The summer was just a distant memory, which I was quite glad about for I live for the winter and everything associated with it. Of course the peak of winter for me is Christmas, and I have to say that the best part is the gradual built up over November and December. Once Halloween is over, it is time to get festive and nothing gets one into the spirit more that Christmas markets. Over the decades it seems these markets have grown and grown in popularity appearing in small villages to city centres all over Europe; but there is one place that is the epitome of the festive season with food and drink, sights and sounds, culture and tradition that will get one’s festive juices flowing. In the heart of the stunning Austrian Tirol lies its capital Innsbruck and this is where Cheeky and I were going to be getting ready for Christmas.
We landed in Innsbruck airport, just a very easy short journey from the city centre and would base ourselves at boutique designer hotel the Nala Hotel just a stone’s throw from all of the Christmas action. The moment one stepped out of the door and started to walk down the main high street Maria-Theresien-Straße, one can feel the atmosphere and remember feeling what it was like to be a child at this time of year again. The first Market we came across was the pedestrianised Maria-Theresien Straße Christmas Market, a wide street bustling with people shopping and drinking Gluhwein and eating various strudels from the market stalls whilst standing by fires to keep warm. The place is alive with revelry and has a fabulous vibe.
A little further north up Herzog-Friedrich-Straße, Christmas starts to go into overdrive, for this is the centre of Christmas itself in Old Town Christmas Market. In the 15th Century the Emperor Maximilian I resided here and the city prospered as the centre of European politics and culture, much of the architecture remains so the city centre is quite spectacular, and when decorated at this time of year the streets become something of a fairy tale. With little alleys running off the main street here and there one can just wander exploring the market stalls and shops hidden under the arches. At the end of the Herzog-Friedrich-Straße, is the famous Goldenes Dachl or Golden Roof, originally built in 1500 to celebrate the wedding of Emperor Maximilian I to Bianca Maria Sforza. At Christmas this area comes into its own, with a ginormous Christmas tree at the centre of this historical market square and market stalls dotted everywhere. Cheeky and I made sure we were on the viewing platform in the square at 5:30pm, with Gluhwein and hot punch in hand ready for the brass band that appears on the balcony of the Golden Roof and plays Christmas song. The snow was gently floating down, whilst we sipped our hot tipples and took in the festive atmosphere… I am not sure it is possible to get any more festive than this, I shall not forget this memory for a very long time.
Not long after it was time to experience something very peculiar to this part of the world and something that I have wanted to see for a long time. In the pre-Christian pagan world, the world had many more colourful characters, one of them being Krampus; a very hairy, horned demonic looking character wearing giant clanging bells who these days preferring nothing better than scaring the life out of children and adults alike, threatening to whip and to take away the naughty ones whilst St. Nicholas honours the good children with presents. This makes for a fantastic pagan style tradition, which I am glad to see has not died out over the years. With traditional wooden carved masks there were giant Krampus and tiny Krampus that almost pass as cute if it was not for the eerie way they bound down the street bumping into each other attempting to whip the naughty ones among us. This is a spectacle that has to been seen at least once in one’s life and have a little glimpse into our ancestor’s pagan past. If you do plan to meet Krampus, then just make sure you have behaved yourself this year.
As well as these markets there are many more around Innsbruck and in the surrounding villages and towns. The Christmas Market at Marktplatz by the river ‘Inn’ is really set up for the family with carousel and petting Zoo and huge 14-metre-high crystal tree. There is also the Hungerburg Christmas Market which one can reach by taking the Nordkettenbahnen funicular from the Congress lift station in the city centre. From here there are spectacular views across the Innsbruck valley and up towards the local skiing area of Nordpark, and a small intimate collection of market stalls. It is also worth mentioning that the food in Innsbruck is outstanding, from the varied selection of coffee shops with their endless amounts of pastries, strudels and winter warming drinks with or without booze. However, Innsbruck has quite a selection of restaurants that will satisfy the taste buds, from the the fantastic views and delicious food of 1809 at Bergisel to the fine dining of Das Schindler. The very recently opened Oniriq will blow your culinary mind though and would give any Parisian Michelin star restaurant a run for its money.
If one wants a Christmas experience on steroids that will get one into the festive season with a bang and deliver memories that will not be forgotten then Innsbruck can supply this is spades. From the historic architecture to the wintery atmosphere, from the absurd traditions to the endless supply of pastries and warming alcoholic drinks, with snowy Tyrolian mountain peaks in the distance this has to be the perfect pre-Christmas destination. So pack your bags, but leave enough room for presents aplenty; pack warm clothes including your thermal undies and make sure you have been good boys and girls or you may never come back! Though I would be quite happy to be stuck in Innsbruck for ever more.
For more information on Innsbruck and what is on then please visit online.
British Airways flies to Innsbruck from Heathrow and Gatwick with return fares starting from £80 in Euro Traveller and £242 in Club Europe. To book visit ba.com