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The market by the Cologne Cathedral

 My husband and I spent the past weekend eating. Honestly. Just stuffing everything in sigh into our mouths. 

We have an excuse – we were in Cologne, Germany, visiting the city’s many Christmas markets. 

I hadn’t really heard of these markets before, but many German cities have them – they’re basically little areas set up with stalls selling handicrafts, Christmas decorations, lots of German food and gluhwien, or mulled wine. Yum. 

Cologne is about a 6 hour drive from our house, so we decided to go there to get a Christmas Market Experience. The city itself has seven different markets – including a floating one on a boat – but only made it to three of them. 

Cologne is very beautiful, mostly due to an enormous cathedral in the center of town. Construction on it was started in 1248, because the church was to be home to some relics that were supposedly the bones of the three magi, and the church officials thought such relics deserved an amazing church. The cathedral took 600 years to finish and now, it’s quite gorgeous. It’s really huge, though – that’s what surprised me. Enormously tall. It was even the world’s tallest building back in 1884. 

Anyhow, enough about the cathedral. On the markets! We started off Thursday night at the Neumarkt Square market. We had some hot wine, and were temped by the marzipan stollen,  the cookies, the fried potato things we had last time we were in Germany…D. ate a currywurst, but for the most part, we held off so that we could visit Haxenhouse, a traditional German restaurant downtown. 

D. eating a pork knuckle with spicy Chinese marinade

When we arrived, we found out the place was full. But we sat down for a few glasses of Kolsch, the local beer, and when the waitress saw we were still there, she fit us in a place where some other’s had cancelled. How nice of her! D. had an actual huge pork knuckle, and I had a vegetarian mushroom pasta dish. 

The next day, we went to the NS-Dokumentationszentrum der Stadt Köln Museum, which I think translates to something like the Documentation of Nationalsocialism in Cologne Museum. It is housed in the former Gestapo prison, which was left very in-tact – basically, you can still see the drawings and quotes people wrote on their prison cells while they were held captive (some are thought-provoking – some are encouraging others – but my favorite was translated to “Gestapo are assholes.”) 

Weird WWI-era blimp ornament?

Unfortunately, the upper two levels of the history museum aren’t translated into English. We could have rented English audioguides, but we were warned they took 2.5 hours to complete, and we didn’t’ really have enough time.  Still, I found the seasonal exhibit, called “Heilige Nacht” (I know that means “holy night” thanks to nine years of Lutheran Day School) which showed how Christmas has been used as propaganda in Germany, starting with WWI. One example was the Christmas postcards with some sort of bullet on it, decorated with evergreen, and the other was a Christmas ornament of a blimp. Ok. 

Even weirder were the displays of how the Nazis used Christmas. For example, Hitler tried to convince housewives to make “Christmas” cookies that were of mythical Norse winter solstice-type motifs and swastikas. And there were also many Christmas bulbs that had swastikas on them, too. 

Perhaps the weirdest thing to me, though, were the Nazi-esque “advent calendars.” Instead of candles to represent hope, peace, etc., the Nazi party offered up these helpful suggestions seen below. If you looks closely, you will see candles surrounded by “wreaths” of either those mythical Norse-type horses or of a cross made of Viking ships. Hey, Hitler, I think you were missing the point… 

Nazi advent calendars...

Anyway, the exhibit was quite interesting. Done, however, with creepy Nazi propaganda, we decided to move on to more cheerful pastimes – mostly eating. 

We visited the Cathedral market and the Heumarkt — both were great. 

D. ate a bratwurst from there folks (the whole market smelled like Milwaukee, honestly) 

The bratwurst sellers

We had hot wine. We had hot apple cider with calvados. We ate a German garlicbread with olives and red pepper cream cheese on it that was heavenly.

German Garlic Bread - this stall smelled fantastic

 We ate a bowl of fresh dumplings with sauerkraut, creme fraiche and herbs. 

Dumplings & saurkraut/creme fraiche

And then we had to stop. No cheese spatzle for me, no fried potatoes, no fried apples, no pretzel, no nothing more. I was SO full. Too bad… 

D. and I had so much fun on this little weekend away – it really was one of the best things we did all year. I love visiting Germany – the people are so warm and friendly and laid-back. I also got a kick out of how many German Christmas things seemed so familiar to me — advent calendars with chocolate inside for sale all over the place, hearing “Oh Come Little Children” in German on the merry-go-round (mom taught me that one when I was a kid), gingerbread cookies, spritz cookies, gingerbread-lattes at Starbucks (well, they called them Lebkuchen lattes, but they tasted the same to me)… even slightly buzzed German tourists wearing fuzzy Christmas tree hats — it was a little bit like being home in Wisconsin! 

Hoo loves mulled wine? (Sorry, couldn't help it)

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A long, long time ago, I made a promise to myself:  I would never go to Germany.
Why not?  Long story…
In front of the Münster Palace

In front of the Münster Palace

I grew up somewhat suffocated by the omnipresence of second, third or fourth-generation Germanness in my life. Kindergarten to Eighth-grade was spent at a Lutheran school, affiliated with  a conservative Lutheran church — and that made up most of my family’s  social structure.
Ninety-nine percent of the people I attended school with were of German heritage, and, boy, were they proud of it!
If a family was “Lucky Enough to Take a Trip to Germany,”  everyone treated them like they  had gone to Mecca on Hajj or something.
Me... back in the day...

Me... back in the day...

When they came back, we would have to watch slideshow after slideshow about it, even in class.
 Teachers would throw German words and phrases into lessons, blather on and on about how great Germany was when they visited it.
We would have to hear all about how Lufthansa was the “coolest” airline ever (I can vouch that is NOT the case) and we would sing  “Stille Nacht” every Christmas performance. Kids would say “danke schoen” or call you a “Dumkopf,” thinking they were really cool… ugh.
It was enough to make me realize I never wanted to go there  E.V.E.R. Cambodia? Fine. India? OK. Ethiopia? Why not? But Germany? Hells-to-the-no.

Oh, and the fact that I’m a vegetarian played in, too. My experience with German food — albeit nearly all from Milwaukee’s Germanfest and the handful of well-known German restaurants in Waukesha Country — made me realize that the Germans, apparently, don’t eat vegetables. Or anything other than breaded pork.

Well, long story short, all of this was wrong.

D. and I entered Germany by car. And… well… my first impression of Germany was that everyone had nice cars (compared to the French).

Then I noticed how nice the rivers that we kept crossing were.  Hmm.. it was pretty!

When we finally got to our hotel in Essen, I was all ready to duke it out with some obnoxious German people. Except.. there were none.  We found our hotel to be really nice – even by American standards. Roomy, comfy bed, TV channels in English, ice machine… and cheap. Friendly people who talked to me on the elevator. Wow.

Then we went outside to find a restaurant and found ourselves in some new development of hotels, apartments, offices, a theater… and we found a restaurant chain called Mongo’s, which was like a German version of a Mongolian BBQ. The buffet had tofu on it! As well as other things, like scallops and kangaroo meat. And they cooked the food with red curry sauce, or mango curry, or whatever you wanted, Yum!

Anyhow, on our way back from Scandinavia we stopped in Münster. It’s a really cute college town, reminding me of  Boulder, Colo., or Madison, Wisc. There were parks everywhere, bike trails through the parks, lakes, restaurants on lakes.. it’s was so pretty and so clean!

We stopped in a bakery on our way into town and got a big cup of coffee to-go (yes, they do that in Germany). And they had linzer hearts, which I had seen all the time growing up, but didn’t know were German.

Later, we made it to the farmer’s market, where we found berries galore. Blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, even berries we couldn’t recognize. And bakeries, too.

 

Farmer's market, under an ancient cathedral

Farmer's market, under an ancient cathedral

The German bakery is more my style than the French type, I have to admit. It’s less pretty and artistic, but more comforting —  and tastier. We bought a big old rhubarb cheesecake to eat in our hotel room. And then I saw them – spritz cookies! My mom used to make these things at Christmas, in the shape of trees and stars. I had to buy a bag – they were great with our coffee the next day.

One of the many bakeries at the market (where we bought the spritz)

One of the many bakeries at the market (where we bought the spritz)

Then we found this stand with a huge queue around it – all we could see were women frying up something and a sign that said –apfelmus–  which I felt was –applesauce– (did I know this from some previous experience at Lutheran school which I’ve repressed? Possibly….) 

 So we stood in line to get a few. What we ended up with were the greasiest hashbrowned potatoes ever. We couldn”t believe how many people were ordering up a half-dozen of these things!

The women frying potatoes

The women frying potatoes

 

St. Lambert's Church

St. Lambert's Church

We wandered around town, enjoying the buildings and parks. One of the more interesting visits was to St. Lambert’s Church, which has been around for centuries. Two things we learned: First, Münster was heavily bombed during WWII and apparently most of the church was bombed, but the steeple miraculously survived. We were told this by an elderly German lady who saw us paging through a book with old photos of the church.

Secondly, you might see in the steeple three metal cages. Want to know what those were for? Apparently in the 1530s, Münster was a hotbed of religious violence and some Anabaptists took over the town. One guy installed himself as “king,” took 16 wives, beheaded one of them in the town square, etc. Anyhow, eventually people retook their town and killed the three leaders, then hung their bodies in cages from the steeple as a warning to others. The cages? Still there.

 We ended up grabbing lunch at a small brewery, which had a menu featuring two categories: German sausage stuff and salads. I had a Greek salad, which was fabulous. Afterwards, we walked around some more, taking in the numerous bike and walking paths that make up much of the city’s center – many even go around lakes and ponds. Münster is apparently the “bicycle capital” of Germany – and I believe the fact that they have a large university there probably contributes to that, as many of the people we saw biking looked like college students.

One of the many lovely bike/walking paths in the midst of the city

One of the many lovely bike/walking paths in the midst of the city

For dinner, we went to a restaurant which appeared to be a Traditional German Place – blue and white plates, wooden beams all over – you get  the idea. 

Yet what did I spy on the menu? Vegetarische. That’s right. They had three options for vegetarian food -mostly the regular food, but modified. I got a veggie au gratin, which, while fattening, was quite tasty.

So, long story short: I actually really liked Germany and would be happy to go back there. And? I’ve decided to make spritz cookies for Christmas this year. Mom, drag out the spritz maker!

Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht…

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