Category Archives: Cultural Travel

Top 5 Last Minute European Christmas City Breaks

Barcelona at Christmas ccimage courtesy of Carquinyol on FlicrTaking a European Christmas city break around this time is an absolute must- do. The plethora of light switch-ons, shows, festivals and events means that you’ll never have the same experience twice. Whether you fancy a warm or wintry city break, the next few weeks are the best time to climb aboard a train, plane or sleigh and take a last minute city break to one of these five destinations over the festive season.

 1: Barcelona, Spain

It’s not the first place you think of when conjuring up the image of a white and wintry Christmas, but the Catalonian capital certainly does it in style. Hop on a plane and spend a long weekend wandering around the 300-plus stalls at the Fira de Santa Lucia Market, which dates back to the 1800s. The indoor market is filled with traditional Catalonian treats , mistletoe and handmade gifts. Temperatures in the city can reach 12 degrees, so you might be able to get away with leaving your raincoat at home.

 2: Ljubljana, Slovenia

As one of Europe’s must up-and-coming destinations, Ljubljana is definitely on the ‘must-see’ city break list before it is overrun with tourists. Christmas is the ideal time to visit, as the province is famed for its outstanding Christmas lights display. Colourful lights adorn the compact city centre, covering trees and buildings alike, and run through the Festive Fair which runs from 3 December -1 January. It’s a great place to visit in the week between Christmas and New Year to keep the festive spirit alive for a few more days.

3: Vienna, Austria

Back on much more traditional festive ground, Vienna and its neighbouring cities are synonymous with Christmas markets. Vienna’s largest Christkindlmarkt is open from 17 November until Christmas eve, so you’ve still got time to book a last minute ticket. It sees the huge Rathausplatz transformed into a traditional outdoor market, with almost 200 stalls on offer. Sip a glass of Gluwein as you wander around the wooden stalls and pick up handmade Christmas gifts to bring back home.

4: Saint Helier, Jersey

A beautiful city at the best of times, Saint Helier truly comes alive at Christmas time. The small capital city is transformed by La Fête dé Noué, which celebrates the Norman-French history of the island over Christmas. The side streets are filled with twinkling white lights, and there’s a winter walk that you can take part in to learn more about the culture of the island. Traditional British and French customs are integrated, making this a truly one-off city break.

5: Rovaniemi, Finland

No Christmas city break countdown would be complete without paying homage to the home of Santa Claus. The Santa Claus Village at the Arctic Circle is a once in a lifetime experience, and a city break that everyone in the family will enjoy. You can stay in the beautifully lit-up Village, and meet reindeer, take a husky-led sleigh ride and of course, meet Santa himself. It’s pricey and commercialised, but without doubt makes a last minute Christmassy city break that no child will forget in a hurry.

A Guide to Christmas Markets in and around Germany

The origins and history of the German Christmas Markets

Nowadays, it is easy to keep warm during the winter. Thanks to heaters of all kinds, you can survive the winter months without shivering. However, this was not always the case. Not too long ago, inhabitants of cold countries had to find other ways to keep warm. Setting up fires was one option. But a significantly more celebratory one was Christmas markets.

European Christmas Markets
Christmas market in Cologne, Germany cc Image courtesy of Swiv on Flickr

Many people might think that Christmas markets came about to celebrate Christmas. However, if you really read the history, this was only a secondary purpose. The markets didn’t come about as Christmas markets as such. Instead, they were winter markets in more general terms, specifically serving the purpose of combatting the cold.

In Germany, inhabitants would come together to huddle around fires and sip “Glühwein,” literally meaning “glow-wine.” Already in the 14th century, the markets served as a place to purchase goods that would keep them warm during the long winters. From furs and hats to coats and gloves, just about any item that would protect you from the wind and snow was sold. In addition, the outdoor markets were a place where you could find handicrafts, such as woven baskets or artisan toys. To keep energized, people would stock up on baked goods, such as the typical German gingerbread (“Lebkuchen”). If you wanted something savory, simple hot meals, such as sausages and soups, could be eaten at the stands as well.

 

The 21st century version

German Christmas Markets
Lebkuchen,” the typical German gingerbread cc Image Courtesy of Patrick Ciebilski on Flickr

As time went by, the markets became an important event approaching Christmas Eve. Today, thousands of tourists flock not only to Germany, but also to Austria and Poland to visit these kinds of markets. In fact, sometimes it may be that more English, Spanish or Japanese is being spoken at the markets than German.

Over time, the markets have also become more commercialized. Glowing lights have been added, as have more modern cooking tools and heaters. But that doesn’t mean that the traditions have been overtaken completely.

It is worth noting that there are hundreds of different markets in and around Germany. Clearly, some are more well-known than others, and they also vary in size. In fact, there are even significant differences in their names. While some are explicit Christmas markets (“Weihnachtsmarkt”), others are called “Christkindlmarkt,” which refers to the angel that provides children with presents on Christmas Eve. Others, in turn, go by the name of “Adventmarkt,” meaning advent market.

Planning your trip

German Christmas Markets
Glass decoration on sale at the German Christmas markets. cc Image Courtesy of Nanand81 on Flickr

Due to the popularity of travel during the Christmas season, which includes visiting the markets, it is advantageous to plan ahead.

As mentioned above, there are a plethora of Christmas markets in and around Germany, so you might be asking yourself “where do I get started?” Here are some of the most famous Christmas markets to choose from:

Nürnberger Christkindlesmarkt in Nürnberg. This market is one of the most well-known versions, especially since it includes the figure of a “Christkind,” represented each year by a young girl.

Christkindlmarkt in Munich at the Marienplatz. This market originated in the 14th century, when it was called the “Nikolausmarkt,” meaning “Santa Claus market.” With the influence of Protestantism in the 19th Century came the transition from the Nikolaus to the Christkind as the one who brings the gifts. In Munich thus happened what had already occurred in the 16th century in cities such as Nürnberg and Straßburg: the Nikolausmarkt became the Christkindlmarkt.

Kölner Weihnachtsmarkt in Cologne.

These are the most well-known markets in Nürnberg, Munich and Cologne. However, each city is also home to numerous other versions. In Munich, for example, you can head to the Wittelsbacherplatz square to go to the Mittelaltermarkt, which literally means “medieval market.” Here, you can revel in traditional goods, sold at reconstructions of medieval stands. All the vendors are even dressed in medieval clothes!

Outside of Germany, famous markets include the versions in Salzburg and Vienna in Austria, and Bremgarten as well as Lucerne in Switzerland.

If possible, come visit on a weekday, as weekends are particularly crowded. Moreover, the closer you get to Christmas, the more hectic it becomes as everyone is rushing to buy last-minute presents. If you can, buy your presents early so you won’t have to be in a hurry.

Once you are there

Visiting a Christmas market has, as already mentioned above, become more and more of a commercial event. However, you can still relish the old traditions.

Be sure to try the local foods, such as the Lebkuchen (typical baked goods) and Rostbratwürstchen (grilled sausages) from Nürnberg and the typical Maroni (chestnuts) offered almost at all German, Austrian and Swiss markets. At the latter, a Raclette (bread dipped in cheese) will surely warm you up as well.

As for drinks, adults should try sipping Glühwein and Eierlikör (egg-nogg liquor) and the children should head for Kinderpunsch (children’s fruity “glühwein” without alcohol) – there’s something for everyone! Most of all, the idea is to have a good time with friends and family.

Last but not least, dress warm. Wearing ski pants has even become an option for some, especially little kids.

All in all, the goal is to forget the Christmas stress and relax!

Top Three European Christmas Destinations

Christmas in Europe is delightful, no matter where you go. The marriage of old world charm with unique traditions makes for a lovely holiday. Here are my picks for the Top Three European Christmas Destinations of 2012.

1.Copenhagen, Denmark – Tivoli Gardens

Christmas in CopenhagenChristmas in Copenhagen is nothing short of enchanting, especially in Tivoli Gardens. Tivoli Gardens is the second oldest amusement park in the world, originally opening on the 15th of August in 1843. It is a popular attraction throughout the year, drawing well over four million visitors annually. But you haven’t experienced Tivoli until you have visited for Christmas.

A complete and total fairytale, every holiday season the park and gardens are transformed into a winter wonderland unlike any other. There are over four miles of decorative lights, in addition to almost two-thousand fairy lights used to illuminate over four hundred trees. The glittering weeping willows and the giant Christmas tree are a spectacle to behold.

If you are traveling with children, they will be delighted by the forty-five meter toboggan run, the chance to sit with Santa in his sleigh, and by Pixie Ville. Pixie Ville is home to Tivoli’s mechanical pixies and elves, and you can watch them frolicking in the snow, ice skating, and settling down in their igloos. You can catch a further glimpse at the pixies preparing their celebrations when you chug by them on the Christmas Express. Keep an eye out for Santa and Mrs. Claus!

Even if you’re vacationing without wee ones, Tivoli is still worth the visit. The Christmas market is made up of over seventy decorated stalls that line the garden walkway. Here you can purchase a wide variety of handmade Scandinavian gifts and delectable treats, like iced donuts, caramel apples, and warm, mulled wine. Enjoy your treats as you tour the impressive ice sculptures, and then work off the calories by dancing the evening away to some live holiday music.

If you plan on making the trek to Copenhagen this year, you can expect to see the usual Danish décor replaced with a Russian theme. This includes a brightly colored reproduction of the famous and beautiful St. Basil’s Cathedral. Visit Tivoli between December 26th and 30th, and end the evening with an impressive fireworks display.

2.Rome, Italy – The Vatican

Chistmas with Papa in RomeThis is not a trip I would recommend for families traveling with small children. The late hours and long masses are sure to make them sleepy and restless. However, for those wishing to celebrate Christmas in a deeply religious fashion, midnight mass at the Vatican will provide a moving experience.

You will need a ticket to attend this mass, as it draws quite the crowd. Tickets are free, but it is best to request them in advance to avoid rushing around, or worse, not being able to get in. Even the lines to present your confirmation and pick up your tickets can be extremely long, so dress accordingly. December in Rome can be rather chilly, another reason you may want to avoid bringing wee ones to this event.

Holy Father Benedict XVI will preside over two Christmas masses. The first will take place at midnight on Christmas Eve, December 24th. The second will take place on Christmas day, December 25th, at noon.

3.Nuremberg, Germany – Christkindlesmarkt

European Christmas MarketsCan you think of anything more charming than a Bavarian Christmas? Maybe it is just because I have an Austrian grandmother, so I grew up with rum balls and nutcrackers, but I find Christmas in this part of Europe absolutely magical. Germany is famous for its Christmas markets, and you won’t find another market like the one in Nuremberg.

Every holiday season, on the eve of advent, the market is officially opened following a prologue from the Christmas Angel. Dressed in golden robes with golden, flowing curls, the beautiful Angel ends her speech with, “You men and women, you who were once children, too, be a child again today. Rejoice when Christchild now invites you all to see this market. Whoever comes to visit will be welcome.”

You will find nearly two-hundred stalls selling their wares. From handmade crafts, ornaments, candles and wreaths to fruit cakes, spicy gingerbread, and mulled wine. This is the perfect spot to find a unique ornament that you can cherish for Christmases to come.

Children love the Christkindlesmarkt, and not just because the place is crawling with irresistible sweets. A ride on the steam train or around the old fashioned carousel is fun for the whole family. The House of Stars offers a plethora of ever-changing children’s activities, and every Tuesday and Thursday, the Christmas Angel will be there to read their favorite fairytales.

Melissa Rae Cohen is a travel writer from Portland, Maine. She recommends Auto Europe for your next car rental!