Planning for Xmas in August: Esslingen
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because now is the time to figure out where to escape with — we mean, take — your family over the holidays.
By Tracy Moran
The OZY Top 25: Each week we share an irresistible vacation hideaway, chosen by OZY staff.
Woolen-garbed traders tempt her with mouse roulette; others shout “zwei taler” — two euro — to ride the wooden Ferris wheel. As we head into the medieval Christmas market, my daughter Ellie begs, “Oh, Mama, can I have a ride, dip a candle, play a game?” You can have it all, I think, until Mama runs out of taler.
With 200 buildings harking back to the Middle Ages, Esslingen’s old town is the perfect backdrop to its medieval Christmas market, Germany’s biggest, which runs four weeks each year and draws a million visitors. Meandering past timber-framed fachwerk houses, the scent of warm spiced wine teasing your nose, you are happily transported back in time. “It’s like turning back the clock 600 years,” local tourism chief Michael Metzler says. Half of the 200 traders peddle products like capes, leather goods and pottery from their wooden stalls; the other half have more classical offerings like sausage, glühwein and ornaments.
Medieval legend has it that the devil in disguise visited Esslingen’s fruit market one day and asked a trader for an apple.
The river valley town of Esslingen, Stuttgart’s charming southern neighbor, is nestled into the shadow of hillside vineyards and its famed Burg — a castle-like fort — with both the water and the regional grapes responsible for much of its splendor. Home to the first bridge over the River Neckar, Esslingen grew wealthy off tolls as pilgrims paid tribute to St. Vitalis, where the impressive church of St. Dionysius stands today. Just behind it is Germany’s oldest sparkling wine maker, Kessler Sekt, established in 1826. The bubbly — Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s favorite — still undergoes in-bottle fermentation, maintaining a tradition begun by French-trained founder Georg Kessler.
While staying in the town is affordable, with a double hotel room costing around $110, crossing the marketplace with children in December can be an expensive proposition — because it’s pricey to pay for all that stockbrot, kinderpunsch, sausages, rides and candle dipping. And it tends to get very busy during the market’s run, from around Thanksgiving to the day before Christmas Eve. Local mom Angela Pohle, who visits the Christmas market every day and loves it, tends to avoid going with kids in the evening, “because it’s so crowded and near impossible to get through with a stroller.” Local residents, Metzler admits, can find the month of noisy festivities a bit of a “challenge,” but they also appreciate how special the market is.
Medieval legend has it that the devil in disguise visited Esslingen’s fruit market one day and asked a trader for an apple. Recognizing him, the tradeswoman instead gave him a red onion. The devil bit into it and was so disgusted that he fled, cursing the townspeople to forever be known as “onion people.” It sounds like a quaint tale to muster business for the annual Onion Festival, held each August. But if you venture over to the medieval Church of Our Lady and look up, you’ll find an ancient gargoyle of a devil leaning down over the town with an onion in hand.
Today, the proud onion people of Esslingen happily greet visitors to all their festivities and markets, whether they’re American moms looking for glühwein … or little devils screaming for more.