Having a Ball in Bavaria

By Jane Black
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 28, 2004

'Twas the month before Christmas -- the first that my boyfriend, Matt, and I would spend together. Rather than traipse to the relatives, we decided to have it at our new home in London. Just the two of us. We would open presents around our gorgeously decorated tree, feast on a traditional English meal of turkey, cranberry sauce and Christmas pudding, and then cuddle up to watch that old holiday favorite, "It's a Wonderful Life."

Or not. One look around our rented, Ikea-furnished flat and we realized that Christmas for just the two of us promised to be more dreary than romantic. Between us we didn't have a single ornament, garland or decoration. And I had no idea how to make Christmas pudding. We had five weeks to set things right.

It was mid-November, but already central London was a holiday nightmare. High Street shops blared Christmas carols onto the sidewalks and normally well-behaved Brits shoved one another aside, snatching at wrapping paper, tinsel and mirror-ball ornaments. Mirror balls?

We decided to turn our anxiety into advantage by traveling to Bavaria, which is known for its fairy-tale Christmas markets that sell hand-painted ornaments, nutcrackers and decorative garlands. More specifically, we chose Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a town about 100 miles northwest of Munich that boasts a Christmas market dating to the 15th century. Each year, the walled medieval town of 12,000 is aglow with white lights and awaft with the aroma of grilled sausages, spicy gingerbread and the traditional mulled wine, gluhwein.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber ("Red Castle on the Tauber River") is a storybook village, the kind of place Busch Gardens tries to re-create at its theme parks. There's only one catch: There's no castle. The town's first was built in 970; the last was destroyed in 1356 by an earthquake. Still, you hardly miss it. The medieval red-roofed buildings house bakeries, butchers and, of course, dozens of Christmas shops, many of which are open year-round. Outside, stalls offer Christmas cards, candles, chocolates, trinkets, woolly hats and scarves, and wooden boxes of sausages that look like little cigars. Throughout December, brass bands play each afternoon on the Market Square, and each evening the town watchman gives guided tours of the city's main sights for a small fee.

The center of city life is the Market Square. Along the west side is the Rathaus, Rothenburg's honey-colored town hall, complete with Gothic clock tower that you can climb for a fabulous view of the town and valley. Next door is the Ratstrinkstube, or City Councilor's Tavern, which serves as a tourist information center for the city's 2.5 million annual visitors.

The mob we found outside the building was not there to collect brochures, however. They were waiting for the windows on either side of the clock tower to reveal painted wooden figures that reenact the legend of "The Master Draught" hourly. In 1631, Catholic troops attacked and occupied Protestant Rothenburg. The Catholic commander threatened to plunder and destroy the city unless one of the town councilors drank a 3/4-gallon tankard of wine -- all in one go. The mayor, so the story goes, polished off the wine and saved the town.

We spent our first day touring the town's main sites, including several beautiful Gothic churches. Then we set out to shop. Our first stop: Kathe Wohlfahrt's Christmas Village. Begrudgingly, we paid a one euro entrance fee (about $1.30, refundable when you inevitably make a purchase) and stepped into a veritable shrine to Christmas. A blinding 18-foot Christmas tree with more than 7,000 lights revolved in the "village" center, a collection of snow-covered, wreath-bedecked half-timbered houses. In the "trees" above, nearly 80,000 white lights twinkled.

We went straight to work. Each house displayed dozens of blown-glass, brass and wood ornaments. We picked out a wooden Santa chef with tiny gingerbread cakes and a rolling pin hanging from his arms, and a brown milking cow, whose legs move up and down when you pull the tiny milk bottle hanging from her belly. We chose a Little Red Riding Hood tucked in a mahogany sleigh. And we couldn't resist a Santa in a hot-air balloon with presents, instead of sandbags, hanging below.

When we'd had enough, we headed outside and wandered through the stalls and nearby shops. Most offered the same selection, though some had slightly lower prices. Within an hour everything started to blur. Though it was just above freezing, we joined the mostly German tourists back in Market Square, who huddled around giant beer-barrel tables eating foot-long grillwurst and sipping mugs of gluhwein spiked with rum, vodka or liqueur. The mugs, we learned after several glasses, are included in the price of your drink, so it's fine to wander off with them. If you return the mug to the stand, you generally get a one euro refund -- about a 30 percent discount.

Berlin may have restaurants to rival New York or London, but in Bavaria the food remains as stodgy as ever. Most of Rothenburg's restaurants offer a limited array of German specialties, which mostly means various kinds of pork: roast pork shoulder with potato dumplings and cabbage, roast pork knuckle with sauerkraut and dumplings, roast pork chops and spaetzle.

Yes, this trip was about Christmas ornaments. But all our trips are about food. And this was not my kind of food. Since we'd arrived, I'd been living on (admittedly delicious) spicy sausages and schneeballen, fried dough balls filled with nougat, chocolate or liqueur. I needed a real meal.

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