Dresden, Germany (CNN) — Surrounded on both sides by the sparkling Elbe River, Dresden lies in a valley of the same name.
Its thriving classical music scene, which has attracted the likes of Richard Wagner, Johann Sebastian Bach and many others, combined with its baroque charm and world-class museums, earned it the nickname Elbflorence, or Florence on the Elbe.
On paper, Dresden is the capital of the German region of Saxony, but from the looks of it, it’s actually the capital of Christmas.
Although the Striezelmarkt certainly had humble beginnings, in 588 years, it has evolved into a hive of holiday cheer with more than 200 stalls, twinkling carousels and, of course, candle-lit tannenbaums all around.
Most notable, however, is the centerpiece of Streiselmarkt, a giant — the largest in the world, in fact — the Weihnachtspyramid, or Christmas Pyramid. Originally from the Ore Mountains on the Saxony-Bohemia border, Weihnnachtspyramids are tiered wooden towers filled with Christmas figures. Hot air from the base candle is used to rotate the layers.
Despite its massive popularity — about 2.5 million people visit annually — the Striezelmarkt still feels like a medieval trading post, save for the occasional iPhone flash and Visa + Mastercard stickers that are more accepted these days than gold coins for vacationers. .
Sausage and stick figures
The entrance to the Streiselmarkt.
Beneath Streiselmark’s chocolate cane-colored Ferris wheel sits Harich’s Jagerhud’n, a cozy little joint where people everywhere like mulled wine, smoked ham, and local cheese, a bread snack that goes well with a Drestner handbrot.
Nearby is the Sachich Specialiten, which sells Saxon specialties. Quarkkulsen, a Saxon-style pancake made with two-thirds fluffy mashed potatoes and one part creamy quark cheese, sprinkled liberally with cinnamon, is enough to make anyone swoon.
Pflaumentoffel — small stick figures dressed with wrinkled prunes and topped with walnut heads — can be found all around. An edible representation of Germany’s old chimney sweeps, a delightfully delightful-looking treat — usually boys who made a brutal living flashing Dresden’s many chimneys. Legend has it that they bring good luck.
In a state revered for its craftsmanship and folk arts, it’s no surprise that traditional Saxon goods straight from Vogtland, the Ore Mountains and beyond are the real highlights of Dresden’s many markets.
Wooden hand-carved Christmas trees with scrolls for branches and delicate lace ornaments are sold with miniature porcelain houses. There are also Raucherman, wooden statues representing miners or soldiers that double as incense burners.
At Newmarkt, globes of molten glass can be seen being blown into jewel-colored vases and beautiful Christmas ornaments.
Music and lights
Chemoper of Dresden.
It’s not just the Christmas markets that contribute to the city’s festive charm. In homage to the city’s rich musical heritage, Cruiskirche Church hosts nightly concerts throughout the visitation period.
Here, grim-faced wooden puppeteers tell the story of the local miners. Elaborate painted shelves and forest landscapes carved into single walnut kernels explain why the region’s reputation is more than deserved.
A dark past
Dresden’s Fraunkirche stands on the city’s skyline.
As charming as it is, the city’s tragic past is evident. As one of the cities hardest hit by joint British-American attacks in World War II, reminders of the damage are everywhere.
Few buildings withstood the 2,700 tons of incendiary bombs and explosives that leveled the city over two days in February 1945. Cultural costs were also high. Traditional landmarks like the Semperoper and the Baroque masterpiece Swinger Palace were burned to the ground, and bustling squares like the Theaterplatz collapsed.
Today’s Frauenkirche is dotted with charcoal-hued sandstone, the only visual representation of the original stones remaining following the blast. The main nave, with its golden altar and pastel heavenly dome, is visually impressive, but a walk through its crypt reveals the faint smell of smoke, warped support beams and burnt tangles of metal code-check tickets, all of which serve as a grim reminder. .
After four decades of communism, Dresden’s transformation as part of East Germany was long overdue. As a regional capital, the city was a stronghold of the pro-Soviet regime. Only after the Berlin Wall and German reunification did the city begin to rebuild in earnest, leaving Dresden in architectural limbo until the mid-1990s when most repairs began.
Bread and butter
The famous Dresden Christmas Market was first held back in 1434.
Few culinary offerings have stood the test of time better.
Unlike other stollen, a traditional fruit bread enjoyed throughout Germany, the Drestner Christolen is in a league of its own.
Ralf Ullrich, baker and master at Schaubäckerei Ullrich, explains that Dresdner Christstollen has a strict baking process governed by many rules and regulations to preserve its cultural status.
Unlike other versions, Drestner Kristolen must have a 50% butter-to-flour ratio, a delicious irony given that it began as a fast bread in the early 16th century.
It took a special request from the Pope, or as Ulrich calls it, a “prescribed butter letter” in order to add butter to a meal for Lenten purposes.
The stollen is dusted liberally with icing sugar.
He went on to explain that others should learn about the special qualities of Drestner Kristolen, “It’s more than just a typical holiday dish. The recipe and techniques of Drestner Kristolen are the same as the original recipe from over 500 years ago. .”
It’s one of the oldest German foods still consumed today, which is why Ulrich describes it as not only a holiday delight, but also “edible history.”
On the stainless steel countertop at Schaubäckerei Ullrich is an array of bowls holding rum-soaked raisins, candied orange peels, nutmegs, cinnamon sticks and other ingredients that come together to make pure Kriststolen magic.
After the loaves are finished baking, they are dusted liberally and given a golden seal before they are baked.
Upon request, guests can participate in a Drestner Kristolen workshop, where, with luck, Ralf Ulrich may reveal a secret or two about the famous 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 towers frame the skyline.