Sunday, December 18, 2011

Winter wonders

Winter wonders
Triwik Kurniasari, The Jakarta Post, BRUSSELS/PARIS/HAMBURG | Sun, 12/18/2011 11:38 AM
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People have fun at Ice Rink near The Grand Place in Brussels.People have fun at Ice Rink near The Grand Place in Brussels.Despite the gloomy winter weather, this freezing season is a pleasant time of the year to visit Europe, as you can experience the impressive Christmas markets in cities around the Continent.

When a friend discovered my plan to visit Europe during winter, she quickly responded, “Don’t come to Europe over Christmas. Most shops will be closed because people will have a long end-of-year holiday.

“Come at least two weeks before Christmas so you get to see the Christmas markets, which boast not only decorated Christmas trees but also traditional winter delicacies, all the things that you cannot find in Indonesia,” she added.

I followed her suggestion and, indeed, she was totally right. During my two-week trip around Europe in wintertime, I even got a special bonus: a lot of snow, which apparently arrived much earlier than usual.

By Indonesian standards, being able to feel snow in your hands is like a kid getting his or her first toy, as we don’t have snow in our tropical country.

Most cities in Europe feature Christmas markets, with many starting sometime between late November and early December and finishing in the middle or end of December; some even run until early January.

My Christmas market tour kicked off in Brussels, the comic capital of Belgium. After roaming around the city’s leading attractions, such as The Atomium monument and miniature model park, Mini Europe, by daylight, I walked to the Grand Place when it got dark.

Another hint from my friend: Christmas markets are best enjoyed at night when the lights are on. The town hall was decorated with lights of several different colors and displaying patterns for the festivity, while there were also other musical and light displays several times during the evenings.

A giant Christmas tree was placed in the center of the square and a large Christmas market spread through the cobbled streets and squares around the Grand Place.

A vast number of wooden huts with divine sparkling lights, with snow on their roofs, had been set up and offered a variety of Christmas goodies, decorations and gifts, as well as enticing, warm and scrumptious food and beverages.

That night, the temperature dropped two degrees, from minus five to minus three, and yet every degree counted as it was getting cold. A glass of steaming hot wine, locally known as vin chaud or glühwein, on a chilly evening was like an oasis in a scorching hot desert.

It is a traditional winter drink made from warmed mulled wine mixed with spices, such as lemon zest, cinnamon sticks and cloves.

You can enjoy it in either small, medium or large glasses, starting from ¤2, and you may want to add amaretto (an Italian, sweet, almond-flavored liqueur), rum or cointreau, into your drink for an additional cost.

Delicious aromas of delicacies, such as the famous Belgian waffles and crêpes, were truly hard to resist. Other international dishes, such as hot dogs, hamburgers and french fries were also seen in some booths.

My friends and I made a stop at a crêpe stall, which offered a very extensive menu, to recharge our energy. Like many other crêpe booths in the area, the vendor offered two kinds of crêpes: sucrée (sweet) and salée (savory).

For sweet crepes, the vendor usually puts white sugar, speculaas cookies, marmalade or chocolate spread, while the savory ones are made with cheese, foie gras, meat or ham.

Note that in Brussels locals mostly speak French, so the menu available was in French as well.

To increase the festive mood, there was an ice-skating rink, an old-fashioned carousel and a ferris wheel at the end of the road. Toddlers got special treatment in a separate small rink to enjoy this winter sport.

Just for fun, we took a ride on the ferris wheel to take in the excellent views from the top, from where we could see the lively market area with its gleaming, cheerful lights.

After spending two nights in Brussels, I headed to Paris, popularly known as la ville-lumière or the city of lights, which had a number of Christmas markets in town.

Bundled up in jackets, sweaters, gloves, scarves and beanies, my friend and I wandered through a market on the Avenue des Champs-Elysées, which is the largest Christmas market in Paris.

The market extends from the Champs-Elysées roundabout to the Place de la Concorde, on both sides of the streets. To reach the market, take a metro and stop either at Champs Elysées-Clemenceau or Concorde.

At some food stalls along the streets, you could find saucisson, a variety of big, dried sausage and typically made of pork, or a mixture of pork and other meats.

The market was a heaven for those with a sweet tooth, as many booths indulged visitors with a wide array of sweet treats such as fruits with chocolate fondue, and dried fruit candies.

Huge bars of chocolates – dark, milky and white – were mostly labeled with fabrication artisanale (home made) and sold for 3 a piece. The more you buy, the less you pay.

We went along the street and had a look at what each stall had to offer. Where the road ended, we saw the noted Paris Eye on icy, slippery concrete, which had been turned into an impromptu playground by children who were enjoying themselves sliding along the frozen surface.

Having traveled around Paris for a few days, I took a bus to Hamburg to see what the second-largest city in Germany had to offer. Try to ask people in Germany which is the most wonderful Christmas market and the answer will be “the one in Nuremberg or Nürnberg”, a city in the southern part of the country, in the state of Bavaria.

Since Nuremberg was not part of my itinerary, I decided to stick to my plan to visit the market in Hamburg to get a taste of Germany’s traditions.

One of the prettiest markets was set just outside Hamburg’s marvelous town hall, which had been transformed into an amusement park with Christmas decorations, including Santa Claus and Rudolph, his red-nosed reindeer.

Here, we discovered lots of alluringly adorned stalls selling typical German produce, such as gingerbread from Nuremberg, pretzels (a brown, crispy and salty crust on the outside while soft in the inside) and, of course, glühwein.

One special thing that you can enjoy is sipping a mug of glühwein on a Lake Alster boat tour. Artisans, craftsmen and silversmiths from all over Germany also invited us all to marvel at the atmosphere in Hamburg.

 At a glance, each and every Christmas market offers similar things, but it is the nuances that differ from one to another.

Have a joyful Christmas, everyone!


— Photo by Triwik Kurniasari

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