It was 2010 when I had my first Christmas market experience. It was in Melbourne; specifically, it was at my local South Melbourne Market. I was sent by my mother to collect a few last minute things on Christmas Eve; a strange assortment which included macarons, dolmades and cauliflower.
It didn’t go well. The market was, frankly, mental. People were everywhere, kids were screaming and kicking over my old lady shopper (don’t judge me) and people were pushing others over to get to the famous dim sims. It was chaos, and I swore never again to visit a market before Christmas.
Well, obviously that hasn’t been the case. Last year I became a massive sucker for Christmas markets, checking out the Christmas markets in Cologne, Aachen and Valkenburg, and this year I’ve been back to Aachen and included Maastricht and Krakow. Both years, I’ve also spent plenty of time at the local Christmas market in Dordrecht.
When I say plenty of time, I mean that the time Paul and I have spent at the market is probably only eclipsed by those working behind the stalls. Paul loves the market. For those of you who have met my quirky Dutchie, you will understand this. Paul loves his city and therefore feels the need to supervise its major events, the Christmas market being no exception. We do laps and laps of the route, which takes us down the Voorstraat, up around the Grote Kerk, around the harbour, up through Groenmarkt and then via Scheffersplein back to the Voorstraat.
Don’t get me wrong, Dordrecht’s Christmas market is visually nothing like Cologne and Aachen’s. In fact, there’s no real tradition surrounding any of the Dutch Christmas markets at all; they’re a Germanic thing, not Dutch. But they’re fun, gezellig and a good way to make money (the Dutch always love that) so about ten years ago, Christmas markets started popping up around the country.
Dordrecht’s is the biggest in the country, and is held for three days a weekend or two before Christmas. At least one of those days is always a washout. They don’t usually have to worry about snow here, just rain. This year was no different; we walked around on the Friday night, making smalltalk with the stallholders about how disappointing the rain was (always a favourite topic of conversation in this country). The next two days, however, were pretty perfect, as far as Dutch weather standards go.
Unlike other Christmas markets I’ve visited, Dordrecht’s is kept pretty low-key and local. Most stalls are run by the shops behind them and I like that; it makes shopkeepers come outside to the customers, marketing their wares differently. Are their wares ‘traditional’? Not usually. But all I wanted to do was browse, so I was happy anyway.
You can get your gluhwein and bratwurst here in Dordrecht, but I’ve always gone for the Dutch delights. Dutch food is pretty average in my books, but they know what they’re doing when the weather’s a bit crap. I’ve found a new appreciation for erwtensoep (Dutch pea soup) which goes down a treat on cold days. Stall after stall was dishing it out, even the churches got in on the act too.
I also opted for a broodje beenham and poffertjes; two things that are delicious but pretty hard to find in the Netherlands. A broodje beenham is quite simple; it’s just a roll with baked ham and a tasty sauce that I just can’t find anywhere else.
Poffertjes are pretty well known; they’re mini pancakes which are easier to find in Melbourne than Amsterdam. Here they’re dusted with icing sugar and sometimes maple syrup and they were so delicious I didn’t mind eating them al fresco.
People don’t like to admit it, but eating and drinking is really the main attraction of Christmas markets. And because the stalls are largely run by the shops, you can get all sorts of things. Our local fries shop, for example, made an absolute killing on serving hamburgers and my new favourite cafe was giving away cake and biscuits.
We’d go from stall to stall – in only a couple of hours one night we ate spring rolls, sausage rolls and fudge, and washed them down with Heineken. Other times we opted for Chocomel; hot chocolate with whipped cream. It makes you feel all warm and good inside.
The two main attractions of the market are the live nativity scene and the icerink, however. The nativity scene is quite hilarious actually, but the kids love it. Amongst a bored looking Mary, Joseph and some sheep was a massive camel. Perhaps someone just had a spare camel hanging around? I do remember some camel figurines in our nativity set at home, but after seeing the live version, it just looked ridiculous.
The icerink, though, is my favourite part of the market. It’s probably because we used to live on the square where it’s built every year, and we had a great view of all the skaters. The rink is up until New Year, and for the past couple of weeks local kids come down for their school lessons, just like we’d do in Australia with swimming lessons at the start of the school year. They’s whizz around, having heaps of fun and the little ones would utilise giant plastic penguins that act as training wheels.
Were there heaps of people at the market? Yes, at one stage there was a human traffic jam in our own street. Does it rival Cologne and Aachen? Not if you’re after wooden boxes and Nutcracker dolls. But if you’re after something that’s a market first, and a Christmas market second, then Dordrecht’s not a bad pick.