Where to Spend Christmas in Europe

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It seems every town in Europe these days has its own Christmas market.  This 14th-century German tradition has spread across the continent faster than Santa in a subsidized Airbus sleigh, drawing visitors from around the globe.  Prague’s Christmas market probably earns top billing these days with not one but two official markets. Although, to be honest, in recent years it feels like the entire city has been taken over by little wooden stands selling Christmas bulbs and souvenir plates. That’s not to say that Prague isn’t worth a visit, but the crowds certainly dampen the experience.  No one should have to wrestle their way to the front of the line for a slice of pork shoulder. (This isn’t Black Friday for God’s sake!)However, just a night train away from Prague is another city, no less atmospheric, but not requiring you to don a full suit of armor for a cup of mulled wine.  Kraków, Poland offers the same medieval charm as Prague, but with a few additional traditions thrown in for good measure. (Sadly, the timeless Czech art of defenestration is not one of them.)
The Christmas market in Kraków takes place between November 25 and December 26 at the Rynek Główny (or Main Market Square) in the center of the city.  The square surrounds the elegant Renaissance Cloth Hall, a historic meeting place for traders.  Adjacent is the 14th century Gothic-style St. Mary’s Basilica, where each hour a trumpeter plays the Hejnał Mariacki, a traditional Polish anthem.  What makes this tune unique, though, is that it is cut off in midstream in honor of a 13th-century trumpeter who was struck in the throat by an arrow after spotting the advancing Mongol army.

Besides the usual hand painted tree ornaments and cacophony of sweets and baked goods (a delicious chocolate confectionery open all year is also on the square), Kraków offers a particularly special tradition.  Since the 19th century, artisans have crafted peculiar nativity scenes using historic buildings from the city as a backdrop.  Called szopka, these arrangements are made of colorful foil and beads.  On December First, a contest is held, and the best szopkas are displayed in the Historical Museum at the Kryzstofory Palace.  Kraków’s churches also often display their own szopka, which can reach meters in height.  Best of all, many of the contest’s participants later sell their szopka at the Historical Museum, for a truly unique souvenir.Another reason why Kraków makes for a great Christmas destination is it’s nearness to the resort town of Zakopane.  Located two hours away in the Tatra Mountains, Zakopane is considered Poland’s winter capital.  Besides offering the usual winter sports, visitors can also take sleigh rides through the forest, including to nearby Lake Morskie Oko.
With so many Christmas markets available, it’s hard to settle on just one.  But Kraków offers a healthy mix of winter activities, shopping, and old world charm to compete with the best of them, making it my personal favorite place to spend Christmas.
Have you been to Kraków during the Christmas season or do you have an alternative favorite Christmas market?  Let me know about it in the comment section!


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