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Part of the Christmas crib in Cologne cathedral, depicting Joseph in his carpenter's workshopVisiting a continental Xmas market gives a cheery boost to the November-December period when winter gloom sets in. Reg Butler flew on the no-frills Germanwings airline to reach Cologne-Bonn airport, an ideal hub for the Christmas-market trade, which flourishes all over Germany particularly in the Rhine valley. 

From the airport, it was only a 15-minute bus ride to Cologne railway station. Right next door is the towering gothic-style cathedral, where every Christmas a magnificent crib is displayed - a masterpiece of wood craftsmanship. 

On the cathedral square is the largest of Cologne's six Christmas markets. The huge open space is totally filled with 160 half-timbered booths laden with every imaginable Christmas decoration, toy, food, giftware or knick-knack. In the middle, an 80-ft Christmas tree sets the festive scene.

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More information: German National Tourist Office, PO Box 2695, London W1A 3TN. Tel: 020 7317 0908. 

Details of Christmas markets: Typical dates: late November to Christmas Eve, but there are many that start earlier.

Many coach tours with local pickups feature a choice of Xmas-market itineraries.

The quickest surface route is by Eurostar to Brussels with direct connection to Aachen and Cologne. 

Germanwings - a subsidiary of Lufthansa - flies daily to Cologne-Bonn from both Gatwick and Stansted. Book early for the lowest prices. Highly recommended. 

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All this is in the heart of the original town built by the Romans. Bits of their north gate still stand in front of the cathedral, and one side of the square is occupied by a Roman-Germanic Museum. 

A short walk brought us to the much cosier Old Market - Alte Markt - with a less commercialised atmosphere. It is more intimate and family-friendly, centred on a roundabout for the kids.

It's only an hour by rail or road to Aachen, where we spent the night. 
Every kind of decoration and giftware is jumbled togetherr on the stalls
Aachen's market is loaded with choice of culinary delicacies like gingerbread, half-metre sausages with plenty of mustard, and mulled wine with special flavourings. 

Visitors browse past stalls laden with giftware - pottery, jewellery trinkets, toys, lace knickers, cuckoo clocks, plastic angels, costume dolls, carved nutcrackers and beeswax polish - exactly what Santa Claus likes to buy as stocking- fillers. 

Just like in Cologne, everything focuses on the historic centre. Here's where Emperor Charlemagne the Great settled in AD 794, and ruled over the territories which later separated into France and Germany. Just a minute's walk away is the cathedral where princes were crowned King of Germania until 1531. 

Standing on the site of Charlemagne's palace is the 14th-century town hall overlooking the market square. The whole setting has a traditional feel, from the cobblestones to the ancient buildings and the blazing open fires of the sausage vendors. 

Competing against the evening hubbub, loudspeakers blare out recordings of 'Stille Nacht'. 

But if you want something really traditional, it's even better to visit a sub-species of market labelled 'medieval' or 'historical'. The idea is to reproduce an authentic feudal market, the way it actually was in the Middle Ages.

That means no canned loudspeaker carols, no electricity, nothing machine-made. There are now up to thirty German markets which describe themselves as medieval or historical.

Demonstrating how to sweep before vacuum cleaners were inventedSiegburg was the first and is the most genuine, with 45 stands. It's a small town near Cologne-Bonn airport on the eastern side of the Rhine, just a tram-ride from Bonn.

On the market square the event is organised by a society specialised in medieval productions. It concentrates on the Christian aspects of the season, with nightly torch-lit carol singing and a nativity play at weekends. Minstrels and wandering monks walk around and old craft guilds show their skills, from spoon carvers to tinsmiths. 

During the week, school groups visit the various craftspeople to learn about disappearing one-man trades like blacksmithing, bread-baking in wood-fired ovens, rope-making, weaving and wicker basket-making.

The comedy team had three jester-musicians, a storyteller for the kids, and three characters who are responsible for the market: the Market Boss, the Herald, and Strong-Arm of the Law. 

Children and adults enjoy watching jesters perform on the stage, telling stories, juggling and playing medieval musical instruments. All the entertainment comes free. Two of the performers were English, though they had lived for years in Germany. 

A drink stand featured a cask painted with the basic menu - either "Love potion" (Liebestrank) or "Hot meths" (Heisses Meth). But they both smelt like mulled wine. 

It's easy to fit a Christmas-market trip over a long weekend. Local coach operators offer good choice of itineraries, with visits to towns oozing with tradition. 

Go-it-alone travellers can easily work out a circuit, using the frequent bus and train links. 

The German National Tourist Office helpfully lists dozens of Christmas markets on its website, with descriptions, dates and contact details. Pick any three or four, and you have a ready- made itinerary.
Medieval musicians on stage at Siegburg
In this weekend-break sector, Christmas markets are jolly events where groups or families come out smiling. Adults loosen up, wear silly hats and eat hot baked apples on a stick. 

One thing stands out: you'll find a total cross-section of European visitors. They have all bought into this style of pre-Xmas break to eat sausages, drink hot meths and buy jingle-bell decorations. They all speak the universal language of Christmas - to spend money and have fun.

Other German highlights to consider

BERLIN - the sparkling face-lift

HAMBURG - Much more than strip shows

RHINE - Enjoy a classic Rhine/Moselle cruise

"Books to read - click on cover pictures" or click on the links below

The Rough Guide to Germany - Obviously covers the whole of Germany, but is good and detailed for the Rhine and Moselle valleys. Anyway, most visitors return to see other parts of Germany, so the book is worth keeping for future journeys.

Michelin Green Guide: Germany - A handy pocket guide which will serve you well for multiple visits to the German cities and regions, with informative background to cuisine, history, culture etc.

The Wines of Germany (Mitchell Beazley Classic Wine Library) by Stephen Brook  - Something to read as you cruise the Moselle and Rhine, telling you the rich history of the vineyards, the varieties and which are the top vineyard sites.

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