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The Magical Christmas Markets of Europe

Christmas has been my favorite time of year for as long as I can remember. Giant decorated pines and millions of twinkling lights covering houses, it is simply a magical season that brightly stands out from the rest of winter. Before moving to Germany, I heard that the Christmas markets were a must see in the month of December and I have not been disappointed. Christmas markets consist of numerous stalls with various types of vendors selling gifts ranging from chocolates to ornaments. The markets all offer a variety of festively decorated stalls with everything Christmas from high-quality craftsmanship and gifts, colourful toys, unique Christmas tree decorations, delicious gingerbread cookies, and possibly the most important- the glühwein or fragrant mulled wine. Although there are some consistent aspects to the markets each city has slightly different themes and highlights worth seeing. The glittering lights and festive atmosphere of these old towns create a magical ambience, perfect for getting into the Christmas spirit. If all that still doesn't do the trick for you than just perhaps more of the glühwein will.

Traben-Trarbech Underground Market- Upon arriving in Germany, I spent the first week primarily doing check in at my new unit where I heard about several trips going to visit the various Christmas markets throughout the region during the month. So I signed up and went on one of the trips to the north-west region to visit Traben-Trarbach and Bernkastel that weekend. The first stop of the day was at the Traben-Trarbach market where there were several underground markets around the two cities which are separated by the Moselle River. The area is known for the high quantity of Riesling they produce which is generally stored in the massive wine cellars under the city. Yet during the winter the large cellars are transformed into an underground Christmas market around the city. Each of the different cellars has its own unique atmosphere filled with ornate handmade gifts, local crafts, delicious cheeses, scrumptious deserts and of course- wine. These old cellars housed a beautiful array of goodies and one even held a Christmas Tree decorating contest. After exploring the city and several of the tunnels, we all loaded back up on a bus and continued on to Bernkastel.

Bernkastel-Kueser- Significantly more charming of a small city, this Christmas market was complete with carolers, hard eggnog, and an entire advent building. As the sun began to set and the Christmas lights started coming to life, I understood completely why the markets were so popular with how charming the city looked. The main square held several of the decorative stalls, a massive Christmas tree, and a larger than life advent calendar on the side of a prominent building. In the windows of the giant half-timbered building, one door was opened every evening accompanied by some type of performance- either a song, a poem, or a reading.

The building became the absolute focal point of the crowd when the daily ceremony began all the way until it concluded with the turning of that day's advent calendar shutter. Again, as a huge Christmas fan I was immediately captivated by the entire series of events watching with the proceeding with eager anticipation. Shortly after the advent ceremony of events, the crowds migrated towards the river to watch the annual Santa swim. Over 100 bold souls dressed in santa suits plunged into the icy water to traverse the Moselle River carrying torches which marked the beginning of the season. Crowds lining the bridge and the river cheering on these Santas until they reached the other bank to hand out presents to the children. Over-all these two cities were an excellent introduction to the Christmas market scene and set the bar high for the markets.

Esslingen- one of the larger markets in the area, Esslingen boasts over 200 of the festively decorated stalls. However, this market is most notable for its medieval market containing merchants donned in full historical garb offering their various goods. Large sections of the market are filled with stalls offering craftsmanship from felt-makers, basket-makers, blacksmiths, rope-makers, and glass-blowers with very unique handmade items. There were several places where visitors could try their hand at games such as axe throwing or catch a skills demonstration of archery or juggling. Several of the intersections were filled with stages where performers entertained the crowds. Although we could not understand any of the apparently comedic act, the crowd seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the performance based on their uproarious response. Outside of the medieval market there was also a large square filled with the more traditional Christmas market stalls ensuring that visitors could find anything they wanted!

Tübingen- another one of the popular markets is Tübingen which incorporates a chocolate festival for a short period of time. There were nearly 100 chocolatiers from five continents including Africa, North and South America and Europe that offered a wide selection of indulgent treats. With Tübingen's idyllic old quarter as the backdrop, chocolate lovers will find it hard to make their way through this market with the endless tables of tempting treats. This market offers melt-in-the-mouth confections, luxury chocolate tastings, spicy chocolate, beautiful praline artwork, cocoa paintings, and gooey Nutella crepes. Master chocolatiers from all over the world sell and compete to win the best cocoa-based products in the festival. Although I am a huge fan of glühwein, Tübingen had a slightly different version that was mixed with a rich hot chocolate and was absolutely delicious. This is definitely a good market to arrive hungry at since many of the vendors offer samples to entice you in for a closer look.

Stuttgart- after moving into an apartment in downtown Stuttgart in the middle of December, it was exciting to walk just a few short blocks and discover another beautiful market! Stuttgart’s Christmas Market is actually one of the oldest and one of the largest of its kind in all of Europe with nearly 300 stalls. It had beautiful illuminations and had several festive concerts with seasonal music by top-class choirs and musicians in the Old Palace courtyard.

Stuttgart's market consists of five cobbled squares in the pedestrian only area downtown. It also has a small outdoor skating rink called “Winterland” on the Palace Square filling the air with popular Christmas songs which is close to the miniature steam railway and Grimm’s fairy tale figures. Also the stalls were some of the most ornately decorated of any of the markets due to the competition where prizes are awarded by a jury for the Christmas Market's most beautiful stall. Thankfully the food was delicious and cheap because it became a frequent evening dinning destination since the fridge in the apartment had some issues when we first moved in.

Rothenburg- Since the 15th-century, the advent festivities in this classic city have been paired with a Christmas market. Rothenburg has over 500 years of history, which has supposedly hardly changed since its origins. The city is well known for selling Christmas decorations throughout the year since it holds the headquarters to Käthe Wohlfahrt’s Christmas Village, one of the world's biggest Christmas decoration manufacturers. Yet the Christmas holiday is still a very special time to visit the city in order to see the market in all of its glory. Despite being a very popular tourist destination, it was a surprisingly quiet city. After getting our Christmas mugs filled with hot glühwein and kinderpunsch we explored the edge of the beautiful walled city. As we continued on, we wandered through the winding cobble stoned streets and visited Käthe Wohlfahrt’s Christmas Village in the center of the romantic medieval town. Despite the dreary weather on the day we visited, the town still felt like stepping into a Disney movie which probably had something to do with the fact that Rothenburg was the inspiration for the village in Pinocchio. This charming little market had all of the traditional trimmings of pastries and bratwursts, but also offered weißer glühwein (white mulled wine) and some delicious cherry glühbier.

Paris- known as the "City of Light," even Paris undergoes a beautiful transformation during the holiday season with most of the city’s most beautiful monuments and avenues being illuminated. Christmas decorations and trees fill the streets and the boutique store windows are filled with decorative and detailed displays. The city is lined with boughs from fir trees, small nativity scenes, several merry-go-rounds, and numerous small markets with decorative stalls in the plazas. Even directly below the Eiffel Tour is a small red carpet lined market tempting every passerby with fragrant smelling foods as they explored the area. Yet the holiday cheer is certainly not limited to the markets as many restaurants and even street vendors offer cups of vin chaud, which is perfect for warming hands and keeping toasty in the cold air. After dropping my bag at the Air Bnb apartment in the heart of Le Marais, I headed a few blocks away to visit Notre Dame and my favorite Crêperie in Paris. When my friend arrived, we spent the day exploring the entire city, but only after a glass of vin chaud sitting in the Jardin des Tuileries watching the crowds stream in and out of the Louvre. The whole city was a buzz with a mix of locals doing their last minute shopping and wide-eyed tourists wandering around the magical city. Only a dusting of snow could have made it feel more Christmassy.

Strasbourg- on Christmas Eve we caught a late morning train out to Strasbourg. The city officially became the Capital of Christmas in 1992 and the title seemed to be a fairly accurate assessment due to the extensive illuminations and extravagant decorations around the entire historic part of the city. The history of the markets in the city date all the way back to 1570, which makes them one of the oldest in all of Europe and the first in France. Although historic records of Strasbourg show that it held a Klausenmärik (Saint Nicolas market) on the 6th of December, the famous Christkindelsmärik (Christmas market) how it is currently referred to, began when the Klausenmärik was abolished in an effort to remove ties to Catholicism. Another unique tidbit of history with this market is that because Strasbourg was originally a part of the German Rhineland but later became a French city, it has retained traditions from both sides of the border. Although the cathedrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg undoubtedly steals the show with its stunning details and beautiful bells, the massive 30-metre-tall tree at the heart of the city in the Place Kléber is a very close second. Pictures simply do not do this enormous Christmas tree justice. At first glance I thought that it looked even bigger than the tree in NYC at Rockefeller Plaza and after a quick google fact check, I discovered that it was indeed several feet taller!

Colmar- this final market was a last minute addition since it was one of only ones that was actually open on Christmas Day. I assumed that it would be relatively quiet and not much would be open since everyone would probably be celebrating at home with their families, but that was not the case by the end of the day. In the morning, the town was quite sleepy and only a few of the stalls were opened to the handfuls of visitors roaming around. However, there was no lack of things to see as the cobblestone streets winded through a city that was filled with corners each offering more adorable and quaint streets than the last. Even though the Air Bnb in Strasbourg that we stayed in looked like a gingerbread house that had come to life, Colmar was filled with even more picturesque half-timbered medieval and early Renaissance buildings. Similar to Strasbourg, the town is located in the Alsace region of northeastern France very near to the border with Germany. Throughout Christmas afternoon we explored the five different markets in the city and essentially ate our way through the town sampling everything from the traditional Christmas oysters and champagne to some of the most delicious Käsespätzle (a mess of macaroni and cheese style noodles with bits of meat) and Bière De Noël, until we literally couldn't take another bite. The Marché de Noel Colmar became more and more lively as the day wore on and more families emerged from their homes to join in the festivities. By the time the sun set and we were heading back to catch the train out, the streets were filled with market-goers celebrating the end of Christmas in one of the most magical markets!

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