Winter wonderland

Germany sparkles during the holiday season


Published: Friday, January 15, 2010 at 9:08 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 15, 2010 at 9:08 a.m.

As I slipped for the third time on the frozen slope that ended, a thousand feet down, in the icy Rhine, I wished my German phrasebook could teach me how to vigorously curse Rick Steves.

Ordinarily, I'm a big fan of Steves' nerdy brand of adventure, which promises to take you off the beaten track, but not far out of your comfort zone. I had planned our German holiday based on the "Romantic Rhine" episode of Steves' eponymous PBS show, featuring a drop-dead-charming castle hotel in the tiny town of Bacharach.

The only problem: We were in danger of taking the "drop-dead" part literally. The mountain road into the castle was covered in an icy crust that our taxi driver declined to negotiate, instead depositing us and our luggage on a hill just above its turrets. All we had to do to reach safety, warmth and a bottle of Riesling from the castle's own vineyard was to navigate the last 20 feet of frozen pavement.

I contemplated using my rolling suitcase as a toboggan. It couldn't be much more ungainly than our current strategy, which involved clinging to the brambles of the hillside for fear of falling over the other side, which plunged precipitously to the Rhine. The Samsonite sled wasn't a terrible idea, but I envisioned gaining too much momentum and rocketing off the side of the mountain still astride the suitcase, leaving some villager to find me far below, stuck in a fir tree like a Christmas angel, surrounded by dangling boot socks and camera gear.

Even in the midst of our arduous descent, however, I couldn't truly curse Steves for luring us to Germany for the holidays. There's something deeply magical about half-timbered medieval cities with Christmas lights strung across their snow-dusted city squares. Even cosmopolitan Munich glows with more than the usual beer-induced warmth during the holidays. While the summer weather and fall's Oktoberfest draw more tourists, here are five reasons to consider a trip to Germany for the holiday season.

Christmas markets:

Festive open-air shopping plazas take over the city squares in many German cities starting in late November and wrapping up a few days after Christmas. The country's official tourism site, ComeToGermany.com, lists more than 100 Christkindlmarkts from Aachen to Zwickau, where shoppers can peruse handcrafted toys, ornaments and nutcrackers while local choirs and music groups perform. Don't miss the local delicacies, from hot spiced wine to gingerbread to Rothenburg ob der Tauber's schneeballen, "snowballs" of fried dough and powdered sugar.

Local color:

Particularly between Christmas and New Year's, fellow travelers are more likely to be German rather than American. Anyone who has suffered through a 10-hour flight and two hours in customs only to rub shoulders with thousands of fellow Americans will appreciate the difference.

With the communal seating at most brewhouses (which offer traditional food in addition to beer) we shared benches with Germans who enthusiastically described their hometowns, giving us a glimpse of parts of the country we didn't have time to visit.

Fewer crowds:

Just after Christmas, when the crowds thin out, you can enjoy what feels like a private tour of some of Germany's most popular sites. Guidebooks usually advise visitors to arrive at places such as Ludwig's fairy-tale castles, Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein, early in the morning, to buy tickets before they're sold out for the day. But after Christmas, you can browse the castle grounds at leisure.

Leaving Hohenschwangau, Mad King Ludwig's boyhood home, we stepped right onto a horse-drawn carriage that took us down the mountain with no waiting. Sure beats competing with three busloads of tourists for a ride back to town.

The same was true in the walled Franconian city of Rothenburg: While travel Web sites warn against shoulder-to-shoulder crowds that make a midday visit to this medieval city intolerable, our New Year's visit was peaceful and quiet – right up until the fireworks, a Disney-worthy display that held us transfixed for nearly an hour.

Hot food for a cold day:

The traditional German fare you'll find in every city isn't just delicious, it's tailor-made for winter weather. From spiced red cabbage to crisp sausages to hundreds of savory permutations of potato, German cuisine will knock off the chill, especially when partnered with a local wine or one of the country's 5,000 varieties of beer. Try a cola-colored dunkel, brewed according to the Bavarian Purity Law of 1516, which limits beer's ingredients to water, barley and hops.

Holiday sparkle:

From the towering tree in Munich's Marienplatz to the tiny, real trees that top the wrought-iron shop signs in the countryside, Germany goes all out with Christmas decorations. Add a dusting of snow and plenty of twinkling lights, and you have the ingredients for a picture-perfect holiday.

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