Browse your way around the Continent
Europe's great Christmas markets put the excitement back into seasonal spending. Francisca Kellett chooses 10 of the best
Sunday 07 November 2004
26 November-24 December
Munich has one of Germany's biggest markets, with a startling 2.8 million visitors expected this year. There are actually dozens of festive little hubs dotted around the city, which is much of Munich's appeal. Visitors can stroll from one market to another, stopping off for a nibble of Schmalzgebäck (deep-fried cake) or mug of Glühwein as they go. It all kicks of at Marienplatz, the old town square famous for its brooding neo-Gothic town hall. Hundreds of stalls cram around an enormous Christmas tree twinkling with 2,500 lights. You can shop for hand-blown glass, candles and toys. There's a children's area with face-painting and card-making, and choirs belt out carols from the town hall steps.
Thomson Cities (0870-606 1476; www.thomsoncities.co.uk) offers a two-night stay at the Alfa Hotel for £199 per person. The hotel is a medium-sized family-run hotel, with traditional Bavarian-style bedrooms, 10 minutes' walk from Marienplatz. The price includes return flights from Gatwick with British Airways, and bed and breakfast accommodation.
24 November-22 December
Despite its 21st-century commercial edge, Frankfurt is also home to one of Germany's oldest markets, dating back to the 15th century. It's a lively spot, the air heavy with the smell of roasting chestnuts and mulled wine, and its position - along the medieval Römerberg - cheerfully contrasts with the otherwise modern city centre. Decorated wooden stalls feature hand-made stocking fillers, huge gingerbread hearts and regional sweets like marzipan Bethmännchen. A good local buy is Frankfurter Dippe, grey ceramic bowls or mugs decorated with blue swirls and other patterns. There's a merry-go-round and Santa strolls around the stalls on 6 December, when children can be photographed on his sleigh. Brass bands pitch up every evening to blast the crowds with oompah music.
A two-night break at the Hotel Mirador through Cresta Holidays (0870 238 7711; www.crestaholidays.co.uk) costs from £236, based on two people sharing. The Mirador has a good location, 50 metres from the Christmas market, and is modern and comfortable, with big buffet breakfasts. The price (based on Friday or Saturday departures) includes return flights from Heathrow with British Airways, and bed and breakfast accommodation.
27-28 November, 4-5 December and 11-13 December
Although there is a collection of festive stalls in the city's old centre, the main market, which attracts 25,000 people a day, is held at the Skansen open-air museum on the island of Djurgarden (weekends only). The 19th-century houses which make up the museum are a fitting backdrop to the vast Christmas tree and decorated stalls. Look out for craftsmen making straw goats, which Swedes place under their trees. Trying a glass of glogg (mulled wine) is something of a rule, with ginger biscuits or saffron buns for dipping. The biggest day is 13 December, the festival of Lucia, when a procession of girls with candles makes its way through the city to Skansen, ending with dancing, music and fireworks displays.
Scantours (020-7839 2927, www.scantours.co.uk) offers weekend breaks to Stockholm from £290 for two nights until 17 December. Accommodation is in the renovated Birger Jarl Hotel, with 230 rooms, each reworked by Swedish designers. The feel is contemporary, with quirky touches such as polka-dotted panels, or sleek taupe furnishings. From here, it's an eight-minute walk to the Djurgarden tram. The offer includes Scandinavian Airlines flights from Heathrow, Manchester or Birmingham and b&b; an additional night costs £45 per person.
26 November-24 December
Germany's best-known market is held in the fairytale setting of Nürnberg's cobbled main square, which overlooks the medieval town and is towered over by the Frauenkirche. The market is opened by a teenage girl acting as the "Christ child" (who, like Sweden's goat, brings presents to children). More than 150 stalls fill the square, selling wooden decorations, honey gingerbread, Glühwein and curious little prune figurines (for decoration, not snacking). Don't miss the delicious Nürnberger Bratwurst, a thin sausage doled out in portions of six. This is perhaps the most child-friendly market in the country, with attractions such as puppet theatre, creative workshops, a carousel and Santa's hut. Some 2,000 children parade through the town centre on the evening of 13 December, carrying hand-made lanterns to the castle.
DER (020-7290 1111; www.dertravel.co.uk) arranges a three-night weekend break at the family-run Hotel am Jakobsmarkt. This three-star hotel has an excellent location, just around the corner from the market. Three nights cost from £359, including flights from Stansted with Air Berlin, transfers and b&b. For an extra £100, flights can be arranged from Heathrow with British Airways and Lufthansa, via Frankfurt.
1 December-9 January
While this is certainly not a historical market - it's only been running since 2001 - Riga does claim to be the birthplace of the Christmas tree. It all started in the early 16th century, when the townsfolk burnt decorated fir trees in Town Hall Square to celebrate the winter solstice. These days a Christmas tree is erected in the same spot every year, but the bonfire has been consigned to history. The market follows the German model, with around 70 huts spilling from the square into the cobbled streets of the restored old town. Smoked sausage and mugs of hot wine are big sellers; look out for cheap amber and linen. Latvians are big on their music, so expect spirited nightly choral performances.
Kirker Holidays (0870 112 3333; www.kirkerholidays.com) offers three nights at the luxurious Grand Palace, housed in an old merchant mansion in the heart of the old town, for £557 per person based on two sharing. This includes a complimentary walking tour of the old centre, as well as return flights with British Airways from Heathrow, bed and breakfast, and private car transfers. The hotel has two restaurants, a bar and is about 200 metres from the Christmas market.
23 November-24 December
Grand Place, in the heart of Lille's cobbled old centre, is taken over by a big wheel in December, offering unrivalled views of Vieux Lille and the ornate stock exchange. The Christmas market, one of the biggest in France, is a two-minute walk away on Place Rihour. The square is filled with 75 wooden chalets laden with hand-made toys, jewellery and Christmas tree decorations. Flemish food is a big draw here - look out for hot filled waffles rolled in brown sugar, or flamiche, a sort of tart made with strong cheese. Skip the mulled wine in favour of a frothy glass of locally-brewed beer.
The advantage of Lille is its proximity to the UK - just an hour and 40 minutes from Waterloo by Eurostar, making it a feasible day trip. Eurostar (08705 186186; www.eurostar.com) offers day returns on a Saturday or Sunday from £55 per person. Alternatively, you can get this fare travelling on another day of the week as long as you spend a Saturday night in Lille. The imposing old Carlton hotel is set on a corner overlooking Grand Place, two minutes from the market, and has a reduced rate on rooms until 31 December; doubles cost £104 including breakfast (00 33 320 133 313; www.carltonlille.com).
28 November-12 December
Unlike Poland's other cities, the cultural capital came through the 20th century relatively unscathed, and its stately, mansion-lined streets are some of the best preserved in Europe. Highlight is the wide Rynek Glowny square, flanked by the renaissance Cloth Hall, and home to the colourful Christmas market. Brightly decorated stalls spread across the cobbles, selling carved wooden boxes, crystal, leather goods, and deliciously gooey honey cake. Browsing aside, look out for the distinctive szopki - miniature versions of Krakow's monuments and churches. Local craftsmen take their szopki seriously, and an annual competition is held in the first week of December.
Easyjet (0871-7500 100; www.easyjet.com) recently launched daily flights between Luton and Krakow, with lead-in prices from £40.98 return, including taxes. One of the finest hotels in Krakow is Hotel Copernicus (so called because, legend has it, the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus was once a guest here). The hotel is a beautifully converted Gothic mansion in a central location, with 29 stylish rooms. Signs of the building's history are found at every turn, from medieval painted wooden ceilings to 15th-century sculptures of saints. A double room costs £120 for two people sharing (00 48 12 424 34 00, www.hotel.com.pl/copernicus).
18 November-24 December
Although less well known than its blockbuster sister market in Vienna, Salzburg has several small, atmospheric Christmas markets. The main one, dating back to 1679, is based on the Domplatz in front of the ornate Baroque cathedral. Choirs bustle for space on the cathedral steps, and rows of long wooden stalls huddle beneath the grand façade, lit by candles and strings of bulbs. Stallholders peddle wooden knick-knacks, decorations and food (don't miss the freshly baked pretzels, or Hussar rounds - almond and apricot cookies). Arches beneath the cathedral lead to Residenzplatz, where the market continues and buskers entertain.
Austria Travel (01708 222000; www.austriatravel.co.uk) arranges weekend breaks to the 600-year-old Garblerbräu Hotel, offering four nights for the price of three until 23 December. Despite its history, bedrooms are modern and spacious, with large windows, wooden floors and bright-white bathrooms. Prices start at £349 for four nights, including return flights with Ryanair, transfers and b&b.
26 November-2 January
Bruges's main market has two draws: an ice rink and hand-made chocolates. The market itself is small, with around 30 stalls lining Markt Square, but the central ice rink, lit up with fairy lights and centred around a Christmas tree, is very popular. The sweet stalls, with their neat stacks of gleaming chocolates and candied nuts, are especially worth a browse. Mulled wine or the local white beer - Brugs Blond - keeps the punters merry on their skates. A two-minute walk away is another little market, on Simon Stevinplein square, selling Christmas decorations, winter clothes and local hand-made lace.
Inntravel (01653 617906 www.inntravel.co.uk) is offering four nights for the price of three on city breaks to Bruges until 20 December. Hotel Prinsenhof is a three-star family-run hotel in the centre of Bruges, with old-fashioned, comfortable rooms and a delightful corniced lounge with a huge fireplace. A four-night break costs £215, including bed and breakfast and Dover-Calais P&O ferry crossings for one car and passengers, based on two sharing.
27 November-24 December
The hub of festivities is Vorosmarty Square in Pest, just over Chain Bridge, which is taken over by a hundred stands during December. Goods sold here are strictly traditional - keep an eye open for hand-made lace and Hungarian crystal. Mulled wine is a big seller, as are sausages, filled pancakes and beigli, a Hungarian poppyseed cake. The highlight, though, is the façade of the famous Gerbeaud Café, which is transformed into a giant advent calendar. A window is opened every day running up to Christmas Eve, ceremoniously revealing a piece of contemporary art. Groups of musicians and dancers visit from all over the country, so you should catch some traditional folk music.
Bridge Travel (0870-191 7270, www.bridgetravel.co.uk) has various offers in November and December as part of its Christmas markets brochure. The modern Hotel Liget, set a little outside the centre, costs £211 per person for four nights (the fourth night is free), including return flights from Heathrow or Stansted, and bed and breakfast accommodation.
Alternatively, three nights are on offer for the price of two at the five-star Hilton, set around the remains of a 13th-century monastery, at £235 per person, including return flights and b&b.
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