Visit any of Europe’s major Christmas markets and you’ll be spoiled for finding the seasonal spirit in your local shopping malls.
“They’re magical places,” says Martha Chapman of Toronto. “I visited the markets in Germany and Austria, and it’s like stepping inside a Hans Christian Andersen story. OK, so it’s a market, and so you’re supposed to buy stuff, but it’s about as 180-degrees as you can get from the noise, clutter, plastic, and commercialism of Christmas in my local super-mall.”
Every season, Martha lovingly unwraps the “teeny wooden ornaments – tiny people in scarves on inch-long sleds and old-fashioned Father Christmases” she brought back, and gives them pride of place on her tree, then takes a break to enjoy the many memories that go with them.
Europe’s Christmas markets happen across the continent, from Spain to the northern countries, but no nation has as many as Germany. The country hosts a massive 144, held in big cities like Cologne with its landmark twin-spired cathedral (and eight markets, all beautifully illuminated with thousands of fairy lights), and in smaller communities like the lovely winemaking town of Rudesheim am Rhine (a UNESCO World Heritage Site).
Most markets open from the beginning of advent (the fourth Sunday before Christmas) and run until Christmas Eve. Some even run beyond the holiday.
Martha took an Avalon river cruise, and says the Festive Season cruises are now better than ever, especially on Avalon’s new Panorama with its two decks of suites and 3.3-metre-wide windows giving spectacular views.
Avalon’s three seasonal cruises run five, eight, and nine days calling at markets in Germany, the Alsace in France, and Prague in the Czech Republic, the latter one of the most popular events in Europe and internationally renowned.
Another river boat line offering a Christmas cruise is AMA Waterways. This year’s cruise features two nights in Prague, with embarkation at Nuremberg (where the boat docks overnight). During the transfer to Nuremberg, passengers visit the 400-year-old Christmas Market in town. Other calls include markets in Germany, Austria, and Hungary.
Another way to visit the markets is to take a motorcoach tour, such as the one offered by Trafalgar Tours.
The itinerary begins in Vienna, where 25 markets range from large to small, but the most famous is the Christkindlmarkt dating to 1294. The tour explores the museums and the impressive architecture along Vienna’s Ringstrasse, the Hofburg (one-time home of the Hapsburgs), and the stunning State Opera House.
A scenic drive along the Danube Valley brings the coach to Salzburg (and another market of course), where visits to Mozart’s birthplace and the Old City are on the agenda. Then it’s on to Munich, capital of Bavaria, across an Alpine landscape where the snow-clad vista is just icing on the Christmas cake.
Munich’s famous Glockenspiel in Marienplatz just might be overshadowed by the ornaments in the market and the thoroughly festive ambience, and the itinerary includes a tour of Neuschwanstein Castle, the fairytale edifice of King Ludwig that inspired Walt Disney to build his landmark imitation.
And so on to Switzerland where Zurich’s market is held inside the train station (reputedly the largest indoor Christmas Market in Europe) and it ends in Lucerne with its smaller, more intimate market.
Seasonal festivities in Scandinavia, northern France, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland create a winter wonderland, especially in the cities’ centuries-old medieval sections. In Holland, a special location is the Fluweelengrot (Velvet Caves) in Valkenburg. It’s a market with a difference, and includes old Dutch artifacts.
For anyone with a bent for English literature and history, there are also options in the UK, most of them short tours in cities like Bath (much favoured as the place to be seen in Jane Austen’s novels) with its Christmas market and incorporating a tour of the Cotswolds, or Bury St. Edmunds with its links to Charles Dickens (the creator of Mr. Scrooge of course) and its traditional Christmas Fayre and Medieval Fayre. Then there’s the Christmas Market at Haworth, home of the Bronte sisters. Seasonal offerings are also held in such stately homes as Blenheim Palace, Chatsworth, and Castle Howard among others.
France’s festive markets (“marche de noel”) are held in most towns from the Alsace to Brittany, but Lille is particularly popular, perhaps because of its Eurostar link. It’s held in the Place Rihour.
Hans Christian Andersen, creator of so many beloved fairy tales, has as much claim to Christmas as Dickens, so it’s fitting that in Odense, Denmark (his birthplace) the Christmas Fair named for him draws thousands of visitors. The same can be said of Copenhagen’s market set in Tivoli Gardens. It’s a magical place at any time of year but takes on an extra sparkle in December.
Frankfurt Tourist+Congress BoardThe sights, sounds, and smells make European markets unique. In the wine regions, you can find Gluehwein (spiced, warmed wine), and traditional cookies and cakes like the famous “stolle.” Christmassy describes the sounds and the scents – candles, spices, roasting chestnuts, and delicious grilled sausages, with tinkling bells and soft chimes playing in the background. Eating and drinking is an important part of the shopping experience as you stroll between the little wooden huts, many decorated with colourful awnings.
What can you expect to bring back? Apart from the aforementioned tiny tree people and old-fashioned Santas, think tinsel angels, gingerbread (“lebkuchen”), dolls and dollhouses, intricately carved wood decorations, and much more. It’s an experience not to be missed for lovers of Christmas traditions.