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The Christmas-themed European trip has become increasingly popular in recent years, but not everywhere on the continent is created equal when it comes to Christmas cheer.
Nowhere does Christmas like Germany, and nowhere in Germany does Christmas quite like Saxony.
This region is rich with traditions-many that have gone on to be cherished all over the world-and atmospheric Christmas markets, which makes it the perfect place for a "holiday before the holiday".
Whether you're getting a head start on planning a 2022 holiday trip for yourself or a client or just can't get enough Christmas content in your life, then you're sure to find this conversation with Wolfgang Gärtner, Head of International Marketing, Saxony Tourism, enlightening.
Scott Hartbeck (SH): For those that may not be that familiar with Saxony, could you give us a quick overview of where in Germany it's located, the easiest way to get there from the USA and what the major cities, towns, and sights are?
Wolfgang Gärtner (WG): Saxony is one of the 16 states of Germany, with a continuous history of 1,100 years, out of which it was ruled by one family for 829 of them. Located in the Southeast, it borders Poland and the Czech Republic, and also, Bavaria! Leipzig is the largest city and Dresden is the capital. Both have international airports with good connections to both Frankfurt and Munich also. The new Berlin Airport is less than two hours away and Prague is even closer. Saxony is Germany's no. 1 cultural destination, which comes from the fact, that until World War II, Saxony was the wealthiest and most densely-populated part of Germany. So, one can encounter fantastic architecture, some of the best art collections in the world, and a musical heritage which is only rivalled by Vienna's. But there are also interesting traditions and crafts, as well as famous luxury goods like Meissen, Europe's oldest porcelain and the watches from Glashütte.
SH: The main reason I wanted to talk with you at this time particular time of year is the fact that I've visited Saxony twice during Christmastime and I have to say that the spirit of the season seems to be stronger there than almost anywhere else I've been in Europe. So ... why is Saxony so full of Christmas spirit?
WG: Most of the things that one associates with German Christmas originate from Saxony. The "stollen" Christmas cake is only original if it is made in Dresden, the Moravian Stars were invented and are still made in Herrnhut, where the Moravian Church was founded, the first recipe for mulled wine as we know it today goes back to a Saxon nobleman and there there are all the ornaments like the nutcracker and the smoker …
SH: I've heard that many of the wooden toys, smokers, candle arches and "pyramids" that have become synonymous with Christmas all over the world have their roots in Saxony's Ore Mountains. Is this true? What else should Christmas lovers know about these traditions and that region?
WG: The Ore Mountains became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019, because mining has shaped the landscape, the architecture, the people and their traditions in a unique way for more than 800 years. The miners' traditions are very much alive. Christmas was very important to the miners as a festival of light since they had to work in the dark for most of the time. And in part, where mining became unprofitable, they made their hobby a living by creating wooden items, first practical things, then toys like Noah's Ark and later Christmas ornaments, the latter all relating to mining.
SH: Would it be safe to assume then that the Christmas markets of Saxony probably offer up the best opportunity in Germany to shop for these types of gifts mentioned above?
WG: Yes, because there are always a large number of such stalls, selling products from various manufacturers.
SH: What should visitors know about Saxony's most famous Christmas market, The Striezelmarkt in Dresden?
WG: It is the oldest in Germany, named after the predecessor of the "stollen", a dry and boring cake called "striezel". One has to know, that the time before Christmas was also a time of lent. But 550 years ago, the Pope granted the wish of the Dresdeners to add butter to it, and the "stollen" was created by going overboard not only with butter, but also with sugar, almonds, raisins and other ingredients. The "stollen" is celebrated at the Striezelmarkt with the "Stollenfest", where a gigantic "stollen" is baked and then sold for charitable purposes. The Striezelmarkt lasts from the end of November to Christmas Eve and it is held on the Altmarkt or Old Market Square.
SH: But it's not the only market in Dresden, is it? Personally, I loved the vintage feel of the market at the Neumarkt by the gorgeous Frauenkirche Church. What other Christmas markets are must-visits in Dresden?
WG: The one at the Neumarkt or New Market Square around the Frauenkirche or Church of Our Lady is made to look like a market at around 1900. Going back further in time, the medieval Christmas market in the stableyard of the Royal Palace is also very popular. And then there are a number of smaller markets.
SH: If you were putting together an itinerary for someone to experience the best of Saxon Christmas markets in 5 days, what would it look like?
WG: One day for the Dresden markets, one day in the Ore Mountains in - let's say - medieval Freiberg when the traditional Miners' Parade takes place, one day at the Leipzig Christmas market, one day in Görlitz, where the market has a Silesian feel since Görlitz used to be part of Silesia, a former part of Germany now in Poland. And one day for one of the markets in a small, but interesting location, like on Königstein Fortress in Saxon Switzerland National Park.
Or, if the trip cannot happen during the Christmas season: No, problem, visit Seiffen, the eternal Christmas village, where nutcracker and smoker were invented, the Moravian Stars manufactory in Herrnhut, the museum and demonstration workshop in the gingerbread town of Pulsnitz or the indoor Christmas wonderland of Straco near Freiberg.
SH: On that trip, let's say I wanted to take a day off from the Christmas markets, what is something fun I could do that would still keep me in the spirit of the season?
GW: Lots of things come to my mind, but why not go after some thrill by doing a guest bobsleigh ride in Altenberg on the World Cup track? Somewhat scare, but great fun!
SH: In addition to crafts and Christmas gifts, food & drink is the highlight of any trip to a Christmas market. What are some local foods that a visitor should look for at a Saxon Christmas market? Any special drink/beer that is a local favorite?
GW: The "stollen" has already been mentioned and even though the ingredients are strictly regulated in Dresden, they still taste different from each other. Gingerbread from Pulsnitz, white mulled wine from the Wackerbarth Castle Saxon State Winery, where the recipe originates, a "Neinerlaa" or Nine Things, the traditional Christmas dish from the Ore Mountains, where each component stands for a good wish for the new year.
SH: What would be one phrase in German someone should learn before they arrive in Saxony at Christmas?
GW: "Zum Wohl", that's what you say when you drink wine, not "Prost", which is for other drinks. And if one plans to visit the Ore Mountains, "Glück auf", which is the greeting in this region, the traditional miners' greeting, basically wishing each other to come back up to the surface in one piece.
SH: Last but not least, I'd be remiss if I didn't ask about the current entry requirements to Germany for Americans? Are there any current rules regarding the Christmas markets that travelers should be aware of?
WG: Unfortunately, because of the COVID situation, some events have been cancelled this year, like the Stollenfest or some of the Miners' Parades. Also, one has to be vaccinated or recovered from COVID. One also has to fill out a form before entering the country. But please check with the authorities because rules change quickly these days. Otherwise, just enjoy!
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Born in the USA but now based in England, Scott has been writing about travel for over 10 years. He specializes in Europe, rail...
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