I love to travel and I love the holiday season, so what better way to combine both — a trip to Europe to experience the holiday markets!
It was in Strasbourg in 1570 that the very first edition of the oldest Christmas market in Europe took place. It is still called the Christkindelsmärik — market of the Infant Jesus.
My kids and I were first exposed to European Christmas markets in 2001, while living in Tuscany. We watched local merchants decorate their stores inside and out with natural materials — garlands of magnolia leaves or fresh pine, accessorized with pine cones and holly berries. Main piazzas proudly hosted freshly-cut pine trees decorated with thousands of colourful lights, while street vendors set up, selling anything from roasted chestnuts to silk scarves, from truffles and local cheeses to ceramics and handmade wooden and glass ornaments, to numerous variations of the nativity scene.
While we lived there the town of Lucca set up an outdoor skating rink in the main piazza for the first time in their history, and my kids were certain it was because three Canadians were in town.
We eventually came home to Canada, and a few years ago I decided to travel back to eastern Europe in early December specifically to enjoy one of my bucket list items — experience some world-renowned Christmas markets at their finest.
We decided to do this from the comfort of a river cruise ship, and chose the Budapest to Passau itinerary. We arrived in Budapest with a day to spare, and so had time to stroll about this beautiful city and visit two of Budapest’s Christmas markets. The first was in Vörösmarty Square. There were gift stalls and a tent with folk dancers, but this is definitely the place to come for food. Hot sausages and Hungarian baked goods, including lángos (deep fried flatbread with a variety of toppings), strudels and kürtöskalács (chimney cakes).
A trip to the Great Market Hall, Budapest’s famous indoor market, is a must. The first floor is filled with locals buying groceries. It’s a foodie’s delight, and for the season there are even garlic buds packaged as tree ornaments, complete with red bows. Upstairs caters more to tourists, with souvenirs like paprika and t-shirts.
In Budapest, our favourite Christmas market was situated in front of St. Stephen’s Basilica. It featured a small skating rink, and the big attraction was the hourly lightshow on the Basilica. After a while we sat and watched the world go by from a local café.
Our cruise began the next morning. The eight-day journey took us along the Danube River, through four of Europe’s most enchanting countries: Hungary, Slovakia, Austria and Germany. Each day we woke up in a new port and everywhere we went the yuletide spirit embraced us. Each stop presented narrow alleyways in romantic towns and villages, and open-air markets with fragrances of gingerbread, mulled wines, roasted chestnuts and grilled sausages. Old town squares were festively illuminated with twinkling lights, while local artisans in wooden stalls displayed unique items such as handmade wooden toys, delicate ornaments made from blown glass, gingerbread houses, and local food delicacies.
One of our most memorable moments occurred in Salzburg. Seemingly out of nowhere St. Nick came down the cobblestone street in a horse-drawn carriage, driving amidst all of the wonderfully decorated baroque shops with their charming wrought-iron guild signs. A string quartet filled the air with classical music — Mozart, of course — and it did begin to feel like the hills surrounding Salzburg were alive with the sound of music (forgive me). Around every corner there were more musicians, including a flutist and a classical guitarist.
Vienna had over 29 Christkindlmarkts. There was a small one in front of St. Stephan’s Cathedral, but the main one was located at the Rathausplatz, the square in front of the city hall. There were over 150 stalls selling anything from ornaments to Krapfen (donuts filled with jelly) and hot chocolate, to roasted nuts and yet again, Glühwein. Carolers and trumpeters provided angelic sounds, and here I purchased beautiful hand-painted ornaments that each year adorn our Christmas tree and bring back fond memories.
On our final day we docked in Passau, known as Dreiflüssestadt (City on Three Rivers) because it’s situated at the confluence of the Danube, Ilz and Inn rivers. The Christmas market was small but it was one of our favourites. Although we were abundantly well-fed on our cruise ship, we continued to spoil our appetites by enjoying some final local German treats. Here Glühwein was available in souvenir mugs that only cost between two and three extra euros.
A few pounds heavier but with wonderful life-lasting memories of yuletide days gone by, we returned home where we continue to welcome each winter holiday with family, close friends, good food and the true spirit of the season.
Claudia Viani is an avid traveller and has worked in the travel industry for over 35 years. She is a Director, Leisure Operations Canada, for Carlson Wagonlit Travel.