Christmas markets just a flight away

With the festive season well underway, Christmas markets are striking up all over Europe... and beyond. Pól Ó Conghaile has a stocking full of travel tips.

Salzburg, Austria

Mozart is known all over the world. Josef Mohr, not so much. Mohr (1792-1848) was also born in Salzburg, however, and he was also a composer. He wrote ‘Silent Night’, a carol sung by three young girls beneath an archway in Salzburg when I visited just a few days go.

That sound, this setting — it’s pure Christmas. Salzburg’s elegant old town is dotted with domes and spires, its streetscape laced with lanes and alleys, with cosy shops and cafes. The Austrian city’s Christkindlmarkt takes place around the cathedral, but there are plenty of beeswax candles, mulled wine and wooden toys elsewhere too. All is calm. All is bright.

ClickandGo.com has flights plus two nights in a Vienna three-star hotel from €239pp, departing Sunday, December 15th. Vienna is 2½ hours by train from Salzburg.Details: lastminute.com; christkindlmarkt.co.at.

Budapest, Hungary

The best part of Budapest’s Christmas celebrations is the transformation of its 18th century Gerbeaud House into a giant Advent Calendar (each day, a window is opened to reveal a painting). Stalls in Vörösmarty Square offer everything from kürtoskalács (sweet Hungarian pastries) to finger-lickin’ waffles and mulled wine in specially commissioned mugs. It’s an authentic (and relatively cheap) city break.

Keith Prowse has return flights from Dublin with three nights in the four-star Radisson Blu Beke Hotel from €399pp departing Dec 6. The price includes a city tour of Budapest finishing at the markets with a complimentary pastry and glass of mulled wine.

Details: keithprowse.ie; itaa.ie/offers.

Chicago, USA

Think of Christmas markets, and Chicago doesn’t exactly spring to mind. The city’s Christkindlmarket is now in its 18th year, however, gathering an open-air festival around a 70-foot fir tree in Daley Plaza. Chicago has a rich German heritage, so vendors specialising in wursts, glühwein and pretzels know exactly how to cook up the real deal.

Trailfinders has direct flights plus three nights at Chicago’s three-star Essex Inn from €689pp, departing Dec 5, 6 and 7. It also has three-night packages to Washington DC, whose Christmas markets open by the Smithsonian, from €879pp.

Details: trailfinders.ie; christkindlmarket.com

Prague, Czech Republic

Prague is the perfect setting for the festive season — with its stunning castle, Old Town and Charles Bridge lit up like Christmas trees. The city’s tree itself is impressive too, shipped from the Krkonose Mountains and erected right at the heart of one of the main markets in the Old Town Square (there’s another at Wenceslas Square).

As well as the usual snacks and gifts, look for yummy Czech pastries, real-life cribs and traditionally-dressed puppets. GoHop.ie has flights with three nights at the three-star Botel Racek from €295pp departing Dec 12. The markets run to Jan 12.

Details: gohop.ie; christmasmarkets.com.

London, UK

The shopping is great, the flights are short and frequent, and London is hosting more Christmas events than ever this year, so what are you waiting for?

Along with markets at the Southbank Centre (southbankcentre.co.uk; until Christmas Eve), highlights of the festive season include brand new illuminated trails through Kew Gardens (kew.org, £12.50/£8), Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park (free) and the annual Christmas pudding race in Covent Garden (xmaspuddingrace.org.uk; Dec 7)

Ryanair and Aer Lingus fly from Cork and Dublin to various airports in London. Red Carnation Hotels has a collection of five-star boutique hotels in the city.

Details: redcarnationhotels.com; visitlondon.com.

Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen is another city that could have been constructed with Christmas in mind — especially the Tivoli Gardens. The traditional Danish markets here set dozens of food and gift stalls against the backdrop of a pop-up Russian basilica with nine domes. This is Tivoli, so expect lots of Christmas rides and reindeer too — with a magical ambience culminating in the annual fireworks festival (Dec 26-30). Lowcostholidays.ie has midweek breaks, including flights and two nights in a three-star hotel, from €169pp in December.

Details: visitcopenhagen.com; lowcostholidays.ie.

Prague, Vienna & Budapest

Can’t decide which Christmas market city to visit? Why not spread the love with a seven-day escorted tour from Insight Vacations? Departing Dec 15, the tour includes two nights in each Imperial city, with a mix of guided excursions and time to do your own shopping and chilling out. Excursions are led by a professional guide and include private tours through the courtyard of Prague Castle, the Schönbrunn Palace and Matthias Church, as well as a welcome reception and celebration dinner. Packages cost €1,539pp.

Details: 01 7753803; Insightvacations.com

Krakow, Poland

Krakow’s main square hasn’t changed its layout in 800 years, which makes for a pretty sensational setting come Christmas. Right now, St Mary’s Church and the surrounding Baroque and Gothic architecture are dotted with stalls selling baked potatoes, mulled wine and roast chestnuts, as well as gifts like handmade ornaments, wooden toys and Szopki — Krakow’s famous nativity cribs. Horse-drawn carriages continually circle the square, and the chances of snow are very good. Arrow Tours has flights plus three nights hotel from €192pp departing Monday, Dec 9.

Details: arrowtours.ie; itaa.ie/offers.

Vienna, Austria

Vienna’s Christmas markets are on the go since 1296, so centuries of tradition are on show in the stalls, carousels and fairy lights strung around its Town Hall Christkindlmarkt. Austrians love their gemütlichkeit (cosiness), a sensation that oozes not just from the city’s classy cafes, but heart-warming aromas of punch, roasted almonds and gingerbread emanating from markets at Schönbrunn Palace, Am Hof and Karlskirche too. Thomas Cook has flights with three nights at the four-star Austria Trend Hotel from €359pp departing December 7th.

Details: thomascook.ie; wien.info.

Munich, Germany

As far back as 1642, town records were mentioning a ‘Nicholas Market’ near Munich’s Frauenkirche, with gingerbread, nativity figurines and chimney sweeps made of plums and almonds amongst the fancies on display. It’s got history, in other words.

Today’s markets are set around a 100-foot Christmas tree in Marienplatz, and bursting with Bavarian foods, crafts and gifts. Everyone has their favourite treat — be it a wooden decoration for the tree, a restorative cup of glühwein, a chunky bratwurst or cheesy knitwear.

Marienplatz is just the start of it, too. Other markets in Munich include the Rindermarkt (specialising in handmade cribs) to the gay Christmas Market on Stephansplatz, famous for its pink trees and cross-dressing carol singers. Lastminute.com has flights with two nights at the four-star Hilton Munich City from €267pp departing Cork December 10th.

Details: lastminute.com; muenchen.de.

Torquay, UK

Manchester’s Christmas markets may be among the biggest in Europe, but Torquay’s are surely the most unusual. This year, the English Riviera is transforming itself into an unlikely winter wonderland with beach huts draped in fairy lights for Devon’s first seaside Christmas market. You can breathe in both sea and seasonal air, supping on a glass of mulled wine and spinning around an ice rink as the surf froths onshore. Flybe flies from Dublin to Exeter, or Aer Lingus Regional flies from Cork to Bristol, roughly a two-hour drive from Torquay.

Details: flybe.com; aerlingus.com, englishriviera.co.uk.

NB: All prices correct going to press, but subject to availability.

TRAVEL DIGEST by Barry Coughlan

LEE TRAVEL STENA LINES ‘GO TO’ LINK

Lee Travel has been chosen as Stena Line’s ‘go to’ travel agent to manage enquiries in Cork City and county and has appointed former Stena worker, Sheila Deasy to head up the new division. Lee Travel has offices in city and outside. Visit www.leetravel.ie or email travel@leetravel.ie.

TASTY SALTHILL HOTEL OFFER

The Galway Continental Christmas Market runs until Dec 22 and the Salthill Hotel offers linked deals. Two nights B&B with one evening meal and little extras like a €10 voucher taxi voucher costs from €89 per person midweek or €129 on weekends. Visit www.salthillhotel.com, call 091-522711 or email: reservations@salthillhotel.com.

ACTOR SHERIDAN WILL READ FOR GUESTS

Irish actor Jim Roche will host a Christmas reading for a select number of guests in Brooks Hotel in Dublin on Dec 11. Clients can also enjoy festive tunes from a resident pianist. Details are available on 01-6704000 or email reservations@brookshotel.ie to make a booking.

BATH PACKAGE JUST THE TICKET

The New Year provides the perfect excuse to rest and rejuvenate. Bath has long been a centre for wellness and relaxation. Deals are available from £134 for two exclusively by going to www.visitbath.co.uk. Rugby fans might even take in a game to see Ireland’s Peter Stringer in action with the local team.

NEW YEAR PARTY TIME IN THAILAND

To see off 2013 and in the countdown to the New Year, the Northeastern Thai city of Khon Kaen is welcoming one and all to its Happy Family Party. This event is geared to attract overseas tourists away from the hot spots and is a showcase for Northeastern Thai culture. Visit www.facebook.com/TAT.KhonkaenOffice


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