Among the seven cities I had selected for this trip, Freiburg stood out as a bit of a mystery. I knew virtually nothing about it, but I included it on my itinerary because it reputedly had one of the best Christmas markets in Germany. As soon as I entered the Old Town, I immediately fell in love.
Coming in at #36 in terms of the population of German cities, Freiburg instantly felt intimate and friendly. Even the ducks paddling around the pond in Stadtgarten (City Garden) seemed companionable. I meandered around, admiring lots of buildings from centuries ago…or were they? After much of the city was destroyed during World War II, the decision was made to rebuild it by adhering to the medieval street plan and reconstructing the buildings along the medieval scale and style — a very atypical (and very brilliant) choice. Take that, o foul and bland Modernism!
Mixed in with these reconstructions were the authentically old City Hall (1559), the unmistakably German and whimsical old Merchants Hall (1521), the Martinstor (the oldest town gate in the city, with parts dating back to 1238), and Colombi Palace, built for a countess in 1861. And, of course, the huge and gorgeous Freiburg Münster, a stunning Gothic cathedral completed in 1330 that miraculously survived the bombings during the war. Sitting in the center of the cobblestone Münsterplatz, the cathedral and its 380-foot-tall spire tower over everything around it. I weaved my way around the stalls of the sprawling farmers market, where you could purchase ingredients for an entire meal — fish, meats, dairy products, produce; everything right down to the flowers for the table — and stepped inside the cathedral to escape some morning rain. Four organs contain 11,000 pipes, and all four can be played from the main console. An organist was practicing, lending a wonderful atmosphere as I took in the fantastic sculptures, stained-glass windows, and one of the most dramatic Last Suppers in the world.
When I continued my saunter around town, my ears became attuned to the sound of a soft but gentle gurgling. The morning rain had added water to the city’s unusual gutter system that runs along the sidewalks. Although they look like a form of a medieval sewage system, these shallow runnels, called Freiburg Bächle, were never intended for that usage; rather, their purpose was to provide water diverted from the Dreisam River to combat fires and feed livestock. In the summer, the running water naturally cools the air, and all year long they provide a pleasant background sound for your ears.
Wooden or metal planks cross over the Bächle, safely conveying pedestrians between the street and the sidewalk, the latter of which holds a special treat. Here and there, I noticed irresistible designs in the stone sidewalks indicating what type of store I was facing — a pretzel for a bakery, scissors for a hairdresser. No translation needed.
Following these delightful pictographs, I eventually arrived at the Rathausplatz. Framed by the 14th-century Kirche St. Martin (St. Martin’s Church) and both the old Rathaus (Town Hall), from 1559, and the new one, from 1901 (with a simple Christmas tree on its terrace), the square overflowed with sights and sounds of the Christmas market. Green and white lights edged the triangular roofs of the stalls and hung in single swags from the perimeter buildings to the trees in the square. More white lights gently hung like Spanish moss from these trees, casting a cheery glow down on me as I purchased a dozen fruit-shaped wood doohickies the size of a large walnut, each one scented with the aroma of the fruit it had been hand-carved into: lime, pineapple, strawberry, cherry.
A second market branched off from the square and flowed down Franziskanerstraße. Vendors on both sides of the street offered colorful Turkish lamps, handmade pottery, and, as always, plenty of food, including a wide variety of chocolates and the always-popular waffles.
On my way back to Frankfurt that night, I contemplated the vagaries of travel expectations. In Freiburg, I had been anticipating terrific markets in a city that bore no preconceptions for me. By the end of the day, the exact opposite had occurred: Freiburg was a city that completely captivated me, outpassing its markets. That phenomenon would completely reverse itself the next day, when I headed to Stuttgart.