Nothing puts me in a festive mood more than a Christmas market. And I needed it this year. I don’t know if it’s the unusually warm weather, current events, the profound shift my psyche is going through, or a combination of all three. Until just a couple of days ago, I was a veritable Scrooge.
Over the last eight years, I have visited many Christmas markets. Enough to notice a pattern: the more touristy a city, the less atmospheric the market. My beloved Bratislava remains my favorite. Every market has its unique personality, however.
Warsaw: Tiny wooden huts against a restored backdrop of Hollywood soundstage perfection. Food. Bigos, kielbasa, smalec, poppy seed cake. Huge hunks of bread and cheese. Peasant food. The vicious wind whipped tears from my eyes and then hardened them to ice. It was so cold, even the Poles stayed away. My husband and I shoveled the steaming food into our mouths, forks shaking, and then retreated to a warm pub.
Vienna: The blazing lights gave off a palpable heat. The stream of humans quickly became a torrent from which there was no escape. Somewhere in the middle of the flow, my husband and I slipped into an eddy and emerged at a vendor’s stall. Time enough to grasp a nutcracker, note the Made in China sticker on the foot, and set it back down. We were then sucked back into the current, which had become clogged. A maelstrom of bodies pressed against bodies. Mosh pit merriment. Plump rosy cheeks, blonde curls. Maws stretched wide, releasing cackles of maniacal glee. I had stepped into the Toulouse-Lautrec painting from hell. Finally, we were spewed out. Disoriented, we stumbled toward the metro station. The chemical aftertaste from the artificially-flavored mulled wine lingered for hours.
Budapest: Outstanding shopping. And I loathe shopping. Especially Christmas shopping. Hungarians excel at crafts. An indifferent atmosphere reigned, however. I never felt comfortable enough to linger.
Prague: My husband and I finally got up the nerve to venture down there Thursday afternoon. We had calculated correctly: there was room to breathe. Minimal selfie sticks and Segways. The healthiest asses I’ve ever seen. In the stable/petting zoo, I mean. In any other city, the market itself would have been nothing exceptional, but the backdrop of Prague makes everything a magical experience. This year, the exact time of the official tree lighting ceremony was kept a secret, because of terrorism fears. The Czech people I know have told me that they avoid the main market. More than one has told me that they prefer Bratislava’s market. Yes, little Bratislava. And I have to agree.
Folkloric groups come down from the mountains to perform. Their feisty enthusiasm makes up for the lack of flashy costumes and choreographic precision. Even when the two little squares are full, it never seems crowded. Even if you know no one, you don’t feel like a stranger. There is space for individual personalities to emerge. The middle-aged couple who drifted from table to table, seeking any alcohol left untouched. Senegalese men peddling their wares. This gentleman and his companions caused quite a commotion when they strolled into the fray one misty Saturday afternoon.
This market is not one that you visit only once a season. It permeates the routine. You stop by for a quick lunch one day, and then on another day you pick up a strudel for the walk or ride home after shopping.
Over the four weeks of Advent, you meet up with friends to have a mug or three of medovina – fermented honey wine – or, if you’re brave enough, the wicked turbo punch. Cold fingers around a hot mug. Light-hearted conversation with my Slovak buddies. The twinkling lights blurred into each other. Impressionistic. I learned, the hard way, that drinking more than two mugs of medovina will result in an entire day spent on the couch, cradling the skull and whimpering. And yet, like the locals, the following weekend I went back for more.