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Schönbrunn palace in Vienna, Austria, provides a cultured backdrop for one of the city's Christmas markets. The market is most magical in the evening, when the palace is alight and a tall tree twinkles.
Schönbrunn palace in Vienna, Austria, provides a cultured backdrop for one of the city's Christmas markets. The market is most magical in the evening, when the palace is alight and a tall tree twinkles. (Pary Smith/Stars and Stripes)
Schönbrunn palace in Vienna, Austria, provides a cultured backdrop for one of the city's Christmas markets. The market is most magical in the evening, when the palace is alight and a tall tree twinkles.
Schönbrunn palace in Vienna, Austria, provides a cultured backdrop for one of the city's Christmas markets. The market is most magical in the evening, when the palace is alight and a tall tree twinkles. (Pary Smith/Stars and Stripes)
How elegant can Christmas decorations get? Vienna, Austria, maintained its classy, sophisticated reputation with these decorations in 2011 along the Graben, one of the central pedestrian streets.
How elegant can Christmas decorations get? Vienna, Austria, maintained its classy, sophisticated reputation with these decorations in 2011 along the Graben, one of the central pedestrian streets. (Pary Smith/Stars and Stripes)
Happy, handmade angels are among the Christmas ornaments that were for sale at Christmas markets in Vienna, Austria, last year. Vienna's holiday markets are filled with items made by local artists.
Happy, handmade angels are among the Christmas ornaments that were for sale at Christmas markets in Vienna, Austria, last year. Vienna's holiday markets are filled with items made by local artists. (Pary Smith/Stars and Stripes)
With a grand memorial to Austria's 18th century Empress Maria Theresa as its centerpiece and the Art History Museum as one of its stately backdrops, Vienna's Christmas Village market at Maria-Theresien-Platz still manages to set a proper, jolly holiday atmosphere.
With a grand memorial to Austria's 18th century Empress Maria Theresa as its centerpiece and the Art History Museum as one of its stately backdrops, Vienna's Christmas Village market at Maria-Theresien-Platz still manages to set a proper, jolly holiday atmosphere. (Pary Smith/Stars and Stripes)
A stately monument to the 18th century Austrian ruler Empress Maria Theresa, seen in the background, reigns over the Christmas Village market at Maria-Theresian-Platz in Vienna. The market is nestled between two of the city's most famous museums, the Art History Museum, seen partially on the left, and the Museum of Natural History.
A stately monument to the 18th century Austrian ruler Empress Maria Theresa, seen in the background, reigns over the Christmas Village market at Maria-Theresian-Platz in Vienna. The market is nestled between two of the city's most famous museums, the Art History Museum, seen partially on the left, and the Museum of Natural History. (Pary Smith/Stars and Stripes)
Young chefs learn how to make their own holiday treats in classes held at city hall in Vienna, Austria.
Young chefs learn how to make their own holiday treats in classes held at city hall in Vienna, Austria. (Pary Smith/Stars and Stripes)
These cookies with their delicate decoration are products of a local artist in Vienna, Austria. They were sold, along with other finely decorated cookies, at the Christmas market at Schönbrunn palace.
These cookies with their delicate decoration are products of a local artist in Vienna, Austria. They were sold, along with other finely decorated cookies, at the Christmas market at Schönbrunn palace. (Pary Smith/Stars and Stripes)
Even the cookies reflect an air of sophistication at the Christmas markets in Vienna, Austria. Some of them were so intricately decorated that they appeared to be wrapped in lace. These fancy cookies, made by a local artist, were sold at the market at Schönbrunn palace in 2011.
Even the cookies reflect an air of sophistication at the Christmas markets in Vienna, Austria. Some of them were so intricately decorated that they appeared to be wrapped in lace. These fancy cookies, made by a local artist, were sold at the market at Schönbrunn palace in 2011. (Pary Smith/Stars and Stripes)
Polish pottery decorations in traditional as well as new patterns hang from a vendor's stand at a market in Vienna, Austria.
Polish pottery decorations in traditional as well as new patterns hang from a vendor's stand at a market in Vienna, Austria. (Pary Smith/Stars and Stripes)
One of the elegant chandelierlike decorations that light up one section of Vienna, Austria's downtown pedestrian zone during the holidays in 2011. The decorations changed every few blocks throughout the pedestrian zone, with each set of lights setting a different mood in each neighborhood.
One of the elegant chandelierlike decorations that light up one section of Vienna, Austria's downtown pedestrian zone during the holidays in 2011. The decorations changed every few blocks throughout the pedestrian zone, with each set of lights setting a different mood in each neighborhood. (Pary Smith/Stars and Stripes)

It was nearly nightfall when I headed down a quiet, shadowy street leading to the pedestrian shopping zone. As I neared the intersection, laughter and jolly conversation filled the air. Pedestrians, arms filled with packages, strolled by. Turning onto the pedestrian zone, I gasped as I found myself enveloped in holiday splendor. Decorating the length of the zone were huge chandelierlike Christmas lights swaying elegantly overhead.

"It's beautiful," I couldn't help saying out loud, to no one in particular.

A passerby glanced my way and said with a smile: "Of course it's beautiful. You're in Vienna!"

Most cities look beautiful in their holiday finery, don't they? Even the shabbiest urban setting can be magically transformed under the influence of trees adorned with sparkling decorations and twinkling lights.

But the Austrian capital doesn't just do holiday finery; it does holiday chic, and with lots of class and even a touch of romance. After all, it is the city of superb opera, beautiful waltzes and the stunning Danube River. And it manages to maintain its dignity even amid the holiday hullaballoo.

Vienna's Christmas markets are scattered throughout the city and are easily accessible by the city's network of street cars and buses. The markets are set amid some of the city's most magnificent and famous architecture. For example, the massive and spire-bedecked Rathaus, or city hall, towers over scores of holiday concession stands. Hats, scarves, bags, gloves, toys and decorations galore are all for sale, along with food and drinks. The city hall itself gets into the holiday mood by hosting classes that teach children how to bake their own holiday treats.

Another market, the Christmas Village at Maria Theresian-Platz, is nestled between two of the city's main museums, the Art History Museum and the Natural History Museum. Here, youngsters can ride carousel reindeer around a small track as hungry shoppers munch on baked potatoes and sip Glühwein, that hot spiced wine that melts away the Christmastime chill.

And for an event with a royal air and a touch of romance, the market on the grounds of Schönbrunn palace is the place to be. Voices from a choir singing in the courtyard float around and through numerous concession stands offering locally handcrafted jewelry, wooden decorations and cookies so intricately decorated they appear to be wrapped in lace. The centerpiece of this market is a stately, lighted tree befitting any royal palace in Europe. Evening is the most magical time to see this market, with the lighted palace as the backdrop and the tall, twinkling tree.

Vienna offers even more Christmas markets dotted around the city, but with limited time, I chose to see these few, as well as take in an opera and visit an art gallery.

At the end of it all, I don't know why I was so stunned by the beauty of the city's Christmas decorations. I shouldn't have been surprised. After all, I was in Vienna.

smithp@estripes.osd.mil

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