A few weekends back I made my final trip to Scotland in 2023 for a festive one-two punch of the Midlothian Labour Christmas party (featuring a tricky Midlothian quiz and a brava bagpipe performance!) and then a Hannukah celebration at Kirsty and Roger’s with Katie and James (featuring Randi’s delicious latkes and an improvised solution to a shortage of candles). In-between, Randi and I went over to Katie and James’s flat for the Doctor Who special which I’ve been most looking forward to – The Giggle, with Neil Patrick Harris as a perfectly-cast Toymaker – and it was amazing.
The following week I enjoyed a really lovely end-of-year virtual boardgaming night with my team at work, at which we all learnt that Zirak is absolutely fearless when playing Incan Gold and there’s no competing with him. Randi and I also said goodbye to Alex and finally made it to The Perry Hill pub for dinner and drinks. This is somewhere which should qualify as ‘one of our locals’ but just isn’t in the direction we’d normally think to walk – but I’m glad we did, because it was very cosy!
However, in truth we were merely warming up the cosiness level because our real Christmas treat was a long weekend to the German town of Bad Wimpfen for the authentic German Christmas market experience. This trip was masterminded by Randi as a way both of seeing a different side to the country than Berlin (which we’d both visited already) but also exploring how far we can comfortably get across Europe without flying.
To that end we started our journey on Thursday night with the Eurostar to Paris, and then checked-in to a private room in a hostel a short walk from the station. The next morning we had time to enjoy a long breakfast with Reema, followed by a brief wander around the banks of the Seine, before hopping back up to Gare de l’Est (much nicer than Gare du Nord) for our train to Mannheim. Our *sniff* high-speed *sniff* train, on a network which France has been developing for decades… and perhaps the less said about this the better.
In contrast, Germany’s Deutsche Bahn has been in ‘permanent crisis’ (the words of Germany’s public auditor, not mine) for years, with record delays and cancellations, so we were a bit sceptical that our change of trains at Mannheim would go smoothly. And it did not! But since we were on holiday we secretly enjoyed the chaos (is this train going to the destination displayed on the outside or the inside?) plus the cheer which went up when it finally started moving. This delay also meant we were inspired to break for dinner at our final changeover station (a.k.a. schnitzel at Sinsheim!) which was delightful. And, in fairness, the rest of our DB experience ran smoothly on this trip. It’s important that the German railways stumble every so often, in order to provide hope to the others.
Bad Wimpfen itself was truly magical. I had imagined a cute German town with a fenced-off Christmas market somewhere in the middle, but in fact the market stetches out to cover the entire historic centre. The crowds (almost all domestic German tourists) circulate gently around the hilly, cobblestoned streets – glühwein or bratwurst or both in hand – pausing to appreciate the brass band playing from the balcony at city hall, the stalls selling homemade wooden toys or the merry-go-round at the entrance.
We were particularly impressed by the Feuerzangenbowle – or ‘fire tong punch’ – a mulled wine variant which is served alight, although for ourselves we stuck with the safer, less fiery variant. (Full disclosure: if you looked through our entire set of photos from this holiday I think we’re holding glasses of glühwein in at least half of them.) We were also delighted to re-encounter langos, last seen during our Austrian Christmas market adventure of 2017, which came in a smaller, denser variant here but were no less delicious. I persuaded the German man behind us in the queue to help me practice saying all of the fillings (sauerrahm, knoblauch, schinken and käse) so that I could buy the one with everything.
During the days we explored a little further afield, beginning with a beautiful countryside walk to the neighbouring town of Bad Rappenau for lunch. Along the way we admired Germany’s well-signposted rural walking paths, admired the extent of the railway system (because of course Bad Rappenau has its own station for a quick journey back) and – in Randi’s mind at least – decided that Germany was much more reminiscent of “the American Midwest, but with trains” than anywhere in the UK. Which makes sense, given the German influence on the Midwest!
The next day we went on a longer journey to Stuttgart. This was less successful as a destination, since by the time we finally got there Randi was starting to feel a bit sick (for legitimate reasons) and I soon joined her (because I foolishly experimented with the glühwein + gin combination at the Stuttgart Christmas market). As a result we didn’t see a great deal of the city, aside from the main shopping street (bland, post-war architecture), aforementioned Christmas market (fine, but not a patch on Bad Wimpfen) and a legitimately nice park. With all that said, what did make the trip legitimately worthwhile was our initial train from Bad Wimpfen, which opted to become a tram halfway through and took us on a street-level tour of all of the local factories. Since it was a Sunday they were all closed, and it all felt a bit like a movie set, but it was a very very evocative German ambience of “look at all the industry we have”.
I’ll save Christmas itself for my next post rather than cramming it into this one too – but suffice to say we both brought back bits of Bad Wimpfen for our Secret Santas!