4 years ago
It’s nearly December and there’s no point in trying to disguise how madly excited we really are about Christmas. We know there’s been some pretence with ‘escape ideas’ and the like. But that’s all forgotten now the traditional markets have set to weaving their bewitching festive spell. We might have been able to ignore the trees and lights and relentless carolling, but we’re total fools for mountains of beribboned gingerbread biscuits, hot chocolate, fruit brandies, marzipan pigs, sugary waffles, toffee apple and mulled wine – not packet-mix please. But is there any difference between the ancient European markets and your local wannabes? And are any really worth travelling for? Yes and yes – Angers is just 2 hours’ drive from St. Malo. Grab your mittens, pull on your bobble hat and come this way.
You can ski in the mountains round Innsbruck as early as October, so we probably don’t need to say how snowy and pretty the capital of Tirol is in December. If that’s not enough enchantment, it’s also packed with Christmas Markets and does decorating in a no-holds-barred way some would call excessive, but not us. For deeply traditional you want the lovely old town where the focus is on hand made and impeccable everything from toys to glass baubles (these are heirlooms, so pack with care). The cold’s a perfect excuse to over-eat delectable Kiachlin – sweet doughnuts – drink gallons of creamy hot-chocolate and raise your temperature with spicy Glϋhwein. And even if you aren’t here to ski, don’t let that stop you riding the funicular up into the mountains for the best possible view of glittery, Christmassy Innsbruck down below. Innsbruck Christmas Markets open on November 15th.
Visit Bruges at Christmas and we swear you can almost taste chocolate in the air. This is the city with a ‘Chocolate Museum’ so there’s nothing discreet about its passion, especially during the festive season. The traditional Christmas Market and delightful, wintery ice rink take over the Old Town square every year. There’s no official ‘who can make the most extravagant chocolate sculpture’ competition, but if you don’t see an entire replica of the city at least once, consider yourself short changed. Children love Bruges and all elf, sleigh, reindeer and Santa boxes are amply ticked. But don’t be fooled into thinking chocolate and grottos make a market strictly for the young. Bruges is a city of master chocolatiers, several of the best will never be tasted outside Belgium, so as far as exquisite and very grown-up decadence goes this one is pretty much perfect for gratefully received gifts. Bruges Christmas Market opens on November 20th.
Anyone who’s ever visited Cologne will confirm it’s one of Europe’s shopping greats and what it doesn’t do in department stores really isn’t worth having. So no surprise it comes out, all lights blazing, for Christmas, with a total of seven traditional (and not so traditional) markets covering almost the entire city. For old-fashioned, twinkly-light prettiness follow the well-trodden path to the Old Town where you’ll find stunning candles, local embroidery, glass baubles, wooden tree decorations, quaint toys and charming folksy crafts. If you’re with kids, St. Nick’s Village is on Rudolfplatz – under-5s are happy to believe the reindeer connection, so feel free to shamelessly milk that for extra enchantment. And, if you completely forgot to start soaking your dried fruit in September, visit Angel’s Markt. The traditional Stollen Cake here is a bit of a legend and as good an alternative to home-made as you’ll ever find. Cologne Christmas Markets open on November 23rd.
Picking a favourite Loire Valley city is like choosing a favourite book, impossible. Depending on how you feel, your choices change all the time. But one thing is certain, Angers is always on our list whatever mood we’re in. We love it for Château d’Angers which looks like a forbidding 13th century fortress seen from the River Maine but conceals the spellbinding 600 year old Tapestry of the Apocalypse (the world’s longest), an exquisite medieval knot garden and one of the prettiest private chapels in The Loire. We can never quite get over the cobbled street sweetness of the city’s historic Old Town. We like knowing Cointreau is still distilled here after nearly 200 years. And, at this time of year, Angers’ Marché de Noël never fails to enchant us completely. Over 100 traditional wooden chalets snuggle round Place de Ralliementet in the heart of the city selling everything from local wine and liqueurs to toffee apples, artisan chocolate, Angers’ sweet tarts, roast chestnuts and meltingly light, sugary French waffles (gaufre). The art market on Place du Pilori is fantastic for interesting presents. Santa is very much a presence along with several elves. There’s a proper old-fashioned carousel. And a miniature train travels round the market all day to let little ones see the magic instead of a forest of grown-up legs. Angers Marché de Noël opens on November 27th.
Winner of ‘Best Christmas Market in Europe’ in 2013 and 2014, Strasbourg is hotly tipped to run away with the prize again this year. It’s a weekend pilgrimage for Parisians looking for enchantment, festive events, stunning choral music and traditional ‘Bredele’ biscuits to hang on trees back home. And even Germany, a land awash with wonderful markets, can’t resist hopping over the border to immerse in a city that transforms into a Christmas fairy tale for almost an entire month every year. So is Strasbourg really that special? Quick answer: yes. It’s had a Christkindelmarkt since the 16th century. The medieval Old Town with its quaintly leaning half-timbered buildings and Gothic cathedral complete with trumpeting angels and imperious gargoyles is captivating. There are hundreds of charming stalls selling mountains of temptation. Almost everything is note-perfect, right down to the spicy, hot wine (insulting to call it ‘mulled’ in case it’s confused with the lukewarm cough mixture you’re used to). The houses are lit to perfection, pretty fir trees pack every available space. Of course it’s snowy. And then there’s the gingerbread. Strasbourg Bredele biscuits laced with scarlet ribbon are worth the journey alone. The trick is to buy plenty to hang on your Christmas Tree, extra to give as presents and as many as you can carry to eat between now and December 25th. Strasbourg Christmas Market opens on November 27th.
And in case none of the above are quite right, special mention this year goes to Oslo for its cute little marzipan piglets, Budapest’s sticky and wonderful festive patisserie, Stuttgart for dangerously powerful but oddly irresistible fruit brandies and Salzburg, because it has Europe’s oldest market in the world’s prettiest Christmas city. Happy Shopping!