Christmas markets -perfect retail therapy for hard

The good news is that Christmas markets are now almost everywhere. New markets adhering to the original Germanic template have sprung up across Europe as town and city managers realize that they can attract visitors at a normally quiet time of year by offering a low-spend alternative to the commercial glitz of the season

Christmas markets are the perfect retail therapy for hard times. Put away that
credit card – this is strictly small change shopping.
And don’t worry about the lousy rate of exchange against the Euro. Nothing
costs much in the cosy huddles of seasonal stalls that fill many of the ancient
streets and squares of nearby European cities.

The best news is that Christmas markets are now almost everywhere. Most of
the oldest, and most authentic, markets are still in Germany and Austria,
where they have been selling the celebratory necessities of the season -
decorations, small gifts and specialist food – for centuries. But I’ve seen the
idea expand and develop since the 1990s into the midwinter travel
phenomenon it is today.

New markets adhering to the original Germanic template have sprung up across
Europe as town and city managers realize that they can attract visitors at a
normally quiet time of year by offering a low-spend alternative to the
commercial glitz of the season

I like to spend a few days at this time of year driving around towns and cities
not too far apart, sampling markets new and traditional, big and small.
At the same time I’m investigating the buildings and history of less well-known
places I might not otherwise have considered.

One of the best routes into Europe for these pleasant winter trips is the
Harwich to Hook of Holland ferry. Harwich is convenient in many parts of the
country. Leeds is just over four hours away; Oxford is 2hrs 30; London is 1 hr
33 mins. Stena Line offers two sailings a day in each direction, one daytime
and one overnight.

The Hook of Holland is the best port of entry for market visitors, a few hours
drive from a long list of enticing destinations in Holland, Belgium, France and
the western side of Germany, where the choice of markets is enormous.

Most Christmas Markets in the bigger towns and cities start in the last week of
November and run through
to a day or two before Christmas Eve. They are normally open daily, until
around 9 pm – I find the ebbing light of the late winter afternoon quite the
best time to visit - but it’s worth checking the dates for the smaller markets.
The number of big city markets particularly in Belgium and France, carry on
right through to the New Year.


Holland has a good selection of entry-level Christmas markets, selling local
food specialities and hand-painted seasonal ornaments. You can drive to
Holland''s main cities, most of which have their version of the market.
Rotterdam is 30 minutes drive from the Hook of Holland. Amsterdam is 80
minutes away. Utrecht can be reached in 45 minutes.

Maastricht, one of Holland''s oldest cities, stages the five-week long
Winterland, a lively array of stalls selling seasonal food and drink. Look for
oliebollen (a type of doughnut), poffertjes (little pancakes) and the ubiquitous
gluhwein. There is also an ice-rink, a Ferris wheel and a carousel.

My choice of the most surprising Christmas market in Europe is the Velvet
Market (Fluweelengrot) in the little hill town of Valkenburg, dominated by its
ruined castle, one hour by road from Hook of Holland. The market is set in the
enticingly-lit caves underneath the town. Profits from the biggest underground
market in Europe go to the upkeep of the castle.

Arnhem complements its Christmas market with a display of ice carving. It’s
worth checking out the offerings in Nijmegen, another of the Netherlands’s
ancient cities, and the smaller affairs in Eindhoven, Delft, Deventer and


After Holland you could turn south to Brussels (2 hrs from the Hook), one of
the most impressively located – and closest - markets to the UK. A small city
of wooden chalets, a big wheel and skating rink cram into the historic heart.
Bruges is well worth a seasonal visit. But consider Belgium’s other cities too.
The market in Liège is relatively new. Traders sell Walloon and French
handicrafts. Look for glass-blown and hand painted decorations, marzipan and
warming winter beers. Then, if you dare, ride down the 30 feet high sledging
slope while admiring the illuminated front of the Prince Bishop’s Palace. There’s
a tremendous setting for the market in Antwerp, in the Market Square, under
Europe''s tallest Gothic Cathedral. There is another small and cheerful market in
the centre of splendid old Ghent.


The pick of the country’s Christmas Markets are in the northern towns and
cities. Lille hosts one of the largest, and most traditional. It features a big
wheel, for splendid views of the ancient city. There are markets in the old
centers of Calais, Béthune, Amiens, Arras and St Quentin. Items on sale
include wooden toys, candles, santons (figurines) and dried flowers. This is
France, so there’s a big emphasis on local foods. If you have time it’s worth
heading east to the 430–year old Strasbourg Christmas market, in its glorious
setting outside the Cathedral.


Germany has set the gold standard in Christmas markets. On a two or three-
day excursion from the Hook of Holland you could reach many markets in the
towns and cities of the western part of the country.

Most operate to the ancient model. Ranks of covered stalls press together as
in a medieval village. Traders, taking their turn from a
list of local merchants, look down from under proud, painted name boards, as
little gold foil angels, straw stars, and diaphanous mobiles
rustle and tinkle in the breeze.

Aachen, first city over the border, gives a taste of many German markets to
come. The stalls sells local specialities, including potato fritters and printen
(the city’s very own gingerbread).

Dusseldorf (two hours 40 minutes from the Hook) is one of Germany’s lesser-
known but most elegant destinations, on a glorious sweep of the River Rhine.
Its market, featuring gingerbread houses, is just off the elegant shopping
street Königsallee, one of the smartest shopping areas in Europe. The city’s
Corneliusplatz has a huge outdoor ice rink.

Cologne (just over three hours from the Hook) offers the greatest choice of
all, with no fewer than seven Christmas markets. The one held in the square
next to the vast Cologne Cathedral must have the most impressive situation in
Europe. The most serene of Cologne’s markets has the backdrop of narrow
gabled houses on the Alter Markt in the Old Town.

It’s a long way to drive, but if you have time, you might want to visit my
choice of the very best, and oldest, of Christmas markets -Dresden, Leipzig
and, of course, Nuremberg.

My checklist for the best Christmas markets.

The setting is all. The best markets belong as close to the historic heart of the
town or city as possible, ideally in the old market square, nestling under the
cathedral or main church.

They should sell the following core products:
traditional hand-made Christmas decorations you can buy for a few Euros,
such as crib figures, angels and candles. Check that they are locally sourced,
not imported from the Far East.

Your drink of choice is gluhwein (spiced hot wine punch). It should always be
served in a mug, for which you
pay a small deposit (never a paper cup) to defrost, but not burn, your
hands. Sausages should come sizzling from the grill, with a hunk of bread and
sauerfkraut. Nuremberg, Coburg and many other places have their own recipe.

Unfortunately the one thing you can’t guarantee is gently spiraling snowflakes,
even in December in central Europe. But if you have that as well, then it’s

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