22 DEC 2017: As everyone knows, Christmas markets are a feature of many European towns and cities at this time of year, and our temporary home last winter - Antwerp - is no exception.  Such events are popular with visitors: we heard many languages on the streets, and saw several large cruise ships tied up on the Schelde river close to the historic centre of town.  But it is to the locals that this massive party really belongs - and they enjoy it to the full.

It all starts in the days before the official opening in the first half of December.  (This season’s dates are 9 December until 7 January.)   Central, historic Antwerp consists of three major, linked public places: the ancient, triangular Grote Markt; the equally old Cathedral ‘Square’ (also a triangle!) and the slightly more modern Groenplaats which is, indeed, square.  

The Grote Markt is known as the heart of city, an area surrounded on one side by the handsome City Hall and on others by beautifully restored guildhalls, all surmounted by golden statues that gleam in the setting sun.  On street level the buildings are filled with lively bars and restaurants.  The area before the floodlit Cathedral of Our Lady is similar, while bustling Groenplaats has a more modern, urban atmosphere with the old Hilton Hotel gracing one side and trams running around the perimeter.
But on the days of early December all starts to change.  The bars and restaurants are even busier (and louder than usual - the Belgians love their beer!), but out in the open spaces work is being done. Tall festive trees are raised and decorated; lights are arranged on the historical buildings; the Cathedral is flood-lit; those ubiquitous little chalets destined to sell merchandise, drinks and food are erected all over; water to create a skating rink is sprayed in Groenplaats; street choirs are busy rehearsing; the cathedral’s campanologists make a din; the bars and restaurants set out canopies, heaters and open-air tables and all is general hustle and bustle.
Signs all over town explain the reason. What a great time of the year to be here, we said to each other.  On opening day we wandered through the city as the daylight waned. Soon all the lights were switched on, the shutters of the chalets were raised, the bells rang out, music drifted from the ice rink and the winter festival was underway.
The Cathedral of Our Lady is the largest Gothic structure in the Low Countries.  With a spire reaching to 123 metres there’s no need to mention that this magnificent structure towers over everything in this area, and whatever your religious persuasion - or lack thereof - few would argue that when those bells peal out in the evening winter air a special swelling of the heart is experienced.
Down in the streets the goods offered from the little chalets are especially popular.  There is much to buy: Santa outfits, scarves and gloves, socks from Canada (proudly advertised as such), attractive jewellery and other craft items.  And there is much to sample.  There are chocolates (of course!), waffles (another ‘of course’ in Belgium), many different beers, mulled wine, a golden liqueur called Elexir d’Anvers (the French word for ‘Antwerp’), Flemish stew, Asian noodles, Spanish paella, a French dish called tartiflette (potatoes, lardons and melting cheese) and much more that, after a couple of mugs of mulled wine, I can’t remember!
The above treats do not have to be enjoyed on foot.  All over there are warming fires surrounded by popular benches or high-top tables in the shape of Christmas trees for those who prefer to stand.  People spill from the bars and restaurants too, where the atmosphere (and a cigarette for those who need) can be enjoyed.
A popular feature of the festival is the mistletoe igloo.  This is simply a large white tent in the shape of an igloo containing a large bunch of mistletoe.  One enters with one’s love of the moment for a photograph that, I imagine, all hope will still be on display when the following Christmas rolls around!
The ice rink is also popular.  Years ago I would have participated, if only to say I had skated round Rubens’ imposing statue in the central of Antwerp.  Now I just enjoy watching the antics of others who, I must admit, are not all young.
Beyond the central area the fun continues.  Chalets also line the short, wide street that leads to the riverbank where once the old trading ships of this ancient port tied up.  Today it has been transformed into a fun fair complete with Ferris wheel, a tube slide, booths with various games of the “shoot and win an enormous stuffed toy” variety, mini golf in a large tent advertised as “golf in a spruce glade”, bicycles surrounding a Christmas tree the peddling whereof causes the tree’s lights to shine, and a large vertical double-glazed piece of glass seemingly with snow falling within that - with the real stuff usually lacking - is popular for photographs.
Of course Christmas is, or certainly should be, far more than fun, shopping, eating and drinking.  The spiritual side of this time of year is evident in the choirs that roam the city with their familiar songs and, of course, many look forward to the glorious church services celebrated the world over, especially in the magnificent churches of Antwerp and the rest of Flanders.
It was a wonderful time to be in Antwerp … there’s nothing quite like Christmas festivities in the winter, when darkness falls early, there’s a chill in the airing a spirit of friendship and joy everywhere.

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Ann Wallace

Ann Wallace is living a writer's dream currently writing of her adventures as she and her husband sail their boat around Europe.

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