THE BERLIN CHRISTMAS MARKET GLÜHWEIN CRAWL
As a Kiwi, Christmas means hot days at the beach swimming and surfing, and long afternoon BBQs. It means blooming pohutukawa trees and screaming seagulls, greasy sunscreen and crusty salt from the sea. Christmas time means summer holidays. There are no sleigh bells ringing, nor a winter wonderland. Santa Claus wears shorts and jandals, or he’d probably overheat and faint.
Germany is the polar opposite. Like much of Europe, it is caught in the grip of winter. Icy rain, occasional snow, short days and long dark nights. It is somewhat miserable with the exception of everything Christmas. Even those like myself who try to avoid buying into the Christmas hype, it is hard not to get caught up in the Christmas spirit, especially when there are Christmas markets and glühwein on offer.
This year, in order to celebrate Christmas, I undertook an experimental Berlin Christmas Market Glühwein Crawl. I mapped out a series of Christmas markets in the Berlin area and selected a substantial number to visit, enjoy, and of course, indulge in a little glühwein to “fortify and refresh the body and the brain” as they may have said 200 years ago. Good enough for me.
Glühwein, literally ‘glow wine’ or mulled wine in many other countries, is pretty simple to make. You take a dry red wine, add some citrus, some sugar, and some spice, then you warm it up. There are a lot of variations. If you want to try it, you could follow this recipe:
1 bottle of red wine
1/2 cup brown sugar
10 whole cloves
2 sticks of cinnamon
2 star of anise
1 small sliced orange
10 shots rum (optional)
I haven’t actually made it, but if it doesn’t taste great initially it should taste a lot better by the third or fourth glass. And to give it a little more kick, you can add a Schuss. Basically a shot of hard liquor; anything from rum to amaretto. I prefer rum because it mixes nicely.
GEDÄCHTNISKIRCHE, BREITSCHEIDPLATZ – THE START
Gedächtniskirche, or the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, was a convenient place to start because it is near to where I stay and the Zoologischer Garten bus and train station are close by. This Christmas market is one of my favourites. It sits in the shadow of the spire of a protestant church, badly damaged in 1943. Its local nickname is “der hohle Zahn”, which means “the hollow tooth”. It is a beautiful setting for lazily wandering the market, sipping glühwein, and eating a meal of a half metre bratwurst. That’s right, you can buy half a metre of sausage on a bun. I love Germany.
LUCIA WEIHNACHTSMARKT, KULTURBRAUREI
After a ride on the U2 and a brisk walk in the cold, I ended up at Lucia Weihnachtsmarkt, in the Kulturbrauerei. This Christmas market has a northern theme, serving food and drink from the Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. Here the stalls are set up inside the narrow courtyard in the Kulturbrauerei. Breaking early from the glühwein, I opted instead for an Icelandic drink of hot beer and orange. I tried it because it sounded different and I’m always about trying new things. It definitely delivered. I have some regrets…still. I had to follow it with some raclette. If you have never tried raclette, then you should. It is Swiss cheese melted over potatoes and served with pickled onions. There is little to dislike about it.
At Lucia Weihnachtsmarkt, you can whisper in Santa’s ear as he wanders the market, ride the carousel, and enjoy “open-air mantle heating”. This ingenious device is a bench seat on top of a heater and a long coat that envelops everything. It is a very quick way to get warm, even when it is very cold.
HISTORISCHER WEIHNACHTSMARKT, FRIEDRICHSHAIN
Getting on the tram, I took a slow ride in peak traffic down the M10 to Friedrichshain. The walk from the tram station to the next Christmas market was down a suspiciously dark road through an industrial area. Had I not spotted the occasional family wandering along as well, I may have turned back. However, the graffiti covered walls and creepy alleys eventually gave way to a wide, open space and a brightly lit Christmas market, that turned out to be one of my favourites.
Stalls selling Christmas ornaments and children’s toys were replaced by those selling swords, and bows. Instead of cobblestones, there was grass underfoot. Glühwein was served beside open fires being tended by costumed helpers. In the corner was a fortune-teller, ready to read the future in a crystal ball. There was a small wooden Ferris wheel and carousel. I could have stayed where I was all evening however there were other markets to visit. I finished my glühwein and took a longing look at the swords. There is some geeky part of me that loves the idea of a sword. The last time I got to swing a sword, it slipped from my fingers and cut a sizeable chunk from my guitar. I decided not to try again. Still feeling warm and rather pleased with the world in general, I moved on.
WINTERTRAUM AM ALEXA
A quick few stops on the S-bahn took me to Jannowitzbrücke and a short walk to the next market. Wintertraum means winter dream, however there isn’t much dreamy about this Christmas market. Instead, Wintertraum am Alexa is a wild place of theme park rides and carnival games. After sitting around a warm, open fire having quiet conversation, it was a jarring assault on the senses, but one with a lot of energy. If you love funfairs, then this is the place to be.
I didn’t take long to spot another bar. I merely looked for the crowd of tired looking parents who had been berated into bringing their children to this cacophony. At least the cherry glühwein was delicious, though to be fair by this stage I was starting to feel a little warm around the ears. I declined the urge to ride anything that spins as experience has taught me I do not have the disposition for those rides after a few drinks. I don’t mind going fast but if I get dizzy then I’ll probably cover someone in vomit. Most likely myself.
WEIHNACHTSMARKT AM ALEXANDERPLATZ
While this is technically a free Christmas market, you will still pay more to be here than many of the others. Everything here is above average in price. However after a walk in the cold, and by this time in the evening it was very cold, it was still worth the expense. By now I was thinking it was a great idea to start adding shots of rum to my glühwein because I could still feel my toes and my toes were cold. Depending on your perspective, this may or may not have been a mistake.
Alexanderplatz Christmas market is beautiful. There is a large Christmas pyramid, brightly lit for everyone to enter and enjoy. From the top there is a great view of the markets. Stalls selling the usual Christmas wares surround an ice rink on which people played a game similar to lawn bowls. Eisstockschießen, literally ice stock shooting, is simple. You throw a stock along the ice and try to land as close as you can to a marker. The trick is to not fall on your ass in front of a crowd of people tipsy on glühwein. Lots of entertainment for everyone involved.
BERLINER WEIHNACHTSZEIT AM ROTEN RATHAUS
A short walk straight through the Alexanderplatz Bahnhof led me to Berliner Weihnachtsmarkt am Roten Rathaus; another equally nice Christmas market with stalls set up in brightly lit huts, and the smell of roasting nuts and cooking bratwurst wafting over everything. I did get slightly confused whether they were the same market split by the train tracks. I decided to err on the side of caution and have another glühwein (with added whisky), just in case.
In the middle of Berliner Weihnachtszeit is an ice skating rink running around the Neptunbrunnen, the Fountain of Neptune. This would have been more entertaining to watch had the people not been so good at ice skating. Watching people fall over on ice is infinitely more interesting than anything they can do while staying upright.
WeihnachtsZauber Gendarmenmarkt is one of the few markets where you must pay for entry, however most people wouldn’t complain about the one euro fee. It is worth it.
Sitting between the Deutscher Dom and the Französischer Dom, in front of the Konzerthaus Berlin, this Christmas market has one of the best settings in Berlin. The stalls have everything you could need for a Christmas evening. Animations and lights make it feel like Christmas and live stage entertainment keeps the families entertained. At least I am assuming it is for families given it was a group of weird people in costumes dancing around and talking to the crowd. You can’t always tell in Germany. It was mostly in Deutsch und mein Deutsch ist nicht sehr gut. I have learned that alcohol helps people speak languages they’re learning as they’re more likely to make attempts and laugh off their mistakes. By the time we made it to Gendarmenmarkt, I was basically fluent. I recognised a few words about flying through clouds, however as soon as the weird man looked at me, I left.
Instead of glühwein, I opted for an alternative: feuerzangenbowle. I should have started with this and made it a feuerzangenbowle crawl! It was amazing. You set a rum-soaked sugar cone on fire, letting everything drip into your glühwein. And you just keep adding rum until the sugar is dissolved. What’s not to like about that?
WINTERWELT AM POTSDAMER PLATZ
By the time I reached Potsdamer Platz, I was almost ready to try the toboggan run they have set up. 12 metres high and 70 metres long, the toboggan run usually has quite a line of people. Next to it more people were playing Eisstockschießen. Having seen it played once before, less than two hours prior, I was willing to provide ongoing commentary regarding how poorly the contestants were doing. It was clear to me they lacked both basic coordination and natural talent.
While I was quite confident I could provide some instruction by demonstrating the correct way to throw the stick-thing at the marker-thing, I was instead directed to the bar where I opted for another glühwein. Potsdamer Platz is more spread out than many of the other markets. After wandering through the crowded market, I started towards my final Christmas market with pockets full of roasted cashews, a new scarf, and an assortment of brightly coloured door knobs.
WEIHNACHTSMARKT AM SCHLOSS CHARLOTTENBURG
Schloss Charlottenburg is an impressive place during the day but at night, in the light of the Christmas markets, it looks brilliant. The air is filled with the smells of Christmas, at least a winter Christmas. In New Zealand, Christmas smells like BBQs, sunscreen and salt water. Here it smells like roasted nuts, gingerbread, and of course, glühwein.
Another great thing to note are the heated tents. I spent time slowly walking through the warmth of the in-tent market pretending I was interested in buying a huge print of Berlin’s landscape, a 25 kilogram metal reindeer, and an 80€ scarf made from alpaca wool. I walked out with none of these things but I was much warmer than I was.
Standing amongst the dwindling crowds sipping my final glühwein for the evening, I ate a snack of grünkohl. Of all the things I was expecting at the end of my evening, standing in the cold and eating a plate of cooked kale was very low on my list. But here I was.
MARKETS I WISH I HAD SEEN:
Spandau Christmas market
My original plan was to finish in Spandau, however I ran out of time. More accurately, I spent too much time drinking in other places. This is one of the most beautiful Christmas markets in Berlin. Located in the old town of Spandau, in the western part of Berlin, there is apparently a large Christmas tree and a great market.
Berlin Eco Christmas market at Sophienstraße
I have heard good things about this market where they sell free trade gifts and organic food. I’m all for free trade…and I will eat organic foods, though I’m not really a proponent of the organic movement.
I have a new appreciation for how great Christmas can be and I’m somewhat envious of the northern hemisphere with their mid-winter holiday. While I might enjoy the Christmas summer holidays, we don’t have anything like this to look forward to in winter. Our winters are a long cold stretch from June to October. I think I will be back for Christmas next year!
SOMETHING TO NOTE:
Last year, a crazy asshole drove a car into the Gedächtniskirche Christmas Market with the terrible loss of 12 lives. This year, and no doubt in future years, security has been increased. It doesn’t change anything to the experience and it isn’t a major inconvenience. You may notice barricades in front of the markets and an increased police presence. It is amazing to see people aren’t letting this tragedy influence their actions. I hope this continues.
Merry Christmas everyone!! Have an amazing time, wherever you are.