|The Christmas market in Tallin, Estonia|
Of all the many seasonal attractions of Europe during the month of December, I reckon nothing encapsulates the festive spirit better than Christmas markets. These aren’t just displays for tourists (though people flock to them in their millions) but also places where locals go to shop for their Christmas meals, socialize over mulled wine, and be entertained by carol singers and ice skating. And if you’re tired of shopping malls and want a more traditional Christmas shopping experience, then these markets are also a wonderfully evocative, seemingly barely changed since medieval times.
Often referred to by their German name as Christkindlmarkt, Christmas markets have a long pedigree; Vienna’s was established by royal decree in the thirteenth century, with the Christmas market in Dresden – Germany’s oldest – dates from 1434. No doubt they prospered by bringing a bit of cheer to the long, dark winters. Indeed, they were so popular that in 1616 a Nuremberg priest complained that so many people were at the markets that his church services were barely attended.
|A Christmas market in Salzburg, Austria|
Throughout the Middle Ages and afterwards, Christmas markets were also part of regular trade, and many developed their own specialties and traditional products. Many still retain a charming regional character and are known for certain foodstuffs: honey cakes in Nuremberg, almond cookies in Frankfurt, hot apple dumplings in Copenhagen.
Towns still vie with each other to host the liveliest Christmas markets, the largest of which usually begin at the end of November and continue until Christmas Eve. In recent years, markets have continued to grow in popularity and have been re-established in some cities. Latvia’s capital, Riga, introduced a market in 2001 that has been hugely successful in recreating a traditional feel, with handicrafts and puppets for sale from cheerful wooden booths.
|The Christmas market in the main|
square of the old town, Prague
Central Europe is especially known for its excellent Christmas markets. In Krakow in Poland, the main square is decorated with a colourful nativity scene modelled after a city church; visitors browse for crystal, leather goods and carved wooden boxes. In Budapest in Hungary, children munch on spicy sausages and watch folk dances and carol singers. In Prague in the Czech Republic, the market occupies the splendidly Baroque town square, overlooked by gargoyles sporting little caps of snow.
Vienna hosts the biggest and oldest Christmas market in Austria in front of its elaborate Town Hall, whose façade is decorated for the occasion. The surrounding trees are strung with lights, while Christmas trees are tied with red ribbons and hung with gilded pinecones. The mulled wine here often comes flavoured with cinnamon, and the macaroons with nutmeg, traditional spices that only add to the medieval feel of the market.
|Cheeses for sale at a Christmas market|
in the Gare de l'Est quarter, Paris
If central Europe is the heartland of the Christmas market, however, plenty of other cities from Brussels to Helsinki have their own variations. In France, Christmas markets are on a generally smaller scale and have an emphasis on food. Its oldest market is in Strasbourg, its most authentic perhaps in Colmar. Still, Paris is hard to beat in December: gracious illuminated angels scintillate overhead, Christmas trees outdo themselves with ornaments and lights, and hotels glow and sparkle. A particularly good Christmas market at La Defense has an ice rink, while Les Halles is draped with Yuletide decorations and has fantastic shopping.
Germany is certainly the Christkindlmarkt capital of the world, with practically every city and town across the land offering its own version of the Christmas market. The largest is in Berlin, attracting four million visitors every December. There are other large markets in Dresden, Frankfurt, Munich, Nuremberg and Stuttgart. Among the hearty German market fare are sausages with mustard, hot potato cakes and thick slabs of gingerbread filled with almond paste. The most traditional food is Stollen, a seasonal specialty that resembles bread more than cake, made from dried and candied fruit, nuts and lemon peel, then liberally dusted with icing sugar.
|The Christmas market in Marienplatz under the facade|
of the town hall in Munich, Germany
The Christmas market in Munich takes place in the Marienplatz in the heart of the old town, just as it has done since the seventeenth century. The square is overlooked by a Gothic town hall, from the balcony of which alpine choirs and brass bands serenade the crowds with Christmas music. In a country where the competition is fierce, everyone has their own opinion about which city hosts the best Christmas market of all. Stuttgart is arguably the winner. It opens with a concert in the courtyard of its splendid medieval castle, and boasts some two hundred stalls selling everything from glass ornaments to music boxes and fresh gingerbread. Advent singers carol Silent Night and Oh Christmas Tree in their original language as visitors take to the open-air rink, surrounded by the turrets and snowy roofs of the old town. The smell of cinnamon hangs in the air, and good cheer is all around: Christmas to perfection.
Do you have a favourite Christmas market? If so, leave a comment below; your participation is always appreciated.