A Visit to the Bavarian Alps: Christmas Markets and Pagan Spirits
By Sony Stark
Christmas shopping in Germany is a great way to experience the true gift of giving, and late fall is the perfect time to consider a trip to the Bavarian Alps to do so. Visitors can stroll merrily through illuminated streets, buy handmade decorations, sip sweet cider, even, take a spin on an old fashion carousel. Old town squares, medieval castles, and authentic dining await your visit.
Christmas Traditions in Munich
There are dozens of theme-driven Christmas markets in Munich from the Kripperl (manger market) to the Medieval to the Tollwood Market of Ideas. By far, the most popular is Christkindlmarkt (Christ-child market) at the foot of the neo-gothic Rathaus (town hall) in the Marienplatz Square.
Craftsmen, artists, and vendors huddle inside small wooden stalls greeting customers with samples of Gluehwein (mulled red wine) and gingerbread hearts.
The dozens of huts are squeezed side-by-side, showcasing thousands of handmade gifts like manger figurines, beeswax candles, pewter tree decorations, rocking horses, ceramic angels, tin toy soldiers, glass crystal, knitted woolen sweaters and so much more.
The Rathaus (a destination in itself) hovers over a towering, twinkling Christmas tree several stories tall. In fact, it may be the biggest tree I’ve ever seen, bigger than the one at Rockefeller Plaza in New York City.
Every morning the Glockenspiel clock, with its rotating life-size figures and bells, chimes off. In the evening small string groups and choirs gather on the building’s balcony and sing live Christmas carols.
The city center is crowded with languages from around the world: French, Swedish, Spanish, and Russian. The Christmas markets of Munich are like sacred pilgrimages to foreigners but for the locals, they are traditional timepieces repeated with pride and nostalgia.
Colorful Trinkets at Tollwood
If you have any energy left, save time and take the U- Bahn (underground metro) two stops to the funkier side of Christmas at Tollwood. The venue is a favorite for affordable ethnic handicrafts, fragrance oils and off-beat wood carvings from all over the world.
A spectacle of heated tents offers an electrifying mix of international musicians, performance art and live music. The esoteric collection of Indian handicrafts and ceramics from Lithuania is sure to please the hard-to-buy-for friend on your list.
The Hacker-Pschorr Bräuhaus
As tempting as it was not to indulge in a powdery piece of Stollen (fruit cake), I hold out for dinner just up the street from Tollwood at Hacker-Pschorr Bräuhaus (Theresienhohe 7, +49 (0) 89-5199 7757).
This sprawling brewery dates back to the 1400s with a beer-making recipe more than 580 years old. Two huge copper vats sit in the middle of the tavern accented by real hops hanging from the ceiling and three levels of seating, all with crisp white-linen tablecloths.
A pounding oompah band wouldn’t be out of the question in this restaurant. Large frothy beer steins arrive served by women in folk dresses accompanied by favorite Bavarian dishes like pork knuckle and
The menu lists an endless choice of safer bets too including Würstl (sausage), Kaasspotzn (cheesy noodles) and Rotkraut (red cabbage). I opt for the house special – roast beef with rémoulade sauce and fried potatoes. The order took some time to arrive, but when it did it was delicious.
We order another mug of famous Hacker-Pschorr beer and toast to our good fortune; finding deals and steals throughout Munich.
Krampus on the Loose in Berchtesgaden
December is the most enchanting time of the year in Berchtesgaden. The streets are decorated with strings of sparkling lights and the smell of roasting chestnuts fills the air. Even the cemeteries are decorated with miniature Tenenbaums (Christmas trees) adorned with wax candles. Soft chimes and church bells ring out at the top of the hour.
Night shopping in Schlossplatz is a magical place to bargain for yuletide wreaths and children’s toys but don’t be surprised if that sense of joy and expectancy changes.
From down the hill, I can hear the deafening clank of large cowbells growing louder by the minute. The rattling noise sends shivers up my spine. I strain my eyes to catch black shadows in the darkness.
“Run, it’s the Buttnmandl and Krampusse!” yells a little girl to my left. I’m too shocked to know where to go.
Twelve costumed figures, some wrapped in long striped straw, others sprouting fur under disfigured masks charge the cobblestone streets.
Everyone takes off running, as do I. Boys and girls scream in nervous laughter as we dodge street corners and hide behind unsuspecting shoppers.
The ugly beasts have long red tongues, crooked noses and devil horns atop their furry heads. They wave long thin birch switches in the air and at the ground, whacking legs and open flesh with a loud sting.
Around their waists and backs are attached several noisy cowbells, some weighing in at 45 pounds, waking the dead and spoiling the tranquility of the streets.
The scary monsters finally disperse leaving room for Old St. Nicholas and his special angel to dispense candy to those still left standing. Santa is dressed in a bishop’s clothing and carrying a cane.
The Buttnmandi and Krampusse is a pagan custom that dates back to ancient times when evil spirits were thought to roam during the darkest time of year. The tradition takes place every year with rowdy teenagers instigating the worst beatings.
I was shocked that they could withstand such sadistic torture until I discovered they wore shinguards and padding for protection. I’ll remember that the next time I dare to go shopping on December 5th in Berchtesgaden.
Setting Sail on Königssee
In the early morning, Lake Königssee is shrouded in a low-lying blanket of mist. The diaphanous vanilla sheets hide Bavaria’s deepest lake, all 650 feet of it as well as the frozen beach.
As we queue up to board one of twenty electric propelled tour boats, the sun finally burns off the fog revealing a crystal clear turquoise pool. Electric boats have been used here since the 1920s preventing oil and noise pollution and making the lake clean enough to actually drink. The water’s color is due to minerals like limestone, calcium chloride and gypsum.
As the boat cuts through the glass surface, our guide showcases the echo-effect using his voice to bounce off the steep mountains.
“Hallo!” he shouts. The greeting gets repeats four times before it fades away. Then he pulls out the flugelhorn (trumpet) and plays a melodious tune across the lake. The echowand (echo wall) answers like a well-trained parrot. There are musicians with their instruments onboard that chime in as well.
In the winter, the cruise only runs as far as St. Bartholomew, a 14th-century chapel once used as a hunting and fishing lodge for kings and princes. Inside are mounted deer antlers, hunting trophies and a stuffed prize trout weighing more than 60 pounds.
The return trip on the east side features a waterfall called Konigsbach that plummets 600 feet just south of the so-called Schlafende Hexe or Sleeping Witch. The rock formation clearly outlines the witch’s shapely figure, crooked nose, and heavy brow.
Eating Sweets in Bad Reichenhall
Bad Reichenhall is a famous spa resort town known for a long tradition of salt production and beautiful vistas. But you really haven’t been to Bad Reichenhall until you stop to shop (and eat) at Ludwigstrasse 10, the house of Mozart Kugeln.
Mutti (my naughty German mom) snickers to herself when she repeats the name Mozart Kugeln because it’s suggestive translation (Mozart ball) is something she grew up with as a child. The famous red-gold wrapping with an etching of Mozart is sold throughout the world, practically in every candy aisle during the holidays.
The temptation to browse and taste-test 40 varieties of milk chocolate while lunch is being prepared is overwhelming. I can’t resist. The pistachio marzipan and other confectionary favorites ruin my appetite.
The corner café is 140 years old and the owners still handpick the finest spices, fruits, and selected nuts.
Places to Stay
While in Munich, stay in one of 46 rooms at the super hip and trendy Hotel Cacoon (Lindwurmstr. 35, 80337). This designer boutique is perfect for the tech-savvy lifestyle. They offer docking stations
for iPods, cozy window couches with swiveling laptop desks, ball-chairs hanging from the ceiling and flat-panel television sets.
It is tiny, though, and my room did not have a bathtub; not that I minded. Instead, I used the cozy standup shower close to the sink, but, it took a minute or so to slide the transparent shower door
forward from the toilet area. Be sure to shut your curtain blinds or you’ll be bathing in full view of a hub of activity out the window.
Despite the size, this affordable hotel is infinitely better than staying in a sterile, cookie-cutter, chain hotel that caters to corporate types. Generation X will love this hotel especially after a long day of X-mas shopping.
While in Berchtesgaden, stay at the adorable Hotel Bavaria guest house. There are 23 rooms and I suggest an overnight in the Stubenhocker room. There’s a private whirlpool, a balcony with views of the Watzmann and Kehlsteinhaus Alps to the south and comfortable double beds.
The hotel sits on a steep slant and if walking isn’t a concern you’ll get your exercise in trekking uptown through an eerily dark cemetery – it’s a shortcut.