Stories of this Canadian girl's adventures exploring Europe & beyond...join me!

Tuesday, December 10, 2019 spirit in the black forest

In Germany's Black Forest, so-called because of its dense, dark pines, you can spend hours or days hiking amongst gnomes and wood fairies, howling wolves and vampires. Surely, none of these things actually exist here, but I don't find it difficult for a minute to imagine they do.

The Black Forest is bordered to the west by the mighty Rhine in Germany's south-west, can wave branches to France and Switzerland, and is a beloved tourist destination for hiking, spa-ing, and cuckoo-clocking. Here is where tradition lives...and is loved.

The Black Forest inpires moments of wandering along pine-scented hiking trails, enjoying cozy, firelit evenings with steaming cups of anything, and relishing sumptuous food with names like Spätzle, Knöpfle, Gugelhupf and of course, Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte (Black Forest Cake).

Käse Spätzle (cheese noodles)

But, the Black Forest can also really do Christmas. In its largest city, Freiburg, the advent spirit of twinkle lights and mulled wine, the manger and St. Nick, children singing and adults shopping is a well-lived tradition.

Freiburg is a very old city, and even without the Christmas flair, is a beloved tourist destination for people wanting to explore the Black Forest. Founded in 1120 as a free market town, it is humming with wine connoisseurs and university students, architecture fans and witch-hunters. Well, to be honest, the witch-hunters have long gone, but the fact that there were witches here to be hunted is kind of exciting. Not for the witches who were hunted of course...I digress.

Historical Merchant's Hall

Beginning in the 1200's, and continuing on for centuries, Freiburg was a bustling town of free trade and merchant deals, as buyers and sellers made this the financial hub of the region due to its strategic position between the Mediterranean and North Seas, and its connection to the Rhine and Danube Rivers.

Freiburg Münster - a medieval cathedral
In the heart of the city, is the Freiburg Münster, an imposing medieval gothic cathedral which took over 300 years to build. Can you imagine what a thankless job it was building this, knowing even your grandchildren's children won't be seeing the finished product?

But, it does have one of the most spectacular entrances that I have ever seen. The colours and detail on every figure is awe-inspiring, not to mention the huge double wooden doors which are about two-stories high. In this case, taking their time really paid off for the (many) architects.

The Freiburg Minster has the only German gothic church tower completed in the Middle Ages and still standing today, surviving countless numbers of wars and weather. Impressively, the Minster began as a Romanesque cathedral, but ended up as Gothic.

Another interesting, and whimsical feature of Freiburg's old town is its system of Bächle. These narrow streams flow throughout the pedestrian area, and also date back to the Middle Ages when they were used to feed livestock and put out fires. They have always had fresh water running through them, and I was very happy to hear that they were never used for sewage!

Much of Freiburg's impressive buildings were somehow spared during the WWII bombing raids, including the two commanding city gates, the Schabentor and the older Martinstor. There are wooden beams in the Martinstor that date back to 1202!

Martinstor - one Freiburg's original gates
And it serves as surely one of McDonald's most impressive locations. Sigh.

But, now back to Christmas. I was visiting my dear friend, who moved to Freiburg a year ago, and had heard (from pretty much every German I know) how pretty Freiburg is and how wonderfully dreamy its Christmas market is. Germans are no liars.

I suggest, for anyone wanting to photograph a Christmas market, to go at dusk or just before dusk. That is when the lights are on, but it's not too dark to get the details in the photographs. And, because you should actually enjoy the market, leave the tripod at home.

One wonderful constant at every German Christmas market is glorious Glüwein (hot mulled wine). I love it. Red, white, rosé's all perfection.

And on this early December evening, our not-too-few mugs of steaming, sweet, but tart wine helped us to forget that it was pretty darn cold outside.

At many traditional German Christmas markets you will still find locally, handcrafted decorations and ornaments. Sometimes you do have to look hard , and possibly even ask if the items are made in China or Germany, but in Freiburg it was quick and easy to find the real things.

These gorgeous, tiny pewter tree ornaments were so lovely and authentic, made just around the corner, that I had to buy one.

There is also an assortment of great things to eat, including sausages from the region in all kinds of delicious flavours. These make a great treat to bring back home.

But, what we were really excited about was the Christmas market version of Raclette which isn't found at too many German Christmas markets, at least not at any I have been to.

Raclette is actually a Swiss meal (Freiburg is just 70 kms from the Swiss border), and revolves around Racelette cheese. The wheel of this alpine cheese is melted and then scraped onto potatoes and onions, often including various meats and pickles. It is yummy. Bergkäse (alpine cheese) is something you just need to's so full of flavour that you don't really need much more than that.

Pretty much no European Christmas market is complete without a Striezel stand. This cone-shaped sweet bread coated in sugar and cinnamon, or almonds and cocoa, has a different name in practically every country, but the idea is the same. It's delish.

As the evening grew darker the warm glow of the lights blanketed the cobblestoned streets of the old town and the atmosphere was festive and joyful. Okay, maybe it was the glüwein warming the thousands of revellers, but hey, we were all out together enjoying the fact that it's Christmastime...a time to be together, to give of each other and be thankful for the most important gifts.

Some people have a harder time than others being joyful in a crowd, but I'm sure the Santa hat helps.

And so that no one loses sight of the real reason most of us are celebrating Christmas, the German markets pretty much always have a large nativity scene set up. This one in Freiburg was almost life-size and so pretty, but I had to really fight the urge to jump in and cover up baby Jesus. A real baby would've been screaming his brains out on that cold night. Maybe Jesus wouldn't have.

So, in these pre-Christmas weeks, I want to wish you wonderful moments with cherished friends and family. I will spend these days trying to visit more markets, one of my favourite things to do at this time of year, while appreciating the many blessings that I am surrounded by. Cheers, my friends!

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