Xmas markets, like Xmas jumpers, divide opinion. Love or hate them though, they are hard to avoid at this time of year. The only thing that persuades me to join crowds of people aimlessly milling around in freezing weather is the ready availability of glühwein. This hot, wine-based, cinnamon-flavoured alcohol is the true ‘Spirit of Christmas’, whatever the Coca Cola Corporation would have us believe.
Last year the Dickens Festival in Deventer was excellent, less a market and more an opportunity to eat and drink amidst Dickensian scenes performed by local residents dressed in authentic costumes. Haarlem’s Xmas market was a more typical affair, with stalls selling things that could easily be found in the comfort of a warm shop, but came with a large number of glühwein stalls.
This year, we’d heard Maastricht’s Xmas market was worth visiting. I did a bit of research and it was listed as the ‘fourth best Xmas market in the Netherlands’ on a Dutch expat website*, which is hardly a recommendation. Setting aside my grave misgivings, and with suitably low expectations, we jumped on the train and headed for Xmas fun.
The first alarm bells went off when there didn’t seem to be any glühwein. Let’s be clear, they should give the stuff away for free; not being offered a glass within 60 seconds of arrival should be punishable by being force fed that other disappointing Xmas ‘treat’, Oliebollen. When we eventually found the glühwein it was the mass produced type that lacked any Christmassy-ness. Not a good start.
Things didn’t get much better as we wandered through the market stalls. Maybe it was the lack of glühwein, or maybe the over-commercialised forced Xmas bonhomie, but I was disappointed by the ‘fourth best Xmas market in the Netherlands’. There was a large ice skating rink and a ferris wheel which looked fun but, despite being situated in the beautiful Vrijthof square, it was a bit of a let down.
Luckily the rest of Maastricht had gone the extra mile, turning itself into the epitome of the Xmas idyll. The historic heart of this beautiful city had lovely decorated streets, lots of Xmas lights and fabulously dressed shop windows. The town has a reputation, at least amongst the people I know, as having the best food in the Netherlands, and there are a lot of good restaurants serving French and Belgium-inspired food.
Maastricht also has some fun bars for popping into when you’re feeling the winter chill and in need of some warmth and atmosphere. Add to that a town that is packed full of the weird (a church converted into a book shop) and the wonderful (the oldest bridge in the Netherlands), and it was definitely worth the journey. We’ll be back when the weather is a bit warmer and the Xmas market has been packed away.