In Austria, when the cows come home

In Austria – and all across the German-speaking northern flank of the Alps – it’s more than just an expression. Each autumn the cows really do come home, as the grazing season on the high alpine meadows comes to an end and the seasons prepare to turn. The Austrian autumn is glorious – long, warm and settled – but winter can come with brutal rapidity in the mountains. One day the weather can be teeshirt-and-sunglasses fine, the next bleak and snowy.

God bless the cattle

Each year the cows are brought down to the valley in a festive procession known as the Almabtrieb. Elaborate headdresses adorn the cows and the cowherds wear traditional lederhosen.

In Russbach near St Wolfgang in the Salzkammergut, the headdresses are richly-decorated works of folk art. When the procession reaches the village, the cows are put out to pasture while the serious business of eating, drinking and celebration begins. If the weather is as glorious as it was in 2012, it’s a fine opportunity to enjoy one of the last warm days of the year.

For young and old alike, it’s also a chance to wear traditional costume and show off traditional local skills.

There were ‘live’ displays of woodcarving, rug-weaving and broom-making

But the young dancers in lederhosen or dirndls were the main focus of attention. The sun shone all day, but the next day the heavens opened, it rained incessantly and summer suddenly seemed a distant memory. It wasn’t quite yet the start of winter, but a useful reminder that the Almabtrieb is a practical necessity as well as a much-loved seasonal ritual.

St Gilgen, Austria, 4 Jan: grown men with illuminated headdresses

In the Salzkammergut region of Austria the days before Three Kings are brightened by the tradition of Glöcklerlaufen, in which white-clad young men run through the lakeside villages carrying incredible (and heavy) wood and paper constructions on their heads, illuminated by candles and depicting anything from the sun to Salzburg Cathedral or the Silent Night Chapel. The origin of the tradition is pagan: the runners symbolise good spirits driving out the bad at the start of the year, their white clothing and illuminated headgear combining to drive away the darkness.

The village of Ebensee boasts the best-known Glöcklerlauf and the most elaborate designs, but the ritual has spread throughout the region, adding a much-needed splash of colour to the early January gloom.

In Ebensee in 2010 the participation of female Glöcklerinnen for the first time almost led to a boycott by the men. But in St Gilgen the run remains the preserve of young, single males.

When it comes to Christmas markets, size isn’t everything

I’m not big on Christmas, but I do like a good Christmas market. There’s something about browsing for baubles in sub-zero temperatures that melts my flinty atheist heart. It’s probably the Glühwein.

Since the Anglo-Saxon idea of what Christmas looks like is for the most part a Teutonic import, it seems logical to make a seasonal pilgrimage to the source. To Germany or Austria.

Not all Christmas markets are created equal, and while some are international travel magnets others are altogether more modest, local affairs. I have concentrated on the latter. Size isn’t everything, and what the following lack in big-city buzz they more than make up in fairytale charm. So here are my hot tips for a cold season.

Instead of Nuremberg, try Rothenburg ob der Tauber:

Nuremberg’s Christkindlesmarkt is as ur and echt as they get, a classic Christmas market in a setting that’s steeped in German history. Including one or two of the more unsavoury bits, but let’s gloss over those for now.

If anywhere can top Nuremberg for atmosphere it’s surely Rothenburg ob der Tauber. You may not have heard of this exquisite little Franconian town but you surely know what it looks like, for it had a starring role in the film version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Perched on a hilltop overlooking the valley of the river Tauber and still defended by its city walls, it’s like something straight from the Middle Ages.

Alas, as magical as it is, Rothenburg is no undiscovered secret, and if anything is likely to mar the lost-in-time charm it’ll be sheer numbers, for this is a regular honeytrap for the bus tours. On the upside, there’s a Christmas museum and a Käthe Wohlfahrt Christmas store that’s open all year round, making this the perfect destination for those who – unlike me – wish it could be Christmas every day.

How to get there: Air Berlin ( fly to Nuremberg from a number of UK airports. From there, pick up a hire car – Rothenburg is just off the A7 Würzburg-Ulm autobahn. 

Instead of Munich, try Neuburg an der Donau:

Now this place really is an undiscovered gem: a beautiful historic town on the Danube, between the asparagus-growing country around Schrobenhausen and the Jurassic landscapes of the Naturpark Altmühltal , where there seems to be a castle atop every second crag. The market itself focuses on Schrannenplatz in the lower part of the town, and if it isn’t the biggest or most spectacular in Germany, it nevertheless boasts a free skating rink and offers a wonderful excuse to spend time in a setting so Christmassy you’ll want to wrap it up and take it home with you.

You can’t miss Neuburg’s enormous Renaissance Schloss because it looms over the town in properly feudal fashion, but be sure to see the handsome gabled houses tucked behind it in the patrician upper town. It’s also well worth making a side-trip to Neuburg’s equally picture-postcard neighbour, Eichstätt. Until 23rd December.

How to get there: Easyjet ( fly to Munich from London Gatwick, London Stansted, Manchester or Edinburgh. From Munich it’s about an hour by train via Ingolstadt; from Munich airport to Neuburg takes just under an hour by car.

Instead of Frankfurt, try Marburg:

Frankfurt is a veritable superpower among Christmas markets, with a tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages and a hugely successful British offshoot in Birmingham.

Christmas in the university town of Marburg is modest by comparison; even the Riesenrad or ‘big’ wheel is a toytown affair, strictly for the children. The hilly, half-timbered Oberstadt (upper town) is a truly wonderful setting for some seasonal shopping, with the castle of the Hessian Landgraves crowning the skyline. Right on the main square there’s a little museum dedicated to the Marburg Romantic circle, whose members included the Brothers Grimm. You don’t get much more fairytale than that.

Scarcely less appealing is the Unterstadt (lower town), with a second cluster of stalls around the impressive Gothic Elisabethkirche. Some of the best options for eating, drinking and staying are in this part of town, too.

How to get there: Air Berlin ( fly to Frankfurt from several UK airports. From Frankfurt it’s just over an hour by train to Marburg

Instead of Salzburg, try Wolfgangsee:

I have to declare an interest here, because my own holiday home is on a hillside overlooking this stunningly beautiful Austrian lake. Close enough to Salzburg to make for a viable two-centre trip and with as many Julie Andrews points as the former when it comes to Sound of Music locations, Wolfgangsee is one of the most beloved of all the lakes in the Salzkammergut region, ringed by mountains and with three villages on its shores. The bus trips tend to go for St Wolfgang, the largest village; if you prefer complete relaxation then Strobl, at the eastern end of the lake, won’t give you sleepless nights. The westernmost of the three is St Gilgen, and it’s a good compromise, with fewer day trippers than St Wolfgang but a lot more life than Strobl at this time of year.

As for the markets, the produce is impeccably local: bath salts made with the pink mineral salt that gives the region its name, sheep’s milk soaps and flavoured schnapps – be sure to try Zirbe, flavoured with Swiss pine and tasting like an alcoholic walk in the woods.

The markets reopen on 25th December and stay open until New Year’s Eve.

How to get there: Easyjet ( fly to Salzburg from Gatwick, Luton, Bristol and Liverpool. From the airport it’s a 45 minute trip by car; the bus from central Salzburg takes around the same time.

Instead of Cologne, try Soest:

As wholesome as Westphalian ham and reputedly the place where pumpernickel was invented, Soest is an enchanting place to visit at any time of year, with a backdrop of half-timbered houses and green sandstone churches that makes it a particularly fine setting for a Christmas market.

The attractions include an old-fashioned carousel and the produce ranges from jam and marzipan to Hungarian specialities from Soest’s twin town.

But Soest itself is the real star, with market stalls taking pride of place in the main market square and huddling in the lee of the twin churches of St Petri and St Patrokli.

How to get there: Easyjet ( fly to Dortmund, from where it’s just 40 minutes to Soest by bus and train.