It's the smell of Christmas more than anything. The puzzling fuzz of deep red glühwein, the sharp nostalgic crackle of a lit brazier, the gentle waft of German incense: these rival the giddy lights and towering Christmas trees at the heart of any Christmas market.
But how can you quantify the Christmas feeling? Everything about the German Christmas lends it the festive touch. From the cheery faux snow-dusted chalets to the merry, and often cliché music blasting from strategically placed speakers, this is the ultimate Christmas experience. Crisp cold combatted by cosy wine taverns, festive carollers on wooden stages, wizened elderly Germans sharing a hot chocolate and a joke, Christmas markets are for kids, aged one to ninety-two.
My time on Great Rail Journeys' Christmas Markets of the Harz Mountains tour could not have started in a more seasonal manner. Our train left London in a flurry of snow, speeding through the city and out into the white wilderness beyond. On the other side of the tunnel, it was a similar story: a white Christmas for everyone, and the topic of discussion for other passengers. Our winter wonderland lasted until we arrived into Wernigerode later that evening, saved from the sharp German winter by our hotel staff, who kindly held up dinner on our behalf.
The following day saw us up, bright and early for our excursion to the nearby town of Quedlinberg. Efficient German trains saw us arrive to this classic German commune, and we were met at the station by our tour guide. Quedlinberg is a gem of a town, full of the classic German half-timbered houses, gathered around small squares and medieval streets. After our tour, we were free to venture into the huts of the Christmas market. Similar to other German towns, Quedlinberg's Christmas Market is clustered in front of the charming Rathaus or town hall. Typical festive German wares were on hand, such as incense, Baumkuchen, wooden toys and much more. My personal favourite found its form as a classic little glühwein bar, at the far end of the market. Seeing perhaps a dearth of good seating, this entrepreneurial mini-venue had created a sit-bar with stained glass windows, for shivery punters to populate. Surrounded by hearty German chatter and laughter, the rosy tint lit a festive glow in the stoniest Quedlinberg. The glühwein wasn't too bad either.
Our second day in Germany was mine, and possibly everyone else's favourite day. This was our excursion on the atmospheric Brocken Railway. On arrival into the railway station, we were greeted with our first sight of the magnificent train we were to board. An ebony black, with sharp scarlet highlights, the engine was an industrial marvel, looking for all the world like the Orient Express. Puffing out the occasional steam burst like a ponderous killer whale, it sat, brooding under a snow-laden sky. We boarded our carriages, cosy and warm with a golden wood finish, and we set off into the fir forests of the Brocken mountain area.
What struck me first was the silence of the railway. Beside the obvious chunter of steam engine and the occasional horn sounding from the front, there was an ethereal calm, enhanced by a calm winter's landscape of pure white dotted with grey and black stone. Our carriage was at the back, so I stood outside, on the connecting walkway. Snow began gently falling within the first ten minutes, and continued up until we disembarked at the end of the day. Standing outside, I met the brunt of the snow, sprucing up my jacket with a garnish of white. The scenery was truly spell-binding. From our track and behind the trees, the mountain gave way to a long valley where snow covered trees and cliff, and small wooden houses could be made out against the blank canvas. We crossed several rivers, small and large, which had given into to the crystalline ice and snow floes which thundered down the river. We arrived to the midway station, a charming old-fashioned building with a heart-warming pub and an old clock. At this point, we were sadly informed that completing the journey would not be possible, due to adverse conditions. At this point, our Tour Manager Steve, came to the rescue, suggesting that we take a different scenic round trip to Isfelder station instead. What followed was another spectacular journey of seasonal bliss, and a treat for rail fans and journeymen alike.
We enjoyed a free day on the third day, to explore Wernigerode. Another example of the classic towns in this region, Wernigerode's beauty lies in its squares, its charming old churches, and the fairytale old castle which sits on a perch high above the town, gazing down on the tiles below. My day took me first to the nearby aircraft museum, home to a number of jets, planes and helicopters from throughout history. This was four hangars of mechanical wonders, with cockpits, outfits and parts to beguile vehicular fans from across the world. Later, I wandered up to the castle where I was met with a beautiful Romanesque façade and a glorious panorama across the Harz Mountains and below in the town. Inside the castle were rooms of such majesty and grandeur, that I spent a good ten minutes in each one, enjoying suits of armour and enormous oak furnishings.
My evening saw me venture into the Christmas Market by night. This was a true sight to see, lit up in brilliant white lights which bounced of the surrounding town houses. At its centre was an enormous Christmas tree, reaching high above the chalets and rivalling the spire of the market hall beyond. A fantastic assortment of characters manned heated stalls, with stalls selling German sausages, glühwein and abnormally large bottle openers. Sampling some more glühwein, I sat back and enjoyed the music, sounds and smells of my personal favourite Christmas market on this tour.
Our penultimate day featured an excursion across the old East-West border to the thriving town of Goslar. Brought alive in the Christmas spirit, this was the largest market we visited, and stood proudly against an old church and the rathaus. Goslar's market was full of visitors, enjoying the cornucopia of delights and treats from the Harz Mountains. Preceding the market was a mini fir tree forest made of trees which had especially been brought in. This area was a brilliant taste of the countryside beyond, with two stalls hidden deep within for the intrepid Christmas market explorer to discover. My final adventure of the tour was ascending the enormous clock tower at the heart of town. After a dizzying climb, I made it to the top for glorious views across the town and the market below, all of this as I was being battered by a ferocious blizzard which had crept up during the climb.
On our journey home, I left feeling more festive than I had done all year and I truly attribute this to the merry buzz of the Christmas market, the smell of glühwein, and the intoxicating sight of a lit up town, thriving with Christmas cheer and good will. With that in mind, Frohe Weihnachten everyone!