Emma Clayton checks out Christmas markets in Berlin
NUTCRACKER soldiers are twirling above us as a brass band plays, pretty glass baubles twinkle against colourful lanterns, and Santa and his reindeer make a rather spectacular entrance.
The early evening air is filled with the rich aroma of bratwurst sizzling on open fires - and, of course, the gluhwein is is in full flow.
Welcome to Berliner Weihnachtszei, the fabulous Christmas market at Alexanderplatz in the German capital. Known to locals as 'Alex', the large square in Berlin's central Mitte district, beneath the landmark TV Tower, is filled with wooden huts over the festive season, selling a bewildering array of Christmas gifts and decorations, and seasonal food and drink.
Carpenters, potters, toy-makers, seamstresses and glassblowers demonstrate their skills alongside dazzling displays of their products. Wonderful food smells follow us around the market, from fish smoking on an open-air oven to currywurst - sausage in a tasty sauce - and freshly-baked bread filled with special cheeses.
The centrepiece is a circular ice rink wrapped around the Neptune Fountain, flooded with colourful lights as skaters of all ages make their way around. A 50-metre high ferris wheel offers fabulous views of the city and its festive lights.
Suddenly we hear bells and above us Father Christmas glides across a wire on his sleigh. Everyone looks up, grinning like excited children.
With a staggering number of Christmas markets - more than 80, I'm told - Berlin is perfect for a festive shopping trip, and a slice of German seasonal fun. Arriving there on Jet2CityBreaks' inaugural flight to Berlin from Leeds Bradford Airport, it wasn't long before I was stocking up on gifts and festive decorations. I particularly loved the reindeer snowglobes and glass baubles, and delicate lace Christmas tree figures. Anyone with young children to buy for will be spoilt for choice with the array of handmade wooden toys.
Scarves, hats, stylish bags and rustic kitchenware are all on offer, along with roasted nuts, fried mushrooms, colourful confectionary and that classic taste of Christmas, mulled wine (gluhwein to Berliners). On a crisp, chilly evening, there's nothing quite like a steaming gluhwein. And you get to keep the glass or mug it's served in - if you want a re-fill simply take it back for more.
Berliner Weihnachtszeit is one of the most famous and oldest of Berlin's Christmas markets and has a traditional, family appeal. On the other side of Alexanderplatz is Wintertraum, with a large fairground. Other must-visit markets include the Gendarmenmarkt, in front of the splendid Konzerthaus, where manufacturers from around the world showcase their wares. Over at the Winterwelt-market there's a large snowy 'mountain', where youngsters enjoy sledging and ice-skating, and at the Weihnachtsmarkt am Gedächtniskirche you can dine in a circular bistro beneath a giant rotating Nativity scene. Yes, really.
With a bustling cosmopolitan scene and some of the world's best museums and galleries reflecting its chequered history, Berlin is a vibrant mix of old and new. It has much to offer for a memorable city break; not least fashionable shopping districts, bohemian cultural hubs, tranquil parks, international restaurants and lively clubs and bars.
With three World Heritage Sites, the city's cultural attractions trace centuries of its history. You're never far from remnants of the Berlin Wall, and particularly striking is the famous artwork on a length of the wall, preserved as the East Side Gallery. We got there using the Berlin WelcomeCard, allowing free transport on trains and buses and discount entry to museums and other attractions.
At the southern end of the East Side Gallery is the Wall Museum, a former warehouse on the bank of the Spree river. The interactive, multimedia venue showcases the history of the wall, from events leading to its construction to the dramatic weeks in the autumn of 1989 leading to its fall. Filmed interviews with those who lived in East and West Berlin - including a guard who patrolled the "Death Strip" and a man who was shot four times while swimming across the river on his escape from the East as a boy - offer a very human insight into life in the shadow of the wall.
At the DDR Museum, located on the riverside opposite the city's beautiful cathedral on Museum Island, we encountered a fascinating hands-on experience of life in Communist East Germany. You can step inside a typical apartment of the period, 'drive' a Trabant, the car that East Germans spent over a decade saving up for, find out how education and sport was used to shape young lives in the Communist regime, and sample aspects of everyday life under surveillance, from supermarket shopping to summer holidays.
Less interactive is the Mauermuseum, at the Checkpoint Charlie border crossing, which I found overwhelming. The focus is on the political story of the Wall, and the human rights struggle, and you'd need a full day to take it all in. The various accounts of dramatic escapes were fascinating though, brought vividly to life with lifesize dummies hidden in cars and suitcases.
For an insight into another dark period of Berlin's 20th century history, we visited the Topography of Terror, a bleak structure on the site of the Gestapo headquarters. The original buildings were destroyed after the Second World War and the museum, which opened in 2010, reveals chilling information and images of Nazi terror. As well as drawing attention to the Holocaust and other victims of the Nazi regime, the exhibition presents profiles of SS officers and the perpetrators' sinister systems. The remains of interrogation cells can be visited outside.
We stayed at the NH Collection, a stylish, contemporary hotel in Mitte, a short walk from the bullet-scarred Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag (German Parliament building, well worth a visit but you must pre-book). A couple of stops on the train and we were at the Fernsehturm (TV Tower),
a 368 metre-high structure housing a revolving restaurant with fabulous panoramic views. Built in the 1960s, originally to broadcast German Democratic Republic TV programmes, the tower dominates the city's skyline.
We rounded off our trip with a fabulous meal at Katz Orange - a rustic-style restaurant in an old brewery, where a varied menu includes a "Slow Cuisine" speciality of pork Duroc, roasted for 12 hours, although I opted for a pumpkin flan and a delicious braised eggplant dish from the varied vegetarian choices - and a boat trip along the river, passing landmarks such as the President's House.
Over cocktails in the NH Collection bar, we reflected on a memorable trip. Berlin has a wide city break appeal; offering lots to do and see for families, culture vultures, foodies and nightclubbers. And its fabulous Christmas markets make this time of year a perfect time to visit.
* Jet2.com flights to Berlin from Leeds Bradford Airport operate twice weekly (Monday and Friday) all year round.
Fares start at £33 one way including taxes. Jet2CityBreaks at the 4-star NH Collection Berlin Mitte start from £349 per person (based on 3 nights’ bed and breakfast). Visit jet2.com or for package holidays visit jet2holidays.com/city-breaks or call 0800 408 5599.
* Jet2.com and Jet2CityBreaks offer a range of flight-only and flight and hotel options to Christmas market destinations in Berlin, Budapest, Barcelona, Prague and Krakow. Visit jet2.com/christmas-markets