Travel diary: Beware the Krampus on your Christmas market trip

“Let’s go to Salzburg for the Christmas markets”, I said. “Think how lovely and festive it’ll be.”

And so that’s what we did; blissfully unaware of the horrors that awaited us, in amongst Salzburg's breathtaking beauty.

Christmas, here we come

Flights and hotel booked for the first week in December, my sister and I set off for Austria’s fourth largest city in buoyant Christmassy spirits. How could we not return home all ready to put up the tree and dig out those Christmas playlists? After all, this was the birthplace of the carol ‘Silent Night’, and a city which boasts festive markets selling anything and everything tenuously related to the season. And to top it all, it’s surrounded by snow-capped mountains - and lots of them (or hills, ‘alive with the sound of music’, if you’re Julie Andrews. Or Mozart.)

Festive fervour building on the journey, the city didn’t disappoint. Easy to navigate, suitably Christmassy, cold and stunningly beautiful. It had all the trademarks we were hoping for. Oozing history from its Baroque and medieval architecture, and countless church spires with snowy mountainous backdrops. Christkindlmarkt, Salzburg’s largest and oldest market, contained all the sparklingly intoxicating festiveness we craved. Wooden huts brimming over with decorations and gifts galore, imparting abundantly aromatic smells of roasted chestnuts, baked apples and hot punch. Within an hour I’d indulged in my first gluhwein (mulled wine) and apfelstrudel and felt pleasantly merry. Perfect.

Christmasily-sated, and ascending the winding Linzergasse back to our hotel on the first night, we were perplexed by occasional randomly huddled groups of people lining the street.

And that’s when it happened

“What’s that noise?” I asked, as raucous ringing, drumming and hollering rapidly approached. “Do you think there’s something going on?”

There was: The stuff of nightmares! 

Suddenly, and quite without warning, we were bombarded by hordes of petrifying beast-demon, mask-wearing hairy creatures with cowbells, chains, drums and “whipping sticks" - and they were charging down the street towards me! All possessing an apparent penchant to commit physical abuse, they were searching for perfectly unsuspecting 'victims'.

I'm not ashamed to admit, I've never been particularly keen on costumed characters - and now I was more than mildly perturbed. What's worse is that they didn't resemble people in the least, so it was very easy to suspend with reality in the momentary chaos. Not knowing which way to turn to get out of their way, I became an obvious target.

Whipping boy

One sensed my quickly-diminishing "bravado" as I floundered in the middle of the street, chased after and grabbed me in its hairy claws - and then bent me over, and proceeded to exuberantly whip my bottom with its stick!

Playing it cool had gone out of the window. Heart pounding, I struggled, broke free and half-ran up the nearest side street, only pausing when I was sure I was safe.

Deserted

Catching my breath, it was then that I realised I was alone - at some point during the commotion I'd completely deserted my sister. It didn’t take long to find her in a different side street, laughing but clearly relieved that she'd escaped unscathed. It took slightly longer for me to calm down and regain my composure before I could absorb what had just happened - and my slightly embarrassing reaction.

More perplexing was the huge amounts of joy others were deriving from it - as if they were meeting their celebrity heroes.

It was only later that we discovered these were Krampusse, figures from Alpine-region folklore who punish children who misbehave. And this was Krampusnacht (Krampus night) during the famed Krampus Run. I was just one of the unlucky bystanders who happened to get in their way.

My relief was short-lived as these creatures emerged all over the city centre during the next few days.

So if you’re planning to visit Salzburg during December, beware the Krampusse - or wear extra-thick pants!

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Post by Stuart

Stuart discovered his passion for all things travel during one of his first jobs overseeing the travel section of a well-known bookshop. He has worked in publishing for 15 years, most recently as a freelance travel writer. He's always planning his next adventure away. Favourite destination? It has to be Western Canada & The Rockies. Next trip? Bordeaux.

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