December. It’s the cheeriest, beeriest time of the year, and in Central Europe that’s because of one main thing: Christmas markets. As temperatures plummet across the region, people gather from near and afar in frosty town squares and holly-decked halls to eat, drink, shop and be merry. Vendors hawk roasted chestnuts and keep warm over bubbling vats of gluhwein. Lights twinkle above, snow crunches underfoot and the air rings with song. Many would agree – it’s the most magical time to be in Europe.
Throughout December, we’ll be running special Christmas Market tours through Germany, France and Austria, taking in the best of the Yuletide festivities in Munich, Eibsee, Salzburg and Vienna. Packed with visits to the region’s most famous markets – as well as some less conventional ones – the itinerary also features plenty of free time and general sightseeing opportunities. Come nightfall each evening, you’ll rug up and head to the markets to eat, drink and peruse the stalls.
But with so many festive treats on offer, where do you start? Steph Millington, Peregrine’s Europe Product Specialist, gives us the skinny.
There’s much to feast on in Europe’s Christmas Markets. Traditional foods vary across regions, but one thing remains consistent: sugar. Lots and lots of sugar.
Everywhere you look, chocolatey, gingery, cinnamon-y sweets abound. In Germany, there’s baked apples, giant pretzels and Stollen (Christmas cake filled with fruit and nuts). Make sure you try lebkuchen, spiced glazed cookies that taste a little like gingerbread. Locals tend to buy lebkuchen as ornamental gifts, but they’re edible (and delicious).
Salzberg is the proud birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; so proud, in fact, that a local confectioner named a chocolate after the composer in 1890. Now you’ll find Mozartkugel, or Mozart balls – small confections of pistachio marzipan, nougat and dark chocolate – in almost every Christmas market across Central Europe. In Vienna, you can’t go past a slice of Sachertorte, a rich chocolate cake best served with cream and a strong Austrian coffee.
Savoury-wise, you’ll find pork in all forms – bratwurst, suckling pig, roast pork with apple sauce, you name it. It’s a bit tougher for vegetarians, but one hearty must-try dish is kasespatzle, basically Germany and Austria’s answer to macaroni and cheese.
When it’s -2 degrees celcius outside and you can feel your eyelashes crystalising, there’s just one thing you need (apart from warm winter clothes): a steaming hot beverage. Thankfully, Europe’s Christmas markets offer plenty of delicious, belly-warming options – from classic gluhwein (hot spiced wine) and hot cider to spiked hot chocolate (braver souls can try a Mozart concoction, which combines chocolate liquor, cream and flavoured sweeteners). Many markets serve drinks in decorated mugs for a few extra Euros; you can either return your cup at the end and get your money back, or take it with you as a keepsake.
In Germany there is also – of course – plenty of beer. On our first night in Munich we enjoy a feast in a traditional Bavarian beer hall, and on our way to Salzburg we visit the gorgeous 14th-century Ettal Abbey Brewery, where Franciscan monks have been making beer from locally grown malt and hops since 1609 (the brewery forms part of still-working monastery).
For something non-alcoholic, try the kinderpunsch, or children’s punch. It’s basically virgin gluhwein – sweet mulled fruit punch infused with fruchtetee (fruit tea).
Prepare ye wallet: Europe’s Christmas markets are full of festive goodies and handicrafts. Nutcrackers, delicate tree decorations, candles, marionettes, wooden carvings, baubles made of eggshell…it’s the perfect opportunity to pick up some gorgeous Christmas gifts for friends and family back home (or expand your own collection). At Munich’s Medieval market, blacksmiths sell weapons right out of the Middle Ages, while the nearby Kripperlmarkt (Crib Market) specialises in nativity scenes.
It’s useful to note that while some vendors prefer cash, these days many take bank card.
Eating, drinking and shopping aside, European Christmas markets are all about atmosphere. Once you’re rugged up with a steaming mug of cider in (gloved) hand, take the time to just wander around. You might stumble upon an ice rink busy with twirling skaters, or a beautiful café plucked right out of a scene from Harry Potter (the interior of Vienna’s Town Hall certainly feels this way).
Churches swarm with parishioners and shoppers escaping the cold, carollers and brass quartets bring music to the frozen streets, and rugged-up locals huddle together in town squares waiting for DJs and bands to deliver outdoor concerts. Throughout December, musicians perform nightly from the balcony of Munich’s Town Hall, while at the city’s Tollwood Christmas Market – a multicultural ‘market of ideas’ – revellers drift between bars and art exhibitions.
Feature image c/o Martin Kleppe, Flickr.
Soak up the festive atmosphere on Peregrine’s European Christmas Markets tour this December.