For a mini-break with festive cheer head to Germany, where the small town of Baden-Baden in the Black Forest certainly knows how to put on a great Christmas market
I’d like to applaud the Germans - they know how to put on a good show at Christmas. The Christkindelsmarkt, which opens to mark the first day of Advent, is a time-honoured tradition that they’ve been perfecting since the late Middle Ages. If you’re looking for a sizable experience, then take on the crowds in Dresden, where you’ll find the largest Christmas market in Germany. I, however, prefer a more intimate affair.
I first discovered Baden-Baden six years ago and have since returned numerous times. I’m delighted to tell you that nothing has changed since that first visit, and I wholeheartedly hope nothing does in the future.
From a distance you’ll see the lights twinkling atop the pine-covered huts in the Christmas market. You’ll hear the sound of a choir on stage singing carols. Then you’ll be completely drawn in by the smells from the food stalls – bratwurst, curry wurst, spatzl, gingerbread... The Christmas market is a place where your senses are spoilt.
For me, the Christmas market doesn’t begin until I am warming my hands around a mug of tasty hot glühwein, the delicious mulled wine. Just one mug and you’ll be warmed through. If it’s exceptionally cold, then opt to have a shot of brandy on top – I can guarantee it will do the trick to ward off the cold. The system for buying glühwein is simple: when you buy your first drink you pay a deposit for your mug (about €4), and at the end of the evening, you simply return the mug to the stall to get your deposit returned. Or hold on to it and take it home as a souvenir!
Set slightly away from the main shopping district, the Christmas market in Baden-Baden can be found in the Kurhaus gardens. One of the highlights is the Nativity scene, which truly brings the story to life. By this, I mean it’s a live Nativity, complete with real donkey, sheep, rabbits and turkey. Yes, rabbits and a turkey. I think we need to allow them a bit of creative licence here...
Although the market is open during the daytime, for me it really comes alive at night. By all means visit during the day - it’s a good time to have a really good look around the stalls selling all sorts of gifts, be they hand-crafted wooden children’s toys, Christmas tree decorations or local liquor. However, you must do as the locals do, and make the glühwein stall your bar of choice in the evening.
Aside from the Christmas market, there is plenty to entertain you during your stay. A little spa town in the mountains, Baden-Baden is obviously home to a host of wealthy locals. Just look at the expensive boutiques in the shopping area, spas where you can lose hours without even noticing and the most beautiful casino I’ve ever seen.
There are two spas in Baden Baden; I recommend you try both. First, do as the Romans did, and head for the Friedrichsbad to enjoy a peaceful and traditional spa experience (entry c€21 or c€30 with soap and brush massage). With separate entrances for males and females, you have time to acclimatise to the lack of textile before entering the central pool, which is mixed. Make sure you have a soap and brush massage; it’s far from gentle but incredibly invigorating. Just watch out for the slap on the bottom that lets you know you’re finished! For a more modern spa experience, visit the Caracella Therme. With plentiful pools, jets and bubbles, the indoor and outdoor pools are great. There is also a huge sauna area upstairs – just remember this is Germany, so once in the sauna area you’re not allowed to wear any swimming costumes.
After a day of shopping, eating and relaxing, there is only one place to go: the casino. Described by Marlene Dietrich as “the most beautiful casino in the world”, it’s Germany’s oldest, and regardless of whether you gamble or not, you must visit to see the elaborate rooms and the Eurotrash clientele. A word of advice when packing: gentlemen must wear jackets and ties in the casino. And don’t forget to take your passport - without it, they won’t allow you in.
When you feel that you need to escape the city and stretch your legs to work off the bratwurst, head for Merkur Mountain, the tallest point in Baden-Baden. At just over 2,000 feet, there are panoramic views and often snow at the top. Although it’s a good walk to get to the base (about one hour from the town centre), there is a funicular railway to take you the rest of the way for just €4.
Where to stay
Brenner's Park Hotel and Spa
This is the place to go, should your budget stretch to it. Temporary home to the renowned WAGS during the 2006 football World Cup, Brenner's Park is supposedly the best hotel in Baden-Baden.
Hotel zum Goldenen Löwen
Found in Jesuitenplatz, this is one of my favourite places to stay. It’s nothing luxurious, but the rooms are large, with many overlooking the square, and downstairs you will find the most welcoming traditional German bierhaus, Löwenbräu.
Hotel am Friedrichsbad
Perfectly positioned to access the Friedrichsbad spa, this is a small traditional guest house. Shop around, as you can usually book an “arrangement” that includes entry to the casino and a meal in the hotel restaurant.
Getting to Baden-Baden
For the cheapest flights from the UK, travel with Ryanair from London Stansted to Karlsruhe-Baden. From the airport there is a bus that takes you directly to the town centre in approximately 50 minutes. Alternatively, a taxi costs about €45.
For more information on Baden-Baden, check out www.baden-baden.de