The Christmas markets are a good excuse for traveling to Germany in December. Each one is filled with cheer, fun, holiday shopping and a chance to sample local foods, many of which appear only during the holiday season. The amazing thing is that with so many fairs, each of them can have its own flavor and individual character. One of the most fascinating is at Esslingen.
Close to Stuttgart and a world away
Esslingen is one of the oldest settlements in Germany and archeological studies have found evidence of occupation as far back as the 10th century BCE. Records as early as 777 CE show a thriving market town and a hub for trade with Italy and the Mediterranean. Its importance in trade during Medieval times and later led it to be named an Imperial Free City by edict of Emperor Frederick II in 1229. That heritage — and the extraordinary luck of having little damage during World War II — left it with one of Germany’s richest collections of medieval buildings. Stuttgart, only nine miles away, has a larger Weinachtsmarkt but Esslingen’s has a flavor of its own.
Submersion in a medieval world
The Weinachtenmarkt at Essingen has two parts. The one in the Marktplatz is more like those elsewhere in Germany, but the Mittelaltermarkt re-creates the world of street markets in the Middle Ages when all of the surrounding buildings were new. That medieval world fills the Rathausplatz, the square immediately in front of the Old City Hall (Altes Rathaus). That building dates from the Gothic period but has a stunning new façade added in the 1580s renaissance style. All the half-timbered buildings around the square are originals.
Merchants and craftsmen at this fair are dressed as their contemporaries would have in medieval times, and their booths also bring visitors into the past. Canvass tents cover the displays of handcrafted goods, most often sold by the craftsmen and women themselves. Here you will find leather, historic jewelry styles, period clothing and berry wines that were popular in medieval times. There are beautifully made wooden bowls and implements, handwoven baskets, felted wool, handspun yarns and custom-blended incense. A blacksmith is busy forging knives and ornamental hooks on his anvil.
The atmosphere is completed with period entertainment on the street and at various stages through the festival. The entertainers include stilt walkers, medieval minstrels and troubadours, fire walkers and jugglers. There is a rollicking, noisy Charivari Parade daily at 4 pm and tavern games at 7:30 pm in the Hafenmarkt.
A magic world at night
While modern day Weinachtmarkt’s are a wonderful and exciting mix of bright and fanciful holiday lights and bright colors, night time at Essingen’s medieval market is magical. Open fires burn in the street providing not only warmth on a cold night but light as well. Burning torches light goods and flicker on faces of people as they browse through the rows of booths. Your phone camera will probably do a better job of capturing this magic than an expensive SLR would, but nothing can capture the atmosphere: scents of wood smoke mingling with candle wax and roasting meats, the sounds of laughter and mandolins, and the constant shift of flickering lights across it all. Savor this rare chance to go backward in time, have a glühwiein and enjoy a fire-roasted bratwurst: This is as close to the Medieval as you will find anywhere.
Easy to get to
Esslingen is only a short distance from Stuttgart and is easily reached by public train connections from the Hauptbanhof.