As we count the days down to the summer sizzle of a Kiwi Christmas, have you dreamed of experiencing the Christmas card imagery of the Northern Hemisphere? Europe’s traditional Christmas markets are chocka-bloc with unique gifts to take back home for your loved ones, delicious local delicacies to sample, and a magical, twinkling atmosphere to cheer up even the most cold-hearted of humbugs.
So if you’ve dreamed of experiencing these festive pop-ups one Christmas, where should you head? Prague is a fairy-tale destination, regardless of the time of year. Medieval Wenceslas Square and Old Town Square provide perfect backdrops to the classic markets, where local traditions are kept alive in food form with Christmas cookies, cooked dough sprinkled in cinnamon and Christmas fish soup.
Prague handicrafts include delicate straw decorations, hand-carved Bohemian crystal, wooden toys, marionettes and ceramics. The city’s Baroque architecture makes for a wonderfully picturesque backdrop as you potter around the colourful wooden huts. Hop over to Austria and surrender to Vienna’s festive elegance – the city that invented the snow-dome in 1900. The striking backdrop of the Burgtheater and City Hall gives the market sparkle a charm of its own, while the delicious aroma of punch, traditional gingerbread, roasted almonds and honey is sure to lull you into the seasonal joy.
Its market origins stretch back to 1294 and you can trawl over 140 stalls. Here’s a festive fact for you: Vienna is home to the snow globe. The first one was created in 1900 by Erwin Perzy and Edwin Perzy III still makes them.
Dating back to 1570, Strasbourg hosts France’s oldest Christmas market with enchanting stalls selling handicrafts, mulled wine, spicy hot orange juice, traditional bridle cakes and other delights from the magical medieval square beneath the city’s imposing pink sandstone Gothic cathedral. But Germany remains the market king, with the world’s biggest affair staged in Nuremberg.
Look out for the Christkind, a local teenage girl dressed in a gloriously Wagner-esque crown and golden robe. Selection criteria for the role include a “willingness to work in any weather.” Festooned with lights, trees and decoration in the Old Town Square, over 200 market stalls, dressed, in red and white cloth offer a plethora of traditional toys, gifts and ornaments.
Just an hour south of Nuremberg is my favourite Christmas market, staged in the Bavarian capital of Munich. Reputed to be Germany’s oldest Christmas market, tracing its origins as far back as 1310, the Munich Christmas Market is held on the storied Marienplatz, dwarfed by a 100ft tall Christmas tree.
It sports traditional Bavarian treats including Oberammergau wood carvings, local gingerbread (lebkuchen) and exquisite glassware from the Bavarian Forest. Other time-honoured gifts include crib figurines, bee wax candles, Star paper lamps and chimney sweeps made of plums and almonds.
I enjoyed far too much of the super spicy and piping hot gluhwein, which I noticed had a spectacularly insulating powers from winter’s bite, as the snowflakes tumbled down, on queue. The gluhwein mugs can be used and kept, as collector’s items, for a mere 4 Euro. Don’t miss the adjoining Rindermarkt, a dedicated manger market providing all the elements to create a dreamy Nativity scene.
Further east, I adore the Estonian capital of Tallinn, and its medieval town square provides the perfect backdrop for a Christmas market. It is said to be the site of the world’s first Christmas tree, which formed part of a ritual begun in 1441, when unmarried merchants sang and danced with local girls around a tree, which was then burnt. Boutiques and galleries provide additional shopping opportunities, while cosy, candlelit restaurants and cafés offer respite from the cold. The Tallinn Christmas markets run from November 29 to January 7, and you’re virtually guaranteed snow in Tallinn at Christmas. Estonian crafts like hand-knitted hats, sea-grass animals, wickerwork and wood carvings are top buys.
Cathay Pacific has contacted me with their tried-and-tested tips on sumptuous market experiences, as road-tested by Cathay Pacific flight attendant, Franco Li. Established in 1393, the annual Frankfurt Christmas Market is one of Franco’s favourites. Boasting more than 200 stalls adorned with delightful gifts, Franco’s first stop is first stop is always for a Vanillekipferl, a delicious cinnamon Christmas cookie.
Alsatian Christmas Market is one of the most stunning Christmas markets that Paris has to offer. Situated on the square of the Gare de l’Est, the market celebrates the best of Parisian artisans and producers. Franco recommends the local artisan specialties of gingerbread, brioche Männele and potato galettes. The market is conveniently located in front of the train station at Gare de l’ Est.
Heading to Amsterdam? The cosy Ice Village Christmas Market in Amsterdam shoulders the skating rink on Museumplein. What’s more, it’s even open on Christmas Day! Feast on mouth-watering treats such as waffles and fluffy poffertjes, whilst watching the skaters in action.
Finally, for something a little different, Franco highly recommends festive tragics go sky-high to the Christmas market on the summit of Mt Pilatus. Not only are the Mt Pilatus Christmas markets in Switzerland the highest in Europe, you have to ride the world’s steepest cogwheel railway to get to them. Perched above Lake Lucerne, the mountaintop market boasts stalls selling beeswax candles, nativity figurines, gingerbread and other stocking fillers. An added bonus is the chance to make the return journey by sled, airboard or snow bike. Their market is one of the first to open in Europe, on November 15. Merry Christmas! www.cathaypacific.com