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Hundreds of brightly colored stalls … the pungent smell of glühwein … stacks of spicy gingerbread – while overhead the lights sparkle and the fir tree branches glisten with snow. It’s everyone’s favorite seasonal treat – a traditional German Christmas market!

Nowadays you can find ‘German’ markets in many other countries, but for the genuine experience you have to go to the source – the perfect excuse to combine shopping for gifts with a holiday to recharge the batteries before the festive season kicks in.

One of the oldest Christmas markets is Nuremberg’s Christkindlesmarkt, which dates back over 400 years. The market is spread over the entire city center, filling its picturesque squares with produce from the Franconia region as well as from its sister cities around the world. Children will be captivated by historic merry-go-rounds and foodies won’t be able to resist a generous helping of some traditional German food in the shape of Nuremberger bratwurst, tasty little spiced sausages served with sauerkraut, mustard and a crusty bread roll. Don’t forget to touch the metal ring in the beautiful fountain before you leave to make your wish come true! Air Berlin flies direct to Nuremberg from London Gatwick or Stansted, or check out deals on cheap flights from other UK airports.

When it comes to Christmas, Cologne has a unique claim to fame – the iconic Cologne cathedral is home to the Three Wise Men! Their bones are said to be contained in an ornate gilded sarcophagus behind the high altar, which has been a place of pilgrimage for many centuries. Nowadays their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh might not go down too well with the iPad generation, but there are plenty of other fabulous gifts on offer at Cologne’s seven Christmas markets, which surround the cathedral on all sides and spill along the banks of the Rhine. Be sure to check out the ‘gnome’ market in the heart of the old town, named in honour of the elves who were said to be particularly good craftspeople, where you can buy decorations and other items still produced in the traditional way.

Christmas markets are big business in Berlin, with over 50 different sites, while Frankfurt claims to have the tallest Christmas tree, Europa-Park in the Black Forest has a packed programme of family entertainment as well as the biggest theme park in Germany, and Dusseldorf has an ice-skating rink, merry-go-rounds and a puppet theatre. But for a thoroughly romantic setting you can’t beat the medieval town of Bernkastel-Kues in the Moselle Valley, where the half-timbered houses and winding streets provide a fairytale backdrop to the renowned Christmas market. On the first Saturday in December, St Nicholas arrives by decorated boat to dispense chocolate treats to the children. Don’t leave before you’ve sampled some of the delicious wines of this famous region.

No Christmas would be complete without cake, and the German tradition of baking Christmas stollen dates back to the 15th century. This rich fruit cake decorated with marzipan and icing sugar originated in Dresden, which is still home to the ‘official’ variety produced exclusively by local bakers and distinguished by a special seal depicting King August the Strong. Visitors to Dresden’s historic Christmas market can enjoy a slice of the city’s most famous export, as well as admire the giant Advent calendar, a door of which is opened every day by children’s entertainers, and wait patiently for Father Christmas’s visit each Friday.

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