Christmas markets can be a real gift when selling festive short breaks, says Joanna Booth
For every bah-humbug who says the Christmas celebrations start too early each year, there are at least two festive folk who can’t wait to start decking the halls and glugging the gluhwein.
Europe’s cities are famed for Christmas markets and, although we’ve barely hit the summer solstice, operators are already thinking ahead.
Cresta Holidays’ Christmas Markets brochure goes on sale on July 4, and Grand UK Holidays brought forward the sale of some of its winter product to May due to high demand.
what to expect
Each market has its own idiosyncrasies, but certain traits are common. Think lines of stalls with fairy lights and holly, selling handcrafted decorations and small locally-made gifts.
The air is scented with spices from goodies, sweets and cakes, and the aroma of mulled wine is ubiquitous. Most markets start towards the end of November and run through to Christmas Eve. Many stay open all day and into the evening.
where to go
In the heartlands of Germany and Austria it’s hard to find a town without a Christmas market, but certain cities are particularly renowned.
Nuremberg is home to one of Germany’s most famous markets as well as to the gingerbread Lebkuchen biscuits. One of Cologne’s six markets sits on a river cruise steamer on the Rhine.
Bonn is the birthplace of Beethoven, so there are numerous classical music concerts as well as the market. Frankfurt hosts one of Germany’s oldest markets and offers delicacies such as hot applewine and almond candy.
Berlin is home to over 50 Christmas markets and suits those who prefer a big-city experience. In Austria, Vienna has six markets to choose from, and starts early in mid-November – useful for avoiding the crowds.
Salzburg is popular too. As well as its own Christmas market, visitors can head up to the nearby village of Oberndorf, where the carol Silent Night was written, and visit the local chapel and send cards with special Christmas stamps.
Belgium is the place to direct chocoholics and fine-food fans at Yuletide, with both Brussels and Bruges home to markets with a strong gourmet focus and ice-skating rinks.
Copenhagen’s market is hosted in Tivoli Gardens, Europe’s oldest amusement park. Kids can pose for pictures with Santa and his leprechauns and try out the rides while mum and dad eat Danish apple slices and warm themselves with glögg, a warm spiced red wine.
Gothenburg in Sweden provides another Scandinavian option, with a large market in its Liseberg amusement park.
In Krakow, visitors can buy traditional Polish Christmas wafers and watch nativity puppet plays in colourful portable theatres.
In Prague three markets offer the usual fare plus Bohemian crystal and Czech beer. In the Old Town Square kids can stroke sheep, goats and even a llama.
In Budapest the main market stands in Vörösmarty Square, where local confectionery shop Café Gerbeaud turns its windows into a giant advent calendar, unveiling a new display every day at 5pm.
HOW TO VISIT
Most of the larger Christmas markets are in cities easily accessed by air from the UK, so flying is perfect for those who just want a short break. Cresta Holidays features festive market short breaks across Germany, Austria, and Scandinavia, as well as Prague, Budapest, Krakow and Tallinn by air, and to Lille and Brussels by Eurostar.
Three nights in Berlin staying at the Hotel Altberlin in Potsdamer Platz, flying with BA from Heathrow on December 11, starts from £235. This year the operator’s Christmas Markets brochure includes winter breaks too, offering frosty fun in Reykjavik, the ice hotel in Sweden and other European favourites too.
Superbreak and Jet2holidays also offer stays in European Christmas Market destinations. The Christmas market in picturesque Rothenburg ob der Tauber is new to Dertour’s programme this year, with prices starting from £339 per person for two nights’ B&B plus flights and transfers. The operator has also added Christmas breaks in Venice and Vienna.
Festive markets prove a popular focus for coach and rail trips and river cruises. Both the Rhine and the Danube flow through prime Christmas market country, and so cruises along these offer a lovely longer trip, combining restful travel, sightseeing and festive shopping into the bargain.
Leger offers 21 European Christmas market itineraries by coach and cruise. A four-day break in Luxembourg (from £289) and a five-day jaunt to Lille, Ypres, Brussels and Bruges (from £299) are new for 2012. Shearings Holidays offers five and seven-day Christmas markets holidays by coach, with options in France, Belgium, Germany, Austria and Italy, from £269.
Grand UK Holidays has extended its programme to include lesser-known Christmas markets, with new coach breaks including the Markets of Lorraine and Alsace, priced from £275 for four days, and Fairytale Markets and Hanseatic Treats, a seven-day break to the northern German region of Saxony, from £419.
Great Rail Journeys has two new four-night Christmas markets tours, one visiting Hanover, Hamelin and Bremen from £550, and another to Heidelberg and Frankfurt from £595. New for River Cruise Line is a Magical Moselle Christmas Markets cruise (five days, from £329).
Titan Holidays offers three Uniworld festive market cruises, plus an exclusive sailing for Titan clients on the Rhine from Cologne to Rudesheim on Regina Rheni II.
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