22 December 2014

ObserVation: Christmas Markets

alie asked me some time ago about the Weihnachtsmärkte here in Germany. And I agreed to give her the “lowdown” as best I could. Looking into it I realised it would be major project if I detailed all the Markets here in Germany, so I next looked only at the Markets here in Cologne. Again I realised this was not going to be so easy either, as we have six markets here! 
At this point I thought as it is still the festive season, I would make a post of out it and give others not fortunate enough to have a chance to visit the city, an idea of what to expect if one does. Some will say there are “better” markets in Germany especially from their own hometowns, but I can only talk about my local ones. 
The markets here in Köln can’t be that bad, as we expected over 600 coaches from as far away as the UK for the last weekend. How many got through and safely home again I have no idea, driving into work everyday is chaotic on normal days, on weekends in December you must be very desperate to try. Yes try, one year we for some crazy reason set off for the city. We live about 25 km from the centre 20 km of that is motorway, so 30 minutes is a good average for a oneway trip. I can make it in 19 minutes if I put my foot down, it’s the middle of the night and I keep my eyes shut for most of the way so the speed traps can’t see me. The trip was a disaster, we were home again after 3 hours without seeing the inside of a shop let alone a park house, a total waste of time, nerves and petrol. I still can’t remember what we wanted to buy..

The markets open their gates on the last Monday before Advent; each has either a historical or cultural beginning. I would say 5% of the people milling around in the crowds are out to relieve you of your wallet and anything else not nailed down upon ones person. You need your money and credit cards at least under 3 layers of clothing before they are relative safe. I say relative because they are good, very good. If a gang has you in vizier they will follow you around and eventually you are en’lighten’ed by the end of the day. They usually leave you your car keys so that you can drive to the next police station and tell your sob story. If you do plan a trip in the future, remember I’m not being just humorous here for once.

The markets may vary in themes from year to year, so I’ve included all the ones from the last few years. So lets have a look. 
Ah, I almost forgot, there is a Christmas market express our “Bimmelbahn”, it is used in the summer for tourists and at Christmas for the market visitors. It’s an open train that drives at regular intervals between the major markets. It is ideal for weary feet but also if you don't know your way around. It's slow and well worth the ride. The driver has a hand bell which he “bimmels” to scare / warn pedestrians out of the way. He will also ring it went he feels like it or when you flatter you eyelashes at him (no I haven’t). 

[Ed: Please note she does not work for the touristic office. The pictures are selected from the cities touristic web site and so she doesn't get into trouble, the photographers are Fabian Schmelcher and Joachim Rieger]

Cathedral market
The market is right next to the Cathedral, between the Roman-Germanic Museum, the Philharmonic Concert Hall and the Dom Hotel, situated on the roof of a large underground car park. When I first visited the city in 1971 it was still under construction, one could look down next to the cathedral it goes down about a third of the height that towers above ground, impressive! The market has about 150 wooden pavilions selling numerous regional specialities. As with all the markets, most locals go to eat and drink. Also with visitors who usually buy some knickknacks of some kind. The classical Christmas drink is mulled wine (Glühwein) in decorated Christmas mugs. There is a large variety of articles such as woodcarvings, glass balls, ceramics, accessories, children's toys, soaps, etc. usually local produce. There is also the fairground aspect of the markets with various Christmas performances of music and other entertainment. In the middle of the market is the largest Christmas tree in the Rhineland a 25m high Nordmann fir, lit up with 50,000 LED lights (no I have not counted them, well not this year anyway).

Angel's Market
This is Cologne's oldest Christmas market situated on the Neumarkt, right in the middle of the shopping district. The stalls have the usual variety of articles with the addition of artistic products like traditional decorative plates with illustrations of the Christmas markets. Here, the mulled wine stands have names like “Cloud Nine“ and “Gabriel’s“, if your not into the wine, there is egg punch and hot chocolate on offer. Again locals come here after work for something warm before fighting there way through the crowds to get home. The angels are one of the highlights here, particularly for children. Dressed in gold and red and sprinkling glitter powder, they wander through the crowded alleys trying not to get their wings broken. Once a week, Santa Claus, together with an angel, makes his grand entry onto Neumarkt on horseback.

 Harbour Market
This market overlooks the Rhine, with 70 stands next to the Chocolate Museum, this is a museum dedicated to Chocolate (well I be!). Its well worth a visit in its own right, there is a chocolate fountain at the end of the tour with a lovely view down on to the market. The market follows with its design, decoration and stage performances (sea shanties to traditional Christmas songs) themes of the harbour and seafaring. There is also a wide variety of fish specialities on offer. The stalls are white, festively decorated pagoda tents with wooden floors and pointed roofs giving the hint of the planks and sails of a ship. Also there is an impressive wooden three-mast boat 15m in length serving mulled wine out of its hull. Nobody has, if I remember rightly, fell in and drowned lately.

Old Market
Probably the most attractive Christmas market in town is on the Alter Markt in front of Cologne’s town hall. Legend has it that the Heinzelmännchen (house gnomes) performed all sorts of different jobs for the locals: they prepared the sausages for the butcher, sewed the clothes for the tailor, and baked the bread for the baker. The winding alleys in the market are differently themed, just like the guilds of the past. For example there is the “Futtergasse” (Feeding Alley) where visitors can buy national and international food specialities, and the “Glitzergasse” (Glitter Alley) where fashion accessories are on sale. For the kids there is a nostalgic children’s roundabout, puppet theatre, an area for Santa Claus and many toy stands.

Village of St. Nicholas
There are three main medieval Gates to the old city North, South and to the West the Hahnentorburg. With this historic backdrop the market gives a convivial feeling of cosiness, its not that big and not as hectic as with the other markets. There is, of course, the usual mulled wine, red wine punch and food stalls.

Stadtgarten Market
This market is not that old, about 8 years. It is positioned in the middle of the Belgian Quarter which has a village-like feel to it. There are 80 stalls selling modern creations, traditional crafts and nostalgic bits and bobs. The stalls and the exhibitors change weekly so it doesn't get boring. The food is a little more varied that the others: homemade organic mulled wine, stews, tarte flambée, crêpes, almonds, raclette and waffles. A highlight is the Christmas stage featuring puppet shows, children’s theatre, fire-eaters, story tellers, and jazz concerts. Santa Claus turns up now and then to give out presents to the little ones.

Gay and lesbian market
I mentioned in an ealier post that we have the largest LGBT community in Germany. Berlin also claims this and the cities have been at it, tooth and painted nail for ages, I don't think there ever will be a winner. Of course this market is open to all, not just the LGBT community. The pink and purple stalls are characteristic for this market. The market is placed in the so called “Bermuda Triangle” between Schaafenstraße and Pilgrimstraße on the “Christmas Avenue”. The stalls are not as conventional as with the others markets in decoration and in wares.

Nativity scenes
Not strictly a market, but still worth a visit is the nativity scenes laid out at around 110 different places in the city up to the 6th January (Holy Three Kings). The displays are from different historical periods and range from contemporary nativity scenes designed by artists through to traditional representations of Christmas from different cultures. The nativity scenes can be found at public places such as shop windows, cultural and religious institutions, and in many of Cologne’s churches. 

Well that's about it.

I’ll finish with a little story from a few decades back concerning things that get stolen and the relics of the three Magi. It's a case of honour among thieves when the relics of the three Magi were stolen from the Cathedral. There was of course uproar over this not only from the law-abiding community, but also from the local non law-abiding community. Within a short time they were ‘returned’ with an apology. If I remember rightly there’s a proverb about fowling one's own nest or the like. 
It would be nice if the market pickpockets would at least return the wallet and the pictures of our love ones instead of throwing them away. I mean if they can remove them without you knowing it, why can’t they return them the same way! 

Hope the texts with the pictures give you an idea of what to expect if you get the chance to come here.
Happy holidays to one and all.

10 December 2014

Windows: Double vision or first contact of the girl kind

grew up in a neighbourhood where everyone knew everyone else. My grandfather build our house with the help of the neighbours, each contributing as best they could with their knowledge and handiwork. Our street was just a dirt track and a cul-de-sac ending in a field with a gigantic oak tree. We have hardly any traffic other than locals or a rare case of someone taking a wrong turning. 
There was a little river for pooh sticking, fields of summer flowers to sneeze on and a forbidden sand pit with deep water to fall into, in other words idyllic. Of course I was part of a gang and of course just us boys. Girls weren’t taboo per se, they were just not any around in our street in our age group. It’s not that we wouldn’t have considered allowing girls into the gang, actually we did consider it for about 5 seconds followed by a short collective shudder and went straight onto the next point on the agenda. 
As we did happen to go to a mixed primary school, we had a pretty good idea of what girls looked and sounded like, there were enough examples milling around all day to cotton on to. Having any form of contact was another kettle of fish

With this as background I now come to my earliest memory of having anything to do with girls that were not family (I have two girl cousins that I saw on rare family occasions, both younger than me and therefore don’t really count). 
 It was in the 3 or 4th grade. I had a bike at this time for getting to school and on one occasion, just as I was about to leave home, there before me outside our front gate were what I can only describe as two “admirers” waiting for me. They were about my age and twins to boot! Dressed both colourful and styled a little like Alice from Lewis Carrol. I had seen them at school (I think) but never in our street, therefore they must have come out of their way to be there. I didn’t know what to make of it, I don’t remember asking why me, I think we hardly spoke to each other at all. It was all a little weird. 
I would move off and they would place themselves either side of me a little behind as with a diplomatic cavalcade. My mother was amused by this. I, on the other hand slightly embarrassed and wary of what this was all about. After some time I got sort of used to it. 
When we would arrive at school, they would demonstratively stay in close proximity, usually one on either side of me as with the ride, until the other kids in the playground had registered our presence. Then without a word or anything else, they would turn in sync and disappear to their own class. I don’t think my friends knew what to make of this, I certainly didn’t! This routine went on quite some time. My friends badgered me about it, asking who they were and how come I was getting this “treatment”. I tried to convince them that I was totally in the dark about it all, but I don’t think they believed me. 
And then one fateful morning before we left for school, I in a momentary lapse of emotional imbalance gave them all my cuddly toys, including my one and only Rupert Bear, much to the bewilderment and annoyance of my mother. 
I still to this day have no idea why I did this. Maybe they had developed a hypnotic hold over me in some way, it’s all a bit vague and long ago. What I do remember is that I never saw them again after my “toy purge”. I wonder if that was their motive from the outset, or behind it there was a dare to see how quickly they could manipulate someone into submission. Will never know. 
And the result of this? Of course as with most purging one regrets it afterwards and from this uncanny contact I developed a high respect for the manipulative powers of “girl kind”. Learning from them has been a lifetime experience and maybe now some of it is starting to rub off onto Abigale. 
Okay, I’m not that manipulative, 
well maybe a little.