The size of the Viennese Christmas markets is not what makes them exceptional. If that was so, any shopping center with a half-a-theme could compete. It’s the atmosphere and the quality of the goods that inspired global admiration for this seasonal Austrian wonder.

My first glimpse of this occurred early in the morning, in front of Schönbrunn Palace. The stalls were just opening and I was astounded to see not cheaply-made, imported products or plastic playthings promoting media, but honest wood and metal toys like the ones in movies, story books, and old cartoons. Many of the items were authentically Austrian and handmade. Candles from local beeswax, decorations by Viennese craftspeople, and food from village bakeries.

Beyond these items, the booth themselves were works of Christmas art. I never thought the sheer amount of holiday atmosphere present in my favorite movies could truly come to life. Yet, here, especially after dark, the markets were alive with glittering ornaments, ethereal lights, and the deep warm hues of the season. One could imagine they stood just outside of Santa’s workshop in a crowd of busy tinkerers, instead of in one of Europe’s great cities amid tourists and shopkeepers.

On Heldenplatz—the Heroes’ Square I mentioned in a previous post—Rotary pointed us towards the nearest and largest of the markets. Alex, Anthony—both from California—and I wandered the markets together. We joked that we were the Triple A’s or The A-Team, and developed a system to stick together amid the bustle. Alex, who stands a head and a half or more shorter than Anthony and I, could easily be lost in the crowds swarming the markets. Each time we were separated we would toss up our hands, fingers fanned out wide, to signal the others. Admittedly, even with arms raised, Alex was still shorter than most of the towering Germans and Slavs (sorry buddy), but we managed to stay together.

We each left the Viennese markets, purchases in hand, amazed at the sights, and chilled to the bone. Alex got some of the best jam I’ve ever tasted and I… well, I can’t quite say lest my sister’s should read this prior to receiving their Christmas gifts.