Friday, December 16, 2005

Merrie Olde Mainz

Every year at this time, travel companies make hay selling packages to Austrian and German Christmas markets. There’s nothing wrong with the idea. Christmas markets look wonderful, sound lovely and smell great. They offer the chance to purchase charming gifts and decorations, but they are not “NoCrowds” experiences. Just the other day, my local paper ran the story of a mother who wanted to take her child to the large Christmas market in Stuttgart, Germany. As there were no rooms available anywhere near Stuttgart, she and the daughter slept on the night train, did the market and rode the night train back. In a word - uck!

Well, my crowdphobic friends, I have discovered that only 20 minutes from the highly efficient Frankfurt Airport, the Mainz Christmas Market, in operation since 1788, offers all the benefits of its more famous cousins without all the aggravation.

Situated on the Rhine River, the city of Mainz has been an important trading centre since Roman times. In addition to its historic Christmas market, Mainz has a magnificent 12th century cathedral, a wonderful old town with beautifully restored half timbered houses, the Gutenberg Museum and a fantastic Roman temple right in the middle of a shopping arcade. Lovely vineyards and farms can be found minutes outside the city centre.

The best thing about a trip to the Mainz Christmas market is that it has everything that makes these affairs so special: stalls selling hand made decorations and gifts, mulled wine ( both red and white, but the white, found next to the large Pyramid, is the best), roasted chestnuts, rides for children, bell ringing and a beautiful life-size crèche. What the market does not have is lots of cheap and poorly made stuff. As was explained to me by the locals, the allocation of stalls for the Mainz Christmas fair is very strict and those guys selling cheap goods from China/Africa/India don’t stand a chance.

It’s a good idea to visit this market both during the day and in the evening when the magnificent cathedral is illuminated. There is a full schedule of special events including special Advent music, childrens’ activities, craft demonstrations and more. The events are listed in a brochure which you can find at almost any stall.

Last weekend when I visited the Christmas market, I had a leisurely stroll before dinner, enjoying the lights, smells and the mulled wine. The serious shopping I reserved for the next day when I found a colourful Christmas pyramid driven by candles, special molds for Christmas baking, lots of handmade beeswax candles, gingerbread men and plenty of small animals and figures for stockings. The merchants were helpful and friendly. I felt like the market was intimate but everything was there. I had a lovely time.

After shopping, we retired to the Old Town for lunch at Dr Floette, a wonderful “old style” German restaurant on a beautiful square of very old half-timbered houses. Dr Floette is that type of German locale I now greatly miss after ten years of living in London: the atmosphere is convivial and informal, the portions are large and the price is right. If you go to Dr Flotte’s on Saturday and see a handsome couple looking like Grace Kelly and the Prince she should have married, these were the friends that brought me there. Be sure to say hello to Gabi and Michele.

If you are looking for a hotel in or near Mainz, I would also go with Gabi and Michele’s impeccable suggestions. In town, they like the the Favorite Parkhotel, a family run hotel in the main City park. If you are looking for something a little less formal in the neighboring countryside, they recommend the Landhotel im Battenheimer Hof in Bodenheim. In either case, excellent train and bus service make renting a car a nice option, but not a necessity.

The Mainz Christmas Market
24 November until 23rd of December
Monday – Thursday
11:00 – 21:30
Friday 11:00 – 21:00
Saturday 10:00 21:00
Sunday 11:00 – 20:30

Dr Flotte
Im Kirchgarten
Tel: 49 (0)6131 234170

Favorite Parkhotel
Karl-Weiser Strasse 1
55131 Mainz
Tel: 49 (0)6131 80 150
Fax: 49 (0)6131 80 15 420

Landhotel im Battenheimer Hof
Rheinstrasse 2
Tel: 49 6135 7090
Fax: 49 6135 70950

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

White Trash Xmas in London

My husband says I spend too much time writing about "namby pamby" stuff. OK, Jeff, get a load of this. Tina C, famous for her 1996 album, No Dick's As Hard As My Life, will be performing at the Barbican in London in a show entitled I'm Dreaming of a White Trash Xmas.

And here's a description of the show:
"Tina C is on a mission…to reclaim White Trash. Check in your wardrobe - if you have at least one denim item then you are, regardless of financial income or skin colour, at a profound level, White Trash. What better way to celebrate this new found status and Jesus’ birthday all in one with Tina’s beautiful Xmas show? This show promises to be the ultimate office party – sincere, non-denominational, profoundly moving religious experience all wrapped up with some jaw-dropping country songs and a whole mess of American lovin’. "

From the 15th to the 30th of December. Tickets are £12. For full details, click here.

Now who says I'm no fun.

Friday, December 02, 2005

London's Wallace Collection

We run the best Thanksgiving Soup Kitchen outside the US. It’s a bold claim but let me offer some supporting metrics. During our time in London alone, we have served up over 250 pounds of turkey to an estimated 300 people. This year, the turkey weighed in at 27.5 pounds and looked suspiciously like a small child. It’s not surprising then, that after all that buying and cooking and washing, and talking and drinking, I wanted to take Friday off and prowl around London with our annual Thanksgiving houseguest from Germany. We were headed for the British Museum to see the big exhibition on the Persian Empire when I realised that in my post pilgrim haze, I had directed us onto the wrong bus. This realization came to me as we rounded Marble Arch. “Quick, get off Margery!”

And there we were, slightly worse for wear, standing on Oxford Street in the crazy run up before Christmas in need of a plan. “I know, we’ll head for the Wallace Collection.” Only 3 blocks from Selfridges, in an imposing Georgian mansion, this museum houses an absolutely fabulous collection of fine art amassed by the Marquesses of Hertford over the course of four generations. The house is jam packed with paintings, porcelain, furniture and armour but for me, on that day, the best part about the Wallace Collection was that it represented an “oasis of calm”. Finding serenity in Central London at any time is difficult, but finding it one month before Christmas is a miracle.

Much of the Wallace Collection was amassed by the 4th Marquess of Hertford, a stalwart NoCrowds proponent if ever there was one. Brought up by his mother in Paris, and one of the richest men in Europe, he was considered witty and intelligent, was friendly with Napoleon III, but seemed to prefer living with his treasures as a virtual recluse. He managed to get out enough to produce an illegitimate son who inherited and enhanced the collection which was ultimately given to the nation by his widow, Lady Wallace in 1897.

Like the Musee Jacquemart-Andre in Paris and the Frick Collection in New York, the Wallace Collection demonstrates what a vast fortune could accomplish in the days before income tax. There are Fragonards and Watteaus, Rembrandts and Rubens, Canaletto and Velazquez. If painting is not your thing, there is furniture, porcelain, sculpture and glass and if, like my long suffering husband, you have had your fill “of all that namby pamby stuff”, there is a vast collection of arms and armour that could keep all the Rambo members of your family amused.

After spending money you don’t have at the surrounding stores, it is lovely to enter this majestic house without opening your wallet. The audio guide is a snip at £3 and the gift shop is more tasteful than most. The restaurant, Café Bagatelle, serves morning coffee, lunch and afternoon tea in a pretty sculpture garden and is managed by the same French company that runs the Michelin-starred Jules Verne restaurant on the second floor of the Eiffel Tower.

I have been to the Wallace Collection countless times, each time delighted with the experience. The house, its location, the collection, and the ability to enjoy it all without crowds and tour groups makes this “oasis of calm” just off Oxford Street one of my favourite destinations in London.

The Wallace Collection
Hertford House
Manchester Square
London W1U 3BN
Tel: 0207 563 9500

Open daily 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM except Dec. 24, 25, 26
Admission: Free
Bond Street Tube

Photo of Jean-Honore Fragonard's "The Swing" 1767, from the Wallace Collection.