Christmas markets...they're pretty, they're magical and they could make one of Santa's helpers cream themselves in sheer joy. The Christmas markets I'm talking about are the brightly lit winter wonderland ones from the mainland, not the three stalls set up around where you get your Christmas tree which are slowly starting to make an appearance back on this Emerald Isle of ours. These markets are starting to make an appearance here, but they aren't quite up to scratch yet. So if you go abroad for a few days to soak in the atmosphere and get you in the festive spirit, here's what to look out for:
1) Mulled Wine
Praise whoever invented this stuff, because this drink is a thing of dreams. The awesome thing about the markets is that you can buy as many cups as you want and take a stroll. It's cheap, delicious, it warms you up and you can gradually get plastered as you soak in the sheer beauty that is a Christmas market. A fun day for anyone.
1.5) Bonus - The Mugs
Oh yeah, you know what's even better than getting lots of mulled wine on the cheap? Getting lots of mulled wine on the cheap in a mug made specifically for that Christmas market that year. All you have to do is put down a small deposit and then lash into the steaming hot alcoholic goodness. If you don't like the design, no bother bring it back. If you do, then keep that mofo and screw the deposit (which is like €2 anyway) You can never have enough hot beverage containers when you're in student housing. And of course, how can you say no to a boot shaped cup?
The food at the markets ranges big time, but it's all delicious. Your options include hot chestnuts, pick and mixes, bread and savoury snacks, hot street food, and sweet delicacies that will definitely give you diabetes if you have no self-control like me. But it's cool, I didn't really need that foot.
3) Handcrafted Gifts
If you're willing to splash out a little more cash and give it a little time to go find the right stall, you can get your hands on some really great handcrafted gifts. They're lovely, they're custom and they're a great wee gift for getting back into your Mam's good books after forgetting to call her for the first half of the college year.
There's nothing quite like a Christmas Market. I'm going to be one of those annoying people when I say "you just have to, like, experience it, man, words can't, like, yano, describe it, man." It is true, though. The nature and look of the markets are both beautiful and breathtaking and it's not something you can experience any time you like.
Christmas is a great time of year, but it's not as magical and perfect as it is in the movies. Exams, assignments, shopping, and general preparations are problems we have to deal with before the big day. Those sort of stressors can leave anyone feeling a wee bit ba humbug. Enter a Christmas market though and it's a whole different story. These markets really manage to embrace the festivities and merriness of Christmas without the stress. They're surreal in that sense, but they can help you get in the mood 10,000% faster than you normally would. The market atmosphere is quite relaxed, no one's rushing and no ones pressuring anyone to buy. A big part of the Christmas Market experience is just to window shop with a hot cup of cocoa or mulled wine in hand. No one forces you to feel jolly, which amazingly makes it way easier to feel exactly that.
So where to?
1) Western & Eastern Europe
Western and Eastern Europe is where these markets originally started out. As it's an annual tradition going on 500+ years, they've had a chance to really fine tune it and make it into something special. The first of the markets mainly popped up in Germany and Austria, so for the most authentic and traditional experience, you'll want to head there. Word to the wise, Austria is generally cheaper than Germany.
If you're thinking that you don't fancy either of those two places, France, Italy, Spain and more western based countries also have plenty of markets to offer. Each country has tweaked the market in their own compared to the original formula, so it's an adventure in itself to see how the culture and Christmas mix from one country compared to the other. If you're thinking you're going to be really strapped for cash, look toward the east; Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary etc. These countries are cheaper to stay in, but don't think the Christmas Markets will be downplayed or lesser. You can find magnificent and spectacular things in all these countries.
2) Northern Europe
Scandinavia has also got in on the Christmas market shindig and has some great ones to visit. With the economy that these countries have, they can really afford to splash out big time. If you do want to visit there, bare in mind it's going to be a lot more expensive, because like I said, their economy is to the point that they can probably afford to use gold as toilet paper.
3)Ireland & the UK
Ireland and the UK have been working hard on getting into the festive spirit and starting to introduce the Christmas market culture. We're still working out the kinks of what we like, and personally I prefer the ones abroad (Vienna for the win) but if you can't afford to jet off, or at least no further than the UK, you can still have a great time at these ones. They make a fun day out, but any and every Christmas Market is the most beautiful, brightest and best to explore after dark.