There is something about Germany's annual Christmas markets that captures people's imaginations.
Perhaps it is the snow-dusted cobblestone streets and half-timbered houses adorned with fairy lights, or raising your voice in unison with a local choir as they sing Silent Night in a mediaeval square.
When friends heard I was bound for Deutschland's festive fairs, they scrambled to hand me their Christmas lists.
But it was not gifts for loved ones they sought - it was food.
"Squeeze some lebkuchen (gingerbread) in your bag for me, it will make my year," pled one, while others asked for mohnkuchen mit streusel (poppyseed crumble) and stollen (fruit-and-nut loaf).
I was starting to realise that Christmas markets were less about buying presents, and more about culinary indulgence.
Frankfurt-based tour guide Joseph Knitt says: "Most Germans aren't going to the markets to shop; they're going for gluhwein (mulled wine), apfelwein (apple wine) and the special sweets you can't find the rest of the year.
"It's more of a social get-together."
The bearded 39-year-old is wearing a particularly festive Christmas sweater when he shares this insight and others about Germany's Yuletide traditions, with guests aboard an Art Deco-style boat named River Queen.
At 37, my love for the so-called silly season has led me to a river cruise with 128 people.
Uniworld (www.uniworld.com), the boutique cruise line running this tour, offers multi-generational festive tours for families too.
The eight-day expedition takes in nine cities, towns and villages - and seven Christmas markets - along the country's Main River (pronounced Mine), a 525km tributary of the Rhine in central Germany.
During this luxurious and fuss-free holiday experience, the captain transports guests between Nuremberg, our starting point, and our last stop in Frankfurt; while the cruise manager organises activities on the ground.
Once luggage is unpacked, one simply has to turn up at the allocated times for meals and participate in shore excursions, which range from a tour of Wurzburg Residence, an exquisite baroque palace dripping in gold, stucco and mirrors, to fun optional extras such as gingerbread-making classes.
The highlights of the cruise are Germany's sights - and Uniworld's service.
By the second night, our waiter in the restaurant remembers the names and drink orders of everyone at our table.
The drawback is that most visits to the Christmas markets are during the day, which is great if you want to bounce between bratwurst and lebkuchen stalls without the masses.
But for those keen to immerse themselves, shoulder-to-shoulder with gluhwein-swigging locals, the markets are liveliest in the early evening.
But there is an easy fix: skip the nightly four-course dinner and instead, head back to the markets, which are usually a 10-to 15-minute stroll from the boat.
While Nuremberg is probably best known for the trials of Nazi war criminals, the mood and perception of the city change each December.
The Gingerbread Capital of the World, as it is known, is also home to the largest Christmas market in Germany.
The roughly 180 stands at Christkindlesmarkt (www.christkindlesmarkt.de/en) attract about two million people each year - and its speciality is, of course, lebkuchen.
"Our most popular version is dipped in dark chocolate," says Ms Nina Muller, the blonde, bespectacled owner of Nurnberger Elisen und Bio Lebkuchen.
A fixture at the market for 14 years, her stall stocks everything from traditional Elisenlebkuchen (the Nuremberg type of lebkuchen) - "we use a recipe that dates back to the 14th century, when lebkuchen was created by Franconian monks" - to her newest flavour, eggnog.
Laden with spices such as cinnamon and cloves, each cookie has a slightly crunchy exterior, with a soft, chewy centre. It is hard to stop at one.
For something more substantial, the Nuremberg "three in a bun" is a must.
A trio of the city's skinny, finger-length bratwurst sausages - flavoured with marjoram and grilled on an open beech wood fire - are tucked side by side into a crusty bun and topped with sauerkraut or mustard.
The hearty, umami sandwich is ideal for soaking up the mugs of gluhwein that people guzzle to stave off the cold.
The more daring, however, may be drinking Feuerzangenbowle, a red wine and rum punch.
To make it, tongs hold a burning, rum-soaked sugar cone, which melts, caramelises and drips into a punch bowl filled with red wine below.
Nuremberg's Christkindlesmarkt boasts the largest Feuerzangenbowle pots in the world. The specially constructed cauldrons, at 2.5m wide and 3.4m high, can hold up to 9,000 litres of the intoxicating treat.
The drink uses only rum with 54 per cent alcohol content, so sip responsibly.
MICHELSTADT CHRISTMAS MARKET
Set among labyrinthine alleys lined with the half-timbered facades of houses from the 15th century, the Christmas market in Michelstadt (www.michelstadt.de) - one of the prettiest small towns in Franconia - is a standout for several reasons, not the least of which is its storybook village-like location.
Its turreted Rathaus (town hall) dates back to 1484 and a 7m-tall Christmas pyramid enchants children and adults alike, with rotating scenes from the nearby Erz Mountains.
While the vast majority of German markets see vendors peddling a familiar selection of lebkuchen, stollen, bratwurst and gluhwein, Michelstadt's more than 110 wooden stalls seem to offer greater variety and better quality products than most, with an emphasis on handicraft.
Wooden tree ornaments sit alongside ceramic bowls and hand-knitted beanies - and, tucked away in a corner, Mr Peter Hermans of Kunstglaserei has a stall displaying the modern lamps and wall art he makes using stained glass.
"I love talking to people and explaining how to work with lead glass," he says, as he measures and cuts a piece to size.
He took the practice up as a hobby 30 years ago and now earns a living from his work, mostly making windows for churches and people's homes.
On the other side of the market, Mr Rolf Hafemeister's stall is littered with travel-size glass bottles of essential oil from German brand Casapone.
A warm fellow, with grey hair tucked neatly under a flat cap, he has run his stall at Michelstadt for 15 years - and it smells like a Christmas tree.
"That's Zirbelkiefer," he says. "An oil infused with pine needles. It's made from trees that only grow 1,800 to 2,000m above sea level in Austria."
THE BEST OF THE REST
Although the fairs can sometimes feel a little same-same, each has its own charm.
The most impressive light installation can be found at Wiesbaden's aptly named Twinkling Star Christmas Market (bit.ly/2EHGG7J).
Brightly lit 10m-high lilies - which feature on the city's coat of arms - bloom above 130 blue and gold booths offering crafts and Christmas delicacies.
Fittingly, in Wurtzburg, the wine capital of Franconia, I tasted what must surely be Germany's finest gluhwein.
It is easy to find the Baumeister Winzergluhwein stand at 1pm on a Wednesday - it is the only one with a crowd of 20 Germans loitering at the front.
"Most tourists order the red gluhwein but the locals all drink white," says owner Werner Baumeister, a cheerful man with a trim goatee.
This has been a family business since 1963 and a market staple for the past nine years. Mr Baumeister uses only spices - not flavourings - and quality local wines.
I sample both the red and white versions - and the locals have it right. The white gluhwein is cleaner, not as cloyingly sweet as other stalls' reds, and you can really taste the cloves. I long to take a bottle of it home with me.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber is home to one of Germany's oldest Yuletide markets.
The mediaeval town also has a dedicated Christmas museum and no fewer than seven Kathe Wohlfahrt stores - including its headquarters - which specialise in decorations and toys.
For about 400 years, the town's speciality has been schneeballen (round pastries dusted in sugar powder), which are named for and resemble snowballs.
SO LONG, FAREWELL
On my last night in Germany, at Frankfurt's Weihnachtsmarkt, I stand side by side with strangers and fellow cruise passengers who have now become friends.
After riding the merry-go-round, we had filled our bellies with Frankfurter sausages and the city's famous apple cider.
The chant "hopp hopp hopp, schobbe in der kopf" - which translates literally as "hurry up, shove it in your head" and means "hurry up and drink" - are replaced by the voices of the local choir, singing Christmas carols in English and German beneath the market's 30m-high Christmas tree.
The scent of gluhwein fills the air here in Romerberg square, where it is a brisk 1 deg C - not that anyone seems to mind.
As I listen to the crowd croon "We Wish You A Merry Christmas", I know I'll be dreaming of a German one for years to come.
Rachel Lees is an Australian travel writer based in Singapore.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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