Finland, the real home of Santa Claus

Promoting itself as the “real home of Santa Claus,” Finland celebrates Christmas with markets, festivities and traditions, all culminating on Christmas Eve with a taking of the sauna, enjoyment of Christmas treats and gatherings with friends and family, and a visit by Santa Claus.

Santa Claus, or Joulupukki in Finnish, is known to reside in northeastern Lapland, on the Korvatunturi Fell. Legend states that the Korvatunturi Fell is shaped like an ear, allowing Santa to hear the wishes of children from around the world. Korvatunturi is “home base” for Santa’s travels above the Arctic Circle.

Santa Claus’ Office is in Santa Claus’ Village on the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland. The nearest town, Rovaniemi, is 8 km away. (Highway 4 north of Rovaniemi).

Santa Claus Village, open throughout the year with free admission, is home to Santa Claus’s Office where visitors can meet Santa, visit his Main Post Office and observe the flurry of the festive season. Cards, letters and parcels sent from Santa Claus’ Main Post Office are stamped with a unique Arctic Circle postmark. Through the years Finland’s Santa Claus has received more than 18 million letters. Each year he receives more than 600,000 letters from more than 150 countries. More info at >  www.santaclausvillage.info

Santa’s Park is a fantasy world inside an underground cave where “elves” work all year in preparation for Christmas. Guests can bake and decorate gingerbread in the Gingerbread Kitchen, learn elf skills in Elf School, or make Christmas decorations in the Elf Workshop. Santa Park’s Sleigh Ride takes guests through four seasons of Finland to the elves’ toy factory where presents for Christmas are made. Entrance is 20 euro for children and 25 euro for adults through January 10. More info at >  www.santapark.com

According to the Finnish tradition, Christmas is brought to the homes by St. Thomas on December 21 (St. Thomas Day) and is taken away by St. Knut on January 13. St. Thomas markets prepare for the December 21 celebration, selling handmade Christmas decorations, ornaments, handicrafts, gifts, and treats such as gingerbread and hot mulled wine, Glögi, a warming combination of wine, spices and fruit. The St. Thomas Market in Helsinki, in Esplanade Park, is the largest Christmas market in Finland with approximately 150 vendors. On weekends, entertainment includes a Finnish Christmas pageant and a visit by Santa Claus. The market is open daily from December 7 to 20. In Turku the Christmas Fair is open on weekends through December 25. More info at > www.visitfinland.com

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Christmas and winter activities in Finland

The Finnish Tourist Board is promoting Lapland as a Christmas Wonderland with a series of five to eight-day packages.

The packages include Continental Journeys’ six-day air-inclusive “Christmas in Lapland-Rovaniemi” departing New York on December 22. The package includes plenty of activities such as a snowmobile safari, a magical forest walk with Santa’s helpers, visit to a reindeer farm, Santa’s Workshop and Santa’s Park, a snow carnival and ice fishing. Included are tourist-class hotels, upgradeable to superior and first class hotels, most meals, daily sauna, hotel taxes and service charges. Add-on gateways and additional nights are available. Info at > www.continentaljourneys.com

Five Stars of Scandinavia’s five-day Rovaniemi land-only package, has three departures December 16, 23 and 30. Participants earn a reindeer driving license, learn about reindeer herding, take a husky safari and a snowmobile safari, and visit Santa Claus Village to meet Santa Claus. Included are four nights’ hotel accommodations, four dinners and breakfast daily, daily sauna use, all equipment and special winter gear, and hotel taxes and service charges. Info at > www.5stars-of-scandinavia.com

A fully escorted, eight-day upscale tour from Maupintour spends two nights exploring Helsinki and four in Rovaniemi, all in deluxe hotels. In Lapland, an icebreaker cruise kicks off the stay in Kemi, followed by a visit to Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi and a reindeer farm, activities such as a snowmobile safari, a toboggan run, snow-shoeing and ice fishing. The December 20 departure includes all excursions, six nights accommodations, most meals, daily sauna use, and escort. Info at > www.maupintour.com.

The Finnish Tourist Board at > www.finlandkingsroad.com

Helsinki’s Ylläs-Halli Center for Winter Activities offers a year-round locale where visitors can train or try out various winter sports such as biathlon, curling, ice skating, sledging, ice wall climbing or snow-tubing. To create a Ylläs Lapland feeling, the arena provides a “snowy” environment with walls covered with huge images of Lapland, ice bears and winter imagery, plus real trees. Included are a 1.2-kilometer cross-country ski track, with terrain options for beginners to advanced skiers, plus a supervised area where young visitors can practice sports. To minimize environmental impact, the arena produces its own energy in an environmentally friendly way. The arena utilizes geothermal heat, solar energy and wind power according to its own strict energy and environmental program. Info at > www.yllas-halli.fi

The Kannisto Domestic Animal Farm offers an unusual experience for families or anyone who would like to spend Christmas on a genuine farm. The holiday program starts Christmas Eve with a stables tour to meet the farm animals. Guests will hear stories about the life in the countryside followed by a traditional smoke sauna. The evening continues with a Christmas Feast and a visit by Santa Claus. On Christmas Day, the program includes cart or sledge riding, horseback riding or a walk to rocky Leikkilinna Mountain, and caroling. Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, gives guests traditional holiday pastry and time to experience outdoor activities and take care of the farm animals. Prices for the Christmas Holiday package are 280 euros per adult, 140 euros per child 7 to 14 years old, 70 euros per child 2 to 6 years old, and children under 2 years old are free. Included are accommodations for three nights with all meals, saunas, nature excursions, cart or sledge riding and Santa Claus’s visit. Info at > www.kannistontila.fi

Usually, Finland’s legendary Moomin trolls hibernate during the coldest months, but this year the magic of the season awakens the Moomin family from their winter’s sleep. Moomin Valley features skating and sledding, guests can meet the Moomin family and have lunch at Moomin Mama’s Kitchen, enjoy snacks in a Finnish cabin, and visit the Moominhouse. Moominworld, a theme park for children and families based on the books of Finnish artist and storyteller Tove Jansson, is open February 20 to 28. The park is located on the southwest coast of Finland on a small island facing the old town of Naantali, just 10 miles from Turku and a couple hours’ drive from Helsinki, Tampere or Pori. Sokos Hotels offers a package which includes accommodation for one night at Sokos Hotel Seurahuone in a double room with two junior cots (children under 2 years old are free), buffet breakfast and entrance to Moominworld for two adults and two children. Info at > www.muumimaailma.fi  or www.sokoshotels.fi

The Wild Taiga offers a variety of small hotels and tours in the wilderness just next to the Russian border. Tours here feature action-packed activities such as snowmobiling, husky safaris and cross-country skiing. Visitors can also horseback ride, go on a reindeer sleigh, fish, snowshoe or watch a wide variety of animals in their natural habitats. Kuhmo and Suomussalmi, two cities in the Wild Taiga, are a textbook example of the mixture of rich tradition and strong local culture. The region’s settlement history is among the oldest in Finland. For those looking for cultural fulfillment the area offers a rich rural history, chamber music, rune singing, memorials of the Winter War and a variety of concerts. Info at > www.wildtaiga.fi

Italy > New Year’s Eve in Emiglia Romagna

In the Riviera of the Emiglia Romagna region there is to be a huge number of celebrators for the end of the year: according to the figure released today by the Rimini Tourism Board, 650 hotels will be open for the occasion, 250 more than for the rest of the year.

The increase is the result of New Year’s Eve to be shown live on TV from Rimini, which has by now become the ideal one for all Italians. “Italians are choosing us,” said tourism councilman for the Rimini province Andrea Gnassi, “because the Riviera of Rimini is a real place, with warmth and hospitality, and genuine human relations. The most famous place on the Riviera focuses on large-scale events, New Year’s Eve, Moto Gp, etc. to take its place on the Italian and foreign markets. Following an event, which works as a boost, sector operators begin evaluating what they want to offer.

Key to the success of Rimini is vitality, cohesion and spirit of initiative. Many hotels have come onto the market with packages that include the dinner and dance. These hotels are those that immediately filled up. Even other operators, such as nightclubs, etc., attracted their guests with a large variety of offers and packages.

Related Links > http://www.riminiturismo.it

Edinburgh > Hogmanay party organisers desperate to beat weather

Edinburgh at New Year Celebrations  Organisers of one of the world’s biggest New Year parties today insisted there were no plans to cancel the event amid forecasts of foul weather.

Edinburgh City Council said it was constantly monitoring the situation after being warned of gale-force winds tomorrow. Meteorologists have predicted rain across the central belt of Scotland on Hogmanay with gusts up to 70mph expected during the afternoon.

More than 100,000 people are preparing to see in the New Year at the Scottish capital’s world-famous Hogmanay street party, with 25,000 revellers expected at a similar council-run event in Glasgow. Pop acts Pet Shop Boys and Paolo Nutini headline the capital’s evening, with a huge firework display and outdoor events also planned.

Three years ago saw the Scottish capital’s Hogmanay dramatically cancelled on safety grounds because of stormy weather. Tens of thousands of people were left disappointed after being caught out at short notice.

Andrew Holmes, Director of Development for Edinburgh City Council, said: “There are no plans to cancel any of the planned Hogmanay events in the city. Indeed, 15,000 people braved the weather last night to take part in the first of our Hogmanay events, the Torchlight Procession, marching through the city to Calton Hill. By the end of event more severe weather conditions had begun and continued throughout the night. I am happy to say there was no material damage to any of our stages from that weather. Current weather information suggests that the conditions of last night were as severe as Edinburgh may experience over the period and this gives us great confidence for the night of Hogmanay.”

The 2003 cancellation was caused by forecast gusty winds between 10pm and midnight, that organisers feared could affect stages and other public areas.

Mr Holmes added: “The current weather forecast for December 31 is for the late afternoon and early evening to be wet and blustery. But we expect the weather to improve by late evening. “As always public safety is our primary concern and all necessary precautions are being taken to ensure Edinburgh’s Hogmanay is a safe and enjoyable event. Infrastructure has been improved and is designed to cope with the usual extremes of Scottish weather.”

Meanwhile, forecasters offered some hope that Edinburgh and Glasgow could escape the brunt of the storms. Paul Knightley, from MeteoGroup UK, said today: “It looks as though Edinburgh and Glasgow’s Hogmanay celebrations could escape the worst of this massive storm coming across the Atlantic. If it continues on its present course the most severe weather will likely end up over the Scottish Borders and north of England by tomorrow evening but these storms can be unpredictable. The central belt is still in for a very mucky afternoon tomorrow. It looks like it could still be wet and blustery in the evening but revellers at the street party may well avoid the brunt of this storm.”

The Christmas markets of Germany III

Getting around
 
GETTING THERE: Lufthansa offers nonstop service to Munich. Check with your local travel agents.

GETTING AROUND: Train tickets between the airport and Munich’s old-town hotels cost $12 one way. Pay-as-you-go train tickets within the state of Bayern (Bavaria) can cost as little as $11 one-way between Nuremberg and Rothenburg, or as much as $27 one-way between Munich and Nuremberg.

Taxi fares from city train stations to hotels vary. In Nuremberg, it’s about $10 one-way from the train station to hotels in the old town; in Rothenburg, $7; in Munich, $24.

ESCORTED TOURS: Many tour operators conduct European Christmas market tours. Here is a sampling of those with itineraries that include German cities.

Maupintour’s German Christmas Market Towns> trip departs Dec. 20 for two nights in Frankfurt, two nights in Rothenburg, two nights in Baden-Baden. Land-only rate is $2,770 and includes most meals and an excursion to Strasbourg, France.  www.maupintour.com

Collette Vacations Europe’s Christmas Markets trip has several departures in late November and early December for three nights in Oberammergau, Germany; two nights in the Black Forest; and two nights in Bern, Switzerland. Land-only rate is $999 and includes most meals and excursions to Innsbruck, Austria; Strasbourg; and Bern and Lucerne in Switzerland. www.collettevacations.com

Uniworld’s Rhine and Moselle Christmas Markets: Lucerne to Cologne is a cruise that departs Dec. 1 for two nights in Lucerne and seven nights aboard the River Queen in an outside stateroom. Cruise rates from $2,130 include air from New York or Boston. Among the port calls are stops at Cologne, Koblenz, Mainz and Heidelberg in Germany; Strasbourg; and Basel, Switzerland. www.uniworld.com

INFORMATION: German National Tourist Office; www.cometogermany.com

NOTE > All prices are approximate. Check with your local travel agents for updates.

The Christmas markets of Germany II

Lighted tree graces the square of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a Christmas-card perfect village in Southern Germany.

The lowdown on the market towns >
Munich musts >
2006 dates: Nov. 25-Dec. 24.
Must do: Go upstairs to any cafe fronting Marienplatz opposite city hall, order coffee and enjoy the bird’s-eye view.
Must see: The Glockenspiel chime (free).
Must visit: The Hofbrauhaus, probably the most famous beer hall in the world, just to say you’ve been there.
Must eat: The first thing that catches your eye in the victuals market.
Must stay: Two or three nights in the old city, at Platzl Hotel (Sparkassenstrasse 10; www.platzl.de; $196/night double), two blocks from the Marienplatz and one block from the Hofbrauhaus; the rooms come with free access to the hotel’s palatial Moorish Kiosk, a fitness oasis with sauna, aroma steam room, foot bath, experience showers, a heat bench and a solarium

Rothenburg musts >
2006 dates: Nov. 25-Dec. 23
Must do: Walk the ramparts of the old city walls (free).
Must see: The view from the town hall tower ($3.50).
Must visit: Kathe Wohlfahrt’s Christmas Village ($2) and German Christmas Museum ($5).
Must eat: A schneeball, or snowball ($2.50-$5).
Must stay: Three or four nights at the history-rich Eisenhut Hotel (Herrngasse 3-7; www.worldhotels.com; $251/night double).

Nuremberg musts >
2006 dates: Nov. 25-Dec. 24
Must do: Stroll the riverfront.
Must see: The view of town from the castle (free).
Must visit: Albrecht Durer House ($6).
Must eat: Franconian potato soup, in the piano-cafe atmosphere at Landauer restaurant ($3), or at Goldenes Posthorn restaurant ($3), established 1498.
Must stay: Two or three nights inside the city walls, at Top Hotel Duerer, notable for its location at the foot of Nuremberg Castle and practically on the doorstep of the Albrecht Durer House (Neutormauer 32; www.topinternational.com; $204/night double).

The Christmas markets of Germany I

Posted On December 30, 2006

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Outside the train window, bare tree branches wore a rock-candy coating of ice. Field furrows curving into view were planted ankle deep in snow. Village whistle-stops took on passengers and the subfreezing chill of late December that hounded them into the compartment all the way to their seats.

Nothing sounded more comforting than the thought of a long soak in a hot bath once I got to town, after town, after town.

I was touring the Christmas markets of Germany. Not all 2,500 of them, you understand,  even the German National Tourist Office doesn’t recommend that, but as many as I could fit into a seven-day trip in December and still savor the atmosphere, sample the refreshments and maybe do a little shopping.

Germany’s 32-page English-language guide to the Christmas markets pares the list of towns to about 100 countrywide. I needed to cut that to seven or eight. Should I give up shopping the booths aboard a Cologne riverboat in favor of hearing the boys’ choir in Regensburg? Ought I forgo seeing the 9,225-square-foot Advent calendar in Leipzig in order to buy Christmas cards printed at the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz? Would the half-timbered houses in Hildesheim be more quaint than those in Quedlinburg?

If I had been going as part of an organized tour, that decision would have been made for me. On a guided motor-coach itinerary, I could have just about counted on visiting at least one of southern Germany’s most important Christmas markets, if not all three: Nuremberg, Rothenburg ob der Tauber and Munich. Mainstream American tour operators such as Collette, Gate 1, Globus, Insight Vacations, Maupintour, Trafalgar Tours and Uniworld offer escorted Christmas market tours, though few confine themselves to a single country, as I did. I studied their itineraries, however, to get an idea of what was doable in a day’s time, then struck out on my own, riding trains from town to town. Along the way I became a statistic: one of the 160 million visitors a year to Germany’s Christmas markets, doing my part to generate about $7.7 billion in annual Christmas sales.

Only a few time-honored market items can be bought for less than $10 or $12: things like small beeswax candles, tree ornaments made of straw and the ubiquitous and dearly beloved prune men (dolls made of fig bodies with prunes for arms and legs, and walnuts for heads).

The preponderance of market goods are of the highest craftsmanship and considerably more expensive: $70 and up for hand-painted nutcrackers and hand-painted glass ornaments; at least $135 for the nicer “pyramids,” candle-powered windmills that revolve angels or shepherds or reindeer ’round and ’round inside a multitiered, conical frame.

In contrast, a serving of three potato pancakes with applesauce costs $3 at one Nuremberg booth; the price was the same for potato pancakes in Heidelberg, with a choice of currants or garlic sauce. A mug of gluhwein, spiced wine served piping hot, goes for $3 to $4.

All the shopping and eating is most delightfully done in the evenings, from dark until 8:30 or 9, when you get the full effect of the lights and the camaraderie of local Germans who stop by after work. That leaves the days free for sightseeing and getting from town to town.

Rothenburg, the village > Europe doesn’t get any more village-y than this. Cobblestone lanes, medieval walls, turrets, towers and half-timber houses make tiny Rothenburg the Christmas market for those who believe life is an eat-dessert-first affair. Pass through the gates to the old city, and you enter a snow-globe world of jaunty rooflines and lights glowing opaquely behind bull’s-eye window panes.

The market here, called the Reiterlesmarkt, is small, filling only the narrow alleyway behind the town hall and the clearing, you couldn’t call it a plaza, between it and St. James’ Church.

The larger, and proper, market square is reserved for a giant Christmas tree in front of the Counselors’ Tavern, with lots of room for people to gather for walking tours such as those led by the medieval-era night watchman on his nightly English-speaking lantern route past houses that have stood since at least the 1500s.

Rothenburg is the hometown of Kathe Wohlfahrt’s Christmas Village and the adjacent German Christmas Museum. I don’t know how a complex that looks so small on the outside can be so cavernous and time-consuming on the inside, but you’ll need something to eat before tackling it. Now’s as good a time as any to have a schneeball, or snowball, a softball-size confection made from strips of sweetened dough formed into a ball, then fried and covered liberally with confectioners’ sugar, cinnamon or chocolate. No Rothenburg Christmas would be complete without making a mess trying to eat one.

Before the wave of pogroms that began in 1298, this also was the center of medieval Jewish scholarship. By 1511, the town council forced surviving Jews to wear a mark on their clothing. Ironically, Allied bombing in World War II destroyed much of the old Jewish ghetto, but a restoration project has[since transformed that into what some believe is Germany’s best preserved medieval Jewish quarter.

Orderly Nuremberg > You know you’ve got a successful market when the clergy start complaining. One of Nuremberg’s men of the cloth once lamented that he couldn’t hold afternoon church services on Christmas Eve because all his parishioners were out shopping, and that, so the story goes, was way back in 1616. These days, the market attracts some 2 million visitors each season.

Nuremberg has a knack for bringing glorious order to the chaos of Christmas.In what was once a Jewish ghetto until the pogroms of the mid-1300s, vendors in 190 booths cover 27,000 square feet of the Hauptmarkt, below the Gothic spires of the Frauenkirche, or the Church of Our Lady. Every booth is hung in red-and-white striped awnings, which may be the reason people have nicknamed this “the little town of wood and cloth.” But little it isn’t.

The old town has a craftsmen’s market at Kings Gate, literally in one of the gate houses in the city walls, and a separate children’s market, with modern amusement rides, on the back side of Frauenkirche in Hans Sachs Square. But what distinguishes Nuremberg’s market in the main square is its adherence to strictly traditional standards. Stalls are decorated with garlands of real fir boughs, not plastic ones. Cardboard boxes can’t be shown. Recorded background music is forbidden. Mulled wine must be served in ceramic cups. Only time-honored market items such as nutcrackers, prune men, candles, glass ornaments, nativity sets, cookies and sausages, make that regulation Nuremberg sausages may be sold.

The market, of course, is at the center of a Nuremberg rebuilt from the shambles of World War II, when 90 percent of the old town was destroyed. A stroll here brings you in contact with building facades restored to the high Middle Ages, yet occupied by comfortably modern shops, restaurants and hotels. It’s a place of strange-but-acceptable contrasts, where the riverside Starbucks on Hauptmarkt Street seems as much at home as the vast Imperial Castle perched high on the city walls.

Munich: It’s more than beer > They say Munich’s Christmas market goes back about as far as its breweries, which would date both enterprises to the 14th century. It’s safe to say the two grew up and came of age together, making Munich’s Christkindlmarkt in Marienplatz the place for people who like to wander aimlessly and feel they’ve made wonderful discoveries in the process.

Here, it’s natural to go with the flow of foot traffic, which seems to move counterclockwise through the Christmas stalls of Marienplatz, down to the nativity-set booths in Rindermarkt and swinging back around to finish among the butcher shops and bakeries of the Viktualienmarkt, or victuals market.

Historically, Munich’s central Christmas market, there are several elsewhere in the city, was held outside the Frauenkirche, whose twin towers define the city’s skyline. In the 1970s the market moved a couple of lanes over to the Marienplatz. The stalls here are neither as orderly as Nuremberg’s nor as cozy as Rothenburg’s. But Munich’s trump is the ornate neo-Gothic New City Hall: both backdrop and star attraction, at once imposing and comforting. With little interruption in their browsing, shoppers can crowd beneath City Hall at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. to watch the Glockenspiel mechanically recreate a 1568 jousting tournament. Choirs sing from its balcony at 5:30 p.m.; and there’s a seasonal post office in one of its courtyards, where letters get a special Christkindl postmark.

If you don’t let yourself be distracted by the windows of the big department stores, it’s easy to find yourself drawn from Marienplatz down pedestrian Rosenstrasse to the booths of Rindermarkt (the lane), aka Kripperlmarkt, where all the shops and booths sell wood manger pieces hand-carved in Bavaria and the Tirol.

Follow Rindermarkt (the street) on around, shift one street over to Sparkassentrasse, and your wandering will be rewarded with 140 stalls and shops stocking meat, fish, butter, honey, bread, cheese, flowers, vegetables, fruits and wine, all more enticingly displayed than any of the Christmas booths in Marienplatz.

More markets to explore > An hour west of Munich by train, Augsburg promises to lower 24 living angels once a week from the rooftop of City Hall, which is transformed into a giant Advent calendar for the season. That’s what I went there for. I must have arrived on the wrong day, because I never saw the angels or the Advent calendar, despite making several market runs during a two-night stay.

But if you’ve ever wondered what happened to Woolworth’s, the old dime-store chain, I can tell you that Augsburg has got one of those; and it sells the same kinds of stuff, place mats, greeting cards, aluminum cookware, shampoo, yarn, coloring books. It’s only a couple of lanes behind Augsburg’s Christmas market, which, now that I think of it, sells some Woolworth-worthy items in some of its booths, practical things such as socks, gloves and sweaters, along with Christmas stock. Augsburg’s specialty food seems to be a hamburger bun-size dumpling drizzled in plenty of steaming-hot vanilla sauce.

The university town of Heidelberg is more convenient to Frankfurt than Munich. I spent more time and money on the train ride than the trip deserved. Of its several markets, I was attracted to the one by the university: lots of bicycles, clock towers, church spires and good times, judging by the animation level of the shoppers. Maybe you could chalk that up to the multicultural university atmosphere that flaunted booths selling things like natural-bristle brushes, trinkets from Tibet and scarves from Tunisia. Or maybe the drinks were to blame. Heidelbergers apparently don’t mind spiking their hot chocolate with rum ($4) and their gluhwein with amaretto, Cointreau or vodka ($4).

I traveled too late in the season to catch the markets in Nordlingen and Dinkelsbuhl, both walled villages on the old Roman Road. Their markets closed a day before I arrived. The two have much in common with Rothenburg ob der Tauber, small population, medieval turrets and half-timber buildings intact, nice little bakeries to drink coffee and eat strudel in. But in contrast to the crowds elsewhere, they felt practically deserted. Any other time of year I’d have enjoyed that, but less than a week before Christmas, it seemed too lonely.

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