Where: Düsseldorf, Germany
Plate of food: We went to Düsseldorf specifically for the Christmas markets. It was our first foray into these typically German festive events, but it started something in me that became a slight obsession. I discovered that Christmas markets combine twinkly lights, shopping, sausages, mulled wine, festive music and enough atmosphere to rival the North Pole itself. I ask you: how are the rest of us managing the holidays without all of this?
Before you even take a bite of food at a Christmas market, you are tempted by all the wonderful smells. There are sausages grilling, spiced wine simmering, chocolate melting, and dough frying. This is not a place to be picky about having your dressing on the side or having low-fat cheese or having less than, say, 3000 calories a day. It is best for everyone if you just surrender – trust me, it is not difficult.
To make it easy I have some step by step instructions for eating at a market:
- Go directly to one of the many Glühwein vendors and buy a mug of mulled wine. You’ll easily find these wooden huts because they are surrounded by jovial groups of Germans standing in the swirl of steam from the vats of wine.
- Don’t be alarmed that you were asked to pay 6 Euros for your drink. You just paid for the mug, too, and that is fantastic because then you have your very own specially designed souvenir with the name of the market and the year on it. This will spark some sort of kitsch collecting craze in you. Don’t worry.
- Sausage will be your main food group when at a market. There are quite a few sausages to choose from, just pick the best of the wurst (that’s in there for you, Dad). Try the long, thin ones (Thüringer Rostbratwurst) grilled over coals served in a fresh bread roll. Eat this with mustard.
- Admire the inventiveness of the rows of metal spikes upon which the rolls are skewered to create the perfect sausage-sized tunnel.
- Go back and refill your mug with Glühwein.
- Buy some honey roasted almonds in a paper cone. They will still be warm from the roaster. Yum!
- Buy a lebkuchen – an oversized gingerbread cookie usually in the shape of a heart. Don’t eat it. Wear it around your neck like the Germans do. It’s like a festive version of an 80s rapper.
- Walk to another market a few streets away and buy another mug (each market will have their own). It comes filled with Glühwein, so it would be rude not to partake.
- Eat a bretzel – a large, soft, salty pretzel.
- Repeat steps 1-9 for each meal.
- Surreptitiously unbutton the waistband of your pants.
The best: The whole Christmas market shebang is the best way to kick off the festive season. The markets transform a part of a city and the people in it, so that everyone is floating along on a happy cloud of goodwill, good cheer and Glühwein. An evening spent at a market is cozy in a Norman Rockwell way. The little wooden huts glitter with lights and garlands; each one offering something special: wooden decorations, glass candleholders, ceramic angels, and food, glorious food. Bands and choirs entertain the crowds with songs to which everyone knows the tune, no matter what your language. In the centre of the market usually stands an enormous Christmas tree, fresh and fragrant. The streets surrounding the market remain busy with traffic, alleys are dark and people are short-tempered, but once you pass under the market archway all is brightness and joy. That is a magical thing, even just for an hour or two. If only we could have such a reprieve from real life at other times during the year…with collector’s mugs, of course.
Story that needs to be told: I’m just going to come right out and say that we stayed in the train station in Düsseldorf. In a hotel in the train station, but in the train station, nevertheless. This was my bright idea for affordable accommodation in a convenient location. Frankly, one cannot deny that it was both affordable AND convenient, but one could also argue that it is downright depressing to enter your hotel room without actually leaving the train station building. I felt as though I may need coins to operate the shower.
On the flip side of our less than luxurious accommodation, Düsseldorf has certain streets that are lined with the most glamorous stores selling designer clothes, shoes, and bags. We walked down one of these fashion avenues one evening, rubbing elbows with German women who wore full length fur coats and looked sophisticated. I was wearing materials that promised to “insulate while wicking away perspiration” and I looked like…I was sleeping in the train station. The door to each glittering store was guarded by a severe looking gentleman in a dark suit. They sure didn’t have that sort of security at the train station.
I lingered over the window display at the Jil Sander store, wondering about the price of the items on the mannequin. Eventually I spotted a tiny card at the base of the mannequin, a discreet listing of the prices. I pressed my face closer and peered at the card as the guard shifted in his loafers and looked at me suspiciously. I was going to slink away, but then I felt defiant: I deserve to look at these fine clothes; who’s to say that I don’t shop here all the time?
With renewed determination, I squinted and the small text on the card came into focus. I saw the exorbitant prices. In disbelief, I blew out through my lips (as in “Pfft! A belt for 500 euros?”) and promptly spat on the window. The guard looked at me incredulously (bet he hasn’t seen that move before!) and then he gave me a look that said “You actually don’t deserve to look at these fine clothes”. Aaaaaand I had to agree with him.
“If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.” James Michener