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Happy tidings from Hamburg
6:00am Saturday 19th October 2013 in Travel
Now the countdown to Christmas has begun, it's time to start drawing up festive shopping lists. Make the process more bearable by visiting one of Europe's top Christmas markets, says Polly Weeks.
As a Segway zips past, I almost choke on my roasted chestnuts when I realise who's behind the wheel. Wearing a red hat and a bushy beard, it's Father Christmas, who appears to have left his sleigh and reindeer at home this year.
I'm in Hamburg in December and, as I'm quickly discovering, they don't celebrate the festive season quietly here.
Trees twinkle with lights, markets bustle and there are more than a few cups of gluhwein going round to keep shoppers happy.
Nuremberg, Cologne and Dresden may be the shining stars of Germany's Christmas markets, but Hamburg offers the same dose of festive fun, only with fewer tourists.
There are nine main markets to choose from (most open daily from November 25 - although merriment begins with the Hamburg Winterdom on November 8), and a few shorter, charming markets to enjoy if you time your visit for the correct weekend.
This historical city also has plenty of local attractions to explore - including the rather bizarre Miniatur Wunderland (the world's largest model railway exhibition) and Submarine U-434, a retired Russian spy submarine now open to tourists.
My base for the weekend is the beautiful 4-star Movenpick Hotel, a converted water tower brimming with character and located in the Sternschanzenpark area of town. The view from my bedroom stretches as far as the eye can see, and I'm almost blinded by the sparkling Christmas lights on the horizon.
I certainly have a serious amount of Christmas shopping to do!
I head to the Hamburger Dom, North Germany's biggest funfair, which has been dressed up for Christmas. Teenage boys try to impress girls by jumping on white-knuckle rides, adults browse the stalls, and little ones look bemused by the odd choice of festive decorations - a series of oversized scarecrows. But in Hamburg, I'm quickly realising, people like to do things differently.
Nearby, on the Reeperbahn (Hamburg's own version of Soho), I find the rather unusual Santa Pauli, an 'adult' Christmas market selling a selection of erotic gifts. These certainly aren't the sort of things you'd give to Granny! There's a jovial atmosphere and the grown-ups, supping on their potent drinks, make their way indoors to enjoy the "topless" shows..
Instead, I take the opportunity to return for a peaceful night's sleep back at the hotel.
I need my energy for the Hamburger Weinachtsmarkt, the biggest market in the city, located in front of the beautiful town hall. Divided into alleys, the stalls are categorised by the types of products on offer. On Handwerksgasse (craftsman alley), expect to find woodcarvers and silversmiths, while Naschgasse (the nibble alley) specialises in edible gifts, and handmade wooden playthings can be found in the Spielzeuggasse (toy alley). Carried away by the upbeat atmosphere, I leave having purchased far more than I intended to.
From Weinachtsmarkt, I make my way through to the other city centre markets; each one leads into another. I head to St. Petri Church for more peaceful sales, then end up at the Spitalerstrasse, where most shoppers come to recover with a hot drink.
I'm here on a Saturday when a weekly Christmas parade makes its way through the city centre. Fake snow falls from the floats while hundreds of dancers fill the streets. I find it hard to resist joining in.
The following day, I opt for a more serene Christmas experience. The first weekend in December, St. Michaelis Church host their Christmas market in the church's crypts. Homemade jewellery, art, crafts and preserves are sold beneath the grand vaulted ceiling. But even if you miss their two-day market, it's worth visiting to climb the church tower and admire views of the city.
With so many markets to visit, I know I won't have time to see them all. I take advice from the locals and visit the Gansemarkt, an upmarket foodie affair, and the Jungfernsteig market, which has wonderful views of the Binnenalster lake.
But I still find time for a hot chocolate back at the Movenpick hotel's restaurant. As I look out of the giant windows at the snowflakes falling on the surrounding woodland, I almost break into a festive ditty.
I'm sure I'm not the only one who whispers to the very hospitable Hamburg, 'Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night'.
Other European Christmas markets to explore...
:: Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen, Denmark
The Nordic countries certainly know how to throw a Christmas market, and Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen is one of the best. Many of the stalls sell both gifts and hot food and drink, but there are also lots of other festive attractions on offer. Visit Father Christmas in the Pantomime Theatre, or come and pet reindeer in the park. Topped with more than a dusting of snow, the place is simply magical. Open November 15-December 31.
:: Bruges, Belgium
Bruges is a popular destination for tourists year-round, but it really comes to life during the festive season. In addition to the traditional stalls, there will be an ice rink on the market square and, from November 22, a snow and ice sculpture festival at the railway station square. The city itself is small enough to easily navigate, making it a great option if you're short on time. Open November 22-January 2.
:: Lille, France
Connected to London by the Eurostar, Lille is one of the more convenient markets to visit. The first of the French Christmas markets to open each year, it's located on the Place Rihour. Expect to find German, Polish and Canadian food specialities for sale, alongside traditional gifts. Visit Grand Place, where you'll find a 50m-high big wheel perfect for looking out over the city. Want something a little more gentile? The Grand Place square will be transformed into a snow-covered village. Open November 20-December 30.
The Docklands Christmas Market, Dublin, Ireland
Carol singing and Victorian fairground rides are just a few of the attractions at this friendly market, taking place at Georges Dock. Singing and dancing will take place throughout the market season, while punters can grab a drink from a bar set up in a vintage 1950s airstream. Open December 12-23.
:: For 2013 Hamburg Christmas market opening times, visit www.hamburg.de
:: Double rooms at the Movenpick Hotel Hamburg (www.moevenpick-hotels.com) start from £115 per night (based on two sharing).
:: easyJet (www.easyJet.com) flies to Hamburg from London Gatwick, London Luton, Manchester and Edinburgh. Flight prices start from £55 return (including taxes)