“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Travel Haven Destination — European Christmas Markets

Shirley O’Bryan Smith of the Associated Press has written a charming article about Christmas Markets in Europe at http://www.ajc.com/travel/tis-the-season-for-1222679.html. Here’s an excerpt.

It’s a scene played out all over Europe as the holidays approach: The air is cold, the sky is bright and snow crunches underfoot as crowds make their way through rows of little wooden structures that look like storybook houses with sloping roofs and rustic trim, each one offering some treasure that’s beautiful, fun or delicious.

Chatter, laughter and music waft through the air, mixing with the smells of gingerbread, grilled meats and cookies as shoppers browse among the carved toys, small musical instruments, ornaments, handcrafted clothing, homemade soap, candles and hand-blown glass.

Millions of people — both locals and visitors — attend annual Christmas markets in cities all over Europe each year.

The Budapest Christmas market at Vorosmarty Square is a lovely location that offers a giant Christmas tree, nativity scenes and a unique Advent calendar that opens up in the windows of the historic Gerbeaud confectionary. The merchandise is quite good. Sellers are judged by experts representing craftsmen and folk artists, and only those of high skill are allowed to set up shop. But quality doesn’t come cheap. You could pay hundreds of dollars for a nativity set, $40 to $60 for a woman’s hand-styled woven hat or less for small trinkets.

Food is also top notch. One favorite is the chimney cake, a delicacy once made by wrapping dough around actual chimney pipes. Now the dough is wrapped around something that looks like a large, slightly V-shaped rolling pin. It’s sprinkled with sugar or slathered in butter or honey, cooked on hot coals, then twisted off the pin, wrapped in paper and devoured by appreciative customers.

Salzburg, Austria, offers a different look for its market. The city, located at the foot of the Alps, is Mozart’s hometown and his image appears all over — including on Mozart chocolates. “The Sound of Music” was filmed here and there are movie-themed tours available.

Salzburg’s Christmas market, located along the streets of the historic part of town, can get very crowded, but it’s a fun kind of hustle and bustle that includes street musicians, guided tour groups, and formal choral presentations. Painted tins, homemade soaps and snow globes are mixed in with the usual crafted items.

The main Christmas markets in Bratislava, Slovakia, are located in beautiful public squares around the city. You’ll find handmade pottery and wooden decorations often in the design of fish. That’s because carp is a traditional dish during Slovak Christmastime. Food and drinks served at the markets include tasty potato crepes with jam and poppy seeds and a honey wine similar to mead.

Germany is famous for its many markets, including those in Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt, Dresden and Nuremberg. But markets in small towns like pretty Passau also have charm. Glühwein, a traditional hot spiced wine drink is perfect for warming up cold hands and bellies. In many places, it’s served with an extra shot of rum. Some are sold in a souvenir mug.

The Passau market isn’t as large as some others but it isn’t as crowded, either. It’s in a beautiful historic setting near St. Stephen’s Cathedral, known for its enormous pipe organ and holiday concerts. There is a mixture of items for sale many handmade, such as the carved wooden “smokers” — incense holders designed to look like little men smoking pipes.

In terms of trip-planning to see Europe’s holiday markets, most open in late or mid-November, a month or more ahead of Christmas. Some tour operators offer organized trips to markets in several different places; they include transportation, hotels and some meals. You can also find European river cruises offering excursions to Christmas markets. If you’re traveling independently, remember that hotels near markets may fill up quickly at holiday time.

A few other tips:

Don’t expect bargains. These markets are about tradition, camaraderie, family and the holiday spirit, and well-crafted handmade goods don’t come cheap.

Not all countries in Europe use the euro. Those using their own currencies may accept euros as payment but you’ll probably get change back in the local money. And don’t count on using credit cards — market vendors are often cash-only.

Go with the flow. Stroll through these little wonderlands. Pick up some unique gifts. Sample the local cuisine. And don’t forget the glühwein!