A couple weeks back we stole a march on Christmas by looking at the largest and one of the most atmospheric Christmas markets in Central Europe. That would be the market on Krakow’s main square. But every Central European capital and many smaller sized cities host Christmas markets.
Here are a couple of the best:
First Budapest, where of course Leisure-To-Taste have organised a special Christmas Market package; which includes a local guide to show you around, hot wine and the mug you drink it from - plus some ‘Hungarian pizza’ (a.k.a oven-baked kenyérlángos) to warm the cockles of your heart. So to speak.
In 2006 Travel & Leisure Magazine selected Budapest’s Christmas Fair as one of the top ten Christmas programs in Europe. In 2008, some 600,000 visitors went shopping among the stalls on Vörösmarty square. Here folk artisans and craftsmen sell goods handmade in the traditional way from natural and organic materials. The quality is pretty much guaranteed as all the vendors are checked by the Association of the Hungarian Folk Artists. Shopping is only half the fun. As well as the aforementioned Hungarian bread lángos, visitors can load up on kürtöskalács (chimney cake), grilled kolbász (sausages), mustard, bread and of course, mulled wine. Folk music bands play and folkdance troupes perform traditional dance routines, there are also plenty of performances geared towards younger children. The atmosphere is nothing if not festive.
About 680 miles northeast in the Latvian capital city Riga, you can do your Christmas shopping in the place where the tradition of decorating a Christmas tree was born. Indeed, this year marks its 500th anniversary, for it was back in 1510 that some local merchants had the idea of decorating a fir tree.
In the Dome Square this year as it has every year since, stands the huge Christmas tree, the Grand Christmas market and Father Christmas’s house. After a consultation with Santa, kids (of all ages) can even mail a postcard or letter from his own tiny little post office. Everybody say, awwww, how cute.
On sale at the Grand Market are a wide array of Latvian products and handicrafts: hand-made Christmas decorations, candles, wooden toys, basketry, woollen garments, leather, sheepskin, linen, painted silk, glassware and many other appealing and intriguing Christmas gifts.
And of course there’s plenty of food and drink to provide sustenance, including smoked meat and fish, gingerbreads and roasted almonds – and of course mulled wine and the local liqueur, Riga Black Balsam. Go easy on the Balsam though. It’s as I recall Morecombe & Wise describing some hooch on one of their beloved Christmas specials: “This stuff is so strong you have a hangover before you even taste it.”
Prieka! (Latvian for Cheers)
Scott Alexander Young is a Writer and Character Actor living in Budapest. His children's book The Wild Cats of Piran (Chronicle One) comes out in December.