A co-worker of mine went to the Czech Republic earlier this month. When I found out where she was going for her holidays, my eyes lit up.
“The Czech Republic?!” I said. “Are you going to the Christmas markets?”
She smiled. “Of course!” she said.
She explained that the main purpose of the trip was to visit her grandmother who lived somewhere out in the Czech countryside, but her family also had plans to stop off in Prague, and were going to make a special trip to Nuremberg, Germany, just to see its Christmas market.
Christmas markets have been around since the Middle Ages. They are common throughout Western Europe and are especially prevalent in Central Europe. In recent years, they’ve been popping up all over England and North America, too. Common elements include chalet-like stalls set up in town squares, which sell handicrafts, toys, Christmas ornaments, lots of tasty treats, and the ubiquitous Glühwein (mulled wine).
I can’t remember when or where I first heard of Christmas markets, but a couple of years ago when I knew I would be spending the winter in Paris, I was determined to experience as many as I could.
The first Christmas market I came across that winter was unexpected, as it was mid-November and Christmas was far from my mind. I was in Seville, Spain. The market was in the square near the massive cathedral, and contained stall after stall selling wooden nativities. The nativities were works of art, truly. Each figure was sold separately and cost far more euros than I had to spend.
In Madrid, the Christmas market in Plaza Mayor dates back to 1860. It too was filled with stalls selling wooden nativity figures.
Steps away from Plaza Mayor, I stumbled across a smaller market in Plaza Santa Cruz with a more light-hearted carnival atmosphere. Its stalls were selling costumes, wigs, and accessories for Dia de los Santos Inocentes on December 28. (This is the Spanish equivalent to our April Fool’s Day, though its origins are rather sombre: the day commemorates the massacres of the “Holy Innocents” ― the children murdered by Herod in his search for the newborn king the wise men had told him about.)
In Paris, there are Marchés de Noël in almost every arrondissement. I made it to three. The market at Trocadéro is probably the most picturesque as it’s situated across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower. It also has a popular skating rink.
Saint-Germain-des-Prés is a much smaller market, with stalls nestled along Boulevard Saint-Germain and around the church of Saint-Germain-des- Prés.
The market along Avenue des Champs-Elysées is massive, and runs all the way from the giant Ferris wheel at Place de la Concorde to the Franklin D. Roosevelt métro station. It consists of several blocks of stalls selling vin chaud, crêpes, chocolate, sausages, and all sorts of handicrafts. Every block or so there was a heater where you could warm your hands. We walked the entire length of this market on Christmas Eve.
Although Paris is a magical time to be in December, the Christmas markets I was most excited about seeing were in the Czech Republic. I was thrilled to see the Old Town Square of Prague once again, but I could never have imagined how pretty it would look at Christmastime.
The lights were impressive, and there was an enormous Christmas tree as well as a nativity, a stage where children were singing Christmas carols, and hundreds of red-roofed stalls selling food and toys and ornaments.
I enjoyed a trdelník ― a sweet pastry baked over hot coals and sprinkled with sugar and nuts ― and later a massive slab of spit-roasted ham. To keep warm, I bought mug after mug of Glühwein ― in Czech, it’s called svařené víno. There was another, smaller market in Prague’s Wenceslas Square with much of the same, although not as prettily lit.
The next day, I travelled to Český Krumlov. Its small, intimate Christmas market had the feeling of a neighbourhood bazaar, with local artisans selling their handiwork, and the local school putting on a Christmas concert after dark.
I don’t know if I will ever make it to Nuremberg, the granddaddy of all Christmas markets ― my co-worker said there were over 200 stalls there ― but, even so, seeing the Spanish, French, and Czech Christmas markets was something already. If you need an excuse to visit Europe in December (seriously? who ever needs an excuse to go to Europe?), I highly recommend going for the Christmas markets.