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Europe's Christmas Markets

Written by  Barbara Radcliffe Rogers

XmasMarket
Angels playing music, jugglers in Medieval costume, ice skating beneath an illuminated Heidelberg Castle, torch-lit paths, a town hall made into a giant Advent calendar - Europe’s Christmas markets are as varied as the towns and cities that host them. You can plan entire trips based on Christmas markets, with breaks for sightseeing and seasonal activities, such as concerts and performances.

These Christmas markets aren’t just for shoppers. They are as much about the experience and sharing local traditions of food, drink, music, costumes, folk art and festivities that are part of a long history beginning in the late Middle Ages. They give today’s December visitors a chance to see some of Europe’s prettiest villages decorated for the season, and business travelers a chance to do some after-hours shopping.

Markets often fill town and city squares, but some are held in more unexpected venues - a full-scale Christmas market at Munich Airport sells Bavarian specialties, Zurich fills the great hall of its main train station with booths, and German Prince Georg hosts the annual Royal Christmas Market at his magnificent castle, Burg Hohenzollern (www.burghohenzollern.com), south of Stuttgart. There is even a market on board a Koln-Dusseldorf cruise ship on the Rhine (www.kdrhine.com). Some use historical settings - in Oslo, Stockholm and Turku, Finland, open-air museums display and sell traditional crafts in their well-preserved buildings.

In Germany, at Esslingen’s medieval Christmas market, traders in historical costume seem right at home among the half-timbered houses (www.mittelalterliches-esslingen.de). Not all themes are historical: Munich’s Tollwood market highlights contemporary crafts, while at Hamburg’s cheeky adults-only SantaPauli market, cool jazz replaces carols and Santa may have a martini in hand.

While Germany’s Christkindlmarkts are certainly the best known, the tradition is alive throughout Europe - Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter looks as though Antonio Gaudi himself had returned to decorate it, and a giant nativity scene adorns the Cathedral, where the Santa Lucia Market sells nativity sets and figures, gifts and decorations.

Rome’s Piazza Navona hosts a huge market where craftsmen sell nativity figures, embroidered linens, pottery and almond nougat, around a life-sized presepio (nativity scene). In Naples, Via San Gregorio Armeno is filled with craftsmen displaying their hand-carved wooden nativity figures dressed in satin and lace. Florence has several, including one in Piazza Indipendenza featuring Italian-made crafts and specialty foods. Venice has a charming small market for fine local crafts (think Murano glass ornaments) in Campo Santo Stefano, and even businesslike Milan kicks off a two-week Christmas Market at the Basilica of San Ambrogio on the saint’s feast day, December 7.

Markets throughout Scandinavia feature high-quality crafts, often by artists whose work is not found elsewhere. Two of the best known are the dazzling Christmas at Tivoli in Copenhagen and the market that lines the Esplanadi in central Helsinki. An indoor market of outstanding handwork by women is across the harbor at the Women’s Christmas Fair, for four days in early December (www.visitfinland.com).

How to get there
Not only are there plenty of choices for styles and locations, but also a variety of ways to travel among them. One of the easiest for winter travelers is city-hopping by rail. Europe’s trains are frequent, fast and dependable, and markets are often close to - or in the case of Zurich’s, inside - rail stations. Large markets in Strasbourg, Munich, Cologne, Helsinki, Stuttgart, Innsbruck and many other cities are within a few steps of central stations connected by fast inter-city trains, and such an itinerary can easily include several countries. German cities are easily connected to Strasbourg in France and to Innsbruck, Austria, as well as to Zurich and Basel in Switzerland.

Clients who want a variety of markets with less travel can choose one city with several different ones -- suggest Munich for its diversity. From a base there they can fan out by train to others nearby, such as Regensburg and Passau (www.deutschebahn.com/en).

Another region with good markets within easy reach by rail is around Lake Geneva, in Switzerland. A single train pass (www.swiss-pass.ch) puts clients within a block or two of markets in Lausanne, whose Place St Francois has over 50 stalls of decorations and food, and Montreux, considered the best market in French-speaking Switzerland. Reserve seats on the scenic cog railway from Montreux up to Santa’s home on a mountaintop in the Alps, at Rochers-de-Naye (www.goldenpass.ch). Bern, whose atmospheric old lanes are a perfect backdrop for Christmas market stalls, is only about an hour’s train ride from Lausanne.

Many of Germany’s most charming Christkindlmarkts are in small towns, and to see these advise clients to choose a region and rent a car (www.AutoEurope.com) to drive between them. A good itinerary could begin in Heidelberg or Stuttgart (both of which have outstanding markets) and include Esslingen’s medieval market (suggest a stop at the Kessler Sektkellerei, Germany’s oldest champagne cellars), Ludwigsburg’s 170-stall baroque Christmas market, Freiburg and perhaps the most delightful of all, in Gengenbach. This town of timber-frame houses at the northern edge of the Black Forest turns its city hall facade into a giant Advent calendar, with windows opening each day to reveal a Christmas scene (www.blackforest-tourism.com, www.stadt-gengenbach.de). A longer trip could add the markets in the spa town of Baden-Baden and in Strasbourg, France, just across the Rhine
from Gengenbach.

Several tour operators schedule Christmas markets itineraries, such as TourCrafters’ 8-day trip that features some of Germany’s best-known markets in Munich and Nuremburg, plus Stuttgart’s extravaganza on Palace Square (www.tourcrafters.it). Clients who like river cruising would enjoy traveling between towns with Scenic Cruises, on the “Christmas Markets - Treasures of the Rhine” itinerary. Highlights of the Nuremberg-Amsterdam cruise include, along with Nuremburg’s own superb market, Christkindlmarkts in Bamberg and six in Cologne
(www.us.scenictours.comElement Selection).

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