By Thomas Breathnach
Irish Independent, Saturday November 28th 2009
Put the magic back into Christmas with a visit to a traditional market. Thomas Breathnach selects 10 of his favourites.
Back with a post-Soviet bang, Tallinn’s recently revived Christmas market is already established as a European favourite. It’s easy to see why when ambling around the 64 stalls of Europe’s best preserved medieval walled town, with carol singing filling the Baltic air.
Organisers boast “temperatures will barely hit zero”, but should you feel the nip, pick up an Estonian woollen sweater, topping off the look with a traditional felt hat. Other local goodies on offer include ceramics, wickerwork and home-made candles.
Make the two-hour ferry trip to Helsinki and visit St Thomas’ Christmas market, but be warned that the local mulled wine, laced with vodka, has more kick than a reindeer on Christmas Eve.
Details: November 30-January 7. See christmas.ee.
Basel may not be the most tourist-trodden city in Switzerland but, come Christmas, even the dogs on the strasse know that it’s home to the country’s best Weihnachtsmarkt.
With red trams and Swiss flags, the city already has a yuletide colour scheme, but throw in the longest illuminated Christmas street in Europe and 130 twinkling wooden stalls and you’ve a festive fairytale.
Walking through the historical old town to Barfüsserplatz you’re seduced by the aroma of roasting chestnuts and Basler Läckerli — hard biscuits made with honey, almonds and kirsch.
Check out Johann Wanner’s Christmas House, the world’s largest manufacturer of hand-made decorations.
Details: Until December 23. See basel.ch.
Goodbye glühwein, hello grzaniec! Krakow’s vibrant Christmas market is quickly becoming a favourite for Ireland’s seasoned marketeers.
Direct flights from Dublin, coupled with its status as Europe’s best-value market, make it the place to come if you want more bang for your zloty.
The market is located at Town Hall square in Krakow’s medieval town centre and has stockings full of old-world charm. But there’s more to this market than scrumptious pierogi dumplings and rich advokat liquor.
The highlight is the competition of creating handmade cribs called szopki. Poles of all walks of life work laboriously during the year to design their nativity magnum opus and an exhibition of the nation’s finest takes place on the first Thursday in December.
Details: December 1-31. See krakow.pl.
If Good King Wenceslas looked out on his commemorative square nowadays, he’d be more likely to spot a dozen English women costumed as Playboy Bunnies than a peasant boy gathering winter fuel.
Nonetheless, come Advent, he’d find certain solace in the sight of Prague’s old town rekindling its position as one of Europe’s most enchanting Christmas wonderlands. The city’s main markets are found in the cobbled environs of Wenceslas and Old Town squares. Wooden stalls form a luminary star in the heart of the ‘Golden City’, while a giant Christmas tree shipped in from the Krkonose Mountains provides the centrepiece.
Unique wares to be picked up here include fine Bohemian crystal and traditional Czech puppets, and you’ll even see live carp being sold for the legendary local Christmas dinner. For some winter sustenance, nibble on honey gingerbread with a medovina (sweet mead) chaser.
Details: November 28-January 1. See czechtourism.com.
If travelling further afield is not on the Christmas cards this year, tarry over to Dublin Docklands’ own 12 Days of Christmas festival. The event, which takes place at George’s Dock, is expected to welcome more than 100,000 merry visitors this year.
The waterside village, consisting of brightly festooned wooden huts glimmering against the Liffey, offers all your favourite festive fare.
Foodies can indulge in a mix of German and Irish foods, from crackling loin of pork to sizzling Bratwurst and hot waffles. The Erdinger stand provides the beer, while zesty mulled wine and sublime hot chocolate are also on offer.
This year also sees the return of the beautifully restored showpiece, the Galloping Horses carousel, but if that isn’t enough to impress your little lambs then visit the man himself at the new Santa’s Grotto (€7.50 per gift).
Details: December 12-23. See dublindocklands.ie/www.12daysof christmas.
Austria’s capital hosts 25 Christmas markets across the city each year, with the most popular at the resplendent Rathausplatz.
The theme Magic of Advent makes an immediate impact, with the city hall draped in lighting and giant Christmas wreaths adorning the square. And where better to enjoy the festive sounds of the many gospel choirs, brass bands and concertos taking place.
On the streets you can watch craftsmen making traditional wooden decorations. Take your kids to the Volkhaus workshop, which shows them how to make their own nativity figures.
Details: Until December 24. See christkindlmarkt.at.
Denmark was the first country to issue a Christmas stamp and has been bringing home the yuletide bacon in buckets ever since. The capital hosts a number of Christmas markets, but Tivoli Gardens remains the city’s favourite.
The park transforms into a winter wonderland, with rides and Nissekobing, or Elfland — a huge indoor Christmas town with hundreds of mechanical elves working towards their December 25 deadline.
After catering to your inner child, hit the beautifully decorated stalls for some æbleskiver doughnuts and a glug of glögg — a potent blend of red wine, cognac, rum and aquavit.
Glögg connoisseurs can make tracks for Hviid Vinstue, which serves up Copenhagen’s finest. If that’s not enough for you, try Carlsberg’s dark Julebryg (yulebrew), which is delivered across town on horse-drawn carriages bearing Danish flags and garlands of spruce — all begging the phrase that Carlsberg really does do Christmas markets.
Details: Until December 30. See visitcopenhagen.com.
Although Chicago missed out on Olympic glory this year, the city can take solace in hosting the world’s largest Christmas market west of the river Rhine.
The Christkindlmarket, organised by the German American Chamber of Commerce, welcomes more than one million visitors annually and can be considered unique for its spectacular setting.
Nestled below a plaza of illuminated skyscrapers, the market consists of dozens of striped huts twinkling in downtown Daley Square. More than 60 German vendors fly in especially to ‘Die Vindy City’ to set up stalls with all things teutonic, from bratwursts to authentic nutcrackers and cuckoo clocks.
Head to the Lufthansa Festival Tent, where the lederhosen-clad brass band won’t be long making you feel as if you’re in Bavaria.
Details: Until December 24. See christkindlmarket.com.
A unique symbiosis between planet politics and yuletide merriment, there’s no better place than Strasbourg’s Marché de Noël to spot an elected MEP washing down a gingerbread man with vin chaud.
The charming Alsace capital is bedecked with 300 market chalets centred around the gigantic gothic cathedral, while also featuring a towering Christmas tree on Place Kléber, and a skating rink on Place du Château.
Soak up the joie de vivre as you stroll along La Petite France, a romantic neighbourhood of timbered fairytale buildings with Christmas shops.
Specialities retain a strong Franco-German fusion and include sausages with choucroute (pickled cabbages) and baeckeoffe stew. Check out Christmas music around the city, including a traditional performance of Handel’s Messiah.
Details: Until December 31. See noel.strasbourg.eu.
With 180 wooden stalls, the Nuremberg Christkindlmarkt is locally known as the ‘the little wooden town’ — and internationally known as the capital of Christmas markets. A staggering two million visitors converge annually on Nuremberg’s Hauptmarkt and its neighbouring streets to savour the atmosphere of a Bavarian Weihnachten.
With the scent of roast almonds and glühwein permeating the air, you can wander around the various districts which include an international area offering Christmas specialities from all over the world and a special Kindermarkt with activities for kids. Must-have souvenirs include the famous Zwetschenmännle, which are little toy men made from prunes — yet another testimony to innovative German manufacturing.
Keep your eye out for the reigning Market Angel and overnight German celebrity Johanna Heller (pictured). She scooped the prestigious title after locking tiaras with 12 other hopeful fräuleins in a competition similar to the Rose or Tralee, albeit for would-be fairies.
Details: Until December 24. See christkindlesmarkt.de.
– Thomas Breathnach