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Published November 20th 2020
Christmas markets are street fairs traditionally held in the town square during the four weeks of Advent leading to Christmas. They likely stemmed from Vienna's "December markets" dating from 1298. Munich held the first actual "Christmas Market" in 1310.
One nice thing about the Belgium Markets is all but Liege and Leuven remain open into the first week of January. This year, they're not open due to the Covid-19 pandemic, so I thought we could all remember last year's while looking forward to next.
The markets have food, drinks and seasonal items for purchase from open-air "chalets" amidst traditional singing and dancing. We quickly learned how similar the markets were. Each gorgeous in its own way, with the location special for different reasons, but with similar booths, similar crafts, similar games and similar food.
Knitted goods. Olive woods. Santa hats and winter caps. Christmas ornaments and decorations. Mugs. Alpine houses. Intricate jewellery. Homey goods. Pottery. Brilliant illustrations.
Belgian waffles and Flemish fries. Potato swirls. Hot chocolate. Appelbottons. Empanadas. All the meats of the day.
So, what are the differences?
How cold is it at the top of a ferris wheel in December?
The most carnival-like of all the markets we visited, enter Hasselt to the smells of carnival food from meat to crepes. With a brilliant Ferris wheel, best-kept ice rink, carousel, fun house and twirly ride, you can toss rings, shoot arrows at water balloons, take a sack down the slide or put the kiddos on a little train.
Ghent doesn't have the canal of Bruges, or the bustle of Brussels, but has the most family feel to it at the confluence of the rivers Scheldt and Leie. You may wonder why any city would need two cathedrals across a square from each other. Then spot two more behind them and something with monkey looking sculptures coming off the sides.
Press through the vendors to find the Christmas Meatball, filled with cranberries and served with mashed potatoes and gravy.
The gothic St Bavo Cathedral celebrates mass.
The second church? Surprise! It's an Etsy pop up store.
The third church? A shopping mall. Clothes, coffee, free trade goods.
One building all tied up in a golden bow… Frites Atelier. In Belgium, their fries are taken very seriously, so it makes sense they'd need an art designer.
When your friends learn you're travelling to Belgium, the first, second, and third places they'll tell you to visit is Bruges. The comparison to Venice is immediate and intentional. Some call it the "Venice of the North."
Festive and crowded. Beautiful churches. Colourful courtyards.
Finish your trip with a surprisingly quick horse and carriage ride around the city or square.
Bruges Christmas Market: the Belgium Waffle vendor
Make your first visit to Grand Place on Christmas Eve, bathed in a gentle green, reminiscent of the northern lights. The square is grand and includes a Christmas tree center with a life-size nativity and donkey filled stable.
The Christmas Market and Ferris wheel are a mile from Grand Place.
After several Christmas Markets, you wonder what will be the new and exciting twist that will come next. In Antwerp, the market spreads across several blocks, winding from the Hilton Hotel to the river. The ice-skating rink appears the largest of the markets.
Follow the crowd toward de Kathedral, witness the annual art installation.
Move towards the river, more food, more vendors, several food and drink chalets, and now a few warming houses. Multiple languages celebrate the joy at finding a spot to stay warm and dry.
Cross the street for the Ferris wheel and check out the view of the River.
The festive spirit, and old school music, not always Christmas ('50s to '80s American music), kept people singing and dancing along the rows.
Whether it's the vendors with their lovely artisan goods, the food, from the meats, fries, waffles, and special treats by city, or the arcade rides that remind us of childhood, these markets provide fun, fresh, and relatively inexpensive entertainment on these dark and overcast mid-winter days.
Laughter, family, food, friends, the Christmas spirit in these beautiful locations. It's a lovely way to remember the reason for the season. And remember the Christmas Markets. They shall return.