Q&A: An old-fashioned Christmas, and Athens in November

The Independent Parent: Your Questions Answered

Send your family travel questions to S F Robinson, The Independent Parent, Travel Desk, The Independent, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS Or crusoe@independent.co.uk

Q. I have noticed, to my horror, that Christmas decorations are already creeping into the shops. In protest, we would like to escape for a weekend in December with our two girls (Louise, 11, and Sophie, eight) to do our Christmas shopping in a more old-fashioned style. Please could you advise us when and where we can find the best Christmas markets, preferably within easy reach of the UK?

James Whitaker, by e-mail

A.During November and December, there are many traditional Christmas markets throughout Europe, although those in Germany are probably the best-known. Some of these historic markets originally specialised in one product, such as the Munich Crib Market, which sold figures for cribs, or the Dresden Striezlmarkt, which sold Stollen, the traditional cake stuffed with marzipan. Nowadays, however, most markets sell a wide range of traditional Christmas goods; typically, handmade wooden toys and decorations, woven straw stars, gold-foil angels, candles and candle-holders.

If you really want to get away from it all, you could try visiting the Christmas markets in the silver-mining region of the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains) at the heart of Saxony, such as Freiberg (29 November- 21 December) or Schneeberg (particularly the festival of light on the 8-9 December). This region is known as "Christmas country", not only because it produces wooden decorations, but also because of its mountainous snowscapes, picturesque villages and pretty, floodlit churches. Buzz (0870 240 7070; www.buzzaway.com) flies to Berlin Schönefeld airport, just south of the city, from £70 return. Hire a car, and drive southwards for about an hour and a half. Car hire with Sixt (00 49 180 525 2525; www.e-sixt.com) costs from around DM75 (£24) per day, with fully comprehensive insurance for another DM46 (£15) per day. Be aware that you may encounter snow on the roads once you reach the Erzgebirge. If you opt not to drive, it is possible to travel by train to Freiberg from the airport, changing at Dresden, or to Schneeberg by transferring to another station in Berlin on the S-Bahn.

From Berlin airport, it is also about an hour and a half's drive to the restored city of Dresden. Since reunification in 1990, many of the original baroque buildings of this beautiful city on the Elbe have been painstakingly restored, creating an ideal backdrop for a culturally rich Christmas market that dates back to 1434. Open from 26 November-24 December in 2001, highlights include the Stollenfest on 8 December, and the singing of the Kreuzchor in the Kreuzkirche. If you don't want to drive to Dresden, a train goes direct from Berlin Schönefeld. It takes about an hour and a half and costs DM53 (£16.80). DER Travel Service (020-7290 1111; www.dertravel.co.uk ) offers a two-night break at the Hotel Ibis in Dresden in December from £320 per person, based on two sharing on a bed and breakfast basis, and including indirect flights via Frankfurt.

Another of Germany's oldest Christmas markets, famous for its magical atmosphere and particularly appealing to children, is the Christkindlesmarkt ("Christ Child Market") in Nuremberg, which dates back to 1639 (open 30 November-24 December in 2001). In the middle of the Market stands a huge crib scene, surrounded by wooden booths covered with red and white striped canvas. The Market opens with a "Christ Child" reciting a prologue from the outside gallery of the neighbouring Church of Our Lady.

Other events include a procession of children holding home-made lanterns from the Market Square to the Castle, where they perform the Christmas story, carol singing, and the daily appearance of horse-drawn coaches, announced by an old-fashioned bugler.

Even closer to home is the Christmas market in Bruges, a short hop by SeaCat, Eurotunnel or ferry, where traditional stalls and an ice rink are based around the Market Square from 29 November-31 December (closed Christmas Day). A Hoverspeed ( www.hoverspeed.co.uk, 0870 240 8070) five-day return from Dover to Ostend takes a mere two hours, with a short drive on the end taking you on to Bruges. Prices start from around £89 for a car and three passengers, but you should more than make up for this with the lower prices on the Continent.

Q. We're off on an easyJet cheapie to Athens with Dan, age nine, and Richard, age seven. What is there for youngsters there?

Mike and Jane Howell, by e-mail

A. With all the "Fly anywhere for £10" bragging from Ryanair, it's been easy to overlook the cheap flights being sold by the other no-frills airlines, Buzz, Go and easyJet. Yesterday I looked ahead a month from now, and found flights from Luton to Athens for £55 return, which would add up to £220 for the whole family – presumably roughly what you paid. This compares with a total of £370 with the current British Airways "Kids fly free" promotion (which, as Simon Calder points out elsewhere is an ambitious but not entirely accurate claim; on the Heathrow-Athens flight you would pay £28 for each child). But the advantage of the BA deal, apart from inflight meals, is that it applies right through the school holidays when easyJet's fares start to rise.

The Greek capital can be lovely in November – with clearer air and streets than in summer – but it can also be bitterly cold and wet. For such days, there's a Museum of Children's Art in the old Turkish quarter, Plaka. Whether the boys will enjoy the rather more stern National Archaeological Museum depends on how much you can enthuse them about the wonderful antiquities it contains.

On sunny days, Aeros Park is handy for the museum, and the National Gardens behind the Parliament Building has room to gallop. Best of all is the Parthenon, but it's a long, tiring climb, so make a couple of visits to make the most of it.

To make the most of the city, you should let the boys stay up late; Athens comes to life after dark.

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