Christmas cheer can lie dormant until that first Coca Cola advert hits the TV or when the radio finally succumbs to Mariah’s Christmas wish. But if you want to hasten the cheer onset, heading to a Christmas market is an easy way to get a head start on the magic.
Europe is famous for its Christmas markets and festivals. It is thought that they started in the late 14th century, most likely in Germany and Austria. In years past, travelling to one of these countries was the only way to experience a market properly. However, and thankfully with the cost of living squeeze, that gap was filled when Ireland’s oldest city, Waterford, put a huge brightly lit Ferris wheel on its waterfront and illuminated the city’s buildings in a colourful lightshow. This Christmas festival and market is Winterval and now in its tenth year, the pageantry is in full swing.
So what’s on?
Although the market itself is a core element, this is only one facet of the experience. And no less than its European counterparts Winterval has a host of cultural and artistic events from concerts, to elves workshops, lightshows, the circus, hurdy gurdies and the ice rink. Local art, craft and very importantly food are also key.
If you arrive in the city after dark, the aforementioned Christmas je ne sais quoi will swell up as you cross the bridge as the lights of the city fairground and the Waterford Eye Ferris wheel flash bright into the night sky.
With daughter A afraid of heights, only daughter B would embrace the spectacular views over Winterval’s festivities with her mother. Even for the brave, that first rotation will put your tummy in your mouth. However you start to relax on the second and third as you take in the beauty of the city lit up below. Tickets can be purchased on site €6 adults, €5 kids, family (four) €18 and there is also a VIP option for groups of four. For €50, you can skip the queue and enjoy the views for that bit longer while sipping flutes of prosecco.
It has been a while since I stepped onto an ice rink and the absolute first time for my children and as this was their highlight, I doubt it will be their last. For the kids (and more Bambie legged adults) there are seal and penguin shaped supports that aid one’s balance as you find your feet on the ice. Perhaps the advice here is to bring a change of clothes if you think you could end up on your bum a few times.
Ice skating, the top pick of activities for our young vistors is €16.50/adult and €14.50/child and needs to be booked in advance.
VR sleigh ride
If you don’t like heights but want to experience a roller coaster, this ride via HD VR (high definition virtual reality) headsets could be for you. Up to eight passengers can be accommodated together and the experience will literally have you gripping the sides of the sleigh as you fly over mountains, over people’s houses and into wooded valleys. Kids love this but tilting forwards, backwards, side to side and even 360 degrees, my motion sickness was severely tested. (€8/person)
I had not been to the circus in a long time, perhaps because I remember my last experience not being the most positive. I don’t like clowns and some animal performances I had seen before didn’t appeal to me. Suffice to say, I was sceptical about Gerbola’s Christmas Circus. This was unfounded.
It was raining quite heavily as we entered The Gerbola Winterval Big Top for a shortened version (1- hour) of the troupe’s show. There are no animals at all in the show with the performances almost 100% acrobatic. Tightrope walkers start the show, trapeze artists on bars and aerial silks follow, the strong men are incredibly talented and the show comes to a climax with two motorcyclists speeding around a globe of steel. Although the tent was not cold, in the poor weather, it is a good idea to come prepared with coats and hats. (€10/person online, €12.50 at the box office).
Fun house and amusements
A Helter Skelter, tea cups, chair swings, a flying Santa ride and a smaller vintage Ferris wheel (for the less brave) are scattered throughout the city. Some vintage, some modern. My kids were drawn immediately to the vintage carousel with its painted ponies and familiar music.
Located on the square, despite the rain, this attraction was running and took us out of the inclement weather. (From €3.50/ride)
Food at No 9 restaurant
Lunch was at The Stableyard, specifically No. 9 restaurant on Barronstrand Street. Although the restaurant is on the first floor, this family owned food focused business spread throughout the building when COVID shuttered several of their neighbours, creating an artisan food hall. Along with the restaurant, there is a chocolate café (buy the buttons to make your Christmas hot chocolate), ice cream parlour, bakery, pizzeria, sweet shop, deli, and Mediterranean food store.
It’s a phenomenal business that Irish Country Living will be revisiting very soon. As it’s Christmas we had to sample the Stephens’s day sandwich, which was both enormous and delicious (€14.95 served with chips and salad).
For a hot port and a quintessential experience of an Irish pub, you can’t really go past the Gingerman pub right in the pedestrianised part of the city centre. The atmosphere is relaxed and although we didn’t eat, the food looked generous and authentically Irish. I was reliably assured that the Guinness was also good.
For many, this time of year elicits a swell of nostalgia like no other. It could be something tangible, an ornament or decoration that reminds you of your childhood. It could be a sensation, like the smell and the taste of marsh-mallow heavy hot chocolate.
Or, it could be an experience, a visit to Santa or a brightly lit amusement ride. An inability to pinpoint exactly what “it” is; every year, sees us attempt to recreate these emotional connections. Winterval is a good place to start.
Winterval is running to 23 December, although some events like Winterval on Ice and the Port of Waterford Eye will operate to 8 January. There are a mix of ticketed and free events so it is possible to enjoy the festivities on a small budget. The McKeevers were guests of the Winterval Festival and the Tower Hotel.
Where to stay
The last time I stayed in The Tower Hotel in Waterford, I don’t remember a leisure centre or the modern décor and comfortable surroundings that we were fortunate to experience. That is because under its new owners – Neville Hotels - a complete redevelopment has taken place from the lobby to the restaurants to its 134 bedrooms. This investment deservedly secured them a 4-star rating by Fáilte Ireland in early 2020. Staying in Waterford, it would be hard to beat the convenient location of this hotel or its facilities. There are multiple spaces to relax, eat, drink and rest after a busy day at the festival. On our first night, we ate in their Pier 37 bar and grill with views over the marina. A similar vista, compliments of floor to ceiling windows, creates a super ambiance in Hobson’s restaurant. Both menus were extensive but the à la carte menu in Hobson’s, at €40, for three courses was excellent value.
Deputy Editor of our sister publication, Irish Country Magazine Niamh Devereux stayed even closer to the action in the Granville Hotel and recommends it highly.
“The Granville Hotel is a Waterford institution, and for good reason. The building dates back to the 1700s, so there’s a charming, olde worlde ambience, mixed with cosy, traditional decor. A blazing fire warms The Thomas Meagher Frances Bar (named after the originator of the Irish Tricolour flag, who was born in the hotel), which is the perfect spot to settle in with a hot toddy after a day exploring the festival. The location is unrivalled, overlooking the waterfront and marina, and the food is excellent, with a special mention for its breakfast — particularly its porridge station, where you can opt for a drop of Baileys or locally-made Muldoon whiskey liqueur. Along with the hotel’s friendly, attentive staff, this is hospitality at its finest.”
For a full programme of events in Waterford visit winterval.ie