Right before the December holidays, we jumped on a plane for a mini-excursion to Köln (Cologne), Germany, to fully immerse ourselves in Christmas spirit at the German Weihnachtsmarkts (Christmas markets).
I used to travel often to Frankfurt in November for work, and always made sure to take one evening to head to the Christkindl market, buy some gifts, and sip some warm, tasty spiced wine, glühwein. But I had never, until now, had the chance to experience it with my girls and Rudy. We had such a fantastic (though chilly) time.
First, a little background on Cologne/Köln. Köln has a 2,000 year history and its name dates back to Roman times, when it was known as “Colonia”. During World War II about 90% of the inner city was destroyed, and in 1947 work began to rebuild the Old Town. Together with the original (and very old) cathedral, post-war architecture is the primary look of the city now.
The Cologne Cathedral is a massive Gothic church, whose construction began in 1248 and was not completed until 1880. It’s ornate and commanding in presence, and it also houses the world’s largest free-swinging bell, St. Petersglocke – Saint Peter’s Bell. You can tour the church, climb the towers of the cathedral, view the bells, attend services, and listen to the choir perform.
And now, onto the markets! Cologne has eight Christmas markets. Seriously, it’s a lot. Which meant we had a lot of ground to cover in the three days we were there. We didn’t get to see every one, but the ones we visited were all memorable and unique.
To get to the various markets, you can purchase a day ticket on their Christmas train. It takes you to 4 of the sites, and our girls loved riding it.
- Neumarkt, or the Markt de Engel (Angel Market): This is Cologne’s oldest Christmas market, and also where you can find the Christkind, a fairy-godmother-like giver of gifts, created by Martin Luther during his reformation to replace the Saint Nicholas tradition. You can learn more about this tradition here. This market is alight with glittering stars and a sparkling carousel, and angels of all shapes and sizes are for sale.
- Kölner Dom Weihnachtsmarkt: The biggest and most well-known market is the one situated directly beside the Cologne Cathedral. It is packed during the evenings, concerts play, the scent of roasted nuts, glühwein, and gingerbread fill the air, and a huge Christmas tree lights up the street in the shadow of the ornate cathedral spires.
- Hafen Weihnachtsmarkt and Scholadenmuseum (Harbor Market and Lindt Chocolate Museum): This is a quaint market overlooking the Rhine River. It is situated out front of the Lindt Chocolate Museum. We ate some fabulous fire-roasted salmon, shopped for warm socks and gloves, and then headed into the museum for a warm up. I wasn’t really interested in heading to a chocolate museum, but once we got in, my mind was changed. Our girls had a great time learning about cacao and the chocolate-making process, and everywhere you turned, someone handed you a piece of creamy, milky Lindt. By the time we finished in the museum, we were warm and completely, utterly full of chocolate. It was a great way to spend a few hours out of the cold.
- Heumarkt and the Alter Markt: Little gnomes and big polar bears adorn these two markets, where a large ice skating rink is installed, as well as a ferris wheel and carousel. We spent hours here, our girls skating to their hearts’ delight, and only stopping for a hot chocolate to warm up once in a while. The atmosphere is friendly and fun, and the markets are only a short walk (or Christmas train ride) from the Cologne Cathedral market.
- Rudolfplatz Weihnachtsmarkt: This is where you can see Saint Nicholas, whom we missed because he wasn’t due to come by until later in the day and we didn’t want to wait around. We bought some ornaments and enjoyed the sights anyways. There’s a big automatron moose who moves and talks; my girls enjoyed him immensely.
- The ones we missed: we really wanted to see the Stadtgarten and Christmas Avenue markets as well, but the afternoon we planned to go was quite cold, and these are the markets which were furthest away from our hotel. The Stadtgarten, I was told, looks much like a fairy tale market, as its situated in a large park. Christmas Avenue is Cologne’s gay and lesbian Christmas market, and apparently the stalls are chock-full of pink and purple Christmas-themed wares.
Basilica Church of Saint Ursula
Lastly, we decided to take a little walk off the tourist trail to glimpse the pretty extraordinary St. Ursula’s Basilica. This church sits atop a Roman graveyard and was named for Princess Ursula, who, according to legend, was martyred in Cologne alongside 11,000 female companions. During the building of the basilica, mortal remains were found, and these were considered to be the remains of the martyrs. They were then incorporated into the decor of the church and, when combined with some haunting stained glass windows, lend a somewhat creepy appearance to the site.
As I mentioned, Ursula was a princess, the daughter of King Dionotus of Dumnonia. The legend goes that one day, sometime around 383 AD, Ursula and 11,000 handmaidens, all virgins, set sail to meet Ursula’s future husband – governor Conan Meriadoc of Armorica. A storm brought them into port, and Ursula was inspired to go on a European pilgrimage before her marriage. She departed with her followers to Rome. When Ursula and the handmaidens arrived in Cologne, they encountered the Huns, whom they refused to marry. Because of this refusal, the Huns slaughtered Ursula and her handmaidens. Ursula was, the story goes, shot with an arrow by the Huns’ leader. Some historians say that a shipwreck caused by a storm led the survivors into the hands of the Huns, where they were imprisoned and beheaded, while Ursula was shot by an arrow. And another version, King Dionotus sent the women to become wives for the settlers of the newly founded region of Armorica, and Ursula to become the wife of Armorica’s ruler, but the ship never arrived. There are very few records about Ursula or the virgins, but it is certain that the Roman Senator Clematius built the church of St. Ursula in Cologne in memory of the murdered women. A somewhat gorey end to our German excursion :).