European Christmas Markets

A while ago I decided 2011 was going to be the year I finally get to explore some of Europe’s most famous Christmas markets. While I’ve had quick visits to Christmas markets in Paris and Prague, I’ve never taken the time to really see what they have to offer. I’m still researching where to go and would appreciate any comments from people who have been but so far I’ve come up with the following contenders for next month’s festivities.

Christmas Markets in Europe 2011

While some people like to visit the markets to buy Christmas decorations and gifts, others go to soak in the atmosphere and enjoy the entertainment with their children or grandchildren. For me though, I’ll be focusing on the culinary delights which is sure to include a not insignificant amount of mulled wine, cakes, gingerbread, crepes and other local specialities. It’ll be interesting to see the regional differences and how much variety there is between the different cities.

Cologne

Almost everyone I’ve asked has said Cologne is their favourite Christmas market, including the locals I met when visiting Cologne last year. There area a number of different markets around the city, the largest and most impressive situated close to Cologne Cathedral. One of the more interesting for me though is the floating Christmas market on the Rhine. The floating market is relatively small with only 40 stalls but you get great views of Cologne Cathedral and the old town. This is the only Christmas market in Cologne which is not free. Check back here in December when I’ll report on whether it’s worth the €2 entrance fee.

Cologne Christmas Markets 2011

Image: Cologne Tourism

Strasbourg

Many of my Parisian friends visit the Strasbourg Christmas market every year. Strasbourg is just over 2 hours from Paris on the TGV so it’s a good option for Parisian residents like me as well as visitors to France. Strasbourg reportedly comes a close second to the Cologne markets so I would love to do a comparison of the two markets. This market is one of the oldest in the world, dating back to the 16th century, and along with shopping for local handicrafts you can try the traditional brindle cakes. Not only is Strasbourg a great place to visit for Christmas, it’s one of the most beautiful cities in France and I highly recommend visiting. Unfortunately many of the hotels are already booked for Christmas 2011 due to the European Parliament being in session in mid-December so I’m not sure I’ll be able to make it this year. If you want to visit the Strasbourg Christmas markets be sure to book well in advance.

Strasbourg at Christmas

Image: Bumpy Tours

Vienna

On my first visit to Vienna in 1999, the city was covered in snow and was absolutely stunning. I fell in love with Vienna on that trip and am looking forward to going back this Christmas to see the markets they are well known for. There are a number of markets around the city with the largest located at Rathausplatz in front of the town hall and another popular one at Schönbrunn. At the Vienna Christmas markets I’ll be looking out for gingerbread and roasted chestnuts amongst other Austrian specialities.

Vienna Christmas Market

Image: -12°C

Prague

My trip to Vienna was followed by a quick trip to Prague and although it has a completely different atmosphere to the Austrian city, I love it too. I did stop by the Christmas market on that first trip but aside from drinking some mulled wine, I didn’t spend much time at the market. I’m not sure I’ll be able to make it to Prague next month but I’m told the winter wonderland is well known for selling wooden toys, puppets, Bohemian crystal, sausages, corn on the cob, hot wine and of course Czech beer, all of which you can enjoy to the sound of Christmas Carols. Unlike other markets, Prague Christmas market is open on Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve.

Prague Christmas Market

Image: Zach Klein

Nuremberg

Nuremberg is another hugely popular German Christmas market. Food-wise they have a few local specialities I’d love to try. Firstly there is Lebkuchen which is kind of like a gingerbread cookie although it comes in many forms and can sometimes be more like a cake. There is even a stall selling Lebkuchen strudel which should be very interesting! The other tempting speciality is Fleischküchle, a kind of German meatball. I’m not much of a meat eater but I might give it a go if it looks tasty. The Nuremberg market is also well known for the Christmas Market Angel who looks over Nuremberg during the city’s busiest time of year.

Lebkuchen

Image: springm / Markus Spring

Paris

While Paris is not know for its Christmas markets, I can testify that the one on the Champs-Elysees is stunning. You’ll might want to save your centimes for a cheaper market but visiting the stalls while admiring the Christmas lights, the Arc de Triomphe and the Place de la Concorde is a fantastic experience. Another popular market in Paris is at La Defense (at the end of Line 1 metro) and is a better option for shopping with lower prices and fewer tourists.

Paris Christmas

Image: slasher-fun

Lille

While I’m not entirely sure which markets I’ll be visiting this year, in 3 weeks I’ll definitely be heading to Lille to see the Marché de Noël and the la Grande Roue. Along with food and handicrafts from Lille there are also merchants selling specialities from Russia, Canada and Lithuania. I’m looking forward to trying some vin chaud and pain d’epices.

Grande Roue Lille Christmas

Image: guillaumeo

Munich

Munich is another destination I’ll definitely being visiting in 2011. I’ll be heading straight to Marienplatz to experience the city’s most famous and longest running Christmas market. When Marienplatz gets too busy I’ll head for one of the quieter markets held around the city, most probably starting with the market near the Residenz as it has a wide variety of stalls devoted to food. Potato rosti, roasted nuts, crepes and German cakes will all be on the agenda. What I’m most looking forward to is the Tollwood Winter Festival which is an organic Christmas market promoting green living.

Tollwood Winter Festival

Image: FHgitarre

Dresden

Like most German cities, Dresden has a number of Christmas markets around the city including the ‘Christmas mile’ market street. The most famous market though is the Streizelmarkt in the Old Market Square. There’s plenty to eat here including bratwurst served in little loaves of bread known as semmel as well as some potato dishes and sweet and savoury crepes. The toffee apples seem to be a popular choice with kids and being a big kid at heart I’m going to have one when I get to Dresden.

Dresden Christmas

Image: Sanako*

Of course there are many, many other Christmas markets happening around Europe in November and December. Which are your favourites?

Top 4 European Train Trips

There is something magical about travelling by train through beautiful countryside (unless you are commuting, then it’s hell). I find it to be relaxing and peaceful to watch the landscape roll by or zip by if you’re on the TGV. I found some great train travel inspiration from National Geographic Travel’s article, Top 10 European Train Trips and thought I would pick my favourites.

Top European Train Trips 

1. Sweet Switzerland: The Chocolate Train

Route: Montreux to Broc, Switzerland
Duration: 9 hours, 45 minutes, roundtrip

This is a dream trip for me. Switzerland is one of the most beautiful countries in the world for train travel. Soaring mountains, serene lakes and adorable villages, Switzerland has it all. The highlight of this trip would be stopping off at Gruyères, a small town famous for its cheese and double cream. Gruyères has been on my mind since reading this post and I became obsessed with visiting after this one. Alas, I am still yet to make it to this foodie destination.

2. Tunnels Galore: The Bernina Express

Route: Chur, Switzerland, to Tirano, Italy
Duration: 4 hours, 14 minutes

The most appealing part of this trip for me is the destination. I only recently discovered that Tirano, Italy was the home of my great grandfather. He moved to Australia to find his fortune in the gold rush in Kalgoorlie but moved on after struggling to survive in the inhospitable town, leaving his children behind. I find it fascinating to learn of my family’s history so a trip to Tirano is a must for me. 

3. The Epic Journey: Trans-Siberian Railway

Route: Moscow to Vladivostok, Russia
Duration: 6 days

The Trans-Siberian railway is the longest and most famous train ride in the world. It’s a once in a lifetime journey and a trip I planned to take on my first round the world trip in 1994. Unfortunately, finances and paperwork put and end to that dream but it’s still high on my list of must do travel adventures. You can read about the Trans-Manchurian trip over at Nomadic Chick which is a good option if you want to end up in Beijing rather than Vladivostok. It’s good to know that the 6 day train trip can be broken up with a few side trips.

4. Waterworld: The Flam Railway

Route: Flam to Myrdal, Norway
Duration: 1 hour

I’ve yet to set foot in Norway but would love to correct that omission sooner rather than later. The Flam Railway seems like an ideal way to take in the beautiful Norwegian fjords and waterfalls and the train even stops for a photo op during the summer months. How considerate. Check out QuirkyTraveller’s post for a first hand account of this unique train ride.

Photo credit: Train Chartering & Private Rail Cars

4 Weeks in The Balkans

Dubrovnik and Lokrum Island I’m not in a position to travel on a permanent basis at the moment but I did get the chance to take a one month trip this summer which reinforced my thoughts on long term travel.

I booked a one way flight to Dubrovnik, a few nights in an apartment, and no made no other plans. Dubrovnik was a dream come true and the entire Croatian coast was breathtaking. After spending a week or so exploring the islands around Dubrovnik (and a super quick detour to Bosnia), it was time to head north to Split for more island hopping. Not having any plans meant time to linger where I wanted and move on when the time felt right. My original thoughts were to continue north to visit the Plitvice Lakes and Zagreb but a last minute decision found me heading south to Montenegro and then Albania.

This wasn’t my first time in Albania but it was the first time I’d stayed in an apartment in Tirana for any length of time. Ten days in the capital gave me the time to start living like a local (and the time for day trips to nearby cities including Prizren in Kosovo). Food shopping in the morning markets, cafe hopping in the afternoons, the evenings in Blloku. I could get used to that lifestyle.

Then my time was up and I had to head back to Paris. The 4 weeks flew by and I know that even in 4 months I wouldn’t have seen everything I wanted. So I think this will be my first vagabonding destination. I will base myself in Tirana and then spend as long as it takes to explore the entire Balkan region.

Parc des Buttes Chaumont

Parc des Buttes Chaumont The Parc des Buttes Chaumont is a sprawling park in the emerging 19th arrondissement of Paris. It’s popular with picnickers, joggers, local families, as well as the hip after work crowd who like to hang out at the park’s trendy cafe/bar, the Rosa Bonheur.

Although not a popular tourist destination for visitors to Paris, it is a a great place to spend an summer’s afternoon if you are looking for off the beaten track places to visit in Paris. Get there by taking the metro to Buttes Chaumont or Botzaris.