Fact: If you book a weekend trip from London to Hamburg, Germany, for a family of four, leaving on a Friday night, when the man of said family has just arrived home Friday morning from a week-long business trip to South Africa, you will announce yourselves in Hamburg with a pissy, plodding walk through the airport terminal, everyone grumbling that they’re hungry, not least the man, who is actually the oldest person in the family and knows better. This will be capped off with a (very) heated debate in front of an automatic train ticket machine about the intricacies of the U-Bahn and how to actually extract tickets from the machine. Which you are not going to be able to figure out because, unlike the genteel and helpful Danes that you encountered a month before, the Germans filing out of the airport either do not notice, or are not concerned with, the perplexed and frustrated looks on your faces as you try to decode their language on the screen.
How do I know this? Because we did it ourselves, when in a moment of complete blockheadedness I scheduled to a trip to Hamburg to see one of the vaunted Christmas markets that you hear about on this side of the world. Basically, the Christmas markets are little temporary villages comprising wooden stalls, strung with lights and pine and all the requisite Christmas ephemera, where artisans sell handcrafted wares and homemade baked goods and all the mulled wine and beer you can drink. These villages are constructed usually a month before Christmas in cities and towns all across Europe, from France to Italy to Germany, and are an Old World, hyper-local, artsy/craftsy Christmas shopping experience. We’d chosen Hamburg based on a 2014 article in The Telegraph which listed the city as a hard-to-beat Christmas market destination. Despite knowing there was only one weekend we’d be able to get there, and that it happened to start on the same Friday that Jeff would be returning from a trip to Durbin, South Africa, we (I) went ahead and scheduled the trip, and here we were: hungry, tired, nerves frayed.
Once we’d given up on trying to interpret the public transportation system, we got a cab to the very comfortable Wedina apartment hotel in the St. Georg section of Hamburg, where we had a reservation and where, after a nice steak dinner at the Steakhouse St. Georg, we hunkered down among fluffy duvets for a good night’s sleep. By morning, we were ready to explore the city.
Hamburg is the wealthiest city in Germany, and has more the business-like, industrial vibe of a modern American city than the quaint, cobble-stoned magic of a historic European center. All lit up for Christmas, though, it was beautiful, and befittingly wintry. When we first arrived we chuckled to ourselves about how accustomed to the moderate English weather we’d become: the shockingly cold air in Hamburg had us jokingly gasping for breath and agreeing about how “refreshing” the weather was. Hardy har har, we would think later.
Near the Rathaus, Hamburg’s town hall, was set up the largest of the city’s Christmas markets. There are apparently several, including one the that’s “exotic,” which we obviously didn’t check out with the kids in tow, because we are still American prudes. We’d been hearing about how lovely the Christmas markets in Europe are, how festive and traditional and reflective of the culture. It’s true – little wooden stalls lined up and down the plaza offer everything from locally-made wooden, glass and silver tree ornaments to homemade knit scarves and mittens to handmade jewelry and artwork. There were lights strung around every building, and a big Christmas parade that ran a couple times a day down one of the main streets of the city.
If you’re at all sentimental about the holidays, and want to share some Christmas joy with your family or recreate some of the wonder that harkens back to when you were a kid, a European Christmas market is the place to do it.
But the real draw is the food. Stalls and stalls of food. Stollen, a type of German pound cake coated with a kind of powdered sugar icing and filled with raisins. Brats everywhere – sausages plain, sausages in rolls, sausages with mustard. Breads spilling out of baskets and piled high up to the tops of the stalls – pumpernickel, wheat, rye. And of course, because it was Christmas, and because it was Germany, gluhwein, whenever you wanted, wherever you wanted. This warm spiced wine was doled out in 250-ml servings in colorful little mugs we collected along the way.
Of course, after about two hours at the market, we had stopped laughing about the cold, because our toes were numb inside two layers of wool socks and boots. (Seriously, it was freaking cold.) Despite several gluhweins, and entering the Rathaus numerous times to warm up before venturing back out to the market, we were experiencing the proverbial chilling of bones. Plus, everyone in Europe flocks to the Christmas markets just like we did, and the alleyways between stalls were almost unnavigable. We all needed a break, preferably one indoors. This we found in the form of a wonderful museum called the Miniatur-Wunderland, located in a 19th-century warehouse district along the banks of the River Elbe. As the name suggests, the museum is dedicated to the display of miniatures, and on each floor can be found faithful reproductions of entire European cities, and even an operational miniature Berlin airport where spectators could watch mini jumbo jets take off and land.
Sunday rolled around, and I’m not going to lie: it was not a relaxing getaway, overall. Europe is cheaper and way more accessible via London than via the US, obviously, but it is not so cheap and accessible that a family of four with two youngish school-aged children can just jump on planes for 48-hour jaunts and come home reinvigorated. (At least, not this family of four, not yet.) But once we landed back in London on Sunday afternoon, we were infused with the kind of holiday spirit we’d once only experienced upon seeing the light show at Macy’s – the official kickoff to the holiday season in Philadelphia – and we were ready to greet Christmastime in the UK with open hearts.