I inherited a Bavarian cuckoo clock this year. At first I dismissed it as kitsch, something to stash in the basement next to a few deflated piñatas and some Moroccan slippers. But then the clock struck the hour, the cuckoo dove out from a carved whorl of leaves, and the bird’s popeyed, beaky face earned my affection; it was a model of soulful charm.
I thought of the clock when I arrived in Munich this November, just as the Christmas markets opened, the sky turned fat with snow, and strings of lights brightened everything. There are hipper places to go for the holidays. Actually, just about any place is hipper. But if you are itchy for the Old World romance of Christmas, something as childlike and traditional as that cuckoo, then Bavaria — the sprawling southern region of Germany that embraces the Romantic Road, the capital of Munich, and a slice of the Alps — is a good place to be.
The traditionalism is deep-seated. “Starting in the 19th century the region just held fast to its own cultural identity, like a bulwark against modernity,” local historian Susanna Waldorf told me during my first morning in Munich. “And today Munich, the real heart of Bavaria, is still a conservative city; shops close on Sunday and no skyscrapers are allowed and young people are wearing lederhosen and dirndls again, and playing traditional music and eating regional food. Hipsters go to Berlin; we stay here.”
All that Teutonic patriotism was immediately visible at our first seasonal stop in town. Christmas markets pop up all over Munich — armies of nutcrackers surfacing everywhere — but I opted for the most intimate one in the courtyard of the Residenz palace. It was as much a fantasia of the ultimate Bavarian village as simple market. The sprawl of wooden, steep-roofed huts, strung with white lights, hawked every Christmas-goes-German icon: mulled wine; gingerbread heart cookies; dirndls and Alpine hats; and a dizzying variety of bratwurst (the pale veal ones were best).
There were Christmas concerts playing all over town. The brats tasted like a promise of something more, and I ended up at Spatenhaus an der Oper, a classic restaurant (deer heads on the wall! waitresses in dirndls!) that puts on a holiday feast every day of the year.
Bavarian cuisine too often gets dismissed as a leaden duet of starch and blistered meat, with a side of more starch. But, in fact, the Teutonic menu celebrates just about every indulgent food you want to eat and, when they are cooked right, even boulder-sized dumplings can taste downright delicate (and to my surprise a lot like my mom’s matzoh balls).
Spatenhaus makes the case handily. I plowed through a Wiener schnitzel wearing a buttery batter, a sauerbraten robed in the most seductive gingery sauce, and a roast duck wrapped in crackling skin. My waiter wasn’t satisfied though. “Next time get the Bavarian Platter,” he told me. “That includes duck, pork knuckles, suckling pig, grilled white sausages, red cabbage, and potato and bread dumplings.”
That sense of abundance, something you want out of Christmas, only grew the next day. I was staying at the city’s grande dame, the Bayerischer Hof Hotel, which ignores any hint of stylish minimalism and goes for pure, unabashed euro opulence. My room was an ode to chintz and marble, the lounge dished up high tea and a mammoth gingerbread house, the penthouse spa looked regally out over the city, and the porters were wearing top hats.
A few blocks away, at the Alois Dallmayr food hall, hazelnut cream torts, crusty Bavaria breads studded with sunflower seeds, and lobster slick with aspic made for one seductive still life, but the best souvenir was a stolen wrapped up in gold foil.
At the neighboring open-air Viktualienmarkt food market, the cheese stalls were stacked with wheels of raclette and stilfser and Emmentaler big enough to double as spare tires. Just beyond, in the gentrified neighborhood of Glockenbach, Munich proved it could get a little cutting-edge. Even here, though, the cool kid galleries and boutiques didn’t turn their backs on tradition but just got playful. There were vampish mini-dirndls on display and mouse pads illustrated with pretzels and beer steins.
I wanted to end my sprint through town on a high note of traditional Bavarian pride, so I sidestepped the glitzy new Brandhorst contemporary art museum. Instead, I headed to the Alte Pinakothek museum, where the Bruegel landscapes evoked a ripe Germanic world of meadows, mountains and forests, and stony villages that seemed to grow out of the primordial earth.
Crafty charm of Mittenwald
The artwork was inspiration enough. The next day I headed one hour due south in a rental car, straight into the embrace of the Bavarian Alps. The ride ended in the village of Mittenwald. This wasn’t an accident. Mittenwald is one of those villages that trail their own kind of fame, both as a craft center and as the epitome of what a telegenic German Tyrolean village should be. It didn’t disappoint. The main street alone, lined with wood chalets, is one epic art show. That’s because every other facade in Mittenwald, basically a blank canvas, is painted with a sideshow of cherubs and saints, hunters and dairymaids.
The earliest frescoes date from the 18th century, when the first town maestro decorated the local inn with images of the five senses. Smell is represented by a boy sniffing a yellow rose; touch is illustrated by a man yanking a woman’s topknot of hair, so her eyes bulge out with slapstick fury. But the tradition has continued down to the present, and the majority of modern facades were painted by local artist Sebastian Pfeffer. His masterpiece, a stucco house front, may be a very German image of heaven. There is the Virgin Mary straddling the highest cloud, but just one puffy cumulus below, at home among the anointed, is a muscular Tyrolean brewer rolling a Teutonic beer barrel.
Pfeffer isn’t alone. Everyone in Mittenwald seems to have qualified as a master craftsman, and while the town is best known for its violin makers, the more affordable Christmas presents were on display at the Holzschnitzerei Klieber shop. “I specialize in carving the Nativity figures,” owner Regina Klieber told me. “It was pretty much fated I would do this. My grandfather was a violin maker and my father was a woodcarver.”
I contemplated buying one of her beautifully somber Nativity angels, their faces framed by falling curls, and then headed out into the village that could pose for any Christmas card. The church’s high tower was echoed by the snow-tipped mountain peaks circling the town like a jagged frame. Rows of cross-country skiers were slicing through the landscape.
I tucked back into my rental and drove to Schloss Elmau just outside of town, one very glossy hotel and spa and Michelin-starred destination surrounded by its own circle of craggy Alpine peaks. Dinner, proving those stars were well earned, wasn’t content with wursts and dumplings; instead the formal Luc D’Oro restaurant dished up foie gras and Norwegian lobster.
Romance of Rothenburg
Outside some snow flurries started to fall, and a night folded up in the Alps would have been a fine place to stop. I was greedy, though, and wanted one more Bavarian spectacle. So the next day I headed three hours back north, along the Romantic Road, to Rothenburg ob der Tauber, which is famous for being one of Germany’s most photogenic villages. Maybe too famous. The Romantic Road itself, which links a string of medieval villages, smacks of tourist-board branding, and the photos of Rothenburg I’d seen suggested something almost too twee for its own good. But as I drove through one of the town’s gates, all my cynicism dissolved.
One perfect stage set of a medieval village, Rothenburg is a flat-out beauty, a medley of cobbled streets, towers, turrets, red tiled sloping roofs and stone houses washed rose pink, pistachio, and buttercup yellow. And all dressed up for the holidays. The town square was anchored by a Christmas market, the Kathe Wohlfahrt Christmas shop was selling an explosion of ornaments (best souvenir: glass globes painted with Rothenburg street scenes), and the bakeries were pumping out big German cakes.
Rothenburg is pretty much a village of bakeries, and you’re never more than a few feet away from a poppy seed tart or a sacher tort, topped with a dense blizzard of whipped cream. After sampling all of the pastry shops, I decided that my favorite was the artful Konditorei Prezel. Its display of anise-flavored springerle cookies came embossed with angels and snowflakes, imprinted on the top of the cookie like a kiss.
The only thing prettier than Rothenburg by day is Rothenburg by night, when the landmarks are poetically spot-lit, and a tour with George, the official Rothenburg Night Watchman, draws surprising crowds. “Well, there’s not much competition for nightlife in Rothenburg,” noted George, with the growling inflection of a Las Vegas insult comedian that would prove to be his signature. He did Rothenburg proud, though, with a running history lesson.
“What saved all this beauty? In 1400 Rothenburg was one of the biggest cities in southern Germany. But then the trading routes changed and the Thirty Years War drained the city; it was too poor to rebuild so it was saved by poverty.”
The town was saved one more time. It was due to be bombed near the end of World War II, but the American general in charge had heard of Rothenburg’s charm and called off the big bombardment. “It was the sheer love of beauty that protected Rothenburg in the end,” George says, ending on a sweet note.
I ended on a sweet note, too. I was staying at the venerable Burg-Hotel, which leans right up against the old town wall, covered with ivy. In the moonlight it looked like something that had always been there, somehow still intact, indifferent to time, though after my week in Bavaria that wasn’t a surprise. Neither was the muffled sound of a clock, somewhere, calling out the hour. I’d like to think it was a cuckoo.
Raphael Kadushin, senior acquisitions editor at the University of Wisconsin Press, writes for a Condé Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler and other publications.