Every holiday season, costumed traders descend upon the charming town of Esslingen for its annual Christmas market, bringing with them the sights, smells and tastes of the Middle Ages.
First invited back in 1998, these woollen-garbed traders have helped the market grow in size and popularity. Located just outside Stuttgart, Esslingen's mediaeval city centre offers the ideal backdrop for the mediaeval spectacle, playing host to merry merchants, minstrels, wenches, storytellers and craftsmen.
A record one million visitors from all over the world came last year to visit both the historic Christmas market and the nearby modern counterpart. The two run concurrently, with the mediaeval traders taking up the town square and Hafenmarkt, which has the oldest row of half-timbered houses in all of Germany.
The modern Christmas market, meanwhile, is held in the town's traditional marketplace, next to the towering St Dionysius Church. The modern market focuses on regional products, giving it an authentic Swabian feel.
“Esslingen is one of the most important mediaeval towns in all of Germany. We plan our market in the heart of our old town, which is the main reason for our great success. Everything fits together. The scenery suits the market. That's why people like coming to Esslingen,” said Michael Metzler, head of Esslingen tourist board.
The mediaeval market is believed to be the most unique and largest of its kind in Germany. The spectacle itself is superb, with painstakingly erected wooden stalls that defy modernity with their rudimentary structures and animal skinned exteriors.
The city rejects hundreds of applications from traders each year, bringing to town the best vendors who promise to uphold the strict mediaeval guidelines for design, costume and products. This gives visitors the rare opportunity to learn what life was like for blacksmiths, candle makers, merchants, bakers, archers and knights long ago. In all, there are 180 stall holders in the combined markets.
“It's interactive. You can come to Esslingen and experience mediaeval handiwork. You can experience ancient techniques and handiwork,” said Metzler.
Craftsmen present their calligraphy, art, pottery, leather, silver jewellery, glass blowing, woven baskets and ironware, giving visitors a real feel for these ancient professions back in the Middle Ages. The products are made in front of the throngs of shoppers on a daily basis.
Bring your taler coins, a good thirst and an appetite, because the smells alone will have you queuing for Glühwein brewed over an open flame and roasted pork direct from the spit. There's always music playing somewhere nearby, whether it's on an individual trader's instrument or on one of the various stages set up to house daily concerts. Actors, dancers, jugglers, magicians and fire eaters are all at hand to please the crowds.
In all, more than 500 concerts will be offered on the various stages and throughout the town. The city aims to make this a cultural event, rather than merely a shopping opportunity. So churches and theatres around town hold events as well.
Children will love the mouse game and wooden Ferris wheel, as well as the arcade games, candle and horseshoe making, and the chance to hear fairy tales while nibbling on Stockbrot, otherwise known as bread on a stick. The modern section of the market offers more children's amusement rides as well as a bakery where they can make gingerbread houses and Christmas cookies.
The whole family will enjoy the daily costume parade. And for those visitors seeking to warm themselves up in mediaeval style, public wooden baths are available in the Hafenmarkt, where you can feel free to soak in hot water while sipping mulled wine.
If you happen to visit the town on December 21st, be sure to stick around for the evening's Fackelumzug, when hundreds walk with lit torches along the ancient vineyards and up to the town's castle, where acrobats and dancers get the crowds moving and singing.
The market runs daily through December 22, from 11 am to 8:30 pm. For more information, be sure to visit the Esslingen Tourist Information at www.esslingen-tourist.de or phone them on (0711) 39 69 39 69.
Other mediaeval markets around Germany include:
Mittelaltermarkt Weihnachtsmarkt, Durlach: For more information, visit Karlsruhe's tourist information
Biebesheim Rheinhalle, Mittelalterlich-Romantischer Weihnachtsmarkt
December 18-19, for more information visit Biebesheim's tourist information
Mittelalterlicher Weihnachtsmarkt Sulingen December 10-11
December 16 -18
Mittelalterlicher Adventsmarkt Burg Stettenfels December 17-18