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(2013 - Fall/Winter Issue)


The speed of change in Berlin is relentless, making it one of Europe’s most exciting cities.

Yet, from late November till the New Year, the German capital shows a softer, nostalgic side, as brightly-lit wooden huts and white tents transform the city into a glittering winter wonderland.

Some Christmas markets feature a few rustic huts on a street corner, while the larger ones could take half a day to explore. No matter which you visit you’re sure to eat and drink well, stay warm and find a one-of-a-kind gift for everyone on your list.

Off to Market

Our market tour began on the grounds of graceful Charlottenburg Palace in the city’s west end. Arriving just in time for lunch, we followed our noses to the first restaurant hut. The interior was kitschy but cosy, with chandeliers of red Christmas balls and vinyl fake wood paneling wallpaper on the walls. There was even a fake window looking out on a snowy scene. On the menu, there were sausages galore grilled in the open kitchen. Grünkohl mit knacker (€4.50) consisted of a heaping plate of chopped cooked kale and fried sliced potatoes with a long thin sausage on top. Beverage choices were equally hearty, from mulled glühwein and hot chocolate with a shot of rum to flaming Feuerzangenbowle, a winter punch spiked with red wine and rum.

For dessert, we headed back outdoors to explore some of Charlottenburg’s 150 booths from vendors all over Germany. Choirs normally perform at night when the market is busy and beautifully lit, however on this quiet afternoon we were serenaded by a quartet of mournful trombones playing Oh Christmas Tree. We munched on freshly-roasted nuts, roasted chestnuts from Italy, French macarons, and giant flavoured, chocolate-dipped marshmallow “kisses” called Schokoküsse. Individually-wrapped, heart-shaped gingerbread cookies (some 30 centimetres across) with “I love you” and other sayings etched in icing are popular hostess gifts, which can be eaten or hung as a decoration.

That evening, I left the ultra-luxurious Hotel Adlon, as steeped in history as the magnificently-restored Brandenburg Gate at its front door, and headed due south to the skyscrapers of Potsdamer Platz. Like much of Berlin, this area was bombed during the Second World War then cut off by the Wall, which separated East and West Berlin until it was breached on November 9, 1989. Today, beneath the new glass towers, passersby and office workers stop by the modest Christmas market to warm up in front of an oil-drum fire and share a glass of cheer with friends before heading home. Even the smell of the hot wine and spices is intoxicating.

Instead of wasting thousands of Styrofoam cups each year, all 60 of Berlin’s Christmas markets dispense their glühwein hot from a tap into a limited-edition ceramic or glass mug. Pay a €2.50 deposit when you buy your wine and get it back when you return the mug. Or take it home as an inexpensive but memorable souvenir. 

My favourite mug and best memories come from the Gendarmenmarkt downtown just off posh Frederichstrasse, Berlin’s Fifth Avenue. This elegant market is framed by a cathedral and the state concert hall. The handsome log huts don’t feel temporary at all, each peaked white canvas roof topped with a gold star. Vendors dressed in red velvet look like actors in a play. You can even spend New Year’s Eve here enjoying a festive gala with live music, fireworks, and waltzing after midnight. Or head to the Brandenburg Gate with the younger crowd for non-stop bands and more fireworks.

In Gendarmenmarkt’s heated arts and crafts tent, watch toymakers, goldsmiths and wood carvers at work. Pick up a new cutting board, a leather belt with metal buckle or a tiny wooden angel playing a trumpet to hang on your tree at home. If you’re feeling the cold, try on a soft new handmade scarf and mitts or a jaunty felt hat.

At the centre of the craft tent is a café where bottles of sparkling Prosecco and cava await in ice buckets. Down the lane, a sit-down restaurant with antlers affixed to the entrance serves wild game. But most vendors serve casual grab-and-go fare, ranging from sausage or smoked fish in a bun to fresh-baked focaccia filled with cheese or hot-roasted Tuscan chestnuts sold in clever double bags—half for the hot nuts and half for their shells.

Alternative Festive Meccas

If by chance you don’t find gifts for everyone on your list at Berlin’s Christmas markets, allow me to make three more festive suggestions.

At 225 Kurfürstendamm, the long, wide shopping boulevard the locals call Ku’damm, there’s a year-round Christmas store called Käthe Wohlfahrt, where two floors of ornaments, decorations and gifts flow around a decorated tree.

For shopping on a grander scale, head to KaDeWe (Kaufhaus des Westens), one of Europe’s largest department stores with a sixth-floor food hall that rivals Harrod’s in London. Sip champagne with oysters before hunting for gifts for foodie friends.

For the serious chocolate lover on your list, walk a little farther east to Nollendorfplatz and south to one last little Christmas market and an unassuming café called Winterfeldt, set in an 1892 apothecary shop. Along with chocolate from around the world, this little corner of Berlin infuses its own beautifully-packaged bars with holiday spices and other seasonal flavours such as blood orange.

Just another bit of Christmas magic in magical Berlin.

Travel Planner

Air Canada provides non-stop service to Frankfurt from a number of Canadian gateways. For more information on winter in Berlin, log onto visitberlin.de.

Hotel Adlon: kempinski.com/adlon

KaDeWe (Kaufhaus des Westens): kadewe.de

Käthe Wohlfahrt: wohlfahrt.com

Winterfeldt Schokoladen: winterfeldt-schokoladen.de

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