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There may be no place like home for the holidays but Berlin certainly does its best to make you feel otherwise. Decked out in lights, wreaths and tall pines, it is aglow with Christmas spirit before Americans have even thought about carving their Thanksgiving turkeys.
One of the must dos in Germany when Advent arrives four weeks before Christmas is to visit the Christmas markets. People come from around the world to experience these Noel extravaganzas, particularly those in Germany. They first appeared in the German-speaking areas of Europe in the late Middle Ages, and countries such as Germany and Austria have upheld the tradition. Having heard endless hype about them, I decided to head over to the one in the Charlottenburg district of Berlin on 22 November, opening day.
Honestly, I was in no mood for a montage of Christmas spirit. It was cold and wet out and I had just been ID’d by two men and their muzzled German Sheppard.
Still, I couldn’t help but feel rising anticipation as I spotted the blue and purple lights illuminating the Charlottenburg Palace.
The market area itself is blocked off by white boards lined with bobs of light. As I enter, a small village spreads out in front of me, one that looks strikingly as though it has been built by elves. Little wooden huts of light, smelling fiercely of pine and boasting an assortment of food and an array of handmade treasures, line up next to one another.
I can’t possibly walk slow enough to take in everything. I’m torn between the smells of the bratwurst sausages and roasted peanuts, and the carvings of the intricate small wooden toys, handmade soap, and candles resting in glistening glass dishes.
I asked one man, who was selling Panforte (an Italian type of fruitcake) at a stand draped in greens and reds, if this was his first time working the Christmas market. The man, David, said he was originally from Nuremberg, which hosts probably one of the most famous and well-known Christmas markets in a country full of them. It was his second time gracing the Charlottenburg market, one he characterizes as less traditional and offering more unusual and upscale wares than other markets.
“This is all stuff that is not ordinary… you can’t get it everywhere,” he says, slicing into a new piece of Panforte and eagerly pushing a free sample at me. “We have stuff from Italy and from France,” he adds, gesturing to the rest of the Italian styled, nut-filled candy.
He also pointed out the wooden area that boxed him in, saying that he loved to “create” the space. His sister, he said, would bring music the next day and his girlfriend showed up some minutes later, arms cradling a bag of food.
“It’s like a big party,” David said, smiling and handing over another free sample. “This one’s different,” he added when I tried to reject it.
He says that what appeals to him most about the Christmas market is the community that has sprung up around it.
“These people in the wooden houses, they are all very friendly,” he said. “You know each other from last year and it’s fun to hear what they have done in the last year.”
Cologne, Christmas Market: Nutcracker
“I like the communication with the other sellers,” his girlfriend Anna-Lema piped in. “It’s fun!”
Before I left, David promised me snow in three days. It came in two.
Other market vendors weren’t quite so pleased or optimistic. One shop worker selling scarves and other garments, who said it was her first day, was reluctant to share her first impressions with me. It was bad weather, she said, and it was quiet.
It certainly wasn’t the best opening day turn out. Many of the people I spoke with were locals that lived right around the corner. Perhaps people were driven away by recent terrorist warnings or simply by the rainy weather. Regardless, the market wasn’t lacking in spirit. The soft glow of lights seemed to burn in defiance of the rumours of terrorist attacks: a cozy shelter in the middle of the world’s chaos, like home. Something is alive here, a kind of soft undertone of energy that bustles throughout the market, and in the still air, whispers of a coming snow.
For your own taste of homely holiday feel, check out one of the many Christmas markets throughout Germany, all with their own special flair.
One of the newer markets in Berlin, it hosts cozy indoor eating areas sheltered by glass walls, horse drawn carriage rides and exhibits you can visit within the palace.
Platz vor dem Schloss, Charlottenburg
21 Nov – 26 Dec 2011
Mon to Thu, 14.00 to 22.00
Fri to Sun, 12.00 to 22.00
24 Dec, closed
This market is framed by the concert house and French and German cathedrals from the 18th century. Entertainment from acrobats, musicians and other performers take the stage each evening.
21 Nov – 31 Dec 2011
Christmas Eve: 11.00-18.00
New Year's Eve: 11.00-01.00
Berlin’s biggest market. A Christmas rock concert plays on Fridays at 18:00. Live animals are set up in a crib on Reformationsplatz and the arts and crafts section hosts an area where you can make your own crafts.
25 Nov – 23 Dec 2011
Fri, 11.00 to 21.00
Sat, 11.00 to 22.00
Sun and Mon, 11.00 to 20.00
In addition to the stalls at this market, it is surrounded by many other shops that will help you check off everything on your Christmas list. It also hosts a large public ice skating rink.
21 Nov - 26 Dec 2011
Daily, 10.00 to 22.00
Market in Alexanderplatz
Boasted to be Europe's largest mobile toboggan run. This is one of the features of the Potsdamer Platz Christmas market, nicknamed Winter World.
30 Oct – 2 Jan 2011
Daily from 10.00 to 22.00
Advent Saturdays: from 10.00 to 24.00
This year Rudolfplatz is putting on a fairytale-themed Christmas market. Large fairy tale figures are dispersed throughout, being drawn specifically from the Brothers Grimm Tales.
21 Nov – 23 Dec 2011
Sun to Thurs, 11.00 to 21.00
Fri to Sat, 11.00 to 22.00
The atmosphere created by the medieval walls surrounding this market help to transport you back in time at Germany’s most famous market. A display showcases old market stalls, and another section hosts stalls specifically for children. The surrounding churches put on numerous Christmas concerts.
Nuremberg Main Market Square
25 Nov – 24 Dec 2011
Mon to Thu, 9.30 to 22.00
Fri to Sat, 9.30 to 20.00
Sun, 10.30 to 20.00
24 Dec, 9.30 to 22.00
Updated from the original by Petya Vetseva / 2011
Photo credits: Dimitry B.; charley1965; C.G.P.Grey; Kai Hendry; lilli2de; Rictor Norton & David Allen; rightee
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