Christmas in Europe Part 3: The Weihnachtmarkts

We left London on Sunday evening to head to Reading, where our friends Charlie & Gareth live.  We were leaving for Germany on Tuesday evening which gave us a day and a half to relax and do nothing.  Except that Gareth had a little surprise for us.  He was already on Christmas Break and as such, was taking us to Winchester to check out their Christmas market.  He’d never been and he’d heard it was one of the best in the state.  Lee and I had never been to Winchester, so it seemed like a no-brainer to check it out.

Winchester was absolutely beautiful.  And old.  You see, Winchester has been an inhabited town since about 150 BC and was the capital of England during the reign of King Alfred (871-899 AD), so yeah.  It’s ancient.  We stayed mainly in the city center, which contained a beautiful cathedral and tons of shops.

 

 

Winchester’s Christmas market was nice enough, but Gareth was adamant that it didn’t compare to what were going to experience in Cologne.  I was glad to hear this, because so far, I hadn’t been all that impressed.  Every market we had been to in England was nice, but not overwhelmingly exciting.

Tuesday we packed our bags, headed back to Heathrow and made our way to Düsseldorf.  The plan was to spend a night in Dusseldorf and then make our way to Cologne on Wednesday.  When we got to Dusseldorf, we quickly checked into our hotel and made our way to the “altstadt”, or old town, to check out our first real Christmas market.  Unfortunately,  by the time we made it to the city center, they were closing up for the night.  We walked around a bit to figure out which markets to hit up the next day before heading to the hotel for the night.

 

 

After a somewhat slow start that morning (too much Prosecco and cribbage the night before) we made our way back to the altstadt and Lee and I finally got to experience our first authentic Weihnachtmarkt.

Oh.  My.  God, you guys.  If you ever have the opportunity to go to Germany during the Christmas season, DO IT.  Everything, from the atmosphere, to the drinks to the food, is beyond amazing.  I got to try my very first glühwein, which is a hot mulled wine, available in both red and white varieties, and Lee got his fill of hot chocolate with both Bailey’s and amaretto.file1-2

We spent about half the day walking through Düsseldorf before making our way to the train station to head to Cologne.  Lee and I were pretty jazzed about the markets we had experienced in Düsseldorf, however, Charlie & Gareth continued to assured once again, that they didn’t hold a torch to Cologne.

They weren’t lying.  As our train slid into the Cologne train station, we saw a beautifully gothic, almost foreboding cathedral in the distance.  It was absolutely breathtaking.  We  made our way to the hotel, dropped our things and went to explore the city.

As luck would have it, there was a Christmas market about 50 feet from the hotel entrance, so we didn’t have to go far to find some Christmas cheer.  I was parched after a 45 minute train ride, so our first stop was at the market bar so we could get another glass of that delicious mulled wine.  Once we’d had a look around we proceeded to the next market.

One of the great things about the Cologne Christmas markets is their proximity to each other.  You don’t typically have to walk more than 5-10 minutes before finding another one.  Cologne had a total of 9 markets set up when we were there, and I believe we made it to 8.

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Our evening was spent trying a bunch of new and exciting foods and drinking a lot of mulled wine and beer.  The markets close around 10, which meant that everyone made their way to the nearest bars to keep the festivities going.  We had a couple more drinks before making our way back to the hotel.  (We had a VERY spirited game of Cribbage that needed finishing)  A couple more glasses of wine and beer later, Gareth and I were still losing at Cribbage but less inclined to care.

Thursday morning, Gareth & Charlie walked us down to the Cologne lock bridge.  Like it’s Paris counterpart, the lock bridge is a place where couples place a lock with their names and anniversary date on the bridge.  The couple breaks the key off in the lock before making a wish and throwing the key into the Rhine.  Charlie and Gareth immortalized their wedding date on their last trip to Cologne and it didn’t take much convincing for Lee and I to decide to immortalize ours as well.  We even found a spot right next to Charlie and Gareth’s lock so we’ll always have a place next to each other.  Best friends for life!

 

The rest of the day was spent hitting up Christmas Market after Christmas market and stopping for glühwein whenever we got cold.  Charlie and Gareth made reservations for us at their favorite Cologne restaurant that evening, an Alpine-themed restaurant complete with servers donning lederhosen and boots of beers.  I chose to try Wienerschnitzel that evening and made lots of Tenacious D references to people eating my fucking schnitzel that apparently only I found funny.  Whatever.  I stand by my jokes.

Friday morning we visited the markets one last time, in order to buy all of the items we had been scoping out since we arrived before making our way back to the train station.  It was a bittersweet day, as reality sunk in that we would be heading back to the US the next day.  Our Christmas vacation was nearly over and we would have to return to the real world again.  A return to the real world meant in-depth conversations and tough decisions were going to be headed our way.  We promised each other that this wouldn’t be the last time we came to Europe to experience Christmas.  If anything, this was just the beginning.

 

Christmas in Europe Part Two: London Calling

After our initial travel debacle, the rest of the journey to London was uneventful.  It was a non-stop overnight flight, which meant attempting to sleep on an airplane.  We arrived in London at about noon on Thursday, December 14th.  While it wasn’t exactly warm, there was about a 30 degree difference between Minneapolis and London which felt quite nice.  We hopped on the Heathrow Express  to London and made our way toward our hotel in the Lambeth area of London.

Now, I work for a hotel, which is not without it perks.  That’s part of the reason why it’s so affordable for my husband and I to travel (especially internationally).  When we checked in to the hotel, the guest service rep casually mentioned that he had upgraded our room, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the amazing upgrade we received.

 

They upgraded us to a one-bedroom suite facing the Thames with a beautiful view of Westminster Abbey.  Had it been warmer than 40 degrees while we were there, I would have spent morning, noon and night out on the balcony admiring the scenery.

Lee and I learned long ago, that even though the jet lag can be absolutely miserable when you first get there, it’s best to power through and get on London time so that it doesn’t ruin the start of your trip.  With that idea in mind, we quickly got situated, showered and then went on our way taking in the sights.  We walked along south bank, past the London Eye toward the south bank Christmas market.  One of the things that surprised us was the amount of outdoor seating available in December.  Every restaurant along Gabriel’s Wharf had outdoor dining available, equipped with heaters and blankets.  And people were actually sitting outside!  We’re made of strong stuff in Minnesota, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone willing to eat dinner outside at 40 degrees.

We popped in for dinner at a little pizza place and relaxed for a bit before making our way back toward the hotel.  There’s a little boat located right outside the hotel that’s actually a bar, so we stopped in for a nightcap, before heading in for the night.

We managed to make it all the way to about 8 p.m. before we called it a day.  Not bad considering I got maybe an hour or sleep on the plane.  We hopped in bed with no real plans for the next day.  We’d wait to see where the day took us.

I woke up the next morning determined to accomplish what I had only recently realized was a dream of mine.  I was going to go for a morning run along the Thames.  Of course, (because it’s London), it was raining.  It rained every morning when I would get up to run, which meant I was relegated to the hotel fitness center.  Oh well.  Next time.

Another one of the perks of staying at my hotel properties is the complimentary breakfast each morning.  Each day, we received a full English Breakfast as well as anything we wanted to help ourselves to from the continental buffet.  The continental breakfast was more than plenty on its own!  Smoked meats and cheeses,  a variety of breakfast breads, fresh fruit, smoothies, porridge and of course a plethora of juices, teas and coffees.  After a quick breakfast, we were on our way.

We got a lot of walking in that first day!  From the hotel, we walked to Westminster Abbey, up to Trafalgar Square, then down through St. James Park, Green Park, to Hyde Park for the Winter Wonderland and then over to Harrod’s to do a little Christmas shopping.  I’ve put together this beautiful little map to show you our travels.

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After Harrod’s we stopped for a quick bite before heading back to the hotel.  We had very important business to attend to!  Our friends Charlie & Gareth were meeting us at the hotel, and would be spending the weekend in London with us.  Once we were reunited, we went and had an amazing Turkish meal at a terrible Turkish restaurant.  (Yes, you read that right; amazing food, shitshow of a restaurant).  We called it a relatively early night that night, as we had a big day ahead of us the next day.

Saturday we met for breakfast and then headed out to do some more shopping,  I only had a few things on the agenda for Saturday, but I was really excited about them!  I got tickets to Skygarden, which I was unable to get on our last visit.  Located on the 36th floor of a building nicknamed the Walkie Talkie, Sky Garden is exactly that:  A garden in the sky.  It had started to rain rather heavily at this point, so there wasn’t an option to enjoy the rooftop deck, but I would imagine, the views are even more breathtaking when you can enjoy them outside.

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That evening, we had tickets to a pop-up movie.  Each year, a company called Backyard Cinema hosts a pop-up movie theater in the middle of a Christmas Carnival.  I managed to find out about it through a Buzzfeed article and snagged tickets to see Love Actually as soon as they went on sale.

The video I saw on their website was cool and all, but it really didn’t do the experience justice.  We rolled up to the carnival and made our way to the movie theatre where we queued to get in.  We walked through a wardrobe stuffed with coats a la The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe, walked down a magically lit path into a heated tent complete with a full bar and blankets at each seat.  It was such a wonderful experience; one that I definitely hope to do again!

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Sunday was a little more laid back as we had to leave London, but I can unequivocally state that we already can’t wait to go back.  Each time I visit, it gets that much harder to leave.  As much as I love the great state of Minnesota, if a job ever opened up for me over in England, I wouldn’t even hesitate.  That job would be mine.

We had a day and a half to relax with our friends before we were on to our next adventure:  the Christmas markets in Germany.  Neither of us had ever been, and neither one of us was quite prepared for the experience.