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Flanked along both sides of the shimmering Elbe River and cradled in a valley of the same name, is Dresden.
Its thriving classical music scene, which beckoned the likes of Richard Wagner, Johann Sebastian Bach and many others, combined with its baroque charm and world-class museums, have earned it the nickname Elbflorenz, or Florence on the Elbe.
On paper, Dresden is the capital of the German region of Saxony, but by the looks of it, it’s really the capital of Christmas.
By the first Sunday of Advent, Elbflorenz is in full holiday swing with flickering schwibbogen candles illuminating windows, festive jingles on a loop and spruce-clad market stalls ready to dazzle with the warmest gluhwein, densest Christstollen fruit bread and finest crafts money can buy.
It was Christmas Eve 1434 when Germany’s first Christmas market, Dresdner Striezelmarkt, opened up a handful of stalls for locals to pick up provisions for their holiday feasts.
While Striezelmarkt certainly has humble beginnings, in the 588 years since, it has evolved into a hive of holiday cheer with more than 200 stalls, twinkling carousels and of course, candlelit tannenbaums all around.
Most notable however, is Striezelmarkt’s centerpiece, a giant – the largest in the world, in fact – weihnachtspyramide or Christmas pyramid. Originally hailing from the Ore Mountains that straddle the Saxony-Bohemia border, weihnachtspyramides are wooden towers made up of a series of tiers filled with Christmas figures. Rising warm air from candles at the base is used to make the tiers twirl.
Despite its massive popularity – around 2.5 million people visit annually – Striezelmarkt still feels very much like a medieval trading post, save for the occasional iPhone flash and Visa + Mastercard stickers letting holiday goers know that these days, more than gold coins are accepted.
Sausages and stick figures
Underneath Striezelmarkt’s candy cane-colored Ferris wheel sits Harich’s Jagerhütt’n, a cozy little joint where folks from all over enjoy steaming mulled wine that matches well with a Dresdner handbrot, a bread snack oozing with smoked ham and local cheese.
Close by is Sächsische Spezialitäten selling Saxon specialties. Quarkkeulchen, Saxon-style pancakes made with two-thirds fluffy mashed potatoes and one-part creamy quark cheese topped with a generous sprinkle of cinnamon, are enough to make anyone swoon.
Any stroll through Striezelmarkt is incomplete without a delectably smoky Thüringer rostbratwurst sausage, a beloved staple of neighboring state Thuringia. It’s almost obligatory to wash it all down with a glass of gluhwein from the stall of Schloss Wackerbarth, a Saxon slope-side winery well worth the 30-minute tram ride from Dresden to Radebeul.
Pflaumentoffel – little stick figures dressed with wrinkled prunes and felt top hats on walnut heads – can be found all around. The delightful treat with a not so delightful origin is an edible representation of Germany’s old chimney sweepers – typically little boys who made a brutal living shimming up and down Dresden’s many flues. Legend has it they bring good luck.
In a state hailed for its craftsmanship and folk arts, it’s no surprise that traditional Saxon goods straight from Vogtland, the Ore Mountains and beyond are real highlights of Dresden’s many markets.
Wooden hand-carved Christmas trees with curlicues for branches and delicate lace ornaments are sold alongside miniature porcelain houses. There are also räuchermann, wooden figurines often representing miners or soldiers, that double as incense burners.
In Neumarkt, you’ll find globs of molten glass being blown into jewel colored vases and dainty Christmas ornaments.
Music and lights
It’s not just the Christmas markets that contribute to the city’s festive charm either. In homage to the city’s rich musical heritage, Kreuzkirche church puts on nightly performances all through the advent season.
For those looking for Christmas hymns gone brass, Frauenkirche also hosts a lineup of Christmas concerts ranging from vocal ensembles to saxophone quartets throughout the season.
Dresden’s world-famous opera house, Semperoper also features arguably the most Christmassy entertainment imaginable throughout December: “The Nutcracker.”
For a closer look at all the Saxon goods that’ve kept up that state’s artisan reputation, there’s Museum für Sächsische Volkskunst (Museum for Saxon Folk Art), which highlights the history of the region’s folk crafts – especially where Christmas is concerned.
Here, stern-faced wooden toy soldiers tell the story of local miners who moonlighted as nutcracker craftsmen for a supplemental living. Elaborately painted wardrobes and forest landscapes carved into single walnut kernels illustrate why the region’s reputation is more than deserved.
Fancy a star-spangled stroll? The annual Christmas Garden takes over the Pillnitz Palace grounds mid-November through mid-January with elaborate light shows, endless walking trails and the occasional gluhwein hut.
A dark past
However charming, the city’s tragic past is palpable. As one of the hardest-hit cities by joint British-American raids in World War II, reminders of the damage are everywhere.
Few buildings withstood the 2,700 tons of incendiary bombs and explosives that demolished the city over just two days in February 1945. The cultural cost was high, too. Heritage landmarks such as the Semperoper and baroque masterpiece Zwinger Palace were completely incinerated, and buzzing squares like Theaterplatz reduced to ruins.
Today’s Frauenkirche is speckled with charcoal-hued sandstone, a visual representation of the only original stones that remained following the bombings. A glimpse into the main nave is impressive, with its golden altar and pastel heavenly dome, but a walk through its crypt reveals the faint odor of smoke, mangled support beams and charred tangles of metal coat-check tickets, all serving as a grim reminder.
Four decades of communism as part of East Germany also meant that Dresden’s facelift was long delayed. As a regional capital, the city was a stronghold of Soviet-backed rule. It was only after the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification that the city could begin to seriously rebuild, leaving Dresden in architectural limbo until the mid-1990s when most of the repairs started.
Bread and butter
Some culinary offerings have stood the test of time far better.
The Schaubäckerei Ullrich, where the line sometimes runs out the door, is a local bakery famous for its traditional Dresdner Christstollen, a highly favored and highly protected delicacy native to the city.
Unlike other stollen, a traditional fruit bread enjoyed across Germany, Dresdner Christstollen is in a league of its own.
Ralf Ullrich, baker and mastermind behind Schaubäckerei Ullrich, explains that Dresdner Christstollen has a rigorous baking process governed by many rules and regulations to protect its cultural status.
Unlike other versions, Dresdner Christstollen is required to have a 50% butter to flour ratio, a tasty irony given that the treat started as a fasting bread back in the early 16th century.
It took a special request to the pope, or as Ullrich calls it, the “fated butter letter,” in order to add butter to a dish otherwise meant for lenten purposes.
He goes on to explain that he wants others to learn about the special qualities of Dresdner Christstollen, saying, “it’s more than a typical holiday food. The recipe and techniques in use for Dresdner Christstollen are almost identical to the original recipe from 500 years ago.”
This makes it one of the oldest Germanic foods still consumed today, which is why Ullrich describes it as not only a holiday delight, but also “edible history.”
Across a stainless steel countertop at Schaubäckerei Ullrich is an array of bowls holding rum soaked raisins, candied orange peels, nutmeg pods, cinnamon sticks and various other ingredients that come together to make pure Christstollen magic.
Once the loaves finish baking they receive a generous dusting of powdered sugar before they’re packed and given their signature golden seal.
Upon request, guests can participate in a Dresdner Christstollen workshop where if lucky, Ralf Ullrich himself may divulge a secret or two about the legendary holiday treat.
It’s easy to see why Dresden is hailed as one of Germany’s most beautiful cities – breathtaking baroque architecture and spectacular parks and fountains are at every turn, while domes and spires shape the skyline.
Much more than a pretty face though, the city is a feast for art lovers. Just take the Semperoper opera house, the aptly named Old Master’s Picture Gallery, and much-loved film and music festivals like Film Nights on the Elbe and Palais Sommer concerts.