When it comes to Christmas shopping, few countries can hold a candle to Germany. Its traditional markets have been creating the wow factor for more than six centuries.
Back in medieval times, end-of-year markets were social gatherings where people could enjoy a little excess before the bitter weather.
They traded fruit, jams, home-made wine and heavy fruit cakes, all designed to keep families going during the long cold weeks ahead. It was only during the 15th century that these gatherings came to be identified with Christmas.
Today, Germany’s Christmas markets open in mid-November. In most places, the routine has hardly changed for a century.
Set against the backdrop of beautiful historic cities, market squares bulge with beautifully-decorated wooden stalls full of traditional food, delicacies, good quality hand-made goods and wooden toys and decorations.
Next stop was Dresden, which has risen again from the ashes of the Second World War.
Baroque buildings like the Semper Opera House and the Zwinger Palace are magnificently restored to their former glory. The Frauenkirche (Church Of Our Lady) was rebuilt in time for Dresden’s 800th anniversary in 2006.
Dresden’s largest Christmas market, Striezelmarkt, is one of the oldest in Germany, launched in 1434. It gets its name from Hefestriezel, a sweet delicacy later called Dresden Christollen (Christmas cake), a delicious, sweet bread.
There were more traditional Christmas goodies by the bucketload and, of course, plenty of food stalls providing food, sausages and Gluhwein to recharge our batteries.
One thing you don’t find in most German Christmas markets are mass-produced cheap plastic toys. Everything is traditional and hand-made regionally, the quality so high that even a ‘little something’ is likely to be treasured.
We found Christmas pyramids, jewellery, candleholders from the Erzgebirge Mountains, indigo-dyed printed textile gifts, pottery, gingerbread, lace products, glass advent stars, blown glass tree decorations and hand puppets.
Wood carvers, glass blowers and bakers demonstrated their skills and a cute ‘bakery crèche’ looked after the toddlers while parents shopped. Bakers showed the children how to make biscuit dough, rolling and cutting it into shapes at lightning fast speed.
The market’s famous Christmas pyramid, one of the world’s largest, is decorated with Nativity scenes and life-size angels and has the world’s biggest nutcracker.
Try to catch two other markets in Dresden. At the Medieval Market in the Royal Palace Courtyard, stallholders wear period costumes and entertainers include jugglers, fire-eaters and choral singers.
Many visitors to Dresden also find time for the nearby Meissen porcelain factory. On a guided tour, we saw how crockery, figurines, vases and even jewellery are created from a lump of clay.
We lunched at Meissen’s oldest restaurant, the Vincenz Richter. The charming house was built in 1523 and in 1873 Richter, a general in the emperor’s army, opened a family-run restaurant which to this day serves wonderful, locally-sourced food.
Laura Wurzal was a guest of Dertour offering two-night Christmas market breaks from £199, including return flights. Reservations: 0207 290 1111 and Dertour