Devilish delights

Enlightenment...the neo-Gothic Rathaus forms a dramatic backdrop to the markets.
Enlightenment...the neo-Gothic Rathaus forms a dramatic backdrop to the markets. Photo: Corbis

Jenna Hand comes face to face with a mysterious horned figure while shopping for treats at Vienna's Christmas markets.

For all the fairy lights, baubles and hand-carved nativity sets, there is a dark side to a Viennese Christmas - and he's on my gingerbread. Pressed against the spiced cake is an alarming image of a wild-eyed, red-skinned fiend with horns and a protruding tongue, armed with a length of chain. He looks poised to commit an act of violence against a small boy praying in a wooden tub and a girl bearing fruit. I'm bewildered.

"It's Krampus," the gingerbread vendor says. "He comes in December and beats children who've been naughty." And, I later learn, is said to abduct the most disobedient and drown them. Presumably the girl scored a visit from the kindly Saint Nick instead.

The children at the Vienna Christmas markets don't seem particularly troubled by the fate Germanic folklore warns could await them.

Most are utterly captivated by the storybook scene spilling out in front of the magnificently illuminated neo-Gothic town hall on the boulevard that circles the city's historic centre.

With 150 stalls selling festive food and gifts, the Advent market at Rathausplatz is Vienna's largest. There are rows of quaint wooden huts jammed full of glass baubles, hand-painted tree angels, knitted winter woollies and all manner of sparkly kitsch. Coat-clad figures huddle against the cold clasping mugs of steaming mulled wine, inhaling the sweetness of cloves and orange peel. In the nearby park, a miniature train trundles through groves of leafless trees festooned with twinkling lights and glowing hearts.

Christmas markets have graced this spot since 1975 but the tradition in Vienna dates back to at least 1626, when bakers and confectioners erected stalls in front of the central Saint Stephen's Cathedral in mid-December to tempt passers-by with seasonal goodies. These days there are more than a dozen such markets within the city limits, including a hipster "design" Christmas market and a punch stand that's all about "gourmet" concoctions dreamt up by celebrity chefs.

A laid-back crowd gathers in the evenings at the Altes AKH Christmas Village on the University of Vienna campus. Students congregate around lantern-lit tables and there's a refreshing absence of camera-wielding tourists.

In the games area, a giddy trio are playing curling on a portable ice rink, mugs in hand, but they seem just as focused on remaining upright as lobbing discs at the target. Christmas paraphernalia abounds: pine trees, wreaths, roasted chestnuts and schaumrollen - puff-pastry logs filled with sticky meringue so sweet it sets your teeth on edge.

There are also untraditional wares such as feathered dream catchers and African woodcarvings. When I ask whether there's demand for souvenirs from other continents, a woman with tight braids points out that not everyone wants mementoes. "Viennese come here looking for Christmas presents and this is something different," she says. The theory seems to apply to food, too - an Indian-themed stall is doing a roaring trade in hot drinks, samosas and sweets, and the French crepe stand has a longer queue than the sausage vendor.

Across town, the sugary scent of fresh kiachl - the doughnut's more delicious, Christmassy cousin - wafts through the chilly night air at the Karlsplatz Christmas market. In front of the 18th-century Saint Charles Church, this market specialises in arts and crafts produced by the stallholders themselves. The eclectic offerings include handbags made from computer parts, funky printed T-shirts, ceramics and perfumed soaps. In the daytime there are activity tents for kids, pony rides and a petting zoo.

Even as the vendors are shutting up shop, hordes of shrieking children high on kinderpunsch rampage through the musky straw and clamber over hay bales, throwing handfuls at each other in good-natured battle. It's a different sort of winter wonderland, and for now, the wicked Krampus doesn't even rate a thought.

Vienna's Christmas markets run until December 24. See austria.info.

FIVE OTHER MUST-DO CHRISTMAS ACTIVITIES

1. Experience midnight Mass on Christmas Eve in one of the city's historic churches.

See erzdioezese-wien.at.

2. See the Nutcracker ballet at the opera house. See wiener-staatsoper.at.

3. Take the children tobogganing at Prater park. See wien.info.

4. Hear the Vienna Boys' Choir perform in the 15th-century Hofburg Chapel on Christmas Day. See hofburgkapelle.at.

5. Watch a performance of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. See www.openhousetheatre.at.

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