I’m sitting at home in Windsor on Boxing Day in front of our open fire, eating these awesome little Haribo sweets shaped like castles and palaces in Germany. Our most recent trip to one of our favourite countries was last weekend – just a quick jaunt to visit the famous German Christmas markets, or more specifically, the ‘Stuttgarter Weihnachtsmarkt’.
I had been in Stuttgart for the week for work, while Anthony and the boys flew out on a cold Friday morning from Heathrow. While I was still toiling away and doing my best to be understood in a predominantly German speaking workplace (it was exhausting!) Anthony negotiated the U-Bahn and S-Bahn networks and took the boys to the Mercedes Benz museum. Which I hear was awesome – but how could you go wrong with cars and boys?!
We were later reunited at the Gasthof Trauber, just a little way out of the city centre. This was difficult to find if you are me: have no mobile reception, too many suitcases to carry and a hastily drawn mud map of where to find the accommodation in the dark at 4.30pm! It seems Anthony and the boys had more trouble though, and caught a train to the end of the line and that was with google maps…who would have thought there was another Gasthof Traube in Stuttgart?!
Over a meal of Wiener schnitzel and dumplings and other Schwabischer delights, I heard the boys’ tales of missed trains and cool cars and pretzels for lunch and mum what’s the German word for thank you? A lovely old man seated beside us in the guesthouse restaurant was taking particular interest in the boys and doing his best to communicate, in German. I was doing my best to translate. We understood each other for the most part, he said his goodbyes and we agreed we would be at breakfast at 8am the following morning.
Breakfast rolled around, and while we were tucking into a homely German buffet breakfast spread, we hardly noticed the old man from the night before shuffling in until he was nearly upon us. Bearing gifts, no less, for the boys, for Christmas. Speaking to the proprietor, we discover he lives in the neighbourhood and connects with the community through the guesthouse. Herr Wolfgang Richter we won’t forget you! Such a lovely gesture, particularly poignant at Christmas. We felt so welcome in this city. The boys were chuffed!
The Stuttgart Christmas markets are one of the oldest and also the largest in Germany. The stalls were beautiful; laden and overflowing with German food, gifts and Christmas decorations. We spent a whole day Saturday, wandering up and down the aisles. It was a real feast for the eyes. A tip would be to look up: the best decorative items were the elaborate displays on top of the stalls, on the rooves of the wooden chalet huts. Here we found Hansel and Gretel and the wicked witch, with a menacing, mechanical finger welcoming the children closer, lots of reindeer and winter wonderland scapes, angels, stars and sleighs and thousands of Christmas lights on an otherwise dark winters day!
The boys weren’t overly thrilled with trawling through markets. It was cold and probably didn’t get above 2 degrees all day; and it was busy. Lots and lots of people! But throw in some giant nut cracker soldiers, a spot of outside ice skating, hot chocolates (gluhwein for the adults), sugar waffles and bratwursts, and they were happy enough. A ride on a miniature steam train was a great way to end the day before we thawed out with dinner in a BrauHaus on Schlossplatz (Palace Square). Menu in English please; I’d embarrassed myself enough for one day!
Sunday saw us leaving the city and taking the S-Bahn to Esslingen, a little village on the outskirts of Stuttgart. Esslingen had their own version of Christmas markets in the old town, and these were the real deal. The ladies in the office had told me to go to Esslingen and I’m so glad I followed their advice. There were no tourists here, this was a locals haunt. The little village was gorgeous and the old town just stunning: plenty of half timbered houses and Germanic shop signs and cobbled streets!
The markets were traditional and had a Middle Ages or Medieval section – with people dressed up in traditional costume (which freaked the boys out a little). There was carnival bunting everywhere, old fashioned games for kids, fire breathing shows and traditional blacksmiths plying their trade. Carnival rides were man operated machines: the carousel spun around because someone was walking inside a tunnel and propelling the ride; a type of Ferris wheel rotated because two big burly men pulled it around – children clambered into these wooden crates sitting squarely on their bums, holding onto the rails. We had never seen anything like it! In the evening there is no electricity – just big lanterns and fire grates on metal poles – all very dark and foreboding. It was totally amazing and we found ourselves wishing we had visited Esslingen on the Saturday, and not the day we had to come home…
Our weekend was exhausting and delicious and fun. It was dark and beautifully romantic and ultimately very Christmassy! But it was also very cold and sometimes difficult for the boys to enjoy. They are getting older, too big to piggyback, more certain about what they want to do and better able to communicate it! I would be lying if I said there weren’t moments of ‘never again’ and ‘this is our last Europe trip’ while trying to negotiate train timetables, toilets, cold fingers and sore legs. But then I look back and see what they did get out of it: a knowledge of the train system and confidence in knowing which number to catch; an opportunity to practise another language; a chance to try (and love) new foods; an iceskate on an outside rink in front of a palace; a different currency; Herr Wolfgang Richter, and watching and listening to their mother negotiate a language other than English and in their eyes at least, thinking that’s awesome 🙂