Even the most hardened Scrooge would find it difficult to resist the twinkling charm of Germany's Christmas markets. Narrow cobbled streets, steep-roofed medieval houses and illuminated bow-fronted toy-shop windows look as if they've been conjured up with a wave of Walt Disney's wand. The Christkindlesmarkt offers a welcome alternative to the dreary chore of Christmas shopping on Britain's high streets, and the best and oldest example, which attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, can be found in Nuremberg in northern Bavaria.
On 28 November, the market is opened by the Christkindl - the daughter of a local family, dressed as a gold angel. From then until the market formally closes at lunchtime on Christmas Eve, it is jam-packed with jovial Germans, sharp-elbowed British, loud Americans, hard-up Aussies and Burberry-clad Japanese, all stuffing themselves with prodigious amounts of bratwurst and quaffing steaming mugs of mulled glühwein, even for breakfast. (The Americans are so impressed that there's talk of them opening their own Christkindlesmarkt in Chicago next year.)
Shopping for handmade toys and heart-shaped cakes of lebkuchen - local gingerbread - tied with red ribbon is halted only for more food and drink stops. A good proportion of the 200 stalls set up in the old cobbled square is devoted to sausages, cinnamon-flavoured hot wine and a warming but highly alcoholic spiced egg nog. By way of a change, there are cafés with steamed-up windows, full to bursting with shoppers who are also full to bursting with enormous jugs of hot chocolate topped with whipped cream and zwetschkenmännchen, little men made of dough spiced with dried plums. You can probably even put on weight just reading this page.
Nuremberg is not a city for vegetarians. Unless you eat sausages, you might as well bring your own cucumber sandwiches. Bratwurst is the speciality of the area, served with sauerkraut. In one restaurant, the only choice on the menu was six bratwurst, 12 bratwurst or 18 bratwurst. All with sauerkraut. They were delicious, and it's amazing how many you can polish off after a hard day on the cobbles. The beer helps, of course. If you really hunt around, there are restaurants serving schnitzel and fried chicken with sauerkraut and a token lettuce leaf.
But carnivore or not, it's all very jolly. We shared a table with a Bavarian family who had driven into town for the day, and they insisted on buying us a schnapps. So we bought the next round. And they bought the next. It made us quite reckless with our bratwurst order. Eighteen sausages? Why not!
Difficult, then, to imagine what Nuremberg must have been like when it was at the heart of the Third Reich and the venue for the Nazi party rallies. It was a black period in the life of the city, graphically recorded on film in the museum on the hill leading up to the Kaiserberg Castle, the same cobbles the Nazis marched along until 2 January 1945 when 525 Lancaster bombers demolished the old city. It was restored and painstakingly rebuilt to the same Gothic style. When the market becomes too busy, you can explore the history of these dark times at the Zeppelinfeld arena, where the rallies were held, or the Palace of Justice where the war crimes tribunal sat.
Or you can work off those bratwurst by visiting the house of the artist Albert Dürer or walking the remains of the 5km-long old city walls.
The commercial success of the market has had a ripple effect on other German towns. Smaller places such as Rothenburg, Ausburg and Hersbruck have all benefited, and now feature their own markets - especially medieval Rothenburg, home to the Käthe Wohlfahrt Christmas shop, which is as Christmassy and magical as it gets. If you think the cakes are stupendous in Nuremberg, wait until you see the schneeball in Rothenburg. (Atkins dieters, look away now.) Whole shop windows are devoted to the snowball-shaped cakes the size of cannonballs, in a variety of coatings including coconut or white chocolate. There are 300 types of bread and more than 1,200 varieties of cake in the whole of Germany. But Bavaria takes the biscuit.
Give me the facts
When should I go?
Most of the markets open at the end of November, but the early flight departure dates and hotels get booked up quickly. The best time to visit the market is as soon as it opens in the morning, before the tour buses arrive, or the hour before it closes, when they've gone.
How do I get there?
DER Travel Service (020-7408 0111; www.dertravel.co.uk) has limited availability from £439. Departing on either 15 or 21 December, the price includes flights from Heathrow to Frankfurt, b&b and rail transfes, which takes two and a half hours.
Where can I get more information?
Contact the German National Tourist Office (020-7317 0908; www.germany-tourism.de).
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