Patrick and Andrea Take on the World travel blog

Us about to enter our first Christmas market - whoo hoo!

The main building, behind the tree, is the hall

So we decided to try 'real' eggnog - as you can see...

Yup, this was how much of the trip was spent...snacking! I'm snarfing...

Mmmm - sausage

A typical sweets stall in the market

They're making Christmas candies - that's the candy being pulled to size...

This is the fish market - check out that crowd...and it's not...

These were the fruit baskets on sale at the market - Patrick...

Us in the fishmarket party zone - sausage and fish fumes mix...

We were at this market early and caught them prepping up for...

I was lying in wait under the mistletoe...

A picture of Christmas - the tree, the cracker and the nut!

When I get home I'm going to try making these bird houses...

A view of the warehouse district

A modern ship building - we walked up to the top of...

A gorgeous Renaissance style arcade packed with super fancy shops and cafes

A walk on the beach - a perfect pasttime in any country

A water taxi - great way to tour the harbour!

Containers by sunset

The second weekend of December saw us deserting Edinburgh's rain in a bid to get into the Christmas spirit (for some reason, fighting against gale force winds and sheets of damp just doesn't say 'season's greetings' to me). What better fix than a visit to the land that invented the Christmas tree? And so we ended up in Hamburg, Germany's second largest city, home of the phenomenon that is the German Christmas markets.

Before coming over here I had no clue about the infamous Christmas Market, but from about mid-September onwards, our newspapers are filled with ads for various German destinations. Naturally, we had to add our names to the list of 160 million visitors estimated to annually visit Germany's approx. 2500 markets during the holidays (these markets make about 4.85 billion euros each year - there's money to be made in candied nuts!)

So, here's the scoop: from the beginning of Advent (last weekend of November) to shortly after Christmas day, nearly every German city features a series of markets selling decorations, toys and an assortment of tasty goodies. Ranging in size from a few stalls decorated with pine branches to a cosmic shopping adventure, the thing that sets these markets apart has to be the atmosphere...or maybe the Glühwein (mulled wine). Or maybe the Glühwein IS the atmosphere!

Anyway, the Christmas market originated in Dresden in 1434, when the duke first allowed the people of the town to hold a meat market on the day before Christmas Eve (prior to that I guess people had to eat old meat for the Christmas feast). Over the years artisans joined the market, helping it grow from a one day event with a few stalls by the town church to a month-long festival filled with feasting, shopping and winter fun.

Our agenda for our weekend trip was quite simply to check out every Christmas market we could find in Hamburg. Sightseeing was a distant second to soaking up festive atmosphere (and I do mean atmosphere not Glühwein!) I have to say, it was incredible.

Hamburg has a wide range of different markets all located in the picturesque centre of the city - I think we visited 6 or 7 different ones. But, before you start feeling sorry for Patrick, let me point out the main focus of these markets is the food. Sure, there's wooden tree ornaments, candles, nutcrackers and assorted things made of wool, but the star of the show is the food. Everything from the traditional German wurst roasted over an open fire, to fresh baked pasteries, fried mushrooms, pizza and stew...and then on to specialty sweets like gingerbread, tiny donuty things, and sugared almonds. And of course, the atmosphere...or Glühwein, a spiced, warm wine. We only made it to a restaurant twice the entire weekend - the rest of the trip we ate our way through the markets!

The most interesting market was over near the city's red-light district in St Pauli - they definitely spiced things up a bit. Hamburg, as a port city, has a pretty developed red-light district. It feels a bit sleazier than Amsterdam's but that might be because all the prostitutes line a couple of well defined streets (easy to pick them out as they're wearing fanny packs and agressively propositioning men who walk by). Anyway, the "Santa Pauli" Christmas market has all the Christmas market features, with a twist - naughty phrases adorn the gingerbread hearts, and the glass ornaments and pasta on sale come in erotic shapes. Add in a Santa strip show, and there you have it! Apparently this market developed because St. Pauli's businesses missed out on the Christmas trade as people first frequented nearby markets for their dose of Glühwein before coming to the "sinful mile" for their share of less wholesome entertainment. Interesting, but not somewhere we lingered.

Although we weren't in Hamburg for the tourist sights per say, it is hard to miss that this is one gorgeous city. It is about 1200 years old, but there is little evidence of the history of the city - a massive fire and extensive bombing have lead to massive reconstruction. The eras of reconstruction create a visual tension in the city's contrasts - everywhere you look, post modern glass and steel facades rub up against the neo-gothic red brick of the turn of the century. Mix in a bit of renaissance, toss in the modern, and bingo, a city that feels both wonderfully contemporary and historically cultural. Okay, perhaps I was charmed by the twinkle of Christmas lights - winter dusk settled in at about 4 pm, wrapping us in the atmospheric cover of darkness.

Speaking of the 'cover of darkness,' one of the coolest things we did in Hamburg was visit the Sunday morning fish market. Aside from the crazy hour you have to be there to catch the action (it runs from 7 am to 10 am in the winter, 5 am to 9 am in the summer), this is a pretty traditional market - customers bargain with vendors who appear to be praising their wares which range from eels and smoked fish to fruits to pastas. While we don't speak German, huge crowds gathered to watch the entertainment so I have to assume the sales pitch was quite good. But, the real highlight was the going ons inside the old Fish Auction Hall.

We walked in expecting not much more than a respite from the cold. Wow, what a surprise - instead of market stalls there were beer stalls, and instead of the calls of people hawking their goods, there was a full band churning out covers of AC/DC tunes. So there we are, 8:30 Sunday morning, listening to a little 'Highway to Hell', sipping a beer and watching the crowd rock out...what a hoot. I guess this is the place the folks from Hamburg come after a night out - why not keep the party going into the morning with a fish on a bun and a bit of rock and roll? Absolutely hilarious and a definite trip highlight.

As a tidbit, Hamburg is known as the "Venice of the North." They don't have as many canals as Venice, but the city boasts the European record for bridges with more than 2,400 (six times as many as Venice and four times as many as Amsterdam.)


Our Recommendations

1) The Hamburg Card. If you're in a group of up to 5, this is great value. You can buy it at any tourist information booth (best idea is to pick up at the airport when you arrive) and it gives you unlimited access to all public transportation (trains, buses and really cool boat shuttles!). There are other savings, but the transport is the biggie. BUT if you are under 30, the even better value option is the Power Pass, also available from the tourist offices. These are like Hamburg cards but they have better discounts...and they're cheaper. Not advertised as much as the Hamburg Card, but definitely worth the effort.

2) Best Western Raphael Hotel Altona. Not a fancy place, but the small rooms were super clean and had awesome duvets. And the location was perfect - Altona is a groovy neighbourhood, close to the shore and all sorts of interesting places to wander around. And, since the hotel is less than a block to both a train station and a major bus depot, you have easy access to get pretty much anywhere.

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