A campervan tour of Christmas markets
Words & Photos by Pete Benson
Bah humbug – that was me. Shops selling Christmas items in August, adverts on TV from October. Where’s the magic of Christmas gone? I’ll tell you where it’s gone; the European Christmas markets. And it was these Christmas markets that restored my faith in Christmas.
We had decided to take a week’s holiday in our Toyota Alphard campervan to visit Germany, also taking in France and Belgium, and discover the magic of Christmas with our young son, Archie.
Our first stop off the ferry was in Lille, northern France. This has a very Flemish feel to it, being so close to the Belgian border and it’s the fourth largest city in France. The market here is very well presented and quite large and, as it was the opening day, it was also very busy. If you park your campervan at the Citadel it’s just a ten-minute walk to the city centre, which is handy when you’re pushing a buggy!
Lille has a lovely city centre and the market is around the Charles De Gaulle Square, which leads into the Place Rihour and Place du Théâtre. This creates a large traffic-free zone to stroll around and there are plenty of cafés, shops and interesting historic buildings to enjoy.
After an afternoon in Lille we continued our journey to nearby Arras, where we stayed at an aire close to the town centre so that we could visit Vimy Ridge, a Canadian memorial site from WW1, the following day.
There are large parts that are off limits to visitors due to the unexploded shells and munitions still buried over the battlefields. We spent the morning here, as it was so interesting, before heading onto Aachen for our first German Christmas market.
The Christmas market at Aachen
We’ve been to Aachen before, and it’s one of our favourite German cities. It has an impressive cathedral and town centre and a great stellplatz about 15 minutes’ walk from the centre, which is well-signposted from the autobahn. We checked in for two nights.
The Christmas market is centered around the cathedral area and is open from 10am until 9pm. Make sure you stop at the lovely cafés that seem to be everywhere in Aachen - there’s a really good cake shop next to the cathedral, too.
The Christmas market is large with over 120 stalls selling various products such as glÜhwein (mulled wine) and Printen – a crunchy, spiced cookie with a mild gingerbread taste covered in chocolate. These are famous in Aachen and, everywhere we went, somebody was offering free samples. After two wonderful days here, we left for Cologne, which is a 50-minute drive on the autobahn.
Cool Cologne by campervan
We absolutely love Cologne. We spent an afternoon here back in 2015, which is not enough time in such a vibrant and interesting city as this, so revisiting with the Christmas market was an added bonus.
There are four large Christmas markets in Cologne, with the largest centered around the impressive cathedral that’s lit up at night. There are over 150 stalls to explore and the choice of food to indulge your senses is overwhelming. Delicious smells fill the air, and we were all partial to the German sausages.
It’s a short walk to Neumarkt and you then come to Heinzels Wintermärket with its nineteenth-century big wheel, which we were handed free tickets for - a case of being in the right place at the right time.
There is also a massive outdoor ice rink with a running length of 300 metres, said to be the largest mobile ice rink in Europe and, once you've paid your entrance fee, you can skate till your heart’s content. Again, the aromas from various food stalls fill the air and tempt you to another sausage washed down with a hot mug of glÜhwein, which seems to wash everything down just perfectly.
After our day out in Cologne, we headed back to Reisemobilhafen Köln, a camper-stop where we were staying for two nights. You’ll need a green Umweltplakette sticker here, as it’s in the low-emissions zone. It is situated on the bank of the Rhine and is a pleasant 20-minute walk into the centre, or you can take the underground train from Zoo/Flora, which is a six-minute ride to the cathedral.
We caught the underground the following morning as it was raining, and took the short walk to the Schokoladenmuseum, which is a great place for adults and kids. It takes you through the history of Lindt chocolate with lots of lovely tasting opportunities over its three floors. The chocolate fountain is unmissable and it’s very tempting to go back for seconds, and even thirds, but the rather vigilant attendant seems to have a near-perfect memory for faces! There’s a café, as always, selling all you need as long as it's chocolate-orientated, and a gift shop that is chocolate heaven if you’re a chocoholic. We even bought chocolate pasta!
Cologne is an easy city to navigate, whether on foot or using the excellent public transport network, and having somewhere campervanners can camp up so near to the centre makes it an even more wonderful place to visit. If shopping is your thing then Cologne will offer all the designer labels you need, and didn't think you needed, and more.
Head down the Schildergasse up to Neumarkt for that all-inclusive shopping experience, or take in the side streets offering smaller shops and cafés.
We also loved walking along the banks of the Rhine, stopping at the occasional pub for a tipple and snack, and watching the big barges navigate their way up and down the river.
The Christmas market in Liege
On our last day, leaving Cologne, we headed to Liege in Belgium for the opening day of the Christmas market. Liege has the oldest market in Belgium and it’s very nice. We took a few hours to explore before heading back to our overnight stop in Veurne, near Dunkerque, from where we caught the ferry home the following morning.
I’m so glad we took the time to visit the Christmas markets, especially in Germany, and I’m all turned around on the spirit of Christmas now.