Where the cold season equals holiday magic
TEXT: CORNELIA BRELOWSKI
Winter holidays in North Rhine-Westphalia have a great deal to offer: from one of the best snow regions north of the Alps to world famous Christmas markets, through to the certified hiking trails of the picturesque hinterland.
The biggest plus and a definitive reason for choosing one of the NRW holiday locations are short distances and spontaneous planning independent of weather conditions. No matter if nature paths, sleighing adventures, skiing and snowboarding or cultural delights are on the wish list, the region offers multiple combinations of activities, making every stay a unique one.
Romantic medieval villages such as Monschau and Freudenberg appear even more magical in the winter months, and then there are the natural spectacles. The arrival of Siberian wild geese on the Lower Rhine in November is an event that draws tens of thousands yearly – and winter hiking in the Rothaargebirge mountain range become even more attractive lately since wild European Bison have been reintroduced to the area. Horse and sleigh rides are a must for the winter season and are on offer in both the Sauerland and the Eifel region. Here is a short overview of the most enticing attractions.
Winter in Freudenberg. Photo: © Stadt Freudenberg
Enjoy one of the most-renowned German Christmas markets in Aachen, starting on 24 November. Squares and alleys around the Aachen Cathedral and the Gothic Aachen City Hall turn into a magically enchanted Christmas wonderland – a colourful paradise of glittering lights and tunes as well as enticing smells like those emitted by the renowned ‘Aachener Printen’, the traditional gingerbread of the region. The market has won the European Best Destinations prize in 2015 (and nominated again for 2017) and is known and well liked for its cosy, family atmosphere.
Of course, the region offers numerous other picturesque destinations for Christmas market lovers, for example in Hattingen: in the historical centre of the Ruhr Valley, the old town featuring half-timbered houses and cobblestone streets offers an annual Nostalgic Christmas Market. The daily highlight is the appearance of the Grimm brothers’ Frau Holle, shaking out her feather pillow which, according to the tale, will bring snowfall. Enjoy a cup of mulled wine in medieval surroundings and the smell of traditional Flammkuchen tartes baking in the stone ovens.
The ‘Unique Products’ market at the Althoff Grandhotel in Bensberg Castle near Cologne is to be experienced each year on the third advent weekend and features regional products as well as arts and crafts with an individual edge. Each piece is one of a kind and crafted with passion. Delicacies such as Bergische waffles, Christmas Bratwurst and the hip Pulled Pork Brioche Burger round up a perfect day in the stunning castle court: Christmas shopping of a truly different kind.
For those who enjoy the outdoors and the merits of nature in wintertime, the Eifel region, including the Eifel National Park, the UNESCO Global Geopark and other nature parks are just the right fit. Ideal for hiking, almost no other region in Germany is dominated by the elements as much as the Eifel Uplands. The region that can be actively discovered by hiking parts of the 313-kilometre ‘Eifelsteig’ trail from Aachen to Trier, certified as premium trail by the German hiking institute. For shorter tours, walking enthusiasts can enjoy the certified short circular routes, which make for a worthwhile day trip destination. The Bergisch trail, featuring the romantic panorama of the ‘Bergisches Land’ region, also invites for a winter hike while no less than 16 cross-country ski trails are waiting to be explored in the Siegen-Wittgenstein area.
As of late, you can enjoy the sight of the biggest land mammals of Europe in the hiker-friendly area of the Rothaar Mountains. In 2013, a group of eight Bison was released to the wild near Bad Berleburg, the first to be reintroduced to Western Europe. As the shy giants are rarely spotted by hikers, interested visitors may experience a second Bison group in the 20-hectare natural sanctuary of the ‘Wisent Wilderness on the Rothaarsteig’ up close, even on snow shoes.
Unique Christmas‘ scenario at Drachenburg castle. Photo: © Schloss Drachenburg GmbH, Reinelt
Snow and ice activities
The Wintersport Arena Sauerland spans the border between the Sauerland and Siegen-Wittgenstein regions. The area has the most encompassing potential for snow-based sports and activities north of the Alps. It is the perfect place for spending the holidays on skis, sleigh and snowboard. The local snow conditions are backed up by high-performance snow cannons, making winter sports possible from December through to March. World-famous spots like the Winterberg Bobsleigh Track and the ‘Mühlenkopf’ ski jump in Willingen, an artificial ice skating ring and multiple DSV NordicActive-centres complete the offer.
As of December, the water basin in the former pressing machine rail of the colliery ‘Zollverein’, an industrial UNESCO world heritage site in Essen at the heart of the Ruhr area, changes into the 150-metre-long ZOLLVEREIN® ice rink, thus offering ice skating fun for the whole family. Visitors skate alongside impressing coke ovens, rust red pipes and high chimneys. Marked as ‘probably the most fascinating place for ice skating nationwide’ (Marco Polo), the ice rink is illuminated by light installations after dark and a ‘winter village’ provides visitors with hot drinks and snacks.
Thrilling shows and fine-tuned magic
Pure fascination is on offer when it comes to the Brühl-based Phantasialand near Cologne and its ‘Wintertraum’ (winter dream) special. Fabulous winter landscapes and theme-based specials, as well as an ice rink with spectacular panoramic views wait for visitors of all ages. Atmospheric shows such as the ‘Tiempo de Fuego’ light and fire show and the big ‘Magic Rose – Spirit of Light’ evening event at the Kaiserplatz, complete with a fireworks finale, make the magical experience complete.
For fine-tuned magic, the Schloss Drachenburg castle in Königswinter invites visitors and families to their annual ‘Unique Christmastime’ (‘Einzigartige Weihnachtszeit’) event. Based on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the atmospheric programme leads straight into the 19th century. On the 2 December, the castle opens its doors for embracing the Christmas spirit in a special way with culinary treats of the region and dreamlike ambiance, especially on the four advent weekends. Visitors are led through Ebenezer Scrooge’s Christmas world while the Kunsthalle offers unique ideas for presents and ambiance. Slow down and enjoy a brilliant escape from the masses.
Did you know that there is a place in Germany where kids can mail their Christmas wishes? Such a place is the Christkindpostfiliale in the town of Engelskirchen, which roughly translates as the ‘Baby Jesus Post Office of Angel City’. The address reads: An das Christkind (to the Baby Jesus), 51777 Engelskirchen – and the post office is known to receive roughly 135,000 wish lists from 50 countries each year, with personalised answers guaranteed.
Let the cold weather come – with a trip to North Rhine-Westphalia, you can tune right into pleasant winter magic, boasted by beautiful medieval locations, stunning natural surroundings and the recreational effects of winter sports. A region designed to fully recharge your batteries.