The Sound of Christmas Emily Mawson (writer) | Posted: 14 November 2014
Salzburg's Christmas Markets
Salzburg's Christmas Markets
Salzburg's Christmas Markets

Emily Mawson left for the Alps after completing her languages degree and has never looked back. She is now based in Zürich as a freelance writer, and has written on travel for Coast, National Geographic Traveller and The Guardian. Here, she explains what makes Salzburg so special at Christmas...

I couldn’t have timed it better. Darkness was falling across Cathedral Square in Salzburg, cloaking the icy sky of the winter’s day in an inky blue. A pure harmony pierced the air and replaced the riotous chatter of a few moments ago. The spontaneous carollers had come from nowhere, and gathered on the steps of cathedral to sing out to the crowd.

The lyrics of the city’s own carol 'Silent Night' (it was penned nearby in the early 1800s) wove between the evergreen and fairy light-clad stalls and merrymakers who’d stopped, mid-slurp of mulled wine, to admire the singers.

I’d seen my fair share of Christmas markets, having lived in German-speaking countries for several years. But I hadn’t experienced this before. If I’d come looking for festive, I’d found the homely version of it in Salzburg’s oldest Christmas market.

Dating from the fifteenth century, the Christkindlmarkt that stretches across Domplatz and Residenzplatz is one of nine in the city. It is the biggest market too, and hosts a range of carol concerts at weekends.

Seeing all the markets in a day is a tall order, but is possible and makes a lovely walk. I started just before lunch in Mirabell Square, close to the palace of the same name. It’s the locals’ favourite, where they meet after work to sip hot wine among friends.

One lady told me I’d find the best food there – useful fuel, considering I next planned to walk up to the market at the Hohensalzburg Fortress high on its hill. I chose a bag of roast chestnuts from a selection of doughy pretzels covered in cheese, Scheiterhaufen (Salzburg apple crumble) and Schaumrolle, a local pastry filled with cream.

Bag of Maroni in hand, I left the shelter of the park and continued into the narrow alleyways of the UNESCO World Heritage old town. Wrought iron signs and Christmas decorations strung between the baroque buildings along shopping street Getreidegasse glistened in the sunshine. In the covered passageways leading off the street, star-shaped lights mapped the way to the Stern Advent Market, which is renowned for its handmade gifts.

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There was a dusting of snow underfoot, but I didn’t feel cold. Perhaps it had something to do with the gleeful atmosphere enveloping the throng of people – Salzburg’s Christmas markets attract one million visitors annually. But it didn’t feel overcrowded as I navigated between the rosy-cheeked faces, sharing smiles as we all discovered wooden nativity scenes in shop windows and voluptuous boughs of holly hanging from doorways.

Then I started my 60-metre climb to the fortress. As I got higher, the views rewarded the effort. The mint green of Salzburg’s spires added colour to the white patchwork of rooftops that melted into wintry forests and hillsides.

Entering the medieval courtyard at the fortress was like being welcomed into a Christmas story. Modest wooden huts huddled around the tree in the centre, which was decorated with yellow lamps and wooden stars. A tempting aroma of sweet cinnamon and baked apple lingered in the air.

“Warm punch?” called a stallholder. (My scarf wrapped up around my eyes must have been the giveaway – it was colder out of the shelter of the narrow streets below.) He poured a sweet-smelling liquid into a cup decorated with a design of Salzburg at Christmas and handed it to me. I gratefully took a sip of the honey punch.

“It’s the coldest day of the winter so far,” said the stallholder sympathetically, retreating to his seat beside an electric heater.

Cup to mouth, I wandered among the attractive stalls: hanging up were hand-painted eggshell ornaments and blown-glass baubles, as well as nutcrackers and Räuchermännchen (pipe carrying figurines with a space to burn incense cones).

So the gifts may sound clichéd and the hot punch is no more than you’d expect. But as I stood at the fortress gazing over the wintry city, the wind slicing under my scarf and my toes tingling inside my boots, I realised that this was Christmas. There could hardly have been a better setting in which to craft one of our best-loved carols, could there?

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