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A Song of Ice and Toys: Seiffen, Germany.

Summary: Golden chandeliers, carousels and Christmas pyramids. The sleepy hamlet

of Seiffen, tucked away in the Ore Mountains, hides within its folds a

wonderland of toys and an age-old craft. BY LAKSHMI SHARATH

It is still drizzling as we make our way from the town of Dresden towards the Ore Mountains in the German state of Saxony. Despite being heavily padded under layers of clothing, the biting December cold is just about getting to me. And then all of a sudden, the sun makes an appearance. To me, it is like what the Germans call, "Schwibbogen." We stop by at a small village on the way for a cup of coffee. A cluster of houses stand out in the rich verdure, Carpets of snow are scattered around. The bare branches of the trees are kissed with snowflakes. But I am drawn towards the quaint homes. The windows look interesting with bright gaunt men with big moustaches gazing at us. And then there are pretty wooden arches that seem to look like decorative candle holders. "That is the Schwibbogen," explains our guide, Seema Prakash. When the miners returned home in the cold dreary night, the sight of a brightly lit Schwibbogen on these windows cheered them up," she adds. And that is how the sun cheers me up too on a wet cold day.

As we head uphill the sun vanishes just as it had appeared. But I am not complaining. It is the Christmas season and everyone is waiting for snow. Our destination in a small little village Seiffen, tucked away in the Ore or Erzgebirge mountains, closer to the town of Prague in the Czech Republic. A village that was the home of miners, it has been bringing cheer to the world every Christmas for the last 300 years. Seema tells us that these miners became toymakers and every toy they create is synonymous with Christmas and is inspired by their own lives. "The Schwibbogen for instance, has images that show miners gathering together or probably they used to light lamps at the entrance of their mine as an arch during Christmas Eve service."

We journey on and the roads are wrapped in a white world. Small houses painted in hues of yellow and orange peep out of the trees but all we can see is a carpet of snowflakes. I feel like I am getting transported to a fairy tale land. Seiffen's origins are linked with the miners as it is referred to as Cynsifen or sieves for washing the iron ore, 700 years ago, but later on it came to be known as Seifenware, after the toys. The miners started making toys as a hobby, mainly for their children but it soon turned into a profession when the tin and silver deposits declined in the mountains. There was plenty of wood in the area and the miners learnt the craft of turning wood into utensils, which eventually led to creating toys. As the mines were formally closed, one tradition closed and another began.

We reach the town to see the same mustachioed man towering over us. Grim and overbearing, he is what they call a nutcracker, one of the signature toys created by the miners. Designed as a grim soldier, it brought out their sense of humour. The miners were actually mocking the men of authority by caricaturing them. The entire town is wrapped in a coat of mist as we walk towards the toy museum. And we are lost in a world of Christmas traditions.

There is music flowing through the rooms as pretty doll houses beckon us. The entire room is filled with pyramids, chandeliers, carousels, candle sticks and candle stands, Noah's arks, horses and wagons--all taking you into a bygone era. Then there people, men and women inspired by the lives of miners, each one telling their own story. In a little corner is a world of miniatures which showcases pretty vignettes from their lives. Standing there, I am transported into a cold dreary world of the miners, which was harsh and tough and yet their creative minds, their sense of humour, their dreams and hopes, their living traditions--all get translated into a world of kaleidoscopic world of toys.

I am introduced to the central Christmas figure who was the miner himself, designed as a journeyman... a carrier of light called the Knappenfiguren and he was often accompanied with the angel of light standing by the miner. But my favourite is the smoking man, called Rauchermann who smokes his pipe casually. You can see the many faces of the smoking man--from being a traditional folk man to the snow man to the stylish man on a bike oozing attitude. Of late the smoking man is a she, a grandmother comfortably indulging in her pastime. But then there is an entire world of miniatures--a world of the miners, their lifestyles, their traditions all carved inside a little match box. You can see their little world in a box-- a living room, a family sitting for dinner, the miners walking home in the dark with their lights, a cold dreary night with brightly lit Schwiboggen--it is almost like they have left little details of their life behind through their toys.

In another corner is the replica of the miner's own parlour and another corner is a small farmhouse tucked away in a snow capped landscape. We are invited by the craftsmen who work in the museum, carrying on the traditions of the miners. As they show us how the wood was turned to make toys, we also learn to assemble toys. I have a snowman that looks straight out of a comic and he looks absolutely stylish with a scarf and a pipe. He is one of the Christmas versions of a smoking man. I am given sketch pens and paints and I can design him the way I want. I dress him in white but give him a red hat and then I light him up and leave him alone so that he can smoke in peace.

As we leave the museum, the bells from the 18th century beckons. Lit up with lanterns and candles, it is probably another vignette from the life of miners, for whom light and warmth are important symbols, given that their world underground is usually dark and dreary. I walk around aimlessly as most of the town is lit up and the shop windows lure us with pretty toys. It's almost evening and the outline of the bare branches of the trees cast a dark shadow. But the town is alive with its musical toys. In front of each shop is an assembly of the nut cracker and the smoking man. The angel of light shines on us as the miner, the journeyman, walks with a lantern.

I warm myself with a glass of gluhwein, a Christmas tradition of drinking mulled wine and watch the stars slowly emerge out of a cloudy sky. And I lose myself to a world of nutcrackers and smoking men gazing at me from the street.

AT A GLANCE Seiffen is a little village tucked away in the Ore Mountains in the German state of Saxony. It can be a day trip from Dresden or you can opt to stay here as well. During Christmas the entire village comes alive with special toys and themes that are created exclusively for Christmas. Most of the toys from here are sent to Nuremberg and other Christmas markets and you can buy them first here.

Getting there: There are several airlines that fly to Germany from India and Emirates offers some great connections from all key cities in India.

Best time to visit: During Christmas

Stay: Hotel Erbgericht Buntes Haus; Cost: Rs 5,200 per night approx

Good to know: The Erzgebirge Toy Museum of Seiffen is open daily from 10:00-5:00. Tours can be booked in advance. Secret Seiffener Advent MUSIC During the traditional mountain parades and the procession of light on Bergmann paths, the old miners' paths are lit up. If you're looking for a bit of peace and quiet after the excitement, drop into the Bergkirche on Sundays at 2.30 pm for some Seiffen Advent music.

Reproduced From India Today Travel Plus. Copyright 2015. LMIL. All rights reserved.

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Publication:India Today Travel Plus
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:May 1, 2015
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