The Christmas markets in Germany are famous for their craft stalls, gluwein and generally Christmassy atmosphere. I’ve gone to several in past years; the one in Oldenburg is only about an hour away from my home here in Groningen.
Though they’re much less well-known, Dutch cities, including Groningen, also run Christmas markets.
Groningen’s is called WinterWelVaart, and it adds a unique twist on the usual Christmas market. Instead of holding the market on the central plaza as you’d expect, WinterWelVaart takes place along the most picturesque canals in Groningen: the Lage der A, the Hoge der A and the Kleine der A.
This is a beautiful part of town: historic buildings front the canals, undamaged in the wartime bombing that left its mark on other parts of the city center. Many are former warehouses, identifiable by the vertical line of large doors and the mechanism on the gable that used to be used to lift cargo into and out of the building. (Actually, in many buildings they’re still used, but now that the buildings have been converted into apartments, they’re used to lift furniture in and out instead of struggling with the typically narrow, steep stairways.) Some are rather grand former homes of the wealthier merchants, many of which are now used for offices or divided into apartments.
For WinterWelVaart, the usual Christmas market stalls line the canals on both sides, though the proportion of crafts to food and drink stalls is different than in Germany. The German markets have far more food and drink on offer, perhaps as many as 40 or 50 percent of the stalls, I’d guess. Here I don’t think it’s more than about 20 percent.
What makes WinterWelVaart special
The twist, though—what makes this market different and special—is that the canal itself is lined with moored historical ships. Most of these were built originally to sail the canals as cargo ships, but have been converted to other uses since then.
For WinterWelVaart visitors, the ships are available to board and explore. Many, for the duration of the fair—only three days—become venues for all sorts of activities: musical performances, art exhibits, and story telling, to name the most common. Never mind exploring all the craft stalls; it would be easy to spend hours hopping from one ship to the next, enjoying the coziness and the entertainment.
Ships? In Groningen?
You might be wondering, if you have ever spotted Groningen on a map of the Netherlands, why a maritime theme was chosen for the Christmas market here. It’s not on a coast, after all. It was, however, one of the Hanseatic League cities and later a very important center of trade in peat, the dominant fuel in the 16th and 17th century.
Transporting cargo all over the Netherlands was done primarily by canal until the mid-20th century, and it’s still common to see long, low cargo ships passing on Holland’s canals serving domestic shipping needs. The truth is, though, that most of the ships at WinterWelVaart are not as old as the peat trade: most stem from the early 20th century. The event is organized in part by the local maritime museum as an easy introduction to Groningen’s maritime history.
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The meaning of WinterWelVaart
WinterWelVaart is a great word for this event. Welvaart means “prosperity,” so it can be translated as “Winter Prosperity.” To take the name apart further, the word vaart can mean “canal,” and it can mean “speed.” So another translation could be something like “winter good speed,” meaning “traveling well” or “good journey”. That fits nicely with the nautical theme: it’s about a good journey through winter, starting with this market for Christmas.
WinterWelVaart happens every year just before Christmas. Their website is in Dutch, but the dates should be right near the top of the page.
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