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Tis the Christmas market season in Slovakia

Christmas markets, with their mulled wine, grilled meats and frozen toes, are an instrinsic part of the Slovak holiday season. Whether you are looking for a present or a mood-booster, a market visit will prove a wonderful antidote to the commercial western style of ringing in Christmas. Here are three of Slovakia's largest seasonal fairs, as well as a short dictionary to help you appreciate the finer points of your visit:

Christmas markets, with their mulled wine, grilled meats and frozen toes, are an instrinsic part of the Slovak holiday season. Whether you are looking for a present or a mood-booster, a market visit will prove a wonderful antidote to the commercial western style of ringing in Christmas. Here are three of Slovakia's largest seasonal fairs, as well as a short dictionary to help you appreciate the finer points of your visit:

Bratislava (Open daily from 10:00 to 20:00. Ends December 23).

An elderly man nudged his wife towards a milling throng on Bratislava's Hlavné Námestie. "It's a tradition," he said. "You stand by the "búda" [trestle table] and drink your "dva deci" [200 ml.] of "červeného" [red wine]."

Anyone passing the "Vianočné trhy" (Christmas market) in Bratislava this Christmas season will see hundreds of people buttoned up against the cold and following the old man's advice.

On November 28, Bratislava City Council opened the sixth annual Christmas market on Hlavné Námestie (Main Square) near Stará Radnica (Old Town Hall). Besides mulled wine, the fair gives visitors a chance to buy cheap Christmas souvenirs and traditional Christmas food specialities.

In terms of gifts, 86 small and hardy entrepreneurs are selling Christmas wood figures, tree decorations, warm scarfs and good food like "cigánska pečienka" or "mastená lokša" from stands which are open daily from 10:00 to 20:00 or 22:00.

The market also offers cultural programmes, introducing many folk groups, choirs and children's music groups, daily from 17:00 to 19:00 and on weekends also at 10:00. You can buy Christmas punch made by members of the Lion's Club, with the proceeds going towards children's homes, or Medovina wine made by priest Jozef Tomka from Nitra. And be sure to visit the Old Town Hall courtyard, where you will find the "historická zakáľačka" (pig-feast) and its fresh pork meat specialities, a traditional Slovak winter meal.

Banská Bystrica (Open daily from 10:00 to 18:00. Ends December 20).

This year's Christmas market has moved from the central Nám. SNP square to the nearby Nám. Sv. Štefana square, and will take place in the modern Stará Tržnica (Old Market) building. City craftsmen will have their traditional products on offer, while Slovak traditional food and Christmas souvenirs will also be on sale. At the original site on Nám. SNP, the main fountain will be shrouded and a Bethlehem nativity scene recreated. Every hour, the "Anjelské zvony" (Angels bells) will sound over the city rooftops from the Zvonová Veža church tower.

Košice (Open daily from 10:00 to 18:00. Ends December 23).

As tradition dictates, Košice's Hlavná Ulica (Main Street) is the centre of Christmas events."Košické Vianoce '98" is organised by City Council and offers shoppers a crack at traditional souvenirs and Slovak food. The market's cultural program runs daily from 17:00 to 18:30 at a special stage, presenting performances by folk groups and choirs singing the traditional Christmas songs of all nationalities living in Slovakia, which gives Košice's market a distinctively cosmopolitan atmosphere.

A Christmas tree which is 70 years old and 28 metres tall looms over market-goers. In addition, Hrnčiarska Ulica (Potter's Street) has opened up recently and features special bakers' and blacksmiths' craft shops where the craftsmen can be seen doind what they do best. If the cheer becomes too much, pop in to Main Street's Miklošova Väznica (Mikloš Jail), maintained by the East Slovakia Museum.


Christmas food vocabulary

cisársky punč- emperor's punch (red and white wine, rum, orange juice)
varené víno- sweet mulled wine
hriatô- warm fried fat in a glass of slivovíca plum brandy (really!)
medovina- honeyed wine liqueur
cigánska pečienka- gypsy-style burger (pork steak, onion, mustard in a bun)
mastená lokša- salted pancake
lokša s pečienkou- pancake with liver paté
pečené zemiaky- baked potatoes
chlieb s cibuľou a masťou- bread with pig lard and onions
údený pstruh- smoked trout
zemiaková placka- potato pancake

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