O Du Fröhliches Wien!
Vienna’s transformation in December into a sparkling city of Joy, Gingerbread and Glühwein: A Guide to Christmas Markets
The Spirit of Spittelberg
Majestic pine trees decorated with never-ending chains of light, cheery Christmas songs that fill the cold winter air, the taste of gingerbread and Vanillekipferl, waffles and almonds, the irresistible smell of sweet punch and spicy hot-mulled wine, vendors selling their handcrafts in little wooden huts decorated with pine branches – Vienna is a chilly paradise around Christmas, a reputation it owes largely to its Christmas markets that, emerging like little enclaves at the end of November, are scattered all over the city until the new year.
Spittelberg is one of them. A special one.
Tucked behind the Museumsquartier in Vienna’s 7th District, with its winding cobblestone alleys and Baroque buildings, the Christmas market at Spittelberg, once an insider tip, has become a hotspot for locals who want to enjoy a glass of hot-mulled wine or punch off the beaten – i.e. touristy – track.
No obnoxious Christmas music blaring from the loudspeakers, no drunken raucous bawling, no disturbing blinking lights… the Spittelberg market isn’t primarily about consumption, it’s about capturing the spirit of Christmas, the best of childhood, the mellowest of older age – to its many visitors, it is simply magical.
At Spittelberg, known for its arts and crafts, no hut looks the same. A wooden stand with a roof painted in purple stands right next to a much larger booth in dark brown colors with a tilted roof.
Local gastronomes, who have priority at the market, offer specialties hardly found anywhere else. Ranging from Pomegranate and Prosecco Punch, Feuerzangen Bowle (Fire Zapper Punch) and Waldviertler Feuerflecken - a salty puff pastry with crisp dark spots, to waffles made with Urkorn flour and Amarena-Cherry-Chili Punch, the vendors at Spittelberg know how to mix tradition with innovation, old with new, classical with modern.
"Everything has to change all the time. To attract more customers, we simply need attractive products," says Hans Kamleithner, the manager of the local "Witwe Bolte" (the Widow Bolte, from the tales of Max and Moritz) restaurant, a tall dark-haired man in his fifties. The family business from the Wachau, the Danube valley west of Vienna, started their "career" at the Spittelberg Christmas market with one stand – the Punschhütte, which is still their main hut, offering different punches and hot-mulled wines produced by Kamleithner’s brother.
Over the years, three more stands were added – the Buchtelhütte, Eiskristallstand and a booth offering baked potatoes.
Having run Christmas stands at the Spittelberg market for more than 25 year now, Kamleithner himself has become somewhat of an institution in the vicinity – and who still seems to be bubbling over with ideas.
One of his first creations two decades ago, the Feuerzangen Bowle, a drink with a red wine basis and caramelized sugar, which is flamed and then filled into barrels, is still among the most popular products at Spittelberg.
"When I first set it aflame at the main square of the Christmas market, it was a huge attraction," he says, a nostalgic tone in his voice. When the city authorities prohibited open fire at the market, he had to move the production to the countryside.
Kamleithner’s stands were also one of the first ones to offer baked potatoes at Spittelberg. Besides the traditional toppings – garlic, ham, cheese, and chives – his new creations like chili-mango and chili-coriander are "no shelf warmers" either, he tells The Vienna Review.
Being the businessman he is, he also offers beer and wine for people who think it is too early for warm drinks and for the first time this year, people can also buy coffee-to-go at Witwe Bolte’s Buchtelhütte. What the Witwe Bolte stands don’t have are "turbo mixes," drinks with additional shots of alcohol.
"You should enjoy your glass of punch or hot-mulled wine and not gulp it down to get drunk," Kamleithner says as he greets an elderly couple returning their Spittelberg mugs (designed each year by a different artist – here even the mugs are special).
"We just had one of your delicious Amarena-Cherry-Chili punches," the man tells Kamleithner, another of his many creations that, along with Witwe Bolte’s Orange Punch, have won prizes at "Vienna’s greatest punch test" conducted by famous Chef Bernie Rieder last December. Instead of a lot of alcohol, the chili does the warming from the inside.
Did they like their Amarena Cherry Chili Punch? "Yes, it was very good… but now my mouth is burning," the woman laughs.
Have they heard of the latest creation, the Prosecco Punch? No – and so Kamleithner spontaneously invites the couple to taste a glass. A Venetian prosecco with a mix of lime, ginger, lemon and some secret ingredients that he "doesn’t want to share with a reporter," it’s Kamleithner’s favorite selection of the season.
His recipe for success, however, he is willing to talk about.
"Everything is home-made," he says. "We care a lot about where our products come from. We are not cheap, but I don’t even want to compete with stands that offer ready-made mixtures for rock bottom prices - it’s the quality that distinguishes us."
This seems to be a general trend. As competition among Christmas markets rises, more and more vendors turn to homemade quality products to appeal to eco-conscious customers.
The Waffelmacher (Waffle makers) stands have a similar approach. They use Urkornmehl that they cultivate themselves at their farm in the Waldviertel in Lower Austria. No preservatives, aromas or chemical additives are allowed in the freshly baked waffles that are served with cinnamon, chocolate, honey or even pumpkin seed oil and poppy.
"We are farmers for the heart and for nature, we plant the grains with our hands. Unfortunately, living off of that is hard," Peter Brezina, one of the waffle makers, confesses. Brezina, whose mother used to sell her waffles at local advent markets had the idea to expand to Vienna and St. Pölten in an attempt to finance their farming.
"But we also want to raise awareness," he adds. He thinks that people do want to know where their food comes from and prefer healthy, environmentally conscious choices over "ready-made junk."
"We need to re-educate our customers. Quality is important," Kamleithner asserts.
But it is not only the quality of his products that explain Witwe Bolte’s success at Spittelberg but also the stories behind them.
"You always need a reference to a stand," Kamleithner explains.
The story behind the Eiskristall stand that opened last year goes back to a legend from the Salzkammergut and the ice crystals growing on the Dachstein, the highest mountain in Styria and Upper Austria. Every year in November, Kristallträger (crystal carriers) harvest the crystals and carry them down to the valley to spread the special glow of the winter.
This year, the Kristallträger brought the crystals – and with it the spirit of Christmas – to Spittelberg.
- Hannah Stadlober
Altes AKH: Mistletoe and Sauerkraut
The next stop on our Christmas market mission is the little, well-hidden conglomerate of wooden huts in Vienna’s 9th District, not too far away from the overly crowded tourist spot on Rathausplatz. The market at Altes AKH is for those who want to enjoy a cup of mulled wine without being jarred and pushed in the process, spilling the steaming hot delicacy on their new leather shoes.
The Altes AKH market is easy to miss. Situated in the courtyard of the University of Vienna campus on Universitätsstraße, one must not miss the entrance, marked with a huge colorful projection on the outer wall of the Altes AKH. Passing through an arch of the building, it is now clear to us, the newsroom crew – a bunch of slightly tipsy students – that this is what we were looking for: before us is a beautiful little Christmas village, a big tree adorned with chains of light warmly welcomes new arrivers. Secluded from the rest of the city inside the walls of the AKH. We are in our own little Christmas-y world.
Holiday songs fill the air, with the smell of delicious cookies and sweet punch complete the festive atmosphere. Although much emptier than the one at Rathausplatz, we enjoy the silence, cozy atmosphere and the sound of kitschy Christmas songs. But at the drink huts, people gather to have a chat, a laugh and enjoy a cup of Glühwein.
We peacefully strolled through the village’s narrow paths, glancing at the handcrafts and goodies from the 50 stands, with frequent exclamations, "Ohhh" and "Ahhh" and "Looook" and "How cute." We come directly in front of a nativity scene. But it is not Joseph, Mary and little baby Jesus that attract our full attention. It’s something far more fluffy, something extraordinarily cute, something that only girls can freak out about: a true living donkey whose head is sooo oversized, with a curly coat that we immediately want to pet him, despite the signs strictly forbidding it. The donkey, however, seems more interested in taking a nap on the hay that lies beneath his feet instead of amusing us and making us squeak with joy!
Detaching our attention from the donkey, an entirely unknown dish crosses our way. What looks like some kind of a flat Krapfen turns out to be Kiachln, made of unsweetened Germteig and then freshly fried in oil, similar to Langos. What strikes us about these Tyrolian pastries is that you can order them with either jam and sugar or Sauerkraut. Sauerkraut? "Oh yeah," says Christine, a young woman in her twenties, "on various trips to Tyrol, our boss saw Kiachl being sold at almost every Christmas market there and therefore he decided to bring them to Vienna."
We get nosy and want to try this Sauerkraut thing. "Wirklich?" asks Christine, notably surprised. Yeah, let’s go for it! Whilst watching the flat Kiachl happily floating up and down in its oil bath, we wonder what tp expect. "For the Viennese, the Kiachl with Sauerkraut is an experiment. They usually go for the jam," Christine enthusiastically tells us whilst fishing for our Kiachln. Still apprehensive about actually eating the Sauerkraut, she offers to cut them in half and give us the other half with jam. We refuse this moment of grace and brave the unorthodox dessert. Our verdict: the Sauerkraut is a sensation!!! You have to try them!!
So for all those looking for a less touristy but extremely homey Christmas market with a diverse clientele – from students to elderly people and their dogs – Altes AKH is a delightful alternative.
- Sarah Rabl
The Market on Resselpark covers the square in front of the Karlskirche. At 19:00 on a Friday evening, the square was a swarm of parents and children, the pungent scent of Glühwien and the tinkling of tiny bells as the wind picked up the handmade toys and ornaments hanging in the glow of the wooden huts lining the park paths. A wide area had been left open, covered with hay for the children to play. Nearby, a small area was fenced and two ponies were going in rounds with children on their backs. It was already dark, but the lights of the stands were bright enough to illuminate the whole market, as loudspeakers piped a bouncy tune from the 60’s which set the relaxed and easygoing mood as soon as you enter the market.
Children have a special take on Christmas – they live in a world of imagination and this is the most magical time of the year for them, when Santa is somehow able to visit every house, slide pack and all effortlessly down the chimney to arrive smiling in a puff of smoke to leave presents under the tree. Or if you’re Austrian, the whole family gathers together on the 24th to relive the magic of Christmas Eve.
It was a child’s story that would best capture the spirit of Advent. Ahhh, the ponies! Here everyone – parents and children – were very talkative. Just then one of the bundles of energy left the hay pile.
"I like the cute ponies behind that fence," chirped one boy excitedly. Then he suddenly turned deadly serious. "But they are not here now. Maybe they went to sleep!"
"I like the waffles, especially with chocolate!!!" sang out another. Oh to be 6 or 7 again! Kinderpunsh and the waffles with chocolate… suddenly we were back in Kindergarten, happy and carefree. An unforgettable feeling.
- Abylay Akpayev
Christkindlmarkt at the Rathaus
This is the market with the longest tradition. Although the snow has only just started to fall, people are already congregating, drinking punch and feasting on gingerbread and pretzels. As Christmas Eve draws near, the stand’s owners hope for the same generous turnout as in previous years.
Walking among the many huts and holiday decorations, there is Christmas-y musk in the air. The brilliantly decorated tree is festooned with a thousand brightly shining lights. With an impressive height of 28 meters, the sight of the 70-year-old tree alone is enough of a reason to enjoy an evening in the heart of Vienna.
Wooden Crafting by Bachmann, housed in a nicely decorated cottage stand with a pitched roof, features handmade crèches of all sizes, carved out from different woods such as maple, ash, cherry, and birch. With the attention to detail, the prices are rather high, up to 1000 euros, tough smaller versions are more affordable and made with the same care by this a family business in Südtirol.
"Grand Ma’s Recipes" Christmas Bakery – sounds good, looks good, and tastes even better, a paradise for pretzel and bakery lovers. "All products are hand-made after a "secret" recipe and brought to the stand each day, maybe a couple of times," explained the lady behind the counter. There are dozens of different pretzels – chocolate, sugar, poppy seed, vanilla, and much more. Classic crescent biscuits such as vanilla, spelt, coco, praline can also be found. Biscuits are sold for 5 € and pretzels for 3 €.
Roidner – This stand shines with beautifully decorated gingerbread hearts, hanging down all over the stand, in various sizes. Their specialization is no doubt based around love in the cold winter days and of course their love to ginger bread in general. For couples or loved ones, the colorful and loving Christmas hearts are the perfect gift to sweeten up the cold winter days. Dozens of small and big gingerbread hearts are up for grabs. Prices: 6€ Small / 12€ Big Ps.: The hearts here look amazing and are indeed a nice and loving gift for anyone.
Glühwein Weihnachtswunsch Stand 66 – A Christmas punch-paradise. Offered at this "all about" punch oasis are various flavors such as blueberry, orange, apple, chocolate, rum, coconut and many more for 3,50 each. 2 euros will be charged in addition for the ceramic cup, which can be returned or even kept as a souvenir.
- David Wörtgetter
Another popular market is held in the courtyard of the Palace of Schönbrunn. It was about 10:30 on a Saturday morning in late November when we arrived, and there was already a respectable crowd wandering through the market, drifting slowly from one stand to the other like ships on still waters. Most were already warming themselves with Glühwein for a foray into the market proper. It was a bitterly cold day and the warmth from the "Wiener Spiralkartoffel" stand was hard to resis. Fingers wrapped around a mug of hot tea, all extremities came back to life.
The market forms itself around the courtyard in a bell-shape with a stage and tall Christmas tree behind it right below the double staircase framing the entrance of the palace. At the stands there were elegant Augarten ceramics, wooden bowls from maple and dark walnut, Christmas decorations of all sorts, snow globes that feather down on the little Santa’s hard at work inside, wooden cars, soldiers and hobby horses in bright colors, and the list of goods just goes on. Scouting through the colorful stands, Christmas delicacies teased from every side, Punsch or Glühwein, yes, Lebkuchen in all shapes, iced with images of the holidays, gingerbread houses with wrinkles of snow icing and shingles of shiny sugar candy, candied nuts, chocolate fountains, Marillen- and Nougatknödel (dumplings filled with apricot jam or nougat), overdimensional Krapfen filled with jam, chocolate or vanilla cream, sweet and salty pancakes, Kaiserschmarren… Mmmmhhhhhh.
But the eyes wander: just down to the right, one appealing hut turned out to be a wine shop, for the "Familie Seifried" vintners from the Weinviertl northwest of Vienna. It is hard to miss because of the loud voices and laughter coming from the customers milling about the window chatting with the owner.
"So! Hallo Michi! Wo steckst Du die ganze Zeit!" Old friends gathering ‘round; Christmas was off to a good start.
When the crowd finally dispersed, Joseph Seifried was happy to chat. The family comes from Oberstinkenbrunn, (we suppressed a giggle), a small village north of Vienna, surrounded by Seifried’s grape fields. All their liquors and wines are processed in their own facility and aged in their own cellars, and then trucked or railed all over Austria. When Christmas comes and Vienna transforms itself into a city full of magic and joy, Seifried and his sons prepare their goods and make the one-hour trip into the city to greet new customers and welcome old friends.
"Ah, Stefan, I’m glad you’re here!" Seifried shifted his attention to another familiar face.
The conversation was soon handed over to his son who was about to go on a break. Hannes Seifried was very excited about the interview. So, would he and his brother inherit their father’s business? His eyes sparkled.
"Oh, absolutely! Our father and grandpa have taught us everything there is to know about the family business!" He swore that he and his brother would continue the tradition and visit Vienna every Christmas just as they all did for the past 16 years.
"Talk is all very nice, but how about you purchase a bottle of my wine?" Mr. Seifrieds interruption seemed to come out of nowhere. It is good to have an ace in your sleeve:
"Hey Dmitry, come here!" I called to my friend. "Are you perhaps interested in buying a bottle...?"