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Germany's Christmas Markets
Few places in the world do Christmas as well as Germany, and the country's Christmas markets, sparkling with white fairy lights and rich with the smells of gingerbread and mulled wine, are marvelous expressions of yuletide cheer.
Following a centuries-old tradition, more than 2,000 Weihnachtsmärtke spring up outside town halls and in village squares across the country each year, their stalls brimming with ornate tree decorations and handmade pralines. Elegant rather than kitsch, the markets last the duration of Advent—the four weeks leading up to Christmas Eve—and draw festive crowds to their bustling lanes, where charcoal grills sizzle with sausages and cinnamon and spices waft from warm ovens. Among the handcrafted angels and fairies, kids munch on candy apples and ride old-fashioned carousels while their parents shop for stocking stuffers and toast the season with steaming mugs of Glühwein and hot chocolate.
Glühwein, or mulled wine, literally translated, means "glowing wine" and a few cups of it will definitely add some color to your cheeks. Made with red wine, it can be fortified with a "schuss" or shot of schnapps, often rum or amaretto. Feuerzangenbowle, a supercharged version, is made by dripping burning, rum-soaked sugar into the wine. The nonalcoholic version is known as Kinderpunsch, or children's punch.
Best Christmas Markets
Perhaps the most famous Christmas Market in Germany, the Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt (Hauptmarkt, Nuremberg Nov. 25-Dec. 24, Mon.-Thurs. 9:30-8, Fri. and Sat. 9:30-10, Sun. 10:30-8, Christmas Eve 9:30-2 www.christkindlesmarkt.de) sits on the town's cobble-stoned main square beneath the wonderful Frauenkirche. Renowned for its food, particularly Nürnberger Bratwurstchen, tasty little pork and marjoram sausages, and Lebkuchen, gingerbread made with cinnamon and honey, the market is also famed for its little figures made out of prunes called Nürnberger Zwetschgenmännla or "Nuremberg Plum People."
Dresden's Striezelmarkt (Altmarkt, DresdenNov. 24-Dec. 24, daily 10-9, Christmas Eve 10-2 www.dresden-striezelmarkt.de) dates back to 1434. Named after the city's famous Stollen, a buttery Christmas fruitcake often made with marzipan and sprinkled with powdered sugar, the market hosts a festival in its honor on the Saturday of the second weekend of Advent, complete with an enormous, 9,000-pound cake. Traditional wooden toys produced in the nearby Erzgebirge mountains are the other major draw.
Of Cologne's four main Christmas markets the Weihnachtsmarkt am Kölner Dom (Roncalliplatz, Cologne Nov. 21-Dec. 23, Sun.-Thurs. 11-9 www.koelnerweihnachtsmarkt.com), in the shadow of the city's UNESCO-listed cathedral, is the most impressive. Set against the backdrop of the church's magnificent twin spires, a giant Christmas tree stands proudly in the middle of the market's 160 festively adorned stalls, which offer mulled wine, roasted chestnuts, and many other German yuletide treats.
Hamburg's Historischer Weihnachtsmarkt (Rathausmarkt 1, Hamburg Nov. 21-Dec. 23, Sun.-Thurs. 10-9, Fri. and Sat. 10-10 www.hamburger-weihnachtsmarkt.com) enjoys a spectacular backdrop—the city's Gothic town hall. The market's stalls are filled with rows of candy apples, chocolates, and doughnuts. Woodcarvers from Tyrol, bakers from Aachen, and gingerbread makers from Nuremburg come to ply their wares. Designed by the circus company Roncalli, every evening at 4, 6, and 8, Santa Claus ho-ho-hos his way along a tight-wire high above the market.
The most popular of Berlin's 60 Weihnachtsmärkte is in front of the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche (Breitscheidplatz, Berlin Nov. 22-Jan. 1, Sun.-Thurs. 11-9, Fri. and Sat. 11-10), which was only partially rebuilt after World War II. The capital's modernity is reflected in the funky knickknacks and artwork on offer in the stalls.
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