Considering that I'm not much of a shopper, my first experience of a traditional Christmas market came as a revelation.
It was nearly 20 years ago in the ancient Polish city of Krakow, and the temperature was 20ºC below freezing.

Yet more snow dusted Krakow's many spires as darkness fell in mid afternoon, creating a true Christmas card scene.
I followed the crowds to the vast Market Square - said to be the largest in Europe - and made straight for a stall selling hot mulled wine.

Everyone around me seemed happy and soon I forgot about the cold as I wolfed down sausage and fried cheese, before buying some woollen slippers and wooden toys at bargain prices. I went away feeling warm and also the warmth of humanity, and ever since I try to visit a European Christmas market far from the blandness and rip-off prices in Britain.

I'm not alone in wanting to flee these shores as Christmas approaches, despite the increasing number of festive markets in this country. According to research by Leger Holidays, nearly one person in four is planning a festive break and a key reason is wanting to escape the over-commercialisation of Christmas.

Krakow is actually a fairly unusual choice, as the most popular traditional markets are in Germany. The website Christmasmarkets.com offers information on over 400 markets in 22 countries, although many of these are not traditional and as far away as Japan, Canada and the USA. Germany and France both have about 80 listings, with Austria having 29 and Belgium 16.

In Germany - as in Krakow, no doubt - this year's markets will have an extra reason to celebrate. November marked 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Communism in Europe, which led to the revival of many traditions including a festive Christmas. Glühwein (a warm mulled wine) and eierpunsch (an alcoholic drink with eggs) can be found everywhere.

Christmas markets started around 1400 in the German-speaking part of Europe, with Dresden (1434) being one of the first and now attracting two million visitors a year. Opening of the markets in early December or late November coincides with the Advent religious festival, and some are called Christkindel Markt (Christ child market) with a child playing the role of the boy Jesus. This is the case at Nuremberg, one of the best markets, also home of gingerbread which is one of the favourite festive foods.

The market at Munich, held on the Marienplatz in front of the guildhall, is one of the most impressive with over 120 stalls. Many stalls still concentrate on traditional toys and festive fare, although inevitably they have been infiltrated by modern gadgets and clothing.

Look for regional variations, such as a Christmas pastry at Frankfurt's Christmas market. Bethmännchen is made from marzipan with almonds and sugar, and young men used to send it as a token of their love. If a girl kept it they could remain hopeful - if not, they had to look elsewhere.

Cologne is another highly popular German market, being held near the immense cathedral which is one of the world's largest. Many of the most charming traditional markets are in smaller places, such as Trier, Mainz, Koblenz, Kaiserslautern, Speyer andWorms - which call themselves the Romantic Cities of Germany. Historic Highlights of Germany, a group of 14 cities, has four recommended routes taking in the markets.

Many visitors gravitate towards larger cities as there is so much more to do, especially during the long evenings at the darkest time of the year. Another reason some cities are very popular is ease of access from the UK , which is why Belgian and French markets come into their own.

Liege holds one of the oldest and largest Christmas markets in Belgium, in its central square and adjacent Place du Marché. In the Flanders part of Belgium you will find markets in every city, including Bruges (a great city break destination in itself) and - just across the Channel - Ostend. The snow and ice sculptures in Bruges are an added attraction from November 20-January 10, while in the Belgian capital Brussels, a large ice rink can be enjoyed as well as the market.

You can reach Brussels in less than two hours by Eurostar train from London, while the journey to Lille in northern France is even faster at 80 minutes. Lille's market is one of the best in France, a highlight being when Father Christmas descends an 80-metre-high belfry on December 19.

If you prefer to fly then there are more countries to choose from, where you can combine a Christmas market with a historical city or even some skiing. Markets are held in most Austrian cities including Vienna (a very cultural choice in the run-up to Christmas), Salzburg and Innsbruck.

Vienna's market is in front of City Hall, where children can create their own presents at Santa's Workshop, and dispatch them from a special post office without the possibility of postal strikes! Musical programmes with choirs and pastoral plays are performed on the steps of Salzburg Cathedral, while in Innsbruck, a daily attraction at 5.30pm is the Turmbläser, a brass band which plays Christmas songs from the city tower.
Innsbruck's main market is in the medieval Old Town by the 14th century balcony known as the Golden Roof, with dozens of stalls decked out with Christmas decorations, locally-crafted wood and glassware, and typical Tyrolean clothing.

Prague has several Christmas markets, the most important being in Old Town Square andWenceslas Square. Brightly-decorated wooden huts sell traditional Czech products from handicrafts to corn on the cob, sausages and other local specialties, and in Old Town Square children can stroke sheep, goats and even a llama - although what connection a llama has with Christmas, or the Czech Republic, is not clear. As with most markets, however, it has a Bethlehem crib scene depicting Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus and the Three Kings.

Whether the Three Kings arrive on camels or even llamas, you can be sure of a lot more atmosphere when visiting a European market than if you stay in Britain- despite the best efforts of home-grown Christmas markets such as York, Lincoln or Bath. They operate throughout December and fares are usually low at this time of year - especially midweek. Most cities' other main attractions are a lot less crowded than in the summer.

Maybe, like me, you'll find that visiting Christmas markets becomes the habit of a lifetime. You certainly won't be pining for Britain's dreary shopping malls, with a glass of steaming glühwein in one hand and a sizzling bratwurst sausage in the other!

Christmas market facts

When to go
Christmas markets take place from late November or early December. Many close just before Christmas but some continue until NewYear's Eve and even into January.

Getting there
You can fly from main UK airports to major German cities including Munich and Frankfurt, and Frankfurt airport has an inter-city rail terminal for trains all over the country. Brussels and Prague also have good UK air connections, but remember that low-cost airlines have strict limits on baggage with big supplements to pay if you stock up on Christmas goodies.This makes rail a good option, including Eurostar to Lille and Brussels, with easy connections in Brussels to Cologne and other German cities. Also consider coach tours, or drive yourself using Eurotunnel or ferries. Fred Olsen is one of the cruise lines with a Christmas Markets theme departure.

Tour operators
Shearings (0844 824 6352, www.shearings.com), Dertour (020 7290 1105, www.dertour.co.uk or www.christmasmarkets.co.uk), Leger Holidays (
0844 686 2478, www.escapeto-europe.co.uk), Travelsphere (0800 567 7372, www.travelsphere.co.uk), Newmarket Holidays (0845 226 7756, www.newmarket.travel), Short Breaks Ltd (0844 482 2940, www.short-breaks.com), Titan HiTours (0800 988 5823, www.titanhitours.co.uk), Great Rail Journeys (01904 521 936, www.greatrail.com)

Sample prices
Dertour's huge choice in Germany and other countries includes a two-night break to Nuremberg by air costing from £339 and extra nights from £53. Leger Holidays' two-night break to Brussels and Bruges, by coach, costs from £149. Great Rail Journeys features a three-night trip to Cologne for £445, including first-class travel by Eurostar and a Rhine cruise to Rudesheim market.

More information
The website www.christmasmarkets.com has a comprehensive listing, with hotel and travel offers. German National Tourist Office: 020 7317 0908,
www.germany-tourism.co.uk and www.germany-christmas-market.org.uk
Historic Highlights of Germany: www.historicgermany.com
Romantic Cities of Germany: www.romantic-cities.com
Austrian markets: www.christkindlmarkt.co.at and
www.weihnachtsmarkt-salzburg.at
Bruges: www.winterinbrugge.be
Tallinn Christmas Market: www.christmas.ee

All prices and details were correct when published in tlm - the travel & leisure magazine, please check before you visit one of the many European Christmas markets.