Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Lifestyle: Munich Christmas Market (Weihnachtsmarkt)

Christmas markets originated in the Late Middle Ages in the German-speaking parts of Europe. Traditionally marking the beginning of Advent, or the Christian season of preparing for Jesus to arrive, it offers much-needed cheer and holiday spirit during the darkest, coldest times of the year.

Even the smallest towns in Germany will have a few stalls in the town square devoted to Christmas cheer, but Munich celebrates Advent with fervor, with as many as 20 Christmas markets, or Weihnachtsmarkts, located all throughout the city. Of note are the super-touristy Marienplatz Christkindlmarkt, the multicultural organic Tollwood Festival in Theresienwiese, a gay pink Christmas Market in Stephansplatz, the Englischer Garten dog-friendly one, and the Medieval Christmas Market in Wittelsbacher Platz. I have resolved to go to as many as humanly possible this winter before going off for holidays... but first, the big one in Marienplatz had to be done. 

Naturally, with any large Christmas markets, there are an overwhelming variety of foods, drinks, snacks, sweets, and goods stalls just crammed on top of each other. I have my favorites, of course, and having been to every stall in the 5 or 6 times I've gone through the Marienplatz Weihnachtsmarkt (aka the Munich Christmas Market), I'll drop some nuggets of where to go and what to eat on a little virtual tour.

I would start my exploration of the Marienplatz Weihnachtsmarkt off at the less crowded section near Neuhauser Street, where the Kripperlmarkt, a mini Christmas Market specializing in handmade nativity pieces, is sandwiched between the shops and a massive church. 

To give you some scope, the first Kripperlmarkt was set up in 1757. It's quieter here and doesn't have the crush of people smothering you near the Marienplatz subway exits. 

From the Kripperlmarkt, you can walk down Kaufinger Street towards the main plaza, seeing stalls like these selling gorgeous star lanterns in a multitude of colors. 

Right behind the stars lantern stall, you should stop for a bit and get a plate of Reiberdatschi. Basically, seasoned hash browns in round form. You get two for €5 and a nice dollop of crème fraîche or sour cream with chives. The piping hot potatoes are nice to share with a fellow nibbler before going on your way!

This boar with his festive holiday mittens will greet you as you enter the throes of the tourists in Marienplatz. I will skip that part for now as we head to the right, toward Rindermarkt, which is an area specializing in fresh fruits when it's not Weihnachtsmarkt season. Now, the Rindermarkt area features some of my favorite Marienplatz Weihnachtsmarkt stalls and is preferable than the Marienplatz area because, like the Kripperlmarkt, it's less crowded. 

The stalls here are all a warm brown/chestnut/caramel color. 

This is Bodo's Christmas Stall. It has sweets, mulled wine, and a newly discovered favorite of mine, eierpunsch, or egg liquor. I initially bought it in the hopes it would be egg nog (my favorite drink EVER, sans alcohol) but it turns out to be a liquidy, egg-rich alcoholic beverage that doesn't have the full-fat milk flavor nor the spices of beautiful, glorious egg nog. Apparently, eierpunsch is also a favorite for the 65+ female demographic, which makes my favoring this drink an amusing fact for the boy.

When you see this nativity scene, the next step of action for you is to go to the stall behind it. 

This is my favorite place to eat in all of the
 Marienplatz Weihnachtsmarkt. It's a wood-flamed fish stall that cooks whole, salted salmon vertically on a slab of wood so that it absorbs all the smoky flavor and gets a nice crispy skin. They serve the perfectly cooked, perfectly pink salmon pieces in a bread sandwich with their honey mustard sauce, over a hearty potato soup, or with a baked potato and little salad. I love the salmon here so much, I've purchased the entire salmon to go for €48 to eat at home during the week. It's perfection.

To the right of the nativity scene is a massive stall in the shape of a Christmas pyramid, or a Weihnachtspyramide. It's a candlestick carousel with several different decks of Christmas scenes, and the heat from the candles rise up to propel the decks around and around. This huge structure doesn't have the candles, but the propeller on top moves when the wind blows. The structure is pretty, the food is standard Wurst (sausages) and french fries. 

You can see it better here in the background :) 

To the right of the Christmas Pyramid stall is a stand that serves Feuerwehrbowle, or Fire Department Bowls (?!). They have a chunk of sugar and repeatedly pour the liquor (rum or vodka) over the sugar to create a sugary alcoholic drink. The flames ignite when the sugar reacts with the liquor, thus the "Feuer" part. This drink will get you drunk...

...so I opted for nonalcoholic punch instead. It tastes like mulled wine, minus the alcohol. Fruity and rich.

All the stalls have different commemorative mugs that are unique to the stall and have the year and Christmas market name on it. I'm sure there are some people out there who collect them all, but if you don't have a wall in your house devoted to your collection of Christmas mugs, then you return them for money back (usually €3). This mug was unique because it deliberately was made with no handles, so you can warm (or burn) your hands directly. 

Trust me, this is not as crowded as it could be, because we went a) during the day, and b) on the first or second week of the Christmas markets. It goes without saying that the closer to Christmas it becomes, the longer the lines, the lesser the quality and amount of food, and the more packed and frenzied it becomes. Try to go early, and try to go to the spots that aren't mass advertised. 

I took a shortcut around the side streets to reach Marienplatz again. Trying to make your way through a crush of tourists can make anyone cranky, Christmas cheer or no.

In Marienplatz, you have your stalls selling Christmas ornaments, chocolates, candles, jars of homemade jams and sauces, etc.

If I were you, I would go to a stall opposite Wormland and buy a plush toy for your nieces and nephews- they smell like lavender and can be warmed, perfect for the winter chills. Or you could try to find a life-sized plushie, like this gentleman here. 

On the night the Marienplatz Weihnachtsmarkt opened, when the mayor pushed the electrical switch to turn on the giant Christmas Tree right next to the Frauenkirche (Cathedral of Our Lady), a choir sang some songs and a brass band pumped out some holiday tunes. Being the mayor of Munich would be SUCH a sweet job- you get to crack open the first barrel of beer for Oktoberfest, turn on the lights for the Christmas Markets... lucky him!

I personally think that without the succession of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's, the winter months would be very dreary indeed. I get the additional benefit of continuing on the holiday spirit into January/February, when the Lunar New Year is celebrated in Asia, and March has my birthday and spring break holidays. April onward is not so bad, is it?

I'll try to blog about some of the other Christmas markets that are going on, especially Tollwood and Englischer Garten. I've been to the others, but I just haven't photographed them properly because I'm usually too busy soaking it all in. I also have some photos from Christmas markets in Hamburg from when I went this past weekend; those will come up soon.

Only a week left til Christmas!

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