We were in Dresden last year for the 577th Striezelmarkt,  one of Germany's oldest Christmas markets, and we were back again this year for the 578th! The huge Schwibbogen is decorated with figures and symbols that originate from that area of Germany... ... such as the traditional Bergmänner (miners) holding two candles and nutcrackers (this one decorated as a Bergman). The Striezelmarkt boasts the world's tallest pyramid, measuring 14 meters (about 46 feet). The pyramid tiers are decorated with typical Christmas figures from the area, such as nutcrackers, Engel (angels), and Bergmänner (miners). The most famous landmark in Dresden today is probably the Frauenkirche, originally built in the early 1700s but completely destroyed by WWII bombing. Reconstruction began in 1993, and was finally completed in 2005 and provides a great source of pride for the city and its residents. A giant Christmas pyramid tops a Glühwein stand at the Frauenkirche Christmas market. Huge vats of Glühwein (hot mulled wine, traditional at Christmas time) being prepared for the day's demand. The Residenzschloß was the home of the Saxon kings until the early 1900s, and now houses art and treasure collections. The Fürstenzug (procession of dukes), a 102 meter long frieze depicting the procession of many Saxon rulers. The original frieze was replaced in 1907 with 24,000 Meissen porcelain tiles (the town of Meissen, famous for its porcelain, is not far from Dresden). The Hofkirche, the former church of the royal household in Dresden. Part of the Residenzschloß. The Stollenfest parade would start in the square, the Schloßplatz, in front of this building. The Christmas Stollen, a type of cake originally referred to as "Striezel", is a specialty of Dresden and a tradition that has been celebrated since the 15th century. Every year, the city celebrates with a day devoted to this delicacy. Festivities started at the Schloßplatz. And the parade begins. Each "scene" represents a landmark in the evolving history of the Stollen and its importance to the city. Der Fanfarenzug Dresden Scene representing the baker's war in the late medieval period between Dresden and the town of Siebenlehn, where Dresden bakers fought to ensure that only Dresden Stollen could be sold at the Striezelmarkt. Die Schönburger Fahnenschwinger, flag wavers from Saxony. And the main attraction of the day, the Riesenstollen... a gigantic Stollen that this year measured 3.64 meters (12 ft.) long, 1.75 meters (5.7 ft.) wide, and weighed 3,354 kg (7,394 lbs). They take their Stollen seriously in Dresden, with an official seal of authenticity and strict guidelines that bakers must adhere to in order to qualify. The Mädchenspielmannszug Dresden. With temperatures around 12 deg. F, felt really sorry for these ladies! The official Stollenmesser (Stollen knife), used to cut the first piece from the Riesenstollen. Dresdner Schornsteinfeger (chimney sweeps) The Kunstakademie (Art Academy), also known as Zitronenpresse (lemon squeezer) for its unusual ribbed glass dome. At night, light shines through the glass panes to illuminate the dome... quite beautiful. A Moravian star, a common ornament in Germany to celebrate the Advent season. Back to the Striezelmarkt to enjoy more of Dresden's famous Christmas market. One of the stalls, selling wood carved specialties from the nearby Erzgebirge area (we'd be heading there the next day). A look back towards the Frauenkirche Banners representing the bakery guilds of Dresden. Cutting the Riesenstollen into 500 g packages, for sale to the public. The process took hours! A view of the Striezelmarkt from our hotel room... needed a break to thaw out. The giant pyramid After a warm shower, it was time to head off for a tour of the Semper Oper, Dresden's famous opera house. Details from above the main entry doors The Hofkirche, as seen from the steps of the Semper Oper. And the Residenzschloß The interior of the opera house was quite ornate, but nearly all of the "marble" is fake... just a painted replica. That was the intentional design of the architect. Since the performances were staged and mimicking reality, Gustav Semper wanted the opera house itself to also mimick reality. The technique used for the marble columns was extremely labor-intensive, and ended up being more expensive actually than purchasing real marble, but that was the artistic vision for the facility. The stage, built with state-of-the-art technology. The honorary seating box. The room is famous for its great acoustics... the decorative scallop shells around the space are designed to bounce sound down towards the seats. The market stalls along the Münzgasse... because of the special Fest that day, the markets were packed with people and this street was jammed shoulder to shoulder. Striezelmarkt at night, from our hotel room The next morning, we rented a car and headed down the Elbe River to the Königstein fortress southeast of Dresden. The area, known as Sächsische Schweiz (Saxon Switzerland), contains many tall chimney sandstone formations. The fortress was built right into some of them. The fortress is massive, one of the largest hilltop fortresses in Europe, and looks down over the valleys and towns surrounding it. This is the view towards the south, away from the Elbe River. View towards the Pfaffenstein (the flat, tabletop mountain). The Königstein fortress was considered unconquerable, and in fact was never successfully invaded. View of the Elbe from within one of the guard towers. As the snow intensified, our views disappeared. Ben by one of the guard towers. The Elbe River... our views slowly disappearing with the increasingly heavy snowfall. Significantly more snow here than in Dresden! (But unbeknownst to us at the time, nothing compared to what we'd be encountering over the next 24 hours in Seiffen!) The Friedrichsburg building on the east side of the fortress. The interior was set up as a large dining room with beautiful views down to the Elbe River valley... we assumed it's available for private functions. The Hungerturm (hunger tower). No one is actually certain what this tower was really used for. There was a Weihnachtsmarkt up at Königstein as well. Complete with live animals for the manger scene. Plenty of food and drink stands, but also blacksmith demonstrations. After a white-knuckle drive, in the dark, through the Erzgebirge mountain roads during a heavy snowstorm, we thankfully reached our next destination, Seiffen. Nearly got stuck in the middle of the woods, and for a few moments seriously feared having to spend the night stranded in the car. The town Christmas tree, a bit drenched in snow. Streetlights throughout town showcase come of the typical handicrafts, such as nutcrackers, carved trees, Bergmänner (miners), and guardian angels (which usually appear in pairs together with Bergmänner). Seiffen is an old mining town, but switched to wood carving and toy making when the ore and silver deposits in the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains) declined back in the 17th century. Seiffen is the village where all the wooden Christmas crafts – nutcrackers, pyramids, Schwibbögen, smoker men, etc. – traditionally come from. The town is filled with wood carving shops and stores – a very touristy spot, but in a more traditional sense and charming nonetheless. The Seiffener Kirche, a famous octagonal church that is featured in many of the woodworking scenes produced in the town. With more snow overnight, this was the view from our balcony the next morning. Trees along the Hauptstraße (main street). The local Biergarten, picking up on the Christmas craft theme of the town. We toured one of the shops, getting to see how some of the items are made. This guy was shaping wood disks for nutcracker stands. A nutcracker, deconstructed. The view down into the wood cutting shop, of course with the requisite Advent's wreath. Painting angel figures for Christmas pyramids. Wisemen pyramid figures drying. Pyramid assembly Räuchermänner (smoker men), these painted as local Erzgebirge miners (Bergmänner). One of Seiffen's toy specialies is carved animals known as "Reifentiere" (translated as <em>ring turned animals</em>). Wheels of wood are turned on a lathe to form the basic shape of an animal, recognizable when a wedge is cut from the wheel. The animal is then hand-chiseled to its final 3D form, and painted. This technique is unique to Seiffen, and allows animals to be carved faster and more cost effectively. One of the many Christmas shops in town. Large-scale Bergmann and Engel (miner and angel) statues in front of the shop. These two figures are traditionally found together, with the angel providing protection and a guiding light for the men coming back out of the mines. The Rathaus (town hall). The Seiffener Kirche. Just a bit of snow accumulation. The town's main intersection. Houses throughout the Erzgebirge place illuminated Schibbögen (decorated wood arches) in all their windows. The arches represent the openings to the Erzgebirge mines, and lights to show the miners the way out. It's a spectacular sight at night, especially with all the snow. This oversized Schwibbogen was displayed on the side of someone's house. Seiffen at night, with the church in the background, after another day of heavy snowfall. The next day we had planned to visit an old mine on our way out of the Erzgebirge, but bad weather conditions and closed roads changed the itinerary – we had to get back to an Autobahn as quickly as possible. But all was not lost... we were rewarded with a great GDR-era Trabi sighting just past the city of Freiberg. And in a particularly lovely color, too!! Next stop was the town of Bamberg in northern Bavaria, known for its many breweries and in particular, its Rauchbier (smoked beer). We stayed in a guestroom at one of the breweries, Fässla. Had to walk past the vats to get to the parking lot. The brewery sign from our room window. One of Bamberg's most famous breweries, Spezial, was right across the street. This is one great bar-hopping kind of town! The Spezial brewery sign. The Obere Brücke (upper bridge), leading to the Altes Rathaus (old town hall). The Altes Rathaus, with its magnificent wall murals. In one section, the cherubs are actually popping out of the painting. The Obere Brücke is one of the oldest stone arch bridges, built in the 12th century. The half-timbered Rottmeisterhaus, added to the Rathaus in 1688 and hanging out over the Regnitz River, is one of Bamberg's most recognizable buildings. Locks on the Regnitz Bamberg is filled with beautiful Fachwerkhäuser (half-timbered houses)... this one gave some insight into how these centuries-old buildings are assembled and repaired. Two of the four spires of the Bamberger Dom (cathedral). The Bamberger Dom (cathedral), initially founded in 1004. Destroyed by fire, the original building was rebuilt starting in 1237. Detail of the beautiful carving on the Dom's main entry doors. The Bamberger Reiter (Bamberg rider) dating from about 1230 – no one knows for sure the identify of the rider. The area along the Regnitz known as Klein-Venedig ("Little Venice"), a district of fishermen's cottages. And I thought the floors in our old house were unlevel! A Fachwerkhaus (now a hotel) dating from 1302. The famous Schlenkerla, making Rauchbier (smoked beer) since at least 1405 (the year it was first mentioned). Ben enjoying a half liter of the original, <em>Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier</em>. The "Alte Lokal" – the beams used to be painted with ox blood for protection, thus turning them so dark over the centuries. Their beautiful Advent's wreath. We sat at a large, community table and had a fantastic evening, staying much longer than we had anticipated. Got to speak lots of German with some of the the local Schlenkerla regulars (our new friend Klaus is to Cindi's right), and met some wonderful ladies visiting from Moscow. Could have stayed there all night! This is how evenings <em>should</em> be spent. View of the Altes Rathaus and the Untere Brücke (lower bridge) We got a brief glimpse of sun in between snow squals. This view near the Untere Brücke looks up towards Michelsberg Abbey, atop one of Bamberg's seven hills. The gulls were quick to gather when we first walked up... used to getting fed. Looking up the Regnitz towards the Klein-Venedig district. Sculpture at the foot of the Untere Brücke. The Regnitz and Klein-Venedig. Statue of Kaiserin Kunigund. This is a replica of the statue carved in 1750 (the original is in one of the local churches), and was the only bridge statue out of six to survive floods in 1784. Ben in front of the Rottmeisterhaus. Cindi, overlooking the Regnitz River and the Rottmeisterhaus. Barge going up the Main-Donau-Kanal (Main-Danube canal) Next stop, the medieval town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany's best-preserved walled city. The Klingentor in the northwestern corner of the walled town was close to our hotel. We stayed at the Altfränkische Weinstube, a 650-year-old building. First order of business... food and drink, of course! LOVED how they decorated the old wood beam ceiling in this Kneipe! Gotta figure out how to replicate this somehow. After dinner, a walk down to one of the most famous Rothenburg views at the Plönlein. The Siebersturm is at the left, and the Kobolzeller Tor to the right. As with Bamberg, the town is filled with centuries old Fachwerkhäuser. Every night, there are one-hour tours of the city offered by someone dressed as an old Nachtwächter (night watchman). In medieval times, the Nachtwächter roamed the town at night watching for fires, the biggest risk/danger for towns at that time. As important as the job was, the night watchman was very low on the professional class structure, as people associated the night with demons and evil. We opted for the English tour, and the guide was hilarious... very entertaining, and well worth the time and money. The Burgtor guard houses, built at the end of the 16th century. A lovely view back towards the southern part of town from the Burggarten (castle gardens), just outside of the Burgtor tower. The town really was quite beautiful at night, with all the Christmas lights. Sort of hid the tackiness of the over-the-top tourist shops. Fountain, with the Franziskanerkirche (Franciscan Church) in the background. The Marien Apotheke building on the Marktplatz. As with the breweries in Bamberg, many businesses here had beautiful signs hanging from the buildings. This one, a bakery near the Jakobskirche... ... and an apothecary at the Marktplatz... ... and a hotel. Some of the house on this street had beautifully espaliered trees. And the flower boxes were just as beautiful as they are in the summer. Jakobskirche, the town's principal church. Construction took place between 1300 and 1490. Jakobskirche Carvings on the flying buttresses The church sits right over one of the town streets. The high altar, carved by Friedrich Herlin in 1466. The pipe organ (with 5,500 pipes) at the back of the church The massive advent's wreath The Heilig Blut Altar (holy blood altar) in the back of the church, behind the organ, carved by the famous Tilman Riemenschneider in 1504. Fountain, with the Franziskanerkirche in the background. Part of the Rothenburger Weihnachtsmarkt The Rathaus and Marktplatz, with more Weihnachtsmarkt stands Coat of arms above the Rathaus entrance. The Ratstrinkstube (councillor's tavern... today the tourist information building), built in 1446. The windows flanking the clock open and reenact the story of the "Meistertrunk von Rothenburg" 9 times daily. Marien Apotheke Houses throughout town had small, decorated treetops displayed above their entrances. Plönlein by day After fighting the crowds, tourist buses and tackiness of the main streets, it was nice to escape to the fringe of the town and walk the old fortification wall. Here, Ben stands just outside the wall before we climb up for the circumnavigation. It's a beautifully preserved, medieval town and charming in many respects, but a real shame that it's become SO touristy, almost to the point of theme park-like in areas. The climb up A view from the wall, back towards Jakobskirche. The wall was everything the center of town wasn't... peaceful, uncrowded, and history uncommercialized. The Siebersturm, built in 1385 The wall's roof structure. The red clay tiles rest on furring strips, and depend on gravity to keep them in place. Keeping warm! Old Fachwerkhaus next to the wall Spitalbastei, at the southeastern corner of the wall. Turn in the wall at the southeast corner of town. Eyebrow windows on the town's youth hostel. The southwest portion of the wall... with open spaces, fresh snow, and hardly any other people, an extremely peaceful place. Windows in the wall gave us some nice views back towards town and the Tauber River valley. Jakobskirche and the Rathaus The Burgtor, the main town gate leading to the castle gardens. The Tauber River valley. The Siebersturm Jakobskirche and the Rathaus Looking north, up the east side of the wall. Rödertor, built in the 14th century Winter icicles Gerlachschmiede, actually constructed in 1945 after World War II, but one of the most photographed scenes in Rothenburg. And from street level, with the Rödertor in the background. One of the iconic/postcard views of Rothenburg. The northeast corner of the wall Jakobskirche The Burgtor, the tallest tower of the town and constructed in 1350. Door to the Burgtor, dating from the 1500s. The large door had a smaller, man-sized door within it. If citizens missed getting back within the town walls by curfew, they had to pay the gatekeepers and were admitted through this smaller entry, which posed less risk to the city than opening the larger gate door. A view from the Burgtor out towards the Schloßgarten (castle garden). Guard houses flanking the Burgtor. Ben in the Schloßgarten The oldest building in town (dating to 900), the medieval wine tavern <em>Mittelalterliche Trinkstube Zur Höll</em> As our night watchman guide told us, having someone tell you to go to hell (zur Hölle, in German) is not such a bad thing in Rothenburg! Next up, the Mittelalterliches Kriminalmuseum dedicated to the implements of torture and punishment from medieval Rothenburg. A comfy chair A stretching rack A water torture "how-to" guide These devices were used to prevent people from screaming while being tortured. This mask was worn by women accused of gossiping. Iron maiden An executioner's mask and block. Executioner was considered the lowest professional class in medieval Rothenburg (followed by the night watchman). Being killed by the wheel was considered the harshest type of death. Accused were beaten with the wheel until all limbs were broken, and once dead, laced through the wheel and displayed in town. Nice justice system! Back to happier things... like eating and drinking. We stopped in this old Gasthaus to grab a late afternoon snack. The woodwork in the dining room was spectacular, and we had a wonderful long German conversation with an older couple from Ludwigshafen (who assured me that finding a job in Germany would be no problem as long as I could speak fluent English and had an education... I liked them!!). Jakobskirche at night Leaving town via the Rödertor. Outside the wall, near the Rödertor. We travelled up the Neckar River valley towards Heidelberg, and stopped along the way in the town of Mosbach, known for its Fachwerkhäuser. We enjoyed more Glühwein and food, but this stop really was all about the architecture. Heading further up the Neckar valley, which has many small castles and fortresses overlooking the river. This one, Schloß Zwingenberg, dates from the early 1300s. Temperatures were rising as we approached Heidelberg, and a beautiful mist hung over the Neckar. Hinterburg, dating from the early 1100s, in Neckarsteinach just east of Heidelberg. We stayed in a new hotel this time, the Villa Marstall, just a little further down the river from our usual place. While we couldn't see the Brückentor from our room like before, we still had a nice view of the Alte Brücke itself. And the room itself... significantly nicer! This is our new "regular" spot in Heidelberg now. First line of business... get to the Marktplatz and grab more Glühwein. Grabbed our favorite spot to hang out and drink, at the Hercules fountain. The giant pyramid Glühwein stand. Heliggeistkirche, one of Heidelberg's landmarks. The pyramid with the lights on. The market at Universitätsplatz. LEGO Weihnachtsmann in a store window on the Hauptstraße The local brew (although, this is one time you probably <em>don't</em> want to drink the local offering... Heidelberg's beer is not known to be a particularly good choice, especially when there are so many other wonderful options to pick from). Our hotel was next to the Marstall, one of the oldest surviving buildings in Heidelberg (built around 1510) and used as a weapons armory and shelter for horses. Today it houses the main university cafeteria. Ironic?!? A view of the Neckar and the Altstadt from the Theodor-Heuss-Brücke. Neuenheim, on the north side of the river facing the Altstadt. What I wouldn't do to have their views from my living room window!! Heidelberg definitely sits in a milder climate belt. Along the walk up to Philosophenweg, with houses facing south and obviously enjoying an even milder microclimate, we came upon a home with palmettos and bamboo growing in the garden. A view of the town from Philosophenweg (Philosoper's Way), a walkway along the hill on the opposite side of the Neckar. Ben wasn't feeling too well that day, so we took the more gradual incline route from the west. Whichever direction you come from, the views are spectacular! The Marstall, with Universitätsplatz and the Jesuitenkirche in the background. The Alte Brücke and landmark Brückentor The Heiliggeistkirche The Schloß More cool vegetation Feeling a little better (or at least faking it). Cindi's favorite place in the world... in 14 trips to Germany so far, Heidelberg hasn't been skipped yet. That day will undoubtedly come, but this is a place we'll return to time and time again until we're physically unable. Alte Brücke Brückentor The Glockenturm (bell tower), Cindi's favorite part of the Schloß. The old style East German pedestrian traffic symbol, the beloved "Ampelmann", making its way to Heidelberg. Not all traffic lights in town had been replaced by this DDR-era version commonly seen in Berlin and other former East cities (like the examples at right from Dresden), but we spotted a number of them in town. Brückentor Statue of Karl Theodor on the Alte Brücke Brückentor Stand selling roasted chestnuts, a German Christmas tradition, along the Hauptstraße. Marktplatz Weihnachtsmarkt by night. Reflection in a nearby store window. Glockenturm Our last day was spent in Frankfurt, so we could get to the airport early the next day for our flight home. One of the first things we encountered after leaving our hotel was the Euro sign in front of the Eurotower, home of the European Central Bank. Frankfurt is the center of the German banking industry, with Commerzbank being one of its biggest banks. Loved the contrast here of the old ornate Commerzbank building against the company's modern skyscraper. The Römer, the old town hall, made up of three step-gabled 15th century houses. Flags representing the city of Frankfurt, Germany and the European Union. The Ostzeile (row of half-timbered houses) on the Römerberg square Alte Nikolaikirche, consecrated in 1290 Inside the Nikolaikirche Frankfurter Kaiserdom (cathedral), built during the 13th-15th centuries With patches of blue sky, seemed like a great opportunity to climb the more than 300 stairs to get great views of the city. On our way up, the rain system we had driven through that morning from Heidelberg apparently caught up with us. We got a little wet, but the views were still great. The Main River The Euro sign in front of the Eurotower. Glühwein cups, decorated in the style of the traditional Frankfurt Bembel pitcher (used for the local apple wine). Ben enjoying a cup of hot Apfelwein (apple wine), a local Frankfurt specialty and alternative to the standard Glühwein we'd been drinking all week. Our choice for dinner, a restaurant Ben realized he had eaten at decades earlier. Charming! Another beautiful Advent's wreath. Nikolaikirche in the evening. Outside the restaurant Römerberg at night, with the Commerzbank tower shining in the background. A Sunday night, and the streets were mobbed with people. There were certainly a fair number of tourists, but by far the majority were locals out to enjoy the Weihnachtsmarkt. It's a very nice tradition, getting out of the house and socializing in the city! The top of the Commerzbank tower... a beautiful building! The Eurotower, Commerzbank tower, and the moon positioned perfectly between them. Commerzbank tower, Europe's tallest office building at 259 meters Euro sign at night Euro sign, with the color-coordinated tops of the Eurotower and Commerzbank tower.