NurembergWords Richard Cooke
Photography Matt Munro
We all must know, somewhere in the back of our minds, that Christmas as we celebrate it in Britain is really a continental invention. Christmas trees, stockings, yuletide logs, eggnog and Santa Claus – they all came from across the Channel. And the mulled wine, gingerbread and fruitcake? Well they’re claimed not just by one country, but one city – Nuremberg, in southern Germany.
This old fort city, still ringed by medieval walls and towers and overlooked by an imperial castle on the northern side, seems to have been standing unchanged for centuries, especially at Christmas when the Christkindlesmarkt takes over. For a whole month every winter since at least the 1600s, the city square is strung with lights and filled with stalls selling wooden toys, traditional sweets and cakes – and a lot of sausages. Observing this idyllic scene crammed with seasonally spirited visitors enjoying the city’s famous market, it’s hard to believe the whole place was turned into rubble after suffering some of the Second World War’s heaviest bombing. A sobering reminder can be seen at the church of St Sebald in the city centre, where an old photograph taken after the raids shows the cathedral reduced to just a few spindly fingers of buttress rising from a heap of shattered stone.
“What saved Nuremberg’s people,” explains resident Verena di Qual, “was their love of beer. Unlike Dresden, where there was nowhere to go, here people could go deep into the old beer cellars and brewers’ tunnels and survive.” These tunnels can be explored with a guide, while modern-day Nurembergers continue to show their appreciation for the drink that once ‘saved’ their ancestors.
Christmas, however, might be the only time of year when beer takes a back seat in Nuremberg. Ask any local what they enjoy most about Christkindlesmarkt, and glühwein usually tops the list. That’s if they can still talk – the stands serving hot, spiced wine start to develop their own tiny weather systems in the morning, producing huge towers of mist as drinkers nurse steaming mugs of brew. And as afternoon turns to night, the glühwein becomes stronger, served mit Schuss, with a shot of rum or amaretto. You can find yourself standing outside on a freezing night, garnished with snow yet growing warmer.
Next to nearly every glühwein stand is a hotplate warming endless sausages for the hungry crowds. Known as Nürnberger (Nürnberg is the German name for the city), they’re also served in almost every drinking hole and restaurant (including McDonald’s), either as Drei im Weggla (three small hot sausages in a roll), or with sauerkraut.
There are two different legends explaining how this local variant of bratwurst got its distinctive long, thin shape: either they were pushed through restaurant door keyholes on the sly to flout the city’s licensing laws, or a fat man in jail had them poked through the bars. It’s telling that both versions involve an insatiable desire for sausages at any cost.
Kids love them, of course – but there is much more to keep them happy at the Christkindlesmarkt, including the Kinderweihnacht, a carnival featuring a vintage merry-go-round and games, and the Christkind that gives the market its name. The Christkind (‘Christ Child’) is a folk figure made popular by Martin Luther as a kind of antidote to Santa. The character represents the infant Jesus, who for some reason is portrayed as a grown woman with long, curly blonde hair and a giant gold crown. She’s not fat or jolly, and doesn’t have a beard, but she does give away presents, and that’s reason enough for children to mob her whenever she appears.
The second most popular woman in Nuremberg, Elisen, is here in name only. She’s the girl that gave Elisenlebkuchen, Nuremberg’s famous gingerbread, its name. “Gingerbread was invented right here,” claims local baker Robert Strobel. “The story goes that there was a baker who had a sick daughter called Elisen. He found some extremely expensive spices, and put them all into a sweet bread to try and cure her. It worked, too – so legend has it that gingerbread is good for you.” The Strobels have perfected their spicy treats over three generations, and now Robert sells thousands of the distinctive round biscuits as well as gingerbread tree ornaments and an occasional Father Christmas that Martin Luther didn’t manage to stamp out.
However, there’s an even older type of confectionary sold at the markets: Eierzucker, or ‘egg sugar’, a brittle edible ornament made from egg and sugar, as you may have guessed. Eierzucker has been a feature of the Nuremberg Christmas for more than 600 years, and artisan Gisela Asseraf-Schulz is one of the few people left who still produce these distinctive, intricate sweets. She makes them using centuries-old wooden moulds handed down through her family. “Each has their own meaning,” she explains. “Like this one – a dog with a basket – you give it to a neighbour you’ve had a falling-out with, as a sign you want to make up.” Eierzucker can be kept for decades, or eaten straight away – a fact not lost on Nuremberg’s mothers. “They’d often make one or two out of salt,” says Gisela. “That way, if the children stole them off the tree and ate them they’d be in for a surprise.”
“Wilift ab, der ni net ärgen kon kafst da halt an Jwetlchgamah” reads the longest sign in the market. It’s not German but Franconian, the local dialect, and means: “If you want someone who can’t get annoyed, buy one of these.” ‘These’ turn out to be Zwetschgenmännle (‘little prune men’), novelty figurines made from walnuts, figs, raisins and sultanas. Susan Schrödel runs the charming stall, which is more than 100 years and four generations old. “You can’t eat them,” she warns – something you won’t hear very often at the Christkindlesmarkt – “but people collect them every year, either for themselves or their children.”
Local Elke Lonn is standing by the stall, tucking into Drei im Weggla with her family. “This is the best Christmas all over the world,” she says. Elke moved to Nuremberg from Romania 20 years ago, and Christmas is her favourite time of year. “It’s very friendly. It’s cold, but you go inside and feel peaceful. You stay in the moment and forget everything. Everybody smiles.”
Zwetschgenmännle seem apt mascots for the Christkindlesmarkt, a place so full of Christmas spirit that people can’t get annoyed.
Hausbrauerei Altstadthof Bergstraße 19, 90403 Nuremberg, +49 911 244 98 59; This traditional alehouse dispenses liquid gold of the Franconian and Bavarian variety. Visitors can tour the ancient beer cellars, or just help empty them by downing a Rotbier. Altstadthof also brews Bierbockbrand – bock beer brandy – a potent and distinctive Nuremberg speciality.
Café Lucas Kaiserstraße 22, 90403 Nuremberg, +49 911 22 78 45. This restaurant/hotel/café/bar acts as a bit of a linchpin for drinkers in the city centre. There’s nothing wrong with the indoor cocktail lounge and restaurant, but during the festive season the Lucas-Hüttn tent really is the place to be.
Bäckerhof Schlehengasse 2, 90403 Nuremberg, +49 911 801 36 42. This was once a bakers’ guild hall, but that doesn’t do justice to the grand building. A new owner has brought the glow back to its faded vintage charms, and it now hosts drinkers rather than bakers, who come for the judicious cocktail list and decent Thai restaurant.
Goija Bahnhofstraße 11, 90402 Nuremberg, +49 160 96250871. The newest and best of the city’s major nightclubs, where angular Teutonic types strut their stuff. Music lovers may take time to adjust to the Euro-house tunes.
Zum Gulden Stern Historische Bratwurst Küche Zirkelschmiedsgasse 26, 90402 Nuremberg, +49 911 205 92 88. The most famous of Nuremberg’s many restaurants dedicated to the mighty bratwurst sausage has been serving beechwood fire-grilled wurst since 1419.
Bratwursthäusle Rathausplatz 1, 90403 Nuremberg, +49 911 22 76 95. Booking is definitely advisable at this popular bratwurst restaurant, which uses local produce and hand-grills its wurst over seasoned beechwood. Stay inside to watch your sausages being cooked, or take in the view from the lovely terrace outside.
Bratwurst Röslein Rathausplatz 6, 90402 Nuremberg, +49 911 214 860. Claims to be the biggest bratwurst restaurant in the world (no word on who the runner-up is). In this type of place, it’s common to have a large plate of long Nürnberger served with sauerkraut.
Hütt’n Burgstraße 19, 90403 Nuremberg, +49 911 20 19 881. Hütt’n’s tiny, warm interior may be the best place to experience traditional Franconian cuisine (and the beer that goes with it). Dishes like Schweinshaxe (pork knuckle) may not sound all that subtle on a menu, but rich with herbs and wine, they can be surprisingly and deliciously complex. Weekend lunchtime is one of the best times to go, but you’d definitely be advised to book.
Alte Küch’n & Im Keller Albrecht-Dürer-Straße 3, 90403 Nuremberg, +49 911 20 38 26. An old-style German eatery set in a charming medieval kitchen, and one of the best places to eat Schweinebraten, the roast pork in fragrant spiced gravy found all over southern Germany. There are plenty of restaurants in Nuremberg where visitors can quickly discover why other Germans sometimes consider Franconians a little bit bristly, but the service in the Alte Künch’n is friendly.
Zauberberg Theresienstrasse 23, 90403 Nuremberg, +49 911 237 37 36. This cafe has a distinctly Bohemian air, from the decadent script of the menu to the leather-bound books lining the walls. As well as offering good coffee and cocktails, the cafe has a full menu. The various omelettes are named after philosophers and authors.