Christmas normally comes early in many parts of Europe.
Come mid-November, many cities will turn into a fairy wonderland to welcome the joy and good tidings of Christmas. We’re not talking about carols being played on the radio in October, but the famous Christmas markets that take place in several countries like Germany, Poland, Czech Republic, Austria and Belgium.
These markets are usually held in town squares and other open locations that allow many visitors to walk about and just enjoy the atmosphere.
Huge Christmas trees decorated with beautiful ornaments, all lit up with countless flickering lights are the main draw of these markets which sell almost everything from food, clothes, shoes, bags to decorations and other knick knacks.
I checked out some of these markets last year with the folks from travel company Insight Vacations and was bowled over by the Yuletide warmth (in spite of the freezing weather) coming from not just the vendors but visitors, too. The European Christmas market season is very popular with tourists from North America, Australians and New Zealanders, who would usually make the trip before returning home to celebrate Christmas.
The markets and cities listed on our six-day itinerary were Krakow (Poland), Prague (Czech Republic), and Dresden and Berlin in Germany. From Kuala Lumpur, we travelled on KLM Royal Dutch Airlines to Warsaw first, before taking a short connecting flight to Krakow.
Our city-to-city journey was via coach, led by tour director Sharon Toman, who was excellent in providing us interesting anecdotes and information about the villages, towns and cities that we pass by along the way.
Of all the Christmas markets we visited, the one in Krakow was probably the best as it had many hand-made items such as candles and Christmas ornaments on sale.
The market is held annually at the city’s main square in the Old Town, considered to be one of Poland’s most historical districts. Krakow’s famous Cloth Hall and the massive St Mary’s Basilica are also in the vicinity. One can spend almost an entire day just exploring the Christmas market and its surroundings.
Known as the Rynek Glowny, the square is decorated in beautiful blue and white lights in various shapes and sizes including the peacock, which apparently is a special symbol in the Krakow district.
Besides artefacts and knick-knacks, a wide variety of traditional Polish food are also sold at the market.
Our next Christmas market adventure was in the Old Town Square of Prague, which was decorated to the hilt with colourful lights surrounding a gigantic Christmas tree.
Here, there was a wider variety of delicious-looking food being sold. Some of the delectable items included smoked ham and beef that was grilled on on the spot on a rotisserie.
Besides that, there were also many types of bread baked fresh at the market itself, and sold almost straight from the oven, piping hot. It was a welcome treat for those of us who weren’t used to the cold weather.
When in Prague, one must not forget to have a taste of gluhwein, which is a type of mulled wine that’s served hot.
The Prague Christmas market also had a wide variety of items for sale, but what really stood out for us were the variety of cakes, cookies, pies, breads and local cuisine sold at many of the stalls.
If you’re tired of shopping, don’t worry because there are numerous special activities and events held at the market that you can check out, too. A band of Santa Clauses made their rounds when we were there, greeting people and spreading cheer.
In Dresden, we got the opportunity to visit two Christmas markets.
One was a “regular” Christmas market that sold the usual festive knick-knacks and food, while the other was a medieval-themed one known as Dresden Striezelmarkt, which is said to be the most famous market in the city.
Located not far from the famous palace called Zwinger, all the vendors in the Striezelmarkt were dressed in medieval Germanic clothes and the items they sold revolved around the same theme.
You’ll find a lot of wrought iron, as well as felt and wooden items sold here including clothes, purses and kitchen utensils.
In keeping with the medieval theme, this Christmas market does not have bright sparkly lights or ornaments, but it still had a fun atmosphere.
Our final stop was at one of the 10 Berlin Christmas markets, located in a square in the commercial part of the city.
Unlike the Christmas markets in Krakow, Prague and Dresden, the one in Berlin focused a lot more on eating, drinking and merrymaking, and not so much on shopping.
Of course, there were the customary gingerbread, candied apples and chocolates on sale just like at the other three locations but charred and grilled meats seemed to be a big feature here.
Most of the stalls in the Berlin Christmas market sold thick juicy slices of steak and pork chops as well as chunky pieces of chicken and foot-long sausages, grilled and served with relish and bread.
Even after taking into account the currency exchange rate, the price of the steak and other meats sold at the market was far cheaper than what we would pay for the same items in Malaysia.
A variety of beer and wine was sold in abundance to crowds of people who stood round in small groups, savouring the food and drinks.
Insight Vacations Asia is currently promoting its Christmas Markets packages to customers in the region. “Visiting these traditional markets under the spell of some of Europe’s most spectacular cities is a great way to experience its culture against a magical wintry backdrop.
“The smell of hot mulled wine, roasted chestnuts, traditional pastry rolled in cinnamon and sugar and other Christmas snacks together with all the amazing regional delicacies will surely bring Europe to life for our Asian guests,’’ the company’s managing director Anthony Lim shared.
The atmosphere in all the markets we visited did indeed reflect the magical spirit of Christmas that people from our part of the world get to only read about in storybooks or see in movies and television shows.
It is one of the best European experiences for travellers who are constantly looking for new things to discover and try.
Planning a trip? Insight Vacations has packages that would suit all kinds of travellers. Book its autumn, winter and spring packages before April 30 to enjoy up to 30% savings (for the second guest). For details, visit their website or email email@example.com. You can also call 03-2091 9988 to speak to an agent.
KLM, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary in October this year, is currently running some fare promotions too.