When it comes to Christmas shopping, few countries can hold a candle to Germany.
Its traditional Christmas markets have been creating the wow factor for more than six centuries.
Back in medieval times, end-of-year markets sprung up as social gatherings
where people could enjoy a little excess before the onset of bitter weather.
It was only during the 15th century that these
gatherings came to be ident-ified with Christmas.
Set against the backdrop of beautiful historic cities, market squares now bulge with beautifully-decorated wooden stalls full of traditional food, local delicacies, good quality hand-made
goods and wooden traditional toys and decorations.
Each region in Germany has its own style, so I targeted Thuringia, north of Bavaria and between Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt. Tour operator Dertour fixed flights into Frankfurt for speedy ICE train links to Eisenach, Erfurt and Dresden.
At Eisenach, with its wonderfully preserved Old Town, the Christmas market is in Wartburg Castle, a UNESCO World Cultural
Heritage building dating to 1067.
Here, in 1522, Martin Luther found refuge for 300 days after he was declared a heretic and outlaw at the Diet of Worms. In comfortable rooms, he translated the Bible into German.
Nearly five centuries later, this historic setting is perfect for the market, the stalls overladen with food, jewellery, clothes, glassware, sweets and decorations.
We got into the Christmas spirit, literally, with the first of many glasses of Gluhwein (mulled wine). Hot and spicy, it’s usually made from red wine, but in many places there’s a white wine alternative.
Next stop Erfurt, the regional capital and one of the most beautiful and oldest cities in Germany, which was founded in 742.
Its Old Town of half-timbered houses and cobbles in front of the Cathedral Square (Domplatz) is another perfect setting for a Christmas market.
Visitors’ eyes are immediately caught by the 40ft Christmas pyramid, telling the story of Erfurt’s history and the people who shaped it. The central Christmas tree, covered in candles, has a Nativity scene containing 14 hand-carved, life-sized wooden figures.
Our next train journey took us to 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 and, of course, plenty of food stalls providing sausages and Gluhwein to recharge our batteries.
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.
Laura Wurzal was a guest of Dertour which offers two-night Christmas market breaks from £199, including return flights, in its 2012/3 brochure in 14 countries including Germany, Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Hungary, France, Switzerland, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Italy, Poland and Sweden. New destinations include Venice and Vienna.
Reservations: 0207 290 1111 and dertour.co.uk