Romance and pretty things at the Christmas Market
Christmas markets have been around almost since the dawn of time, well, at least since Medieval times. The oldest Christmas market - or Weinachtsmarkt - recorded is one in Vienna, which was credited as having started in 1294. Then came Bautzen in what is today Eastern Saxony in the east of the country.
Hot on their heels is its more famous cousin in Dresden (also in Saxony) which pulls in about 2 million visitors a year in the four weeks of advent in which its open; the Dresden market is thought to have started in around 1424.
The magic of Christmas
Other unmissable products at the Christmas markets are caramelized almonds and other nuts, gluehwein, or spiced mulled wine, beer, eierpunsch (egg punch) Christmas cakes and biscuits like Stollen and gingerbread or Lebkuchen, iced gingerbread hearts, and of course sausages and barbecues of all kinds.
Saxony is well known in Germany for its Christmas markets
Many local people will meet in the Weinachtsmarkt for an evenings entertainment, drinking at one of the pubs or bars that set up, eating at a different stall each evening and browsing the other shops and stalls on offer. At the weekends, the nearer it gets to Christmas, people actually shop for gifts and special things to take home, but mostly it's a place for fun and entertainment, bringing the season of goodwill to everyone in the town.
The UK, which, apart from its Saxon origins, is never averse to a spot of commercialization, has done the tradition proud, opening up bigger and better markets each year, from Lincoln to Liverpool to Manchester to London and Norwich. Now that German food and culture is becoming trendy, London's Hyde Park hosts its own version of a super special German Christmas market which you can visit in December if you happen to be in London.
Birmingham's one in 2011 was the biggest in the country and also pulled in a couple of million visitors in the four weeks it remained open. In some fairs you'll find German traders travelling across Europe to sell their products in the UK or France, in others you'll find local craftspeople and farmers selling their wares in a kind of Christmas themed farmers market.
Wherever you happen to be in Europe, these markets are a must visit for pretty things and to help you get into the spirit of the season, but for the best ones, it has to be Germany, Austria or Switzerland where you'll be warmed up and danced round the square as the bands play and the lights glisten in the cold frosty air.