying to and from Düsseldorf International (from Leeds Bradford, a skankhole of an airport if ever there was one) and wanted time in Köln.
However, this proved to be a bit of a bind overall as the trip to either city involved a bus ride to nearby Langsfeld and an S-Bahn trip to the cities. Each city was probably only 45 minutes away via public transport BUT the buses and S-Bahns didn’t run very often, especially at the weekends and were so timed that I would get off the bus and have missed a train by a couple of minutes and vice versa, leading to twenty-five minute periods of hanging around in the freezing cold (and boy, was it cold). Added to that, public transport costs are incredibly expensive. Köln has just over a million residents which makes it larger than Sheffield but probably smaller than Manchester, yet it feels more like London in many ways, I guess because it’s a real tourist trap – the transport costs are comparable to London, in fact I think they’re more expensive than London costs since the Oyster came in. An awful lot of my (limited) budget went on travel, to the extent where I had to take out extra money, and I never like doing that abroad (/tightwad).
Also: my hotel? Was OK but they didn’t tell me they would charge for (rather rubbish) breakfast and there were no signs about the costs anywhere. Nor were there any tea/coffee facilities. For shame.
As for the markets themselves, there is definitely a huge mixture of good and bad. Overall they’re clearly very commercialised (and maybe always have been) to the extent that there isn’t that much difference between them all in terms of what is sold and there’s no real price wars other than the odd 50c difference here and there. They were (especially in Köln, much more renowned as a Christmas Market/Weinachtsmarkt destination) incredibly crowded and you found yourself most of the time, whatever time it was, in the middle of a crush of people – a nightmare for agoraphobics and claustrophobics alike! I would also bet they’d make your average health and safety inspector panic (although hasn’t health and safety been abandoned in our wonderful Big Society?) – if there had been a fire or similar disaster, it would possibly not have gone well, despite everything being outside.
Being November still, it was perhaps a little too early for me to get into the Christmas spirit but nonetheless there is something rather lovely about all the lights, people eating and drinking outdoors, the trees and the décor of the markets. In Düsseldorf, there are six Christmas markets, all rather moderate in size. One takes the form of a bunch of stalls set out along the shopping streets, whilst the others are all in public squares. They’re all decorated differently although the merchandise on sale is similar across them, indeed across all Christmas markets – wooden and glass homewares, wallets, scarves, hats and other winter clothing, Christmas decorations, candle holders, paper lanterns, meat, cheese, all the sweets and baked goods you could ever want, and hot drinks and food (this latter essentially being mushrooms, rotisserie, sausages, fried potato cakes and chocolate-dipped fruit).
In Köln, there are seven markets, including two you have to pay to visit, one on a boat and a medieval market by the chocolate museum. I didn’t visit this last one due to lack of funds and increased grumpiness, though I have heard it is good, so maybe I missed out. I went to the one on the boat, which gave some of its proceeds to Unicef. It mostly sold handicrafts, but a wider range than you got in the normal markets, although not that many of them were actually nice.
There’s a market in Stadtgarten, a park just outside of the main city centre, which wasn’t that exciting, but also wasn’t ridiculously busy, and then the four main markets in the city: Weinachtsmarkt at the cathedral, Markt der Engel (Angel Market) in Neumarkt, a gnome-themed market in Altstadt and a vaguely fairytale-themed one at Rudolfplatz. All four are ridiculously large and very, very busy. They all have unique signage (including on all the stalls), lighting and gluhwein mugs – which I assume people collect, as you pay a substantial Pfand (deposit), presumably in order to cover the cost if you make off with it. My favourite of them was the one at Altstadt, as it was spread over a wider area and had more activities, as well as the nicest gluhwein (the Weinachtsmarkt had disgusting gluhwein) and a great hot apple punch, with or without alcohol. The one at Rudolfplatz was good, too, slightly cheaper and less busy than the others.
Overall, I did enjoy the markets but there’s not *that* much difference between them all and between the ones we get in the UK. Would I go again? Yes, eventually, though I’d probably somewhere else for some variety of scenery, but it’s not something I’d do every year and probably wouldn’t spend as long there as I did this time.
Since being in Germany, I’ve noticed that there’s a lot of difference between Germany and England despite in many ways them seeming like a similar nation to us (we love beer and football and sausages, right?). One notable thing is the lack of posters/signs everywhere about the laws. Not one shop had any signage about being underage and buying alcohol/fags, unlike over here where each bar, supermarket and off-licence is plastered in that Challenge-25 nonsense. None of the public transport places are covered in PAY or ELSE signage like our trains are, despite the fact that unlike in the UK for the most part, it is RIDICULOUSLY to get away without paying – I’ve only seen ticket inspectors once so far. There are very few wifi hotspots, and even fewer free ones, and the weirdest thing I’ve noticed has been very few iPhones, or even smart phones in general. Walk around Sheffield and every third person has an iPhone it seems. I’ve seen about five or six in total being used here and I bet most of them were tourists.
The food in Germany is pretty rank – they have an obsession with baked goods. I like bread, cakes and biscuits as much as anyone but am pretty sick of the sight. I’ve had some fruit here but very little veg, and pretty much all of that has been in Chinese food outlets in shopping centres. Shopping centres, by the way, are the only places you might get away with using the toilet for free, and even then it’s touch and go. Many other places charge a whopping 50c for the privilege, and it’s 80c at the train station. I haven’t seen much telly but there doesn’t appear to be much UK or American stuff and what there is is dubbed rather than subtitled. I saw Bob the Builder in German a couple of days ago – by the way, what a rip-off! Bob only appeared in his own bloody show for five seconds and didn’t even have any lines. I also caught five minutes of the German Come Dine With Me and was kept up on Friday night by a ’50 One Hit Wonders’ show where they reminded us all of the joys of Stiltskin, Ini Kamoze and so on and treated us to random former now-aged pop-stars miming to their old hits. It was weirdly compelling, in a Reborn in the USA kind of way.
In terms of music, at the Christmas markets and in shops, I’ve heard about eighteen different versions of ‘Last Christmas’, a version of ‘Baby it’s Cold Outside’, Mel and Kim’s ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’, and ‘In der Weinachtsbäckerei, one of the most annoying songs ever. Generally elsewhere, some All Saints, Rihanna and a lot of Take That, who are also on posters everywhere. Not much of our Lord and Saviour Cheryl Cole round these parts, though. Those pesky Germans haven’t got the message yet.
On Friday night, I got on the S-Bahn train and discovered I didn’t have my camera. I was pretty panicked about that and when the station security and tourist office people looked and couldn’t find it, I tried the third place it could possibly be, a gift shop I’d been in. The old lady there swore she hadn’t seen it but unlike the staff in the other places, she didn’t bother looking. I went throughout the day using a disposable camera and my phone. I visited the Lindt chocolate museum (on the subject of Germany and chocolate – they’re obsessed. Never have I seen so many varieties of the stuff – even in Christmas chocolate alone I must have seen about 200 different products. My family will mostly be getting chocolate for Christmas and my friends will have lots of things to try) and there I met a sweet British couple who said they would let me see their photos online. Later that evening before leaving I thought I’d try the gift shop for one last time and a different lady was on duty, one who was on the night before, and lo and behold I was reunited with my camera. Never trust miserable old ladies in gift shops.
So that was a day in Düsseldorf, two days and Köln, and the plan was to spend Monday day time in Düsseldorf again before flying home that night.
And then the snow came…