Travel: Enjoy a real German Christmas and much more besides in Bavaria

Peter Ormerod finds traditional festive fun mingling with refreshing modernity

Christkindlesmarkt in Nuremberg, one of Bavaria's major Christmas markets
Christkindlesmarkt in Nuremberg, one of Bavaria's major Christmas markets

Jesus may have been born in Bethlehem but Christmas was born in Germany. Or at least, much of what we mean by Christmas.

The tree? That’s German. The decorations on the tree? They’re German. Advent calendars? German. Mulled wine? German. Gingerbread? Egyptian, actually, but popularised by Germany. The country should be added to our thank-you list every year: it has defined so much of how Christmas looks and tastes and smells and feels.

And nowhere in Germany does Christmas quite like Bavaria. It’s the 100 percent proof version, the undiluted, unadulterated essence of the thing. So it’s fair to say it’s worth a visit at this time of year.

Disney based the town in the 1940 film Pinocchio on Rothenburg

But the same happens to be true for those who hate Christmas. Because Bavaria is no theme park, and its towns and cities are no museums. There is energy and vitality here, stories behind every half-timbered wall, characters and colour everywhere. There is even a healthy dose of the subversive and the fresh and the new and the youthful.

An hour and a half by aeroplane from Heathrow is Frankfurt. A couple of hours’ drive from Frankfurt is Rothenburg ob der Tauber, the first stop on our tour. Picture a fairytale medieval European town and Rothenburg is what you see. There is probably a good reason for this: the town in Disney’s original Pinocchio is based on it. Rothenburg is powerfully evocative of a bygone age, and was beloved by the Romantics of the 19th century from Britain and elsewhere. Today, the few thousand who live within its city walls go to extraordinary lengths to preserve the place.

Rothenburg is a town of personality and personalities. Among them is Albert Thürauf, whose family have been making wine for four generations. There are surely no better circumstances in which to taste wine than with the peerlessly authoritative and aridly amusing Herr Thürauf in his candlelit barrel-lined cellar, the grapes grown just around the corner. His restaurant offers satisfyingly rich and chunky Bavarian fare, too.

Then there is Sweets Company. It may cater for younger tastes but Michi, Franz and Johannes approach the humble lollipop like a work of art: watching one being made by hand is quite mesmerising. Over the road is Leyk Light Houses, selling exquisitely crafted miniature dwellings lit from inside. A short stroll later and there's Käthe Wohlfahrt: to walk through its doors is to enter what feels like an entirely different dimension, a seemingly endless universe where Christmas is everywhere forever. But it’s no palace of plastic: wooden toys and decorations abound, beautifully crafted and painted, keeping centuries of tradition alive. There’s even an in-store museum exploring the history of Christmas in Germany and its influence on the wider world.

The Town Hall of Rothenburg in the market square

One part of the German Christmas with which we may be less familiar is the Snowball. Quite why it has failed to make its way into our celebrations is a mystery: it is a simple but wondrous creation, essentially made by frying pastry. Your arteries may not thank you but your tastebuds will. Bakery Friedel has been making them since 1882; the man in charge is Walter Friedel, the latest family member to take on the role. It’s worth seeking him out; he’s a most engaging fellow.

So far, so conventional. But a more surprising attraction in such a meaty part of the world is Landwehr-Bräu am Turm, which serves vegetarian food with all the depth and deliciousness of its more traditional neighbours. The Käsespätzle, a time-honoured dish in its own right, comes recommended.

Then a walk into the past with the Night Watchman, played on this occasion with alluring mystery and dark wit by Hans Georg Baumgartner. Wearing medieval attire and wielding a Hellebarde, he brought the dark alleys to life as he led us through Rothenburg’s historic heart. Moral: maybe the old days weren’t so good after all.

After that, we needed a drink. Rothenburg has much expertise in that regard, with Simon Kistenfeger of Mucho Amor eager to share his love and knowledge of cocktails. Whatever your taste or level of experience, he will create your ideal drink. The man knows what he’s doing.

The Urban Art Hotel in Bayreuth is inspired by the town's thriving street-art scene

So that’s Rothenburg. Book early, avoid weekends and visit the week before Christmas if you can.

A couple of hours on a coach and you're in Bayreuth. Lovers of Wagner will find much to enjoy, and the Margravial Opera House is about as breathtaking as such places get. But less known is its thriving street-art scene, which inspires the decor at the Urban Art Hotel. A tour of the neighbouring Maisel brewery is a must, given the importance of beer to Bavarian life over the centuries. Its associated restaurant is a joyous place, too: enter into the spirit of things with a dessert of beeramisu. And not forgetting the festive, Bayreuth Winter Village is a warming wooden enclave in the town centre, gluhwein flowing merrily.

Our final stop was Nuremberg, an hour or so on the train. It blends the past and present in exemplary fashion: it is a thriving and modern place with a deep history, rebuilt after the war with sensitivity, retaining picturesque vistas without being in hock to bygone eras. Albrecht Durer’s house is a major attraction but Nuremberg also happens to be the gingerbread capital of Europe, and a Lebkuchen-making course at Cookionista is an entertaining, fragrant and tasty way to spend an afternoon. Dinner at the fresh and contemporary Frank’ness is a fine way to end the day.

So Bavaria goes big on Christmas. That much is clear. And if you love Christmas, you’ll love Bavaria. But there’s so much more to enjoy, too. It’s the Christmas gift that keeps on giving.

Käthe Wohlfahrt offers a seemingly endless array of Christmas crafts and decorations

Peter Ormerod stayed at Hotel Rappen in Rothenburg, Hotel Lohmuhle in Bayreuth and Hotel Victoria in Nuremberg. He flew by Lufthansa from Heathrow and was a guest of the German National Tourist Board.

A typical view from the old city wall of Rothenburg
One of the charming light houses created by Leyk
Rothenburg requires much effort to maintain
A traditional scene in Rothenburg
The historic Hospital of the Holy Spirit (right), standing over the River Pegnitz in Nuremberg, is now a restaurant