The holiday markets of Regensburg, Germany’s only surviving medieval city, are scattered throughout the cobblestone old town. The rain and sleet don’t let up during my visit, but the allure of this UNESCO World Heritage site works its magic, and there’s a palpable happiness among vendors and visitors – and it’s not just the gluhwein or the kids clamouring to get on the carousel.
Maybe it has something to do with all the ornaments depicting the magic mushroom, also known as the fly agaric. I see its pretty red cap with white polka dots everywhere. It’s now a symbol of luck, but centuries ago pagan medicine men knew how to put its mind-altering abilities to good use. Some scholars note the connection between the Siberian myths of shamans riding reindeer sleighs (and how the animals were believed to get “high” by eating the wild ’shroom) and the modern-day Santa, who pretty much does the same thing. But I really don’t want to explain that to my preteen, so I pass on the mushroom ornaments.
Then I see a bunch of wooden carvings that are smoking and smell fantastic. Each rotund figure is dressed differently: There are golfers, skiers, hausfraus, chimney sweeps, old men and seasonal characters. They all look mildly surprised, with a round O-shaped mouth and some sort of pipe in hand. A lit incense cone is placed inside the “smoking man,” as they are called, which billows out perfumed coils of smoke. The illusion is adorable, and since it contradicts our family’s usual anti-smoking message it will definitely captivate my daughter. I buy a St. Nicholas figure and a box of frankincense.
I pick up more incense cones at one of the 200 stalls in Frankfurt’s old town. Frankfurt’s market is more than 600 years old, but for the first time there’s a gay and lesbian-themed, pink-hued market just around the corner. It will definitely dispel any lingering notions that these fairs are no more than an outdoor church bazaar.
This night, 50 bells from 10 churches and cathedrals ring out in an onslaught of sound as the crowds pour into the square. There’s bratwurst to munch, a double-decker wooden carousel to ride, decorations to buy and friends to meet. It’s getting darker, but the lights on the 30-metre-high tree cast a cheery glow. Despite the chill, I’m all warm inside – and I haven’t touched a drop of gluhwein. Operation Christmas Kick-start is a success.
CRUISING YOUR WAY TO CHRISTMAS MARKETS
Christmas markets are not all the same. A river cruise is one way to see as many as possible, and only unpack once. Here are a few select cruises to choose from.
A-Rosa In 2013, this luxe German line is catering to North Americans. Its eight-night Rhine Christmas Markets cruise stops at seven ports in Germany and France with a magical market in just about every one. A-Rosa cruises are truly all-inclusive: shore tours, a 24-hour open bar, all port charges, airfare from North America, transfers and gratuities are included. Best of all, its new ships sport chic spas and saunas with windows to let you watch the riverside float by. Staterooms from $5,276 (U.S.). 1-855-552-7672; arosacruises.com
AmaWaterways Another high-end choice. Book here for longer 11 or 13-day cruises down the Danube or Rhine rivers. Prices start at $2,895 (U.S.), but do not include airfare or transfers. 1-800-626-0126; amawaterways.com
Avalon Waterways Choose from up to 10 different Christmastime cruises lasting 5 to 16 days along the Main, Rhine and Danube rivers. Prices vary. 1-877-797-8791; avalonwaterways.com
CHRISTMAS MARKETS IN CANADA
No trips to Europe in your near future? Get your Christmas-market fix closer to home.
Toronto: The Christmas Market at the Distillery District wraps up this weekend. Among the brick-lined streets and restored Victorian warehouses you’ll find carollers, a 13-metre Christmas tree, mulled wine/beer gardens (no walking around the market freely with a cup here), a Ferris wheel and many hand-crafted ornament stalls. And, of course, lots of gingerbread. Free entry; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., torontochristmasmarket.com
Vancouver: Open until Dec. 24, Vancouver’s Christmas Market features German toy and ornament vendors, real lebkuchen, gluhwein sold in collectible mugs, wurst stalls and, oddly enough, alpaca scarfs from Ecuador and wooly hats from Nepal. It’s set up in front of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.
Tickets $2 to $5, children under seven are free. 11 a.m. to
9 p.m., Dec. 24: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; vancouverchristmasmarket.com
The writer travelled as a guest of A-ROSA river cruises. The company did not review or approve this story.