Dottie and I just got back from a float on the Rhine River. We were on Viking Long Ship’s annual “Christmas Market Cruise” that runs from Amsterdam, Netherlands, to Basel, Switzerland. It was a nice trip, made even nicer by the company of good Sonoma friends, Gary and Marcia Nelson and John and Phyllis Gurney.
Celebrating Christmas and a tradition that goes back centuries, many cities along the Rhine hold month-long outdoor Christmas markets packed every night and weekend by locals and visitors.
In some ways they are like our own Sonoma Farmers Market, except that the emphasis is on Christmas, and they sell lots of great food, beer and “gluhwein” ( hot mulled wine) and Christmas gift items, instead of fresh produce.
Even small towns have markets supported by the business community, civic leaders, and the community residents themselves. They are set up in plazas and on some closed-off downtown shopping streets so the local merchants can participate. Imagine the Bay Area’s Dickens’ Faire set up on the streets around the Plaza.
The best small town Christmas market faire we saw was in Rudesheim, a romantic little village of 10,000 people. There were close to 100 separate outdoor booths that look like little Tyrolean houses (complete with wooden floors, wooden walls and roofs), from which handcrafts from the area, and traditional local goods (nutcrackers, clocks, etc.) were sold. Food huts were plentiful and offered everything from sausage sandwiches and french fries to many kinds of sweet things like donuts, strudel and more.
The celebrated drink of the season is gluhwein, which they serve hot in ceramic cups, for which you pay a small deposit. You can keep the cup when you leave, or turn it in at any wine booth and get your deposit back. Of course, beer is served, as are various other concoctions appropriate to the theme.
The best Christmas city of them all was Basel, Switzerland. You would swear it was a movie set for a storybook Christmas tale. Businesses were colorfully decorated and lighted for the holidays. The local Salvation Army had quartets of carolers and musicians playing on many street corners. We enjoyed a free concert with carols played by the Basel tuba band (at least 60 horns strong) in front of the old city hall. You haven’t heard anything until you stand close to that many tubas, their thunderous bass octave tones blasting out “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.”
There was other free entertainment, including a Bach organ concert in the local cathedral.
It really felt like Christmas. Seniors, young folks, parents with children, all bundled up for the cold, shopped in the booths and gathered in groups eating bratwurst sandwiches, sipping mulled wine and enjoying the holiday atmosphere with friends and neighbors.
I kept thinking, “This would be so great if we could do something like it in Sonoma.”
One of our excursions was into the Black Forest, where I was hoping to see the house that Hansel and Gretel tried to eat and what the trout streams looked like. I saw the latter, but H & G were nowhere to be found.
The streams look very trouty and the guide said the fishing during the May to October season is good.