Keeping Christmas markets safe

Security tightened at festive venues across Europe as defiant visitors return

Above: Police at the Christmas market in Tours, central France. Left: Spanish police patrolling the Puerta del Sol public square on horseback in Madrid last Friday.
Police at the Christmas market in Tours, central France. PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
Above: Police at the Christmas market in Tours, central France. Left: Spanish police patrolling the Puerta del Sol public square on horseback in Madrid last Friday.
Spanish police patrolling the Puerta del Sol public square on horseback in Madrid last Friday. PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

It is Thursday - three days after the Berlin attack - and Britain's largest Christmas market and theme park is filled with revellers determined to have a good time despite the wintry chills.

Security has been stepped up at the annual Winter Wonderland event at London's Hyde Park.

Visitors have had to queue for close to an hour on some days last week to have their bags searched and bodies scanned.

Like much of Europe, security has been tightened around Christmas markets and other festive venues in the wake of last Monday's carnage in the German capital city.

"It did worry me a little, but you can't let the terrorists win by living your life in fear," said Ms Kate Owens, 41, a health administrator who was at the London market with her husband and two young children. "The kids would have been very disappointed if they couldn't come."

Christmas is the most important holiday on the continent and its quaint open-air markets selling hot mulled wine, pastries and handmade crafts are a much-cherished tradition, especially in German-speaking cities and towns.

Berliners and tourists have been defiantly returning to these markets around the city, many of which reopened last Wednesday, and to the one at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church which was mowed down by a terrorist behind the wheel of a truck last Monday night.

But the numbers have dwindled while defences have gone up. Concrete barriers now line the market at busy Potsdamer Platz and around the historic Brandenburg Gate, which will host the biggest open-air New Year's Eve celebration.

"There's a strange mood, a gloomy atmosphere," secretary Doreen Martens, 47, told The New York Times as she watched ice skaters at the Neptune Fountain at Berlin's city hall Christmas market.

"The festive Christmas feeling is definitely gone."

To thwart a possible similar attack involving a truck, barriers have - overnight - become a feature in many European Christmas markets, from Copenhagen in Denmark to Basle in Switzerland.

France's most famous Christmas market in Strasbourg has been the subject of tight security for years, after two militant cells were busted there in the last few years.

Visitors have to get past 15 checkpoints that protect the city, before reaching the market. No cars are allowed near the streets around the market, while the tram stops closest to it are temporarily closed.

Paris' biggest Christmas market, which spans the Champs-Elysees boulevard, was targeted by five suspected militants who were arrested last month, said prosecutors. Concrete blast blocks and metal barricades now line the market.

While jitters rippled through Belgium after last Monday's attack, the country - where suicide bombers struck in March, killing 32 people, and where Christmas markets are a big draw - has not bowed to fear. There is tightened security at Christmas markets across the country, but its terror alert remains unchanged at three, the second highest.

The traditional fireworks displays on New Year's Eve in Brussels and Antwerp will also carry on, said Prime Minister Charles Michel.

Britain's terror threat remains at "severe", which means an attack is highly likely. The Metropolitan Police say they have considered all sorts of possible attacks, including the use of large vehicles such as the ones used in Berlin and in Nice during France's Bastille Day celebrations in July, which killed 86 people.

Since last Monday, armed police patrols have been beefed up at Manchester's Christmas markets, which feature nearly 350 stalls in 10 venues around the city, while armed officers were photographed in Newcastle's Christmas market.

But their presence has drawn flak from some residents who said heavily armed police on the streets do not make them feel safe.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 25, 2016, with the headline Keeping Christmas markets safe. Subscribe