IT MIGHT sound premature to be talking about Christmas markets but when it comes to bargains the early bird catches the worm – and the stocking fillers.
The festive tradition started in Europe and Germany still leads the field when it comes to delighting the senses with tempting aromas and yuletide treats.
It has more than 150 markets whose beautifully decorated stalls celebrate seasonal customs and traditions in historical settings – while choirs and brass bands provide the musical accompaniment to create the perfect atmosphere.
Particularly popular are the Berlin market, Nuremberg’s Christkindlesmarkt and the Striezelmarkt in Dresden.
The Stollenfest makes for an unusual highlight of the Dresden market. Every year, members of the Dresdner Stollen protection association (indeed) bake a huge stolen – a traditional Christmas cake – which weighs a ton.
The Frankfurt Römerberg is another ideal location to experience a truly magical and original German Christmas market.
Held from November 27 right up to December 22, the market’s beautifully decorated stalls offer a wide variety of local and regional specialities such as gingerbread, “Bethmännchen” or hot apple wine, sweets and pottery.
And then there’s the unique honey shop on St. Paul’s Square, one of the market’s unusual attractions. At home in a 300-year-old half-timbered house erected for the duration of the Christmas market, the two-storey shop sells honey, mead, candles and many other honey-based products that may be tasted or tested in the cosy first floor lounge.
The traditional Munich Christmas market invites you to the Marienplatz with its historic town hall. It’s just a few steps to Germany’s biggest ‘Kripperlmarkt’, where you can find everything that belongs at a Christmas market.
When the live music rings out daily from the town hall’s balcony you find yourself completely immersed in Advent.
The market square with its historical buildings is the perfect setting for Bremen’s enchanting Christmas market. Visitors come from far and wide to browse around the craft stalls and exhibitions in the town hall (lower hall) and in Böttcherstrasse. Christmas concerts add to the festive mood.
Of course the markets are not exclusive to Germany. Other top destinations include Poland’s Krakow and Prague, where the two main Christmas markets are just a short 10 minute stroll from each other.
Set in the city’s grandest squares, you can feast on smoky barbecued sausages (Kolbása), sugar coated pastry (Trdelní¬k) or dripping hunks of roasted ham. The traditional wooden stalls hold an array of trinkets to take home, such as Czech crystal figurines, wooden toys and brightly painted puppets.
In Vienna the smell of gluhwein, sausage and nutmeg lingers in the air. Carols can be heard at many of the markets but the most dazzling performances can be heard at the Christmas Market at Rathauspark and the magnificent City Hall.
Other favourites include Budapest, Zurich, Amsterdam, Bruges and, closer to home, Edinburgh.
Now’s the time to bag a deal and here are some of our favourites:
Spend two nights in the four-star Hotel Aida in Prague, on a B&B basis, from only €140 per person, based on two sharing. Price includes flights, accommodation, taxes and charges. Travel date: November 29 (www.GoHop.ie).
Click&Go is offering four-star Christmas market getaways from as little as e195 per person sharing (www.clickandgo.com).
You can get a three-night stay in Bruges from e399 per person sharing, or Berlin from e359, with the Travel Department (www.traveldepartment.ie).
Or how about two nights in the four-star Triple M Hotel from just €166 per person sharing, travelling on November 18 (www.GoHop.ie).