Saturday, 9 September 2017

Going Krackers for Christmas in Krakow

Typical Krakow Christmas Market stalls (see bottom of post for picture attribution)
Travel forums are often littered at this time of year with people asking for advice on whether the Christmas Market of a particular city is worth visiting, and Krakow often features within this. 
Just about everywhere now seems to offer Christmas Markets and, certainly in the UK they are more often than not referred to as German Markets.
So, what is the Krakow market like during the festive period and is it worth booking a trip especially to visit it?
Having not perused every Christmas Market in every European city - I am no expert. However, what can be said in Krakow’s favour is that it has the luxury of one of the largest central squares in Europe in which to set it up. The spikey gothic columns of the St Mary’s Basilica and the chocolate box baroque buildings offer an atmospheric backdrop that many cities would envy. What also goes in its favour is that it runs in tandem with some pretty old festive Polish traditions which lend an air of authenticity to the atmosphere. In addition of course, there is the Polish climate which often obliges with some of the white stuff to dust the quant wooden huts and stalls. What could be better than sauntering amongst the smells of barbequeing sausages, mulled wine and sugary treats to the sound of gentle carolling by children and a sprinkling of fresh snow?


Barrels of mulled wine!
The market itself is usually set up and running by the end of November and will continue until the end of December (a portion of it remains beyond this date into the New Year period on one half of the square). This is because the 6th of January is Dzień Trzech Króli (Three Kings Day - Kaspar, Melchior and Balthazar) which is an official holiday with compulsory Mass. So in a lot of ways, Krakow’s Christmas may well last a lot longer than other cities. In fact, the tree and decorations will remain beyond the end of January, officially until the 2nd of February.
Festive, wintry Krakow at Christmas
To get things really underway in Krakow, there is the annual Krakow's Szopka parade (Christmas Cribs). These are ornate nativity scenes/mini theatres which are handmade. To look at, they often seem to be small replicas of Krakow buildings (most notably St Mary’s Baslica) which are decorated to look shiny and festive. In fact, they are so well made and intricate, it is difficult to believe they are actually hand crafted. Traditionally, they were crafted by masons whose work in the autumn had been curtailed by the weather and helped them while away the idle days. They really are pretty awesome though, and the best time to view them is the first Thursday of December where the crib constructors display their creations around the statue of Adam Mickiewicz in the Rynek (main square). The best are chosen to go on display in the City of Krakow Historical Museum at number 35 the Main Square (where you can also view the most impressive cribs from over the decades on show). Next to this is the superb art nouveau Europejska cafe which would be a wonderfully atmospheric place to take a rest from all the festivities.

Krakow Christmas Szopka
Picture by user:cancre CC BY-SA 2.5
Next on the festive calendar is December 6th. This is because in Poland this is Santa’s Name Day (Mikołaj - Nicholas) and therefore all the children in the city receive gifts from him at this point in the festive calendar. The tradition goes that children leave St Nick a letter on their windowsill on the night of the 5th for him to pick up and leave their requested gift behind the next morning.
Although the build up to Christmas Day itself – Adwent - is supposed to be a time of refraining from alcohol, partying and drinking, there is little evidence of this happening within the Christmas market. The organisers must simply assume there will be enough heathens and tourist gluttons to cater for on a giant scale to make it all worthwhile. There are vast wooden barrels from which lashings of grazniec (Polish mulled wine - pronounced Gshzah-nee-ets) are served. (Recipe for  grazniec) This is powerful stuff and I am always convinced that a sneaky shot of vodka gets slopped into it. Still, it is just the ticket for lending a euphoric air to staggering amongst the brightly lit trinket stalls. Additionally, the Poles uniquely also have a liking for mulled beer! Good luck with that – not to my taste I am afraid.
Classy festive trinkets for sale in the Krakow Christmas Market
Long wintry shadows at the Christmas Market
When the 24th itself arrives, children eagerly search for the first star appearing in the sky as darkness falls. When it does, it signals the start of an almighty 12 course feast for families. Traditionally, the festive table should have straw under the cloth (symbolises the manger Jesus lay in), an extra place should be set at the table for any stray travellers who might knock on your door (scary thought), Jesus himself or – one of your dead relatives (even more scary!). Once the feast is over, presents are shared and then many will venture out to attend midnight mass. Christmas Day itself is not as important as Christmas Eve, but still involves visiting family and friends for food and alcohol.
In Krakow, the market continues to thrive beyond Christmas Day, although half of it will be taken down so that an enormous stage for the New Year’s celebrations can be assembled.
Impressive stage for the New Year's  Eve concert being assembled in the main square in Krakow
So, all considered, go ahead and visit Krakow for the Christmas Market. It is wonderfully atmospheric and most importantly, authentic. As a bonus though, you will be absorbing the yuletide, winter season of one of the most vibrant cities in Europe. Just remember to pack your thermals!
Snow, frozen rivers, castles and Christmas - what more could you want?
Three Kings Day in Krakow - Dzień Trzech Króli (6th January)

Christmas stalls picture at top of post attributed to:- Silar Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

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