travel - german christmas markets
THREE HOURS DRIVE THE OTHER SIDE OF THE CHANNEL LIES THE AACHEN CHRISTMAS MARKET. JONATHAN CROUCH WENT TO VISIT
If you're one of those rare people who actually enjoys shopping for Christmas, then you've probably always promised yourself that one year, you'd do it rather differently.
New York is usually the first place that springs to mind when it comes to exotic Christmas shopping destinations - but that's really a once-in-a-lifetime thing for the lucky few. What about somewhere a little nearer and a lot less painful in the wallet region?
Before we go on, it's as well to make clear at this point that we're not talking about stocking up on seasonal drinks, smokes or questionably-smelling cheese. You can do all that with a short hop across the channel of course - but you can do a lot more by venturing a little further a field when you get there. We're talking here about somewhere with enough retail variety to make your next Christmas present haul a lot more interesting, both for you and those lined up to receive your gifts.
Finding such a place is not a modern day problem of course. It's something people right across Europe have been battling with for centuries. Hence the emergence of the famous German Christmas Markets. If you're picturing a glorified car boot sale, then think again. As with everything else, the Germans like to do things properly, so it's far more DKNY than Del Boy and Rodney. No fly-by-nights. No trumpeted "unrepeatable bargains". No Perspex draped over scaffolding poles. Each stall is a beautifully crafted wooden hut with appropriate Christmas lights and embellishments - and there are plenty of them, selling everything from gloves to glockenspiels. Much of it is hand-crafted, yet on sale at the kind of prices you can justify for Cousin Lucy's ungrateful nephew.
There are a number of such Christmas Markets scattered around Germany, but the two most famous are in Koln and in the border town of Aachen. Having tried both in previous years, it was the Aachen Market we chose on this particular trip - for two reasons. First, it's closer, a three hour blast on fast motorways from the French Channel Ports. Travel further than that, especially with family in the car, and any trip quickly becomes something you wish you'd never started. The second point in Aachen's favour is that the whole experience feels considerably quainter than in Koln's more impersonal metropolis. The market is held in a square directly overlooked by the town's Cathedral, which dates back to 768 and is recognised as one of the most important buildings north of the Alps.
In fact, it's something of a shock to find so much history in a town you'd previously have dismissed as little more than a border staging post on the way to somewhere else. Actually, the Romans established themselves here originally, attracted by the warm springs beneath the town centre. You can still experience them today at the Carolus Thermen thermal baths. Wandering around the town it's a bit like being in Brussels or Brugge in the way that you can meander from cobbled square to square, cafe to cafe, with surprising statues and imposing architecture at almost every turn.
The Christmas Market itself starts at the end of November each year and runs until a few days before Christmas. It's proliferated of course over the years and a few of the stalls have merchandise of questionable merit - but perhaps that's all part of the appeal. That and the fact that unless your German's up to scratch, you'll have to resort to sign language. It's just as well that there's no point in haggling. Part of the fun of wandering around is in sampling the traditional winter food, prepared in copious quantities by any number of specialised stall holders. Doughy, stodgy cakes, served hot with all kinds of fruit and sauces, are everywhere, as well as the usual savoury snacks, served in some unusual ways. We counted 21 kinds of chips.
If you're up to spending a little more on that special gift, then you'll probably need to walk down the cobbled hill from the Cathedral into Aachen's main shopping district. Here of course, you'll find everything you could want - if your wallet can stand it. Though the quality's great, the prices can be exorbitant.
So, down to the basics. Cost-wise, you've got the Channel Crossing to pay for, plus at least a half a tank of fuel to get you the 220 miles across Belgium to the German border. If you've a few people in the car, that can work out quite reasonably - which leaves only the accommodation costs to keep down. We tried the Novotel just outside the city centre, which seemed to offer a good balance between economy and a decent standard of service. Room rates start at DM 170 for a single, DM 185 a double and DM 190 for a triple - but they can vary on the season (Tel: 0049-241-16870 / H0482@accor-hotels.com).
The bottom line then, is that for less than £150 plus accommodation, a figure you can split amongst your passengers, you really can shop somewhere interestingly different the next time the Christmas present-buying season comes around. Santa would surely approve, but even if he doesn't, your friends and family surely will.
AACHEN CHRISTMAS MARKET - THE FACTS
HOW FAR: 220 MILES (3.5 hrs approx) from Calais.
COSTS: CHANNEL CROSSING (ANYTHING FROM £30 - £120, DEPENDING ON CARRIER AND DISCOUNT SCHEMES) PLUS 1/1.5 TANKS OF FUEL
ACCOMMODATION: (example) NOVOTEL AACHEN - 0049-241-16870
£50-£80 approx DEPENDING ON ROOM & SEASON
WHO TO CONTACT: AACHEN TOURIST INFORMATION 0049-241-1802960
EMAIL - email@example.com
WEB SITE - www.aachen-tourist.de