A Very German Christmas

Hot red wine wafts through the air. Friends and families laughing and sharing stories line the cobblestone streets, glasses in hand. The sound of children playing and running through crowds echoes as loudly as the constant sound of Christmas music. Vendors standing behind counters of temporary shops are hocking their goods – handmade chocolates, ornaments, and various Christmas decorations seem to be the most popular. This feels like the county fair but Christmas trees, bright lights, and huge windmills serving as a decoration stretch throughout this pop-up market.


Like a hunting hawk, we are attracted to anything that shimmers which in this case happens to be every other vendor’s booth. We did some real damage shopping for our loved ones. Most vendors did their best to understand our english and we in turn did our best to thank them profusely for their help (danke!). Next to nearly every booth selling merchandise is a food vendor of some sort – potato pancakes, bratwursts, burgers, freshly roasted nuts, donuts, sweet breads and cotton candy to boot. With some hot wine in our systems we bounced from one food vendor to another until we couldn’t possibly have another bite. Pig was by far the favorite meat and we enjoyed immensely.

One of the rituals in which we have taken great joy on this trip has been finding little gifts for family. As much as we enjoy shopping for our loved ones, it’s also an exercise in comfort; seeing the goods we’ve come across through family’s eyes brings us closer in spirit. The holiday season has certainly brought the homesickness out a few times. Without their realizing it, the people we love are always with us as we bounce from one destination to the next and stand in awe of everything we come across.

We stayed in the Rhine Valley for three nights in total. Mainz, Germany was home this go around. The town was teaming with Christmas activities and charm aplenty. Aside from the Christmas market we enjoyed (twice in three days) a couple hours in the Guttenberg museum proved to be…interesting…as well. The inventor of the printing press hailed from Mainz and the town has created a rather large museum in his honor. We strained to read the mostly German plaques throughout the museum but did enjoy the priceless collection of the oldest books in the world, including the first bible printed by the Guttenberg press. A 15 minute demonstration of the inventor’s press in action proved most engaging and perplexing all at once; pretending to understand what was being said throughout the demo was difficult to say the least and I caught one lady in the audience snickering at the dumbfounded look on our faces. We are in Germany, so it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the demonstration would be in German. We had a good laugh at ourselves and enjoyed the demonstration – what we thought we understood anyhow.

Tarin had once been in this area some years ago after college (go Cougs!) and was over the moon that we were returning to explore. I can recall the excitement in her voice many a time as she told me about the Upper, Middle Rhine Valley. After some research on our train ride leaving Berlin, we determined a one day tour up the Unesco World Heritage Site of Lovers Gorge was in order. Taking a mid morning train leaving Mainz, we headed north along the Rhine River, our train following every bend in the river. We rounded a corner in Bingen. before the river, steeply-slopped vineyards and castle dotted mountains filled our train windows.


For our first stop, we visited Bacharach. Cobblestone streets and Bavarian architecture are tucked into the base of a mountain range set along the western bank of the river. Most shops were closed as this is the off-season for tourism but we found one gentleman plugging away at his craft. His shop was filled with hundreds of handmade pieces which we marveled:


Looking up the mountainside, Tarin spotted the ruins to an old church. We climbed a steep stairway to reach the base of the centuries-old ruins floating above the river and town below.

Trains came every hour along this route and we hopped on board a north-bound locomotive in order to reach Koblenz, the most northerly city on the Rhine Gorge. Always proving most effective, we wandered the streets in the hope that we would find a late lunch. Voila, a few blocks away from the train station, Aubergine appeared! We sat next to a window for proper people watching and opted for a light meal of soups and salads. Their pumpkin soup was creamy with a hint of spice from freshly ground ginger added in and topped with toasted pumpkin seeds – absolutely delicious. Paired with a large salad, the meal provided fuel for our quick jaunt across town to view the confluence of the Rhine and La Moselle rivers.


We only snapped a couple of pictures as we had to hoof it for the train station which was about 2 miles away. We barely made the train headed south before it left. The ride home proved just as picturesque as the sun was setting on the Rhine Valley and our time in Mainz.

Through the Turmoil

The hands on the clock of this adventure are beginning to wind to end. An impromptu trip to Holland gave way, rather quickly I might add, to our ten day trip through Germany.

The most significant amount of time was spent in the capital city of Berlin, in the northeasterly reaches of the country. Today the city is hailed as a hotbed of artistry, nightlife and progressive social movements. However, just a little over 25 years ago Berlin served as the forefront for the Cold War. Alas, Soviet occupation and iron-fisted rule of East Germany dissolved with the removal of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the USSR in the late 80’s and early 90’s- all while I was just barely out of my Pull-Ups – yes, I am a big kid now! Rewind the clock another 45 years and this city played stage to one of the most dramatic defeats in all of modern war in Nazi Germany’s fall and Hitler’s shameless taking of his own life. Forgive the gruesome and rather down-trodden approach to the beginning of this post but our experience with the city of Berlin was marked by the feeling that the city has yet to fully shake off it’s dark and fairly recent past. This is not a judgement but rather an opinion based on my short stay in this large, international city.

Our apartment was very near the center of town and the infamous Checkpoint Charlie which served as an entry point into East Germany during the Cold War period of 1961-1989. Very nearby was an outdoor exhibit of the Berlin Wall, with a small portion of the wall still standing.


As an East German citizen, you were forbidden to cross the border into West Germany without consent of the state, and you were sure to die at the hands of a mercenary should you attempt. Standing in the middle of the once “neutral zone” sent shivers down our backs.

We tended to stay very near this central part of town as there was so much to see in relation to the history of Berlin – the previous location of Fuhrer’s Bunker, Brandenberger Tower, The National Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe, to name a few.

Striking was the contemporary look of the city. As a result of the bombings which took place during the later campaigns of WWII, the majority of the buildings we passed and roadways we walked were much more modern than that of those in other countries we have visited in Europe. The city required a near-complete rebuild once Hitler’s regime had been defeated, which came with an incredible financial burden. In order to mitigate the cost, many of the buildings throughout the worst-affected areas were prefabricated; out of these institutional-flavored neighborhoods flourished street artists aplenty, akin to The Rose That Grew from Concrete. These grey-colored buildings have provided a near endless canvas for graffiti artists to leave their mark. While many cities in the US label this medium a blemish on their perfectly clean appearance, Berlin seems to have accepted it as a means of reconciling the rather drab appearance of their function-over-form infrastructure.

Just outside the city of Berlin was the Sachenhausen Concentration Camp which we visited for a couple of hours on a very cold and foggy afternoon. This camp served as the administration headquarters and the architectural model for all concentration camps under Hitler’s reign and as such, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) made a concerted effort to preserve this camp. There is very little which remains today but the GDR have gone so far as to reconstruct some of the buildings in order to allow visitors to see how prisoners lived, where they bathed, ate and received medical care. We wondered around the camp, glued to our audio guide as we learned of the deplorable conditions people lived in.

Throughout the tour and the multiple exhibits, signs were posted in memoriam of those held in this camp and to serve as a reminder that the people of this world must stand united in the face of would-be oppressors in order to prevent such an atrocity from ever happening again. I don’t think we can say that we ‘enjoyed’ this tour but we certainly found it to be deeply moving.

The city of Berlin is thriving, even buzzing today and serves as the symbol of the progress which can be made, even after great tragedies; through hard work, perseverance, and an open mind anyone in this world can cast aside preconceived notions.