Throughout December the streets of cities across the Continent erupt into fairy light-fuelled festivities as Santa Claus – and his army of stallholders – comes to town with cinnamon-sprinkled gingerbread and lashings of glühwein to spice up the shopping experience.
© ARND WIEGMANN
Shoppers prepared to cross the Channel are spoiled for choice with markets from Calais to Prague. In Zurich, for example, the main railway station becomes Europe’s largest indoor Christmas market, while in the Belgian city of Antwerp, stalls fill the Grote Market close to the medieval cathedral.
Each market has its own specialities but most focus on festive food and drink, decorations and the work of local artisans. Ice-skating rinks, fireworks and fairground rides help to make the big markets a family-friendly experience.
Here are four of the best with nearby property for sale, in case you want to buy something rather more expensive than just a few Christmas-tree baubles.
Germany does Christmas particularly well, and the recently revived capital, Berlin, plays host to 45 markets alone. The two largest in Berlin are in the Alexanderstrasse (from the end of November until Christmas Day) and the Gendarmenmarket (until New Year's Eve). Tie in a visit to the open-air ice rink in Potsdammer Platz before finishing off with apple strudel at Café Einstein in Kustrasse, Charlottenburg.
Berlin is the third-most-visited tourist destination in Europe and the second-most-populous city. With 52 theatres and opera houses and 153 museums, it can claim to be the cultural heart of Europe, so even when you have had your fill of the Christmas markets, there is still plenty to do.
These are exciting times for the Berlin property market. The city has a buzz about it that is enticing foreigners and Germans alike to buy. Prices, depressed throughout the 1990s, are finally on the rise, and canny investors are watching the market carefully.
Fehrbelliner is an apartment complex set in carefully landscaped gardens with a central location on the border of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg. Aylesford International is selling 43 loft apartments with a modern design behind the façade of a classical town house. Facilities include a concierge, indoor pool, sauna and gymnasium and a roof terrace. Prices range from €300,000 to €5.25 million (£214,750 to £3.75 million).
> Aylesford International: www.aylesford.com; 020 7351 2383
Lille’s Christmas market is held in the Place Rihour and runs until Christmas Eve, with arts, crafts and local delicacies. Children will love the ferris wheel and open-air theatre shows and should look out for Le Père Noël (Father Christmas), who will be putting in an appearance.
Lille is only 80 minutes from St Pancras on the new go-faster Eurostar. It is France’s fourth-largest city and a thriving shopping centre; the chic Parisian department store Galeries Lafayette opened there this autumn. There are museums, art galleries and a beautiful old quarter, Vieux Lille, which has traces of Flemish and French character.
Exchange London life for northern France with this 10-bedroom manor house near the beautiful historic city of Rouen, 130 miles from Lille. The rural setting includes six acres of garden and parkland with views towards Rouen Cathedral and feature Italian-styled gardens, small woods and several outbuildings. It is available through Knight Frank for €2.6 million (£1.86 million) from Knight Frank.
> Knight Frank: www.knightfrank.com; 020 7629 8171
Salzburg Christmas festival is already well under way, featuring 80 different stalls selling food, crafts, toys, clothes and floral decorations. Held beside the city’s cathedral, there is an alpine Christmas manger and plenty of carol singing. Expect to hear plenty of tributes to Salzburg’s most famous son, Mozart.
British skiers love Austria for its family-friendly resorts and its great skiing, with the majority heading for the popular Tyrol. Yet the little-known Lungau region, an hour south of Salzburg, has higher slopes and often lower prices, and is well worth a look. The region has good skiing across five mountains covering 186 miles of pistes all on one ski pass and interlinked by bus. There are three glaciers for year-round skiing, while summer activities include eight golf courses, white-water rafting, horse riding and hiking. It also has a reputation as the sunniest valley in Austria.
St Martin’s Chalets are 10 traditional-style chalets for sale in the small hamlet of St Martin in the Lungau. The three-bedroom chalets are made from Austrian wood and are intended to create a self-sufficient eco-community in one of Europe’s most beautiful locations. Prices start at €321,000 (£223,200) for the freehold, including all furnishings, and local laws state that owners have to make their property available to rent for 46 weeks a year. Good skiing to 7,874ft is available at the nearby Grosseck Mountain range.
> Investors in Property: www.investorsinproperty.com; 020 8905 5511.
Brussels, the European city with the most Michelin-starred restaurants, is now less than two hours from London on the high-speed Eurostar, and with ticket prices starting from £59 return, it is no longer just business people and Eurocrats who travel there.
“Belgium has seen a real renaissance with travellers,” says Tom Parker of Eurostar. “Antwerp is a fashion centre, with great restaurants and bars, while Gent and Bruges are popular weekend destinations.” Once you have a ticket to Brussels all onward travel within Belgium is free.
From 2 December to 1 January the Place St Catherine in Brussels, close to the city’s bustling fish market, becomes a winter wonderland with ice-skating and a colourful fairground. Seasonal delicacies include Italian hams, French olives and, of course, plenty of those wickedly rich Belgian chocolates.
Irish developer Thornsett Group is marketing several projects in the Belgian capital, including the contemporary Leopold Village in the European quarter. This is a mixed-use project opposite the Council of Ministers building on Rue Belliand, featuring with 5,000sq ft of retail space and 108 apartments. Prices start at €140,000 (£97,800) for a compact studio and €265,000 (£185,200) for two bedrooms. The project is due for completion in autumn 2009.
Ixelles, east of the centre, is popular with a younger crowd who appreciate the Art Nouveau buildings. Thornsett is selling 28 off-plan apartments at Boniface Square, within a mile of the European Parliament, with prices from €225,000 (£157,200) for a one-bedroom flat. Externally the apartments will be in keeping with the surrounding early 20th century buildings but interiors will be contemporary.
The property market in Brussels has grown steadily over the past 10 years, with average prices between €232 (£162) and €465 (£319) a square foot. Rental yields are solid, particularly around the European Parliament buildings, and there is no tax to pay on residential rental income of privately owned property. Buying in Belgium is not cheap though: purchase tax is 12.5 per cent and VAT on buildings less than two years old is 21 per cent.
> Thornsett Group: www.leopoldvillage.com; 00 32 2 280 30 34.