So last Saturday, our whole family set out on our first German adventure together. Not wanting the Christmas Market season to pass us by this first year, we joined a USO Christmas Market tour/Train Orientation several weeks ago. I was so excited to go, especially after hearing from so many how beautiful the Christmas markets are and also wanting to learn more about how the train system works here.
Since we are still without a vehicle, we had to rely on a couple of friends to get us to the train station (where the USO tour guide met us for the tour) and then back to our hotel. Just getting to the train station was pretty exciting. My friend’s GPS cut out and we ended up taking the scenic route around Kaiserslautern. We finally found a sign for the Hauptbahnhof (the train station) and started following those signs until some of the landmarks started to match up with the directions I had received from the USO. It was a little crazy because we weren’t sure we were going to make it on time, but we did and I learned I could find my way by being able to look for those Hauptbahnhof signs. J
At the train station, we met our wonderful USO tour guide, Joanne, and a trainee that was with her training for the tour, Emma, and also found out that instead of the two we originally signed up for, we would be going to three Christmas markets. Joanne explained that there was more than enough time to do all three, so why not? J Both of these ladies were amazing to me because they have really become experts in what they do and enjoy sharing it with those who come on the tours. I enjoyed listening to and talking with them so much because they know so much about the area and the culture and because I have so much to learn. Before we got on the train, Joanne and Emma gave us an orientation of sorts about the train system in Germany. The train system, and Germany’s entire system of public transportation really, can be overwhelming and empowering at the same time. They make it so very easy for people to get around the entire country without having to drive their own vehicles, but there is a lot to learn. Joanne said it could take up to 3 train orientations to start to feel comfortable or you can just embark on your own and try things out.
After the brief train orientation, we went downstairs to purchase our tickets. In the middle of our group transaction, our machine actually shut down after taking some of Joanne’s money. Later, some of the other tourgoers (yes, I just made up that word) joked that Joanne was so calm about it because she knew she would be reimbursed by the USO, but that if it had happened to them, they probably would have just given up and left. J We also ended up in First Class on our first train by accident since there was no more space for us in the forward cars of the train. Joanne was, again, so calm - “We’ll just talk to the conductor later on.” I felt so bad for the guy who was sitting by himself probably looking forward to a quiet train ride and then, all of us climbed into his space with our excited kids and slightly tired baby. He was very gracious, though, and when we got off the train apologizing for our intrusion, he just smiled and said, “No problem. Have a good day.”
And then we were off the train and on to our first Christmas market, which was in Neustadt, aka Neustadt an der Weinstraße (new city on the Wine Route). Someone had commented that Christmastime in Germany is like a fairy tale and I would say that is accurate –it’s like being transported back in time just a little. We had to walk about ten minutes to get to the Christmas Market and along the way I just admired the architecture of some of the older buildings. The architecture is so diverse and I’m still learning so I have no idea during what time period most of those beautiful buildings were built. On the way, Joanne showed us a very interesting and beautiful fountain, called the Elwedritsche Fountain. The sculptors are Gernot and Barbara Rumpf, natives to Neustadt. Joanne enjoyed sharing stories about all the different scenes going on within the fountain and explained that the locals attribute political/societal implications to them. Like, for instance, there is a scene where animals are walking into an open bag. She said some people say that illustrates how people will bury their head in the sand and ignore important issues. I can’t remember all the others, but it would be fun to go back and see it again sometime. The sculptors' signature is a mouse, so she asked all the kids to find the mouse while she talked to us.
When we arrived at the Christmas Market, Joanne made sure we all knew how to get back to the train station, gave us our time to meet up there, and then let us loose. There were lots of festive Christmas decorations, food and other vendors, some rides for the kids, and merry music. Since it was lunchtime, we hit up a bratwurst stand and also grabbed our first mugs of Gluhwein, which is a warm German Christmas drink made of Dornfelder wine and other spices. As well as Gluhwein, they have what’s called Kinder punch (which is just non-alcoholic Gluhwein) for kids and Allen got to enjoy some of that. As well as enjoying the Gluhwein, you can choose to keep the festive mug they give it to you in, which we did. J If you turn it back in to them, however, they’ll give you back a few Euro. Joanne, at the beginning of our time in Neustadt, actually gave us all plastic bags so we could easily collect our mugs. I imagine that by the end of our time here, we’ll probably have a sizable mug collection. The Neustadt Christmas Market was small, but we still enjoyed it so much, especially not having anything to compare it to and it being our first time out and about in the German community.
After about an hour and a half there, we got back on the train and headed east to Deidesheim. There, we got to see another fountain by the same people who had sculpted the one in Neustadt and again, the kids were requested to search for a mouse. Since it was a bigger market and we didn’t have as much time to visit there as we’d had in Neustadt, Joanne let us loose sooner. There were quite a significant number more vendors of all kinds and we found a beautiful hand-crafted Christmas ornament, shared some more Gluhwein, and collected a few more mugs. J It started raining while we there, but it didn’t dampen anybody’s spirits or slow down the crowds – they just kept on going about their business with umbrellas or none at all, occasionally taking shelter under a vendor’s large covered tables. We were only there about an hour and then, it was back on the train to Freinsheim.
Freinsheim is beautiful and, I think of the three places we visited, it would be the one I would want to see again the most - maybe because we didn’t have as much time in the daylight and because I couldn’t take as many pictures there because my camera batteries had started to go dead. One of the most beautiful and interesting features of the town is that it is walled-in. Joanne took us around quite a bit of the wall before leading us to the Christmas Market and the site of where a live Nativity play was going to take place. Before the Nativity play, we walked around a bit. Either we didn’t look hard enough or went in the wrong direction because we did not find as many vendors there as even in Neustadt. But, it was also the end of the day, so that may have been why. Around 5pm, the Nativity play began. All the narration and singing was done in the native Palatinate dialect and even though we couldn’t understand the words, many of the songs we did since they were familiar. J It was quite the attraction – lots of locals and visitors - to the point where you couldn’t see the play very well from the back. Luckily, we were standing right near where the play participants made their entrance, so we got to see all the sweet angels and shepherds while they were waiting. J We also had to smile and laugh a little to see the Three Wise Men drinking some Gluhwein prior to taking part in the play. J The play didn’t last very long and afterwards, I got to talk with Joanne and Emma quite a bit while Jerry, Allen, and Lucy found a medieval store that sold play swords and shields. And, yes, Allen managed to bring one of each home. He was seriously excited! From where we were inside Freinsheim, it was about a twenty-minute walk back to the train station. We did lots of walking that day.
By the time we were heading home, it was just around 6:30pm. It got pretty busy on the train when we hit Deidesheim as other people were heading home, but once we hit Neustadt again, everybody headed for different trains. Lucy shared very clearly with us on the train back to Kaiserslautern that her threshold for all the fun that day had been reached, but other than that, it was a pretty quiet ride. And, considering Lucy’s very vocal nature and just how long we had been on-the-go, she really did so very well that day. When we finally got back to the hotel that night, a little after 8pm, we were all truly and happily exhausted.
I know Allen’s favorite things were riding the train, the Kinder punch, getting to walk and run around, and the medieval store. Jerry’s favorite thing for sure was the Gluhwein. J Lucy enjoyed many things that day – the train ride, the music, and just getting out and about. I have a hard time saying just what I enjoyed the most because I enjoyed it all. Being at the hotel so much, it was just a treat to get out and see and be in the German community. I’m most looking forward to doing more of that as we get settled in. I’m so grateful that we got to see and do so much in one day and enjoy some of the Christmas market season this year. I hope it’s something we get to enjoy each year we’re here.