A twinkling paradise of fairy lights. The scent of cinnamon, gingerbread and roasted chestnuts in the air. The slight chill that makes you glad you’re wearing layers on top of your layers. This November A Brummie Home and Abroad decided to immerse herself in the real German festive experience with a trip to the Aachen Christmas Markets.
Aachen’s location close to the borders of Belgium and the Netherlands, and just a short train ride away from a number of German airports, means that getting to Aachen is a breeze. We chose to fly in and out of Düsseldorf with Eurowings, as the flight times were convenient from BHX. It’s a short flight at just over an hour. This means we spent longer in Wetherspoons at the airport than we did on the plane.
From Düsseldorf airport, we caught the train direct to Aachen. I used the Trainline app throughout the trip to book our tickets on the go. Sometimes literally whilst we were on the platform. The promised German punctuality didn’t emerge as our train was running 25 minutes late. It’s a 90 minute journey and as it’s a regional train it stops at all the stations but we’re early for our 3pm check in so we’re in no particular hurry.
We booked an apartment via Booking.com for our 2 night stay in Aachen. Situated on Theaterplatz, it’s a 10 minute walk from the train station and is perfectly located for the Christmas markets. It’s a fifth floor apartment, with floor to ceiling windows in the lounge and bedroom and a small wraparound balcony. The photos don’t do justice to the size. The kitchen is well equipped, and there’s a decent sized bath with overhead shower. At the moment it’s overlooking a construction site (which made us feel like we were at home…) but the soundproofing was pretty good so we weren’t disturbed at all. Something our next accommodation in Cologne could definitely have learned all about…
Except exploring Aachen can wait. Our priorities are food and then a nap. Early morning alarm calls are not fun, even when it’s to go on an adventure. Plus I have the beginnings of the lurgy. We can see Aachener Brauhaus from our apartment so this is our first port of call. A giant beer and a schnitzel later, I’m definitely ready for that doze.
When we wake up it’s dark. The light on the crane opposite lights up the apartment like the North Star. It’s only about 5pm but it feels much later. It’s time to layer up and head out to explore the Aachen Christmas Markets. We pass the Elisenbrunnen, the surprisingly understated location of two fountains which spew out water from the hot springs that the city is famed for. I know it’s hot because I stick my finger in it. The slight tang of sulphur permeates the air.
Hoping that my quick finger dip in the spring will have medicinal qualities that will cure my cold, we continue on along Hartmannstraße towards the cathedral. And suddenly the festive sights and sounds hit us all at once. There’s a warm glow coming from the bars, cafes and shops lining the streets, and the garland-bedecked wooden huts are laid out around the square. It’s fun to just wander around for a while, weaving between stalls, ducking down cobbled side streets with shimmering lights strewn from one side to the other. I gaze into the window of Nobis Printen, pondering if it’s too soon to gorge myself on the local sweet and spiced speciality. I marvel at the bright blinking lights of the carousel. And eventually, inevitably, we find ourselves at the gluhwein stall.
As with the majority of the German markets there is a refundable deposit (pfand) to be paid, usually equal to the cost of the drink. I’m already taken with our Aachen 2019 mugs and decide that they’re going to come home with us. There is a worrying moment when my gluhwein-empty mug is swapped for a new gluhwein-full mug, which is emblazoned with Aachen 2018. The bemused bartender kindly swaps it for a current year mug when I look like I’m about to throw a tantrum.
The cold is slowly starting to seep through our layers, and there is a slight drizzle in the air. So we head for a final drink of the night at Domkeller. This popular traditional pub serves both local and Belgian beers, and we pull up a stool at the bar to nurse a beer before bedtime.
Happy 11th Anniversary to us! Mr Fletche is so lucky to wake up to to a pallid, clammy, wheezing wife. Still, the show must go on. I plaster on the make-up and make our plans for the day.
I discovered Aachen purely by accident after reading a blog post by awesome travel bloggers Twins that Travel. They also visited a small Christmassy town called Monschau on the same trip, so I decided to follow in their footsteps. Re-reading their blog post a couple of days before we travelled I noticed a very salient point that i had ignored before. Monschau’s Christmas market is Friday-Sunday. Today is Thursday. But we’re going to visit anyway.
First, breakfast. We haven’t purchased our usual holiday supplies so instead we head out in search of coffee and cake. Or pastries as we call cake when they’re eaten for breakfast. Opening time for most places appears to be 10am, meaning we linger outside Cafe Zum Mohren until opening time. My coffee is served in a bowl.
From the cafe we head to the bus station. This is where we catch the S66 to Monschau. We don’t have to wait too long to work out which bus stop we need as the bus pulls in just as we arrive. Perfect timing. We hand over 11,20€ to the driver, and settle down for the hourlong journey. No one else seems to be heading to Monschau. We do get to see the outskirts of Aachen though. In all honesty, all of the good touristy bits are definitely round where we’re staying.
Finally we’re out in the countryside, and straddling the Belgian border. Monschau nestles in the rolling hills and forests of the Eifel National Park and it is decidedly more hilly and green in these parts. Afraid of missing our bus stop (a la Luxembourg) we get off a stop early at Monschau Flora. This is a mistake. Get off at Parkhaus. We watched the same bus pass us on it’s return journey as we trudge down the hill. There’s drizzle in the air. Again. We look forward to finding a warm, glowing cafe to rest awhile. Maybe with more coffee and cake.
But as we enter the old town, it’s evident that it’s not only the Christmas market that’s shut. Monschau itself seems closed for business. The Rotes Haus, an elegant blush pink building (formerly the headquarters of a textile manufacturer, now housing a museum) is open, but barely. It closes at midday. We arrive at 11:55. There are a few other bewildered tourists strolling around but it’s clear that Monschau is indeed shut. It’s a beautiful town though, full of half-timbered houses, picturesque bridges, water mills and narrow cobbled streets. The ghost scents of roasted chestnuts and gluhwein fool us. A festive itch we are unable to scratch, like a phantom limb.
We have spent less than an hour in Monschau but with everything closed we have exhausted all our possibilities. We head back to the bus stop – the correct one this time. It’s another timely arrival as we meet the bus as it pulls in. Not a moment too soon either as the drizzle turns to a full blown torrent of rain.
By the time we arrive back in Aachen we’ve spent twice as long on the bus as we did in Monschau.
We head straight for the Christmas market from the bus station. I’d been eyeing up the flammkuchen that our table neighbours had the previous night, so we scoured the markets until we found the thin pizza-like loveliness at a stall in front of the Couven Museum. The rain is now torrential and the wind’s picking up too so we find shelter. I almost lose my flammkuchen when a gust of wind blows straight under the flimsy plate. It’s only right that we have a gluhwein to warm us up.
With the weather showing no sign of improving we duck inside Aachen Cathedral. It was completed on the order of Charles the Great in the late 8th century. You can’t avoid Charlemagne in Aachen. He was a fan of the city’s healing waters, and decided to make Aachen the centre of his empire. Compared to other cathedrals, this one is quite small but it’s very ornate, with its sumptuous mosaics and fancy copper chandelier but I’m a fan of the more minimalistic place of worship, like the beautiful cathedral in Liverpool. The cathedral is free to enter; to take photos though you’ll need to purchase a photography permit for €1. To be honest, I think we may have got more out of the visit with a guided tour.
We head back to the apartment for a rest before our anniversary meal. I’ve booked us a restaurant close to our apartment but we do take a quick detour back to the markets to pick up some Christmas trinkets we’d fallen in love with. And printen. Because I refuse to leave without printen.
Restaurant Luna is a couple of doors away from us on Theaterplatz. There’s a small but varied menu at this Mediterranean restaurant and it’s a welcome respite from food eaten off a cardboard tray. The service is what i would call typically “family-run European” i.e plenty of time to linger between courses, waiters chatting to diners and taking great pride in their food. Mr Fletche has the fillet of pork. I have steak, perfectly cooked and served with a baked potato absolutely heaped with sour cream. For dessert, Mr Fletche opts for the creme brûlée, whilst I choose the homemade apple strudel, which they have every right to be immensely proud of. Two courses, wine and beer comes to just over €60.
The lurgey is full-blown. I’m unable to speak above a whisper. Mr Fletche is sympathetic, but is secretly relieved that I can now only complain in squeaks. We pack up our suitcases, ready for the next part of our journey. But before we head onwards to Cologne, we make a final visit to the Christmas Market, and to Baeckeri-Moss for coffee and pastries.
Aachen is best known for it’s Christmas market. And this is when the city really comes to life as a tourist destination. Outside of the old town there is not a huge amount to do and see, and a day in Aachen would certainly be enough to see the highlights. Due to feeling under the weather we chose to rest up plenty rather than packing our day with sightseeing, meaning we did miss out on visiting the Treasury, the city’s museums and the Carolus Therman Spa (for which I unnecessarily packed a swimming costume). If we hadn’t visited Monschau then I’m sure we would have spent more time at the Aachen attractions. And on reflection, we should have spent the first two days in Cologne, and then travelled on to Aachen. But for getting into that festive spirit, this cosy and compact city is perfect.
Have you visited the Christmas Markets of Germany? If so, which is your favourite and where should we head next time? Stay tuned for thoughts on our stay in Cologne!