It's cold, damp and gets dark early -- but those who've been there know the best time to visit Bavaria is during the four weeks before Christmas, when practically every city and hamlet has its own version of a yuletide market.
The smell of sizzling sausage and simmering spiced wine permeates the air, flickering candles reflect in every window, and strains of traditional German carols echo through medieval passages. Pedestrians in heavy coats, collars turned up to fend off icy blasts, hurry along narrow, cobblestone streets toward the town square, where long rows of wood stalls with striped-awning rooftops offer a wild variety of merchandise. Vendors behind the counters stamp their feet and clap their gloved hands to keep warm.
Nuremberg claims to have the oldest Christmas market in the world, the first recorded in 1564, just five years after Martin Luther introduced the idea of giving gifts to children on Christmas Eve. The Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt is certainly the best known of the lot.
Thousands of visitors from all over the world converge on Nuremberg the second Tuesday in December to watch the annual Lantern Procession. It's a scene worthy of a Christmas card -- 2,000 schoolchildren carrying homemade "stained glass" lanterns through the winding, two-lane streets of Old Town and up the steep hill to the Nativity scene on the castle wall. Spectators arrive hours early to claim prime spots overlooking the procession route. They figure it's an extravagance worth the threat of frostbite. Few go away disappointed.
Munich, capital of Bavaria, argues its market is older still. "And better because ours is in Munich," the cocky citizenry boasts, sure of the city's status as Bavaria's No. 1 tourism destination any time of the year. Offerings for sale at stalls on Marienplatz tend to be more commercial, and Munich's jocular Father Christmas and his helpers are a sight more sophisticated than Nuremberg's cherubic children with their colored paper lanterns.
But it's worth a December trip to Munich just to wander through the Bavarian National Museum's exhibition of manger scenes created by 17th- to 19th-century craftsmen from Bavaria, the Tyrol, Naples and Sicily. Yes, the creche collection is there in the museum's east wing all year long -- but the delightful folk-art approach to what yuletide is all about is guaranteed to put even Scrooge in the Christmas spirit.
What Nuremberg has in pageantry and Munich has in sophistication, the tiny walled city of Rothenburg has in medieval atmosphere -- in spades. During the four weeks of Weihnachtsmarkt, merchants tie small pine trees with miniature white lights to already whimsical wrought-iron and gilded shop signs.
A corridor through the 16th-century Town Hall leads to a square bordered by stalls trimmed with pine boughs and lighted by lanterns. Faces of the Bavarian vendors bundled up against the bone-chilling cold aren't all that different from those in the 100-year-old paintings in the surrounding museums and churches. The goods they sell range from crude, local clay mugs to hand-painted, hand-blown glass ornaments -- genuine art pieces with prices to match.
All the Bavarian Christmas markets, no matter where, are at their best about 5 p.m., when family members gather there after work or school to combine Christmas shopping and socializing in the wide aisles between the stalls. The atmosphere is akin to the world's largest outdoor singles' bar with small groups pausing to chat mid-traffic, neither bothering nor bothered by the river of shoppers swirling around them.
The later the hour, the lower the thermometer reading, but the Bavarians come prepared in fur hats, heavy coats, fur-lined boots and warm gloves. Red-cheeked toddlers in pastel snowsuits ride on their fathers' shoulders. Infant brothers and sisters peep out from under goose-down comforters tucked into elegant baby carriages. The stroll through the market is long and leisurely, with frequent pauses to visit old friends or cultivate new ones.
Soon visitors learn the secret of survival. The more you shop, the more gluhwein (hot, spiced wine) you sip, the more sausage you sample, the more camaraderie you enjoy, the less you notice the cold. It's just part of the holiday atmosphere. Before you know it, you're hoping for snow.
Vendors sell everything from fresh love-knot pretzels to crocheted baby caps, fanciful mobiles of feathers and bark to elegant handblown ornaments, with lots of more utilitarian stuff on the side. But the biggest sellers by far are the sausage and gluhwein. Rothenburg's version uses the dry, white, Franconian wine made in the area. Munich and Nuremberg gluhwein is red -- and can leave a terrible stain in your luggage if you try to bring some home to unappreciative friends. (It's not supposed to be fine wine to savor over a candlelight dinner. It's Bavarian antifreeze!)
Nuremberg is famous for its lebkuchen, a spicy cookie that is to gingerbread what Tiffany's is to WalMart; zwetschgenmannle, appealing character dolls fashioned of dried prunes, walnuts and bit of fabric and wire, and Nuremberg Angels in two versions.
The authentic Nuremberg Angel design, centuries old but ultra streamlined, is a gold-crowned figure with wings but no arms. Those sold at the market are made of pleated gold foil. Challenger for the title is a rich German relative of the Barbie doll -- blond-wigged, indigo-eyed, gowned in silk and holding a candle in her hands. Some stalls offer new wardrobes, new paint jobs and new hairdos for the heirloom figurines. (The cost can equal that of a re-do for a human member of the family, as it can run well over $100.)
Munich stalls tempt visitors with mobile and mug models of the Munchner Kindl (the little monk in black and gold costume that is the city symbol), pink marzipan pigs with "gold" coins in their mouths (for luck in the new year) and strictly souvenir-quality Bavarian bric-a-brac.
For authentic Bavarian items -- from lederhosen to loden coats to elegant dirndl skirts topped by ornate aprons never intended to be worn anywhere close to a kitchen -- detour a few blocks to Wallach's. Take lots of money -- it's easy to surpass your credit card limit at Wallach's.
Another upscale, but very-Munich Christmas memento: the foil-covered almonds that look like flowers at Alois Dallmayr, Munich's answer to Fauchons of Paris or Harrods' Food Hall in London. A budget-conscious alternative nearby: the Viktualienmarkt, Munich's open market behind St. Peter's Church, where you'll find more prune dolls, sausage and breads beyond description, dried-flower decorations of all kinds . . . everything from horseradish to horse meat. (It's a great place for a quick lunch with local color.)
Rothenburg is famed for its porcelain dolls in rich silks; delicate crystal ornaments decorated with intricate hand-painted designs; shneeballen (snowballs) -- made of strips of fried cake that are stuck together and rolled in powdered sugar; Christmas stollen -- holiday fruit bread sprinkled with powdered sugar; and fruit cakes heavy with figs, prunes and cardamom.
And then there are those adorable wooden-angel music boxes and whittled, miniature Christmas trees that made the Kathe Wohlfahrt shops, based in Rothenburg, famous throughout Germany.
The toy-soldier nutcrackers, "smoking men" incense burners, revolving pyramids (wood carvings on a platform under a windmill powered by candlelight), miniature ornaments and carved wooden toys draw so many visitors the main store has to charge admission to control holiday crowds in its Rothenburg Christmas Village. In December, it's not unusual for 10,000 shoppers a day to visit the three-floor wonderland that covers the equivalent of a U.S. city block.
The overflow from the main store heads for allied shops on nearby streets, where the Kathe Wohlfahrt logo covers everything from fine linens to cuckoo clocks.
Whatever your choice of the Bavarian Christmas markets, go on a weekday. Weekends, especially in Rothenburg and Nuremberg, are mob scenes when tour buses and special trains dump thousands of tourists on the market outskirts. Munich can absorb the overflow, but there, too, it's more fun on a weekday, when it's easier to mix with the locals.
Most of the action is over by 8 p.m. The perfect way to end the deep-freeze evening is to join the natives in one of the restaurants that specialize in the regional favorite Christmas food: crisp-skinned roast goose, braised red cabbage and fluffy bread dumplings. Oh, forget the calorie count. Order dessert. Try the apple strudel with hot vanilla sauce. It will keep you warm all the way back to your hotel.
IF YOU GO . . .
It's best to plan your visit to Bavarian Christmarkets in early December, though the markets open the last week in November and close Christmas Eve. Christmas Week is considered strictly a family affair in Bavaria, with few restaurants open and most shops and cultural attractions closed.
It's possible to explore the three markets described in a weeklong holiday, flying into and out of Munich International Airport. It's about a 2 1/2 -hour drive from Munich to Nuremberg, about a three-hour drive from Munich to Rothenburg, about a 1 1/2 -hour drive from Rothenburg to Nuremberg. Bus or train transportation also is available.
For more information, contact the German National Tourist Office, 122 E. 42nd St., New York, N.Y. 10168. Telephone: (212) 661-7200. Fax: (212) 661-7174.