The Traveller's Guide to: Christmas markets

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Cathy Packe advises on where to shop for presents in the open air. Revised for Yuletide 2009 by James Crichton-Smith

WHERE AND WHEN DID THEY START?

Christmas markets are thought to have originated in Germany. They developed from the traditional winter markets at which people could meet to buy and sell local produce and home-made decorations crafted out of wood, straw and tin. There was a December market in Vienna as early as 1294, although it was very different, in content and location, from the modern Viennese Christkindlmarkt, or Christmas market, (00 43 1 24555; christkindlmarkt.at), which is now held on the Rathausplatz and takes place this year from 14 November until 24 December.

Traditionally, Christmas markets were held in the square in front of the local church in the hope that those attending a service would also be enticed to buy something. But by the 17th century, pre-Christmas shopping had become so popular that church attendance in some towns dropped, much to the irritation of the clergy.

WHEN IS MARKET SEASON?

Typically, the larger markets open in late November, often on the first weekend of Advent, and continue until Christmas Eve. Opening hours vary, but most open from mid-morning until the middle of the evening and later at weekends. Christmas markets have an atmosphere of their own, probably helped by the smell of cinnamon that oozes from the decorations, biscuits and cups of mulled wine that are usually on sale. Most acquire a magical feel as the lights come on after dusk, and there is often some kind of music or live entertainment. This year, Innsbruck will be hosting four Christmas markets due to take place from 20 November - 27 December. In keeping with tradition, the market will close at 3pm on Christmas Eve but will reopen on Boxing Day (00 43 664 3422342; christkindlmarkt.cc).

SO THEY ARE NOT JUST IN GERMANY?

No, although the German markets are the best known, possibly because there are several thousand of them. The oldest German market is the Striezelmarkt in Dresden (00 49 351 50 160 160; dresden.de), which dates back to 1434. This year it will be held from 26 November (open 4-9pm, subsequently daily from 27 November 10am-9pm. The market closes early on Christmas Eve at 2pm. Dresden is celebrated for its Christstollen, a cake made with dried fruits, nuts, yeast and cinnamon, and this is always on sale in the market.

The most-visited market in Germany is the Christkindlesmarkt in Nuremberg (00 49 911 233 60; tourismus.nuernberg.de), which is held from 27 November-24 December in the town's main market square. There is plenty of entertainment for children in Nuremberg, too, with a double-decker carousel and Father Christmas's sleigh. There are several other markets worth visiting while you are down in Bavaria, including the one in Augsburg (00 49 8 21 502070; augsburger-christkindlesmarkt.com), which dates back at least 500 years, and where angels appear in the sky to entertain shoppers with celestial music.

You can easily combine all three of these. Take a Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flight from Stansted to Altenburg, then continue by train to Dresden. From there, connect via Air Berlin to Nuremberg, and then, with another short hop, to Augsburg. For the return to Stansted, take the train to Munich and catch the easyJet flight home (0871 244 2366; easyjet.com).

ARE THERE ANY IN UNUSUAL LOCATIONS?

In Cologne, a floating market on board the MS Wappen von Mainz (00 49 221 208 8318; k-d.com), a Rhine cruise boat, is a variation on the traditional theme. It is moored on the Rhine Promenade, the main walkway along the river in the centre of the city, and the decks are filled with stalls selling gifts and regional foods. It will be open between 26 November -22 December. Cologne's five other markets take place outside the cathedral and in some of the city's main squares. You can fly to Cologne from a wide range of UK airports.

WHAT ABOUT OUTSIDE GERMANY?

The market tradition is strong in the eastern French towns of Alsace, which in the past were part of the Holy Roman Empire, with its Germanic connections. The largest of these markets is in Strasbourg (00 33 3 88 52 28 28; strasbourg.fr), where the Marché de Nöel, which specialises in Christmas decorations, has been held in the Place de la Cathédrale since 1570. This year it will run from 28 November-31 December and will open from 9am-7pm every day. There are now several other markets in the city, with gingerbread and other local delicacies on sale in front of the railway station, crafts in Place Broglie, and a charity market under a huge Christmas tree in Place Kléber. Air France (0845 0845 111; airfrance.com) flies from Gatwick to Strasbourg.

In Prague, Christmas markets are open daily between 28 November and 1 January. The two main markets are held in the Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square, as well as two smaller ones in Havelske Trziste and Namesti Republiky (01689 898 500; pragueexperience.com). Mikulas (St. Nicholas Day) is on 5 December and is when St Nicholas, an angel, and the devil all appear at the market in the Old Town Square to question local children about their behaviour. As well as watching your behaviour, look out for traditional biscuits baked into festive shapes that are ready to hang on the tree. As well, hand-made wooden puppets that represent characters from Czech folk tales make lovely presents. There is barely a big UK airport that does not have cheap links to Prague.

Not all Europe's Christmas markets have a long history. In Riga, a market was established three years ago and all its proceeds go to a local children's home. Christmas has always been taken seriously here, though. According to popular myth, Riga is the place where the tradition of decorating Christmas trees first originated, and a plaque marks the spot on the town hall square where the first decorated tree stood in 1510. You can fly there on Air Baltic and Ryanair.

CAN I GO ON AN ORGANISED TRIP?

Several tour operators offer short Christmas market breaks. The German Travel Centre (020 8429 2900; german-travel-uk.com) has a good selection of one-night packages with 12 German destinations to choose from. Prices start from £131 per person for travel and accommodation, and flights depart from Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh, Gatwick, Heathrow, London City, Manchester, Newcastle and Stansted airports.

Cresta Holidays (0870 238 7711; crestaholidays.co.uk) also offers Christmas market packages to destinations including Bruges, Copenhagen and Vienna. Prices start at £165 per person for three nights in a three-star hotel in Bruges, travelling on Eurostar. Regent Holidays (0117 921 1711; regent-holidays.co.uk) offers trips to the more unusual, although less traditional, destinations of Tallinn and Vilnius, as well as the Slovak capital, Bratislava. And Kirker Holidays (020-7593 1899; kirkerholidays.com) also offers a selection of Christmas market destinations including Prague, Salzburg and Stockholm.

CAN I GO SOMEWHERE JUST FOR THE DAY?

Northern France is easy to reach by ferry or train from London and the south of England: SeaFrance (0871 222 0711; seafrance.com) and P&O Ferries (0871 664 6464; poferries.com) sail from Dover, while Eurotunnel (0870 840 0046; eurotunnel.com) has shuttles from Folkestone. Calais will hold a market from 12-20 December, but others in France run for longer. Lots of the towns and villages in the Calais region have Christmas markets that sell local produce. The one in Béthune, an attractive small town with a cobbled main square, runs from the end of November to the end of December.

In Lille, which is easily reached from London St Pancras on Eurostar (08702 649 899; eurostar.com), the market spreads across the old city, and is dominated by a brightly-lit Ferris wheel.

A GOOD TURKEY MARKET?

Head to Licques, a small town in northern France, about half-an-hour's drive from Calais. Licques (00 33 3 21 35 02 43; licques-volailles.com) has been renowned for its turkeys since monks introduced them to the town in the 17th century, and there are now more than 200 turkey farms in the area. A festival is held on the second weekend in December (12-14 this year) that consists of a Marché du Terroir (selling regional produce) and a turkey procession on the Sunday morning, during which the fattened fowl parade through the streets, preceded by local dignitaries and followed by the Knights of the Order of the Turkey. Spectators are given a glass of the local liqueur, licquoise, and then have the chance to buy their own bird.

MY FAMILY DOESN'T LIKE SHOPPING

Then take them somewhere that provides entertainment as well as stalls. A good place for this is Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, where the annual Christmas market (20 November – 30 December) has plenty to occupy keen shoppers, while others can enjoy around 20 of Tivoli's regular rides. As well as this, there are shooting galleries and other games that are open for the season. In December, why not take in a performance of The Nutcracker. This Christmas classic is being shown at the Royal Danish Theatre in the heart of Copenhagen. Tickets are available from the box office (00 45 33 69 69 69; kgl-teater.dk).

The main entrance to Tivoli is at 3 Vesterbrogade (00 45 33 15 10 01; tivoli.dk), and the gardens are open 11am-10pm from Sunday to Thursday, 11am-11pm on Friday, and 11am-11pm on Saturday. Tickets cost Dkr95 (£11.50) for adults and Dkr45 (£5.50) for children, while a pass covering all the rides is Dkr205 (£24.85) for adults and Dkr150 (£18.18) for children. Closer to home, the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth will be holding its fifth Festival of Christmas from 27-29 November and will be open each day from 10am-6pm. There will be plenty of shopping opportunities in a European-style Christmas village, as well as an open-air French market and plenty of live music and entertainment. Tickets cost £12.50 for adults, £10.50 for children and £37.50 for a family (023 9283 9766; christmasfestival.co.uk). This may sound a little pricey, especially if you are planning to buy gifts while you are there, but tickets include entrance to all the dockyard's attractions, including the Mary Rose, HMS Victory and the Royal Naval Museum.

IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE IN THE UK?

Several British towns are catching on to the idea that by providing a bit more than just town centre stores with Christmas lights they could attract extra visitors. Among the best Christmas markets are the ones in Lincoln - the biggest in Europe, at least in terms of the number of stalls - and Bath. Lincoln (01522 873213; lincoln.gov.uk) began holding a market more than 20 years ago after residents visited the market in the city's German twin town of Neustadt an der Weinstrasse. The market is held on Castle Hill, in front of the cathedral, and will be open from 3-6 December. Its opening hours are 4pm-9.30pm on the Thursday, 10am-9.30pm on Friday and Saturday, and 10am-7pm on Sunday.

The market in Bath (01225 477223; bathchristmasmarket.co.uk), starts on 26 November and continues until 6 December. It will be held in the square between the abbey and the Roman baths, and will comprise of 123 traditional wooden chalets each selling unique handmade gifts. The market will open from 10am - 9pm for the first three days, 11am-6pm on both Sundays, 10am-7pm from 30 November–2 December and 10am–9pm on 3–5 December. Throughout its run there will be a variety of entertainers performing in Abbey Green and Kingston Parade. There will be a German market in Edinburgh (0131 473 3600; edinburghscapitalchristmas.co.uk) that will open from 26 November until 4 January.

Durham ( durhamtourism.co.uk; 0191 3843720) holds a market on the first weekend of December, while in York (01904 550099; yuletideyork.com) there is a choice of markets, beginning with the St Nicholas Fayre from 26-29 November, where gifts and local food will be on sale. The Early Music Christmas festival takes lace between 2-8 December and is set amid some of York’s most attractive venues. Other activities include ice-skating, Barley Hall’s Christmas Fayre and Pantomimes at York Theatre and the Grand Opera House.

IS THIS JUST A EUROPEAN TRADITION?

Yes, although that hasn't stopped European expatriates exporting their customs to other parts of the world. German and Swiss settlers in the US Midwest have established many of their traditions across the Atlantic. Largest of these is the Christkindlmarket in Chicago, now in its ninth year, which is modelled on the market in Nuremberg and sells crafts and European-style food and wines. It takes place at Daley Plaza, and on Washington Street, between Dearborn and State Streets, from 26 November-24 December and is open daily from 11am–8pm from Sunday–Thursday and 11am–9pm Friday-Saturday (001 312 644 2662; christkindlmarket.com).

On a smaller scale, the town of Ferdinand (001 812 367 2280; www.ferdinandinchamber.org) in Indiana (built in parts to resemble a Bavarian village), has its own Christkindlmarkt, which will take place from 21-22 November. The emphasis here is on antiques, regional food and gifts, while the live entertainment includes glockenspiel performances and a Black Forest organ-grinder. The market will be open on Saturday from 9am-5pm and 10am-4pm on Sunday.

CHRISTMAS ART

In Schwabing, a chic suburb of Munich, there is a Christmas market devoted to selling original works of art. It was started by a small group of artists in 1976, and now 120 painters, sculptors and ceramicists sell their works from huts along Leopoldstrasse. A jury decides who will be allowed to exhibit, and all the works are sold by the artists themselves, rather than dealers. The market (00 49 89 93 00 68 40; schwabingerweihnachtsmarkt.de) runs from 28 November-24 December, and is open noon-8.30pm Monday-Friday, 11am-8.30pm at weekends, and from 11am-2pm on Christmas Eve.

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