A photo tour at Christmas to Austria, Hungary and Slovakia
When my family lived in Holland and then France 20 years ago, during Advent we traveled every weekend, mostly to Germany to a new Christmas market. We’d wander the stalls for hours taking breaks where we would wrap our mitten clad hands around mugs of Glühwein (which delightfully translates roughly to “glow wine”) and enjoy the atmosphere. Each market would have something unique to offer, and visiting was a great way not just to get into the Christmas spirit and get some shopping done, but to observe and experience a location’s subtleties.
No matter what market one is visiting it’s hard to know what to focus on. There is the always impressive macro view with its festive market stalls against the backdrops of town squares, each offering more sparkly micro views than one can possibly take in. Particularly for anyone looking to do some serious shopping, the big markets are sometimes better, while there are small treasures to be found at the small markets too.
I just returned from a whirlwind tour of cities in Austria, Hungary and Slovakia by train with Eurail Travel, where among other things, I had the opportunity to visit the local Christmas market or markets at each location. At each rail stop, the local Christmas market in some way captured the personality of each place. With room in my suitcase for only the flattest, lightest, and least fragile of items, little shopping was done, but Christmas markets, as you will see, are about much more than that.
The word for the Vienna Christmas markets is “grand”
Like the city itself, everything about Christmas in Vienna is “grand.” Each boulevard is uniquely decorated in a bold style that runs from traditional to the more modern. Large Christmas markets selling everything Germanic your heart and stomach may desire are held on major squares throughout the city.
Even the soft pretzels in Vienna take the prize for being the most “grand.”
Christmas in Vienna is within sight from every street corner. If not, wait a minute and it may even come to you.
Christmas in Salzburg is quietly elegant
The city that brought the world “Silent Night” in 1818 does not have to work hard to get ready for Christmas. To me Salzburg seems to quietly embody its Christmas heritage in a manner that is both welcoming and elegant.
Rounding every corner in the compact city of Salzburg offers a new gift.
A fancy restaurant with a welcoming courtyard selling Glühwein is discovered just beyond the austere entrance to a former Benedictine abbey.
As I thread my way through the market stalls, I hear a pitch perfect harmony of children’s voices that I assume are a recording just like they are at the mall at home. When it turns out to not be a recording but coming from a very real choir of young people singing on the steps of the cathedral at one end, I am momentarily awed and become slightly, but permanently less cynical.
Then there is more Glühwein. I am introduced to something that my sweet tooth likes better, another warm alcoholic drink I’ve seen available everywhere, Orangen Punsch.
Christmas in Budapest felt very local
If ever there were a time to try a lot of Hungarian specialties, it would be a the Budapest Christmas market. Fortunately I was with my friend, local Zita Nagy (she has an amazing food blog, Zizi’s Adventures) for this part of my time in Hungary. Unfortunately I’d been eating non-stop for 4 days by the time I arrived here and couldn’t eat much!
Chimney cake (Kürtöskalács in Hungarian) is the one local specialty that Zita absolutely insisted I try. And I was so glad I did! As you watch, dough is rolled out, cut into strips and wound around a spit, rolled in sugar and different flavors such as coconut and cinnamon that you choose. Then cooked over an open fire.
When the chimney cakes are removed from the spit they are wrapped in plastic and handed to you. The steam makes them “smoke” like chimneys. As you walk around you peel off pieces bit by bit to eat. Zita compared them to American funnel cakes. I found the texture to be more like soft pretzels – with a pretzel like crust and yeasty inside. Chimney cake is enjoyed year round in Hungary.
I found I liked the Glühwein (forralt bor in Hungarian and vareney vino in Slovakian) in Hungary and Slovakia the best. In Budapest what I sampled seemed to be made with better wine and had a touch of paprika and lemon rind. Regretfully there was no room in my suitcase for one of the green ceramic serving containers!
Cabbage is a staple food in this region and was always deliciously prepared. Even non-fans might be tempted to try the stuffed cabbages such as the ones pictured above.
Košice, Slovakia, was youthful and energetic (and with built in Christmas trees covered in picture perfect snow)
Košice, which has been named the European Capital of Culture for 2013, is teeming with youthful energy. I, being not so young, got a leg cramp and couldn’t walk for a good part of our time here. I would love to return someday! I was struck by the town’s wide boulevard leading up to the cathedral pictured above and can’t help but think it would be an outstanding rail stop for travelers, especially in the warmer months.
Here I took a day off from the Glühwein (or vareney vino.) It seemed such a long way to the stalls of the town’s small Christmas market on the ice with my bum leg. While skating/limping to dinner, I noticed the structure pictured above from which hot beverages were served. I loved how it was an old structure but lit up in a modern way and seemed to serve as a magnet for people of all ages to socialize.
Trencin, has everything to do with Santa… to me anyway
Our last train stop before returning to Vienna, was Trencin, Slovakia. The village’s Christmas market was the smallest one I visited. Stalls were mostly dedicated to selling vareny vino, sheep’s cheese oriented food and several other hot drinks. At one the vendor pointed to a sugar bowl and gestured for me to add a spoonful of sugar to my white vareny vino. My now out of control sweet tooth appreciated this.
Working at the stall with the blue lights in the above photograph was a young woman who seemed very excited to practice her English. She introduced me to a local food specialty, Grilovaný oštiepok, grilled sheep’s cheese and cranberry sauce served on bread.
Then I spotted this person busily beading, slightly obscured behind his handiwork and under his hat.
I don’t know about you, but I’m convinced he was the Slovakian Santa.
Thank you Eurail Travel for a great 11 days. When all was said and done, I can say that traveling by train is a wonderful way to experience a few of the Christmas markets of Europe. If you would like to plan to visit some of the European Christmas markets by train, a great place to start is the Eurail Travel website.
All photos by the author.