A highlight in Europe this time of year is the cheerful (sometimes even magical) Christmas markets. I adore browsing through the arts and crafts for sale, and trying some of the hearty seasonal street food. And then there’s mulled wine.
Here are three of my favourite Christmas markets:
Elegant and child-friendly Vienna
I’m very fond of Vienna, and during Advent, the city really comes alive. On Graben street, I amble past market stalls and Christmas trees from Wienerwald, with a blue, made-for-the-occasion Christkindlmarkt mug of Glühwein in hand. Just to keep warm, you understand.
Huge bells of warm light are suspended above elegant baroque buildings and magnificent gilded statues. The effect is simply stunning! It might as well be 1911. Or 1811. Or even 1781. That’s when Wolfgang Amadeus walked along this street to his home at No. 17, passing the markets on his way. Today, no 17 is home to law offices, a book publisher, a fashion house – and my favourite Vienna guest house, Pension Nossek. After 9 pm, you have to lock yourself in. I adore opening the huge wooden doors with my own key. But I digress.
At the Christkindlmarkt in front of City Hall, everything is for sale: Christmas tree ornaments, candles, toys and handicrafts, as well as breads and cakes, sausages, more Glühwein and Christmas punch in a variety of flavours. It’s a world of bright, strong, happy colours.
Inside City Hall is the Christkindls Werkstatt, workshops where 80 000 children stop by to make all kinds of wonderful Christmas presents.
World-famous Viennese waltz composer, Johann Strauss, looks pensive on a pedestal. Is he thinking of the Christmas markets of his day; about how little things have changed, perhaps? Vienna’s Christmas markets have existed for hundreds of years.
Cheap and cheerful Bratislava
Less than an hour from Vienna is the Slovakian capital. Even on an overcast, cold and foggy day, Bratislava shows heaps of spirit. The Christmas market is on Hlavne Namestie, the main square in the pretty Old Town. Hats, scarves, handbags, toys, lollipops, porcelain, oils and spices are for sale – all at very affordable prices.
There’s a great emphasis on food and drink in Bratislava. The beer/wine/grog tents remind me of Oktoberfest in Bavaria; everyone is in a good mood. I go for lokse, potato pancakes, filled with poppy-seed. And sweet honey-wine. Perfect on a cold winter day.
Mysterious medieval Tallinn
Christmas markets in east and central Europe have been around for centuries. Not this one. In fact, the Jouluturg on Tallinn’s Raekoja Plats (Raekoja Square) is barely out of its teens. During the Soviet era, Santa Claus was banned. As soon as Estonia gained independence in 1991, the city organized its first Christmas market.
The market may be relatively new, but Tallinn is a medieval city. Raekoja Square is very romantic, surrounded by Hanseatic buildings, including a pharmacy from 1422, still in operation.
The main items on the market are Estonian arts and crafts, hand-made sweaters, long-tailed hats, mittens, scarves, socks and other colourful woollens.
Can’t make it to Tallinn before Christmas? No worries, the Christmas Markets remain until 8 January. And the lovely woollens are for sale outdoors for much of the winter. (These photos are from late January; sadly I didn’t have a camera along last time I visited Tallinn in December – but you get the idea.)
There’s something so delightfully pagan about Tallinn. Fitting then, that the citizens of the then-named city of Reval danced around the first Christmas tree in recorded history. The year was 1441 and Estonia was part of the German region Livonia.
Up a street from Raekoja Square is 700-year-old cobbled Rataskaevu, the spookiest street in town. As you pass no 16, look up. Notice the bricked up window with painted-on curtains? In the 15th century, this was an inn. Rumour has it the devil got married and had the wedding reception here.