Donna Peck‘s destination story “Celebrating Christmas in the Alps” first ran in the Nob Hill Gazette in December, 2009.
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Christmas provides the perfect opportunity to escape our high-tech world and slip into a more light-hearted mood. If you want to wind down the year with a week of fun, take the Yuletide trail through the Alps.
From Munich and the Bavarian Alps to Innsbruck, feast and celebrate beside those who have mastered the art.
The revelry centers on Christmas markets where Germans and Austrians typically spend the final month of the year singing, drinking, eating and shopping. Not an inch of their cities is left unembellished. Windows are festooned with garlands and frosted lights. Snowflakes the size of beach balls swing from sidewalk trees; strands of lights cascade from arches like falling stars.
Munich’s Christmas markets
As offices close, people spill into Munich’s Marienplatz. No one needs directions to the food stalls. All the food is prepared outdoors, and the square is redolent of sizzling bratwurst (long, thin veal sausage), homemade spaetzle with cabbage, and fried potato pancakes drizzled with cranberry sauce.
Steaming cauldrons of glühwein draw the largest crowds. Stall owners go through vats of this fragrant red wine, spiced with cinnamon sticks, vanilla pods, cloves, sugar and citrus peel. With a steaming mug of glühwein in one hand and a grilled sausage in the other, stop to listen to carolers sing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” in German from the balcony of the Town Hall.
The Christmas Market at Wittelsbacher Platz replicates a true-to-life medieval market. Visitors feel as if they have stumbled into a fairytale. Inside miniature wooden cottages, merchants are busy glassblowing, goldsmithing, painting miniatures and woodcarving. A Beowulf-styled merchant grills salmon in an oven made from a beer barrel and curses because he can’t keep the fire lit. Electricity, as well as manufactured goods, is forbidden. His neighbor sells medieval weaponry and handmade bows and arrows. He is working on a deerskin sheath, embellishing it with beads and feathers.
Hours later, the glockenspiel bells play a “good night” melody, and Müncheners drift toward home.
A day of gingerbread, wiener schnitzel, and Kandinksy
The next morning at the Viktualienmarkt, pop into the Backstube Rischart Christmas bakery and nibble on gingerbread cookies straight from the oven with a pot of dark, rich coffee. The bakery dates back to 1883 and is a Yuletime mecca for gingerbread ornaments painted with colored icing.
A street vendor dressed like Father Christmas sets up shop outside the Royal Residence. His updated music cart plays a hundred carols that he accompanies, not too expertly, on a bugle, snare drum and cymbals. A mechanical monkey doffs his hat when people drop coins in the collection tin. At the Christmas market in the inner courtyard, an automaton moose sings the German version of “Jingle Bells,” and an ornate sleigh gives market-goers the opportunity to pose for pictures with Santa’s reindeers.
Like generations of tourists before, enjoy wiener schnitzel at the Ratskeller restaurant. The light crust keeps the veal moist and tender. Adding to the pleasure are the hand-painted murals, arched ceilings and carved wooden booths in Bavaria’s most elaborate beer hall.
Don’t fret a rainy afternoon—it presents the perfect occasion to visit Lenbach House and view artwork by the Blue Rider group. This salon, which formed in Munich in 1911, included Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, and Paul Klee among others. Kandinsky’s works are arresting and historically influential for their brilliant colors and inventive compositions. Walking back to the city center, you may pass a satellite building of Hitler’s Reichstag enclosed by a chain-link fence. The horrors of war are absent from Kandinksy’s paintings. But they are not devoid of color and sound. He said of the blue peaks in his paintings, “The mountains talk to us.”
The Bavarian Alps on St. Nicholas Eve
The Bavarian Alps will talk to you as you drive southeast to Berchtesgaden. It’s a treat to arrive in time for the St. Nicholas Eve festival. At 5:00 in the afternoon, St. Nicholas leads a pack of wild men wearing fur, straw and belts of clanging cowbells. Hysterical madness erupts in the market as they charge the crowd. Children scream. Teenagers taunt the straw men, who lash people’s legs with birch switches to reenact an ancient fertility rite. One fleeing girl gets caught and returns laughing, her face smudged with soot. After a few hours of mayhem, the wild men set aside their masks and switches and everyone retires to Gasthaus Goldener Baer for grilled trout and beer.
The grilled trout comes from the mountain rivers that are abundant in the Bavarian Alps. The region also has green, mineral-rich lakes such as Lake Königssee in Berchesgaden National Park, which one can cross under clear skies in an electric sightseeing boat. The captain shuts off the motor beside a sheer rock wall. Putting a bugle to his lips, he plays a slow regal tune out the open doorway. The mountain plays it back, ringing several times ever more faintly.
Innsbruck and the Tyrolean Alps
Next it’s off to western Austria and Innsbruck, the capital city of Tyrol. The earliest route through the Alps passed through Innsbruck where mountains eight-thousand to nine-thousand feet in height surround the valley. Emperor Maximilian I in the fifteenth century resided in what is now Old Town. His residence has a balcony with a golden roof that served as a royal box where he could sit and enjoy tournaments in the square below. Today he would see a thronged Christmas market.
Innsbruck’s artists make the exceptionally well-crafted nativity scenes displayed around the city. The Europa Stüberl restaurant has a meticulously constructed Alpine village with hand-carved angels, shepherds and Moors on camels.
Tyrolean passions run from the miniature to the monumental. A ride on the ski bus to Axamer Lizum brings you eye-to-eye with the Alps and perhaps an afternoon of skiing. From the top of the runs, the sun glints on the Inn River that flows through the broad valley. Innsbruck and its suburbs are tiny specks and seem time-bound compared to timeless, eternal quality of the steep ridges all around. Sunlight streaks the jagged slopes with silver like the polished organ pipes of a Baroque cathedral, but even more breathtaking.
The sun-streaked mountains have the same effect on the spirit as Handel’s Hallelujah chorus, which can be heard at the door of Götzens Pilgrim Church when the choir is practicing. The Götzens tram transports visitors to a sunny plateau 2,848 feet above Innsbruck for a sleigh ride. The region has miles of cross-country skiing tracks, and cleared footpaths for lantern walks and horse-drawn sleigh rides. Entranced by the magic of the silent scenery, everyone on board doubles up with laughter when the driver breaks into an ear-splitting yodel.
The Tyrolean village of Igls—bright in the starlight—is lovely for a nocturnal hike. The guide hands out kerosene lanterns and leads the stroll along a stream, then up a steep path to view 7,639 foot-high Patscherkofel. When it’s time to seek warmth and merriment, join the lively crowd at Heiligwasser restaurant for a brimming bowl of beef stew and kaiserschmarren, a sweet omelet-like pancake with raisins and plum sauce.
On the final evening, walk through the illuminated plaza. Silence descends upon the market where all of Innsbruck gathers to hear the bell-like voices of young choristers sing “O Tannenbaum.” For Christmas revelers, the frosty Alps warms the heart.
— Donna Peck
As a travel journalist and guidebook author, Donna Peck covers worldwide revelry for national publications and online magazines.