We recommend some of Europe's most unusual traditional markets where you'll find unusual gifts and exquisite additions to your ornament collection and enjoy the true spirit of the season.
Let's be honest: not everyone likes Christmas. In fact there are those whose response to carol singers, tinsel and turkey is most likely to be a curt, "Bah, humbug!" If that's the way you feel, we recommend you take steps to avoid certain cities at this time of year, or at least avoid the areas where Christmas markets begin to blossom like baubles on a Christmas tree. For those who don't have this aversion, though, these markets are great places to find unusual gifts, crafts and colourful decorations to take home and give your house an international twist over the festive season.
In Spain, practically every district of every city, and each town and village, has their own Christmas market, often, as in Madrid, installed in the Plaza Mayor, the main town square. These stay open right through until Reyes - Kings' Day - on January 6th, when tradition has it that the Magi bring presents for the children. Shiny tat and tradition rub shoulders, and alongside traditional figurines for nativity scenes in every style imaginable, these markets have become a place to find joke stalls with firecrackers, tinsel wigs and reindeer antler alice-bands that even the most respectable parents don immediately to the delight of their kids.
In Germany there are many traditional markets with their own unique atmosphere accentuated by snowy streets and wrapped in the aroma of roasted chestnuts and almonds, lebkuchen, the traditional seasonal sweet, and glühwein, the typical spicy mulled wine.
Cologne, for example, boasts half a dozen, including a medieval market and a floating market installed on a boat on the Rhine. There's also the oldest of all, in the lee of the city's beautiful cathedral. Stuttgart has around 300 stalls in the Christmas market which spread through several squares in the city centre, and include an area of antiques and concerts in the Renaissance courtyard of the Old Castle. The neighbouring city of Ludwigsburg has opted for a Baroque market, with hand-crafted figurines and decorations, as well as concerts, and puppet shows for children.
Also within easy reach of Stuttgart, the old district of Esslingen celebrates a medieval market with an entertainment programme designed primarily for the young ones. There are many others including the Shooting Stars market held in the square of the Wiesbaden Palace, where craftsmen demonstrate their skills alongside a traditional manger scene with life-sized wooden figures.
Austria is another country where the classic Christmas spirit is alive and well. At this time of year, the main squares of towns and cities brim with concerts and carol singers, and stalls selling seasonal sweets such as baked apples and almond tarts. There is entertainment for all ages and some unusual activities such as workshops where you can learn to paint Christmas tree baubles or make stars and Advent wreathes out of straw.
In Vienna such famous sites as the main Town Hall square and Schönbrunn castle have their markets, while in smaller cities such as Innsbruck and Salzburg, Christmas transforms the streets into a veritable fairy tale where not a single ingredient is missing from the wonderful festive mix.
Alsace is one of the regions of France where the Christmas spirit is most evident, with Strasbourgmarket dating from 1570, making it the oldest in the country. Then there's the market at the foot of the cathedral in Mulhouse, and the delightful city of Colmar, whose medieval quarters, decorated for the occasion, find room for no less than five Christmas markets, with concerts, food tasting, storytelling, crafts and even a giant mailbox for letters to Santa Claus and an open air skating rink in Rapp square.
In Rome, musicians, sweet stalls and hand-crafted tree decorations are to be found in the Piazza Navona, where they coincide with the Befana, the good witch who brings gifts to children. However, it's the city of Naples where you'll find the presepi, the wonderfully detailed nativity scenes that are installed near to the markets selling all kinds of crafts and decorations, including figurines with the faces of the year's most controversial celebrities.
The snowy streets of Prague's old quarter are unmissable, and Wenceslas Square and the main square in the Old Town provide the settings for two more Christmas markets. Brussels, too, has its market, located in Santa Catalina square and the surrounding area. The Swedish city of Malmö, is home to people of over 160 nationalities, and, appropriately, the city's Christmas market is an usual demonstration of world traditions and multiculturalism. But it's Gothenburg, the country's second largest city, which has the reputation of enjoying the most authentic Christmas spirit in Scandinavia.
Not that we should forget Denmark, of course, the birthplace of so much fairytale magic. In Odense, around the house where Hans Christian Andersen was born stalls are set up selling all sorts of holiday decorations and goodies. And in Copenhagen, even the hippies of the mythical Christiania community join in with their own take on the Christmas market: there are stalls selling homemade food, as well as gifts ranging from hand-made candles to hand-knitted jerseys and a wide variety of craft work, all wrapped in the fragrance of incense.
Tips and suggestions
Look out for offers at your travel agent with organised trips and tours to Christmas markets, especially to cities such as Strasbourg,Salzburg, Copenhagen, Prague, Vienna, Munich, Krakow and Naples where living nativity scenes are traditional.