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By Mary Lisbeth D'Amico
The Washington Post
Sunday, November 15, 1998; Page E04

The Christmas markets that spring up across Germany and Austria in November and December are as much a shopping tradition in Europe as the day-after-Thanksgiving sale is for Americans. Even the smallest towns find a place in the town square to put up a huge tree and wooden booths draped with pine boughs from which to sell Christmas ornaments and gifts.

If you're traveling here during the four weeks before Christmas, you'll find everything from traditional wood or wax tree ornaments costing a few dollars to elaborate tin window decorations priced up to $60. Keep an eye out for one-of-a-kind wooden Nativity scenes--be prepared to spend big, as nice ones can be priced as high as $700. In addition to Christmas-themed crafts, some markets also feature handmade gift items.

The tradition started in Nuremberg in 1628, when a market was erected to provide presents for local children. Nuremberg's Christkindlesmarkt clings to its distinction as the original, though the ones that best capture the traditional spirit are found in Catholic southern Germany and Austria, in cities like Munich and Vienna. In big towns, markets are open daily during the Advent season; in smaller villages, they're open weekends.

Almost as big an attraction at the markets is the food and drink--grilled white Schweinswurst or Bratwurst sausages; roasted almonds and chestnuts; Gluehwein, a hot mulled wine; or Kinderpunsch, a pungent mix of tea, orange juice, blackberry juice and cinnamon and cloves.

Among the best markets:

* Munich's most intriguing is the crafts market in Schwabing (subway U3/U6 to Muenchener Freiheit), with handmade musical instruments, felt hats, pottery and candles. Here also are unconventional foods--Ethiopian specialties, Indian pakora or South Tyrolean Vinschgerl (brown bread with butter and herbs). At Munich's main Christkindlmarkt (Marienplatz, in the center of town), Bavarian brass bands play on the city hall balcony each evening.

* Vienna's main Christkindlmarkt (Rathausplatz 1) is a kitschy scene, with the nearby Rathaus park decorated with heart-shape tree lights and scenes from fairy tales. More exquisite crafts can be found in the Christmas Market on Spittelberg (7th District, U3 subway to Volkstheater), which snakes around alleyways in this historic Biedermeier-style neighborhood. Look for ceramics, hand-blown glass, woven wall hangings, carpets, batik work and jewelry. Also check out the market at Schoenbrunn Palace (13th District, U4 subway), held in the courtyard of this Hapsburg-era castle.

* Salzburg's Christkindlmarkt stretches throughout the Domplatz in front of Salzburg Cathedral. Carved wooden Madonnas and Nativity figures are finds, as are hand-blown glass tree ornaments. For traditional Alpine fashions and crafts, duck into Salzburger Heimatwerk, a boutique at Residenzplatz 9.

* Graz, a medieval city whose facades are still well intact, is a two-hour train trip from Vienna. Volkgartenstrasse is the main market, but visit the "green" market at Faerberplatz: Only natural products--homespun wool, breads and ornaments made of chestnuts--are sold.

For more information, call the Austrian National Tourist Board (212-575-7723, or the German National Tourist Office (212-661-7200,

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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