When it comes to Christmas shopping, few countries can hold a candle to Germany.
Its traditional Christmas markets have been creating the wow factor for more than six centuries.
Today, Germany’s Christmas markets open on the first day of Advent in mid-November. In most places, the routine has hardly changed for a century or so.
Set against the backdrop of beautiful historic cities, market squares bulge with beautifully-decorated wooden stalls full of traditional food, local delicacies, good quality hand-made goods and wooden traditional toys and decorations.
Each region in Germany has its own style, so I targeted Thuringia, north of Bavaria and between Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt. Tour operator Dertour fixed flights into Frankfurt for speedy ICE train links to Eisenach, Erfurt and Dresden.
At Eisenach, with its wonderfully preserved Old Town, the Christmas market is in Wartburg Castle, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage building dating to 1067 and perched on top of a large hill overlooking the town.
This historic setting is perfect for the market, the stalls overladen with food, jewellery, clothes, glassware, sweets and hand-made Christmas decorations.
You can get into the Christmas spirit, literally, with the first glass of Gluhwein (mulled wine). Hot and spicy.
The aromas of the market are amazing. Although we had had a marvellous meal at the castle’s restaurant, we couldn’t resist the food stalls to sample some quite delicious bratapfel (baked apples) and maronen (roasted chestnuts).
The castle hosts top-quality Christmas concerts too: you can be entertained by a German vocal ensemble who sang carols in English and German, and some jazzy numbers too.
Eisenach also has the Bach House (Bachhaus), the first museum in the world to be dedicated to the life and work of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Next stop Erfurt, the regional capital and one of the most beautiful and oldest cities in Germany, which was founded in 742.
Its Old Town of half-timbered houses and cobbles in front of the Cathedral Square (Domplatz) is another perfect setting for a Christmas market.
Visitors’ eyes are immediately caught by the 40ft Christmas pyramid, telling the story of Erfurt’s history and the people who shaped it. The central Christmas tree, covered in candles, has a Nativity scene containing 14 hand-carved, life-sized wooden figures.
In the cellars of St Mary’s Cathedral, the annual flower art exhibition combines floral sculptures and seasonal flower arrangements.
With more than 200 little wooden stalls in the Christmas market, there was so much to buy, eat and drink. You can sample spicy Thuringian bratwurst, lebkuchen (gingerbread) and Erfurt stollen.
The next train journey takes you to Dresden, which has risen again from the ashes of the Second World War.
Dresden’s largest Christmas market, Striezelmarkt, is one of the oldest in Germany.
There are more traditional Christmas goodies by the bucketload and, of course, plenty of food stalls providing food, sausages and Gluhwein to recharge the batteries.