Sparkling Winter Wonderlands: Exploring Some of Europe's Best Christmas Markets
One day, I will really have to admit that I have grown up and behave accordingly, but I will never ever suppress the child that pops up from inside of me at Christmas time. It's true that it comes every year, but as it's special and unique every year, I look forward to it with impatience. Although I'm not at home this year, the Christmas obsession found me even on my travels.
Normally my Christmas preparations begin in September when I just cannot resist anymore and start accumulating little presents in my wardrobe until they fall out of it (usually in the middle of October). I make lists of gifts for all the members of my family and friends and bake gingerbread with atrocious icing. My mom cannot stand even the sight of it and moans every time one of our guests reaches for one of the cookies. I also used to listen to the same Christmas songs every single evening for the period of a few weeks until my boyfriend took mercy on my family and downloaded for me a collection of all the Christmas songs that had ever been recorded. This year, my Christmas preparations started in a rather strange way – away from home, without my mom baking by my side. In fact, since we have no oven in our flat, I cannot bake at all, and I have only one tinnie winnie piece of luggage for all the Christmas presents. I will have four days to catch up on all the pre-Christmas traditions I love, but here, away from my homeland, I've found another way of experiencing the real Christmas atmosphere – at Christmas markets!
Let me take you on a little tour of Christmas markets that I have visited during my stay in Paris.
Parisian Marchés de Noël are to be found in every district on different days. The biggest markets are at Trocadéro (with the famous view of Champ de Mars with the Eiffel Tower at its end) or La Défense (business district). But the best-known Christmas market is the one in the most famous street in Europe – in Champs Elysées. The Christmas Market on Champs-Elysées was set up in 2008 by Marcel Campion and since then it’s been lit up by somebody famous every year. This year it was Diane Kruger who lit up three circles on famous horse chestnuts lining the avenue from the Concorde Square up to the Arch of Triumph.
More than a hundred stalls are like a mirror along both sides of the avenue. You can find some confectionary with traditional macaroons of all sizes, chocolate dipped apples, whisked whites goodies or lollipops in the shape of the Eiffel Tower with quite a mark-up on price, a million types of sausages and cheese, thousand kinds of tea, and tens of products not associated with Christmas at all, such as magic crayons, electric helicopters, or cosmetic products like magnetic varnishes or massage machines. The oddest thing is an ice skating rink occupied by animals from all over the world. I find it a bit strange to do the ice skating in a narrow lane surrounded by lions, pandas and tigers. And if you think that’s the end of surprises, you’ll run into the arms of a Santa Claus madly shaking his head and bulging out his eyes at you. I would say that instead of a wonderful ride it's a rather mess that just forces you to think about the crazy man who came up with an idea like that. What's more, if you have to walk from one side of the avenue to the other, rushing cars disturb the pleasurable Christmas atmosphere. I find the avenue with all the lights of all colours, strange wadded up animals and acquisitive merchants a bit cutesy and thus out of my taste. And still, Champs Elysées is the most frequently visited Christmas market in Europe and its popularity increases every year. At the peak of Christmas celebrations, there are more than 600,000 visitors a day and it must mean that the market is, despite my mixed feelings, considered of a great quality.
To compare Parisian Champs-Elysées and Londonian Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park, I would say that the English are still eager to give their markets a homely feel. It's true that London’s Hyde Park is reminds you of a funfair full of teddy bears and roundabouts, but one can find quite a nice familiar atmosphere in the middle of the wooden cottages. When I walk along Champs Elysées, I feel exactly like on Champs Elysées, but when I walked across the Winter Wonderland, I felt like at a real Christmas market. It was not so crowded and instead of the bustle of cars I heard Christmas songs. The warmth of mulled wine, smell of cotton candy and chestnuts, it's the same all over the world, but it’s the atmosphere which makes you feel it’s real Christmas. The best surprise was mulled cider – cider is my favourite.
Lille is a lovely town in the north of Paris. After having seen the markets in Paris and London, I wasn't surprised that in Lille there was also a big Ferris wheel very similar to the famous London Eye. Roundabouts seem to be a part and parcel of Christmas markets everywhere in Western Europe. What I like about small-town Christmas markets is the atmosphere. I find them cosy and homely, people are smiling because they are selling the products they made themselves, not the plastic airplanes or a magic drawing set made in China. In France, there are waffles or Spanish churros everywhere, but in Lille I tried rackletette, a traditional Swiss dish, for the first time in my life. Apart from that, Lille left an exceptional impression on me because of a man who carved huge blocks of ice with a chainsaw. I always appreciate extraordinarily gifted people and I can tell you this show was really great.
Let's move to Belgium. I cannot compare the size of Christmas markets in Brussels and Bruges, but I can compare their atmospheres. Both of them were like a chocolate paradise, but in Brussels it was, naturally, more overcrowded. I like the idea of spreading the groups of stalls throughout the centre so that I could just wander around the city. In Bruges I found two groups of stalls, both of them situated close to the centre and both of them had a football club stall selling everything from the shawls and football boots to Christmas hats with the name of the club. In Bruges they also offered some seafood specialities and crocheted lace objects. I haven't found a nativity scene on the Christmas markets in France but I have found one at both the markets in Belgium. I have also noticed that Russian Matryoshka dolls and Polish wooden works of art are sold everywhere – in France, the United Kingdom and in Belgium as well.
Of course, I cannot forget the icing on the cake – a Slovak Christmas market in Paris. I came across a poster announcing the event on the Facebook webpage of Slovak and Czech emigrants living in Paris. It was, surprisingly, at a very exclusive place – in the area of a church behind the famous Louvre. It took place only on 5 and 6 December in a room with six or so tables but no one could miss it because you could hear people singing Slovak folk songs from the distance of a few metres. Immediately after I greeted the ladies standing inside the room, I felt like at home. Everybody heartily enquired about my stay in Paris, they offered me some hot beverages and they had also prepared traditional Slovak Christmas sauerkraut soup. The whole market was held under the auspices of the French association The Children of the Danube (Les Enfants du Danube) which was created in Paris in 2002 to support both financially and morally all the abandoned, maltreated, ill and disabled children in Slovakia. The gains from the Christmas market in Paris will help tens of children who cannot have such a nice Christmas as we have. Maybe also we should, at this time of generosity, think about them. If you’re in a generous mood too, go to www.detidunaja.sk and give the best present in the world – regard for the others.
Photos: Unless stated otherwise, courtesy of the author.
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