European Christmas Markets

You'd have to have lived under a blanket for the last few years not to have noticed the increasing number of Christmas markets here in the UK. And while these are undoubtledly fabulous, you have to go to mainland Europe to really get a taste of the traditional. It seems that just about every country in Europe has a Christmas market tradition. From the Valkenburg Christmas market in Holland, which takes place in a large cave, to the one in Lille which is just at the end of a Eurostar journey from the UK, there are countless markets offering a wide variety of traditional European Yuletide gifts, food & drink.

I've been fortunate enough to visit several Christmas markets and, let me tell you, the fairy lights, the scent of gingerbread and the taste of mulled wine are more than a little bit addictive. It might be too late to plan a trip for this Christmas but, while we're in the festive mood, why not take a look and make early plans for next year?

One of Berlin's many Christmas markets along the Ku'Damm.

 If Germany is the home of the Christmas market - and with more than a hundred large ones from which to choose, who could argue with that - then Berlin, the largest city in Continental Western Europe, is most certainly the capital. With its 60, yes 60, individual markets, a trip to Berlin in the run-up to Christmas is the perfect treat for yourself. And you'll probably be able to do most of your Christmas shopping there too. Even if you can't find what you want within the markets, Berlin offers some of the best shopping in the world. Individual wooden stalls, decorated with thousands of fairy lights and hundreds of pine trees line streets and squares all across the city centre.  The market at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church (the Gedachtniskirche), beside the Europa Center at one end of the Ku'Damm is one of the largest and most diverse.

 With stalls offering everything from tablecloths, clothing and cakes to baubles, breads and bratwurst, there is something for everyone. There's a wide range of gluhwein (German mulled wine) fortified with everything from brandy to rum and some fabulous food like fried potatoes, garlic mushrooms, donuts, waffles and garishly-decorated chocolate-covered apples.

At the Gendarmenmarkt, certainly one of Berlin's most beautiful squares, stands another. It offers the basic essentials - lebkuchen, stollen and so on - but also works of art, paintings, sculptures and the like.

While at the fair beside the Opera House on Unter Den Linden, craftsmen and women from all across Germany, and the Czech Republic sell tree decorations, nativities, wooden toys, carvings and puppets as well as beeswax candles and slippers. In contrast, the market at Alexanderplatz provides a massive ferris wheel and merry-go-rounds. On Postdamerplatz, once in the middle of no-man's land in the old divided city, stands the Sony Center - a huge, ultra-modern entertainment venue. Inside, amid spectacular and state-of-the-art decorations, stand cosy cabins concentrating on providing sustenance to the weary shopper. A few dozen metres away outside (this is metric Germany, after all!) is 'Winter World' - a more traditional market with an ice rink and sled run.

Christmas market beside Unter Den Linden in Berlin

The market at Alexanderplatz, Berlin

If the idea of a trip to Germany is simply too ordinary, why not visit Krakow? The Polish city has much to offer the visitor, from affordable fine restaurants to a fairytale castle, but the Christmas market, despite the chill wind that attacks the city in the winter, is a cheering and warming experience. Largely this is due to the copious availability of gzraniec galicyjski - a particularly potent version of mulled wine. Just breathing in the vapours will warm you right through! It's easy enough to find. It's sold from stalls shaped like giant wooden barrels, which are dotted every few yards through the market and, like seemingly everything in Krakow, sensibly priced. The food, too, is fabulous and you simply have to try the smoky-flavoured oscypek cheese - a rural highland variety - that is fried or grilled and served with sweet cranberry sauce.

If you're really determined to shop for gifts, there's plenty on offer in Krakow. From beautiful highly-decorated trinkets, to ornate eggs, wooden carvings and Baltic amber jewellery which, when I visited two years ago, was at a very good price.

Unsurprisingly, Scandinavian cities offer a good range of Christmas markets too. In particular the large market in the Tivoli Gardens (a cross between an amusement park, a pleasure garden and a food paradise) is pretty beyond words.

Testing the grzaniec galicyjski at Krakow's Christmas market.

 With tens of thousands of twinkling lights, braziers - essential even to hardy Danes to ward off the extreme cold - gift shops, craftspeople and special Yuletide attractions, Tivoli is a true winter wonderland. There is a chance to meet Father Christmas and sit in his sleigh, and to mingle with dozens of animatronic nisse - Danish pixies that are an important part of Yuletide festivities. And you have to try the famous aebleskiver - round Danish pancake-type fritters served with icing sugar and sweet jam - just fabulous, especially when washed down with a glass of traditional glogg (just watch out for the raisins and almonds at the bottom of your cup! Tivoli at Christmas is ever-changing and in 2010 the park features a toboggan run and ice sculptures. My only word of warning is that Tivoli's restaurants can be expensive - even the less exclusive ones. In fact Copenhagen itself is a pricey place to go for us Brits. But there are ways around it. You can eat a reasonably-priced and fairly satisfying meal in a restaurant over lunch - it'll be dark and gloomy outside anyway and you'll welcome a warming meal inside come midday. Then, come evening, take advantage of the tasty and cheaper food from the market stalls or the more family-friendly amusement park stands instead.

Traditional Dutch pancakes, or poffjertes, at Birmingham

Some of the German-style food on offer at Birmingham's Christmas Market

But what if you just don't want to travel overseas to celebrate Christmas? Well, many cities in the UK now hold their own markets come Christmastime with places like Lincoln, Worcester, Cirencester and Bury St Edmunds among them. Birmingham claims to have the largest and most authentic German-style market in the UK. Indeed the city even goes as far as to name it Birmingham's 'Frankfurt' Christmas market. Unable this year to travel to Europe, we decided to give the Birmingham market a try. It's certainly big, with around 200 stalls, and a wide variety of goods on offer from wooden decorations and woolly hats to Germans sweets and gingerbread. However, many of the stalls are repeated - with some stalls seeming to have several 'branches' scattered throughout the market and I can't promise that it's absolutely authentic either. The mulled wine is far weaker than anything I've tried on the Continent. Of course, I may be alone in the belief that, where warming winter drinks are concerned (I promise you I'm not a big boozer!), the stronger the better. The food, however, is authentic. With plenty of sausages available, as well as waffles. I particularly enjoyed the fried potatoes and mushrooms served with a garlic sauce but was too full (not surprising after a chocolate-filled donut!) to try the Dutch poffjertes (little pancakes dusted with sugar and spice).