I’m not a natural shopper, there’s precious little in the experience that’s enjoyable. So the prospect of wandering around an outdoor market for hours on end in the freezing cold is not something that I take lightly. My general approach to the now seasonal torment of Xmas markets is to seize the opportunity to sample as many varieties of mulled wine (glühwein in Germany or the Dutch bisschopswijn) as possible.
It’s not even that I like mulled wine, but if you’re going to be dragged around an Xmas market with 10,000 other tourists it’s wise to do so in a slightly inebriated condition. Time passes so much more quickly that way and it dulls the senses to the endless chirruping of carols. While we’re on the subject, if carols are so bloody great why don’t we sing them the rest of the year?
I blame Germany for this whole Xmas market nonsense. I’m sure there was a time when they were purely local affairs: a few stalls selling plucked geese and glühwein in steins. Not anymore. Thanks to places like Cologne it has become a multi-million euro business that sees people leave the warmth of their homes and head to northern Europe, just to buy some wooden ornaments that were probably hand crafted by a machine in a workshop somewhere a long way from northern Europe.
Shopping for gifts isn’t even the primary reason for Xmas markets. My experience has been that Xmas markets are places you go to eat and drink at multiple stalls selling the sort of food that doesn’t typically come with a vegetable accompaniment.
I’m as keen on a sausage in a bun as the next person. It doesn’t, however, constitute a reason for crawling out of bed to join thousands of other bewildered people as they trawl around a lot of stalls in the freezing cold. Xmas markets are like full contact sports; expect to be barged, pushed and beaten in the melee of people trying to get to the front of a very long queue to drown their sorrows with glühwein.
So it was that I found myself on a train heading towards the town of Haarlem. I’ve been to Haarlem before and it’s a lovely place that, on a Saturday, has a very good ‘normal’ market in the Grote Markt. I figured if they can do a reasonable market week-in-week-out, they might be able to put on a good Xmas market.
I returned home without any gifts but with a warm glow inside and feeling a little tipsy from the intoxicating fumes of excessive mulled wine consumption. Santa with an accordion may well have been a hot wine and clove-induced illusion.
I’m being unfair. Haarlem Christmas Market was a lot of fun. There were choirs and musicians to enliven things, although the seriously out of tune junior choir was enough to send me back for another glass of bisschopswijn. It wasn’t too crowded. There were more sausage in a bun stalls than even I’d anticipated, but there were also a lot of hand made gifts on sale. I had the most delicious cinnamon-flavoured stroopwafel hot from the griddle.
Plus, and for once in this post quite seriously, the Haarlem Xmas Market was used as a fundraiser for the Hands Off Our Girls campaign, which works to end sexual violence against women and girls during war or in conflict zones. Not a particularly Christmassy theme, but definitely worth supporting…and the mulled wine at their stall was by far-and-away the best I tasted all day.