The Harvest is Here - and YOU Can be a Part of It!

The beginning of autumn is a special time in the Stuttgart region. As we enjoy sunny days and mild temperatures, a chill creeps in at night. This contrast in temperature leads to a new sight - farmers, up in their vineyards, inspecting their grapes, trying to find the exact right time when the balance between the naturally-produced sugars and tannins will lead to the best possible wine.

The vineyards above Esslingen are beautiful in the autumn!

The vineyards above Esslingen are beautiful in the autumn!

Then suddenly, with very short notice, it's time to harvest! Here in the Württemberg region of Germany, the majority of wine grapes are grown in smaller family plots. The farmers enlist friends and family, hopefully with flexible schedules, to spend a few days laboring on the steep hillsides picking grapes, enjoying glorious views and camaraderie over lunch (and wine, of course).

I've talked to many people who travel long distances and spend a lot of money to take part in a wine harvest in Italy or France, not realizing that the opportunity to do so exists right here, in nearby Esslingen. For the first time this year, Stuttgart Steps tours is partnering with Ellen Thomas of Esslingen Tours, Tastings, and More to invite you to have an immersive experience harvesting wine grapes in Esslingen starting, well, any day now!

This could be you!

This could be you!

This is not a guided tour like my other offerings, but an activity. You'll drive or take the train to Weingärtner Esslingen cooperative winery, which you may know from the Esslingen Wine Walk. After parking at their newly-renovated facility, you'll then meet the grape farmers and your fellow workers.. You'll be transported into the vineyards and spend the morning picking grapes (and of course, snapping pictures!). This will be followed by a break for lunch prepared by Oma (with plenty of wine) and then returning to the vineyards until that day’s plot is finished.

This is real physical labor, not a tourist wine-tasting experience, with sharp shears on sometimes muddy hillsides - you will be tired when you’re finished! But in addition to the hearty lunch, you'll be rewarded with a bottle of wine for your efforts and memories that will last a lifetime. You’ll get a chance to bond with other English-speaking workers and German-speaking locals laboring side-by-side with you to finish the harvest. This is best thought of as a cultural experience and a way to meet interesting new people! It is important to note that if you reserve to work a shift that you take the commitment seriously - any missing pair of hands is more work for everyone else.

We are waiting on the winegrowers to find out how many volunteers are needed and on what days. It's expected the first day will be between 19-21 September, and there may be up to 7 days needed after that. Some shifts will fall on weekdays, and others on weekends, through the 2nd week of October.

To find out more information and get on the list for a shift once they’re announced, please join the Esslingen Tours, Tastings, and More, where I am administrator and will be coordinating the harvest shift schedule largely by Facebook Messenger. Please contact me if you do not use Facebook to discuss alternative means of communication. Please note there is a $10 (USD) fee payable in advance to reserve your space on a shift. This fee is to compensate myself and Ellen for the very time-consuming effort of coordinating many people and shifts, as well as advertising the opportunities.

This is a really unique experience that I've been recommending to my tour guests on my Vineyard Wine Hikes and Esslingen City Tours for years, and I'm really excited to be a part of it! See you in the vineyards!



5 Tips You Should Know About German Christmas Markets

Wow, it's been quite a while between blog posts, hasn't it?  I've been so busy with tours, and anyone who's ever started a blog knows how easy it is to fall behind.  But it's a very exciting time of the year for us at Stuttgart Steps so I figured I'd share some of my hard-earned tips from my six seasons of Christmas Market-ing!  

1. Not all Markets are created equal!

The Christmas market of the Ravenna Gorge 

The Christmas market of the Ravenna Gorge 

I've visited, by my count, nearly 50 markets throughout Germany, Austria, and France, but that doesn't mean they're all the same or equally worth your time and travel!  Some of the most-visited markets can seem like carbon copies of each other, while other, less famous markets are unique and distinct.  

Luckily for us in Stuttgart, some of the most unique markets are right in our backyard - such as Esslingen's "middle ages market" and the beautiful baroque market of Ludwigsburg.  In the nearby Black Forest, you can even experience a market in the beautiful Ravenna gorge.  And don't forget that Stuttgart's market, with it's elaborately decorated booths, is considered to be one of the very best in Germany.

2. When possible, take public transit

Stuttgart's "staus" or traffic jams, are actually rated the worst in Germany, and with high numbers of visitors, Christmas markets make an already bad problem worse.  Then there's trying to find parking or navigating a car into the tiny spaces of German parking garages.  With an excellent public transportation network, there's no reason to drive!  Plus drinking "gluhwein" (mulled wine) to warm up is one of the great pleasures of these markets, and no one wants to risk a DUI.  

Just go to the English-language trip planner of the Stuttgart's regional transit authority (VVS) or better yet, download the app on your smartphone!  For long-distance trips, consult the

3. Speaking of Gluhwein...

Firedancing at the Esslingen Middle Ages Market

Firedancing at the Esslingen Middle Ages Market

Gluhwein is a real highlight of my visits to the markets, but like the markets themselves, not all Gluhwein is created equal.  Some booths simply take pre-spiced bottled gluhwein and dump it in a cauldron.  These tend to be sweeter and not as delicious as booths that make the gluhwein from scratch with their own special recipes of spices.  If you come on one of my tours, I'll sure and point out my personal favorite gluhwein stands, as well as point out other options, like hot apple cider or the famous (and hard to pronounce) "feuerzangenbowle" a special alcoholic punch.  

Because it's so warming, it is easy to overindulge in gluhwein, so do take it easy and keep in mind the high sugar content tends to lead to nasty hangovers if you have too much.  Don't forget to drink water or switch to equally cozy glasses of "kinderpunsch" if needed.

4. Check the dates!

Larger cities have markets that run the entire advent season, usually until the 22rd or 23rd, but smaller markets may only run on weekends, or in certain cases, only one weekend.  So be sure and check the dates before you go!  Booklets (in German) with information on all the Christmas markets in Baden-Wurttemberg are available at many local kiosks (the stores that sell tobacco proucts and lottery tickets) and there are many websites that also contain this information.  

Keep in mind that some markets in Alsace, France stay open through the New Year, making for an ideal day trip when much of the businesses in Germany are shut down.  Strasbourg and Colmar are especially worth visiting for a day trip!

5.  Overwhelmed?  We can help!  

For the first time ever, Stuttgart Steps has created a tour to help you visit 3 of the best markets Southern Germany has to offer in one fun-filled day.  No need to worry about dates or how to navigate public transit or how to find the best food and drink - I've done the legwork, all you have to do is sign up, show up, and follow me.  

And as always, if you have any questions, want recommendations, just drop me a line!  

The Baroque beauty of the Ludwigsburg Market - easy to visit on my Christmas Markets tour!

The Baroque beauty of the Ludwigsburg Market - easy to visit on my Christmas Markets tour!

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

I'll be honest with you: when I left the United States, I dreaded Christmas.  That's not exactly a unique feeling for a lot of people these days, I realize, but I really dreaded it.  It was an excessively stressful time of year.  And my complaints are just as unimaginative: the excessive commercialization, the obnoxious constant stream of carols, the traffic, the inevitable lack of funds...Christmas had lost a lot of its magic for me as an adult.  

But my first Christmas in Germany changed that, because in Germany - and indeed, much of Europe, the dreary weather, constant lack of sunshine, all of that vanishes thanks to the Christmas Markets, or Weinachtsmarkten.  And why not?  For a month in the bigger cities, and at least for a couple days in even the smallest villages, everything is transformed.  Adorable huts selling ornaments, candles, and crafts spring up.  The smells of sizzling wurst, roast chestnuts, and spiced almonds fill the air.  Oh, and did I forget to mention Glühwein?

Stuttgart's Alte Schloss at Christmas

It seems silly to complain about commercialization while celebrating what is a market, where one goes to spend money, but there's something different about the European Christmas feeling.  It's not that you don't hear carols on the radio, or have sales in the malls, because that's inescapable, but the cozy feeling you get admiring the booth decorations while warming up with a beautifully decorated mug of glühwein or cider, chatting with friends and family in the cold but bustling night is something really special.

Vin Chaud is just Gluhwein by another name!

Vin Chaud is just Gluhwein by another name!

Stuttgart's Christmas market starts on November 27th, and runs every day until December 23rd.  Sadly, I'll have to suspend my regular tours of Stuttgart during this time, as the market takes up most of the route of my tour through the Mitte, and it's just crowded and narrow to navigate a group through.  I'll still be available for tours during weekday mornings, however, when crowds are more manageable.  It's a great idea for an activity if friends and family are visiting this holiday season, and I'm available on both the 24th and 25th (when most everything else will be shut down).

Esslingen's amazing Christmas Market

Esslingen's amazing Christmas Market

The exciting news is that I am starting my new tour of Esslingen, but only as a private tour reserved in advance.  Regularly scheduled public tours will begin right after Christmas.  You can reserve by contacting me or by sending me a message on Facebook!

In the meantime, you can keep up with my own travels through the regional Christmas Markets by watching this blog, or following me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter!  Have a great holiday season!  


The Holy Roman Empire and YOUR Travels!

This is essentially part two of "Why You Should Care About the Holy Roman Empire" - in which I outlined how the HRE began.  But now I'm going to talk to why it matters to you, the expat or tourist in Germany.  But first, a (brief) continuation of the history.

 Within the HRE, there were countless kingdoms, duchies (lands ruled by dukes), counties (lands ruled by counts), and various tracts of land owned directly by the church or the Empire itself.  Kings, dukes, and counts often chafed at the power of the Emperors and many wars were fought as a result.  (For Games of Thrones fans, think of the Emperor as being the guy who sits on the Iron Throne - and the various kings and dukes as being like the Starks of Winterfell in rebellion against them).  Control of the empire passed through several different families in the early centuries, including local Swabians like the Hohenstaufen dynasty.  By 1450, however, the Hapsburg family had gained control of the Empire and didn't relinquish it until Napoleon put an end to the HRE entirely in the early 19th century (which then made the Hapsburgs "only" in charge of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.)

Enough with the history, though.  Why does this matter to you?  Because of Free Imperial Cities.  Here's my equation for travelers in Germany: Imperial city + economic decline in the 17th century - Allied bombing in WWII = Great place to visit!

Like I mentioned before, while local lords owned much of the land in the HRE, some of it belonged directly to the Empire. These places were known as "Free Imperial Cities" or Freiei Reichstadt in German.  These cities were not beholden to a local petty lord - the only outside power they answered to was the Emperor himself.  As such, the citizenry had much more control over their lives than those living under the thumb of a lord.  Imperial Cities also enjoyed many special privileges as a result of their status, which meant more trade and wealth during the high middle ages, which the townsfolk used to build beautiful buildings and impressive fortifications (important because local lords of neighboring lands often went to war with the Empire, and the wealth of Imperial Cities made them a tempting target.)  Because of the HRE's association with the Roman Catholic Church, they were fertile ground for religious orders, so many of the grandest churches and monasteries were built in Imperial Cities.  

However, eventually most of the Imperial Cities went through a decline, starting with the spread of Martin Luther's Reformation in the 16th century, which meant that in much of Germany, the religious orders were kicked out and many churches vandalized and no longer places of pilgrimage.  Another factor in the decline was the resulting Thirty Years' War and following plagues, which killed off as many as half the population of Germany.  Most cities never fully recovered from that war.  To make matters worse, most Imperial Cities gained importance as market towns because they were on heavily trafficked trade routes, but by the 1700's, overland trade was losing out to sea-based trade.

This was all bad for the citizens of these towns, but great for travelers who want to enter a well-preserved bit of medieval history.  Because the towns became impoverished, they didn't tear down existing buildings to make way for more fashionable and modern Baroque and Classical buildings as in the now-ascendant capital cities like Berlin, Munich, or Stuttgart.  The result is a large town center with buildings almost exclusively from the cities' golden period of 1200-1500.  

As for the Allied bombing, well, that's fairly self-explanatory.  But a surprising number of former Imperial Cities did manage to escape WWII relatively unscathed, largely because they hadn't been centers of political or economic power for centuries at that point.  (Cities that retained their importance throughout the centuries, like Frankfurt, weren't so lucky.)

If you look at the list of Imperial Cities, you'll find that they include some of the most famous towns for tourists to visit, such as Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Nuremberg, and Colmar.

But the secret is, nearly all the cities on the list remain beautiful, evocative "hidden gems" that isn't on the typical tourist itinerary.  I'm talking about places like Bad Wimpfen, Ravensburg, and Esslingen, which may be known to people who have lived in Germany for a time but can't be found in a Rick Steves' guidebook. 

Although I've only been to about a third of the Imperial Cities so far, my educated guess is that most of them are well worth a visit by anyone who seeks to get off the beaten path and experience a beautifully-preserved city (just make sure you check the "Allied bombing part before you go - Heilbronn didn't fare so well in that regard.)

And if you'd like to understand more about how Free Imperial status created a dynamic and exciting medieval city, be sure and check out my tour of the Free Imperial City of Esslingen, which debuts next Sunday!