For the last 26 years in Bernkastel-Kues as part of their Christmas market about 100 people have been donning wetsuits and Santa hats and swimming 1200 meters down the Mosel river carrying torches. (Fackelschwimmen link here -in English) The long procession of torches makes its way down the river to the bridge where spectators stand and watch. Following the line of torches comes St. Nicholas in a long boat rowed by the Bernkastel rowing club. This is an amazing spectacle that is definitely worth seeing.
Even without the torch swim, Bernkastel-Kues is more than worth the 1 1/2 hour drive from Kaiserslautern. The altstadt with its timbered buildings is amazing. They also have a building turned into the biggest Advent calendar of the region. We were lucky enough to get to the market in time to see the opening of the first door of the advent calendar. They open one door each day at 5:30 pm through the 23rd. The final door is opened at 11:00 am on Christmas Eve. Everyone stands in the square for the opening of the door and a narrator tells a story (in German) to go along with the opening.
I need to learn how to take better night pictures with my camera, because the pictures really don’t do this justice.
After seeing the door open we had just enough time to grab a cup of hot cider and get a brat for the boys before heading out to the bridge to watch for the torch swimmers. There were a lot of spectators for the torch swim, so in hindsight, it might have been smarter to just head straight for the river and skip the refreshments. Luckily there was a very nice German man who saw that Sam was having a bit of trouble seeing and made room for us along the railing.
St. Nicholas arriving on the boat was amazing, but unfortunately I was not quick enough to get a good picture in the dark. The boat is lit with small lights and rowed by eight rowers. St. Nicholas in a lovely costume waves from a chair at the back.
It was crowded and Sam was cold, so we decided not to brave the masses to go back into the square where St. Nicholas hands out chocolate to the children.
I have not been able to find anything explaining how the torch swim tradition got started. We decided it was probably a couple of guys who drank too much Glühwein and decided to go for a swim in the river. One probably said, “how are we going to keep from getting hit by a barge?” and the other said “we can take torches.” And now 26 years later, thousands of people come to watch. If you are going to be in Germany next year, this is a must see.
We will be heading back to Bernkastel-Kues during the day soon, hopefully on a day when it is less crowded to get a better look at this beautiful town. It is also a place I would love to revisit in the summer with our bikes for a ride along the Mosel.