Spreading the Cheer

Filed on December 20, 2013

Cheery Christmas markets in Old Europe capture the spirit of the season in right earnest. Paolo Rossetti gets a tour

SPOILT FOR CHOICE: Shoppers stroll about in a daze, content towalk through the rowsof handicrafts, snacks, and souvenirs in Strasbourg’s streetmarkets

SPOILT FOR CHOICE: Shoppers stroll about in a daze, content towalk through the rowsof handicrafts, snacks, and souvenirs in Strasbourg’s streetmarkets

Christmas in Old Europe is a magical affair. Beyond religious views, and outside the family home, tens of thousands of shoppers gather cheerfully in the traditional Christmas markets of yesteryear.

Strasbourg boasts the oldest Christmas market in the whole of France, harking back to the Middle Ages, and this year celebrating its 444th year. The entire town transforms into a street market, with no less than 300 wooden shops covering eleven entire city squares in the historical centre. Bring your walking shoes!

Across the other end of Europe, in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, where Christmas is called Advent, Christmas markets sprang up spontaneously around the 11th century and have been attracting visitors every year since.

And in Central Europe, the majestic capital of Hungary, Budapest, has been trading in Christmas wares since times when the fortresses of Buda and Pest, situated on opposite banks of the Danube, were actually in separate cities.

The atmosphere that prevails in these towns as Christmas approaches is spectacular. Strasbourg is adorned in its most beautiful finery; the houses are richly decorated; and at nightfall, the market stalls come alive.

The windows light up and the streets and squares give off millions of sparkles. And at the heart of this mosaic of dancing lights, the Cathedral stands proud, shining like a crown jewel.

Amidst the scents of spices, a profusion of decorations, garlands, wreaths, traditional pottery, tablecloths, and an immense selection of handmade toys fill the rows of the colourful street markets.

Overwhelmed by the myriad offerings, shoppers stroll in a nirvanic daze, smiling widely as they walk through the rows of handicrafts, snacks, and souvenirs. The atmosphere is electrifying. Strasbourg has boasted about its traditional Christmas tree for centuries, and every year a 30-ish metre Christmas tree is erected in Place Kléber and decorated with colourful ornaments and shiny lights. They say it is the highest decorated Christmas tree in Europe.

But it is not all about shopping in Strasbourg. Tradition holds that the inhabitants would leave presents for the poor and so the Village of Sharing joins together 60 charities and humanitarian organisations, bringing a sense of generosity and sharing to this wonderful festive time: join in as you can.

And as if the season’s jollies were not enough in the shops, Christmas carols and music ring out, adding a little more magic to the holiday shopping. Orchestras, choirs, and about fifty concerts will serenade visitors with traditional carols in Strasbourg this winter.

Zagreb brings warmth to the cold Christmas weather, and snow can be reliably expected. The Jolly Christmas Tram loaded with performers in costume carries shoppers around with cheer and efficiency, and the Classical Music and Jazz at Flower Square is a primary attraction, besides the traditional Christmas Fair in the streets surrounding Jelačić Square.

There, seasonal gifts, gingerbread hearts, cookies, colourful decorations, jewellery and souvenirs made by Zagreb’s craftspeople and artists are offered for sale. Manufacturers of traditional Croatian products are highly prized for their skilful work, so look for fine crystal and silk neckties.

On Zrinjevac Street, unique souvenirs and Christmas ornaments are sold by selected artists, and you must taste the traditional sweets — try the fried apples or baked štrukle.

In faraway Budapest, different scenes play out with equal exuberance. There, the Christmas Fair focuses on real value — there’s no seasonal respite for the shrewd Hungarian shopper. In fact, a survey of 12 of the most popular Christmas markets in Europe published by The Daily Mail this year crowned Budapest as the best value for Christmas shopping.

Down in Vörösmarty Square, at the Craft Market, Christmas means business and gift shopping is the main objective. Shoppers and shopkeepers don’t waste time, and the shopping bags get fuller and heavier. But it is not only a traders’ day. At the Hungarian State Opera House, the Budapest Nutcracker Ballet is the regular winter show, and the steaming thermal baths are a blessing in the cold wintry weather. Rolls of hot, grilled Chimney Cake are rotated skilfully on open charcoal fires, and deliciously thick hot chocolate protects from the chilly winds.

Budapest is a fiery destination all year, but when the Christmas lights are added to the stately buildings and monuments, you’ll be forgiven for thinking you might be in fairyland as you soak up the view from the Buda Castle, high up above the Danube River.

There are some seasonal celebrations that are just made for travel — and in winter, in Old Europe, Christmas Markets go beyond the universe of shopping and become mesmerising destinations of cheerfulness in themselves.


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