Clutching a steaming cup of mulled wine that warms my hands in the chilly night air, I stroll beneath a canopy of twinkling fairy lights as a smooth jazz version of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas plays in the background.
As I pause and gaze up at a towering star-topped tree dotted with glowing red baubles, a surge of festive feeling washes over me – and isn’t that what Christmas markets are all about?
But all too often, these so-called winter wonderlands are overcrowded, overpriced and leave me declaring “Bah humbug!” rather than “Joy to the world!” Which is why I’ve ventured further afield, to Romania, in search of the real deal. And I’m not disappointed.
Smack bang in the middle of the country, historic Sibiu hosts one of the largest Christmas markets in Eastern Europe. Set in the old town’s Piata Mare square, the annual event was founded 13 years ago. After a year’s hiatus due to the pandemic, it’s back, bringing 100 stalls selling handcrafted gifts, food and drink from across the region and beyond.
What’s on the menu? Carnivores can sink their teeth into Romania’s version of the hot dog (a huge grilled sausage smothered with tasty toppings) or a succulent Angus beef burger courtesy of a local farm. Vegetarians might like to sample a crispy flatbread deep-fried with garlic – a popular flavouring around these parts.
“It’s nothing to do with Dracula,” insists Andrei Dragan Radulet, head of the market organising committee. You would be forgiven for making that assumption, given that Sibiu is in Transylvania, home to the legendary Bran Castle aka Dracula’s Castle.
Having munched your vampire-deterring main course, you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to dessert. I find myself agonising over whether to go for crepes slathered with Nutella, a bag of hot sugar-dusted mini donuts or Hungarian chimney cake, made by wrapping ribbons of dough around a hot cylinder until it’s cooked to crisp, chewy perfection, then rolling it in cinnamon sugar.
On my first evening stroll I opt for the latter, then find I’ve got another tough decision to make. Which of the 10 mulled wine stalls – each with their own time-honoured recipe – will I choose? Following my nose, I head to the Gorgandin Winery stall, from which the scent of cloves emanates. I select a rosé variety, which is deliciously light and fragrant.
I wander around the square, browsing the stalls selling local handicrafts and picking up a few gifts to take home (a beautiful hand-painted glass bauble and Christmas tree decorations made from strands of dried fruit and cinnamon sticks) then retire to my room at the Imparatul Romanilor (sibiu.imparatulromanilor.ro), just a few minutes’ walk from the market.
The next morning, bright sunshine pours into the square, making the old town’s pastel pink and custard-coloured buildings shine against a cloudless blue sky. In a bid to offset some of last night’s indulgences I don a pair of skates and take a few spins around the market’s ice rink before climbing the 141 stairs of Turnul Sfatului, the Council Tower, to behold the magnificent views in four directions, from the colourful rooftops of Sibiu to the snow-capped peaks of the Carpathian Mountains far in the distance.
Back at ground level, I discover Sibiu is full of fascinating architecture. On a guided walk through the cobbled streets, I spot houses that appear to be staring back at me thanks to pairs of narrow, eye-shaped windows.
The true origin of the ocular oddities is unknown, but it’s believed that in the days when the town risked attack from the Ottomans, residents would hole up in their attics to hide from the enemy. “It was an intimidation thing more than anything,” says tour guide Marius.
Stepping inside the grand domed Holy Trinity Cathedral – ornately decorated with religious depictions in royal blue and gold – I’m surprised to find there are no rows of pews, because, as Marius explains, Romanian Orthodox mass lasts between three to five hours. Instead of sitting down, worshippers come and go as they please. It makes the hour-long Catholic services of my youth seem short.
Following a recommendation from Marius, for dinner I descend to the subterranean Crama Sibiul Vechi, an atmospheric restaurant set in an old wine cellar, where I tuck into a hearty meal of Romanian specialities: pork-stuffed cabbage rolls, followed by pork and sausage stew with a side of gooey cheese polenta.
Ready for a mulled wine night cap, I head back to the market to grab a cup of my favourite rosé blend, then make a beeline for one of the stalls piled high with what can only be described as loaves of chocolate and nougat, ready to be sliced, along with mounds of colourful candies, cubes of marshmallow and caramelised nuts and fruit.
One thing’s for sure when it comes to Sibiu: foodies are in for a treat. Whether it’s market stalls, Romanian restaurants or local bakeries, you won’t be short of delicious eats to fuel your urban explorations, and all at affordable prices. Add to that a picturesque old town and a fantastically festive Christmas market, and you’ve got a recipe for a winning winter break.
Sibiu Christmas market takes place until 26 December in 2021, Covid-19 restrictions allowing.