Thursday, 18 December 2014

Christmas Spirit in Poland

I'd been a right Scrooge up until the 11th December.  I didn't want to put the tree up (far too much effort), I hadn't sent any Christmas cards (no time), I hadn't decorated my desk (work is really, really hectic at the moment) and I've scowled at carol singers (if you are going to sing, sing in tune please!).

As of this week though the tree is up and decorated, cards are covering our living room doors, I've eaten mince pies, watched Christmas 24 movies and finished and wrapped all my Christmas shopping, including placing my colour co-ordinated packages artistically in wicker baskets under the tree.

I think my change of heart is due to this place
This is the historic market square of Wroclaw, the second largest city in Poland, located in the Silesian Lowlands (don't worry, I had to check Google maps as well).  It's an ancient and beautiful city stretched out on the River Oder across a number of small islands.  It is famed for its music, arts and culture (and in fact will be the European City of Culture 2016), but if there is one thing that Wroclaw really knows how to do, it's Christmas.

Steve and I took a couple of days of annual leave for a weekend city break to Wroclaw to visit the famous Christmas markets and explore the city.  We booked the Art Hotel right in the centre (about 30 seconds from the markets and less than 5 minute walk from most of the main sights), got some cheap flights from Stanstead and flew out on the Thursday morning.  We left our house at 5.30am.  By midday we were in our hotel.
We spent the evenings of our little break exploring the market, which stretched out over the entire of the market square and down the side streets.  This is the real hub of the city as the perimeter of the square is littered with hundreds of bars, restaurants, cafe's, pubs and clubs, all situated inside tall, slender buildings each coloured a different pastel hue that go on for what seems to be miles inside.
Every stand is made in the traditional style wooden hut, with paintings and photographs of Christmas scenes and fairy tales on the back.  Each is unique and covered in lights and decorations.  Christmas trees are everywhere, propping up the stands and bars, sandwiched between fences and hiding picnic benches.  It looks as though a small section of the Black Forest has upped itself and wandered into the square.
The main bars are located at the ends of the market square and have pretty distinctive shapes! Christmas music is played from them, often with Polish translated lyrics and all around you can see people drinking from their ceramic boots and bopping along to the Christmas cheer.

You aren't given plastic cups, or even glasses at the bar, but instead you get specially made Wroclaw drinking boots.  At the bar you pay 10 zloty (£2) deposit for your boot, and then fill it with your choice of hot chocolate with amaretto or baileys and cream or various types of mulled wine.  These drinks range from 10-12 zloty, and when you finished you returned your cup for your deposit money back.  This system means you can wander around the market or sit at one of the bar fire pits, drink in hand, quite happily, refilling at different bars for as long as you want (and can stand upright for).
There are a huge number of food stands as well to help you soak up all that spiced wine.  Whilst the number of stands is plentiful, the actual variety of savory foods is quite limited.  There are fish soups and meat and pickle on breads, and grill stands with huge, swinging grills hanging from the centre, covered in Polish sausages, sauerkraut and pork steaks, chicken and pork kebabs with what I thought was apple but turned out to be hunks of onion.  The bread is served dry.  I must admit, I wasn't a big fan of the meat as I found it all to be quite fatty and sickly.  The kebabs are cooked with slices of pork fat sandwiched between the chunks of pork; a fact that I didn't realise and nearly ended up chomping down on.  It was all however cheap, hot, freshly cooked to order and filling.
There were also stands serving portions of what Steve and I thought were sweet pastries with jam.  Turns out they were actually portions of grilled smoked cheese - a bit of a shock when we first tried one, as the flavour was not what we were expecting at all!
If the savory options were limited, the sweet options were vast.  There were stands of jelly sweets and straws, dried fruit, chocolate covered pears and toffee apples, fresh fried churros, gingerbread, giant haribo and, Steve's favourite, warm caramalised nuts.  If you don't have something sweet to munch on to hand, you may wish to look away for the next batch of photo's!
The market is a brilliant place to bring children.  You can basically get them completely high on sugar, massively overexcited by the Christmas overstimulation, and then let them loose in the kids area - a runaway mine train that has been turned into the Polar Express, fairy tale puppet shows in huts and fairground games and rides.  The screams of the kids on the Polar Express punctuated the Christmas music playing from the bars and gave Wroclaw a sound track that was unique.

A market cannot function on just food and drink (although this one was giving it a bloody good go).  All through the market were stands selling artisan goods, from handcrafted wooden toys to Christmas baubles, leather jackets to sheep's wool rugs, hats and gloves to religious iconography.  Jewellery stands stood next to oil and honey traders and artisan chocolates, and there was none of the calling from the stand owners that you get in the UK.  They allowed you to walk up and down, pausing and taking a closer look at anything that took your fancy.
There were also special sights, including the entertainers who walked up and down the market on the Saturday (I spotted the gnome, but he looked like he was on a bit of a mission), and every Sunday there is a parade which we sadly missed due to our flight back home.  There was even a working blacksmith and an ice artist creating a sculpture of Santa's sleigh.
The market square felt like it was straight out of the Bavarian fairy tales, with a truly magical atmosphere.  I couldn't keep the grin off my face and felt like I was 5 years old again, waiting for Santa to arrive.

Quite frankly, I had found my Christmas spirit within 30 seconds of arriving.
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