Nurnberg, Bavaria

 

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The sky darkened quickly. It felt much like the after dinner lull when we would settle in for the evening. The clock said differently: 3 p.m.

It was the first day of winter, December 21. The festive white lights brightened the darkening streets. Coffee houses transformed into glühwein stands. Christmas decorations trimmed greenery, shrubs, lamp posts, bridges, walkways and streets. The atmosphere was an energized festival, scattered between the gothic and, I dare say, creepy Medieval spires of old churches.

We were in Nuremburg during its not-to-miss time of year—Nurnberger Christkindlesmarkt. The world-famous Christmas market’s first days were recorded in letters written in 1530. It was now 2019 and a dozen generations separated us from the first years of this celebration. The world today would be unrecognizable to those who first sold their Christmas wares, desserts and warm drinks.

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The city came alive now. Wooden stalls were quickly assembled with German efficiency throughout the uneven cobblestone streets of Old Town. Lighted trees were everywhere, each branch wrapped with strands upon strands of warm, white lights. It could only be described as magical.

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We sipped warm spiced wine from our porcelain cups and took bites of drei im weggla, a three-sausage street food sandwich that was sold at nearly every corner. My drei im weggla had been stripped of most of its bread; the finger-sized sausages were loaded with sauerkraut and mustard. I ate this traditional finger food unconventionally—with a fork and a knife.

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We shared the market’s heavy comfort food between the three of us, wishing the beautiful layers of marzipan tasted as good as they had looked behind the glass (although my daughter said it was the best thing she had ever tasted). I longed to buy just a few of delicate and unique Christmas decorations that looked like magic underneath the red and white candy-striped roofs of these rustic, temporary storefronts.

Germany was everything I had hoped it would be. Many of its buildings had seen war, death, unprecedented change:

  • These holes here were caused by the bullets that were fired during a street fight during World War II;
  • Walk up this steep brick-lined street—soon you’ll find Kaiserburg, a Medieval castle built around the year 1000;
  • Next to this, you will see the famous Albrecht Dürer house, once home of Nuremburg’s favorite child. Paintings of the 15th century German painter, theorist and printmaker were scattered throughout the city. I thought he looked a bit like Jesus;
  • Over by the water is the Heilig-Geist-Spital, a former hospital that was founded in 1332. It is now a retirement home and a restaurant. I would have a traditional German meal there later that evening, a meal that would feel much like a grandmother’s hug. I ordered sauerbraten, a tender spiced pot roast, and kartoffelkloesse—round potato dumplings.

Our Airbnb was in the shadow of Nuremburg’s castle. The flat itself was functional, if impersonal. It required an uphill hike to get there but provided everything we needed for the four short days we would call it home. I bought a bag of potatoes and onions. I planned on roasted chicken for our Christmas meal: the pint-sized oven would not hold our usual turkey.

Kaiserburg was majestic and spooky; a German flag flew high overhead. Lights burned in the tower at night; we wondered who was up there and what they were doing. When Chris asked the next day, the shopkeepers said they didn’t know. This further fueled our curiosity.

We huddled together in a frigid, unheated St. Lorenz church for its Christmas Eve service. Treasure surrounded us. From the stained-glass windows, the intricately carved stone and woodwork to the majestic organ and gold statues, we were surrounded by objects that were as old, if not older, than Henry VIII (I mused). Giant chandeliers were lowered from the towering ceilings, and individual white pillar candles were lit for this occasion.

We had bought a tiny portable Christmas tree for the flat. We decorated it with a strand of lights, along with four or five ornaments that had no sentimental value. The Airbnb consisted of two bedrooms, a kitchen and a bathroom. We put the small tree in our 11-year-old daughter’s room. She left the lights on all day and all night. She loved the soft glow that, even in this unfamiliar flat and thousands of miles away from home, made it feel more like Christmas.

On the 26th, we tore down the tree and put it outside near the rubbish, hoping someone would see it and rescue it. There wasn’t room for it in the tiny Volkswagen hatchback we had rented, which was now packed and ready to head to Vienna.

We left Nuremberg.

The decorations there were no longer lit. The city seemed dreary. The buzz of Christkindlesmarket was now quiet; the smell of gingerbread and rum punch had faded. The sky was gray, and the streets were wet with the spitting rain that never seemed to turn to snow.

I tried not to let the gloom set in. There was so much more to see, to experience, to do. I felt at home here. Aside from the lone Dutch blood that my father’s mother brought into the mix, my family had all come from Germany. My family names seemed to be everywhere in Germany and throughout Austria—on restaurants, within subway schedules, on street signs, as towns.

We merged onto the Autobahn. Chris stepped on the gas, driving as fast as we could east, toward the signs that said “Wein” and “Österreich.” The sky was low and dreary, but the hills were a brilliant green and sprinkled with castles.

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