The thrill of the holiday market hunt

Who doesn’t love a market?

The thrill of the hunt, the clinching of the deal, the pleasure of finding something unusual, special or perhaps even unique. Then, of course, there’s the small sense of satisfaction at having escaped, at least for once, the mind-numbing sameness of the mall. As if all this weren’t enough, holiday markets create a special wonder, a sense of magic of their own.

Some of my favorite holiday markets include Georgetown, Colorado, which celebrates yuletide as it was 100 years ago (think horse-drawn wagons and carol singers in period clothing); and the Great Dickens Christmas Fair, in Daly City, California, a riotous step back in time to Victorian London, with lamplit alleys, rowdy taverns, music halls, stalls and fun by the barrel-load.

If you find yourself in the Midwest, meanwhile, don’t miss Cincinnati’s Cincideustch Christkindlmarkt (and try saying that after a couple of glasses of glühwein). As befits the great Germanic city on the Ohio River, Cincy’s holiday market takes its inspiration from the Germany of the Middle Ages, where traditional Christmas markets arose. There are Hansel and Gretel storefronts, young boys in lederhosen, foaming steins of beer, fireworks displays, a skating rink, traditional German foods and gifts — of course — and a great time had by all.

But wonderful as our homegrown markets undoubtedly are — and call me biased, why don’t you — for me nothing beats the frisson of excitement I experience this time of year in some of the great street markets of Europe. Forget Disney. If you find yourself across the pond in December (fares are low, low, low in the first half of the month and the Euro’s as weak as the proverbial newborn kitten), the sparkly street markets, thrumming with life by day and shimmery kaleidoscopes of light by night, are imbued with a special kind of magic.

Cannes, on the French Riviera, between Nice and St. Tropez, may be known for its May film festival and its jet-setty summer beach life, but take it from me, December through March is the time to visit this jewel of the Mediterranean. The streets are quiet, restaurants are pleased to see you, the sun shines and the air is often balmy. Indeed, if there is a more beautiful site in this world than a wintry sun rising over Île Sainte-Marguerite or setting in a vermillion sky over the Gulf of La Napoule as seen from your suite at the Intercontinental Carlton Cannes Hotel — still the loveliest hotel in Cannes and a positive bargain in the winter months — then somebody please tell me where to find it. 

But I digress, because we’re talking about markets and Cannes has a magical December one (in addition to its glorious daily produce market), set at the foot of the old town, across from the yacht harbor and its Palais des Festivals. Large it is not — tiny would be a better word — but charming it is in spades, with the loveliest little artifacts and ceramics and upscale tchotchkes — if that is not a contradiction in terms — you ever did see.

While nights may be silent in Cannes in December, by contrast half a million visitors flock to Montreux on Lake Geneva for its Marché de Noël, Switzerland’s most fabulous Christmas market. Beautiful handmade crafts, including striking avant-garde jewelry and the chicest winter-wear, jostle for market space with wonderful edibles and comestibles, the spirit and the gut warmed with lashings of the local vin chaud, or mulled wine.

Travel an hour along the lake and you come to Geneva itself, my great unsung city of Europe, with its crisp, cold winter days, sunny skies of electric blue and its iconic Jet d’Eau (fountain) brought into sharp relief against the achingly lovely backdrop of Mont Blanc. And on the rue Mont Blanc, Geneva has a small winter market of its own, where the designer watches and timepieces at knock-down prices can make a perfect Hanukkah or Christmas gift and may well be as desirable as the Tissots and Baume et Merciers on the swanky Rue de Rhône across the bridge. Shop at the market, incidentally, and with what you save you can splurge on La Réserve, the city’s finest hotel (and this in a city not short of good hotels). 

This being Switzerland, the 102-room Jacques Garcia-designed La Réserve is big on health and beauty, with a dazzling Nescens Spa, an all-white oasis, complete with indoor pool, sauna and hammam, and – should the fancy take you – a fleet of personal trainers. The icing on the cake is an ice rink which seems to float on air, overlooking Lake Geneva, at its beautiful best on a star-filled black December night. Talk about a winter pick-me-up.

Want to know Europe’s best-kept secret? Across the neck of Italy, nudging the Julian Alps, lies Slovenia, one of the continent’s most beautiful countries. Its capital, Ljubljana (Loob-li-AH-na), is beyond ravishing, with its juxtaposition of Roman, Baroque and Vienna Secession architecture. What’s more, Ljubljana has what I’d say is one of Europe’s top half-dozen winter markets, in essence a winter fair that takes up most of the city center, along with a mile or so of ice skating in stunning Zvezda Park. Opened in August of this year, the new InterContinental is sympathetic in design and brimming with good taste – not only the best hotel address in the city but the best hotel for 100 miles in any direction. Put Ljubljana on your bucket list right now and get there while the going’s good. Wonderful as the new InterConti is – because of it, in fact – the crowds will come, and you want always to be ahead of the curve. 

Happy shopping, happy holidays and Happy New Year.

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