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Christmas Markets 2016: Germany, Austria, and the Dolomites

I was lucky to live in Germany as an ex-pat in the early 2000s, and never miss an opportunity to go back. Love taking friends to the Christmas markets in December. Yes, weather is unpredictable and usually really cold, but like the Germans say, there’s nothing wrong with the weather if you’ve got the right clothes! Four is the magic number for me; three plus me. Four friends with light luggage will fit in a rental car, which gives us freedom to go on our schedule. (And four splitting a rental car and two hotel rooms costs way less than traveling with your husband!)

The Christmas markets are linked to Advent, so we usually leave on one of the last days of November, stay 15 nights on the ground, and get home with about ten days to spare before Christmas. I like a mix of cities and smaller towns, scenery and churches, museums and outdoor activities, and I keep us out of the big cities on weekends when the Christmas markets are too crowded for me. Every time I go I change things up a little so there’s someplace new for me to see too. Delta flies direct to Frankfurt from Atlanta, and the last two years I’ve found fares as low as $650 or 42K FF miles sometime during the summer, though these amazing deals often last only a day then disappear. ($950 or 60K is more likely, but not awful, especially for open jaws out of Munich.)

I always rent my cars from Andy at Germany’s rental car prices are relatively low, and Andy can often find great deals on safe (fast) BMWs or Mercedes. If you’re willing to pick up in Frankfurt itself, you can save the 20% airport tax. (The added time probably is not worth it if you’re driving after an overnight flight.) Since we were dipping down into the Dolomites in Italy this trip, we rented a Skoda wagon, similar to a 5-series BMW, because “luxury” rental cars can’t be driven into Italy because of theft issues in areas nearer the Eastern European border.

I started watching four weather sites about a month in advance, mostly hoping for snow. (It’s an Atlanta thing.) Last December the weather forecast for our first stop in Germany (Rothenburg) predicted bright sun, patchy rain, sleet, and heavy snow, in no particular order. Guess we'll order what we want, and eat what we get.

I like starting in Rothenburg because it’s easy and pretty and nobody can get that lost in a walled city. I try to make my friends’ first view of the city the medieval part by entering through the ancient Rodentor city gate. I still have my German neighbor’s explicit directions for getting on the Romantik Stasse near Wurtzburg and tricking the Navigate from sending us back to the faster, less scenic autobahn. Countryside is beautiful and all was well til I decided we were close enough to Rothenburg to skip the last few towns and just put in our hotel address. Rut row. An hour later, after a major scenic detour through some sleeping villages, a wind turbine farm, and somebody's barnyard, we were back on the road to Rothenburg. Lesson learned. When a German engineer writes you out directions...follow them.

My favorite place to stay is Pension Elke over Klauss Endress’ tiny grocery shop. The location is convenient, rooms are immaculate, breakfast is great, and price is low, so we save euros to splurge on expensive city hotels. (Herr Endress used to find me nearby parking on the street, but now that most is reserved for residents, he gave me a pass for a public lot only a few blocks away.)Three nights there gave us time to recover from jet lag and make some day trips during the day when it gets more crowded. Evenings are calm and perfect for walking, window shopping, and great dinners with carafes of Franconian white wines that cost about the same as a liter of water. First night there we joined the 8 o’clock English tour with George the Nightwatchman to keep us upright and moving until almost 9:30.

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I like the Goldener Greifen for local traditional food and you can often get in (to the back room at least) without a reservation. Like Reichskuchenmeister for someplace a little fancier with a more extensive menu, but you never get in without a reservation. Gasthof Zum Silbernen Kanne is away from the tourist areas on a back street not far from Pension Elke for good food in a room full of locals. For sights, the Rick Steves book covers Rothenburg well, but a walk through the sensory overload of Kathe Wohlfarht may cure you completely from Christmas shopping.

My two favorite day trips from Rothenburg are Nuremberg (about an hour away) and less touristed Dinklesbuhl (much closer.) Nuremberg has a huge market in the historic center, rows of stalls topped with red striped awnings, and a Kindermarket, an international market, and everyday local produce markets all nearby. Nuremberg’s a good place to get the shopping done, because the choices are extensive. On weekends the crowds are massive, and I avoid completely. You can park very close by, in an open lot if you’re very lucky, or in a tight public garage. Just put “centrum” in your GPS to get there, then watch for the big blue P signs and drive into one. Pull your ticket to make the gate lift, then take your ticket with you. You pay at a machine (Kasse) before you return to your car, then insert your parking ticket at the exit to make the arm lift to let you out. (If you show up at the exit with no paid ticket and a row of efficient Germans stacked up behind you, this is not going to end well.) One thing I love about German parking garages is the automated board indicating how many spaces are frei. If there are none, it won’t let you in. But don’t be discouraged; just wait in line (turn off your polluting car engine) and when somebody leaves, somebody new gets in.

While in Nuremberg don’t miss their special variation on bratwursts — three finger like sausages on a round roll! This is also the place to get Lebkuchen ginger cookies, often in special decorative tins. If you like WW2 history (or if it starts raining) drive (or tram) over to the Documentation Center and Hitler’s parade grounds for an eye-opening lesson in the well-organized museum there.

Dinkelsbuhl has the pretty painted fachwerk houses and none of the tourists. Their market focuses mostly on food and local handcrafts, and you may hear a church choir or band performing. You really should try one giant Oma’s Damphknoedal swimming in vanilla sauce and topped with dark cherries there. It’s a cultural experience… and one will be plenty to share with three of your friends.

On our fourth day, we drove from Rothenburg deeper into Bavaria to Mittenwald with golden light, heavy frost on the trees, light snow on the pastures, and bright sun glaring straight in my eyes. Grateful for my good navigator because I couldn’t read a word on the road signs. We stopped for lunch in Rottenbuch and picked the Kunstcafe am Tor, on the left just as you’re entering town. That turned out to be a great little artsy cafe with a column plastered with pre-Euro European bills, a pendant lampshade made of pretzels, and bathroom doors collaged with comical postcards to distinguish princes from princesses. Don’t be intimidated about small local German restaurants that don’t have big windows like our McD’s and don’t look especially welcoming from the road. You’ll probably be the only non-local, but you’ll be welcomed. The server will help you with the menu, and if you can’t read a thing, just ask for suppe or brats or a baguette. It will be fun!

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Nearing Mittenwald we saw the sign for the Weis Kirche and had the white rococo church is a meadow all to ourselves. Our road eventually led us through Ettal, so we stopped in the ornate monastery church there also. (I’m rarely surprised by things some tourists do, but I saw a new one at the Weis Kirche. As we were entering, a group was leaving, stopping at the table where candles are available to buy and light at the altar, and buying the candles as souvenirs….)

My go to hotel in Mittenwald is the Alpen Rose, right on the main pedestrian street, a block from the church. It’s family owned, decorated gemutlich style, has easy free parking (unless the outside spots are all taken and you have to back into the dark, ancient barn!) and their popular with locals restaurant comes with zither music in the evenings. If you have a car it’s a great location to day trip to the castles, Oberramergau, Innsbruck, and the way to all those places is on easy roads through uncluttered farmland and beautiful scenery. With three nights in Mittenwald, we spent our first day on an amazing open carriage ride through Bavaria.

I read about coaching-in-Bavaria years ago in 1000 Places to See Before You Die. We met Herr Andreas Nemitz at his rustic barn in tiny Kerslach as he was hitching a pair of beautiful Warmbloods to his Landau carriage. Herr Nemitz is a storybook character with his leather knee britches, fur hat and ruddy face. He’s also friendly and welcoming. He took one look at one of our low-fill ski jackets and decided a heavy wool Austrian overcoat was needed. It was a cold day, but there were thick wool blankets and a picnic basket with hot mulled cider. We started out on a dirt track road through hilly clean forest, which eventually opened up to farmland. He told us about the local wildlife and explained the historical markers and memorials we passed. Much of the surrounding country is owned by the Andechs Monastery we could see outlined in the distance, and that weekend their Christmas market was open. The roads through the farmland are paved trails, and the horses' clip clops were perfect accompaniment to this picturesque landscape.

After about an hour and a half we came into a small town and pulled up to a country brew haus to rest the horses and feed us. Lunch with Herr Nemitz around a farm table with a fireplace warming the room was special. We rode back toward the stable on roads we hadn't seen, and Herr told us last year had so little snow he only took out the sleigh twice. He also organizes multi day Tuscan trips in spring and fall, with vineyard stops and manor house overnights. On my wish list. When we arrived back at the stable near dark, he put away the horses, then invited us into a rustic dining area, and his wife served us coffee and home baked apple kuchen with mounds of fresh cream. Of all the time I’ve spent in Germany, this was one of my favorite days.

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Our next day was for our trip to Partnachklamm, and the weather could not have been more perfect. To find it, park at the Olympic ski jump stadium in Partenkirchen and walk down the road until you see the little gondola building on the right. Buy a one-way ticket, board the tiny gondola, and head up the mountain. At the top there's a small modern hotel, with WCs, and signs pointed to the downhill trail to the gorge. It’s a steady drop down gravel paths and not-to-code steps, but there are sturdy new handrails between the path and the drop off. A pleasant walk, but you need to be mindful of your footing.

Once down to river level, the path is smooth. We started at the wide open end, then wound through shallow riverside caves, sometimes ducking and needing the iPhone flashlight. The rushing blue green river was beautiful, but even better were the mounds of big icicles clumped down the mountainside and dripping from ledges. So glad they'd had a enough freezing temps to get the icicles started. Magical, and it gets even better as winter gets colder. If you come from this direction, you pay for your ticket as you leave. If you have concerns about the downhill walk, you can always stay on the original road until you get to this entrance, which means you get to walk through the gorge twice, but I really like the descent from the gondola. Of course, if you are a true German, you will hike through the gorge, then UP to the gondola landing for a bier, then down again!

Our afternoon was for the drive over the mountain to nearby Innsbruck. You’ll recognize the border to Austria even though it’s unmanned. Buy your Austrian Vignette for your car window from the unremarkable looking little building on the right. (If you miss it, stop somewhere in town and they’ll send you back to the right place.) If you put “centrum” in your GPS when you’re nearing Innsbruck, you will land somewhere near the big Christmas market and can start looking for a big blue P for parking sign. There’s good info on this forum about things to do in Innsbruck, but in our short time there we were most interested in taking the Nordkettenbahn funicular. We went up to Hungerberg for the view and drinks at sunset. With more daylight, you could check out the zoo, or go higher still where there’s probably snow. When you buy your ticket at the base, they won’t sell you a ticket for the two highest levels if the funicular won’t be running there late in the day. If you are contemplating Innsbruck on a weekend during the Christmas markets, I would ditch that idea completely and head down the road another 10 miles to charming, peaceful little Hall in Tirol.

Leaving Mittenwald the next morning, shopping bags multiplying and trunk space shrinking, we headed for the Dolomites. Stopped in Bressanone/Brixen at their stunning market square of perfectly painted Italianate buildings in pastel colors. The Christmas market stalls filled the square, church bells tolled, and music played. Subtly different from German markets. I think we were the only non-locals there.

Drove through the Val Gardena on high curving mountain roads to Ortisei, Italy. Beautiful scenery looking down into the valley -- when I dared glance away from the narrow curving road! Ortisei has a distinctly upscale ski village feel. Our rooms in Villa Aurelia were simple but perfectly located for walking in the pedestrian center. There are LOTS of wood carvers and gift shops. The Christmas market stalls are identical wooden huts evenly spaced throughout the pedestrian area, and open for very limited hours in late afternoon. The focus here is the shops. Our two nights there were our vacation from the vacation, and the car stayed parked.

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It's another day of cloudless blue skies, and we took the gondola in the middle of town high up to the Alpe di Suisi. There were a few ski school groups coming and going, but the runs with snow weren't at their best yet. Lunch outdoors on the deck had a million dollar view of snow peaked mountains and a wide green swath of valley. Ride down in the gondola was swingy, but very scenic. This would be a great place for summer hiking. Dinner at the Mauriz Keller was excellent Italian in hopping surroundings.

In the morning we're off in the dark at 700 to try to get to Salzburg before the streets close for some soccer parade that our hotel texted us about last night. Just enough daylight to make the curvy Val Gardena road manageable. There is an autostrada that connects Italy with Austria through the Brenner Pass, and our Navi is determined to keep us in sight of it but not ON it. Frustrating, though scenic, drive on Italian farm roads for what seemed like forever til we could defy Navi and fight our way onto the autostrada -- just in time to get to pay the 9 euro toll for about 10 minutes of driving time. Stopped at one of the Italian Autogrilles for cappuccinos on the way.

The drive through the Bavarian rolling hills was sunny and beautiful. Coming into Salzburg, the trees were brilliant with ice. There were a lot of police out in the altstadt, and getting through to our hotel was confusing, but drove through the pedestrian streets to our hotel Weiss Taube with only a few hiccups. At the hotel we stored our bags until our rooms were ready, and they explained about the police and the soccer. Austria is playing a major German rival, who has threatened to fill the streets with their parading fans. It's also an Austrian bank holiday. Very crowded for a weekday, but we quickly waded through the crowds and took the funiculare up to the more peaceful Hohensalzburg Fortress for the magical view over the city.

Back on city level, we walked through the famous St Peter's cemetery with its unique black metal markers and beautifully landscaped graves. At St Peter's Kirche in time for 4 PM Advent orgel koncert. Organist was skilled, church was chilly, and the program showed off the range of the historic instrument. Enjoyed very much, in spite of the apparently clueless tour group walking through the middle of it. Leaving the concert, walking home through the market, the crowds were thick, especially with blue and white scarved German soccer fans, and the police presence was startling. A row of helmeted police fronted the Dom. Another group of helmets was entering as we neared the ice skating rink. A good night for a dinner reservation out of the center at wonderful tiny Tratorria La Campana da Enzo.

Making up for yesterday's 0 dark 30 start, we didn't set alarms this morning. Breakfast is served until 1030, and we made it. Met our guide at the tourist info point for the 1215 walking tour. It's a stunningly beautiful winter day, and our friendly guide was enthusiastic. We looped through the altstadt, connecting its five major courtyards, getting a helpful history lesson along with the sights. A late soup lunch on outdoor wooden tables in one of the small passages off the Getreidegasse. I really like walking tours like this one. Always helps me get my bearings, and it’s a good chance to ask questions about the area.

Dinner tonight was at the very traditional Austrian restaurant Gasthaus Zwettlers, only two doors from our hotel. Very hearty and good food in a vaulted space decorated with antique skis and farm implements. Attractive young servers in tight white tees and traditional suede knee pants. Busy service and a very local clientele. The only drawback was the smoke. The restaurant is no smoking, but the bar is chain smoking... and there's nothing separating the two. Loved the food and atmosphere, but when we got home...we shtunk!

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Salzburg is one of the places where I can make the case for staying as close to the old pedestrian center as you can afford. This is the most beautiful Christmas market for me with its strands of lights overhead and the Dom and the mountains in the background. It’s even better early and late. It can also get wicked cold. I stayed once at a perfectly lovely B&B out on the bus route, and at times it was just too much to go stand at that cold bus stop to go back into town at night. There are great restaurants here, but there are also great crowds wanting to eat at them, especially on Christmas market weekends. I would suggest asking your hotel to help you make reservations for ALL your nights soon after you arrive. One reason I love the Weiss Taube, beside their perfect location, is for their front desk. They are tireless and unfailingly helpful. One young woman worked two days to find us a good Saturday night reservation. (Her own parents were coming to town that night, and they were eating at her house because it was so hard to find a restaurant with openings.)

Our next day, a perfect sunny Saturday guaranteed crowds in Salzburg, so we had plans elsewhere. The tour busses had not yet arrived when we started out after breakfast, and we enjoyed the relative quiet as long as possible. Our first stop was the Saturday morning farmers market. There are always some semipermanent stands open here selling all kinds of foods, but on Saturday mornings the offerings triple. Beautiful stacked vegetables are photogenic...and leave us all wondering why so few make it onto the overwhelmingly meat and potatoes menus. In early afternoon when the crowds started arriving, we drove out of Salzburg, through some beautiful countryside around Berchtesgaden, our destination the peaceful Konigsee. There's a mahogany electric boat boarding in a few minutes. We're riding into the sun, but the view out the windows is of some of Germany's steepest mountains surrounding the glassy lake. The captain stops about midpoint; we opened all the port side windows; and the other ship officer uncased his flugelhorn. When he played each phrase it echoed back perfectly. (A few years ago it snowed on us for the entire trip!)

Our dinner reservations were at Huboldt Stubn. We're seated at one of the narrow tables on the tall banquette edging one side of the room. The decor is contemporary, with a massive grouping of branches and bronze balls where a chandelier would usually hang, and the crowd is younger. The servers are handsome young men in traditional suede shorts, and ours was friendly and opinionated. Our schnitzels, potatoes, roasted beef, and salads were great, but we were most intrigued by what was being eaten nearby. The table of young men near (as in elbow near) us had a large intriguing shared meat dish of small bites, but the two tables of men across the room, clearly a party group, left us slack jawed when their food was served. First came the fries, a huge envy-evoking platter for each table. But the meat!! Each table got an enormous platter stacked with meat, probably at least eight or nine inches high. It looked like schnitzels, when they speared them with their forks, but there was also meat on the bone, because some were holding it like a handle. I have never seen that quantity of meat on a table!

We had planned to order celebratory desserts, but at the end of our mains it was just not possible. The room was festive, the server attentive, and the food wonderful, and I will definitely return here. Wish I had a screen shot of the English translations. Side salads = weeds!

Sunday morning mass in Salzburg’s Dom welcomes visitors, and now they’ve installed seat heaters under the ancient wooden pews! At the main service at 1000 the music is always beautiful as it floats down from the choir loft high above and behind you, even if you don’t understand the German liturgy.

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Our afternoon drive to Munich was cloudy, fast on the autobahn, and passed wonderful rolling hills with tiny villages and the huge Lake Chiemsee. I think the Navi was done with us. After we plugged in our hotel address, almost in the dead center of Munich, she took us to a side street in a suburb and announced "You've reached your final destination." Nope. When we did reach our Hotel Blauer Bock, two hauled up the luggage, and two set out to find the car return near the big train station. Signage in historic European cities is often hard to spot, and this trip required a U-turn on a busy Munich street in a station wagon with the turning radius of a garbage truck. (Grateful it was a Sunday and traffic was light.) We pulled into the narrow slot at Europcar, and then came the man with the clipboard. Our black car was coated with diesel grime, and after he smeared it all around to count the scrapes and scratches, my pictures made the damage look worse than it really was. I signed the paper acknowledging five injuries, truthfully answered "No, they didn't come with me from Frankfurt," and breathed out relief when he said, " Yes, of course, your insurance will cover them." Love that AMEX Bring It Back in a Bag Insurance!

Our hotel is directly across the street from Eataly (with great gelato) and Munich's famous open air market the Victualienmarkt (closed on Sundays) but just past it we turned the corner to see the golden lights on the huge tree beside the Glockenspiel on Munich's main square the Marienplatz. The square is huge, the market lights so bright, it's always a stunning sight, no matter how many times you've seen it. We had no real lunch, so we soon headed to a nearby braeuhaus where I know there's a good hamburger. Tegernseer Tal serves Hofbrau beer and is one block off the Marienplatz. Their Munich burger comes with a Hofbrau beer crock filled with hand cut fries. We were all ready for something other than pork, and this was perfect. I'm no beer connoisseur, but I love the light, lemon cut Radler beers all German breweries serve, and I’ve converted one. The other two have discovered the dark berry juice and sparkling water combo, and everybody's happy now.

On Monday we met friendly Martina in front of the tourist office and under the Glockenspiel at 1045 for our 3+ hour walking tour. She covered history and the buildings on the square; we watched the Glockenspiel figures joust and dance, then headed out at a brisk pace on a cold gray morning. Our path led us toward the Residence and the Oper, through the tromp l'oeil courtyard of the Residence Christmas market, into the English garden.

The highlight in the English Garden was the Ice Box Surfers on the Isar, doing their thing in freezing water, near freezing air temps, wet suits, but often bare hands and heads. They fall often, and the freezing cold must affect their brains, because they keep getting up for more! Craziness. Martina said it used to be illegal, and the police chased them off, but now it's a tourist attraction, but "do at your own risk." (We are cold today; and we are dry!)

Lunch in the Victualienmarkt at the great suppe place. Dinner at Zum Augustiner, and in between, Zara for their great kids department for well-priced, stylish European kid clothes, and to Kaufhaus for the animated Steiff windows on the street side and the chocolate section in the basement grocery store.

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Tuesday is our last day of holiday; tomorrow is all travel. Combined taxis and walking to cover more ground. The creche exhibit at the Bayerischer National Museum near the English Garden has the world’s largest collection. The Christmas market in the Residence courtyard has several animated animal and angel stalls just for the kinder, and there’s often live music. Munich’s main church the Frauenkirche has small plaster casts of the cathedral builders’ faces incorporated into the ceiling beams, and during Advent there’s a huge wreath suspended above the main altar. One last pass through the Marienplatz market then to an old favorite for dinner, Altes Hacherhaus, a very old brewery restaurant with prime tables tucked into snugs.

My friend dreamed she was driving in German parking garages all night, and I set my alarm so early I got very little sleep, but our pre-arranged van taxi got us and our accumulated treasures to MUC in plenty of time. Half way over the Atlantic I remembered the sweaters I left hanging in the armoire, but the helpful staff at the Blauer Bock took them to DHL and I had them back in a week. Germany and Austria at Christmas are special destinations. If I can answer any questions or help with any details, feel free to PM me.Tschuss!

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I loved your report, Ruth. It helped me relive my one and only Christmas market trip a few years ago. What a great friend you are taking your friends with you and doing all the driving! Also, I think you should consider writing travel guides. So many helpful tips and instructions. Great job!

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What an excellent, detailed write-up! It makes me want to go, especially to Salzburg, since I'm descended from the Salzburgers who came to Georgia with Oglethorpe.

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To DougMac, you should go! And to Carroll, you should go back! Thank you both.

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What a lovely trip report. I felt like I was right there with you and your friends. We have been to a few of those towns during the summer. We did go to Nuremberg's Christmas market but that was back in 1981, a lifetime ago. I am going to make a note of this report in case we ever make it to Germany in the winter.

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3879 posts

Great trip report! Thanks for sharing. I went to Salzburg with a friend for its Christmas Market this year, too. I had a spectacular time.

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Wonderful report. Thank you so much for taking the time to share it with us.


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Ruth, I loved your report. My favorite part is your description of the sleigh ride Through to the little villages. We have taken sleigh rides when we have gone snow ski-ing in Colorado. Your ride sounded magical! I will have to put European Christmas markets on my bucket list.

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Great review. I took my mom to Germany for her fist time in 2015 and made a point to spend a day in Rothenburg ob der Tauber. She fell in love with Kathe Wohlfarht, both shops. So when we were heading back to the Bavarian region again in 2016, she wanted to visit Rothenburg again & of course Kathe Wohlfarht. I also did & enjoyed the Nightwatchman tour.
I totally agree with you on the Bratwurst sandwiches in Nuremberg. Could not get enough of those.

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681 posts

I loved your report. Can you adopt me as a friend???? Almost makes me want to leave warm Florida for cold Europe. Your trip was absolutely amazing. Thanks for sharing.

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What a great trip report. I want to tag along on one of these trips! I've only been to Germany in the summer but I'd love to go in the winter. Cue looking up airfare...