Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Our First Christmas Market

There is a wonderful tradition they have over here in Europe and it is called the Christmas market.  Why we don’t have these in the US, I don’t know.  Well, maybe we do but I’ve never heard of one.  What is a Christmas Market exactly, you ask?  Well, now I can tell you because we went to one of these lovely markets this past weekend in the beautiful city of Bath.  Bath is an amazing city by itself, with its architecture and Roman history (there’s a reason it’s called Bath as you will see later in my story, if you haven’t guessed already).  Eric and I had stopped in Bath briefly many years ago when he was living over here for three months and I came over to visit him.   We didn’t have a lot of time, so we didn’t see much on that trip, but it’s always been on my list of places to return to.  So when I discovered they hold one of these Christmas markets in Bath, I started planning our trip.  It’s about a 2 ½ hour drive from our house to Bath and there are some other interesting places to visit in the area, like a little place called Stonehenge, so we decided to pull the girls out of school on Friday and make it a three day weekend.

The Bath Christmas Market
To start, a bit of a history lesson.  Christmas markets have been taking place here in Europe for several hundred years and are basically a street market celebration of Christmas that traditionally takes place during the four weeks of Advent.  They started in the area of German, Austria and France and have spread across the rest of Europe.  The market general takes place in the center of town and is a beautiful collection of open-air stalls (mainly wood chalet type of stalls) selling all sorts of food, drink and seasonal items.  There’s hot mulled wine, ice-skating rinks, carousels, roasted chestnuts, carolers, and of course, as the sunsets, beautiful glowing Christmas lights.  Basically, it’s a magical Christmas wonderland. 

We set off Friday morning and headed straight to Bath.  Our plan was to spend Friday at the Christmas market and see some other sites in the city, but apparently we weren’t the only people who wanted to visit the Bath Christmas market that day.  We drove around and around and around looking for an open parking lot and could not find a single one. After stumbling around in the traffic for awhile and heading out of town to check out a park and ride lot which was, you guessed it, full, we decided to change or plans and come back to Bath bright and early the next morning instead.  Deflated and hungry, we drove up the road a bit and stumbled into a pub to regroup and eat some lunch.  Luckily for us, the lunch was delicious (yet another kids meal that rocked – Ellie’s mac and cheese was the best I’ve ever tasted) and we came up with a new plan.  We would head to a place called Cheddar Gorge and do a little hiking instead.

So off we went to Cheddar Gorge, the largest gorge in the UK, full of caves, and at the end of it sits the village of Cheddar of course.  Cheddar Gorge is considered by some to be the second greatest natural wonder in Britain (what’s the first – Dan yr Ogof caves – no idea what that is but will let you know when we visit it). The oldest complete human skeleton ever found in the UK (estimated to be 9,000 years old) came from a cave in this gorge and is called – can you guess - Cheddar Man.  And yes, they make and sell cheddar cheese here as well. 

At the top of Cheddar Gorge with some of our sheep friends.

We drove down the entire length of the impressive gorge and parked in the town of Cheddar.  At this time of year, Cheddar is a sleepy little town, but with the shops and restaurants, some of which were still open, you can tell it’s full of tourists during the warmer months.  We put on our hiking shoes and off we went for a quick jaunt up to the top of the gorge because we were losing daylight fast (sunset is at 4:03).  Hold it – did I say quick.  Let me rephrase – we took off on a very strenuous hike to the top of the gorge.  This is a BIG gorge and basically, you just hike up and up and up until you get to the top.  It was worth it.  When we finally made it to the top, we were greeted with a spectacular view of the countryside stretching out for miles and miles.  And we weren’t alone.  We ran into some sheep and goats to keep us company.

The next day, we were up and ready to go early, our bellies full from our hotel breakfast, and heading back to Bath because we were going to find a parking spot this time, darn it.  Failure is not an option.  I want to see the Christmas market!  And it worked.  Big difference arriving in Bath at 9:30 in the morning.  We had our choice of parking spots.  We parked the car and spend the entire day in Bath.

First stop, why a Roman Bath of course.  Around 2000 years ago, the Romans built baths and a temple in the city because of the natural hot springs located here that still flow today.  The site of the main bath and temple has seen major excavation over the past couple hundred years and the history of the bath and temple have been pieced back together as best they can from the finds in this area.  The Roman Bath museum takes you through just what your average Roman citizen would have experienced when visiting the bath.  A trip to the bath was actually a social outing for their society.  People went to the bath to gossip, conduct business, catch up with friends, and yes, they were usually naked.  The facilities are much more than just the main bath – there were rooms for massages, sauna type rooms, a cold plunge pool and a temple.  Learning about the Roman baths and religious history and seeing them in person was extremely interesting, but I think I prefer to socialize in a cozy, warm pub – with my clothes on thank you very much. 

The Roman Bath
After exploring the bath and museum, we were hungry.  I did my research before coming to Bath.  Bath is full of great restaurants and I wanted to find the perfect place for us to enjoy a good meal.  After consulting with tripadvisor, I decided on a little place called Bistro La Barrique, a French style restaurant serving ‘petits plats’ or small plates, in the style of Spanish tapas.  I’ve never eaten at a French restaurant before so what better way to try French cuisine than by sampling lots of different dishes.   And it was delicious!  The photos are stuck on my other camera which doesn’t like our Mac for some reason, so after Eric does some magic to get them uploaded, I will share them with you. 
Time for lunch!
We spent the rest of the day wandering around Bath, admiring the architecture, popping into different shops here and there, had a late afternoon coffee and some dessert in a little coffee shop the waiter at the French Bistro sent us to, which just happened to be connected to a delightful little cheese shop where we of course enjoyed sampling a variety of English cheeses.  And as the sun was setting, we wandered back towards the center of town to the Christmas market.  The Christmas lights were on by then, there was the smell of roasted nuts in the air, we stopped and listened to some carolers for a bit, and general just soaked up the Christmas atmosphere.  What a way to spend a day! 

On that note, I think I will save our trip to Stonehenge the next day for tomorrows post because I'm suddenly in the mood to make some Christmas cookies.  Below are more pictures from our day in the beautiful city of Bath.  Enjoy!

The beautifully carved wooden doors into Bath Abbey.

Looking down on the wooden stalls in the Christmas market from the balcony of the Roman Bath

The balcony above the Roman Bath.

The Sacred Spring, where 240,000 gallons of naturally hot water rises daily to the surface.  From here, it is directed to the other pools in the Roman Bath.

A live statute.  The girls loved this.  He/she didn't move a muscle the entire time we were watching, except to blink.

The moon peeking out over the city of Bath.

One of many beautiful shops in Bath.

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