Winter in Bavaria, Germany: A Festive Foodie Feast
If your idea of the perfect holiday season escape is like something out of Hansel and Gretel—charming half-timbered cottages and all-you-can eat sweet treats (minus the cannibalistic overtones, obviously)—then buckle up for Bavaria, my friends. Just be prepared to loosen your belt a notch or two, because this trio of festive destinations—Rothenburg, Bayreuth, and Nuremberg—will leave you full to bursting with the Christmas spirit, not to mention gingerbread and glühwein.
We begin in Rothenburg ob der Tauber (or just “Rothenburg” to its mates), a town so enchanting that it is literally the stuff of fairy tales. Its turrets, Crayola-coloured medieval houses, and cobblestone streets have featured in animated Disney movies, Japanese mangas, and the 1968 film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. This unblemished beauty is even more remarkable considering that 40 percent of it was destroyed in the Second World War, but—funded in part by private donors, whose names are literally set in stone within its city walls—Rothenburg was rebuilt almost exactly as it has stood for more than half a millennium.
The historic Christmas market, featuring 50-plus booths selling handcrafted gifts and culinary delicacies, runs 25 November through 23 December 2022. But it’s Christmas year-round at Rothenburg’s Käthe Wohlfahrt shop, home to a museum tracing this seasonal celebration’s evolution through the centuries, as well as a whimsical Christmas village. Picture plush animatronic animals tinkering with tiny hammers, a towering Tannenbaum surrounded by “snow”-covered chalets, and more ornaments and nutcrackers than candy-cane-crack-addled elves could produce in a lifetime.
For more sweet inspiration, head to the aptly named Sweets Shop, where you can watch former electrician Franz Weber—who prefers stretching sugar to stretching cables—make candy at the back of his store. Save room for a snowball at the family-run Walter Friedel Kondetorei Bäckerei. This round, deep-fried dough indulgence, coated with sugar, cinnamon, or chocolate, doesn’t melt in your mouth, but crunches like crisps. The origins of the medieval recipe are unknown, but I’d like to imagine it was a happy accident involving a castle-storming, doughnut-hole munching marauder…and a vat of boiling oil.
Wash it down with a wine tasting at Glocke Weingut with Albert Thürauf, a fourth-generation vintner with a shock of Albert Einstein hair and a droll sense of humour that is as dry as his wines. We meet him in the family’s atmospheric old cellars, surrounded by massive—but apparently empty–oak barrels. “The full barrels are in the new cellar…protected from visitors,” Thürauf intones as we get down to business, sampling the elixir of a handful of the 48 varieties of grapes he grows across seven vineyards.
His best-known product is white glühwein—a rarity in a world of spicy red mulled wine. “We store it for years in wooden barrels. Then we need no spices, absolutely nothing,” he insists. This he serves, rather ingeniously, hot from a tea pot, and that warm, golden tonic fills me with a giddier glow than a kettle’s contents ever have before.
From Rothenburg, we continue east to Bayreuth, renowned for hosting Richard Wagner’s operas at the specially built Festspielhaus. You can also tour Wagner’s home and gardens (where he is buried), but the city’s most impressive building may be the UNESCO-listed Margravial Opera House. The Baroque beauty hides an eye-popping, cherub-encrusted gilded theatre behind a deceptively simple entry hall which looks like the 18thcentury version of flat-pack IKEA.
For a completely different artistic and architectural take, head to Maisel & Friends. This modern campus encompasses a brewery, brewery museum, coffee shop (handy for hangovers), restaurant (try the pulled pork; you’ll thank me), and a hip, 68-room hotel adorned with graffiti murals by more than 60 street artists from around the world.
Bayreuth’s Christmas Market, with 40 stands and more than four miles (seven km) of twinkling lights, runs 21 November through 23 December 2022, but a compact “Winter Village” extends the revelry, opening October through December. This cheery cadre of wooden huts, serving crepes and a surprisingly diverse selection of glühwein, is located directly across from a life-sized dinosaur. (No, it’s not merely an alcohol-induced fever dream, like the Bavarian version of a pink elephant. That dino really does exist and points the way to Bayreuth’s natural history museum).
For the grand finale, we double back towards Nuremberg, Bavaria’s second largest city, after Munich. Although 90 percent of Nuremberg was destroyed in the Second World War, it was sensitively rebuilt—not as a medieval replica, as in Rothenberg, but still adhering to a similar layout and building heights as its pre-war self. Viewing the skyline from the hilltop Imperial Castle, which dates from the 11th century, you can almost imagine the city as it was in the Middle Ages.
Architectural highlights include Weissgerberasse (Tanner’s Lane), flanked by picturesquely preserved half-timbered homes; the wooden Henkersteg (Hangman’s Bridge), leading to the chic shops of the Trödelmarkt; and the 14th-century Schöner Brunnen (Beautiful Fountain), with a golden ring that is rumoured to grant wishes.
The fountain sits on the Hauptmarkt, where Nuremberg’s 500-year-old Christkindlesmarkt—the city’s largest Christmas market–is opened annually by a young woman dressed as an angel, who appears on the balcony of the Frauenkirche beneath a 16th century glockenspiel. Below, jolly crowds circulate among 180 or so stalls, shopping for ornaments and gifts while juggling glühwein and bratwurst. While the Christmas market is only open 25 November until 24 December 2022, you can buy handicrafts and snacks at the Handwerkerhof artisan’s yard all year, except public holidays.
If you only purchase one souvenir, make it the biggest bag of lebkuchen German gingerbread your suitcase—and belly–can hold. You’ll find these biscuits almost everywhere in Nuremberg, but if you have a spare 90 minutes, book a class at Cookionista cooking school and learn to make them yourself.
Cookionista’s Tashan Heiselbetz, a whirling dervish of a young chef, offers rapid-fire instructions and a brief history of these “medieval energy bars.” Because they contain “medicinal” spices like cinnamon, cardamom, and clove, and are traditionally baked atop a communion wafer base, lebkuchen has long been considered a sneaky treat that’s acceptable to eat during Lent. “If the priest puts it on your tongue,” Heiselbetz assures us, “you can bite it.”
The result? Sinfully delicious, if I do say so myself. Great Bavarian Bake-Off, here I come!
IF YOU GO
www.cookionista.com (Google Chrome can translate the website from German to English).