Monday, December 5, 2011
When my flight landed at Dusseldorf airport the border agent asked me why I was visiting Germany. “The Christmas markets in Cologne,” I told him. “Ugh. Why do all you foreigners like them so much?” he asked. I was nervous. The seven Christmas markets in Cologne were famous all over the world, and yet the first person I met when I arrived suggested they were overrated. Was it true? Had I flown all the way to Germany to be disappointed?
I was going to find out. I left customs and found the Sixt rent a Car desk at the airport. The company had offered me a car to get from Dusseldorf to Cologne, and I picked up my shiny BMW in the adjacent parking lot before heading out. It was both fun and fitting to drive a BMW in Germany, and it got me to Cologne in a quick 40 minutes.
Once there, I parked in a garage at Heumarkt and emerged above ground to find myself right in the middle of Cologne’s Old Town Christmas Market. The market was called “Home of the Gnomes”, and tiny behatted men could be spotted standing on the roofs of chalets, swinging from motorized merry-go-rounds, and sitting on the counters of artisan stalls.
Apart from gnomes, the Old Town Christmas Market had all of the traditional elements of a proper German market. There were rows of chalets vending everything from ornaments to wooden carvings, and others vending steaming plates of sauerkraut and hot Gluhwein. There was also a Christmas-themed Ferris wheel and an ice skating rink to round out the festive atmosphere.
I walked through the market perusing the goods and let myself be tempted by a big bowl of Schupfnudeln. The potato dumplings were smothered in creme fraiche, sauerkraut, pepper, fresh herbs, and onions, and were the perfect antidote to a cold winter day.
After lunch I walked through the narrow streets of the old town until I reached my next Cologne Christmas market: the Christmas Market at Cologne Cathedral. The stunning church provided a beautiful backdrop to the colorful festivities of the market, which was the largest and most famous in the city.
While the market in the old town felt like an enchanted forest, the market at the cathedral was much more modern. Bright red roofs topped each chalet, and in the center of the market was a giant Christmas tree. Spokes of lights flew off the branches in every direction, creating a twinkling canopy over the market.
I walked around for awhile, sampling salami and cheese before buying Christmas presents. The market was packed with people enjoying the atmosphere, so at one point I took a break and headed into Cologne Cathedral for some respite.
The interior was beautiful, and in being there I knew why people came from all over the world just to see it. The high ceilings rose up into the celestial realm while the stained glass windows and thousands of candles proffered a soft, muted light.
Back out in the market, I made a final round before heading out towards the Rhine. My next stop was the Cologne Christmas Market at the Chocolate Museum. Situated on a long, thing island in the river, the market was decorated all in white. The chalet rooftops were sleek peaks pointing up to the sky like so many snow capped Alps.
The market was smaller than the other two I had seen, and it was also less crowded. I walked right up to chalets selling chocolate, wooden toys, candied nuts, and paper lanterns. I passed by a stall with a giant pirate ship on top of it, which was fitting for a market on the river.
At the end of my stroll, I walked across the bridge and back to the mainland for a trip to my final Cologne Christmas market of the day: the Angel’s Christmas Market at Neumarkt Square. It was a short walk from the market in the old town, and it ended up being my favorite market of the day.
The Angel’s Christmas Market was replete with white wood chalets, each of which featured a unique mascot on its facade. From angels to reindeer, they were all decorated for the season. The chalets sold familiar goods, including nativity scenes, miniature porcelain houses, hot bratwurst, and Gluhwein in decorative mugs. Everywhere I looked people were enjoying the festivities.
There was something peaceful about the market that transcended the crowds, the cold, and the drizzle. The smell of roasting meat and toasting chestnuts, the music of the season, and the beauty of the decor whisked me off into a winter wonderland.
At the end of my visit to the Angel’s Christmas Market, I headed back to my car. I was sad that I didn’t have time to visit the remaining three markets, but with only one short day in the city, I couldn’t get to all of them.
As I drove to Dusseldorf airport in a torrential downpour, I thought back to what the border agent said to me that morning. Despite his lack of enthusiasm, I had enjoyed the Cologne Christmas Markets and found their festive atmosphere a great escape from the cold gray of winter. It was too bad that he didn’t appreciate such a great aspect of Germany’s annual Christmas celebrations, but I’m glad he was the only one.