Wandering round the streets of Manchester on a chilly afternoon at Christmas I quickly forget I’m in a big northern city. With its quaint chalet-type stalls and cosy atmosphere of bonhomie I could be in an Austrian or German village in the heart of mainland Europe. In 1998 Frankfurt held a traditional little market in St Ann’s Square and since then it’s grown to over 200 stalls and bars in a number of different sites including Exchange Square, Brasenose Street and Albert Square.
It’s a festive feast for all the senses from a myriad of countries including Germany, Austria, France, Spain, Holland as well as the UK. I love the rich melange of bratwurst, lemony pancakes, fruity gluwein, smoky hog roast, paprika-laden goulash, spicy gingerbread, pungent cheeses and saffron-infused paella combined with beers and spirits to warm the cockles of the coldest heart.
Manchester Town Hall is temporarily transformed into a winter wonderland with an enormous inflatable Santa incongruously straddling the imposing Victorian edifice like an over-stuffed King Kong. Inside rows of marble statues of illustrious Mancunian bigwigs benignly oversee the indoor market ablaze with cheerful Christmas jumpers, shiny strands of tinsel, plastic toys and gaudy celebratory party paraphernalia. Sitting a tables overlooking the square cosy customers lap up big mugs of hot chocolate and gaze out at the pretty sight beyond the enormous windows.
Trees decorated with tiny white lights glimmer brighter and brighter as the afternoon light gives way to evening. Neat rows of beautifully-lit stalls line the main square and surrounding streets, spilling over with a cornucopia of ideas for Christmas gifts. You can get your child’s name engraved on a decorative door plaque, or fill a basket with iridescent glass baubles shimmering in rainbow hues. How about a little French bowl for garlic decorated in zingy primary colours or a quirky silver bracelet from Italy? Cosy knitted scarves keep funny little toy reindeer and snowmen warm whilst unusual whisky bottles find their way into shoppers’ bags with ease. Cheerily painted wooden figures in all shapes and sizes tempt kiddies – the Nutcracker Prince presides over it all with a magical air …
I love the children’s choir singing Christmas carols and the heady noise of people having a drink in the beer tents and outdoor cafes. Stall holders shout out temptations to encourage shoppers to stop awhile and try their wares whilst others talk knowledgeably about their quirky products from all over Europe. At the end of Brasenose Street a trio of brass players brave the cold to belt out festive songs and bring cheer to city workers as they stop to listen on their way home. Wandering on past the luxurious Harvey Nichols store another brass band plays ‘Oh Come All Ye Faithful’ and the bright red trombone sums up the festive spirit perfectly.
This year, dominating the skyline in front of the Arndale Centre, is a gloriously OTT rotating wooden tower reminiscent of the table decorations we have at home, complete with festive figurines. At the Hog Roast stall nearby I get a hot roast pork sandwich and huddle in the warmth, relishing the sights, sounds and flavours of the perfect Christmas market …
You can read more of Zoë Dawes‘ entertaining articles on her travels around the UK and abroad in her blog Quirky Traveller’s Tales where she shares secret places off-the beaten track and travels in mind, body and spirit. Follow her on Twitter @quirkytraveller and ‘like’ her page on Face Book