This can be an increasingly gray and gloomy time of year. As many seniors have discovered, however, a good way to shake off seasonal blahs is to enjoy some early Yule cheer on a tour of the colorful and convivial Christmas markets of Europe.
Besides being a lot of fun, these markets and the tour packages built around them are usually good values for what they offer and are popular with mature travelers. The markets begin in November and continue to just before Christmas, an off-season period when air fares and hotel rates tend to be about as low as they get. The traditional Christmas crafts -- wood carvings, tree decorations, candles, toys, religious paintings, and statues -- for which the markets are known are often of highest quality and usually much less expensive than similar items sold in this country.
In other words, Christmas markets are great places to shop for Christmas presents.
Many countries have Christmas markets, but Germany has the most, as well as the largest and oldest, and they are in big bustling cities as well as tiny medieval villages. They are festive events with local bands and choirs and food stalls serving holiday drinks such as piping hot gluhwein and seasonal cakes and pastries.
The city of Dresden (www.dresden-tourist.de) has been holding a Christmas market since at least 1434, making it one of the country's oldest. Now, as then, it is in the market square in the oldest part of town. Here, you'll find porcelain from nearby Meissen, fine glass from Bohemia just over the border with the Czech Republic, and handcrafted toys from the Erzgebirge Mountains.
A specialty of Dresden is the traditional Christmas cake called striezel in Saxony, but known as stollen elsewhere in Germany. Every year, bakers and confectioners bake an enormous striezel (weighing about 3 tons), which is brought in a procession to the marketplace.
A Christmas market was first recorded in Munich (www.muenchen-tourist.de) in 1310. Today, the Christkindlsmarkt, or Christ Child's Market, is held in the city's central square, the Marienplatz. Among the many Bavarian crafts on sale, probably the most popular are hand-carved wooden crches.
Also in Bavaria, Nuremberg (www.tourismus.nuernberg.de) has one of the largest markets, , attracting about 2 million visitors annually. In the main square, a large crche is surrounded by 200 food and crafts booths. Nuremberg is noted for its Christmas angel decorations and lebkuchen, gingerbread cakes, and cookies.
Cologne (www.koelntourismus.de), in the Rheinland, has half a dozen Christmas markets, including one on a riverboat. The largest, however, is in front of the city's magnificent Gothic cathedral with about 170 stalls.
Although some begin in mid-November, German Christmas markets are traditionally held during Advent season, Nov. 30-Dec. 24. However, in Rothenburg ob der Tauber (www.rothenburg.de), a medieval walled town in Bavaria, it's Christmas market time just about all the time.
The permanent Christmas museum has exhibits on Christmas customs and decorations throughout history, and many shops sell Christmas cards, decorations, crafts, and gift items of varying quality year round. Some find this charming; others find it a bit too much.
A number of tour companies and organizations offer Christmas market tour packages. Two local ones catering to the 50-plus traveler are Interhostel (www.learn.unh.edu/interhostel), based at the University of New Hampshire, and Grand Circle Travel (www.gct.com), headquartered in Boston.
Interhostel's Advent and Christmas Traditions tour runs Dec. 3-13 with stops in Munich, Nuremberg, and Dresden and a day trip to Salzburg, Austria. The cost is $3,095, including meals, accommodations, lectures, and round-trip air fare from Boston.
Grand Circle's nine-day river cruise, Christmas Markets Along the Rhine, departs Nov. 28 and Dec. 8 and includes land excursions in Belgium and the Netherlands as well as four German cities: Dusseldorf, Cologne, Rudesheim, and Mainz. The cruise is priced from $995, including meals, sightseeing tours, and round-trip air fare from Boston.
For information about Christmas markets and other seasonal events in Germany, visit the German National Tourist Office website, www.comtogermany.com.
William A. Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column on senior travel appears the first Sunday of every month.