Glad tidings and the gluhwein glow

When Sarah Gracie saw a sign for Nuremberg - the infamous location of the Nazi rallies - her first instinct was to drive on. Instead she decided to stop and discovered that she had fallen upon one of the most romantic cities in Germany

Five years ago I was driving through Germany on the way to Czechoslovakia when I saw a sign for Nurnberg (or Nuremberg as the English-speaking world knows it). It was a place to which I had never felt attracted. From the grainy sequences of Leni Riefenstahl's film of the Nazi rallies to the stricken footage of the trials, the name was ring-fenced with horror. Like Auschwitz-Birkenau or Treblinka, it was off limits to tourism.

But the sign said "20 km". Out of respect to history, it did not seem possible to avoid it. So we turned aside and drove, on a mild afternoon in early summer, into the Hauptplatz of the city centre. There we encountered a scene that seemed to have spilled straight out of a Durer woodcut. Narrow streets of half timbered houses, cobbled alleys, magnificent steep-rooved cathedrals; and a crowd of men with hurdy-gurdies drinking beer and dancing in the market. I fell in love with it on the spot.

Coming back at winter for the famous Christkindlesmarkt, Germany's oldest Christmas market, with its blaze of lights and colour, the medieval city overwhelms again. Like representations of itself in early maps, it lies within its walls, guarded by watchtowers and capped by the uncompromising hump of the Kaiserburg. Hitler picked it, after all, because it was the site of the First Reich, that of Charlemagne, the place where each newly elected Holy Roman Emperor had to hold his first Diet, and where he held his Schatzkammer, or imperial treasury.

Nuremberg's wealth grew in the Middle Ages and depended on its central position on the main East-West/North-South trading routes. Salt, silk, tallow, and the precision instruments for which the town became famous (needles, thimbles, fine wire, quadrants, armillaries and astrolabes), they all passed through the city until the sea routes to the Americas and the Far East were opened up.

In fact, Nuremberg now is a bit of a confidence trick. Ninety per cent of it was destroyed in the last days of the war (in particular, the raids of 2 January 1945). But it was all rebuilt again, in the old style, by 1966. The city planners and masons did a good job as it is in many cases impossible to distinguish old from new, especially at night when you see the snowy north European gables etched against the stars.

The place is made for Christmas. Narrow medieval bridges, the teeming Hauptplatz, the great interiors of the cathedrals filled up with golden triptychs and choir music, and the tiny glowing inns, it is a perfect stage-set on which humanity can act out its passionate combustive refusal of the low point of the year.

The main haul for Christmas explorations begins at the Konigstor in the south. Just inside the gate is the old craftsmen's yard. Pewter beating, wood-cutting and gold-smithing, the line of skills from the Middle Ages stretches more or less unbroken. The whole area is a mass of noise and colour, overlaid with a heady stench of Gluhwein (mulled wine, spiced with cinnamon and cloves). People jostle each other out of the way to reach for decorations and bric-a-brac. Parents lift up wide-eyed children to the displays of cribs: tiny intricately carved scenes of the birth of Christ with the patient oxen and Magi gathered round.

Then you go down the wide boulevard of Konigstrasse (fur shops and fine leatherware) towards the spires of St Lorenzkirche and the river. You pass the granary with its magnificent gables and rooves (lots of tiny windows to air the grain), and cross the teeming Museumsbrucke into the market.

The market is stacked with red and white striped stalls as far as the eye can see. They are garlanded with fir branches, red ribbons, berries and glass balls and each stall is stuffed to the gunnels with marionettes, little metal steam trains or flying machines, wheat stars and angels and Zwetschgenmannlein, figures made of prunes and figs threaded on to sticks and dressed in the style of characters from German folklore.

It is all looked over by the beautiful Frauenkirche, with its intricate Gothic facade and gilded clock. The market has a shadowy history. In 1349, Emperor Karl IV allowed the Jewish quarter to be razed to make way for the market. Afterwards he seems to have got as close as an emperor gets to contrition, and endowed this lovely church, built by Peter Parler (who also built St Wenceslas in Prague), in the name of those who had died.

Everything is lit by fairylights and candles. There is the smell of roasted chestnut, bratwurstchen, Lebkuchen (little cakes of eggs, nuts, honey and spices made for Christmas) and, of course, the incomparable Gluhwein.

As far as I can make out, the Germans like to get very, very cold in a wide space and then take refuge inside a tiny boiling beerhof or brathaus. These tend to be close wooden interiors - wooden seats, wooden ceilings, wooden counters and wooden floors.

As far as eating is concerned, "Ich bin ein Vegetarier" doesn't go down too well here. Dawn to dusk you are confronted with the primest Speise, salami, cutlets, ribs, sausages and steak. All so fresh and laid out so finely, it is hard to resist. At Christmas, you won't go far wrong with the following order: "sechs Nurnberger mit Sauerkraut und ein kleines Bier ("ein Mannesbier" if you are thirsty).

You will shortly receive six little spicy sausages on a pewter plate, roasted over a great charcoal fire, and accompanied by sauerkraut that belies the name (marinated in the delicate Frankish Essenswein, with sesame seeds and little tart red Heidelbeeren). The beer is brewed in the local Patrizier brewery. All together it makes for one of the great tastes of the world.

Nicely stoked up, you are then ready for some more frozen foraging. You can pop inside the lovely St Sebaldus, with its Romanesque nave, bearing little niche statues of the smiling Muttergottes from the 11th century. She wears a blue cape with gold stars and a red tunic. The precious colours which the medieval artist ground to paint her - lapis lazuli, cobalt, sienna and gold ochre - are a little faded, but still survive, on the great limestone pillars.

After this you go up the winding cobbled Bergstrasse towards the Kaiserburg. This is one of the most romantic spots in an extremely romantic city. Standing at the top of Bergstrasse, with the castle to the back and Durer's statue to the left, you look down the cobbles to the silent rooves of St Sebaldus, and beyond them to the blaze of the Christmas

market lights. The roofs are lightly dusted with snow. They fall away like great mountain planes, steep and angular. And a sickle moon outlines the sharp edges of the towers, the stone angels and the great iron bells.

From here it is a short walk through the narrow alleys full of beer cellars to the Spielzeugmuseum. Nuremberg was and is the most famous manufacturer of children's toys in the world. The museum houses collections of dolls houses of such fantastic detail it would take as much skill to make them as it did to make equivalent full-scale houses. There are also china dolls of all types and ages, flying machines and miniature models of the great steam engines of the world. No need to ask where Germany gets its technological know-how: the children are getting presents which excite an obsessive wonder about how things work.

The other unmissable museum is the Germanisches Nationalmuseum. Founded in the 19th century, on the wave of Volk enthusiasm, it houses collections of objects and artwork from German-speaking countries. Along with a fabulous collection of medieval statuary and Northern Renaissance painting, you can see golden astrolabes and quadrants taken from the Moors, and then the first globe of the world, made by Martin Behaim in 1492, just before Columbus was to set sail in search of the western sea passage to India.

"Hey Betty, will you look at this?" says an American leaning over the globe. "We ain't even on here! Can you beat that?" And it is true that on this magnificently detailed chart of sea and shore (little Bedouin in tents along the north coast of Africa, walruses and bears all over the Baltic), there is not the faintest notion, splodge or wavering smudge that could possibly be interpreted as America.

The following day Edith Memmet of the Nuremberg Tourist Authority takes me out to Luitpoldhain, the former site of the Nazi rallies. A small, attractive woman in her mid-forties, wearing the regulation Nuremberg female winter uniform of puffy jacket with hood edged in sable, she takes me round the grounds in a cab (the grounds are so vast you can't traverse them on foot unless you have a good deal of time).

Edith herself is from a Sudeten German family that was expelled from what was then Czechoslovakia after the war. As we drive around, stopping now and again to cross a monument, her own life story is another refraction of the narrative in front of us. "A child of the love generation," she says. "My parents had to start out twice, once in East Germany and then again in the West."

Hitler commandeered Luitpoldhain in 1935 and established it as the base of the National Socialist Party. He levelled off the site and built a large artificial lake. Then he set about a programme of buildings that would put Nebuchadnezzar ("Oh, look on my works ye mighty, and despair") to shame.

There is the vast Congress Hall, designed to mimic the Coliseum in Rome, but with industrial-scale crowds (at their height, the grounds held 1.6 million people). A hideous unfinished megalith, it towers up above some ragged birch trees, faced with the grimmest of granite and overlooking the lake.

When war broke out all money was diverted from grandiose architectural projects into weapons production and so it stands incomplete, minus its final storey and minus a roof. The interior is a vast rubble of brick and now serves as a pound for prisoners' cars. They lie stacked up, tinny models covered in a light gritty snow. And all around the vast auditorium lies still and silent.

There is also the Zeppelinfeld, where the military march pasts took place. It is eerily familiar from old footage. The white marble Tribune, with its colonnades from which banners streamed and searchlights played, the little railed balcony from which Hitler leaned out to talk to the crowds. Now there are weeds growing between the marble blocks; the US troops blew up the golden swastika long ago; and in June next year the enormous field will serve as a venue for a Rolling Stones concert.

The tourist authority has addressed the business of the international need to visit the site with energy and commitment. There is a brochure, Nurnberg 1933-45, a multimedia presentation, "Fascination and Power", and special guided tours. But the past is still a complex burden.

"Americans travel all around the world to stand on the Zeppelinfeld," says Frau Memmet with a tolerant, but wistful sigh. "And then they are amazed to find we have a beautiful old city. It's sad really. But that's just how it is."

nUREMBERG fact file

Things to See

Christkindlesmarkt: Germany's oldest Christmas market, dating back to the 17th century. It derives from the custom initiated by Martin Luther that children should be given presents at Christmas (Nuremberg was one of the first cities to embrace the Reformation and retains, among the copious kitscherei, a vivid flame of early Protestant wonder and reverence for Christ's birthday). The market runs from 1-24 December in the main market square.

Spielzeugmuseum (toy museum): Tue & Thur-Sun 10-5pm

Albrecht Durer Haus (house of the painter): Tue & Thur-Sun l0-5pm.

Germanisches Nationalmuseum: Tue & Thur-Sun 10-5pm.

Luitpoldhain (Nazi rally ground): any time.

Kaiserburg (former castle of the Holy Roman Emperors): open daily 9.30- 5pm.

Hotels

There are many comfortable and decently-priced hotels in the city. The tourist information office in the main station will help with advice and bookings as does the main tourist information office at Hauptmarkt 18 (tel 233 6135). Here are just a few:

Hotel Marienbad, Eilgutstrasse 5 (tel 203 147). Very comfortable and well placed for the Konigstor and Germanisches Nationalmuseum. Single DM115-160; double DM150-250.

Zum Schwatilein, Hinters Sterngasse 11. (tel 225 162) Cheap and comfortable. Single: DM40, double: DM70.

Weinhaus Steichele, Knorrstrasse 2-8 (tel 202 280). Glamorous hotel in converted wineries. Single DM95-120; double DM150-170.

Jugendgasthaus (youth hostel), Burg 2 (221024). Finest address in town, in the former stables of the Holy Roman Emperor. But you have to be aged under 27. DM20 per person per night including breakfast.

Recommended restaurants

Bratwurst Hausle, I Rathausplatz. Delicious, cheap and cheerful. Bratwurstglocklein, Handwerkerhof, by the Konigstor. The Bavarians have speciality wurst restaurants where you can taste the high points of Frankish and Swabian cuisine.

Nassauer Keller, Karolinen strasse 2. In the cellars of an old 13th-century gentleman's house (a tall stone tower), this is an exciting venue for very good authentic Frankish food (and also some old Bohemian items like roast goose and red cabbage).

Heilig-Geist-Spital. Lovely restaurants in the converted wine cellars of the old medieval hospital. It gets fairly packed so in season, go at non-peak times.

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