A switch has flicked in Waterford city.
see it in the twinkling lights and shop windows decked with wreaths and holly. I see it in the cosy chalets along O’Connell Street; from the Ferris wheel taking us high above the rooftops and River Suir. The city is in festive mode.
“We don’t even say Christmas anymore,” smiles Lisa Fitzgerald of The Stable Yard on Barronstrand Street. “We say Winterval is starting… it’s a bit like spree in summer. It’s Waterford’s chance to show off!”
Lisa grew up above her family clothes shop, she tells me, and today runs a food hall, cafe, restaurant and sweet shop (where a little girl and her mum are asking where to find Santa’s postbox) on the same spot. She’s a perfect example of the community spirit driving this unlikely Christmas festival, and the thrill locals feel at its return.
This year is Winterval’s 10th anniversary, with over 40 events from light shows to live music, a virtual-reality sleigh ride and ice-skating rink. Free events range from shadow plays to a Polish Christmas and festive tractor parade (December 11). There’s even a Santa for dogs (Santa Paws).
We kick off our visit by hopping on the vintage carousel (€3) on John Roberts Square, gliding around in circles and catching the whiff of sausages on a grill. The kids are old enough to be morto, young enough to crack a smile.
From there, we join the queue for a hot chocolate at Carters, browse the small line of continental-style chalets on Great George’s Street (temptations include mulled wine, muffins, wooden crafts and Lego figurines), and squeeze onboard the Mini Express Train (€5).
The driver, beaming with ruddy cheeks, tails and hat, seems to know everybody we pass on the short tour.
“Howya Pat! You’re looking well! Great to see ya!”
At the Gerbola Circus (from €10pp), there are clouds of candyfloss, bales of sawdust and fearless high-wire and trapeze acts. A joker called Michael hauls me and other audience members into the ring for a “hilarious” selfie skit (my turn to be morto). The finale sees three motorcyclists circling each other inside a “globe of death”.
I’d forgotten how scary old-school entertainment can be.
Winterval’s organisers hope 600,000 visitors will spend up to €30m this year. It’s big business, but it never feels glossy or commercial. Hundreds of volunteers are involved. The only sponsor I notice is attached to the Ferris wheel — dubbed the Port of Waterford Eye. The festival is “brought to you” by Waterford City and County Council and the business community, but feels more cosy than corporate.
“It lifts the place,” says the barman when we get back to our base at the Granville Hotel. “Badly needed.”
It all started in 2012.
“Waterford didn’t know what was coming,” laughs John Grubb, Winterval’s co-director. He describes the festival’s low-key beginnings, and the local culture and concession holders baked in from the start (“like the guy who has the funfair, he’s usually out in Tramore for the summer”).
He describes it as “a Waterford showcase”.
Covid derailed everything, of course. The 2020 festival was cancelled; 2021 severely curtailed. So there’s a sense around the city that 2022 is extra special. Suffice to say that when Santa arrived in a giant bauble for the grand parade, I don’t think there was a social-distancing sticker in sight.
At breakfast, a server in Granville Hotel tells me she took her kids to opening night. Due to the pandemic disruption, she adds, many very young children living locally haven’t seen Winterval, or have little memory of it.
However, Covid did provide the chance to “reimagine a little”, says Grubb. Many of the attractions have been budged away from the Viking Triangle towards the retail spine and centre of the city, for example.
“For a guy who runs an event company, there weren’t a lot of positives in Covid for me,” he says. “But I also think we’re a lot more comfortable being outside. I think we’re going to see that in our numbers this year.”
Between spins on the Ferris wheel (€6) and riverside ice-skating rink (from €15/€14), we explore the rest of the city. A tour of the Waterford Walls murals tells the story of another inspiring council and community collaboration — a vibrant outdoor gallery using buildings as its canvases. We browse the vinyl in Luca Records, grab a Sunday lunch in Momo, and swing into Penneys to see the city walls.
“We did that in history,” my 12-year-old says, as I read the historical panel behind a rail of €38 faux fur coats.
It’s not Krakow or Salzburg, of course. Stalls seem a bit thin on the ground to me, the ice rink feels small and crowded on a Sunday, and traffic is torturous coming in across the river (arrive early if you want trouble-free parking). It rains heavily one evening too, leading to a desolate looking Ferris wheel, the closure of GLOW night light garden (free), and a band bravely playing to a handful of punters.
It’s a damp reminder that Ireland isn’t exactly Lapland when it comes to the Christmas climate.
But really, this is a super lesson in how a community led festival can enliven a small city or big town. And like any festival with lights, it pops much more after dark.
Along the way, I post photos on Twitter.
“I’ve been and can’t understand how other towns around Ireland haven’t imitated it,” reads one reply, from Sabina Tench, who lives in Co Mayo. “Some of it is very simple, it’s spread across the city so every biz feels included, and it’s very diverse so [there’s] something for everyone.”
Organisers have looked at other Christmas initiatives in Irish cities, Grubb tells me. But they felt many were “very centred around one thing”, he muses.
“Whereas we just said, ‘look let’s try and cover as many bases as we can here, and keep it within the city’. The spirit of Winterval is the people who operate it.”
Winterval runs in Waterford until December 23. For details of free and paid events, see winterval.ie
For more to so and see in Waterford, see visitwaterford.com
Granville Hotel, a member of Original Irish Hotels, has B&B from €114 per room. Special offers include two nights with a €50 shopping voucher and dinner from €348 for two sharing. granvillehotel.ie
There’s a gorgeous tone to Momo on Patrick Street — comforting and cool but with a real sophistication to the food, and great local ingredients (pelt pasta by Seagull Bakery next door, for example). There’s a good kids’ menu, too. momorestaurant.ie
NB: Pól was a guest of Winterval and Granville Hotel.
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