Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Christmas Bear Cheer

In what I can only call a Christmas miracle, this weekend I managed to convince my bipedal attendants to brave the grey (such a nice colour!) and spitting skies of Bratislava and venture out to the Christmas Market. Bratislava's Christmas Market is the high point of the Slovakian social calendar, and draws tourists from all over the country as well as from abroad. Chances are, those visitors from further afield are probably doing the Christmas Market circuit - with stops in the more famous markets in nearby Vienna and Prague and maybe even Germany - but still, the town square was packed.

I would like to be able to say that the Christmas Market here is a centuries-old tradition in Bratislava, but it's not - it's barely over a dozen years old. It's never too late to start a centuries-old tradition. Just because Mozart had to pass by Vienna's annual Christmas Market on his way home all those years ago shouldn't make anyone feel unimportant or insignificant.

Here, about 100 stalls wind their way about the old city's market square, Hlavne Námestie, spilling out into nearby Hviezdoslavovo Námestie, where the guards from the US Embassy keep a watchful eye from behind barbed wire. There isn't too much to do at the Market, except eat, drink, and buy "traditional" Slovak gifts. These "traditional" gifts can be divided into 4 categories: things made from wood, things made from beeswax, things made from gingerbread, and things made from ceramic. For the most part, the craft items are much the same - hearts and angel ornaments - the only difference is what it's made out of. Once you've visited 4 stalls, you're pretty much done - at least that's what my female bipedal attendant said.

Visitors seem content with this set-up since in any case the raison d'
être of the Market appears to be eating and, to a greater degree, drinking. Local fare can best be described as rustic (what my female bipedal attendant calls "peasant food"). Cigánska pečienka (Gypsy liver) - fatty pork on a bun - is a favourite, as are sausages, goose liver or sauerkraut potato crêpes (lokse) and the always festive: slices of bread slathered with goose lard and raw onions. As a vegetarian bear, there were very few culinary options open to me.

Sweets are outnumbered by savouries at the Market (why would you want something sweet when you can have bread & lard?) but you can find poppy seed and nut pastries, oblatky (large wafers that look like they've been stolen from the nearby church) and honey biscuits.

I confess t
hat I was tempted more by the liquid refreshments: medovina (mead) - a honey wine - piqued my curiosity (I am a bear, after all) but it was a little too sweet for my taste - my palate is more suited to dry Spanish sherries. Hot wine (a.k.a. mulled wine) is the perennial favourite at the Christmas market but I've had that before, so instead I decided to try a glass of hot punč - or punch - which locals pronounce as pooooooonch. It's made from black tea, alcohol, fruit and spices and pretty much tastes like mulled wine. I'm sure it's different - I just can't figure out how.

The award for the most questionable holiday cocktai
l is hriatô: a concoction of warm liquidized lard (preferably with pork scraps), 50-proof alcohol and often, a smidgen of honey or sugar. Traditionally, this potent little potable was drunk by men working in the forests during wintertime but eventually found its way into the cities, especially during the Christmas season. I must confess that even if I weren't a vegetarian bear, I'd probably keep shy of the Lard Latte.

After about 20 minutes of this, (surprise! surprise!) my bipedal attendants were getting a little antsy - the male one just wanted a beer - apparently you have to go to the Vienna Christmas market for a beer - and the female one just complained about how cold it was. Some people! They forgot to bring my hoodie and I didn't complain. Next week, we're going to go to the Vienna Christmas Market with my god-bipedal attendants who will be visiting from Italy, and the first thing on the agenda is to buy that poor man a beer.

Many people seem to prefer the Bratislava Christmas market to its bigger and splashier competitors in Austria and the Czech Republic. Visitors like its "coziness". As a freelance Goodwill Ambassador, I always like to find the good in things, and yes, maybe there was no beer for my bipedal attendants, and not much to eat that wasn't made out of a goose or a pig, and almost zero selection in the traditional craft department - but I felt warm and fuzzy by the time I left. Unlike some, I was full of Christmas cheer. Of course, that may have had more to do with my glasses of mulled wine,
punč and medovina than anything else.

No comments: