In the market for Christmas gifts, Austrian-style

MICHAEL FERRANTE joins the hunt for Christmas market gifts in Vienna and Linz

Winter, Christmas and Europe. There’s something about this synergy of frosty air, colourful decorations and advent that’s quite intoxicating.

I’m in the pretty German border town of Passau and about to cross the Danube to the pier in Engelhartszell, Austria for a four-night cruise on the A-Rosa Donna. We leave the dock at Engelhartszell around 5pm, heading straight for the cultural metropolis of Vienna.

The next day we pull into Vienna. I move into cultural overdrive. My guided city tour is packed with palaces, monuments and historical places in and around the inner city’s ring road, Ringstrasse.

The name, and theme, of this cruise is Danube Christmas Markets. They’re not hard to find. Of course, we’re also here to see and learn about the city’s rich heritage.

My first real Viennese taste of Christmas comes at Belvedere Palace — the summer residence of Prince Eugene of Savoy, a brilliant military commander and national hero who liberated Vienna from the Turks during the second siege in 1683. Here, in the upper forecourt, children enjoy rides and adults browse for gifts and decorative creations.

As darkness falls after a busy few hours touring, Christmas lights illuminate the city centre surrounding the Imperial Palace, where we’ve just walked from. We reach the base of the late-Gothic St Stephen’s Cathedral, or Stephansdom, as the tour comes to an end.

There is a buzz as hundreds of shoppers meander through the markets here to check out the many Christmas gifts, handicrafts and decorations for sale. A young woman gently brushes a gingerbread house in her lit-up sweet stall.

Each Christmas market has its own character and atmosphere. The locals join in mingling, browsing, eating bratwursts in buns and sipping soothing gluhwein (a popular mulled wine sold in mugs).

Among those I’ve visited there is a market that stands out — at Maria-Theresien-Platz (Maria Theresa Square) on the Ringstrasse, a hop and a skip from the palace. There is almost every gift idea you could think of here, from clothing and fashion accessories to soft toys, beauty products, artworks, decorative items to hang, and my favourite — a stall selling miniature wooden models as intricate as a watch calibre.

You can also find Christmas markets outside Vienna. On our port stop in Linz, I find an impressive market renowned for its arty displays in the city’s main square, Hauptplatz, one of Austria’s finest public squares and known for its beautiful Gothic and Baroque architecture.

The Christmas market is one of the biggest and most diverse I’ve seen so far, with lots of fashion and intriguing items like ornamental Venetian-style face masks for decorative purposes. It’s here that I indulge in a hot punch to help warm up as the mercury drops and it’s time to say good bye.

This is an edited version of the original, full-length story, which you can read here.

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