You can search for the picture perfect white Christmas in Europe, but there are no guarantees, Leigh Henningham discovers.
I have been dreaming of a white Christmas since childhood.
After years of singing carols extollingthe virtues of a snow-covered Christmas, I'm keen to experience it. But, given that the northern hemisphere is a big place, the practicalities have always been difficult. Where do you go for the quintessential Christmas experience when the temperature isn't hovering around 35 degrees?
Is a Christmas of bloated bellies,backyard cricket and leftover turkey while watching the Queen's message the best one to have?
My wife and I discover answers in Europe, and knowing that a location anywhere on a ski slope would end in tears, we take the advice of the guidebooks.
"Head to the Bavarian Alps!" they say."You are guaranteed a white Christmas that you will never forget."
So at the start of an Australian heatwave we head to a balmy Vienna with an expected top temperature of zero degrees.
Vienna would look wonderful in any season but festooned in Christmas lights and decorations it's impossible not to be captured by the spirit. Its Christmas markets are crowded but the atmosphere is warm and friendly. Markets are dotted around the city in the prettiest of squares, packed with stalls selling mulled wine, pastries, cured meats, quality handcrafts, and, of course, Christmas decorations. Every stall is worth a look – no Barbie dolls or Taylor Swift CDs here – there are loads of handmade wooden toys, and candles for the kids. There is also a distinct lack of Santa. At the largest market in Vienna outside the Rathaus (City Hall), children queue, not for the promise of toys or to tell Santa Claus what they want, but to hear stories told by the Christkind Christmas Angel. There is an authenticity about the setting. The market isn't just for tourists. Locals meet here after work. Instead of the pub, they choose to stand around in freezing air and catch up over bratwurst, warm chestnuts and glühwein.
Vienna is a perfect lead up to Christmas Eve, which is the big day for family celebration in Austria and Germany. But despite its chilly conditions and wonderful Christmas spirit, it's still not "white". For that we choose a smaller town at a much higher altitude – the pretty Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps, Germany. My wife's painstaking research of guaranteed white Christmas locations in Europe reveals this little village, just 30 kilometres south of Salzburg sitting near the border of Austria, to be one of the best. In a valley surrounded by snow-covered alps a five-hour train journey from Vienna, it could easily be the model for many a gingerbread house with icing sugar as snow.
Layered up (according to the locals there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes) we explore the town. Just off the main square is a cemetery with snow-dusted graves illuminated by Christmas lights and decorations. It is as beautiful as it is serene and we are humbled to think of how long people have stood in this medieval churchyard to remember their loved ones. Then, bang, boom, boom! Gunshots echo around the mountains and valleys for a full 20 minutes. Heading for the nearest bunker, we are soon reassured by a tourist officer this is a local tradition dating back centuries. Men with muskets line up along the hills firing off round after round. It's their way of driving out the cold season and awakening nature.
As night settles, there is still no snow falling and the weather is mild enough for us to walk to the town square to visit the market. There are very few tourists like ourselves, mainly locals or weekenders up from Munich, meeting and drinking the warm glühwein in the chilly air under a big Christmas tree.
As we wait for a show to begin, dozens of locals gather around us. A man with an accordion and a woman a with guitar hand out songbooks to everyone and we realise that everyone gathered at the square is a lead performer.
I don't speak a word of German and the carols were all from a songbook unfamiliar to me, but it's magical.
The accordion player leads the citizen choir through the repertoire, with much laughter and many tuneful voices.
So, we have done the Christmas shopping, imbibed in Christmas drinks and enjoyed carols by candlelight. But what about the food? The main feast meal of Christmas is shared on the night of Christmas Eve and our hotel puts on a traditional smorgasbord, with the highlight being a Christmas tree comprised of delicately balanced prawns.
We go to bed hoping to wake up in the snowy winter wonderland of which we all had dreamed.
December 25 dawns with blue skies and an expected temperature of 3 degrees, and no snow. Walking through the forests around the alpine lake of Königssee, there is some snow scattered through the trees but nothing resembling a white Christmas. The locals can't remember the last time they had a "green Christmas" as mild as this.
But in the end, it doesn't matter.
Snow glistening on treetops and fluttering down and lodging on your eyelashes may be enchanting, but it isn't the magic ingredient we are in search of. The festival of Christmas is, after all, a man-made tradition, not something created by nature.
The traditions we experienced in the little corner of Europe we visited make our white Christmas that wasn't.
Emirates flies twice daily to Vienna, via Dubai from Sydney and Melbourne. See www.emirates.com
Vienna City Apartments, 1020 Wien Praterstr. Five-minute walk into old Vienna city. Well heated with good Wi-Fi. Apartments rates from $789 for four nights sleeping four people. See www.vrbo.com
Berchtesgaden Hotel, Vier Jahreszeiten. Old Bavarian charm, run by the same family for more than100 years, with lots of animal horns adorning the restaurants walls. Great views of the Alps. Less than a five-minute walk into the town square. Rooms from $120 a night.
SEE + DO
Vienna: Christmas Markets open from mid-November until January, most open from 5pm until late. Easy to navigate town on the trams or foot. The Prater parklands if the weather is good and galleries if the cold gets to you. www.wien.info
Berchtesgaden: Walk the streets, visit the town square, catch the cable car up to the mountains, or bus to Lake Königssee.
Vienna: Try a typical Viennese breakfast in a traditional cafe, served by waiters in tuxedos. The only downside is that many restaurants have smoking patrons.
Cakes to die for are impossible not to find in various old Viennese cafes.
Also Vienna's best-known market, the Naschmarkt, has great food from all cultures to eat there or take home. The flea market on Saturday is also well worth a visit.
Berchtesgaden: Gasthof Neuhaus is ideal for fine traditional Bavarian food. Situated in premises first established for royalty in 1576, it has a wonderful atmosphere.