Nuremberg has dispatched invaders, emperors and a dictator, yet its markets have stood the test of time, writes Ray Kershaw.
Snowflakes lit by lasers are drifting down on the market square. Toasting sugared almonds spice the air. A jingling horse-drawn coach parades the Christ Child's Angel - a girl chosen to symbolise the city that styles itself as "the Capital of Christmas".
Mediaeval Nuremberg, ringed by walls with 80 towers and sheltered by the castle of the Holy Roman emperors, seems like something from a fairytale at any time of year but in dark December, it dazzles, its 400-year-old Christkindlesmarkt the prototype for Christmas markets across Europe.
Of course, for many, Nuremberg has less palatable associations: the Nuremberg Rallies, the Nuremberg Trials and the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws. Seventy years on, the city still rubs its own nose in those shameful decades, though there's an argument that Nuremberg did not choose the Nazis but had the misfortune of being chosen by them.
Once the Holy Roman Empire's principal seat, Nuremberg ticked all the Nazi boxes. Hitler called it the most German city of all and dreamt of making it the spiritual powerhouse of his Third Reich. The crumbling remains of this powerhouse - a tram ride from the old city centre - are a lesson in the fickleness of fortune for all aspiring dictators. We find the old Nazi Party rally grounds beneath a foot of fresh snow. It's deserted and hard to imagine the stadium resounding with "Sieg Heils". The terraces that held 200,000 Nazis make you think of Ozymandias's works fading to dust.
The Grosse Strasse - the Great Road to nowhere, 1600 metres long and 655 metres wide - was built as a filmset for goose-stepping victors. It is now the funfair car park. The Franken Arena, once reserved for Hitler Youth events, survives as a football ground called the easyCredit Stadium in English.
The Christmas marketplace was then called Adolph Hitler Square. Old photos show SS legions merrily marching past fir trees decked with sparkling swastikas.
But it was the monolithic Nazi Congress Hall that was Hitler's pride and joy. Now the Nazi Rallies Documentation Centre, it is a riveting example of Nuremberg's obsession with facing its past head on. This year, Nuremberg opened its new War Crime Trials Centre adjoining Courtroom 600 where, in 1945, the top Nazis were judged. Using photos, films and soundtracks, every horror perpetrated is nightmarishly catalogued. In the still-functioning courtroom, we stand on the spot where Hermann Goering cocked his last snook.
But though the Nazis shamed its name, the ancient capital of Franconia now bustles with the confidence it possessed in the days before they came. The fountain-dotted central square, a glorious montage of mediaeval buildings, is one of Europe's most captivating. At the Beautiful Fountain, an 18-metre-high golden confection, passers-by tiptoe to turn the brass ring that for 600 years has made wishes come true. Crowds gather at the Frauen Church to watch the clockwork procession of Emperor Charles the Fair's knights.
Today, the snowy squares beneath the castle resemble antique Christmas cards - icicles drape fountains and inns offer glowing stoves to thaw freezing feet. The quaint house of Albrecht Durer, Nuremberg's most famous son, illuminates the life of the 15th-century artist, scientist and author, who was revered by the would-be painter Hitler.
The city's 43 museums range from the vast Germanisches Museum's Bronze Age gold horns to Dutch Old Masters, Bauhaus design and the Museum of Toys.
The master toymakers of Nuremberg have apparently worked for Father Christmas since he filled his first sack. The market has toys in every colour, shape and size, sold on stalls manned by local tradespeople, who forsake warm shops for the convivial chill (an ancient guild of wardens prohibits piped music and cheap plastic trash). Another lovely square holds the children's Christmas market and we watch web-savvy children falling under its spell.
As the frost falls, stars appear and crowds thicken at a stall barbecuing sausages (it has been here since 1420). A band strikes up. And at some point in the future, when the Nazis seem as implausible as the Grimm brothers' ogres, we're sure the Christkindlesmarkt will be going strong.
Qantas has a fare to Nuremberg from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1890 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Frankfurt via Singapore (about 23hr including transit time), then on Lufthansa to Nuremberg (45min); see lufthansa.com. This fare allows you to fly back from another European city.
Hotel Elche is simple but comfortable, good-value accommodation in a half-timber house in the old city's heart. B&B from $129; see hotel-elch.com.
Hotel Steichele, family-run for a century, has comfortable rooms in a historic building inside the walls. It also has a renowned restaurant and bar with an enormous Franken wine list. B& B from $164; see steichele.de.
Hotel Agneshof has luxurious rooms in the most picturesque part of the old town; the garden terrace has views of the city. B&B from $207; see agneshof-nuernberg.de.
Bratwurstkuche zum Goldenen Stern serves Nuremberg sausages roasted on wood fires, a method used here since 1419. At Zirkelschmiedsgasse 26; phone +49 911 205 9288.
Goldenes Posthorn has a friendly atmosphere and service - and rib-sticking Franconian specialities such as Schauferla (melt-in-the-mouth pork shoulder). Reservation recommended. Good Franconian wines. At Glockleinsgasse 2; phone +49 911 225 153.
Heilig-Geist-Spital — the historic hall of the mediaeval hospital built on a river island — is cavernous, cosy and convivial. The quality of dishes is not compromised by the building being a major visitor attraction. At Spitalgasse 16; phone +49 911 221 761.