One of life’s great truisms is that visiting a Winter Market in daylight is a very bad idea. Nothing spoils the ‘magic of Xmas’ more thoroughly than rampant commercialism pretending to be the magic of Xmas. No, it is far wiser to wait for the cover of darkness, when strategically placed lighting and hot spiced wine can warm even the most cynical of hearts. I can’t stress enough the importance of the hot wine for turning the average Xmas market from endurance test to seasonally acceptable experience.
I’m not a big fan of Xmas markets, but I had high hopes for Berlin. If for no other reason than it’s in Germany, home of the Xmas market. It’s not Bavaria, where they go ‘big’ on the whole Xmas thing, but with about twenty different markets to choose from, there seemed a reasonable chance of hitting the jackpot. Or at least a jackpot. In the end, it was a case of third time lucky, with the Gendarmenmarkt market providing best value. Although that might have been due to taking the sensible precaution of adding a shot of rum to my gluhwein.
The pressure was really on by the time I arrived at the Gendarmenmarkt, and not just because they charge you a €1 entrance fee. Despite having a very exciting miniature train and being the biggest of the three I visited, the market at Alexanderplatz was a bit low rent and didn’t really provide good shopping. It has a skating rink and a ferris wheel though. Making it an odd mixture of travelling funfair and Xmas market. One colleague claimed they had the best gluhwein in Berlin. They didn’t (see previous point about the rum).
I’d anticipated that Charlottenburg market would be an upmarket affair, based solely on the fact that it takes place in the courtyard of an old palace. True, the backdrop was glamorous, and the ‘winter wonderland’ projections onto the palace were great. Again though there wasn’t much in the way of shopping beyond food and drink, but there was some entertainment. This market stands out because it actually snowed when we were there. I heard an English woman on the phone say, “it’s magical”. It wasn’t.
Which leaves Gendarmenmarkt. It’s just around the corner from where we live and has a setting almost as dramatic as Charlottenburg, in a square that is bookended by two of the city’s most pleasant churches, the Deutscher Dom and the Französischer Dom. The attractive Berlin Konzerthaus sits along one side. As usual, there were plenty of eating and drinking options, but also quite a lot of good stalls selling actual gifts for those who might have left present shopping a little late.
Best of all though, and what set this market apart, was the entertainment. In front of the Konzerthaus was a stage that, at first, just had someone playing songs on a piano, but, as things started to warm up, there was a dance troop and later a children’s choir, both of which were fantastic. There was even a master of ceremonies dressed as the Kaiser. What could be more German than that?
The youth choir – some of the kids could only have been 4 or 5 years old – was the star attraction, and a large crowd had assembled by the time they’d got into the third or fourth song. It was only late afternoon but the place was packed with families, I did a final sweep of the stalls to see if I could pick up any last minute gifts and, just as the rain began to fall, I headed into the Berlin night filled with what I can only assume was Xmas spirit … although that may have been a side effect of the rum.