SAM­PLE GER­MANY’S CHRIST­MAS FARE

Choco­late, mu­sic and mar­kets are glo­ri­fied with car­ni­vals, but at the heart of the mer­ry­mak­ing is a com­mu­nity’s wish to cel­e­brate it­self, writes Kari Gis­la­son

Sunday Mail - Travel/Escape - - FRONT PAGE -

IT WAS Golden Oc­to­ber, when a last wave of Ital­ian warmth made it across the Alps into south­ern Ger­many.

Out­side, the fi­nal sun­light of the day found the tops of trees, and the town seemed cast en­tirely in au­tumn pat­terns. I fol­lowed the busy pedes­trian traf­fic across the Neckar River into the old part of Tübin­gen.

My visit co­in­cided with Jazz & Klas­sik Tage, when the bars and cafes in town are given over to an an­nual mu­sic fes­ti­val.

That evening, I went to Café Voltaire, a barn tucked be­hind one of the streets of me­dieval an­gles and lean­ing up­per floors.

In­side was a black stage, a dozen rows of wooden chairs and a makeshift bar at­tended by an Ital­ian girl who said she lived in Paris.

“What are you do­ing in Ger­many?” I asked her.

“I like to help out at jazz fes­ti­vals,” she replied. A smile asked, “wasn’t that ob­vi­ous?”.

To my­self, I replied yes, it was ob­vi­ous but only if I was in a Fellini movie and Mas­troianni was about to say this girl had just left him pen­ni­less in Turin.

In­stead, she sold me a wine priced for serv­ing in a tum­bler and in­tro­duced me to Clau­dia Jochen, lead singer of Vaar­al­liset hu­ulet about to start a Fin­nish tango gig.

This, she ex­plained, was the mu­sic her mother had brought with her when she came to Ger­many.

“When our last singer moved to Ox­ford she asked me to take over be­cause I had a Fin­nish mum. I told her I didn’t know the songs well enough. But when I started singing, I re­mem­bered them. They’d stayed with me all this time.”

The band put to­gether a won­der­ful set of sto­ries and tunes that may well have been more at home in Helsinki.

The songs of her child­hood in­tro­duced a strange mix of Scan­di­na­vian and Ar­gen­tinian sen­si­bil­i­ties.

But, af­ter all, fes­ti­vals so of­ten give a com­mu­nity the chance to mix things up and that night it worked.

I re­turned to Tübin­gen in De­cem­ber the fol­low­ing year, on the eve of the town’s Choco­late Fes­ti­val.

Lo­cals will tell you that the fes­ti­val isn’t a tra­di­tional event, there’s some­thing a bit too new about it.

But this hasn’t made it any less pop­u­lar, and a quar­ter of a mil­lion vis­i­tors join in the sam­pling of chocolates sourced as close as the nearby Rit­ter fac­tory and as far away as South Amer­ica.

Of course, plea­sure is at the heart of it all, but it’s plea­sure wrapped in great art­ful­ness and warmth. By De­cem­ber, the evenings of Golden Oc­to­ber are rather dis­tant.

It’s mi­nus five and the leaves have been swept away. It’s time to ac­cept the com­fort of choco­late and the cosi­ness of stalls in a packed mar­ket square and to marvel at in­tri­cate de­signs on dis­play: choco­late formed into shoes, cof­fee pots, car­pen­try tools. Even into paint.

I watched as three girls, who looked like stu­dents from the univer­sity, stood in awe of an ar­ray of wrapped chocolates.

They seemed re­turned to that won­der­ful child­hood feel­ing of not know­ing which treat to choose, and I left

doubt­ing they’d be able to. My Ger­man hosts Rosita and An­dreas were de­ter­mined that I should also ex­pe­ri­ence some­thing more tra­di­tional. We be­gan with the Christ­mas mar­kets at the neigh­bour­ing town of Reut­lin­gen.

These, they said, were a mod­est mar­ket but also ever so typ­i­cal. A place for people to meet af­ter work, to warm them­selves with very sweet Glüh­wein, or mulled wine, and the un­pro­nounce­able Schupfnudeln. This trans­lates as “pushed noo­dles” but I was told that my pro­nun­ci­a­tion some­how changed the mean­ing to “nose noo­dles”.

They were mixed with smoked ba­con and sauer­kraut, and you could cer­tainly smell them. I didn’t take a warn­ing is­sued by a large gen­tle­man who stood next to me in the queue. He stroked a han­dle­bar mous­tache and said, “I’d stick to the sausages, if I were you.”

I was lucky, though. An­dreas swapped my Schupfnudeln for his sausages and from then on I did as I’d been ad­vised and stuck to sausages.

A cou­ple of nights later we drove to Stuttgart, a pros­per­ous town and home to one of the coun­try’s largest Christ­mas mar­kets. The ef­fect there was very dif­fer­ent from that of Reut­lin­gen, with af­ter-work home­li­ness re­plac­ing the def­i­nite sense of a grand event. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss ei­ther – drink­ing over­sweet wine in the shel­ter of a gothic church in Reut­lin­gen. Dazed by the count­less stalls and yel­low lights in Stuttgart, crowds and ex­cite­ment.

My last out­ing took me back to what, I sup­pose, re­mains at the heart of all fes­ti­vals, a com­mu­nity’s wish to cel­e­brate it­self. In De­cem­ber it takes some of the cold out of the air by fill­ing long nights in the com­pany of new and old friends, with wine and food: cold meats and cheese, blood sausages and yet more sauer­kraut.

Ours was served at the fi­nal Tübin­gen Be­sen for the year. These are in­for­mal bars run by lo­cal wine grow­ers.

A re­stricted li­cence is awarded for a cer­tain num­ber of weeks and the Be­sen take their name from brooms left out­side the door to show that the bar has been opened.

In­side, we were crammed un­der a low ceil­ing and into wooden benches and served by the people who’d har­vested the wine not very long be­fore.

A young man apol­o­gised for its fresh­ness, but they’d run out of last year’s vin­tage.

He gave us a very bright Pinot, one that left a light fizz on the tongue, or a touch of sum­mer in the win­ter months.

PARTY TIME: Dorte Schet­ter paints with choco­late at the an­nual Tub­in­gen Choco­late Fes­ti­val (far left) and (clock­wise from main) blue evenings and golden lights in Stuttgart; stu­dents en­joy the sun in Tübin­gen; crowds gather at the choco­late fes­ti­val;...

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