Christmas Markets: Germany, Luxembourg, France

Now that we are knee deep in December, Christmas Markets are in full swing.  So far, I’ve cruised through four of them.  Here are some photos and observations.


Our first market of the season was Bernkastel-Kues, on the Mosel River, which I wrote about in my “And the Season Begins” post.  It’s one of my favorite small German towns, and the market is equally fabulous.  Being there in the evening, or just as dusk falls, is the best–the markets (all of them, as far as I’ve seen) really become magical when the lights are twinkling at dark, or in a hazy swirl of snow.  Plus, Bernkastel has an old world feel that’s undiluted here, but often more watered down in  larger cities (where busy, modern shopping areas stand side by side with older architecture).

Luxembourg City

DSC_0673My next adventure in Gluhwein and Gingerbread was in Luxembourg City, the week of Thanksgiving.  It was a sleepy Monday, and the market was just beginning to wake up for the season.  The day was bitter cold, so the hot gluhwein and potato pancakes there were greedily gobbled out of both desire and necessity.  And after a glass of gluhwein, I wandered into a store with a friend and bought a big fuzzy mohair sweater.  Later that night, I wondered if that was a wine-induced mistake:  I look a little like giant grey blueberry (greyberry?) in it. . . but I’ve worn it a lot since then.

Pain d'Epices (gingerbread) in Luxembourg
Pain d’Epices (gingerbread) in Luxembourg

Turns out that, ridiculous as it looks,   it is very warm and cozy on a winter day, and sometimes that’s not a bad trade off for looking like a Fruit of the Loom character.  It also hides any extra pounds you might accumulate walking around markets eating potato pancakes and gingerbread.


On to the third market of the season:  Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany. If you grew up on Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, then you’ve already caught a quick


glimpse of Rothenburg– a charming, walled, 13th century town in Bavaria.


Any time of year that you visit Rothenburg, you will feel that you’ve stumbled on to Christmastown.  It is quaint and visually perfect, and peppered with small stores selling Christmas decorations.  It’s also famous for Schneeballs (“snowballs”) –a fried doughball covered in (most often) chocolate, cinnamon sugar, or powdered sugar.  They can be delicious, but on our first trip to Rothenburg a schneeball single-handedly took down my husband for an entire evening.


We skipped the schneeballs this go round and headed straight for the market and the spiced wine and candies.  The town was crowded, but not overly, and we enjoyed just milling about, eating, drinking, and taking in the sights.  On our first trip to Rothenburg (over a year ago), the kids and I had taken the Night Watchman’s Tour at about 8 pm  (while my husband was at the hotel in Schneeball hell).  It was fantastic–lots of history very charmingly and entertainingly told by an actor in the character of the town’s medieval nightwatchman.  We weren’t in town overnight this time, so we took a daytime tour of the city with a German woman who was probably well schooled in her history, but was

DSC_0152 fairly hard to understand.  Some of her phrases just didn’t translate.  No worries, though–a stroll through Rothenburg ob der Tauber is never a mistake.  The view from each corner is fantastic.

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Rothenburg–it really is Christmastown.

And trip number four?  Metz, France.   Metz market has an ice skating rink which our kids enjoyed last year.  This year, it has added an ice sculpture exhibit (Disney themed).  The market is actually multiple markets in different squares around the city, but we DSC_0186 lingered longest near Place St. Louis–home to stalls with table linens, butter biscuits, and outrageously good candied fruits.  Candied fruits are rarely featured in the German markets, so they were a special treat!

Place St. Louis was also home to one DSC_0187 of the most beautiful carousels I have ever seen.  (We’ve noticed vintage carousels in so many French cities–always a delight for the eyes.  One of my favorite photos of my kids around age 4-6 is on a carousel in St. Malo, France.)  This carousel in Metz boasts a balcony–fancy stuff!

Truth be told, most Christmas markets have a similar feel.  They are best suited to a day (or better yet, an evening) of meandering, nibbling, and sipping.  The ambitious (or tipsy) among us may revel in the shopping experience, but it’s the general atmosphere that most of us go for.

Frohe Fest (Happy Holidays!) and see you at the markets!

Metz Market
Metz Market


Gooseleg, Dumplings, and Cabbage: Perfection in Prague

Our first night in Prague began with a fabulous dinner at Hostinec U Kalicha:  “The Chalice Inn.”  DSC_0118The restaurant had been recommended by the bartender at our hotel, and we arrived later at night on Monday night. (My camera stamp says it was Sunday night, but I could have sworn it was Monday–you know, travel time exists in a fuzzy space–who can say exactly what day it was?)   Anyhoo, the restaurant was busy enough to feel welcoming and cozy,  but not too busy to be very relaxing.   It had the atmosphere of an old European beer hall, in the best possible way.

DSC_0117Not long after we sat down, we had our first taste of the wandering accordion player and bassoonist.  They would come through and play a song, then disappear back into the kitchen for a while, only to reappear in fifteen minutes or so and offer another song.  (Perhaps they were also our chefs–running back to cook between songs?  Perhaps they were just enjoying a tall Czech Pilsner between sets?)   They were very good and added so much atmosphere to the dinner.


Another nice touch–the folksy art drawn on the walls.  It relates to Svejk stories–soldier stories to come out of the First World War.

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The owner was friendly and eager to talk to us about Czech food.  Our waitress was a bit harried, but all was forgiven when she brought us the most delicious plates of food.  What did everyone else order?  Who knows!  I was so enamoured of my dinner that everything else after that plate arrived is a blur.  I had goose leg, dumplings, and cabbage–a perfect, crispy gooseleg, bread dumplings that are a Czech specialty, and cabbage that was fantastically tangy and sweet all at once.

So, the only thing I forgot to get a photo of?  The gooseleg, dumplings, and cabbage!  And there’s the testament to a good meal:  you don’t think about taking photos of it, you don’t ruminate on blogposts to come,  you just inhabit the moment.

It was a very fine moment.

Moon Pies and Moon Landings (Modern History and the German Grocery Store)


I began writing this post under the title “The Perks and Perils of Shopping Abroad.”  However, I soon realized that the insights you are about to read are much broader than my mishaps in the grocery aisles.

The larger story starts in the years after the Second World War.  (Or even after the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution.)  It gains steam in the Cold War and the Race for Space.   However, the more immediate story starts in the aisles of my local German grocery store, Edeka.  And like the larger story of political machinations, it’s fraught with perks and perils.

For example, it was recently brought to my attention that the lovely, fragrant German laundry detergent I’ve been using for about three months is actually fabric softener.  Who knew?  Well, in fact, I had suspected for a few weeks.  My clothes were so fragrant and soft!  But were they clean?  Well, they weren’t not clean.

These things happen when you shop abroad.

But great things happen too.  This morning, I was meandering the aisles of our grocery store, picking up jam, sorting through coffee, and pondering fish, when I stumbled upon the most amazing thing on an Eastern European/Russian shelf.  Moon Pies!   moon pie real Well, okay, Choco-Pies–but they were Russian Moon Pies!    Eureka!   For all of you non-American (or non-Southern) folks out there, here’s a little lesson:  Moon Pies are chocolate, graham, and marshmallow pies that are a Southern staple and made in Tennessee.  Before the markets were flooded with snack cakes and convenience food, there was the Moon Pie.  Apparently, they were produced beginning in the 1920’s and they were certainly big stuff in the sixties and seventies.  (My mother loved to pack my lunch with Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pies, but my heart, and my taste buds, yearned for Moon Pies.)   They were iconic.  And delicious.

And here I was, in Germany, staring down a Russian doppelganger!  At first I laughed, and then I greedily stuffed a box into my shopping cart!  I considered my good fortune as I walked the streets of town, heading home with my grocery bag and its treasure.  But as I walked, I started thinking about more than my good fortune.  I started thinking about the doppelganger-ness of the little chocolate pie: the shadowy counterpart, the ghostly (and ominous) double.  The American Pie/the Russian Pie:  forever locked in a shadowy dance.

For sure, I’ve watched too many episodes of “The Americans,” the Cold War spy drama, lately.  But my odd brain was playing out this Spy v. Spy (Pie v. Pie) drama  and finding it fascinating.

By the time I got home, I was mad to know more.  I ripped out the Choco Pie box and scanned the label for clues–amongst the Cyrillic  (Russian) script and German sticker stood out something I could decipher.  Original since 1974.  Ha!  It wasn’t the original then–we got there first.  Not only did we get to the moon first*, but we got to the moon pie first.  I chuckled as I opened the box and saw that the pies were smaller than their American counterpart.  Well, what did I expect?

But then I took a bite.  Oh my.  I took another bite.  They were delicious.  So fresh, so chocolaty.  I felt conflicted in my patriotic soul.  There had to be an explanation for this;  no way the shadowy double could rival the Southern staple.  Think, think!  (Take another bite.)  Think some more!   Oh–of course–the problem is that too many of the American Moon Pies I’ve eaten have been plucked from dusty lower shelves of rundown convenience stores or seedy Stuckey’s truck stops.  Who knows how long they had lingered there, gathering dust and grime?  That’s it.  That must be it.


Tang ad, 1966
Tang ad, 1966

I was raised in the 70’s with a taste for Moon Pies and Tang.   In my mind, that era will always be  about playing kick the can, catching fire flies, eating Moon Pies, and drinking Tang like the astronauts.  I remember some of the Apollo missions; I coveted the GI Joe astronaut dolls (Barbie never had the astronaut get up, although her house and pink convertible weren’t too shabby); and I marveled when Skylab sustained people and research in space.

I didn’t cheer on the Cold War or Nuclear Proliferation– they scared the hell out of me– but I was  a product of a culture and a time.   I didn’t know whether I was an observer or participant, but I felt the adrenaline of the Race.  The Race for Hearts and Minds, the Race for Space, for Superiority, for Survival.   And then I tucked my head down into a Moon Pie  or  Mad Magazine and took refuge from the noise of it all.

Only to find today that, maybe– just maybe– my youthful Soviet doppelganger was doing the same thing in 1974.

Only she couldn’t call her treat a “Moon Pie”. . . because we got there first.

Just another lesson learned at my German grocery store.


*Sort of.  We put a man on the moon first.  But before that, the  Soviet Sputnik program beat us into outer space and the Soviet Luna program reached the moon with unmanned crafts.

Time Magazine cover, Dec. 6, 1968
Time Magazine cover, Dec. 6, 1968


This Old House, This Storied Country, and One Mysterious Apple


apple 2

We are, each of us, a product of place, so sometimes our environment creeps into our psyche more than we care to admit–I was reminded of this fact by an unassuming apple in my front flowerbed.   A flowerbed that sits before a very old house, built of red stone, hand-hewn and crooked; a house that is, by turns, lovely and eerie.

I walked out the front door of my house and saw the apple  there–red and vibrant among the few green leaves that still cling to the frozen branches of those front bushes.  A bright spot of color in the largely barren tones of winter, it was a welcome sight.

But how did it get there?  There is no apple tree in the front yard, and the apples from the back yard are small and earth-toned by comparison.  Where did this gem come from?

Where my mind should have wandered in its answer is to my children.  “Who walked out the front door and threw their lunch apple into the bushes?”  That’s the logical question.

But I’ve been reading that German classic, the Brothers Grimm, and traveling to the Black Forest and various sundry towns mapped out in labryinthine streets of half timbered houses.  The sorts of places that both delight and unsettle the pysche as night falls. . .the sorts of places where Santa makes the rounds with his sinister cohort Krampus in tow.

So where did my mind go as my eyes fell on the apple?

The gypsy woman who had knocked on our front door the weekend before.  That had never happened before, and it was a little unsettling.  My husband answered the door, but couldn’t understand anything she was saying.  Was it German?  Was it some other language, something Eastern European?  Who knew?  He kindly, firmly sent her away without whatever she had come for.

And here we were the next day, with a lone apple in our front flower bed–red, shiny, seductive in the barren patch.  Like a riddle she left behind.

It’s still sitting there.  Part of me knows that this is a silly flight of fancy.

But part of me wants to run out and take a giant bite of it, just to see what magnificent story would begin to untangle in the moment of that fateful taste.



Chestnuts Roasting at the Cathedral Door

Strasbourg, France

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I’ll forgive you for thinking that chestnuts roasting on an open fire and Jack Frost nipping at your nose are only Christmas time delights.  Here on the French-German border, they are the stuff of wintertime, even after St. Nick has packed up and headed home.

We spent a very cold weekend in Strasbourg, France, and found this chestnut roaster and his “heisse maroni” stand waiting for us outside the door of the Cathedral Notre-Dame de Strasbourg.

Chestnut roasters are a sight I’ll always welcome.  Jack Frost, however, is growing tiresome.