Even without a seasonal dusting of snow, there’s something magical about a visit to the traditional Advent markets of Salzburg in Austria.
As dusk gradually darkens into night, the chattering voices of locals and tourists mingle as people enjoy visiting the stalls of the Advent market on Cathedral Square in the heart of the Altstadt (meaning “old town”).
This is a district rich in cupola-capped, baroque era buildings. It has been on UNESCO’s list of cultural world heritage sites since 1997. I stand out on the square and sip from a warming cup of Gluehwein – mulled red wine infused with an aromatic mix of spices – and look on as people socialise. A choir has just finished singing carols on the steps of the cathedral, which was consecrated in 1628.
A charming Christmas market
Scrooge-like cynics may well argue that central Europe’s Advent markets are commercial ventures organized to exploit the season, but I’m a romantic. Given the evidence in front of me, there’s no denying that people love them when they are well-run. Salzburg scores high in that regard. Oozing charm and tradition, the atmosphere of the markets – for there are several dotted around this city – inspires me to feel my most Christmassy in years. Surely that shot of rum my Gluehwein is playing only a minor role in my sentimentality?
For me, the chief attraction of Salzburg’s Christkindlmaerkte, as the Advent markets are called locally, is that they offer myriad opportunities to sample tasty seasonal snacks. I weave through a crowd of refreshment seekers and request the return of my deposit – the Pfand – which has to be paid to use one of the cups. Clearly, at some point, too many visitors were taking the attractive mugs home as souvenirs.
After pocketing the coins, I wander to a stall wafting the gorgeous aroma of grilling sausages. I try a Krainer, a regional speciality in which pieces of cheese are embedded. Delicious. That it might be a tad high in cholesterol is a mere afterthought.
Traditional seasonal cuisine in Salzburg
For dessert I pass on opportunities to try Bratapfel – a form of baked apple – and roasted chestnuts. Sweet roasted nuts, gebrannten Mandeln, whose spiced aroma is a signature of Salzburg’s Advent markets are my choice.
No longer hungry, I wander between stalls; looking but doing little in the way of actual shopping. For unusual gifts and souvenirs, Salzburg’s stalls offer a broad range of options. I’m impressed by the woollen jumpers, gloves and socks woven in the styles worn up in the mountains. Broad brimmed hats, typical of those traditionally worn in this Alpine region, are also sold at a number of the huts.
Looking at the Stollen and Lebkuchen, winter cakes rich in calories and flavour, my mouth begins watering yet again. And, of course, this wouldn’t be a true Christkindlmarkt without yuletide decorations. They range from baubles, designed to be hung on Christmas trees, to pious looking crib figures. There are even boldly coloured wreaths for decorating doors. It’s pleasant to take the time to browse the stalls and enjoy the work of the local artisans whose work is for sale.
St Nicholas and Krampus
The markets are especially busy on the 5th and 6th of December, dates associated with the Feast of St Nicholas. There’s an ancient regional custom here in the Alps of Salzburger Land for groups of people to take to the streets on the evening of the fifth, to participate in spectacular events known as Krampus Lauefe, meaning “Krampus runs”.
A man dresses as St Nicholas, young women play the roles of his angels, and people pull on furs and wooden masks to play the demonic looking Krampus character. An angel carries a book, listing the good and bad deeds of children over the past year. If a child’s good deeds outweigh the bad, then they are rewarded with chocolates. But if they have been naughty, St Nicholas sends the scary figure of Krampus over, to teach the child a lesson.
These Krampus runs are noisy but fun affairs. The horned Krampus characters wear cow bells on their belts and shout at passers-by. In response, children and teenagers yelp and scream.
Mozart and the Hagenauerhaus
The festive mood is also evident as I stroll away from the Advent market and into the Getreidegasse, a pedestrian lane best known as the address where composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born. A museum was established in his birth house, Hagenauerhaus, no. 9, as long ago as 1880. But, at the moment, it’s not the cultural history but the combination of festive lights and old-fashioned wrought iron signs hanging above the shops which impress me.
I might have been tempted to say that nothing could be more Christmassy than Salzburg’s old town. But, having been out to Oberndorf, up in the Alps just 20 kilometres from the city, I know that’s not true. The tranquil village of Oberndorf has a special seasonal claim to fame; the very first rendition of the carol Silent Night was performed in the St Nicholas Church on 24 December 1818.
According to a local tale, mice had eaten the bellows of the church’s organ, so pastor Joseph Mohr asked Franz Xaver Gruber to compose music to be played on his guitar. Since that performance, their song has been translated into more than 170 languages.
No prizes for guessing what I was whistling as I walked back to my hotel.
Find out more about the Christmas markets see the Salzburg visitor information website.
For more information about see the Austria tourism information website.
Photos illustrating this post are by Stuart Forster.
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