Germany: Christmas Along the Danube

Christmas markets in Germany - Walking through the Romantic Christmas Market at Thurn und Taxis Palace. Photo by Benjamin Rader
Walking through the Romantic Christmas Market at Thurn und Taxis Palace. Photo by Benjamin Rader

It’s dark when we make our way toward Thurn und Taxis Palace. It may be cold here in Regensburg, but we’re bundled up properly, eager for our night at the Christmas market.

Up ahead, I can barely make out the outline of the massive palace structure. Then we turn a corner and suddenly it looms before us. I have to pinch myself as we walk into the palace courtyard, where I’m surrounded by tiny wooden stalls lit up with twinkling Christmas lights. The scent of cinnamon and hot spiced wine mingles in the cool night air. Soft purple lights illuminate the palace, creating a fairytale-like feeling. Christmas music plays in the background.

Christmas Markets in Germany

Christmas markets in Germany are a huge part of the holiday season. For Germans, Christmas markets are a treasured social tradition, a place to meet friends and family for a festive night out.

To me, Christmas is not quite complete without a visit to a Christmas market. So this season, my fiancé, Benjamin, and I decided to visit six German destinations along the Danube. After flying into Stuttgart, we rented a car and off we went. The roads are excellent in Germany, and a car would allow us to visit places that many visitors miss.

The author finds some beautiful pottery at the Christmas market in Regensburg, Germany. Photo by Benjamin Rader
The author finds some beautiful pottery at the Christmas market in Regensburg, Germany. Photo by Benjamin Rader

Nativity Museum in Oberstadion

It seemed only fitting to start our holiday trip with a visit to the Nativity Museum in the tiny town of Oberstadion. The museum is a labor of love for this community of 850. Oberstadion has converted an historic barn built in 1492 into a small, but impressive museum.

The Nativity Museum in Oberstadion, Germany. Photo by Benjamin Rader
The Nativity Museum in Oberstadion, Germany has more than 160 nativity scenes. Photo by Benjamin Rader

The museum houses a diverse collection of more than 160 nativity scenes. Crèches, as they are also known, came to Europe in the 4th century, and have been found in the catacombs of Rome. The oldest crèche at the Nativity Museum is from 1850. One of my favorites was a Christmas scene by Italian artist Claudio Mattie where you can watch the “daylight” move through the scene from sunrise to sunset.

The Berg Brewery has been in existence since 1466. They still produce top beer for the local market today. You can take a tour or even take one of their beer-making classes. Photo by Benjamin Rader
The Berg Brewery has been in existence since 1466.  You can take a tour or even attend a beer-making classes. Photo by Benjamin Rader

Ehingen: Beer Culture City

We came for the Christmas markets but wanted to explore each destination too. And in our next stop at Ehingen, it was all about beer. This town along the Danube has only 26,000 people, but is home to four independent breweries.

The Berg Brewery (BrauereiWirtschaft Berg) has been in existence since 1466. The Zimmermann family has owned it since 1757, and owner Ulrich Zimmermann is the 9th generation to run the brewery. With these kind of deep roots, they obviously know a lot about beer making.

Berg Brewery offers tours of their facility, and we eagerly joined our guide, Franz Nothelfer, for an inside look at the process. Mr. Nothelfer was a walking Wikipedia of beer. He explained Germany’s Beer Purity Law (the Reinheitsgebot), which Germany has followed for almost 500 years. In 1516, it stated that only barley, water, hops and yeast could be used to make beer. A more modern variation allows malted grains, hops, water and yeast. While this may seem restrictive, the amount of variations you can create are almost endless, Mr. Nothelfer explained.

The Berg Brewery in Ehingen offers tours and beer-making classes. Photo by Benjamin Rader
The Berg Brewery in Ehingen offers tours and beer-making classes. Photo by Benjamin Rader

The Berg Brewery produces mainly for the local market, and buys grains from 36 local farms. It was fascinating to watch how the product was created, from beginning to bottling. But the best part was when our guide pulled out glasses and let us sample beer straight from one of the taps.

We then sampled a flight of different beers at the Berg Brewery Restaurant. The beer was a good accompaniment to our tasty schnitzel and spätzle. My favorite drink, though, came when we walked outside to the Christmas stand on the patio. There we tried glühbier, a hot combination of beer, wine, apple juice and cinnamon.

Our hotel also had a long tradition with beer. The Beer Culture Hotel Schwanen (Best Western BierKulturHotel Schwanen) is owned by the Miller family, who also own the Schwanen Brewery and Restaurant across the street. The hotel focuses on beer culture, with rooms designed as “beer crates”  that give it a unique touch.

Sampling some of the 40 different beers made by the Schwanen Brewery in Ehingen. The Miller family has owned the brewery since 1864, and the fifth generation is now running the brewery. Photo by Benjamin Rader
Sampling some of the 40 different beers made by the Schwanen Brewery in Ehingen. The Miller family has owned the brewery since 1864, and the fifth generation is now running the brewery. Photo by Benjamin Rader

Schwanen has been a brewery since 1697. Michael Miller, who is the brew master and a beer sommelier, is the 5th generation to run it. Along with 40 different types of beer, Schwanen also makes beer liquors and beer snaps. And although we didn’t get to tour the brewery, we did eat ice cream with their beer liquor, which was the perfect way to end the day.

Christmas markets in Germany come in all sizes. The large Christmas market in Ulm receives more than 1 million visitors a year. Photo by Benjamin Rader
The large Christmas market in Ulm receives more than 1 million visitors a year. Photo by Benjamin Rader

Christmas Market in Ulm

Our next stops along the Danube were the twin cities of Ulm and New Ulm. Ulm is located in the state of Baden-Württemberg, while across the river, New Ulm is in Bavaria. The two cities look quite different, since Ulm is known for its historic buildings, while New Ulm is more modern.

Ulm is famous for its stately minster, which is one of the tallest churches in the world. It’s also home to one of the largest pipe organs in the world. We stopped in for a midday Christmas concert, and I was awed by the sound of Christmas music played on an organ with more than 9,000 pipes.

The organ in the Ulm Minster has more than 9,000 tube pipes. Photo by Janna Graber
The organ in the Ulm Minster has more than 9,000 tube pipes. Photo by Janna Graber

I’ve always found that the best way to learn about a new destination is through a local’s eye, so we took a guided walking tour through the city. Gabriela, our knowledgeable guide, told us stories that better explained what we were seeing. We heard about the Fishermen’s and Tanners’ quarter, a historic area that has been beautifully restored with restaurants, shops and homes, as well as the Most Crooked Hotel in the World. (Tip: Contact Ulm Tourism to find a guided tour or to purchase the Ulm Card, which provides entrance to dozens of attractions.)

In the Ulm Minster, Gabriela pointed out a unique stained glass window. After WWII, Ulm was in the American sector, and many American soldiers were stationed there. In the 1950s, the 47th infantry regiment donated the stained glass to the city of Ulm in fellowship. The title reads, “Freedom in belief.’

The large Christmas market in Ulm, Germany features little "streets" of wooden stalls selling food, handmade craft and Christmas items. Photo by Janna Graber
The large Christmas market in Ulm, Germany features little “streets” of wooden stalls selling food, handmade craft and Christmas items. Photo by Janna Graber

That evening, we followed the crowds to the Ulm Christmas Market, which has over 1 million visitors a season. The Ulm Christmas market is large, with row after row of narrow cobblestones lanes lined with lit stalls.

Ben tries feuerzanbowle, a hot drink made with mulled wine and rum which is lit on fire. Photo by Janna Graber
Ben tries Feuerzangenbowle, a hot drink made with mulled wine and rum which is lit on fire. Photo by Janna Graber

I spent more than an hour happily perusing its rows before we stopped for glühwein (hot mulled wine), first made with red wine, and then with white.

Then Ben tried his first Feuerzangenbowle. This drink is quite an experience. Rum is poured over a sugar cube that is set above a glass of mulled wine, then the sugar cube is set on fire. As the fire burns, the sugar drips slowly into the glass, creating a sweet drink that packs a powerful punch.

My favorite, though, was the Christmas market food – crepes filled with Nutella, roasted candied almonds, and würst (sausages) served with bread and sweet mustard. I was so enchanted by the Christmas market that I didn’t even notice the cold.

Neuburg Castle stands along the Danube in Neuburg on the Danube in Germany. Photo by Benjamin Rader
Neuburg Castle stands along the Danube in Neuburg on the Danube in Germany. Photo by Benjamin Rader

Christmas in Neuburg on the Danube

Neuburg on the Danube (Neuburg an der Donau) has a completely different feel. With only 30,000 residents, its winding cobble stone streets are narrow, with tidy homes painted in muted pastels. Our hotel, Hotel Aussicht was aptly named “beautiful view.” It sits on a hill overlooking the Danube, which even shrouded in fog, was a fantastic sight.

Built in 1530-45, Neuburg Castle is the town’s best-known landmark. It’s also the site of the first Protestant church in the world. In 1543, Duke Ottheinrich decided to follow Martin Luther. He ordered everyone in his little kingdom to become Protestant, and he built the Neuburg Chapel.

Due to its size, Neuburg on the Danube is a more affordable place to live and do business, so the town has a wealth of independent local shops and stores. As we wandered down Schmidtstrasse and Färberstrasse, we passed many boutique clothing stores, tea shops and more. I wished I had more room in my suitcase.

The books in the Provincial Library has books from the 15th and 16th centuries. Photo by Benjamin Rader
The books in the Provincial Library has books from the 15th and 16th centuries. Photo by Benjamin Rader

One of my favorite stops in Neuburg on the Danube was the provincial library. My first thought upon seeing the incredible room filled with 15th and 16th century books was that it looked like the library in the movie, “Beauty and the Beast.” Indeed, with its gilded ceiling and beautiful woodwork, it is a library fit for a king.

The library owes its beginnings to Napoleon, who came through here during his march across Europe. He had this former church building turned into a library to house many of the books his troops had taken.

I must admit, standing in the middle of the library surrounded by books written by hands so long ago was a humbling experience. (Tip: You can only visit the library with a guide. Ask at Neuburg Tourism.)

After exploring Neuburg’s past, we got to experience some of the best of Neuburg today. After a dinner of typical Bavarian food at Zur Blauen Traube, we attended a concert at the Birdland Jazz Club. Housed in a converted cellar, Birdland Jazz features some of the best jazz musicians in Germany, as well as greats from around the world.

Christmas market on Karlsplatz in Neuburg. Photo by Stadt Neuburg an der Donau
Neuburger Christkindlmarkt. Photo by Stadt Neuburg an der Donau

Neuburg has several Christmas markets. Perhaps the most charming is the Neuburger Christkindlmarkt.

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