A Cornwall Experience: The Wonderful Food!!

Greetings from the Isles of Scilly, 28 miles off the coast of southwest England. The islands are part of the county of Cornwall, which has been our focus since last Saturday. We’re near the end of our new 10-day Cornwall Experience trip… and what a fantastic time we’ve had!

Our group has been surprised by many aspects of Cornwall: the prehistoric sites, the dramatic scenery, the picturesque fishing villages, the subtropical vegetation, the glorious gardens, the industrial and mining heritage.

But the biggest surprise has been the quality, presentation, and variety of our meals here in Cornwall. Every meal has been outstanding!

One traveler who is with us for her sixth European Experiences trip described the meals in Cornwall as “epicurian” and thought these have been best meals of all of our trips– where good food is always a focus. Another traveler described the food as “absolutely amazing.”

About Cornwall

Cornwall is a truly unique part of Great Britain… still British but with a different climate and culture, very much impacted by its position on the narrow southwestern coast. The warm gulf stream currents bless the area with a semi-tropical climate. (Yes, there are palm trees!) Cornwall’s remoteness from the rest of Britain has always impacted its sense of individuality, and Cornwall even had its own language in earlier times.

There are over 300 miles of coastline, much of it rugged, influencing a history of sailing ships, fishing villages, pirates, smugglers, and shipwrecks. The area was inhabited in prehistoric times and many ancient monuments are still standing, more than any other place in Britain. Later, Cornwall was a major area for tin and copper mining, vigorous industries before they were abandoned in the late 19th century.

The Cornish Cuisine

We’ve been traveling in England for over 25 years and have seen a substantial improvement in the cuisine across the country, especially in areas like Cornwall and the Cotswolds where there is a real focus on locally-grown products. Even the traditional British food served in pubs has been significantly enhanced, and many pubs are now classified as “gastro-pubs,” known for their outstanding cuisine.

Cornwall has its own cuisine, unique in Great Britain. The traditional Cornish cuisine is heavily based on the geography of the county (isolated from the rest of the country and surrounded on three sides by the sea), its social history, and the ingredients that are readily-available.

Cornwall is surrounded by seas that are historically well-stocked with fish, so fish forms a major part of the historical and modern recipes in Cornwall. The fishing industry continues to be very important to the economy of the county, and fish and shellfish are readily available. Newlyn, near Mousehole where our Cornwall Experience trip is based for the first week, is the largest fishing port in the UK. Local fish frequently found on menus include hake, plaice, haddock, cod, monkfish, skate, sea bream, turbot, sole, brill, John Dory, and mackerel as well as shellfish like crab and mussels and scallops.  The fish is always fresh and local.  One chef in Mousehole told us he just calls the fish market in the next village of Newlyn every morning to ask what’s fresh… then plans his menu around that.

Due to its unique climate in Great Britain, agriculture and farming are also important industries in Cornwall, with local farms growing top-quality vegetables and fruit, often used in making excellent jams and chutneys. The area also has a significant dairy industry, and many dishes are based on dairy ingredients.

Nowadays Cornwall is as well-known for its organic beef and pork, artisan cheeses, and air-dried charcuterie as it is for fish and seafood.

Game meat from the local area is included on many menus. A relatively-new focus involves foraging edible plants and berries from the hedgerows and cliffs, often including these as garnishes.

Today Cornwall is considered a “foodie destination” in the UK with a mix of traditional heritage and modern British cuisine, and it’s often called the UK’s food capital. You can choose from fine dining restaurants, seafood joints, beach cafes, and historic pubs. Several celebrity chefs (Rick Stein, Nathan Outlaw, Jamie Oliver, Ben Tunnicliffe) have restaurants in Cornwall, and locally-sourced products are promoted by many restaurants.

Cornish Specialties

A Full Cornish Breakfast: The local variation of the “full English breakfast.”  This cooked breakfast normally includes fresh local eggs (usually a choice of fried or scrambled), bacon (similar to country ham), a broiled tomato, and sometimes a grilled sausage, mushrooms and/or baked beans. The “full Cornish” might also include local specialties like smoked salmon, herring, or pilchards, and sometimes blood pudding.

You don’t have to take the full complement of items and can ask for just what you want.  A rack of toast is also provided, usually a choice of white or whole grain (granary) bread.  All this is in addition to continental breakfast offerings.  You definitely can’t eat this much breakfast every day, but try it at least once!

The Cornish Pasty: The iconic dish of Cornwall, this savory eat-with-your-hands pie has its roots in in the historic mining industry. Now found around the UK, it accounts for more than 5% of the Cornish economy.

Made with a short-crust pastry, the pasty was designed to be carried by miners in their lunch pail and eaten with one hand. The traditional pasty (locally called an “oggy”) contains diced beef, onion, potato and swede (a vegetable similar to a turnip) and is made with a crimped crust on one side. In additional to the traditional pasty, other variations can now be found such as chicken and mushroom, steak and stilton, and vegetarian options. The filling is not pre-cooked but it cooked inside the pastry.

The Cornish Pasty has Protected Geographical Indication. This means that only a pasty made in Cornwall can be legally called a Cornish pasty. Important note: When ordering a “pasty,” you should pronounce it to rhyme with “nasty.”

Pilchards (now called a Cornish sardine): Pilchards were once the backbone of the Cornish fishing industry. After falling out of favor, today the pilchard is marketed as a kind of “foodie specialty.”

Newlyn crab: Newlyn crab (from the famous fishing village between Penzance and Mousehole) is the standard by which all other crabs are measured and is often found in crab sandwiches or crab soup or simply served as “dressed crab.” The sweeter white meat from the crab’s claws is most highly prized and is used for dressed crab and crab sandwiches (never mixed with mayonnaise and recommended on brown bread). The richer brown meat is preferred for stocks and soups.

Clotted Cream: The climate of Cornwall makes it ideal for growing the rich grass required for dairy farming, leading to the production of one of Cornwall’s other famous exports: clotted cream. Clotted cream forms the basis for other local specialties such as Cornish fudge and Cornish ice cream.

Clotted cream is a silky, yellow cream with a distinctive crust on the surface, made by heating unpasteurized cow’s milk, or full cream milk, which then is left in a shallow pan for many hours, causing the cream to rise to the surface and ‘clot.’

Cornish cheeses: There are around 60 varieties of cheese produced in Cornwall, but Cornish Yarg is the best known. The recipe is said to date back to the 13th century but it was revived in the 1960s by Allan and Jenny Gray. (Yarg is their last name spelled backwards.) Yarg is a semi-hard cow’s milk cheese aged wrapped in nettles which forms an edible rind. Other award-winning cheeses include Kern cheese (similar to a Comté or Gouda) and Cornish Jack (a cheese with alpine characteristics).

Cheese often served in Cornwall as an option for dessert.

Cornish Cream Tea: The cream tea is another famous culinary tradition of Cornwall. A traditional Cornish cream tea involves a fresh scone sliced in half, spread with a good helping of strawberry jam, and then topped with a generous dollop of clotted cream. This is served with a pot of tea.

You can order a “Devonshire Cream Tea” in the neighboring county of Devon. The ingredients are exactly the same, though the cream and jam likely comes from Devon. The important difference is that in Devon the cream is applied first and then the jam. In Cornwall it’s always jam first, then cream!

Special Diets in Cornwall

England is no longer just the land of fish-and-chips and meat-and-potatoes. Our group has a number of people with special dietary needs: a vegetarian, a vegan, someone who is gluten-intolerant, someone who doesn’t eat meat, a few people who don’t like fish or seafood. Every place we’ve eaten has made it a priority to provide every diner with an excellent meal that fits their needs.

If you come to Cornwall, don’t hesitate to let the eating establishment know about any special dietary needs… I believe you’ll be well taken care of!

Memorable Meals in Cornwall

On every European Experiences trip, we want to provide memorable meals in a variety of settings. We always want to showcase the regional cuisine and specialties of each area and enjoy meals together in interesting venues with excellent service.

We’ve certainly achieved this goal on the Cornwall Experience.

Fortunately with the emphasis on fresh fish and vegetables, most of the food is very healthy… and we’ve also balanced all the good eating with lots of walking!

Now it’s time to get ready for our last dinner in the Isles of Scilly… I know it will be another memorable meal!

Alsace Experiences: Colorful villages filled with flowers

We’re still savoring the memories of our two recent groups in Alsace, a unique region of France located across the Rhine River from Germany. Alsace is a colorful, happy and prosperous region with about 32,000 acres of vineyards tumbling down the hillsides and the lower slopes of the Vosges mountains. The region is best known for its white wines: Rieslings, Sylvaners, and Gewurtzraminers, wines not produced anywhere else in France.

Our family made our first visit to Alsace in 1999, and this was our third year welcoming European Experiences groups to this beautiful and interesting area. We’re looking forward to our 2019 Alsace Experience week and will also offer this trip in 2020.

Despite the very cheerful environment today, the history of Alsace is a tumultuous one. The region shifted back and forth between Germany and France in three wars and has changed hands four times since 1870. Alsace was occupied by Nazi Germany in 1940, and 130,000 young Alsatian men were forcibly conscripted into the Nazi army against their will. Several villages in the area where our trip is based were destroyed or badly damaged during the three-month “Battle of the Colmar Pocket” from December 1944 to February 1945 before the area was fully liberated by the French and American forces. Alsace was returned to France after the war.

The people of this region have a strong identity as Alsatians but are very definitely French– not German! However, because of this unique history, visitors to this area experience both French and German influences in Alsace’s architecture, culture, cuisine, and traditions. It’s unlike any other part of France!

As our groups visit villages and towns in Alsace, they’re enchanted by the colorful and picturesque architecture, very Germanic in its style. Many people in our groups say the villages are like something in a fairy tale.

In the southern part of Alsace, most villages are surrounded by remains of medieval walls, pierced by gates and towers.

The villages were built with houses, wineries, shops, and the church (sometimes both a Catholic and a Protestant church) inside the walls. Public squares provided market and gathering places, often with public fountains.

Houses in the Alsace plains were traditionally positioned close together, each with an enclosed courtyard not directly accessible from the street. These courtyards once housed wine-making and farming activities or artisan workshops; today those that remain provide private gathering places for families and friends.

A typical Alsatian house is “half-timbered” and often includes symbols and decorations on porches, shutters, doors, and wood timbers. Hearts are especially popular.

Today regional authorities provide financial grants to homeowners who paint houses in a rich variety of colors to preserve the picturesque quality of Alsatian towns and villages.

Due to the climate, the roof of the typical Alsace property is usually steeply pitched (up to 60 degrees) and the typical roof is covered with flat clay tiles specific to Alsace and some neighboring areas of France.

Wood was frequently used in house construction because the Vosges mountains were nearby and wood was plentiful. However, fire was also a risk, so the ground floor was typically made of stone and the upper floors in half-timbering. In this type of construction, external and internal walls were constructed of timber frames of different designs and the spaces between the frames filled with materials such as brick, stone or plaster.

In many buildings, the second story has an overhang which provides slightly more floor space on the second story. A basement level provided a large wine cellar.

Some villages included chateaus within the walls; the village of Kientzheim where we base our trip had three!

Wealthy and powerful people had more elaborate houses with turrets, oriel window, and enclosed balconies. These houses often have intricate decorations on their exterior.

Today most of the villages and private homes are abundantly landscaped with flowers, adding to the colorful impression.

There may not be much grass inside the walled villages, but planters, pots, window boxes, and hanging baskets overflow with flowers. Geraniums are especially popular.

Many of the Alsatian towns and villages are recognized as a Ville or Village Fleuris (town or village “in bloom”) for their use of flowers, their landscaping, and overall cleanliness. This is a program Jacquiline Perrettistered across France. The “Haute-Rhin” department where our Experience week is based has 158 villages recognized with this designation, each awarded one to four flowers. We visit 10 of these villages during our week.

An Alsace Experience: Village Préféré des Français

Tuesday, June 13, 2017. It was an exciting evening for our Alsace Experience group! After a busy day in the Vosges mountains and an early dinner at our hotel in the tiny village of Kientzheim, we drove a quick kilometer to the next village of Kaysersberg to participate in a big village party.

Kaysersberg was one of 13 villages in France nominated this year for the “Village préféré des Français” (favorite village of the French). This annual designation was initiated in 2012, organized around a special television broadcast on the France 2 network. One village is chosen as the candidate from each of the 13 French regions. During the broadcast a special feature highlights each village; then during the time of the broadcast, people across France vote for their favorite village with a phone call or text message. In 2017– for the first time– the winner was announced live at the end of the program.

The “Village préféré des Français” program highlights the beauty and heritage of smaller village communities in France. There are about 32,000 villages in France, and they have a special place in French tradition and culture. Another designation–“Les Plus Beaux Villages de France” (the most beautiful villages in France)– has a similar objective, but is different in several ways. That program is run by an independent organization; villages apply to be considered; and are selected after a review process. There are currently 155 villages with the “plus beaux village” designation. In that program, the villages pay an annual fee and must meet certain requirements. (Read more here.)

But the “Village préféré des Français” is a sort of popularity contest, chosen by the French people. The designation can mean a lot for tourism and also for village pride. Kaysersberg was going all-out to win.

Charley and I have gotten to know Kaysersberg very well over the past three summers. Our Alsace Experience week is based in the tiny medieval village of Kientzheim (population 800), less than a mile from Kaysersberg (population 2,700). We can walk through the vineyards to Kaysersberg in less than 20 minutes! Our groups spend most of a day in Kaysersberg… enjoying a guided walking tour, exploring on their own, and having lunch together. Many group members go into Kaysersberg later in the week to shop, stroll, and for dinner on their own.

Kaysersberg is a charming wine village located on either side of the River Weiss, crossed by a 16th century fortified bridge. It has endured with strength over time, including four transitions between France and Germany since 1871 and serious damage in World War II. The ruins of a 13th century chateau tower over the village. The houses are mostly half-timbered, very colorful, and decorated with flowers. The main street passes by the 13th century church on a very attractive square and is lined with shops, restaurants, and private homes. Humanitarian Dr. Albert Schweitzer was born here, and there are two Michelin starred restaurants! But it’s more than just a tourist town… as we’ve learned over the past three years and was demonstrated at the party, there’s a very strong community spirit and pride.

The party on June 13 was held on the square by the church, attended by perhaps 1000 people. There was traditional Alsatian music, big band music, food and drink for sale, and games for children. The mayor made a passionate and enthusiastic speech. Finally at 9:00 pm, the television program began and was shown to the crowd on a big screen television, with six-minute segments on each of the 13 villages. (Kaysersberg was the 13th!)

We didn’t stay for the whole program, but headed back to Kientzheim. Charley and I– along with many in our group– watched the rest of the program from our rooms.

Charley and I were a bit torn… we also know two of the other nominated villages quite well! Lourmarin is a village located just eight miles from our village of Bonnieux in Provence. We’ve spent a lot of time there and visit during our Return to the Luberon week. La Roque-Gageac is a pretty village in the Dordogne that we visited just today with our Perigord Experience groups. But during the time of the program and for four weeks before, we were based in Alsace… and Kaysersberg had captured our hearts. I sent several text messages on my French mobile with my vote for Kaysersberg!

And the winner was… Kaysersberg !!

Was I imagining it… or did I really hear the cheers floating across the vineyards?! (La Roque-Gageac came in third and Lourmarin was number seven.)

You can watch the video feature on Kaysersberg from the France 2 program here:

Bravo Kaysersberg! We are proud of our connection with you and looking forward to returning again in 2018!

We’ll be back in Alsace with two Alsace Experience groups in 2018. Visit Kaysersberg and Kientzheim and experience this beautiful and interesting region of France with us!

Experiencing Europe at Christmas

Charley and I just returned from a month in Europe, arriving home late on Christmas Eve. For our first 15 days in Europe we researched and planned our new “European Christmas Experience” tour. We spent five nights each in Salzburg, Austria; Munich, Germany; and Colmar in Alsace, France. These will be the bases for the new 12-night tour we’ll offer in 2017.

For the last part of our trip, we stayed in our little second home in the village of Bonnieux in the Luberon region of Provence. We really enjoy the holiday season in Provence and the celebrations with our friends there. I’ve posted before about some Christmas traditions in Provence, so in this post I’ll focus on what travelers can expect in Salzburg, Munich and Alsace at this time of year and a preview of our 2017 tour.

We’ve been in Europe ten times in the month of December… we love it! This time of year in Europe is incredibly special, drawing on strong regional traditions. Creative decorations and colorful lights enhance the charm of medieval buildings. There’s a fairy-tale magic, evoking the Christmas of your dreams.

Christmas Markets

Christmas markets are a centuries-old tradition and are found across Europe in cities, towns, and villages. Some markets last more than a month and some just a weekend. Special events and entertainment are also offered. The markets draw locals, visitors from the region, and international tourists.

What can you expect at a European Christmas market? The major Christmas markets are typically outdoors and feature booths or chalets selling a wide variety of merchandise including holiday ornaments and decorations, nativity scenes, toys, gifts, handicrafts, takeaway food, and of course hot mulled wine (“glühwein” in German or “vin chaud” in French). There may be music and other entertainment, and games and special activities for children. Some markets feature only products made by local artisans. And there are even “theme” markets, such as medieval markets.

We decided to focus our Christmas trip

on three areas we know well, in three different countries and in three different kinds of home bases: in a large city (Munich), a small city (Salzburg), and a large town (Colmar). Each area offers a different environment and holiday experience.

Salzburg, Austria

Our family spent two Christmases in Salzburg (in 1999 and 2003), and Charley and I have also hosted two Salzkammergut Experience weeks in the nearby countryside. We were excited to make another winter trip to this beautiful city, nestled on either side of the Salzach River and surrounded by mountains. The baroque architecture, the impressive Hohensalzburg fortress on its hilltop, the many church towers, and the winding streets and narrow passageways add to the magical atmosphere.

Salzburg is idyllic at any time of year, but especially at Christmas. There are six Christkindlmarkts in the city, the largest spilling over two big squares around the Dom (cathedral). There is even a Christmas museum that explains the Christmas traditions and exhibits a big collection of historic Christmas items.

Salzburg has a strong musical heritage… after all, it’s the city of Mozart. We enjoyed two classical concerts during our stay, an experience we always pursue when we’re here.

Munich, Germany

I was born in Munich, and though I don’t have any memories of the city from my earliest days, this was my eighth trip back to this wonderful city. Munich’s tradition of Christmas markets has developed over hundreds of years. This year the city hosted seven different markets; we went to four, including the medieval market on the Wittlesbacherplatz. The most important Christmas market fills the Marienplatz, the big square in front of the city hall, and extends several blocks down the pedestrian street. The centerpiece is the 85-foot high Christmas tree, decorated with 3,000 lights. There are hundreds of colorful stands. (The glühwein stands were especially popular!)

We also enjoyed spending time at the Viktualienmarkt, Munich’s open-air food market, near the Marienplatz. It’s kind of a combination farmer’s market and gourmet food market with over 140 stands and shops. There’s even an Eataly nearby now. This isn’t an official Christmas market, but the many florist stands were all selling Christmas greenery, so there was definitely a festive atmosphere!

One day we took a train to the Bavarian Alps and visited the picturesque village of Mittenwald and the busier town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. We’ve stayed several times in this area and really enjoyed our day back in the Alps. We especially like the elaborately-painted houses, a technique called “luftlmalerei.”

Colmar, France

The Alsace Experience is our newest Experience week, and we’ve spent almost seven weeks there over past 18 months. For our Christmas trip we decided to stay right in Colmar, a town of 68,000 people and the capital of the Alsatian wine region. We loved being in Colmar at this time of year!

There are five Christmas markets in various parts of the medieval town, and storefronts and houses are beautifully decorated and illuminated after dark. The Petite Venise area on the canals of the river Lauch is especially magical.

Strasbourg is an easy 33 minute train trip from Colmar, and we spent a day there to enjoy its famous Christmas markets. There are eleven Christmas markets on Strasbourg’s Grande Île (the historic center), and we managed to visit all of them! I loved the elaborate decorations on so many of the stores and restaurants, usually on the 1st and 2nd floors. After dark, the lights in Strasbourg are incredible!

We also spent a day in the Alsatian countryside to visit local friends and the small villages we love so much. With its blend of French and German culture, Alsace may offer the quintessential Christmas experience… the architecture, decor, colors, and cuisine create a perfect setting for the holiday celebrations.

Plans for our 2017 Christmas Tour

Our European Christmas Experience trip will include much more than just markets and holiday traditions. We’ll also experience the richness of the culture, history, and cuisine in each of these unique areas.

We’ll explore each area with the help of outstanding local guides, visit world-class museums (with options based on personal interests), and of course enjoy the best of local cuisine. In Salzburg we’ll enjoy a Mozart dinner concert in a historic venue. In Munich we’re planning a cooking class. In Colmar, we’ll visit a family-owned winery for a wine tasting. Our stay in Colmar will also include a day in Strasbourg, which offers perhaps the most famous Christmas markets in Europe. In each area we’ll also take a day trip to the countryside to enjoy the smaller villages. And as on all of our trips, there will be a few surprises along the way!

The details of our 2017 European Christmas Experience tour will be announced in a few weeks, including the dates, itinerary, accommodations, and prices… more photos too! We’ll offer two 12-day tours in 2017. We’re thrilled to be returning for the holiday season next year and to offer travelers this very special experience involving three of our favorite areas of Europe. If you’re not already on our mailing list, be sure to sign up here to receive the announcement. We’d love to have you join us.

Best wishes for this holiday season and for the new year! Here’s to health, happiness, and memorable travel experiences in 2017!

Experiencing Europe’s Christmas Markets: Practical Tips for a Stress-Free Trip

I’ve been spending time in Europe during the Christmas season for almost 20 years. Europe is magical to me at any time of year, but especially at Christmas.  Many of our beloved Christmas traditions originated in Europe: the song Silent Night, nativity scenes, Christmas trees and ornaments, St. Nicholas, advent calendars, yule logs… and of course, Christmas markets.

We just returned from our European Christmas Experience, a 12-night trip based in Salzburg, Austria; Munich, Germany; and Colmar in Alsace, France… three very special places to enjoy the Christmas season and Christmas markets. The Christmas season provides a special ambiance for this unique European experience. Our group has the opportunity to enjoy numerous Christmas markets, but our trip includes much more than just the markets in these special places. We also enjoy walking tours with local guides, visits to museums and historical sites, meals featuring local specialties, day trips to the countryside and small villages, musical events in Salzburg, a cooking class in Munich, and a winery visit in Alsace.

What to Expect at the Christmas Markets

The earliest Christmas markets began in Germany in the Middle Ages, spreading across the German-speaking regions to include Austria, Switzerland and Alsace in eastern France. Today the tradition of Christmas markets has expanded throughout Europe as people gather together to celebrate the birth of Christ, enjoy holiday traditions with family and friends, and shop for decorations and gifts. In German-speaking countries, the markets are called “Christkindlmarkt” or “Weihnachtsmarkt.” In France the markets are “Marchés de Noël.”

Christmas markets are typically outdoors, usually in central squares or along main thoroughfares, featuring booths or chalets selling a wide variety of merchandise. You’ll usually find holiday ornaments and decorations, nativity scenes, toys, gifts, handicrafts, gourmet food, takeaway food and much more. Most markets have numerous stands selling hot mulled wine (“glühwein” in German or “vin chaud” in French).

Markets may feature music and other entertainment, as well as special activities for children. Some markets feature only products made by local artisans or focus on food specialties. And there are “theme” markets, such as the medieval market our group visits in Munich.  The markets are especially magical after dark because of the lights.

Christmas markets typically run during the Advent season… the four weeks leading up to Christmas, though some markets begin a bit earlier.  In bigger cities and towns, the Christmas markets operate every day of the week.  In smaller towns and villages, Christmas markets may be held on just a few weekends or only on a special day.

The most popular markets can get quite crowded.  The European Christmas markets are increasingly drawing tourists from around the world, on independent trips or tours.  But the majority of market-goers don’t come far.  Europeans travel from other areas to celebrate the season and enjoy the  surroundings and regional food.  And on weekends the Christmas markets are especially busy, filled with local people, students, and families.

The decorations and lights add to the Christmas spirit. The decorations are especially elaborate in Alsace, where some communities have contests to recognize the best decorations. In the small walled village of Bergheim, there’s an annual “chemin des crèches,” where residents, businesses, and associations set up traditional and creative nativity scenes… more than 80 this year!  Most churches in Alsace also include a nativity scene at this time of year, sometimes including figurines that have been used for more than 100 years.

Our Christmas Experience trip includes three countries (Austria, Germany and France), with bases in a big city (Munich), a small city (Salzburg), and a town (Colmar).  Each of these areas is unique and offers some meaningful differences in their Christmas markets. Regardless of how much of a “shopper” you are, we believe everyone will enjoy the festive Christmas season in Europe.  Whether you’re traveling on your own or in a group, our tips will help you ensure a fun and positive Christmas markets experience.

Tips for Enjoying the Christmas Markets

Planning Your Market Visits

  • Plan a varied itinerary that includes other activities and places… not just the Christmas markets. Some people are surprised to find that regardless of the country, many Christmas markets are fairly similar…you’ll often find very similar merchandise.  Even the most serious shopper will find it difficult to focus only on Christmas markets on a “Christmas Markets” trip. We like a mix of cities, towns, villages and the countryside, and we also enjoy indoor cultural activities.
  • If crowds bother you, plan your itinerary carefully.  Avoid the most popular markets, especially on weekends and evenings. Instead, visit lesser-known markets or visit markets earlier on weekdays or during the daylight hours.
  • When you first arrive at a larger place, stop by  the tourist office to get a map of the city or town, including the location of Christmas markets. Before your trip, you can also visit Tourist Office websites to learn more about the markets and the schedule for any special activities.
  • Book hotels early, as popular places can fill a year in advance.  I also suggest making lunch and dinner reservations in advance, as it can be difficult to “walk in” during the busy Christmas season, especially on weekends.

What to Pack, Wear and Carry

  • Dress warmly!  It can be C O L D , especially when the sun goes down—which can be before 5:00 pm.  There might also be snow… which adds to the atmosphere but also can be challenging.  Bundle up in a warm coat, hat, scarf and gloves… or buy new ones there. You’ll find plenty of stands selling winter gear.  I bring silk long underwear for especially chilly days.
  • Wear comfortable walking shoes and warm socks.  Markets are usually in pedestrian areas in town or city centers and can cover a large area.  You’ll be doing some walking!
  • Bring a lightweight, collapsible shopping bag to more easily carry and consolidate your market purchases.
  • If you’re planning some serious shopping, pack a lightweight, collapsible duffel bag in your luggage. Use this to carry your Christmas market treasures home, ideally as your second carry-on item to protect fragile items.  You may want to bring bubble wrap and tape with you, as market sellers don’t always wrap breakables well for long-distance travel.

Shopping at the Markets

  • If you see something you love—buy it!  Some markets are quite large, and it may be difficult to find a stall again if you pass something by the first time.
  • Learn a little of the local language so you can greet and thank the sellers.  Most sellers will speak enough English to answer basic questions about their merchandise, but they always appreciate your efforts to speak their language.
  • Be sensitive about picking something up, especially handmade or more-expensive items.  And pay attention if there are signs indicating “no photos.”
  • Be careful navigating in crowded booths with glass or fragile items.  It can be easy to break something.
  • Bring cash, especially small bills and one- and two-euro coins. Some stands selling more expensive items have credit card machines, but most can’t accept cards. You’ll definitely need cash and coins for small purchases, food, and drink.
  • Take a break to enjoy a hot drink and a snack of local specialties, either at a market stand or in a nearby cafe. Hot wine stands usually serve drinks in colorful souvenir mugs.  You pay a deposit you can get back if you don’t want to keep the mug.  You can also use your mug for refills.  Non-alcoholic hot drinks like hot chocolate or hot fruit punch (“kinderpunsch”) are usually available.

Safety and Security

  • Don’t be surprised if you see armed guards at some markets, an unexpected contrast to the festive atmosphere.  They’re there to ensure your security.
  • Always be very careful with your billfold and purse in crowds, especially after dark.  If you use a backpack, carry it in front of you.  Leave your passport at the hotel.
  • Handle your cash very carefully. Don’t accidentally flash lots of money when people are nearby.  Carry small bills and coins in your pocket for easy access.

We’ll return for our next European Christmas Experience, December 2 – 14, 2019 . Our 2019 trip will follow a similar 12-night itinerary to our 2018 trip:  four nights each beginning in Salzburg, Austria; then traveling to Munich, Germany; and ending in Colmar in Alsace, France.  You can leave the itinerary planning and logistics to us, as you get to know the best of each of these areas and explore the Christmas markets.

We still have a few spots open in our 2019 trip. See our website for more information about this trip-of-a-lifetime…. we’d love to have you join us!

Travel to Salzburg – Austria

Salzburg is the second largest city in Austria. It has a population of 150,000 people. It is a picturesque city with narrow streets, wide squares, colourful houses, castles, palaces, churches, gardens and fountains. It lies between tall mountains and the Salzach River flows through it, laying out a beautiful backdrop for a beautiful city of baroque-style buildings with towers and spires. Thanks to its incredible architecture, the old centre of the city has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the cities archbishops hired the best artists and craftsmen to design the city in a style similar to Rome, so Italian influence can be seen in the city. Salzburg isn’t nicknamed Rome of the North for nothing.

Salzburg is close to the border with Germany, so it also serves as a good starting point for trips to south Germany.

The city centre is small and compact, allowing one to walk on foot between the city’s famous tourist attractions.

Salzburg is also famous as the birthplace of the famous classical composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

You will find things related to Mozart in every corner (besides the delicious chocolates named after him): Mozart square (Mozartplatz), with a statue of the composer at its centre; Mozarteum music academy; the house where he grew up; and of course, the Mozart museum. His music serves as a core component of almost every musical event that takes place in the city, which is known for its many music festivals. The most famous of its festivals is the Salzburger Festspiele, which started in 1920 and has been attracting music fans from all over the world since.
Another important musical event for which the city is famous is the musical The Sound of Music, one of the most-viewed movies in history. Many scenes in the movie were filmed in Salzburg. Today you can take a guided tour through the city around sites relevant to the movie, watch a dinner show based on songs from the movie, or watch a marionette show of The Sound of Music (details later in the article).
Alongside its rich history and classic culture, Salzburg is also a lively modern city known for its excellent coffee shops, its many restaurants, and its great clubs, shops, theatres, galleries, and museums.

The most famous street in the city, also known as a successful shopping area, is the pedestrian mall of Getreidegasse. This is a beautifully designed narrow street where every little detail is wonderfully stylised. Even the McDonalds sign is stylised appropriately. This street is considered one of the most beautiful shopping areas in Austria. Even if you don’t like shopping, I recommend wandering through here. The buildings in this street are tall, narrow and crowded together. Between the buildings are roofed passageways (mostly full of shops and galleries) and lovely courtyards. Building number 9 on the street is the house Mozart grew up in, which nowadays houses the Mozart museum (more on this later).
In the centre of Salzburg are beautiful piazzas which are a treat to wander through. The largest one is Residenzplatz, at the centre of which is an impressive fountain with statues of horses, dolphins and characters from Roman mythology. At the eastern end of the square is the new Residenz building, which today houses the regional government offices. A hundred years after its initial construction, a bell tower was added to the building – the glockenspiel. It features 36 bells which play Mozart music three times a day: at 7AM, 11AM, and 6PM. From the square you can take 20-25 minute horse carriage tours through the old town. Another major square is Mozartplatz, featuring a statue of the famous composer at its centre. This square also has a tourist information centre. A short walk away is the old market square, or Alter Markt, where for hundreds of years the city market was held. The square has a row of pastel-coloured buildings from the 17th century. At its centre is a statue of Saint Florian. Another one of the city’s major squares is Domplatz.

More tourist information about Salzburg can be found here and at the tourist information centre in Mozartplatz.
A Salzburg card gives you a one-day pass to the main tourist attractions of the city, as well as free use of the city’s public transport. You can easily get to the city in a private vehicle and park in one of the city’s many parking lots. A map of the city’s parking lots can be found here. You can also park in one of the free-to-use parking lots in the city’s suburbs off the freeway and get to the city centre via public transport.
If you love wandering around beautiful streets, shops, gardens and castles and you are not pressed for time, the best way for you to see the city is to walk all around the old town on foot.
If you don’t have as much time, you can take a bus tour around the major tourist attractions. Some tours that are especially nice are ones themed around The Sound of Music. Several companies offer tours between the various filming locations of the movie around the city. The two major companies that offer this are Panorama Tours and Bob’s Tours. More sporty people can join Fraulein Maria’s Bicycle Tour.

The Stadtbus, Salzburg’s city bus, goes to all of the city’s major tourist attractions. There are ticket offices at the train station and on 4th Schrannengasse Street. Salzburg Card holders can ride the bus for free.
If you’d like to see the city from a different viewpoint, take a guided boat tour on the Salzach River running through the centre of the city.

Salzburg Stadt Schiff-Fahrt offers different boat tours in the city and around it. The shortest tour is an hour long and it is free for Salzburg Card holders.
I recommend spending at least one day in this beautiful city in order to see all of the main attractions in the old town combined with Hellbrunn Palace.
If you would like to visit more sites, such as museums, the zoo and the cable car near the city, go on a Sounds of Music tour or participate in festival events, give it a full two days.


Hellbrunn Palace

A true children’s favourite in the city is Hellbrunn Palace and its water tricks.
This is a baroque-style palace built in the 17th century at the foot of the Hellbrunn Mountains as a summer home for Bishop Markus Sittikus. The bishop, who was rich and had a good sense of humour, wanted to create a unique place where he could toy with his guests. The palace, built in only three years, is located in a big park with beautiful gardens, not far from the zoo. You will get an amusing guided tour of the place, during which the guide will activate a series of hidden fountains and other amusing water-operated tricks, getting visitors wet and keeping them guessing about where the next spray of water will come from. This is how the bishop pranked his highly esteemed visitors back in the day.

Many of the fountains aren’t hidden and are very impressive and beautiful (many of them designed with roman mythology in mind), but some are hidden in bushes, flowers, and rather innocent-looking statues… The bishop also built a small theatre of 256 dolls, all operated by water pressure. After the tour you can walk around the beautiful gardens independently.
Here, too, scenes of the Sound of Music were filmed.
The palace is located 8km south of the centre of Salzburg.

A Family Holiday in Salzburg and Tyrol in Austria

A week of unforgettable family attractions in Salzburg and Tyrol.
We’ve picked nice vacation apartments for you at a great location near the charming town of St. Johann in Tyrol. Out of there, you can go on daily star trips in the two most popular family destinations in Austria without having to change lodging throughout your trip.
Self catering apartments fitted with a fully equipped kitchenette with dishwasher, and cable TV. Each has a private bathroom.

The apartments are near the holiday town of St. Johann in Tyrol, at the heart of the Kitzbuheler Alpen area. These famous mountains, which in the winter attract many skiers, are a lovely destination to visit in the summer as well. They have endless trails for hiking and biking out in nature, beautiful viewpoints, restaurants with enormous balconies on the mountaintops and plenty of entertainment options for kids.
I recommend getting the Kitzbuheler summer card which includes free rides in 29 different summer lifts that belong to 13 different companies, as well as entry to the amusement parks at the tops of the mountains. The card also includes discounts of %25-%50 to 34 other family attractions, all a short drive away from your holiday apartment.

Select sites included in the price of the summer card:

♦ Sommerrodeln alpine slide at St. Johann in Tyrol

♦ Wildpark Aurach animal park

♦ Panorama Badewelt pool complex in St. Johann

♦ Alle fiebern mit Timoks Alm adventure trail

♦ Kaiserbad water park

♦ The enchanted forest of Juppi Zauberwald

You can also visit copper and silver mines in this area, as well as a new and unique dinosaur park called Triassic Park.

A few minutes away you can enjoy active vacationing for the whole family: hiking trails between forests and lakes, biking trails, horseback riding, rafting in rivers, boating in lakes, tubing, adventure parks, mini golfing, water parks, and more.
Entry to many of the attractions in nearby Salzburg is free to people holding a Salzburgerland Card. It allows for free entry into 40 pools, lakes and hotsprings, 40 different museums, 25 cable cars, dozens of entertainment facilities, castles, nature sites and animal parks and a full day of enjoying the best of Salzburg city.
Proximity to the German border allows for day trips to excellent tourist attractions in south Bavaria, such as King Ludwig’s castles, Alpamare water park, Eagle’s Nest, Konigssee, boating in lake Chiemsee, visiting Munich, and more.

Another lovely experience is visiting an Austrian supermarket, which you will find not far from your place of lodging. Buy excellent Austrian cheese, pastries and chocolates and feast like kings day and night. The area also has some great family restaurants, where every child will find something they like, from the famous wiener schnitzels to delicious pizzas (thanks to neighbouring Italy’s influence).
Festivals take place in Tyrol and Salzburg every summer – Music, dancing, folklore and film festivals.
It’s important to mention that the cost of a family holiday in Austria is lower than in any other destination in Europe, thanks to the huge discounts given to kids everywhere (children under 5 pay nothing in most places and kids 6-15 years old usually pay half price). Additionally, most attractions have excellent family discounts.

Suggestions for star trips in Salzburg:

Eisriesenwelt ice caves – the largest and most impressive ice cave in Europe.

Durenberg Salt Mines, and near them, the longest alpine slides in Austria, Keltenblitz Toboggan Slide.
Karkogel alpine slide in Abtenau.

Helbrunn Castle – a castle known for its water tricks.
A visit to the beautiful city of Salzburg: taking the cable car up to the fortress, touring the old city, the old market square and the pedestrian mall, walking along the river, and seeing mirabell garden. A trip inspired by The Sound of Music.
Grosglockner – the tallest mountain in Austria, reachable by a scenic toll road.
Visiting Hohen Werfen Castle and watching a show of birds of prey
Visiting the old town of Hallstatt, boating in its lake and visiting its chilling Bone House.
Visiting the lovely little towns of St. Wolfgang and Sankt Gilgen, riding a steamboat in the nearby lake and going up the historic cable car.
Krimml waterfalls, the tallest waterfall in Austria.
Kitzsteinhorn Glacier in Kaprun – a summer skiing destination with plenty of snow-related activities that can be reached by a chain of three cable cars which overlook beautiful views.
The Alpine reservoirs in Kaprun – a fascinating guided tourin an alpine dam in the mountains, reachable by a huge funicular.
Liechtenstein Gorge and Lammerklamm Gorge – beautiful hiking trails inside deep canyons along a river and on wooden bridges.
Freizeitpark amusement and safari park
Lamprechtshohle Cave – the deepest cave in the world available for tourists to visit.
A hike on wooden platforms along a winding river in Seisenberg Gorge.

Suggestions for star trips in Tyrol:

♦ A visit to Innsbruck, Tyrol’s capital, going up to the Golden Roof, going up to the Innsbruck city tower to see the view, visiting Hofburg castle, the bell museum, the alpine zoo and the city’s ski ramp.

♦ A visit to Swarovski Crystal Worlds


♦ A trip along Europabrucke, or Europe’s Bridge, the tallest bridge in Europe. It is one of the world’s engineering wonders. You can cross it on foot and admire it and its height.

♦ Kufstein Castle – a well-fortified medieval castle built on a cliff.

♦ AirRofan, near lake Achensee – a unique four-person alpine flight down a long cable at 85km/h.

♦ Leutasch Spirit Gorge – a walk along this impressive gorge, partly on hanging bridges, partly inside the gorge and partly through a forest.

♦ Aurach Wildlife ParkThe biggest and best open museum in Tyrol, Museum Tiroler Bauernhofe, near the village of Kramsach.

Star Trips in Austria

The most comfortable way to travel in Austria with your family is by staying in one vacation home for a week and from there, travelling to destinations up to 90 minutes away. The ideal place to stay is a charming farmhouse in the mountains, in a place that is peaceful and pastoral on the one hand but close to a main road on the other. It should be a place that is fun to return to at the end of a day of travelling. Even staying around it for the whole day without any driving around should be a fun option.
If you can afford staying 10-14 days in Austria it would be wise to stay in two different places: first, spend 5-6 days lodging in the heart of the state of Salzburg (for instance, in Flachau), then spend another4-5 days in Tirol (near Innsbruck). However, if you only have one week in Austria, it’s best to stay in one central location from which you can comfortably travel to the main attractions of both Tirol and Salzburg state.

An ideal central place from which you can travel to these two beautiful states is the city of Kufstein. This city sits by a main road that connects Salzburg and Munich to Innsbruck.
Kufstein is a lovely, friendly town with a beautiful castle, a large river, an impressive glass factory and a colourful, bustling town centre. It is definitely worth dedicating a full day to this city alone. But for those who would rather stay in a vacation home than a hotel would do better to stay not in the city itself, but in one of the nearby villages. This way you get to enjoy the best of both worlds: On the one hand, living in a central area from which most attractions are easily accessible, and on the other hand, enjoy lodging in a spacious apartment in a quiet place surrounded by nature.

Kufstain also makes a great starting point for a trip to some of the attractions of southern Bavaria, such as the Castles of Ludwig II, the great water park Alpamare, Zugspitze peak, Eagle’s Nest, Konigssee, Munich, and more.

The drive from Kufstein to Munich airport takes about 90 minutes (130km), so there is no need to stay close to the airport on the first or last day of your trip. The drive to the city of Munich itself is even shorter.

Suggestions for star trips in the state of Salzburg:

♦ Eisriesenwelt ice caves

♦ Durenberg salt mines and the alpine slides near it, which are the longest alpine slides in Austria

♦ Hellbrunn Palace and its famous water tricks

♦ The beautiful city of Salzburg: taking the cable car up to the fortress, a tour of the old city, visiting the old market square, walking along the river, seeing Miravel gardens.


♦ A trip following ‘The Sound of Music.

♦ ’Rosenburg castle, which hosts eagle shows

♦ The preserved and picturesque town of Hallstatt, its lake and its Beinhaus (bone house)

♦ Krimml waterfalls (the highest falls in Austria)A cable car ride up to the top of the iceberg at Kaprun (a ski resort, active even in the summer) and a visit to the nearby dam.

Suggestions for star trips in the state of Tirol:

♦ Swarovski Crystal Worlds

♦ A visit to beautiful Innsbruck including a cable car up to the mountaintop, an alpine animal park and a charming old city

♦ Ziller Valley – one of Tirol’s beautiful valleys, which has summer vacation towns, alpine villages and a steam locomotive which you can ride

♦ Climbing to Zugspitze, a peak on the border between Austria and Germany.

Of course, to visit all of these destinations you will need about two weeks. The best thing to do if you don’t have that much time is to pick the attractions you find most suitable to you and your family and leave something for the next trip!

I definitely recommend including a day or two of active vacation for the whole family: a hike along forest and lakeside paths, bike riding, horseback riding, boating in lakes, rafting in rivers, sliding down alpine slides, mini-golfing, hot air balloon rides, and more.