Winter wonderland beside the Weser
Sweet treats, samba rhythms and strange customs: Bremen in winter
Bremen, a winter wonderland. The star attractions: sparkling Christmas lights, the traditional ice wager with the brave little tailor, top sporting action at the six-day cycle race, brass band music from all over the world and sizzling rhythms at Germany's largest samba carnival.
Bremen Christmas market: People mill around the festive marketplace, the sweet smell of doughnuts carries through the air and a lively buzz emanates from the glühwein stalls. You can enjoy browsing the lovingly decorated wooden booths that are set up on the market square against the backdrop of the town hall and Roland statue, which together have been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2004.
The market on the Schlachte Embankment takes you back to Christmas past. After a short walk through the famous Böttcherstrasse, you'll be greeted by historical boats adorned with festive lights and the aroma of incense from the market stalls. The medieval atmosphere of Schlachte-Zauber, the maritime-themed Christmas market along the river Weser, takes visitors of all ages back to bygone days. Amid the flickering wood fires and torches, spice merchants, blacksmiths and bone carvers offer their wares. As you watch musicians and street entertainers perform, you can enjoy mead, fruit wine or even a 'love potion' in the taverns.
Are the waters of the Weser lapping at the riverbanks or could the ice sheet crack? Every year since 1829, people have gathered on the Punkendeich embankment on 6 January to establish whether the river Weser is flowing or frozen. Fifteen men dressed in formal black suits and the master of ceremonies wait impatiently for the Three Wise Men and a tailor who must weigh 99 pounds. The tailor has to 'test' the Weser under the watchful eye of the spectators. Can he, with an iron in hand, cross the river without getting his feet wet? Since 1946, however, the Weser has not frozen over which means that the outcome of the ice wager is rather predictable and must instead be decided by the luck of the draw. This ensures that some 'unlucky souls' are found, who have to foot the bill for the wager and the subsequent banquet for 500 dignitaries.
It has been a long time since the tailor has been at the mercy of the weather for his Weser crossing. These days, he is safely ferried to the opposite shore by a sea rescue boat provided by the German Maritime Search and Rescue Service (GMSRS). To return the favour, he organises a collection for the lifeboat services at the ice wager festival a few days later.
The ice wager is one of many unusual traditions in Bremen. Another is the Schaffermahl banquet, a custom which has been upheld since 1545. Every year in February, 100 ship's captains, 100 businessmen and 100 guests congregate in the Upper Hall of the town hall and take their places at beautifully laid tables with gleaming silver goblets. The first course of this traditional banquet is soon served: Bremen chicken soup. It is followed by dried cod with mustard sauce and boiled potatoes, seafarer's beer, curly kale with pinkel sausage, smoked meat, chestnuts and fried potatoes, roast veal with steamed apples, Catherine plums and celery salad, and finally Riga flounder, tongue, sausage, cheese and anchovies, as well as coffee and a basket of fruit.
To this day, women have not been allowed to take part in this old-established fraternal banquet – and neither have tourists. All is not lost however: after a guided tour of the town hall, you can enjoy a six-course meal with typical Bremen specialities in the Ratskeller (underneath the town hall) and learn fascinating facts about local traditions while you eat.
By the time the exclusive Schaffermahl takes place in February, one of Bremen's highlights is already over for another year: the six-day cycle race – Europe's largest indoor cycling event. As soon as the sun disappears over the horizon, cycling enthusiasts and party-goers head out to sample Bremen's nightlife and have fun until the early hours.
During the race, the track cyclists fly around the velodrome at high speed, and for the winner it means more than just being number one. Night after night, the world-class competitors pedal for all their worth at ÖVB Arena. Stars of the music scene provide the party atmosphere and there is plenty of food and drink for spectators to choose from.
Sizzling samba rhythms, flamboyant costumes, fanciful masks and staggering stilt walkers: carnival fever sweeps the city for one whole weekend in February. The Bremen Samba Carnival is the next best thing to being in Brazil! The carnival is all about rhythm, dancing, tolerance towards all types of people, and above all, a love of life. It's not enough to stand and watch – you simply have to join in! Numerous live concerts really get the party started, and up to 20,000 spectators watch from the sidelines as the carnival parade, with 1,000 people in colourful costumes, makes its way through the city centre to the sound of rhythmic drumming.
If this all sounds a little too exuberant, how about a trip to the theatre instead? The Theater am Goetheplatz offers a captivating programme of drama, music and dance. An apéritif at the Theatro restaurant and café next door sets the mood for a wonderful evening. Excitement, sensual delights, treachery and passion, the Metropol Theatre has it all. Situated near the station, it is one of the most modern musical theatres in the world and has capacity for 1,400 people. Quite unique to the German theatre scene is the Bremen Shakespeare company, whose repertoire includes not only classics such as Macbeth, but also pieces written by the players themselves. It is also not uncommon for unsuspecting members of the audience to suddenly find themselves in the thick of the action ...