I boarded a train for the two-hour trip from Frankfurt to Nuremberg and arrived at the wonderful station, directly across the street from Handwerkerhof Nürnberg. Standing in the shadow of the 1300s Frauentorturm in the old arsenal behind the old city walls, the Craftsmen’s Courtyard exuded a medieval spirit. Along cobblestone alleys, I ambled around the collection of half-timbered buildings with their copper-topped lanterns. Nearly two dozen workshops operate out of these buildings, where glass cutters, leather workers, goldsmiths and silversmiths, toymakers and doll makers, stained-glass painters, and pewterers and metalsmiths craft and sell their merchandise. I watched these artisans as they manually created their goods, impressed by their skills that have been passed down for centuries.
It was too early in the day to sample the Franconian beer sold here, so I moved along, further into town. I crossed the Museumbrucke over the Pegnitz River, with views of the old Fleischbrucke, an unusually wide bridge for its time (1598) and now decorated with two identical Christmas trees. A quartet of musicians was performing on their French horns, welcoming visitors to the Christkindlesmarkt (Christ Child Market). Christ Child figures — young angel-like women clad in mostly gold garments, a tall golden crown, and wings — dangled on wires between buildings, heralding my entrance to the market.
Before venturing into it, I detoured to Egidienkirche (St. Egidien’s Church), which housed a display of religious scenes of the season, right through the Magi’s arrival. The much grander Sebalduskirche (St. Sebaldus Church) — originally completed in 1275 and rebuilt after it was practically obliterated during World War II — surprised me with an unexpectedly bright interior, warmed by flickering candles on altars and in Advent wreaths. Next to the church, another market enticed me with booths covered by red-and-white awnings and lampposts adorned with white lights and pine garlands.
But the unique market across the street, beside the massive Nürnberg Rathaus (Nuremberg City Hall), intrigued me more. Unlike any of the other markets I had seen, or planned to see, this one bore an international flair. Since the Middle Ages, Nuremberg has been attracting artists and craftsmen from around the world, establishing their base here and exporting their works around Europe. After World War II, the city endeavored to reestablish international relations to promote global understanding and European unity. One attempt at such rapprochement was the Christmas Market of Nuremberg’s Sister Cities. Here, vendors from Nuremberg’s sister cities — including Antalya, Turkey; Atlanta, Georgia; Kavala, Greece; Kharkiv, Ukraine; San Carlos, Nicaragua; and Shenzhen, China, among others — sell products from their homeland.
After picking up some Scottish apricot preserves and a small Italian Nativity, I took a spot at one of the barrels with tabletops around which people clustered to eat, drink, and socialize, very much at ease and not plagued by frenzied shopping wars often seen in American malls. I reverted to German indulgences by purchasing a sausage sandwich and a mug of glühwein — red wine heated and spiced with cinnamon sticks, cloves, star aniseed, citrus, and sugar: a wonderful concoction to warm you up on a chilly day. Every year, each city with a Christmas market produces its own mugs for the occasion, with images of that city displayed around it. You can return the mug to the vendor upon completing your drink, or you can keep it as a souvenir for a few extra euro.
I finished my day by returning to the Christkindlesmarkt, anchored by the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady), a brick Gothic beauty completed in 1361 that received its most distinctive feature in 1506 — the Männleinlaufen, a mechanical clock activated at midday, when a bell rings to start a procession of drummers and trumpeters, followed by prince-electors, all of whom circle around the central figure of the Holy Roman Emperor.
Occupying the entire Hauptmarkt platz in front of the church, the city’s grandest market has been held here almost uninterrupted since 1628. Schnitzels, pretzels, and roasted nuts scented the air. Beer flowed freely, but not a single person displayed even the slightest sign of belligerent intoxication. Rows and rows of ceramic buildings — German churches and houses and town halls, all illuminated by a small lightbulb or candle inside them — formed small cities in several of the stalls. Small dolls made of dried fruit, with chestnut heads, practically begged to be bought. Elaborate Nativity scenes, colorful soldier nutcrackers, and delicate hand-carved wooden stars, bells, and Christmas trees started to fill the bags I began to accumulate.
By the time I returned to the train station for the ride back to Frankfurt, laden with frangible purchases that would pose challenges to safely packing them in airplane-bound luggage, I already determined that this weeklong trip was a smashing success, even though I had five days remaining. As I passed by the Christmas tree in the lobby of my hotel, the Steigenberger Metropolitan, I started to eagerly look forward to tomorrow, when my journey would take me to Freiburg, a city I knew absolutely nothing about — except that it was supposed to have one of the best Christmas markets in Germany.