The Complete Guide To Christmas Markets

Where to shop for presents in the open air
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The Independent Travel

WHERE AND WHEN DID THEY START?

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; www.christkindlmarkt.at), which is now held on the Rathausplatz and takes place this year from today 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. Don't be surprised to find Father Christmas putting in an appearance from time to time: in Innsbruck he will arrive at the market on the Landhausplatz (00 43 664 3422342; www.christkindlmarkt.cc) by helicopter on 5 December. The market itself takes place in the square from 18 November-23 December.

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 4919 2100; www.dresden.de), which dates back to 1434. This year it will be held from 25 November until Christmas Eve, and will be open 10am-8pm from Sunday to Thursday, until 9pm on Friday and Saturday and until 2pm on 24 December. 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 6123; www.tourismus.nuernberg.de), which is held from 26 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; www.augsburg-tourismus.de), 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; www.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 750 0100; www.easyjet.com).

ARE THERE ANY IN UNUSUAL LOCATIONS?

In Cologne, a floating market on board the MS Wappen von Mainz (00 49 221 201 9875; www.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 25 November-21 December from 11am-9pm Sunday-Thursday, and 11am-10pm Friday and Saturday. 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; www.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 27 November-31 December and will open from 10am-8pm 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; www.airfrance.com) flies from Gatwick to Strasbourg.

In Prague, Christmas celebrations begin on 4 December, the day before Mikulas, 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. This market, and another on Wenceslas Square, remains open until 6 January. Look out for traditional biscuits baked into festive shapes that are ready to hang on the tree, and hand-made wooden puppets that represent characters from Czech folk tales and 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 Latvia, BA and Ryanair.

CAN I GO ON AN ORGANISED TRIP?

Several tour operators offer short Christmas market breaks. The German Travel Centre (020 8429 2900; www.german-travel-uk.com) has a good selection of one-night packages with 11 German destinations to choose from. Prices start from £112 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; www.crestaholidays.co.uk) also offers Christmas market packages to destinations including Bruges, Copenhagen, Vienna and Krakow. Prices start at £216 for three nights in a two-star hotel in Bruges, travelling on Eurostar. Regent Holidays (0117 921 1711; www.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. For the first time, this year Bridge Travel (0870 191 7270; www.bridgetravel.co.uk) has published a brochure dedicated exclusively to Christmas markets, with 16 destinations on offer. Prices start at £109 for a two-night break in Lille. And Kirker Holidays (020-7231 3333; www.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 (08705 711 711; www.seafrance.com) is offering day trips from Dover to Calais for £37 until 22 December, while P&O Ferries (08705 202020; www.poferries.com) offers day trips on the same route from £39. If you book at least a day in advance, a day-trip ticket on Le Shuttle (0870 840 0046; www.eurotunnel.com) from Folkestone will cost £45.

Calais will be holding a market on the first weekend in December, but others in France run for longer. The one in Béthune, an attractive small town with a cobbled main square, begins on 27 November and continues until Christmas Eve. In Lille, which is easily reached from London on Eurostar (08702 649 899; www.eurostar.com), the market spreads across the old city, and is dominated by a brightly-lit Ferris wheel. Lots of the towns and villages in the Calais region have Christmas markets that sell local produce. In the seaside town of Gravelines, between Calais and Dunkirk, the market is set out on the beach, where the stalls replace the more conventional beach huts. This predominantly food-centric market takes place from 17-24 December and is an excellent place at which to buy locally smoked fish.

DOES ANYWHERE STAGE 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 05 42; www.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 (11-12 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 opened yesterday and continues until 23 December. There is plenty to occupy keen shoppers, while others can enjoy around 20 of Tivoli's regular rides, as well as the shooting galleries and other games that are open for the season. The lake will be transformed into a skating rink, and there will be shows in the concert hall including a production of The Nutcracker by the Royal Danish Ballet. Tickets are available from the box office (00 45 33 69 69 69; www.kgl-teater.dk).

The main entrance to Tivoli is at 3 Vesterbrogade (00 45 33 15 10 01; www.tivoligardens.com), and the gardens are open 11am-11pm from Monday to Thursday, 10am-11pm on Saturday, and 10am-10pm on Sunday. Tickets cost Dkr65 (£6) for adults and Dkr35 (£3.25) for children, while a pass covering all the rides is Dkr75 (£7) during the week and Dkr150 (£14) at weekends. Closer to home, the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth will be holding its fifth Festival of Christmas from 26-28 November. The market will be open each day from 10am-7pm, and the festive lights will be switched on at 5pm on the Friday by Matt Goss. 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 £10 for adults, £8 for children and £33 for a family (023 9283 9766; www.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; www.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 2-5 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; www.bathchristmasmarket.co.uk), starts on the same day and continues until 12 December. It will be held in the square between the abbey and the Roman baths, and will comprise more than 80 stalls. The market will open from 5-9pm on the first day, then 10am-7pm Monday-Wednesday, 10am-9pm Thursday-Saturday, and 11am-7pm on Sundays. Throughout its run there will be a variety of entertainers performing in Abbey Green and Kingston Parade. There will be a German market in Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh (0131 473 3600; www.edinburghscapitalchristmas.co.uk) that will open 10am-10pm daily from 25 November until Christmas Eve. The site will also include an ice rink and a Ferris wheel.

Swansea will stage a craft market on Oxford Street from 26 November-15 December, and a traditional street market from 3-12 December ( www.swansea.gov.uk). Durham ( www.durhamtourism.co.uk) holds a market on the first weekend of December, while in York (01904 621756; www.yuletideyork.com) there is a choice of markets, beginning with the St Nicholas Fayre from 25-28 November, where gifts and local food will be on sale. A Continental market selling edible gifts from northern Europe will be set up in Parliament Street on 7-9 December, and there will be a Yorkshire Christmas farmers' market on 11 and 12 December at the same place.

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 25 November-22 December, and is open daily from 11am-8pm, and until 9pm on Fridays and Saturdays (001 312 644 2662; www.christkindlmarket.com).

On a smaller scale, the town of Ferdinand (001 812 367 1303; www.ferdinandinchamber.org/christkindlmarkt.cfm) in Indiana (built in parts to resemble a Bavarian village), has its own Christkindlmarkt, which will take place next weekend. 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 338133; www.schwabingerweihnachtsmarkt.de) runs from 29 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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