Prague at Christmas – a Baroque winter wonderland

Prague, the beautiful and romantic capital of the Czech Republic, hosts a number of cultural events at Christmas, including folk displays, concerts and theatre throughout December. There are a number of family friendly Christmas markets , the biggest of which is held on the busy Old Town Square. The idyllic Baroque cobbled square makes the perfect setting for a Christmas market, made even more seasonal by the generous layer of snow that usually falls in Prague at Christmas. One of the most fantastic sights of the square at Christmas is the Christmas tree, shipped from the Sumava mountains in the South of the Czech Republic, and draped in a blaze of lights, which are turned on every night at around five in the evening. Set against the dark gothic skyline, this is truly a spectacular sight, especially with a light dusting of snow.

An additional feature of the market is a small zoo of ponies, goats, and sheep, that is much loved by the children – rumour has it that there is now even the odd llama. There are pretty rows of colourfully decorated wooden huts, where you can buy some rather nice hand-made stocking fillers, including locally made wooden puppets, jewellery, toys, candles and even Bohemian crystal. The proceedings are serenaded by carol singers and bands playing seasonal tunes.

As well as the market in the Old Town Square, there is a market in Wenceslas Square from December 5th-23rd, and there are smaller markets at Namesti Republiky and Havelske Trziste. Needless to say, many of the market goers imbibe mulled wine as they take in the handicrafts and delicacies, such as sausage and corn on the cob.

If you are travelling from London, then EasyJet do flights from Stansted to Prague starting from £40 one way, but book early to get the best prices.

Cave shopping in Valkenburg at Christmas

Visit Valkenburg in the Netherlands for your Christmas shopping, and you will feel like you are in Santa’s Grotto. This is because underneath the city centre is a network of caves where a candlelit market is held at Christmas.

Every year the market has a theme, and for this year it is the Dutch legend of Reynout the Knight and the Book of Wisdom. The market runs for a full calendar month from 21st November to 21st December.

Valkenburg is in the south of the Netherlands, and is a delight for the tourists all year round – it can be visited as a daytrip from Maastricht. There is a steep hill in the centre of the town, with a ruined castle on top. In the town centre there are loads of small pubs, bars and restaurants, and plenty of good meals and drinks to be had.

If you are a lover of beer, then be sure to try a glass of Valkenburg Wit, which is a rather nice wheat beer, that has even made its way to the Cambridge Beer Festival.

Valkenburg is highly popular with cyclists in the summer, but I don’t think you will want to be cycling in the crisp, fresh winter weather – unless you are really keen.

A good way to get to Valkenburg from the UK is by Ryanair who are doing flights from around £48 return. Entrance to the cave market is €3 (£2.20) for adults, and half-price for children up to 12.

Bath and the Cotswold villages at Christmas

What could be more enjoyable in terms of Christmas shopping than to combine one of England’s most elegant cities, with some of its most picturesque villages?

Every Christmas, the beautiful area between the magnificent Bath Abbey and the ancient Roman Baths, is turned into that Christmas shopper’s delight known as Bath Christmas Market, with over a hundred traditional wooden chalet-type stalls, offering some great handmade and unusual gifts, Christmas decorations and tasty Christmas delicacies.

The colourful Christmas Market is guaranteed to get you in the Yuletide mood, especially as it all takes place with the sound of choirs singing out the traditional Christmas carols in Bath Abbey – in fact it’s worth breaking up the Christmas shoppping by nipping into the Abbey, which is well worth a visit in its own right, to soak in the ambience and listen to the singers first hand. That sweet sound drifting through the market, along with the bright lights, and the warming mulled wine spiced with cinnamon, creates a magical atmosphere that will get even the most cynical Bah-humbug-type into a cheerful and festive spirit. There are even street performers playing music and entertaining the visitors, which livens up the proceedings no end.

And if you have a few days to spare, why not follow up Bath Christmas Market with visits to some of England’s most lovely traditional villages, in the charming Cotswolds, which are reminiscent of bygone times? Stow-on-the-Wold is well known for its tea-shops, inns and top quality antique shops. Burford is regarded as the gateway to the Cotswolds and is a village of golden English limestone, tucked neatly beneath the rolling Cotswold hills.

Bath and the Cotswolds at Christmas make a great break, will give you plenty of gift ideas, and will surely get you into the holiday mood.

Nuremberg Christmas Market – sausage, gingerbread and Christ Child antics

The Christmas market in Nuremberg is one of the most famous Christmas markets in Europe. The setting of the market is beautiful, with almost two hundred stalls crammed into the traditionally cobbled square on the slope beneath the Frauenkirche. Of course there is the ubiquitous Christmas market mulled wine, which goes brilliantly with the gorgeous, tasty Nürnburger Bratwurst, a type of thin and spicy sausage, that is on offer. Other delights are the honey-gingerbread which is produced in the region.

The market opens on 28th November, and ends on Christmas Eve, allowing plenty of time for Christmas shopping.

This market itself has a long history, dating back to 1628, and was known as a regional centre for the trading of handmade wood figurines. The market certainly has some interesting traditions that go back into the mists of time. For example, every two years a young man or woman is appointed as a “Christ child”, who opens the market at an official ceremony, and then goes around the town spreading Christmas cheer in all manner of ways, dressed in an elaborate gold and white costume, with a large golden crown on their head.

The market looks especially spectacular in the evening, when it is lit with hundreds of tiny lights. The evening is made especially pleasant by the bands, ranging from brass bands to jazz bands, that arrive to entertain the market goers. With a glass of hot spicy wine, a couple of Bratwurst, and some good music to listen to, the Nuremberg market is pretty heavenly.

Dresden Christmas Market – Stollen traditions and fun

Dresden has the oldest Christmas market in Europe, dating back to 1434. The market specialises in traditional crafts, with beautiful items of woodcarving, indigo-printed cloth, pottery, and filigree lace available. As in many German Christmas markets, hot spicy mulled wine and gingerbread are also highly popular with the market goers. You can also get some pretty neat decorations for your Christmas tree, with delightful advent stars and pretty blown-glass decorations for sale. The Dresden Christmas Market runs from 27th November to 24th December.

The market is one of the older ones, dating back at least to 1434 when it was first mentioned, and it may well have been on the go for some time before that, making it probably the oldest Christmas market in Germany. Going back such a long way, the market is really steeped in tradition, and the highlight is the Stollen Festival, which is held on the second Sunday in December. Stollen is a delicious German fruitcake, which is very popular at Christmas time. In the 16th century, the local Stollen bakers would ceremonially carry their cakes through the town to the castle, where they would present them to the local prince, the lucky man. The prince, being of generous heart, and aware of his own good fortune, would cut them with a very long knife and philanthropically hand out pieces to the poor. The way this is done nowadays is that one giant 3,000 kg Stollen is paraded around Dresden as part of the festival, being looked after by a beautiful “Stollenmädchen”.

So if you love a bit of history and tradition, Dresden probably provides the ideal Christmas market for you – especially if you love stollen too.

Rome

Now that the New Year is almost upon us, it could be time to be considering a spring break, and where better to spend a few days, just as the weather is finally turning warmer, than the wonderful city of Rome?

The Eternal City is built on seven hills, on the River Tiber, and was lucky to escape World War II without too much damage, so the centre still has a strongly Renaissance and Baroque feel.

But perhaps first we ought to go even further back to Rome’s beginnings in ancient times – there is still an amazing amount of the ancient Roman architecture. Take a look at the Colosseum, which goes back to 70-80 AD, and try to imagine the poor gladiators fighting for their lives under the hot sun, in this largest amphitheatre of the Roman Empire. Other ancient sights include the Roman Forum, the Pantheon, the Circus Maximus, the Baths of Caracalla, and numerous other buildings from this period.

Not only does Rome have these artefacts from ancient times, but also some fantastic medieval architecture as well. Take a look at the Santa Maria Maggiore and the San Paolo Fuori le Mura – both of these have breath-taking 4th century mosaics.

Rome also played a leading role in the Renaissance, and there is plenty of evidence for this in Rome today – such as the Piazza del Campidoglio by Michelangelo. During this period, the wealthy families of Rome built beautiful houses for themselves, such as the Palazzo del Quirinale, the Palazzo Venezia, and many other gorgeous palaces.

Rome also has the Vatican City, a separate sovereign state, which I shall talk about in my next post.

Needless to say, Rome has the most spectacular museums and galleries, including the National Museum of Rome, the Museum of Roman Civilization, the National Gallery of Modern Art, and many more besides.

Besides all the serious stuff, there are also plenty of hedonistic things to enjoy about being in Rome, such as the lovely Italian gelati, a variety of delicious coffees, tasty pasta and pizza, and excellent Italian wine.

Vatican City

Within Rome itself is the enclave known as the State of the Vatican City, which is the sovereign territory of the Holy See, the Pope. It is the smallest nation in the world, and even has representation in the United Nations, as a non-voting member state.

Within the Vatican City you can find the grand Saint Peter’s Square, a fine expanse surrounded by classical beauty, having been redesigned by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, from 1656 to 1667, with the express purpose of being a place where a large number of people could gather to be blessed by the Pope – indeed the Pope now does a weekly blessing of the people assembled in the square. Saint Peter’s Basilica is the largest basilica in the world, and many of Italy’s great Renaissance architects worked on it, including Michelangelo, Raphael and Bernini.

Perhaps the piece de resistance of a tour of the Vatican is a visit to the Sistine Chapel, with its magnificent Renaissance works, including frescoes by Pietro Perugino, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Rosselli, and its impressive ceiling which was executed by Michelangelo.

Waiting for Joe M.

While waiting for the next exciting installment of Joe Millionaire, I’m watching this Bridezilla special. It’s scaring me. All the Bridezillas appear to be from New York and all appear to be incredibly spoiled and bitchy. Just not making us all look good!

Like I Needed A Heart Attack Today

I put some Ore-Ida fries in the toaster to heat up and opened the cabinet where the dishes are to get a plate to put them on. Much to my horrid surprise there was a 3 inch long roach hanging out at the front of the cabinet.

*scream*
*slam cabinet*
*buzz doorman*
*cower in corner*
*refuse to return to kitchen for rest of life*

P.S. I brought the wonderful doorman a nice Mrs. Fields Chocolate Chip cookie after Boris’ evening walk just so he knows how grateful I am for his bug mercenary services.

Operator

Operator: “[Apartment complex] Emergency Services, how may I help you?”
Me: “Yeah… I’ve got an emergency.”
Operator: “Ok?”
Me: “Well, the front gate to the apartment complex isn’t working and it’s locked a lot of people out. This happens once a week.”
Operator: “I’ll page someone out right away.”
Me: “That’s not really the emergency.”
Operator: “Oh.. ok?”
Me: “This is kind of embarassing..”
Operator: “Go ahead.. ”
Me: “I just drank a huge bottle of water and .. well.. I really have to pee.”
Operator: “Uhh… ”
Me: “I really have to pee. Like now.”
Operator: “Well, sir, maybe you could wait until the repair person–”
Me: “–No, this is an emergency, which is why I called you.”
Operator: “Oh, well, I –”
Me: “What’s your name?”
Operator: “Uhh it’s Ellen.”
Me: “Ok, good, Ellen, I was wondering if you could recommend any good place for me to go?”
Operator: “Oh no, I don’t think I could –”
Me: “If you thought it’d be ok for me to just go over by this tree here, I could go, and if anyone asked I’d just say that you said it’d be ok.”
Operator: “No, no! I don’t –”
Me: “Ok well what about sorta around the side of the building?”
Operator: “I uhh..”
Me: “Look, Ellen, I’m seriously damaging my bladder here. I’m dying.”
Operator: “I’m terribly–”
Me: “Well since this gate locks up once a week, don’t you guys have a procedure for handling emergencies like this?”
Operator: “Sir, I’m so sorry, but I just..”
Me: [grunting] “Ok I’ve got to go right now!”