Snowy Prague, Wenceslas Square and street corner carp vendors. We might enjoy turkey on Christmas Day but Bohemians take carp on Christmas Eve. From early December onwards big tanks of carp take position on busy street corners. Fish scales glistening in the snow are evidence of the festive fishmongers prepping some of the fish. But traditionalists like it fresh. Travelling on the tube, bunched up with fellow commuters, suddenly the carrier bag next to you wriggles with a live carp. I asked Jiří how he kept it fresh – ‘in the bath of course, and when that’s in use, transferred to the basin’.
Any busy street corner in Prague during December.
Midnight Mass might actually be celebrated at midnight in a church nearby. Even for regular churchgoers it's a brief voyage out of the ordinary of Christmas, while strangers are part of the scene. In the unspoken cameraderie of having got there at all, usually by 11.30 pm, there's nothing to do except go with the flow of ritual, however professionally or amateurishly conducted; to be immersed in a story that has room for both the tragedy and wonder of human existence. Carols can be sung where they're meant to be sung, and mince pies are never so delicious as at around 1am with a sense of communal accomplishment. All for free, unless you feel like contributing to the charity of the night. And if it throws out next day's routine, so what?
Part rugby scrum, part riot, occasionally a sprint, always social - the Kirkwall Ba' is a fixed part of Christmas in Orkney and has to be experienced to be understood. This is street football at its best. No rules, no limit on participants, games can last for hours. The Mens Ba' goes up at 1pm, after the Boys which takes place at 10am. The game will continue until one team manages to get the ball into their own goal (the harbour for the Doonies, a gable wall at the other end of town for the Uppies). This can take a while during which onlookers, shout and cheer, chat, shuffle and stamp to keep warm; ever mindful that if the ball heads their way it is vital to move quickly if you do not want to be caught up in the action. It is Christmas - but with a difference.
Kirkwall, Orkney. The Ba' is thrown from the Cathedral steps at the heart of the town on Christmas Eve.
Google map: bit.ly/gZl04s
For a truly authentic and atmospheric Christmas experience I am taking my family again to Butser Iron-Age farm nestling in the South Downs.
There they celebrate the generosity of an ancient winter festival with one of England's best known story-tellers in the Great Roundhouse and we make something beautiful from the hedgerows and animals on the farm to take home.
Munching pies and sipping mulled wine gazing into the fire in this stunning building takes me back to a distant and sustainable past that still holds magic for a hopeful future. The tales told are ageless and the children truly awed.
Great value for money and a relief from all the plastic and tinsel in the grottier grottoes!
From 12th to 20th December a marquee goes up in Princes Street which houses an Ethical Christmas Market where you can do all your Christmas shopping from fairtrade, organic and ethical stalls. Its free to go in and there is fairtrade tea/coffee and curries available. Loads of original ideas for presents can be found and a great atmosphere.
Princes Street / Castle Street, Edinburgh.
Google map: tinyurl.com/yz6fx9b
Each year Manchester has its German style market with lots of hot mulled wine Bavarian beer and bratwurst, but it can be a bit pricey and if shopping for your Christmas dinner, the range of food is limited.
For just £3.50 you can hop on a tram and get a return ticket to Bury. Only 20 minutes away where you will find a fabulous traditional market on a Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
There is a meat and poultry food hall where you can find Burys local delicacy, the black pudding as well as venison, rabbit, duck the more exotic meats such as kangaroo. There are plenty of fruit and veg stalls as well as a Greek deli katsouris for a vast range of cold meats and olives. It also does lovely coffee. If you get tired there are many small cafes dotted about, some are tiny and quite intimate and a good way to get to know the locals. There is also a flea market with books, toys, clothes, homeware and even a stall selling fossils ! Its a great day out and right next door is a indoor shopping centre with many big names such as M&S, Next and Boots
Can you find Christmas and indeed the Christmas spirit in a medieval town on a hill in the otherwise flat Lincolnshire? Yep! It's amazing
The Lincoln christmas market is set around the historic cathedral and castle area. Follow cobbled streets to pick up local sweet treats and listen to beautiful carols. I'm from an area close to the Swedish lapland and I ensure you, Lincoln's Christmas market is truly spectacular. No fake ice ala Hyde Park, instead you will find around 300 beautiful traditional and festive stalls - along with a funfair for those who fancy some thrills. I swear the historic location and the beautiful lights on the hill make this market magical. While you're there, pop in to the cathedral and listen to beautiful choir Christmas music. This market is lovely and very atmospheric - but beware, it's on a very steep hill so mobility might be an issue for some.
Sprawling beneath the Gothic grandeur of Manchester town hall, Albert Square's city Christmas market is packed full of bustling wooden food stalls selling all kinds of delicious wintery goodness. Head to the central bratwurst stall where you can wolf down a mammoth German sausage cooked on a huge smoking swing grill. If you're lucky you can eat whilst listening to festive carols performed by gifted students from the nearby Royal Northern College of Music. Those who want to remain faithful to the region, the neighbouring stall will happily serve up a hearty portion of Lancashire hotpot. Flat caps optional.
Albert Square, 18th November to 22nd December
Every year I return with my daughter, now aged six, travelling near two hours to capture the Christmas spirit and to buy some great Christmas presents from log versions of Rudolph the Reindeer to make a great winter garden feature, to moroccan raffia and leather shopping baskets.
It ranges from a traditional German Market to European Market and an arts and crafts market.
Travelling with children works wonders, share a bratwurst sausage in Albert Square while admiring the nodding Reindeer. Agree that they can choose one treat from one of the 200 stalls; Angelica chose a husky dog keyring this year and in return they help you with the bag carrying and the decision making. Keep the energy up with snacks along the way like delicious chocolate marshmallows sticks and you have a fantastic festive day out.
There are 200 stalls across six different sites in the city centre - Albert Square, St Ann's Square, Brazennose Street, New Cathedral Street, and Exchange Street
Manchester's Christmas Markets open on Wednesday, 18 November 2009 and run until Tuesday, 21 December 2009
For me, the best Christmas markets in the UK are the Manchester Christmas Markets. I would guess that most Christmas markets in this country have the same basic sort of stalls. Certainly those I've seen have had. After all, people want familiarity and their favourites.
So Manchester gets lots of stollen, glühwein, beer, and handicrafts. Many stalls come from our northern European neighbours, but the Manchester market is big enough to have a good selection of domestic stalls. Plus, the quality really benefits from the creativity that thrives in the conjoined cities of Manchester and Salford.
On some days the whole market atmosphere gets a further boost from a Farmers' market, selling delicious food from the region and beyond.
The real icing on the Manchester stollen though is the way that it really fits snugly into its Manchester glove. The city's architecture really helps here, being warm and red with enough size to be impressive, while remaining on a human scale that stops it becoming impersonal. Most importantly though, the markets benefit from the way Manchester's squares have been laid out, and the overall size of the city. Like its architecture, Manchester is just the right size, a place that can be walked with ease, where a section of the markets is never too far away, and where the human side is never lost to grey commercialism.
They are creative, they are warm, they fit hand in glove, they are the best Christmas Markets in the UK, they are the Manchester Christmas markets.
Squares across Manchester's main shopping area.
From mid November, the Leeds Christkindelmarkt – set in the splendour of Millennium Square - offers a real alternative to the claustrophobic hustle and bustle of a pre-Christmas high street.
Lanes of garishly decorated wooden chalets stocked full of food, toys, clothes and trinkets provide alternative ideas for that last minute stocking filler. From German sausage and honey to hand crafted wind chimes and children’s toys, the market is an ideal haven for those looking for something a little bit kooky.
It’s at night, however, when the market really comes to life. The twinkling lights, the sound of the vintage carousel and the smell of frankfurters are a delight to the senses, that can’t help but put you in a festive mood.
For a real taste of Germany, end your day in the bierkeller where Oompah bands entertain a lively crowd with their own interpretations of songs written by Hamburg’s adopted sons, The Beatles.
Millennium Square, Leeds
Google map: tinyurl.com/y8q85ok
Bath Christmas Market sits in the best location in the city - between Bath Abbey and the Roman Baths. You can wander round the little wooden chalets and see all the gorgeous wares on offer, while sipping mulled wine and sampling (my favourite) good west country cheese! Being able to look up and see the beautiful Abbey towering over you just adds to the Christmas cheer.
It’s November and already there’s one house with a flashing “Santa stop here” sign. I grumble a bit but if I’m honest, I don’t mean it. I love Christmas and can’t wait to dust off my Dickensian street scene advent calendar. If like me you love ye old Christmas and festive joy, then head to Grassington in the beautiful Yorkshire Dales for the annual Dickensian Christmas Market/Festival. The locals dress to impress in traditional Victorian costume and entertain with the toe tingling sound of a brass band, choir and nativity. Indulge in this traditional Christmas market by staying till dusk to properly soak up the magic that is Christmas.
Google map: tinyurl.com/ylcmwqq
There are several markets scattered across the city: arts & crafts, ethical, farmers'. But the daddy of them all is of course the German market in Princes St Gardens. Giant wheel, ice skating and mulled wine with the backdrop of the formidable Edinburgh Castle - unbeatable!
I’ve never visited a Christmas market on the continent – but feel as though I’ve visited several! Manchester boasts not one, but seven Christmas markets. In reality there are two large squares filled with a market each. These two markets overspill into nearby streets, and as they do so their characters morph. There is a large variety of food and drink available, as well as a wide choice of Christmas gifts. My favourite is the German market in Exchange Square (for me this has more of an authentic atmosphere than the larger, more mixed market in Albert Square). As you walk toward the Arndale Centre, the German market gives way to a number of contemporary art and craft stalls. There’s certainly something to suit everyone and if you wish to escape the hustle and bustle of the markets and shops, you can view the crowds from above by taking a ride on the Wheel of Manchester!
Manchester city centre - Exchange Square, Albert Square and nearby streets.
Spending Christmas in such a metropolitan area like Rome is really wonderful. Italy has a very romantic feel to it with its cobbled pavements, cozy cafes and historic landmarks. The Colosseum looks even better during the festive period, with a beautifully adorned tree that sits on its doorstep. There are also plenty of other things to see during this time of year besides the landmarks, including choirs, Christmas markets (like in the Piazza Navona) and Catholic mass on Christmas Eve. Just a wonderful time of the year to be in Italy.
Various; Rome City Centre
The ice rink at Somerset House is surely the most romantic place to go on a winter's night. Enjoy the mulled wine and the good music in a twinkling winter wonderland. Don't bother with the skating unless you've been practising. Spectating is much warmer.
The Strand, nr Waterloo Bridge nearest station Covent Garden, Charing Cross, Waterloo.
For more travel tips and holiday advice visit www.bitesandblisters.co.uk
If you’ve never attempted ice-skating before then this is a great time to try it out – on an outdoor rink. A few places in and around London, most notably the Tower of London, Hampton Court and Somerset House, have converted large areas into makeshift rinks over the festive period and it’s a great place to take the family, partners or just a bunch of mates.
I’ve been three Decembers in a row and it’s such great fun and very reasonably priced too which is always a bonus! Just make sure to pack a scarf, thick socks and some warm gloves...
Somerset House, Strand, London, WC2R 1LA
The Christmas window display in Galeries Lafayette is a must for all ages, but especially if you are travelling with children. The clever French even provide a little wooden platform with steps for the children to stand on. This year it is a pink Alice in Wonderland theme. While you are there don't forget the souvenir shop on the 6th floor which is surprisingly good value, and from there walk up the steps on to the roof to see all of Paris for free.
Galeries Lafayette, Boulevard Haussman, Paris 8
I’m British through and through but nothing says Christmas more passionately than Brugge does each December. The Belgians of course have two celebrations with the Feast of Sint Niklaas coming early in the month!
The city streets are beautifully decked out with twinkling lights and window displays and the main and smaller squares like Market Square and Simon Stevinplein have their stalls selling all kinds of gift, food and drink specialties. It’s a picture book / chocolate box place that you may wander and wonder around in the warmth of their hospitality and friendliness - and in safety.
My ideal 24 hours? I set off on a Friday afternoon straight down the M20 from London and directly into the Eurotunnel terminal from the motorway. Go to the toilet, buy a drink, drive onto the train – 25 minutes of rest – drive off the train, to the end of the tunnel road, turn right and just keep on straight for 55 minutes and there is the Bruges turn-off – 10 minutes later I am parked in the centre. Nothing could be easier and hardly needs a map or GPS!
If I just kept walking around the main central triangle of the city it would only take me some 15 minutes to do so – but there is so much to see that is worthwhile. Ice Skating in Markt, climb the Belfry, eat Flemish beer stew and photograph the canals and picturesque buildings as the sun sets and the sky glows. You are never far away from where your hotel is and it is so easy to take a small break to recuperate and re-energise!
Saturday is market day at Tzand (square next to bus station) – buy wonderful cheeses to take home; visit The Church of our Lady to see the Michelangelo Madonna with Child statue and take a canal boat trip, a museum visit or a romantic Horse and Carriage ride around the cobbled streets. Too much to do – so little time!
Now don’t forget those chocolates, those fresh cream pralines. Much much cheaper than the UK and guaranteed to produce sounds of delight (and quiet munching noises). I also buy ginger bread, chocolate figures and honey waffle biscuits.
Driving home; quickly visit a supermarket in Belgium for very good beer at low prices. Try a jar of Advocaat as this goes great on ice cream or Christmas pudding! Wine is also reasonable in price here.
… and it’s back to Coquilles to catch the train back home. Mission accomplished… Tired and very Happy!
Here’s a link to learn more oldchocolatehouse.com/links.html
Send your feedback or queries to firstname.lastname@example.org