Cologne: Is this Europe's best Christmas Market?
There's nowhere like Cologne for some good old-fashioned German gemütlichkeit, says Geraldine Gittens.
According to legend, Cologne city was run by elves.
These tiny creatures worked under cover of darkness to make crafts that the people of Cologne would sell the next day. It was, the same legends tell us, a way for city-dwellers to carry on having a good time and still make money.
Every Christmas, these "elves" also created the most magical markets. And centuries later, those same markets could still cast a spell on any seasonal Scrooge.
Market stalls full of sweet German waffles, mulled wine, bratwursts (German sausages), crepes, handmade chocolates and conserves would warm any weary soul.
And on a night drinking Kolsh (Cologne's own beer), freshly barbecued meats and smoked fish are a tasty change from the bag of chips back home.
For shoppers, there are unique and handmade wares like real leather belts and bags, furs, hats, lights and lamps for your home - as well as handmade winter ornaments like delicate angels and pinocchio-style decorations for your tree.
The most popular market in Cologne sits in the shadow of the towering cathedral.
At night, when its bells chime and its lights shine, this 157m colossus is a magical neighbour to the Christmas market. The Gothic setting is perfect for winter celebrations and, inside, a canopy of fairy lights makes you feel like you're drinking underneath the stars.
For anyone who has a fondness for the story of the Nativity, it's worth a mention that the Cathedral holds the relics of the Three Wise Men. A large nativity scene fashioned from Swiss pine trees sits in an alleyway between two markets, the Alter Markt and Heumarkt.
You won't miss it as you're passing between the two.
In Alter Markt, as you tick off your shopping (and eating) list, a brass band performs Christmas carols. And in the same alley where the nativity scene is on display, pianist Norbert Schulte plays his beautiful tunes.
It's background music to die for.
Cologne isn't just about Christmas markets, of course.
Visitors also have the chance to improve, or show off, their ice skating skills, or try out that curious Olympic sport called curling. Skaters can replenish their energy levels with hot cocoa or alcohol-free punch before setting off for more ice antics.
Cologne's Christmas markets open to 9pm or 10pm daily until December 23rd.
More info: www.cologne.de
Geraldine travelled as a guest of Ryanair, who fly direct from Dublin to Cologne/Bonn International Airport. The airport is 17km from Cologne and accessible by frequent trains and taxis.
More info: www.ryanair.com