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!  

 

Why You Should Care About the Holy Roman Empire

I think the "Why you should care" thing is going to become a regular series.  Because there's so many historical things about Germany and Europe that most Americans know little about, that provide the crucial context for really understanding what makes a particular building, church, or city important and interesting.  So with that in mind, let's talk a little about the Holy Roman Empire, shall we?  I'll try really hard not to be boring!

Transient

The Holy Roman Empire is one of those topics that's covered for maybe a day or two in U.S. high school world history courses, and maybe slightly more in-depth in a university course, if you're lucky.  I remember being really confused about it in high school.    How was it Roman?  What kind of power did it actually have?  I wasn't the only person to wonder this - the French philosopher Voltaire famously quipped, "The Holy Roman Empire is neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire."

First, a little backstory:  We're all acquainted with the ancient Roman empire, that huge swath of land that included all of Western Europe and a good chunk of Eastern Europe as well - it was really, really big.  Especially when it was united.  But politics and later, religion, in the Empire led to a split - the Western Roman Empire, headquartered in Rome, and the Eastern Roman Empire, with Constantinople (today's Istanbul) as it's capital.  The two segments of the empire recognized each other, but when Rome fell in the 5th century, the Western Empire basically ceased to exist as a political entity.  The Eastern Empire chugged along for many more centuries, and was eventually called the Byzantine Empire, until it was brought down by invading Turks.

Transient

When Rome fell, the Western empire was plunged into disarray, and the native tribes  of those areas began many, many wars for control of the land.  Eventually, the Germanic tribe of the Franks managed to subdue the inhabitants of these lands and ruled over an empire that encompassed most of France and Germany and parts of Italy.  Within the Frankish nobility one particular figure rose to power - Karl der Grosse, better known as Charlemagne.  

Charlemagne not only succeeded in administering the Frankish kingdom well, but brought much more of present-day Germany, Italy, Poland, Czech Republic, and Spain under his control. In short, he was a badass.  He also followed in the footsteps of his father, Pippin, in being buddy-buddy with the Pope in Rome, often coming to his aid as this or that group of barbarians threatened the Eternal City.  As a reward, or maybe just as a shrewd political move, the Pope crowned Charlemagne "The emperor of the Romans."  

It seems a little silly, since the Franks weren't Romans nor was Rome even part of the Empire. But it was a brilliant symbolic marriage between political power and divinely-ordained rule.  It's worth noting that the Byzantines didn't care much for this arrangement, since they still saw themselves as the only existing Roman empire, not this Germanic upstart band of savages.

But still, this was the beginning of the Holy Roman Empire.  Despite the fact that the Frankish empire had controlled nearly all of France, due to political upheavals (sons of emperors had a habit of fighting against their fathers or amongst themselves for a bigger piece of the pie in the first few centuries of this arrangement) a good chunk of France came to be an independent kingdom, and the Holy Roman Empire was centered mainly in Germany, although it included Austria, northern Italy, and Alsace-Lorraine.  This new political entity would continue to be extremely influential for the next 1,000 years.

"That's great," you say, yawning, "But you still haven't told me why I need to care about the Holy Roman Empire."  True - I'm saving that for part two.