What comes to mind when you think of Christmas? Do you think of Santa, snow, and presents? Then you are probably a kid (or it’s your inner child talking). Do you think of long-awaited time off-work, long lines at shopping mall, and endless relatives’ visits? Then you must be the kid’s parent. And if you think of smells: cinnamon, fresh pine, burning wood, you’re probably a romantic. Do you want to know what I think of? Just close your eyes (figuratively, otherwise you can’t read) and imagine a little cozy square in a town tucked away behind mountains, surrounded by centuries-old buildings casting warm glow from large windows. The square is filled with people and market stalls, offering fragrant roasted nuts, hot spiced wine in festive mugs, stacks of freshly baked gingerbread and fruit bread. There also pine trees, large and small, dressed in sparkly outfits, exquisite hand-made ornaments and even occasional horses passing by. And it’s cold! Have you guessed where I am going with this? How about Salzburg!
Situated along the northern border of Alps, this fourth-largest Austrian city is famous for being the birthplace of Mozart, filming of Sound of Music, Sacher hotel with world-famous chocolate cake (“sachertorte”) and most importantly, beautifully preserved old town centre with countless number of churches, charming cemetery (I bet you can’t imagine that!), and a massive medieval castle on top of the hill. Then there are also Mirabell Gardens that look inviting at any time of the year, even in dead of winter when nothing is in bloom. Plus, you can always visit the awesome trolls in one of the secluded gardens. Finally, there is a creepy life-like statue of a dude on a giant golden ball and adorable display of giant cucumbers. In other words, Salzburg can impress even the weariest of travelers.
If you want to experience traditional [European] Christmas atmosphere, there is no better way then by visiting German and Austrian Weihnachtsmarkten or Christkindlmarkten (good luck pronouncing these German words for ‘Christmas markets’ correctly). During four weeks of Advent, which starts at the end of November and ends on Christmas eve, cities and villages in these countries observe centuries-old tradition of outdoor Christmas markets where open stalls are setup, usually in main town square, to sell seasonal food, handmade goodies, toys, and unmatched Christmas atmosphere. Although there is abundance of markets to choose from, ranging from very small ones perched on roundabouts to enormous ones in Nuremberg and Dortmund, occupying big chunk of the city centre, the one in Salzburg is my favorite. It’s just about the perfect size, offers wide range of food from lebkuchen and giant sweet pretzels to baked potatoes, has a nice selection of unique hand-crafted ornaments and toys (which is not always the case as some markets focus mostly on food), and incredibly scenic backdrop of mountains.
I know the description of market may appear a bit lacking but this experience can’t be described in words – you have to come and, well experience it. Drink a mug of spiced Glühwein (remember to return the cup if you want your deposit money back), eat a lebkuchen, inhale the scent of roasted nuts, and walk several times through the same aisles telling yourself that you don’t have space in your luggage to carry all these things that you are potentially tempted to buy. Then take a break from the market and climb up the hill to the castle for a breathtaking view of the city and a close look at the fortress. Climb down and wonder aimlessly through winding streets and narrow alleys, discovering old churches and unusual shops. Stop for a hot chocolate at one of the elaborately decorated cafes or walk over to Sacher Cafe for a piece of rich chocolate sachertorte, served in classy environment reminiscent of early last century. Also, don’t forget to get a couple of chocolate Mozartkugeln (literally: Mozart balls) in one of the shops (you can’t miss them) to bring back with you.
Let Salzburg sweep you away with its beauty, charm, history and hospitality, and then head over to my former home, Munich, a short two-hour train ride away, where you’ll find Christmas markets all over the city. One market not to miss is the Medieval Market (“Mittelaltermarkt”) near Odeonsplatz; as the name says it, it’s a market with a medieval twist including theme costumes, music and food. I could write for a long time describing Munich’s markets and then move on to Nuremberg but that would be too boring to read because you need to get out and experience the magic of Christmas markets yourself!