The well-wrapped crowds move together under the flickering pinpricks of a thousand glowing fairy lights. A chorus of carols blends perfectly with a rattling of sleigh bells and the excited chatter. I huddle beneath a faux wood cabin, clutching my steaming wine to my chest with both hands, taking in the bouquet of sweet aromas emanating from the vendors flogging festive treats. Wroclaw, it seems, knows how to put on a Christmas market.
Wroclaw, or Poland in general, wouldn’t be most people’s first choice for a festive city break. I can see why. When I think of Christmas markets I tend to imagine picturesque German towns or cities; The huge central markets of Cologne set beneath the towering cathedral or the sprawling bazaars of Berlin. Maybe it is an idea that I have gained subliminally – most of the same such holiday fairs in the UK are advertised as Christkindlmarkts, selling typical German foods with German-sounding names above each of the stalls.
Then there is the rest of Central Europe. Tourists flock to charming cities such as Prague, Vienna and Budapest in search of the season’s cheer. Poland doesn’t really get a look-in. I suppose that’s why I’m here. Forever the contrarian, I wanted somewhere a little off-beat and with cheap flights. Wroclaw seemed to be the ideal destination. Afterall, it was a German city itself until the end of the Second World War.
I captured my first glimpse of the city’s market square early on my first day. Already, vendors bundles in their winter layers were opening their cabins, rubbing their gloved hands for warmth and breathing out white, icy clouds in the chill of the morning air. Odours of cinnamon, fruits and baked treats mixed with the aroma of smokey barbeques crackling with sausages. Despite its size, the market was dwarfed by the surrounding buildings; all pastel shades and Austrian bohemia, like an architectural rainbow wrapping itself around the Rynek.
It’s like an image from a fairytale, only added to by the imposing old town hall – a miraculous survivor of the 13th century – and the towering steeples of both St. Elizabeth and St. Mary Magdalene Churches. The fairytale theme is an idea that Wroclaw has embraced. Statues of Krasnales, Wroclaw’s infamous gnomes are scattered throughout the square and the Bajkowy Lasek (Fairy Tale Forest) contains animatronic dioramas telling stories to wide-eyed children, their faces pushed against the glass in awe of the moving characters. I couldn’t help but find it a little creepy myself; there’s something about dead-eyed medieval robots jerkily enacting storybook scenes that doesn’t sit well with me.
Animatronic monstrosities aside, the market is beautiful, even during the day. The shimmering, cone-like Christmas tree towers above even the square’s tallest buildings, its thousands of reflective baubles shining in the daylight. Santa rides his horse and cart around the outskirts of Rynek Starego Miasta as children gather to meet him and parents sipped from little red boots filled with mulled wine. I wandered past a dwarf house, strolled through a fairytale wood, sipped spiced drinks beneath the Christmas pyramid and started to feel tipsy within the fireplace house in the plaza’s northern corner. When it came to food, I couldn’t resist the scents emanating from the wooden stalls. I drooled over the sizzling kebabs and dripping pork knuckles but finally sated myself with a traditional sausage.
As much as I enjoy Christmas, I often begin December in a Grinch-like state, too busy to consider shopping and not quite ready to embrace the spirit of the season. As the month goes on, I find myself filling with cheer until I am ready to burst come Christmas day. Despite being in Wroclaw at the beginning of my annual Xmas evolution, it was definitely speeding up the process a little.
Jarmark Bożonarodzeniowych isn’t just confined to the main square, It spreads itself down Oławska and Świdnicka Streets where stalls brim with trinkets and souvenirs, all the way to Plac Nowy Targ where a neon tree and giant glowing presents jarringly sit in the centre of the grey, communist-era apartment buildings. In Plac Solny the cabins spread themselves among the 24-hour flower stalls, open just in case a passing casanova requires a bouquet for the object of his affection at 3 am. The celebrations even find themselves stretching as far away as the Oder, where the Tumski Bridge, famed for its thousands of ‘love locks’, becomes a show in itself, emblazoned with illuminated love hearts at night. For it is the night-time that the market really comes alive. As the sun sets, it seems that all of Wroclaw descends on the Old Town to gather beneath the pyramid and its spinning propellor.I joined them and meandered through the stalls, bunkering away from the evening chill in a wooden bar to sample more of the wine – at around £2.50 a pop, it’s hard to say no. I sipped it with a wince. For that price, I wasn’t expecting the quite the alcohol content. Raspberry, cherry and Christmas flavours adorned the menu and tried a few, the warming fluid quickly heating my stomach and in turn, the rest of me.
We ended our final night in Wroclaw on the second level of Plac Solny’s bar, perched on a balcony overlooking the madness and lights below. In the distance, the floodlit landmarks of the Old Town Hall, St. Elizabeth’s church and the pastel facades where joined by the temporary landmarks of Christmas; the pyramid and the sparkling tree. Muffled music echoed from a distant stage and finally, white powder the size of marbles began to fall from the sky, settling around my boot-shaped mug in a perfectly timed Christmas miracle.
With the hot spices flowing through me and warming my soul, I could feel the season finally engulf me.
What is the best Christmas market you have ever visited? Let me know in the comments! – Keep scrolling for more festive photographs of Wroclaw
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