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Saturday December 8, 2012

Christmas wonderland

Sweet enticeme nt: You
can get your fill of candy
from this stall at the
Maria-Theresien Platz
Christmas Market in
Vienna Sweet enticeme nt: You can get your fill of candy from this stall at the Maria-Theresien Platz Christmas Market in Vienna

The magic of Christmas is found in markets that spring up around Europe before the festive season. They are superb spots for purchasing unique gifts, great food and mulled wine.

IF you are planning a trip to Europe this December, you will be pleased to know that besides the shopping malls and high street shops, you can also have a great time at the Christmas Markets where you can pick up some really unique gifts.

Now, what is a Christmas Market? From late-November right up to Christmas Eve, a number of European cities set up open-air markets from mid-morning till night with brightly-lit and decorated stalls either in big squares or other public spaces where people are free to browse for gifts or decorative trims to add to their Christmas tree.

These markets are so well established that they have become an annual feature of the tourist calendar. During your travels, if you are looking for a quick bite between sight-seeing, these markets will be an ideal option as there will be stalls selling a variety of food and drinks.

The best time to visit is after night has set in, when the bright lights of the stalls beckon and turn the whole place into a cosy, lively and magical playground despite the cold mid-winter.

Check out the Christmas Markets in the three capital cities below with each offering a unique shopping experience. No matter which city you choose, the markets there are guaranteed to make your trips more fun and memorable.

The Christmas Market in front of the Austrian Gallery at Belvedere Garden in Vienna The Christmas Market in front of the Austrian Gallery at Belvedere Garden in Vienna

VIENNA

The Christmas Markets in Austria are an established tradition, dating back to 1294 and as many as 25 markets are held all over Vienna. Visitors are bound to come across a few of them as these markets are often located on the tourist trail.

The one at the Maria-Theresien Platz, sandwiched between the Natural History Museum (surely a great place for kids) and the Museum of Fine Arts (with its vast treasure of masterpieces), is a convenient place to start as it is located in the Museum Quarter.

Spread out amongst the manicured bushes, the stalls offer a variety of Christmas gifts such as soft toys, embroidered table-cloths and napkins, fashion accessories plus knitted stockings to fill up with gifts, or to hang mobiles etc.

Food-wise, you can expect to find stalls selling roasted chestnuts, candied fruits, ginger bread, cookies, bagels, candy canes, grilled sausages, soft drinks, beer, coffee, Christmas punch and mulled wine.

The Belvedere Garden is a wonderful park to relax and stroll in at any time of the year. This park is huge, beautifully landscaped and comes complete with statues of sphinxes, Greek gods and goddesses and a large ornate fountain.

Anchoring the garden at both ends are two palaces turned into museums cum art galleries. In the driveway of the Austrian Gallery, the Christmas Market offers a good variety of gifts, hot food and drinks. The views of a snow covered garden and palace while sipping a mug of hot sweetened wine is priceless.

Tourists flock to visit Schonbrunn Palace to see the royal apartments of the Hapsburg monarchs. In December, you will see stalls stretched out across the lawn of this long palace, selling all types of Christmas gifts. You can warm yourself up with a cup of coffee or mulled wine from the drink stalls before visiting the imperial apartments or strolling in the huge park behind the palace.

The biggest and best Christmas Market in Vienna is located in front of the Gothic-looking City Hall. Surrounded by trees draped with twinkling lights, the stalls are spread out in front of the entrance. In the evening, brass bands perform seasonal music to get you into the yuletide mood.

The stalls here are opened right up to New Year’s Day when this place becomes the venue to watch the morning live telecast of the world-famous New Year’s Day Concert, performed by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra that is broadcast directly from the Musikverein Concert Hall nearby.

Christmas mobiles and gifts for sale at the Christmas Market. Christmas mobiles and gifts for sale at the Christmas Market.

BERLIN

Berlin is such an exciting and hip city with many tourist sights. When the Christmas Markets are set up in December, the attractions just multiply and you can palpably feel the magic in the air.

A good place to check out is Alexanderplatz, a huge square dominated by the soaring Television Tower and a busy intersection for trains. There are rows of stalls in this Christmas Market as well as a brightly lit merry-go-round that helps to add glitz and merriment for the kids.

You will be drawn to check out the huge variety of Christmas gifts, punctuated with stops at the food stalls to tuck into a hot grilled bratwurst with mustard or curry sauce, washed down with a mug of mulled wine. The mugs are for sale and will be a great memento of your trip to Berlin.

On a side-street off Unter den Linden, the busy thoroughfare that continues right up to the famous Brandenburg Gate, shoppers will find another Christmas Market. This market is a good pit stop for tourists to recharge themselves with hot food and drinks while visiting the attractions nearby which include the huge Berlin Cathedral, the Opera House and the five museums that are located on Sinsel Island.

In West Berlin at the Zoologischer Garten area, there is a huge Christmas Market clustered around the bombed-out memorial of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Church. The brightly lit stalls stretch onto Kurfurstendamm Boulevard, blending with colourfully, lit Christmas motifs on streetlamps.

When you add in the flashing lights of a merry-go-round and a tall, glittering Christmas tree, this place turns into a magical fantasyland at night.

However, the most luxurious Christmas Market must surely be at Gendarmenmarkt, a lovely square that is bordered on one side by the Konzerthaus, a classical music concert hall; and on the other two sides, by two identical cum neo-classical churches.

You have to pay one Euro (RM4) to get inside this Christmas Market, unlike the others, which are free. For the upmarket patrons here, the stalls are spread under conical pavilions with a glittering star on top, giving the look of an elegant garden party.

More up-market gifts are sold here such as scarves, costume jewellery, trinkets, paintings, lampshades, ceramics, crystals etc. Besides the normal mulled wine and beer, quality wines and champagne are served in proper wine glasses by staff in white aprons to patrons seated in proper siting places.

Musicians perform on a covered stage set up in the middle of the square, entertaining this fashionable crowd with seasonal carols and funky jazz every night.

A feast for the senses: A Hungarian food stall and a chamber music group at Vorosmarty Square in Budapest. A feast for the senses: A Hungarian food stall and a chamber music group at Vorosmarty Square in Budapest.

VIENNA

Where Christmas Markets are concerned, Budapest is an upstart because the Hungarians only started this “tradition” 14 years ago with one market at Vorosmarty Square. With its success, they have opened up a few others, including one in front of St Stephen’s Basilica.

However, the best is still at Vorosmarty Square which is surrounded by historic buildings and is the starting point for Vaci Utca, a busy shopping street. The mighty Danube River and Buda Castle on the other side of the river are just minutes away from here.

In this Christmas Market, rows of stalls offer unique handcrafted gifts such as soft toys, embroidered tablecloths, jewellery, accessories, knitted scarves, hats, cookies, candied fruits etc.

Other than the usual grilled sausages and steak, the food stalls here offer freshly cooked food like strudel, stuffed cabbage and Hungarian goulash (their national dish). Look out also for “Kurtas Kalacs”, an unusual snack of a cylindrical-shaped pastry rolled over hot coals and then coated with cinnamon sugar and chocolate powder.

An open-air stage at one corner provides opportunities for small ensembles of musicians to serenade the crowds with Hungarian Gypsy music, alternating with folk dances performed by locals dressed in traditional costumes. For tourists, this is a treat as it offers a glance into Hungarian folk dances for free.

Market tip

> In Vienna, the Christmas Market at City Hall starts from Nov 17 to Dec 24.

> In Berlin, the Christmas Market at Gendarmenmarkt is from Nov 26 to Dec 31.

> In Budapest, the Christmas Market at Vorosmarty Square starts from Nov 16 to Dec 30.

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