I admit, I say this without having visited Santa’s hometown in the North Pole, but I think even the HOH OHO postcode would have a hard time competing with Vienna, which springs alive with golden light just when you think mother nature has sunken into a grumpy, menopausal depression.
As though Vienna didn’t already have a reputation for jump-starting one’s romantic inclinations – in December the magnificent streets are crowned with canopies of light. And we’re not just talking about Wal-Mart’s basic tri-colour string of bulbs, here. About 40 of Vienna’s prime shopping streets seem to have their own unique lighting design. Thus, the entire city becomes a free, luminous art installation.
And the markets – oh, the markets! I had a vague notion of the existence of traditional Christmas Markets in Germany and Austria (and it would be a shame not to mention the excellent euro-inspired market in Toronto’s Distillery District), but I had no idea how many markets you could find in Vienna alone. At one point, I got lost and stumbled across no fewer than three markets within a small area! According to the tourist board, the official tally is 10-15 markets in Vienna.
The best part is, every market has its own personality. Sure, they’re all spiked with glühwein (mulled wine) and punsch (more hot alcohol), and the tiny wooden hut is the unanimous choice for architecture, but the underlying character of the market varies from district to district. The largest market at theRathaus, for instance, was teeming with tourists and – quite frankly – too chaotic for my taste. The market at Schönbrunn Palace, however, was far more civilized and offered a better experience overall.Spittelberg Market, tucked away and spread throughout a few narrow streets, was another favourite – it seemed like a secret market where hip locals might choose to go.
The beauty of the markets, apart from the delicious foods (gingerbread, baked apples, potatoes, sausages) is how ardently they’ve clung to traditions. These markets could have so easily become crassly commercial – picture a portable dollar store, hawking cheap plastic ornaments and tacky presents. Instead, handmade, wholesome gifts abound. Things like baskets, shadow-puppets and dense loaves of stollen. I bought some felt ornaments from a middle-aged guy. Before leaving his stall, I asked if they were made here in Vienna.
“Hah!” he laughed, and continued in hesitant English. “I make every night. No sleep!”
One felt snowman: tiny.
Customer satisfaction: huge.
This is the first in a series of posts about Christmas in Vienna and Berlin. Tomorrow, check in to learn about the home of the snowglobe!