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German Christmas markets sparkle in seasonBy ALEXIS KUNSAK, Associated Press Writer Alexis Kunsak, Associated Press Writer Mon Dec 8, 3:10 pm ET

NUREMBERG, Germany – This time of year, the Christmas spirit descends on Germany's cities and towns in the form of wooden stalls laden with pretzels, toys and baked goods of all shapes and sizes.

More than 130 places in Germany host Christmas markets, each one emphasizing regional specialties and flair. The celebrations have developed into an art form, with handcrafted wooden ornaments, elaborate nativity displays and delectable treats that would leave Santa and his reindeer turning up their noses at mere cookies and milk.

The markets are a major tourist attraction, drawing visitors from around the world. But the markets also draw on centuries of Christmas traditions in this country where the Protestant Reformation took root and where the current pope was born, with some customs dating back to the Middle Ages.

Dresden and Nuremberg compete for the oldest and most famous Christmas markets.

Dresden, in Germany's east, boasts the Striezelmarkt, the oldest documented Christmas market in the country, dating to 1434. It is the home of the largest "Christmas pyramid" -- a 45-foot-high wood structure lit with candles that spin the tiers of the decorated pyramid.

The tradition for Christmas wood carving comes from the Erzgebirge, or "Ore mountains," an old mining region south of the city that borders the Czech Republic. Nutcrackers and "smoking men" incense holders were originally created here.

The Stollen Festival is another highlight of the market, with the largest loaf of Christstollen -- a buttery, spiced loaf weighing between 3 and 4 tons -- cut here and served to visitors on Dec. 8.

In Nuremberg in Bavaria, the city's Christkindlmarkt is perhaps the most famous of all the markets, counting some 2 million visitors from Japan, the U.S., China, all over Europe and elsewhere around the world every year.

They come for the Lebkuchen, a spicy gingerbread baked here since 1395 and "3 in a Weggla," which are tiny Nuremberg wursts, served three little sausages abreast in a bun with spicy mustard. The Christkind, an angelic or fairy-like character, is the symbol of the market, and a woman with golden hair and a crown opens the market each year with her Christmas proclamation and hears the Christmas gift wishes of the children.

In Frankfurt am Main's historical center, the Dom Roemer transforms from its post- World War II reconstruction of history into a wonderland of carousel music, bundled groups of people laughing around cauldrons of hot spiced wine called Gluehwein, and thick clusters of gingerbread hearts laden with hardened frosting.

In Aachen, bakeries offer their famous Aachener Printen gingerbread and marzipan bread. In Berlin, the 17th-century Charlottenburger Palace is brilliantly illuminated behind the market, and the Jewish Museum hosts a combined Hanukkah-Christmas market with kosher delicacies.

The popularity of the Christmas markets has spread around the world, inspiring copies in Britain, the United States and elsewhere.

The German American Chamber of Commerce was inspired to create a market in Chicago after Nuremberg's Christkindlmarkt, and even has the Nuremberg's former Christkind, Eva Sattler, an original Nuremberger, opening the market with a traditional proclamation.

Marco Geroni, 31, a lawyer from Italy on holiday in Berlin with his family, said they had already visited several Christmas markets.

"I think the markets are very funny," he said. "My mother is going crazy buying things for under the tree."

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If You Go ...

GERMANY'S CHRISTMAS MARKETS: http://tinyurl.com/5c9n9d is a compendium of information from Germany's tourism agency about hundreds of Christmas markets. It features a map of cities with markets with links for more information as well as details on various German Christmas traditions.

STRIEZELMARKT: http://www.dresden.de/index_en.php offers details on the Striezelmarkt, home of the original Christstollen, a rich, buttery loaf that is ubiquitous in Germany during the holidays.

CHRISTKINDLESMARKT: http://www.christkindlesmarkt.de/english/ offers details about the Nuremberg market, the tradition of the Christkind and her appearances at the market.

GETTING THERE: Most Christmas markets are located within easy walking distance from main train stations. Germany has an extensive, efficient and moderately priced rail system that can whisk travelers between most cities and towns, big and small. Private compartments can be booked for groups and families.

Hard times spark interest in New Deal sitesBy TOM BREEN, Associated Press Writer Tom Breen, Associated Press Writer Mon Dec 8, 1:32 pm ET

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The election of an ambitious new president in hard times is evoking comparisons with President Franklin Roosevelt, and the 75th anniversary of FDR's New Deal is sparking renewed interest in how Americans survived the Great Depression.

Now historic preservationists and tourism officials are hoping for increased tourism in places associated with the New Deal, like the town of Arthurdale, W.Va., which was built in the 1930s as a planned community for the rural poor.

"Arthurdale looks pretty much the way it did then," said Martha Ballman of the West Virginia Preservation Alliance. "It's just so intact."

The alliance won a $100,000 grant this year to develop New Deal tourism across the state. Part of the challenge, however, is that the New Deal's legacy is so vast: It includes everything from bridges and murals in government buildings to humble retaining walls and walking paths.

"You may know you're a New Deal site, but how do you know you're a tourist attraction?" Ballman said. "It's all over the place, so the questions we're asking are, 'How can we make this more tourist-friendly? How can we beef it up?'"

The National New Deal Preservation Association, based in New Mexico, has seen an increase in calls and e-mails and a demand for maps of New Deal sites, according to spokeswoman Kathy Flynn.

And FDR's retreat in Warm Springs, Ga., known as the Little White House, is the most visited of any of Georgia's 63 state historic sites, attracting 100,000 people a year.

"The current political and economic climate is part of the reason there's so much interest," said Kim Hatcher, spokeswoman for the Georgia Division of Natural Resources, which oversees state parks and historic sites. The president sought relief from polio on his visits to the springs.

The story of Arthurdale is not as well known as sites like Warm Springs, but the town hopes to draw more tourists to visit a model home, museum and craft shop offering books, calendars and even colorful postage-stamp pins bearing first lady Eleanor Roosevelt's likeness.

Located near Morgantown in northern West Virginia, Arthurdale was the first of 100 New Deal resettlement homesteads for the poor and unemployed around the country. Each home in the planned community had electricity, indoor plumbing, a refrigerator and a coal-powered furnace -- tremendous luxuries for rural America in the 1930s.

Of Arthurdale's 165 original houses, 160 remain, and one of them has been fully preserved. It is still furnished with a loom in the living room, a massive coal-fired furnace in the hallway and a coal-fired stove in the kitchen. Atop an old radio is a small clock one of the original residents brought with her as a child, and in the kitchen cabinets are Depression-era glassware and containers for "Arthur Dale Meat Products," the ground beef and sausage the homesteaders packaged and sold.

Arthurdale's small museum shows off some of the homesteaders' lesser known skills. They not only learned to weave their own linens and throw their own pottery, but they also fashioned target kites with images of enemy aircraft for the Army to shoot at.

Eleanor Roosevelt took a special interest in Arthurdale, regularly visiting to hand out Christmas presents and high school diplomas, and even calling on individual families.

"I can still see her in my mind's eye, coming around the house, and my mother telling us, 'You kids sit on that couch and don't you move,'" recalled Maryanne Wolfe, who was born in Arthurdale in 1938 and now lives in nearby Reedsville.

But the cooperative economics of the New Deal homestead communities mostly failed, and the government sold its stake in the towns in the late 1940s. Wolfe's husband, Joe, who also grew up in Arthurdale, said that by the 1940s, the utopian dream that created Arthurdale had mostly been forgotten; residents simply got on with life.

"When I was going to school, we didn't talk much about how Arthurdale was started," he said. "My parents were homesteaders, but they didn't talk about how they came to be there or anything."

West Virginia got two other homesteads as well, Eleanor in Putnam County and the lesser known Tygart Valley Homesteads in Randolph County. Only Tygart Valley is believed to have repaid the government for its investment.

Interest in the CCC Museum at Quiet Dell, which has about 250 pieces of New Deal memorabilia on display, has also grown recently, according to director Robert Anderson.

CCC was the acronym for the Civilian Conservation Corps, which employed 4.5 million people nationwide between 1933 and 1942, planting 3 billion trees, forging roads and laying foundations for new communities by raising bridges, dams and telephone poles. About 55,000 men passed through the corps in West Virginia, building bridges, fire towers and state park infrastructure.

"There's a mystique around the program," Anderson said. "Back in the '30s, it really helped salvage the country from disaster."

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If You Go ...

ARTHURDALE: Located in West Virginia, about 90 minutes south of Pittsburgh, and about 25 minutes southeast of Morgantown, W.Va., on state Route 92; http://www.arthurdaleheritage.org/. or 304-864-3959. The New Deal Homestead Museum and Craft Shop, which includes a restored model homestead, are located on Route 92. Open November-April, Tuesday-Friday, noon-4 p.m. (May-October, Tuesday-Sunday, noon-4 p.m.) Adults, $5 ($3 for children in grades K-6; $4 for ages 55 and older).

WEST VIRGINIA CCC MUSEUM: http://www.wva-ccc-legacy.org/index.php or 304-842-5194. Located in the former Quiet Dell School in Harrison County, just off Exit 115 of Interstate 79, about 35 miles south of Arthurdale. Open Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sundays, 1 p.m.-5 p.m. Free admission; donations accepted.

ROOSEVELT'S LITTLE WHITE HOUSE STATE HISTORIC SITE: Warm Springs, Ga.; http://www.fdr-littlewhitehouse.org or 706-655-5870. Open daily, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Adults, $7.

NATIONAL NEW DEAL PRESERVATION ASSOCIATION: http://www.newdeallegacy.org/.

When to call a travel agentBy Jane Engle

December 06, 2008

Even though I'm a travel writer, I sometimes use a travel agent. His savvy advice and careful research save me time and money. Like any professional, he charges fees.

It makes sense. "You wouldn't walk into a lawyer's office and expect them to give you free advice," said Chris Russo, president of the American Society of Travel Agents, or ASTA, a trade group based in Alexandria, Va.

But some travel agents do give free advice. Because they earn sales commissions of 10% or more from certain cruise and tour companies, they often charge nothing to book these. Not so with airline tickets, which generally don't earn commissions, and some complicated itineraries that may take hours or days to assemble.

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Median fees for a travel agent

Airline ticket: $32.09

Cruise: $20

Hotel: $20

Rail ticket: $25

Rental car: $17.50

Tour package: $25

Trip planning: $100

Source: "2007 Service Fee Report" by the American Society of Travel Agents

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Travel agents, who sell nearly 40% of all travel in the U.S., can be helpful. But knowing when to engage one and what to pay can be confusing.

I contact my agent to book cruises and vacation packages, for which he charges nothing, and foreign trips, where his services are invaluable. I book my own domestic air tickets and hotels. (To find an agent, try the database at www.travelsense.org.)

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For more money-saving advice, go to our budget tips page.

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As suppliers tighten up on sales commissions, more agents are charging. Depending on the agency and the service, you may pay nothing, a flat fee, a percentage of the trip cost or by the hour. The chart with this column shows median fees charged last year by members of ASTA.

Here's what to expect and why:

Air tickets: Nearly all travel agencies charge fees, typically $25 or more, to book these. That's because major airlines stopped paying sales commissions on domestic tickets in 2002.

Issuing a ticket isn't cheap, said Russo, who runs Travel Partners in Broomfield, Colo. It may cost about $30 per booking, he said, when he factored in salaries and overhead such as office leases, insurance and fees to access the ticket clearinghouse.

Cruises and tours: Last year, less than a third of agents charged fees to book these trips. But that number may be increasing for cruises as agents get caught between falling fares and sales commissions.

Cruise lines have begun deducting port fees, fuel surcharges and other items from the total eligible for commission, said Joe McClure, president of Montrose Travel in Montrose. With some fares less than $100 per person per day, it may not pencil out for the agency.

An agent who books a $299 weekend cruise may earn a commission on only $99 of it, or about $12, McClure said, but the transaction may cost his company $30.

Some agencies charge fees to make up the difference. McClure said he sends customers seeking cheap cruises to his company's website, where transaction costs are lower.

Hotels: More than half of agents last year charged service fees to book lodgings. Whether you're likely to be charged depends on the type of hotel.

Because big chains and luxury lodgings often pay sales commissions, your agent may book these for free. But small independent hotels, budget places and bed-and-breakfast inns may not pay commissions, so expect a booking fee for those.

Trip planning: Last year, two-thirds of agents charged for this service, one of their most valuable.

McClure and Russo said they let individual agents decide whether to charge, depending on the trip. For itineraries that require significant research and don't bring in enough commissions to cover costs, McClure said, the charge would be $30 to $50 an hour.

Russo said he charged $100 per hour, which was nonrefundable but could be applied to the trip cost.

The bottom line: Feeling exploited? Don't. The average travel agent makes less than $29,000 per year in this thin-margined enterprise, ASTA says.

When you pay a service fee, "we're not getting gold rims for our Escalades or Mercedes," Russo said.

And you may get priceless help.

Engle is a Times staff writer.

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