When most cruisers think of European Christmas markets, their thoughts go to Rhine and Danube River cruises and the famous markets of Germany and Austria. But the Mediterranean has its fair share of Christmas villages as well. While there may be less (or no) snow and warmer temperatures, the markets are as festive as their more northern counterparts and the wine and sweets are plentiful.
On a recent Cruise Critic trip through the Mediterranean, we sampled the variety of markets the region offers from the colorful markets of Barcelona to the lavish affair in Monte Carlo and the German-inspired village in Florence.
--By the Cruise Critic Editorial Staff
Find two of Barcelona's most famous cathedrals and you will also encounter the city's Christmas markets: Fira de Nadal a la Sagrada Familia and Fira de Santa Llucia near Barcelona Cathedral. Santa Llucia is the larger and busier of the two, with narrow rows of stalls sprawled out in the plaza at the Gothic cathedral's entrance. Offerings are a mix of traditional Christmas crafts, miniature nativity scenes, caga tio and caganeres (described on next slide); small pine trees and greens; and an assortment of modern clothes, jewelry and decorations. Unlike many Christmas markets in other European countries, the Catalonians don't sell food at their markets. The atmosphere is festive, but it's often hard to browse given the crowds. (Keep an eye out for pickpockets.) The market in front of Sagrada Familia surrounds a park, which makes for a nice walk in the evening when the lights and music are going. Both markets are open from late November through December 23.
Barcelona, Spain (Continued)
When you think Christmas, figurines glorifying excrement might be the farthest thing from your mind. Alas, Catalonian tradition bestows this unique union in not one but two holiday characters: caga tio (literally, poop log) and caganeres (one who, well, you know). Around for hundreds of years, these defecating decorations symbolize fertility and good luck in the year to come. Caga tios are "fed" before Christmas and covered in a warm blanket each night to "digest." On Christmas Eve children sing a song ordering it to go number two and beat it with a stick. The next morning they discover that the log has relieved itself of presents underneath the blanket. Caganeres are placed inside nativity scenes to represent fertility.
The Christmas market in Nice (Village de Noel Nice) is more than just, well, nice. The charming festival, held along the Place Massena, is reminiscent of fairgrounds near a chalet. A winter palace is erected at the foot of the water mirror and perfectly frames the Ferris wheel in the distance and the "snowy" trees clustered to the side. A handful of stalls sell a variety of foodstuffs from sweets to socca (a chickpea pancake), which is the local specialty. And while you'll find some vendors selling local handicrafts, this market is a spectacular family affair, with amusements and Christmas lights galore. Be sure to check out the carousel and ice skating rink, which are magical day or night.
Toulon's annual Christmas Market takes place in the town's main square, Place de la Liberte (so called for the statue of Liberty, which lies in the northwest corner). Stalls sell a variety of hot food, including local favorites such as saucisson (sausage) and wines like gluwein; as well as cured meats, pates and foie gras. Unlike traditional Northern European Christmas markets, don't expect traditional Christmas wooden toys, gifts, tree decorations or snow globes. Instead you'll find a mishmash of local artisans selling ceramics and handcrafted products such as clothes and chocolate, which don't have any direct connection to Christmas.
Toulon, France (Continued)
Kids will enjoy the Toulon Christmas market, as there is a Christmas tree ride in the center of the square and a Santa's photo stop. Most startling of all is the slightly unnerving depiction of the town complete with talking dummies and weird-looking elves. The market opens in late November and runs until just before the New Year.
Monte Carlo, Monaco
In keeping with its posh locale, the Monte Carlo Christmas market is the most lavish you'll come across in the Mediterranean. Spread out across Port Hercule's central square, the market is chockablock with wooden chalets selling everything from Christmas ornaments to pashmina shawls and Santa suit onesies. The market is divided into three distinct sections (sweets, gifts, food) each separated by colorful themed archways that cycle through a rainbow of hues. Distractions at the market include a giant Ferris wheel (ride it at night for the full twinkling lights effect), a Christmas themed-train ride for kids and an ice skating rink.
Monte Carlo, Monaco (Continued)
Every year sees a new theme at Monte Carlo's Christmas Market and for 2015 the entire fair took on the look of a Russian city complete with onion domed-topped arches, Russian decorative motifs, human-sized nesting dolls and two large-scale animated tableaus depicting Russian fables featuring princesses, wolves and bandits. Monte Carlo's market runs from early December through a couple of days after New Year's.
The largest Christmas market on the island of Corsica occurs yearly in the capital city of Ajaccio from early December through January 6. In Ajaccio's central square, the Place de Gaulle, you'll find a small, but brightly decorated Christmas market with some 50 chalets mostly selling food and wine. A handful of vendors sell crafts, jewelry and other gift items, as well, but the Ajaccio market is more a place to hang out for the evening than a spot to pick up items on your shopping list. An ice skating rink is also popular with market goers.
You don't get much more Italian than Florence, yet the city's annual Christmas market, referred to as the Weihnachtsmarkt, is inspired by the more famous yuletide markets of Germany and Austria -- specifically the Heidelberg market. Sprawling across the Piazza de Santa Croce, in front of the basilica bearing the same name, Florence's Christmas market sells everything from candy, homemade breads and Nutella waffles to toys, pottery and ornaments. Because it is inspired by the German markets, you'll find vendors selling gingerbread and strudel, items not typically found at an Italian market. Florence's Christmas market, which runs from early to mid-December) gets pretty crowded during the days and you should always keep an eye open for pickpockets.