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Christmas comes alive in German and Austrian Christkindlmarkts

Munich, Germany

Strolling through a charming Christkindlmarkt at dusk, when shadows stretch and the already-chilly air cuts deeper, I feel as if I'm living a Christmas carol.

Take your pick. O Tannenbaum. White Christmas. Silent Night. The lyrics bounce easily from memory, some even in German painstakingly taught by a long-ago Sunday school teacher.

Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!

Alles schlaft; einsam wacht . . .

And then, all is bright.

The phrase plays in my mind as I wander among the wooden stalls of Christmas tree ornaments, nutcrackers, handmade wooden toys, giant pretzels, spicy gingerbread, and woolen scarves and mittens. Strands of lights dally against the inky sky and I am alternately freezing to death and warmed by a Christmas spirit I haven't felt in years.

Even the cheeks of the revelers who've had a few too many steaming mugs of gluhwein look merry and bright. Not sure how that plays in the morning when the alarm clock screeches, but right now, in the glow of festive lights, everything looks immeasurably cheery.

I'm floating in a snow globe.

All around me are enchanting sights and sounds and smells. Tightly bundled children race around socializing parents. Adults walk arm in arm, keeping warm and locked together amid scrums of shoppers. Bells clang from ancient church steeples and the glockenspiels of neo-Gothic city halls. Aromas, sweet and savory, come in waves. The cinnamon and orange of mulled wine (that's the gluhwein) on one aisle meet the greasy-delicious smell of sizzling wurst on another.

Then there are the guys selling heiss maroni — chestnuts roasted over an open fire.

Again, the Christmas carols.

Tradition and gingerbread

All over Germany and Austria, from major city to tiny village, outdoor Christmas markets — Christkindlmarkts — spring up around Advent. The big markets are open every day, the smaller ones on the weekend, but all are at their most beautiful at night.

The tradition goes back hundreds of years, and today millions of people stroll the brightly lit lanes and shop for Christmas gifts and decorations. Or nibble kartoffelpuffers (potato pancakes) and chocolate-covered fruit on sticks. Banana slices and strawberries are the most popular.

This year, during our Thanksgiving week and the week after, we visited more than 15 markets, stretching from Vienna to Salzburg and Munich and north to Nuremberg, possibly the area's most famous market and certainly one of the oldest. It's the capital of lebkuchen (gingerbread), which has been baked there since 1395.

The markets are as charming to locals as they are to tourists. Some are highly commercial; a circle of stalls in front of a train station may make some money but the setup is hardly authentic.

By 5:30 p.m., the stalls selling gluhwein and punsch, another hot spirited drink that comes in many flavors, are jammed with the post-work crowd. I steer clear of the punsch stands as the night wears on because things tend to get a little rowdy.

For those who don't want a buzz, try the kinderpunsch, the spiced apple cider meant for children (Even if you don't speak German, there are clues to the meanings of those megalong words. Think kindergarten and you'll understand kinderpunsch).

The opening of the markets heralds the holiday season and all the special foods and gifts that come with it. This weekend will be especially crowded because the markets close for the year on Christmas Eve. For most Austrians and Germans, that is the night the gifts are opened.

When the stalls are packed away and the new year comes, it can be a long, dreary wait until spring.

Christkindlmarkt flavor

Each market has its own flair and specialties, and if you're lucky enough to visit when they are dusted with snow, the tangle of stalls becomes even more magical. You are, after all, visiting the countries that gave the world the Christmas ornament and Silent Night.

The biggest and perhaps most famous market is in Nuremberg, where a Christmas angel with flowing yellow curls topped by a gold crown visits daily to hand out treats to children. It attracts more than 2-million visitors each year to browse the goods sold under distinctive candy-cane striped canopies. I find the wares here more tempting than at any other market. Handmade tiles of German scenes and lederhosen-clad villagers make it into my suitcase, as does a metal cuckoo clock ornament. And a little ceramic cat. And a book of paper dolls, Weihnachten Mit Clara.

Nowhere else will you find the pint-sized grilled wursts — about as big as your ring finger — called "drei im weggla" because you get three on a bun.

In Munich, near the neo-Gothic Rathaus, or city hall, there's a market that specializes in Nativity scene figures, made from wood, clay or porcelain. Pick the baby Jesus you want to go with the Mary you like best. There are even tiny battery-operated lanterns to hang in the stable. The huge market in front of city hall bustles with big-city energy. On a rainy evening, the lights burn even brighter, making the bitter cold more tolerable.

Vienna is flush with Christmas markets, from small neighborhood gatherings to a funky, hippie market in an area of the city flanked with Biedermeier architecture to the expansive main market in Rathausplatz. City Hall is transformed into a looming Advent calendar, with windows decorated for each date. Even the trees are draped with lighted balls. A motorized train carts visitors from one side to the other.

In Vienna, my favorite was a small market we found not far from the Rathaus on Alser Strasse, "near the old hospital," a helpful bellhop at our hotel told us. Like nearly every market we visited, we found it on foot, and were entertained for nearly an hour by a four-person horn ensemble playing familiar Christmas music, including Jingle Bells and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

I fell in love with Salzburg, the city where Mozart was born and lived until he was a teenager. The composer, it is said, found Salzburg stifling but I am completely smitten. The old city is highly walkable and the main pedestrian thoroughfare, the Getreidegasse, is lined with designer shops (lots of sales there these days) and places to stop for food. The house where Mozart was born in 1756 is also there.

The Salzburg Christmas market spills from the plaza in front of the Salzburg Cathedral, where Mozart's parents were married and which was heavily damaged in World War II, to the adjacent plaza near the town's glockenspiel. An outdoor ice skating rink nestles next to the composer's statue in Mozartplatz. High above the city is the Hohensalzburg Fortress, which affords fantastic views.

There is also a lovely market at Hellbrunn Castle, just south of Salzburg. A long lane lined with stalls opens up to a courtyard with a circle of stalls, selling sweet treats and handmade wooden toys. Sound of Music fans will be thrilled to see the gazebo used in the movie. It has been moved several times and is now encased in glass, so no one can twirl about inside. It seems some eager Americans have been injured jumping from bench to bench while singing Sixteen Going on Seventeen. (You learn all this if you take the Sound of Music tour. More on that in accompanying story, Page 6L.)

In the country

While the big-city Christkindlmarkts have the wow factor, the cozy markets of small villages sweep you off your feet. They aren't easy to find, but we hired a local Salzburg tour company to drive us into Austria's Salzkammergut (lake district) to visit some out-of-the-way markets.

On one of the lakes, Wolfgangsee, are three towns, each with picturesque markets. For a small fee, you can take a boat across the lake to each one. In St. Gilgen, I found myself wondering, Could any place on Earth really be this cute?

The stalls wind through the village, passing homes and small hotels that look like gingerbread houses. This is the town where Mozart's mother was born and it feels like maybe nothing has changed. Except for the price of property. The international headquarters for Red Bull is nearby.

On the other end of the lake, Strobl evokes the same feeling. Large wooden figures point skyward to shooting stars, and animals in small pens come close for a little sugar. Well, except for the reindeer, which keep a suspicious distance. One memorable moment: A large tricolored basset hound sitting perfectly still for a photo in a wooden manger.

Our guide took us to two small, rural markets in Ebenau and Guggenthal, neither far from Salzburg. The lovely little Ebenau market, open only on weekends, has six stalls and an overflowing spirit. Cannon blasts herald the opening of the market on the first afternoon, followed by a procession of singing children carrying candles. In the evening, fires burn in large metal drums to keep everyone warm when the punsch doesn't.

Up the hill in Guggenthal, the market raises money for the town's Catholic church. It hasn't snowed for a few days, but there is still a foot or so on the ground. It's the first time in the market's 25-year history that anyone can remember visitors who spoke only English.

But the scene needs no translation. Christmas is coming and the lights and lightness of spirits tell us that. At this small Christkindlmarkt in the Austrian Alps, my cheeks aflame and wool coat tugged tight, the beloved old carols come to life.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8586.

If you go

The Christkindlmarts

Austria's outdoor Christmas markets open each year about the third weekend in November while Germany's markets open a week later, on the Friday before Advent begins.

It is fairly easy to plan your own tour but if you want to leave it to someone else, both Trafalgar (www.trafalgartours.com) and Globus (www.globusjourneys.com) sponsor trips.

We flew in and out of Munich and in hindsight, we probably should have flown into Vienna and out of Munich so we didn't have to backtrack. Our tickets, booked in May on Lufthansa, were $730 each. What they will be next year is anyone's guess. Our economic troubles have spread to Europe so the dollar has gotten a bit stronger, but still it's pricey. The exchange rate was about $1.29 to one euro.

Rather than rent a car (who wants to try to park in the big cities?), we bought two-country Eurail passes that were good for five days of travel over a two-month period. We paid about $240 a ticket. This worked out to be cheaper than buying individual train tickets. Go to www.eurail.com for information or talk with a travel agent.

High-speed trains between Munich and Nuremburg make that ancient city an easy add-on excursion. The trip takes about an hour and the stroll to the center of town from the train station is scenic. The medieval walled city of Rothenberg, which we didn't visit, is a roughly four-hour train ride from Munich and has a famous market. It's worth an overnight stay if you have the time.

Christkindlmarkt information: In planning the trip, we found Rick Steves' Germany & Austria 2008 invaluable. (Be warned though, the tram that circles the old city in Vienna has been discontinued. We were disappointed because it would have been a great way to see Vienna.) Frommer's Austria guide book also was helpful.

As far as guide books go, there isn't much on the Christmas markets. Most of the information we found was from Google searches. There does not seem to be a central site that includes information for all the European markets.

Most big cities have several markets and you should be able to get information about where they are from your hotel desk clerk. The hotels we stayed in all had brochures about the markets and the Hotel de France in Vienna even had a sheet they had put together about the neighborhood gatherings.

Where to stay: We recommend hotels near the city center so you can walk to the main sites.

In Salzburg, we stayed at the historic and quirky Goldener Hirsch on the pedestrian Getreidegasse. It was the most expensive hotel ($240 a night for a triple) we stayed in, but the service was impeccable and the staff extremely helpful and friendly.

We went on the four-hour Sound of Music tour with Bob's Special Tours (www.bobstours.com; about $55 per adult) and hired our guide Rosa-Maria Reisinger to squire us to the countryside a few days later. A local, Rosa-Maria knew of the small markets in Austria's lake district. They also can be reached by bus and the folks at your hotel or the city's Tourist Information office should be able to help you.

The Mozart dinner concert (www.skg.co.at) at the Siftskeller St. Peter in Salzburg is a good introduction to some of the composer's most famous operas (tickets $100). A three-course dinner interspersed with music in a baroque hall is unforgettable.

In Vienna, we stayed at the Hotel de France (www.austria-hotels.at/de/hotel-de-france/index.html; about $200 a night), a business hotel on the Ringstrasse that circles the old city. The main Christmas market is just a few blocks away and three others are within walking distance, too. Public transportation is convenient.

In Munich, Hotel Daniel (www.hotel-daniel.de) was our home. It included an extensive breakfast and for the $150-a-night price, it was a bargain. Easy walking distance to the main train station and the old city's center, where the Christmas markets are. It's very touristy, but you've got to have a big beer and sausage and sauerkraut at the Hofbrauhaus (www.hofbraeuhaus.de) just a few blocks past the Rathaus. You're in Germany, after all, don't you want to hear some oom-pah music?

The St. Pete Travel Center in St. Petersburg, whose longtime owners are from Austria, helped put together some of the details for us. (727) 327-4444; www.stpetetravel.com.

Janet K. Keeler

If you go

To plan a trip to the Christkindlmarkts, please turn to Page 6.

On the Web

To see more photos from the Christmas markets of Austria and Germany and to hear music and chimes recorded there, go to travel.tampabay.com

Christmas comes alive in German and Austrian Christkindlmarkts 12/18/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 27, 2009 4:29pm]

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