Christmas Market Crawl

December 2012
Italy, Slovenia & Austria


Throughout the month of December, as we made our way through Northern Italy and into Slovenia before finally coming to rest in Austria for the holidays, we had the occasion to peruse several of Europe’s best Christmas markets – also called Adventmärkte, Weihnachtsmärkte and of course, Christkindlmärkt. While we miss friends and family in particular at this time of year, the ‘Christmas Spirit’ embodied by these markets and the festive atmosphere that we were able to appreciate and enjoy truly made this holiday like none we had ever experienced before.

Verona Christmas
Verona’s Christmas Star

Stop 1: Verona, Italy

The first signs of the season began to appear while we were in Verona, Italy, a city that shares a tradition of aligning itself with Nuremberg, Germany over the holidays. A romanticized town in its own right, Verona was made to seem even more so trimmed with glittering lights and freshly hewn pine boughs. A meandering Advent market began in the handsome Piazza dei Signori where typical wooden stands clustered around the statue of Dante Alighieri, whose dour expression and crossed arms appeared to rebuke the surrounding merriment.

“What’s his problem?” our five-year-old scoffed.  “Does he have an attitude like that guy wearing the same dress in Ferrara?” He was referring to the statue of the puritanical and ultimately schismatic Girolamo Savonarola; and if Dante had indeed overheard our son’s comparison, I was fairly certain the poor guy would be tossing in his grave.

The market flowed on beneath the whalebone arch (where its namesake dangled precariously over passersby and was said to fall upon a person who had never told a lie; oddly we were all left unscathed) to the bustling Piazza delle Erbe, where an enormous Christmas tree stood hemmed in by the surrounding palazzos.  Vin brulè (literally, burnt wine) sellers stood shoulder to shoulder with folks selling aged cheeses, cured meats and artisanal chocolates.

After a visit to the vastly overrated Casa di Giulietta, where Oliver posted a letter to Shakespeare’s tragic heroine (“Dear Juliet, Seriously, who would want to kiss a girl?  That’s just disgusting!”), we left the city via the Piazza Bra, where the ancient Roman amphitheater was fitted with a giant steel shooting star.

Ljubljana xmas

Stop 2: Ljubljana, Slovenia

After Verona, we had set our sights on the Christkindlmarkts found in the small townships of the Alps, all the way from Italy’s Trento Alto-Adige region into Austria’s Southern Tyrol.  However, early snows in Balzano and Innsbruck, combined with our car’s lack of winter tires, were enough to keep us away from the Brenner pass, so we diverted our route into little-known Slovenia.  The end result was potentially the wisest decision we had made in a long time, as the air of festivity in Ljubljana was the finest and most intimate we experienced over the entire holidays.

Beginning at the Dragon’s Bridge, delicately-lit willow trees ushered our family along the high banks of the Ljubljanica River into the glowing heart of the Prešernov Trg (Central Square).  Here a massive Advent market spread through the old city like spokes on a wheel; everywhere cozy wooden booths were nestled side by side, and vendors turned out everything from loose spices, wooden cutlery, and hand-spun cotton candy to bags of Slovenian Christmas tea.  Various corners of the market were devoted to grilling heaping plates of Ćevapčići, a grilled meat dish that originated in the Balkans. Everywhere was the sound of vendors tapping their ladles against the ember-warmed metal drums that contained red and white varieties of kuhano vino (cooked wine) and medica (honey schnapps). Dedek Mraz, or Father Frost, made an appearance as we crossed the Triple Bridge, and as resplendently dressed as he (she?) was in a floor-length white fur coat and matching fur cap, both our kids still mustered the courage to accept the small sweets that were offered.  As an organ grinder’s nostalgic tunes wafted through the air, the old castle atop the hill in the center of the city, Ljubljana Grad, turned from shades of blue to pink to brilliant white.

Graz xmas
Old City in Graz

Stop 3: Graz, Austria

It was unexpectedly difficult to pull our selves away from Slovenia, particularly after a day-trip to Lake Bled hinted at the natural surprises that could be found in this tiny country.  Nonetheless, we needed to put distance behind us, as Vienna, our destination for Christmas, still lay nearly four hours ahead of us.  We made a short stop in Austria’s second-largest city, Graz, and were treated to a number of easily accessed Christkindlmarkts throughout the city. The Engelsspiel-Pavillon (translation: angel’s game) in front of the Rathaus (City Hall) featured an old-fashioned carousel and one particular vendor who turned out freshly-pressed waffles topped with cinnamon and sugar, which conveniently became our children’s meal of choice for the next 48 hours.  In the nearby Landhaus courtyard, 50 tons of crystal-clear ice had been arranged to form a nativity scene that would prove to be as ephemeral as the aura of the holiday itself.

Packs a punch
Packs a punch

Our favorite Christmas market, however, was the atmospheric Aufsteirern Weihnachtsmarkt on the Schlossberg hill.   Accessed by a number of steps, a futuristic glass elevator and a modern funicular, the old ruined fortress straddled a small, forested mountain that literally rose up from the city’s center. The market was staged inside the open-air bowels of the castle that were hewn from the mountain itself.  Inside, lanterns and chains of lights set the room aglow as carolers in Tyrolean hats shared table space with visitors who clutched steaming mugs of glühwein (mulled wine, with our without a shot of brandy) and glühmost (mulled cider). Various folks had staged their wares in niches in the castle wall; one served raclette, a Swiss style of cheese melted inside its rind, scraped onto toasted dark bread and topped with fried onions; while another browned Käsespätzle, fresh German-style egg noodles, cheese and browned onions in a large iron pan.  In another little alcove, Oliver and Kendley rolled, baked, decorated and bagged a dozen Christmas cookies while we waited.

Rathaus xmas
A GIANT advent calendar!

Stop 4: Vienna, Austria

The Christkindlmarkt has existed in Vienna since the Middle Ages, and the city boasts no fewer than thirteen separate and distinct markets over the holidays.  The largest market, 1) Wiener Christkindlmarkt at Rathausplatz, spilled out in front the Gothic-styled City Hall, and was framed by trees draped with heart-shaped lanterns.  Everywhere were tourists of every make and mold, snapping up painted glass ornaments, winter hats and bread bowls full of hot goulash. Booth after booth was chockablock with heart-shaped Lebkuchen that wished passers-by a Fröhliche Weihnachten or a Glückliches Neues Jahr.

The imposing building rising up behind the festivities had itself been turned into a gigantic Advent calendar; twenty-four of the illuminated windows along the façade had been fitted with numbered green curtains.

Rathaus Heart Tree xmas
The Heart Tree in front of Vienna’s Rathaus

2) The market in front of Karlskirche was popular in our camp for a few particular reasons: the pony corral, the nativity scene complete with live animals (both occupying the area where the fountain had been emptied for the winter), and the ride-on Christmas-themed toy train that looped around several of the booths.  Unfortunately, all of that nonsense set us back nearly ten euros and left us with a screaming toddler whose pony did not lope quite quickly enough to her liking. A bratwurst here, an Apfelpunsch there, and we were off to see more.

Riesengrad xmas
Holiday glitz on the Prater

3) The Wintermarkt at Riesenradplatz was stumbled upon by accident, really.  We had been gifted with nearly a 50°F cloudless day just after Christmas, and the kids needed to air themselves out after having been buried under a small pile of new toys for the past 36 hours.  Right beside the giant Ferris wheel at the entrance to the Prater amusement park (one of the oldest in the world), the market had shed it stalls of ornaments and baubles, and was instead set on plying exhausted parents with glühwein, candied, toasted almonds and regional pastries. Another slice of Sachertorte was just what the doctor ordered.

Austria Pretzels
Cannot remember the German word for mustard…

4) Last but not least, the New Year’s market in front Schönbrunn castle. After spending a full day at the Tiergarten, the Hapsburg family’s private menagerie turned world-renowned zoo; we whetted our appetites on Nockerl (dumplings) and Baumkuchen, a traditional pastry that is made to order on a spit by brushing on even layers of batter that are then rotating over a heat source. Oliver set his sites on a hand-made doughnut that was custom filled for him with vanilla and chocolate custards while he watched.   Everywhere there were traditional handicrafts left over from the tide of Christmas travelers that had descended on the city for the last two weeks of the year.  Beyond the market, the Baroque balustrades of the palace apartments, the frost-covered rose gardens dormant for the winter; there stood the Gloriette, theatrically gleaming down from where it stood high upon the hill.

Tree lights in front of Schönbrunn


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