17 November 2018.
Europe is ALL about Christmas markets. Many cities in Europe host Christmas markets from November until New Year’s Day. They feature plenty of stands with various holiday decorations, gift ideas, and loads of delicious regional food and glühwein, a spiced red or white mulled wine.
Going to a Christmas market (or five) was high on my agenda for my first Christmas season abroad. The locations of the markets vary, most being outside in the town square. The first market I attended was the Valkenburg Caves market (Kerstmarkt) located in Valkenburg, Netherlands. I visited the cave with a military travel group, so I did not arrange anything. I simply paid for my ticket, hopped (and slept) on the bus, and enjoyed the market experience.
This market is unique because of its location inside caves. Yes, actual caves! There are two caves: one big and one small. There were also shopping huts situated between the two caves. One cave was called the Velvet Cave – the smaller of the two. This cave was the first we visited. It had many vendors selling drinks, food, and other goodies. If you were tired of walking, you could visit a restaurant inside the cave. They were selling glüwhein by the gallon (not literally) there. It smelled divine!
The larger cave, the Municipal Cave, was located down the road from the Velvet Cave. This cave was much larger than the Velvet Cave. Many of the same items were being sold in this cave. This cave had the more extensive artwork that is described below.
The day I visited the Christmas market had perfect weather! The sun was shining, and while there was a briskness to the air, it could not have been any nicer of a day. Winter had not fully enveloped Valkenburg at that point.
The caves themselves were my favorite part of the trip. I enjoyed seeing what the vendors had to offer, of course, but the caves were much more interesting than I thought they would be. The caves had many crevices inside with vendors nested into them. Lights were hung and Christmas music played in speakers around the area. Some ledges held winter-themed statues, such as polar bears or Santa’s elves. This may sound great, but I haven’t even gotten to the best part yet!
The caves had been visited by humans for much longer than just the last few years. The caves held wall writings and carvings that dated back to the 17th century. The oldest drawing/carving I found was dated “1648.” That is even before Columbus arrived in America! The illustrations included religious motifs, family murals, and World War memorials. There were also several animals carved into parts of the caves. There was even a triceratops in one area!
Shopping was not the only activity that I took part in during my trip. I also indulged in fresh stroopwafel, a traditional Dutch thin waffle sandwich with caramel in between. Think a thin, circular sugar wafer. They are traditionally placed on top of coffee cups and enjoyed warm. It was to die for! I had a little piece of heaven for about 2euros.
For dinner, we ate at Valkenhof, a restaurant near the caves. Many restaurants in Europe have outdoor seating areas, even in the colder months. We took advantage of this and sat outside near a heater and covered with supplied blankets! At our meal, I finally had a glass of glühwein. It was waaaaaaay better than any glühwein you could buy at a store. It was the right amount of sweet and the right amount of bitter. PERFECT. For my meal I had a tapas platter, which allowed me to enjoy many different types of food at one time. Ladies at my table enjoyed anywhere from pasta dishes to steak and burgers.
Everything looked great! The atmosphere of the restaurant was pleasant and the interior reflected a time reminiscent of the early 20th century, with industrial elements and muted colors.
Overall, I enjoyed my first visit to the Netherlands and to a Christmas market. Knowing how large of a role Christmas markets play in European holiday culture, I knew I had to see them for myself. The market helped me get into the holiday spirit. I was able to explore another country, one that I had wanted to for many years.
Until my next adventure,