Christmas Markets: Coming to a market near you
Chestnuts roasting over open fires. Mulled wine wafting through the winter chill. Vintage carousels jangling, wooden toys lined up in chintzy chalets and frosty-breathed families tucking into hot gingerbread. There really is nothing like a Christmas market.
Not long ago, of course -- call it the Ghost of Christmas Past -- festive markets were seen almost exclusively as a European thing, the ideal excuse for a festive jaunt to cities like Vienna, Prague and Munich. Santa ain't as forthcoming in recession, however, and the notion of taking a city break simply to fill stockings doesn't sit as easily with the Ghost of Christmas Present.
Just as well, then, that more continental-style markets than ever are appearing in Ireland. Shoppers no longer need to go overseas to sup glÃ¼hwein, hit the funfair or gobble down hot chocolate and swirly lollipops from wooden huts. They really are spoilt for choice right here at home.
Take Galway (galwaychristmasmarket.ie; November 25 to December 18), where the annual Continental Christmas Market takes place right in the middle of things in Eyre Square.
Some 70 chalets flogging handmade decorations and toys, Bavarian trinkets, festive puppets and snacks like Polish sausages and candied fruits promise to turn the City of Tribes into the City of Tinsel until 10pm every evening.
A Big Top will be centre stage at the market this year, with fashion shows, wine tasting and food demos all lined up to get punters into the spirit of things.
Galway is also famous for its Bierkeller -- a traditional German beer tent guaranteed to put a glow in the cheeks, and families should watch out for Santa's grotto, a Christmas lantern parade and vintage amusements, too.
Amusements are just the start of it at the 7UP Winter Wonderland in Dublin, a Christmas campus at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham that promises to be Ireland's biggest winter park.
No matter how foggy the evening, Rudolph won't have trouble finding this one. The 7UP Winter Wonderland (7upwinterwonderland.ie; December 8 to January 8) will feature Ireland's largest ice rink, a big wheel, a seasonal circus and amusement rides like Mission Space, which will propel passengers 80 metres into the Dublin skyline -- so let's hope nobody knocks Santa out of his sleigh.
The market element to the park will see dozens of traditional wooden chalets, straight from the cover of an Austrian chocolate box.
Many will be run by the artisans themselves, so expect to be tempted by handmade ceramics, Christmas candles, glasswork, wooden toys and old-fashioned ornaments.
The place will be awash with star lights and startlingly tasty bratwursts.
Festive foodie smells are always at the heart of a good Christmas bash -- and there's no shortage of those at Limerick's Milk Market (limerickmilkmarket.ie; Thursday-Sunday, November 25-December 24).
In recent years, the city's Cornmarket hub has been revamped with a spanking new canopy, meaning you can nibble your way from one artisan treat to the next, no matter what the weather.
And there will be nibbles. Think of Peter Ward holding court in his Country Choice pavillion, dishing out locally produced cheeses and meats, whilst 60 or more stalls around him serve up the best mince pies, crepes, chutneys, currant loaves and coffees in Munster.
There'll be crafts and bric-a-brac to beat the band too and several choirs singing carols for charity causes.
More foodie treats are due at Taste of Christmas (November 25-27), where the headline event is a live theatre show of MasterChef Ireland.
After watching Crimbo cook-offs hosted by Dylan and Nick, visitors to Dublin's National Convention Centre can step into Catherine Fulvio's interactive kitchen, browse Heaton's 'Spirit of Christmas' store and spend their florins (the traditional 'Taste' currency) on the best festive fare from Bang, Bon Appétit, Pichet and other restaurants.
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland's top Christmas Market returns to City Hall in Belfast with an Alpine-style array of food and craft stalls (belfastcity.gov.uk/markets; November 19-December 19).
Retailers will be making the trip from as far afield as Peru and France, with treats ranging from artisan cheeses to craft beers, leather goods and gourmet burgers. Watch out for the 'smellies' from Provence, too.
Belfast's market opened last Saturday, just as its Christmas lights were turned on, and kids can also enjoy a merry-go-round, visit Santa in his grotto and drop letters into a special postbox in a city that has totally transformed itself as a tourist town since the Good Friday Agreement.
Another town pushing the boat out is Killarney, where a full-on Christmas festival will be running right through to January 8 (christmasinkillarney.com). Its open-air markets will be open for business over three weekends (December 3-4, 11-12 and 17-18) on Old Market Lane -- with classic wooden huts offering a selection of Christmas food and crafts from around the world.
Whilst the adults listen to carols and sip mulled wine, younger visitors can check out Santa's farmyard, life-size toy soldiers and a carousel dating from the 1890s -- not to mention getting their faces painted and tucking into some gap-filling gingerbread.
Other activities in Killarney will see a host of jaunting cars transformed into seasonal sleighs (complete with warm blankets), and the annual Christmas Parade on December 3.
Cork's Christmas Celebration is another set to kick off this weekend (cometocork.com/ Christmas; weekends from November 25/28 to December 17/22).
Bishop Lucey Park will be decked out in a Van Gogh theme titled 'Christmas Wishes', and of course there are the annual markets on Grand Parade.
If you do take a stroll down Grand Parade, watch out for Wonka-like sweet stalls, glistening festive gifts, the smell of freshly-ground coffee and lots of cheeses, meats and other artisan treats.
Cork fancies itself as Ireland's foodie capital, after all, and has been known to dish up sushi and pigs on spits at Christmas markets in the past. The stalls on Grand Parade usually open from 10am-8pm.
Finally, to Waterford, a city running two Christmas markets this year. Its Christmas craft fair is scheduled for the Garter Lane Theatre (christmasinwaterford.ie; December 4-23) with everything from pottery and hand-turned wood pieces to puddings and cakes handmade locally.
A separate, open-air market runs at Broad Street and John Roberts Square from December 15 to Christmas Eve.
Ireland isn't just doing continental winters, these days. With its seasonal markets getting closer to European quality every year, the Ghost of Christmas Future looks very rosy indeed.