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Xmas markets: are they worth the effort?

Markets make seasonal city breaks go with a swing

I’ve seen a couple of suggestions in recent days, now that advent is upon us, that the German Christmas market scene is over-hyped. And that the markets don’t deserve the high profile they are given by tour operators and by tourist boards.

As you might expect me to say, I can’t agree – although I’m not sure I would make the markets the sole purpose of a trip to Germany at this time of year. The fact is that December is a particularly low moment in the travel agenda, when not many people are thinking of going overseas. Accordingly airlines, tour operators and hotels have lots of space to fill, so they leap on the Christmas markets bandwagon in the hope of filling them. Which can result in heavy-handed selling.

However most people who buy into it find the whole experience pretty rewarding, as demonstrated by how the size of the sector has grown from year to year. The key word is, of course, gemütlichkeit (untranslateable but ‘cosiness’ is the closest English can get). There’s an all-enveloping sense of well-being that descends on every market-filled town square at this time of year, and it has a variety of key ingredients.

Firstly, there’s the pure aesthetic of the coloured lights, the décor, and the (hopefully) fairy-tale setting. Then there’s the stuff on the stalls, usually things of beauty and intricate craftsmanship, albeit often fairly useless. Add to this all the pleasant aromas of specially-warming food and drink, plus the sense of excitement, of celebration of a big holiday to come, and the infectious delight of children and the young at heart. On top of which, if you’re a local, comes the chance to meet friends or colleagues at a no-pressure social occasion that doesn’t cost much, that no-one has to host, and from which it is easy to walk away. What’s not to like?

I think the only danger in a Christmas-market based break is in it becoming too one-track minded; a diet of markets alone becomes cloyingly saccharine-sweet. In essence, these are city breaks, in destinations which have great museums and galleries, interesting history, and colourful architecture, and should be approached as such. The market(s) are merely the icing on the cake. The Christmas cake.

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