We wouldn’t be honoring our German residency if we let the Christmas season come and go without a post on Christmas markets (or Weihnachtsmarkt). This is definitely the most magical time in our host country, the brief respite of a long winter when lights, revelry and steaming mugs of hot libations animate chilly afternoons and evenings of each and every county north to south.
As you know, we prefer to explore the lesser-known gems scattered in little villages, and this year’s featured spot is Bernkastel, a wine-growing mecca. On a map you’ll see this town referred to as Bernkastel-Kues, but Bernkastel sits on one side of the famous Mosel – or Anglicized “Moselle” – River, and Kues sits on the other.
As you’ll see, the region’s wine plays a large role in making this market unique, but there are three other things that contribute to its noteworthiness:
1) Bernkastel knows its gluhwein:
While gluhwein – that luscious, steaming beverage of wine simmered with spices and often spiked with rum or brandy – is practically synonymous with Christmas markets from France to Sweden, the town of Bernkastel (which traces its winegrowing heritage to the Romans) takes it to a new level.
If you order a mug, you’re going to have to get specific. Do you want Riesling gluhwein, a white wine with strong acid and fruit? Or how about Dornfelder gluhwein, a velvety red? And the list goes on. You’ll probably have to try them all to see which you like best – all for the sake of travel research, of course.
For those of you that prefer your wine ohne (without) spices, head to one of many wine tasting booths or wine bars; keep an eye out for signs that say “weinstube.”
2) It hosts a mega Advent calendar:
Bernkastel’s advent calendar is the largest in the region, encompassing the side of a building in the main market square. Each day at 5:30 p.m. a new door is opened to plenty of pomp and heraldry.
3) Get caught up in strange, ancient rituals:
In perhaps one of the strangest Christmas market rituals, the brave (or foolish, depending how you look at it) souls of the Octopus Swim Club jump into the freezing river one night at the beginning of December carrying lighted torches for the Fackelschwimmen, or “torch swim,” to light the way for St. Nicholas (who ostensibly is coming from the northwest and would get stuck over in Kues if it weren’t for the swimmers’ gallantry). Afterwards, good ol’ St. Nick hands out presents for the children in Bernkastel.
The next day, knights from the hillside Landshut Castle meet St. Nick and townsfolk in the town square and accompany them on a ten-kilometer parade around the town, ending in a meal and surprises from – you guessed it – the white-haired guy dressed in velvet.
4) Why wait to get into the spirit?
Last but not least, Bernkastel opens earlier than most German Christmas markets, slightly before Advent (late November). Since I’m usually beside myself with anticipation (after a cold month in Germany after the leaves have fallen, everything grows gray, and the days become shorter and shorter, you’d be ready for some lights, too), this is a major plus.
And of course, multiple varieties of gluhwein and a cute-as-a-button village doesn’t hurt the cause….
*Tip: A great rule of thumb is to look for villages that weren’t bombed during the war. Those are the ones that maintain original half-timbered buildings, many of which were built long before we on this side of the pond even formed a country. They’re almost guaranteed to amaze and delight.
Bernkastel-Kues is located about 45 kilometers (28 miles) northeast of Trier. The closest airport is Frankfurt-Hahn. Because the roads down to the town twist and turn, you’ll need to leave about 45 minutes if driving from either place.
Visit the official site