Perhaps even more than the big day itself, the lead up to Christmas provides us with enough excitement to last us the year. That’s certainly true with a visit to a Christmas market or two, which is why we took a trip to mainland Europe, the spiritual home of Christmas (sorry, Lapland).
From the market’s beginnings in the 14th century as a place for the town to congregate, sell their wares and sing carols, it’s exploded into one of the biggest tourism seasons in the calendar. In the Belgian capital of Brussels, a business city defined by the European institutions within it, winter means it suddenly becomes a tourist magnet as visitors descend from nearby countries and Brits step off the Eurostar in search of unique Christmas gifts (and a fun few days to boot). If you’re tempted, here are our pointers for doing their markets with minimum fuss and maximum Glühwein.
When to go
This year, the Christmas markets open from 25 November to 1 January 2017. Of course, the busiest time is the weeks leading up to Christmas, but rest assured there’s plenty of accommodation and amenities to handle the population swell.
What’s on offer
The Winter Wonders event encapsulates all of the city’s Christmas offerings and takes place around the Grote Market, the Bourse, the Place de la Monnaie, the Place Sainte-Catherine and the Marché aux Poissons.
Dozens of wooden chalets line up and ready for your business, selling everything from wooden board games to candied fruit. But when it comes to the goods themselves, unlike some other markets, there’s no dominant product – you’d be hard-pushed to find stalls selling similar items. The range means it’s relatively easy to find potential presents, though the main recipient of most of my purchases….was me.
More than an opportunity to shop, the Christmas markets are where friends gather during the winter months. As such, the many benches provided for those pausing for a chat and a break are heaving: at peak time, you’ll have to wait a few minutes before finding a seat.
Of course, Belgian waffles and frites are available, but the most popular stall is the one selling Tartiflette: a not-so-Belgian but comforting combination of potatoes, ham and cheese. Another novel dish is boules de Noël, a pizza pie with warming fillings including chorizo, pancetta and cheese.
Yet my winner of yummiest food at the market was the Speculoos pastel de nata: the Portuguese custard tart improved by a hidden dollop of Belgium’s favourite biscuit spread. Calories, get in us now.
With the social element of Christmas markets becoming ever-more important, its bar areas are welcome despite Leffe, the Belgian beer, treating it as a branding opportunity. Still, there’s always the Champagne bar, with bottles around €45.
Mostly though, the market is the place to go for hot alcoholic drinks. Glühwein is ubiquitous and tasty, and costs between €2-3 (plus €1 deposit for the glass). But there’s also hot apple cider, which is basically like eating a pie, and Irish coffees, to be found in the Irish pub stall. Yes, of course there’s an Irish pub stall.
Across the city centre, there are plenty of highlights put on for visitors, from the ice rink to the Lotto-sponsored Ferris wheel, to antique-style merry-go-rounds that hark back to the days of wooden toys and cherubic children.
At night, when the markets really come alive, there are a number of sound and light shows, including an origami-style one against St Catherine’s Church. But the biggest and best takes place at Grote Markt, where every half hour or hour (depending on the day of the week) there’s an immersive light show soundtracked by Felix de Laet, aka Lost Frequencies.
The 15-minute performance illuminates the historic, imposing and magnificent buildings of the square, making it impossible not to marvel at the UNESCO World Heritage-protected site. If you’ve got it, this is how to flaunt it.
Where to stay
Not short of a hotel or two, Brussels has a wide range of accommodation within the pedestrianised, cobbled streets of the centre. But I chose to stay at the Radisson Red, an offshoot of the chain that appeals to a trendier traveller.
While a 25-minute walk away from the centre, the cool af hotel provided a piece of Berlin industrial chic in Brussels, with Disclosure on the stereo and bold decor in its entrance as well as the rooms. Throw in a made-to-order brekkie to the mix, and you’re onto a winner.
How to get there
The Eurostar takes two hours from St Pancras, costing £58 return if you’re lucky. But if pricier tickets, long security queues and never-ending walks to gates are your thing, the city is also serviced by British Airways, Brussels Airlines and BMI Regional.