American Airlines has some great off-peak prices for award tickets to Europe. Rather than the usual price of 60,000 miles, during off-peak a roundtrip ticket would only cost 40,000 miles. And you can get that amount of miles simply by getting the AAdvantage credit card’s 50,000 mile bonus. (Learn more about these off-peak prices here.)
So when is “off-peak” for Europe?
According to American Airlines, off-peak for Europe is anytime between October 15 and May 15. Other airlines may have different off-peak dates. But basically off-peak exists during the colder, winter months. (US Airway’s off-peak dates for Europe are extremely narrow- only January 15-February 28.)
For this post, we’re going to consider the more generous off-peak dates and take a look at the pros and cons of traveling Europe during winter.
1.) Christmas Markets
The month of December is an absolutely charming time to be in Europe because of the vast number of cities that set up “Christmas Markets” in their main squares. Imagine the quaint and decorative architecture of days gone by, set aglow with festive lights and market stalls selling baked goods, hot spiced wine and bratwurst. It’s as if people are fighting back against the gloom of an early sunset.
Each Christmas Market is a little bit different. In Verona, Italy you may find dried meats. In Villach, Austria you’ll find plenty of bratwurst and glühwein; in Brussels, waffles and in Prague, traditional rolled pastries called Trdelnik.
2.) Snow in the Alps
The Alps take on a different feel when covered in snow. Even if snow has not yet made it to the ground below, when the peaks are dusted and white, it feels like the Alps are all the more striking. Not to mention Ski enthusiasts can explore the Alps best when they’re covered in snow.
3.) A (slight) decrease in tourism
“Local tourism” is still pretty big during the Christmas season when Christmas Markets decorate the city. But otherwise you may notice slightly cheaper hotel rates and slightly thinner crowds. Certainly, as mentioned in the first paragraph, you tend to at least see slightly cheaper airfare.
1.) European winters produce gray and sometimes foggy skies
My first trip to Europe was during the summer years ago. But since then, most of my European travel has been during the winter time. This time around I finally decided that it is not just a coincidence that most days are sun-less. In beautiful Bled, Slovenia there was always either fog or clouds creating a thick veil over the steep mountains behind the lake. Rather than the striking photos of peaks reflected in the lake’s waters and towering above the local castle…I have some misty photos that barely even permit a sighting of the island on the lake.
2.) Sometimes tourism is too slow
While reduced levels of tourism can be nice in hot-spots like Prague and Venice, for more off-the-beaten-path destinations like Bled, Slovenia or Bercthesgaden, Germany, you may find that half the town is closed down. This means half the number of choices for hotels and very few options for dining as well. And restaurants that DO stay open likely have sporadic hours.
3.) Extremely short days
Europe is Northerly enough that the hours of daylight are quite minimal during the winter months. In Prague in December for example, the sun sets at 4 pm and it’s pretty much totally dark by 4:30pm. According to timeanddate.com Prague has 8 hours and 11 minutes of daylight on this day, December 9th. Compare that to Boston’s 9 hours and 11 minutes.
We made the mistake of sleeping in today and by the time we squared away a bit of online work and lunch, we only had two hours of daylight in which to site-see.
Europe is beautiful. Just walking around ancient little cobble-stoned streets and soaking up the feeling of being somewhere timeless and historical is all I need for my Europe tours. And in that case, I really don’t mind doing this meandering whilst wrapped in coats and scarves. Especially when there’s an ample supply of hot spiced wine or hot cocoa to sip as I walk.
But for lovers of photography, it can be quite frustrating. Unlike anywhere else we’ve been, my husband and I sometimes wait until the sun sets to take our photos. We switch to a lens that works best in low-lighting and take advantage of all the golden lights of evening. We prefer this to giant opaquely gray skies that dull the photo.
Of the many things Europe does well, it’s the continent’s magnificent Christmas festivities that can charm this cynical traveler every time. From Scotland to Switzerland an extraordinary spirit of festivity, connecting this generations to others long since passed, can be felt in the wintertime air. The traditions of the season are still strong in this thoroughly modern part of the world, where bustling Christmas markets fill the main square of big cities and bucolic, half-timbered villages alike. In the cathedrals, choirs singing the great medieval Christmas hymns fill the cavernous spaces with angelic harmonies, their melodies carried to the rafters on frosty puffs of breath.
One of the most interesting aspects of Europe is the subtle variations to each country’s celebratory traditions. I find them fascinating. Here’s a sampling of those variations from three different cultures: The German, French and English traditions.
Germany, despite being a progressive powerhouse not known for sentimentality, is actually one of the most magical places to experience the season. Old traditions die hard and Germany reaches far into its medieval past to embrace and celebrate the season. From the Bavaria to the Baltic, from the Black Forrest to Berlin, its people break out the gingerbread recipes, the carols, and the colors of the season.
Performances of the Nutcracker are to be found in theatres across the country, while well-built manger scenes adorn the cobbled public spaces of both the Catholic South and Protestant North.
Sprawling Christkindle Markets fill the squares of communities across the country, bursting with music and food and seasonal décor. Traditional favorites such as gingerbread and sweet prune-and-fig candies are served at stalls under a kaleidoscope of Christmas colors. It’s not unusual for a small chorus to be serenading bundled-up shoppers and sightseers with classic Germanic carols.
But the singing of carols is especially beloved and ingrained in the Christmastime traditions of England. In fact, they’ve been a staple of the holiday in England since at least the sixteenth century, as many of the country’s Christmas traditions are. The great cathedrals of Salisbury, Westminster, etc. hold spellbinding choral events by candlelight and colorful outdoor Christmas markets buzz with activity.
Do you like your Christmas tree? Thank England, where the tradition of the Christmas tree originated. The custom originated when pagan-era Druids decorated their places of worship with evergreen trees in the dead of winter, which to them represented life that could not be extinguished despite the cold and the dark. The later Christians appreciated this symbolism, as it reminded them of Christ’s promise of eternal life, and adopted the custom.
The holiday dishes are of course a pivotal aspect of any celebration, and the diversity in food served on the big day is one of the widely most varying customs of Europe’s Christmas celebration. In England the regulars like turkey and veggies are served, but desert is the real treat: The all-important Christmas pudding, a fruity desert usually made with figs and brandy, and mincemeat pies, both fixtures since the sixteenth century.
Another particularly English tradition also includes the wearing of a colorful paper crown—everyone is a king or queen at Christmas. Needless to say there is tea involved on this wintry day as well, often at 6pm on Christmas to warm the soul.
France revels in its ancient cultural traditions as it celebrates the Noel with that classically French combination of style and joy. Gift giving is less emphasized than gathering and celebrating simple rituals with family and friends—and sharing a fine meal with good wine, of course.
Paris, the City of Light, celebrates in a less ostentatious way than big US cities, but its neighborhoods often host popular Christmas markets that are as festive as any.
In the countryside, where the culture of any people really resides and thrives, the traditions are stronger and richer. The warm tones of local choirs singing medieval carols can be heard emanating from candle-lit, thirteenth-century churches. Many families will attend the midnight Mass and return home to enjoy le réveillon, or the “wake-up!” meal.
And that meal is fantastic. Being France, the food is an integral part of the celebration—in fact it’s the culinary high point of the year for many. Delicacies like foie gras, oysters and escargots are popular aperitifs, while the entrée tends to be more straight-forward dishes like goose (popular in Alsace) and turkey (more popular in Burgundy). Meat (including ham and duck) is paired with a good red wine and served with the ever-popular chestnut stuffing, a French favorite for generations. Chubby truffles are another beloved feature of most dinners.
While the use of the actual Yule log has diminished somewhat, the French make a traditional Yule log-shaped cake called the buche de Noel. It’s a sugary delight of chocolate and chestnuts.
After the Mass and le réveillon, the children put their shoes in front of the fireplace hoping that Pere Noel (Father Christmas) will fill them with candy, nuts, fruit and gifts. As the kids drift off to sleep, the adults sit up late, hang goodies from the tree and polish off the Yule log. Before they turn in for the night, a softly burning candle is are left on the table in case the Virgin Mary passes by, a long-standing custom of this Catholic country.
Since the famous French museum houses one of the most extensive art collections in the world, I’ll admit that making a beeline for a painting I’d already seen on countless refrigerator magnets and coffee mugs was a wholly unimaginative act. In tourist terms, hurrying through hallways of miscellaneous masterpieces to seek out the Mona Lisa was kind of like picking one harried celebrity from a crowd of a thousand interesting people and bugging her with questions I could have answered by reading a gossip magazine.
Apparently aware of this compulsion for artistic celebrity-worship, Louvre officials had plastered the gallery walls with signs directing impatient tourists to the Mona Lisa, and I soon fell into step with crowds of Japanese, European and North American tourists eager for a glimpse of Da Vinci’s famous portrait.
Anyone who’s been to the Louvre, of course, will know that I was setting myself up for an anticlimax. The Mona Lisa was there all right — looking exactly like she was supposed to look — yet this was somehow disappointing. Standing there, staring at her familiar, coy smile, it occurred to me that I had no good reason why I wanted to see her so badly in the first place.
Moreover, once I’d left the Mona Lisa gallery and moved on to other parts of the Louvre, I discovered just how ignorant I was in the ways of art history. Surrounded by thousands of vaguely familiar-looking paintings and sculptures, I realized I had no clue as to how I could meaningfully approach the rest of the museum.
Fortunately, before I could fall into touristic despair, I was saved by the Baby Jesus.
I don’t mean to imply here that I had some sort of spiritual epiphany in the Louvre. Rather, having noted the strange abundance of Madonna-and-Child paintings in the museum’s halls, I resolved to explore the Louvre by seeking out every Baby Jesus in the building.
Silly as this may sound, it was actually a fascinating way to ponder the idiosyncrasies of world-class art. Each Baby Jesus in the Louvre, it seemed, had his own, distinct preoccupations and personality. Botticelli’s Baby Jesus, for example, looked like he was about to vomit after having eaten most of an apple; Giovanni Bolfraffio’s Baby Jesus looked stoned. Ambrosius Benson’s Baby Jesus resembled his mother — girlish with crimped hair and a fistful of grapes — while Barend van Orley’s chubby Baby Jesus looked like a miniature version of NFL analyst John Madden. Francesco Gessi’s pale, goth-like Baby Jesus was passed out in Mary’s lap, looking haggard and middle-aged; Barnaba da Modena’s balding, doe-eyed Baby Jesus was nonchalantly shoving Mary’s teat into his mouth. Lorenzo di Credi’s Baby Jesus had jowls, his hair in a Mohawk as he gave a blessing to Saint Julien; Mariotto Albertinelli’s Baby Jesus coolly flashed a peace sign at Saint Jerome.
Moving through galleries full of European art, these Baby Jesuses hinted at the diversity of human experience behind their creation, and ultimately redeemed my trip to the Louvre. What had initially been a huge and daunting museum was now a place of light-hearted fascination.
I’m sure I’m not the first person who lapsed into fancy when faced with a museum full of human erudition and accomplishment. To this day, I’m still never quite sure what I’m supposed to do, exactly, when I visit museums. Sure, there’s much to be learned in these cultural trophy-cases, and visiting them is a time-honored travel activity — but I often find them lacking in charm and surprise and discovery. For me, an afternoon spent eyeing pretty girls in the Jardin des Tuileries has always carried as much or more promise than squinting at baroque maidens in a place like the Louvre.
Part of the problem, I think, is that museums are becoming harder to appreciate in an age of competing information. Back in the early 19th century, when many of the world’s classic museums were founded, exhibiting relics, fossils and artwork was a way for urban populations to make sense of the world and celebrate the accomplishments of renaissance and exploration. Now that these items of beauty and genius can readily be accessed in digital form, however (where they compete for screen-time with special-interest porn and YouTube parodies), their power can be diluted by the time we see them in display cases and on gallery walls.
In this way, museums are emblematic of the travel experience in general. In 1964, media critic Marshall McLuhan wrote that, within an information society, “the world itself becomes a sort of museum of objects that have already been encountered in some other medium.” More than forty years later, that “museum of objects” has been catalogued in ways that even McLuhan could never have imagined — this means that seeing Baby Jesuses where you had expected Mona Lisas might well be a worthwhile strategy outside of museums as well.
In the purely metaphorical sense, of course.
Having just confessed to my own bemusement in the presence big museums, I do have a few suggestions. Many national museums are so extensive that it’s impossible to experience them meaningfully in a single visit. Thus, study up a little before you go, and isolate yourself to one wing or hall of the museum. Make yourself an expert-in-training on, say, one period of Chinese history, or one phase of Dutch art. Don’t just watch the exhibits; watch how people react to them. Be an extrovert, and engage your fellow museum patrons on the meanings and significance of the displays.
If studying up beforehand seems too deliberate for your tastes, approach a big museum as if it were a highlight-reel of history or culture. Walk through the museum slowly and steadily, front to back, noting what grabs your attention. After the initial walk-though, go back to the area that interested you the most and spend some time there. Take notes, and read up on your new discoveries when you get home.
2) Make the most of small museums.
Small community museums can be found in all corners of the world, and they offer a fascinating example of how local people balance the relationship between themselves and the rest of the world. Because their exhibits are humble and anonymous compared to the likes of the Louvre, there is no set of expectations, and no tyranny declaring that you must favor one relic or piece of art over another. Much of the time, this better enables you to see things for what they are (instead of what they are supposed to represent). The secret to exploring these small museums is their curators (and their regulars), who are invariably knowledgeable and a tad eccentric. Take an interest and ask lots of questions, because these local experts will have plenty to share.
3) Let the world be your museum.
If the world itself has become a museum of objects, treat it with the same attention and curiosity you would a formal gallery. As tourist scholar Lucy L. Lippard has noted, a shopping mall, a thrift store, or even a junkyard can be as revelatory in a faraway place as a gallery full of relics. Similarly, daily life in a given neighborhood off the tourist trail is just as likely to reveal the nuances of a given culture as is an official exhibit. Wherever you go as you travel, allow yourself to wander, ponder, and ask questions. Odds are, you’ll come home with a deeper appreciation of a place than if you were just breezing from one tourist attraction to another.
While frequent flyer miles can help alleviate the costs of flights to a destination in a game-changing way, the travel that happens once in a destination can really add up too. This is particularly true in an affluent place like Europe.
But, as a continent that has a fabulous infrastructure for public transit, it should come as no surprise that even those with their own personal cars find a way to contribute to the public’s transit needs.
Indeed, carpooling is yet another task that the internet is revolutionizing in some way. Europe has a number of websites that exist to connect passengers to carpooling hosts, much as Couchsurfing.com or Airbnb.com do for travelers’ accommodation needs or Uber and Lyft do for local transportation needs
Unlike the short, local jaunts that Uber and Lyft accommodate however, these carpooling sites help you connect with drivers going long distances. For instance we’ve gotten rides for 150 miles or more such as Salzburg to Vienna or Berlin to Hamburg. Or even London to Paris in one case.
How it works:
Signing up for many of these sites requires registering a text number. If you do not have a phone that works internationally, we usually communicate with someone back home to use their text number and have them send us the code to complete registration.
Once registered, you have the ability to connect with drivers who have posted the routes they intend to do along with the payment required. Unlike Couchsurfing, the guest pays the “host”. It’s more like AirBnB in that way. However, we have always found the prices to be cheaper than the other public transit options, not to mention the trip is almost always quicker than these options as well.
Car-pooling sites you for Europe travel, by region:
UK carpooling sites:
German carpooling sites:
1.) Mitfahrgelegenheit.de -(the German version of carpooling.co.uk)
Non-region-specific carpooling sites:
1.) blablacar.com -(the site that seems to be most popular here in Europe.)
A few extra notes/challenges:
1.) As suggested above, some of these resources can be challenging without a phone. Even if you have a web-generated text number from apps like “TextMe” and “TextPlus”, sites like this do not seem to function properly with web-generated text numbers. (This is true for resources like Uber and Lyft too.) So even if you have a travel-friendly phone alternative like those mentioned here, not all of them will cooperate with these resources. Specifically ones relying on web-generated numbers.
2.) Even though Europe has a pretty decent coverage when it comes to these car-pooling sites, some regions of Europe are still lacking. For instance we’ve had trouble finding carpooling options to the Balkans.
3.) This car-sharing strategy is virtually impossible if you are a person who doesn’t like to pack light, because drivers often try to fill every seat in their car. Do not assume you are the only passenger taking advantage of any given car-share. If you have more than one or two pieces of luggage, include that in your correspondence with your driver ahead of time.
4.) Sometimes you can suggest the meet-up location and sometimes the driver will suggest a spot that works for them. You may have to do a little traditional public-transiting in order to catch your ride.
Of course, another reason I love using carpooling resources is because, like all the other people-to-people resources, it connects you with locals and other travelers.
I mean, in some ways it gives me the thing I love about hitch-hiking without the exhaustion and uncertainty. When people connect with locals, and locals connect with travelers, there’s a host/guest mentality that’s naturally built in and it produces conversations you simply wouldn’t have in the service-provider/consumer environment of traditional public transit.
We’ve had so many fascinating conversations with drivers and most times the hours spent driving just fly by. Next time you are in Europe, remember this carpooling option for your semi-long-distance journeys.
Veterans’ Day in the US and the UK is replete with ceremonies (concerts and parades in the US, red poppies in the UK) to commemorate those who served their country in uniform. Aside from a great opportunity to thank those that fought in foreign lands, it’s a great opportunity to remember some of the historic sites that can give testament to the events they witnessed.
While some sites are now little more than quiet fields that have been reclaimed by nature, many places can still pack an educational punch that leaves the visitor still give the visitor a sense of the enormity and ruthlessness of war.
Here are a couple of my recent favorites:
Duxford Airbase and Imperial War Museum, Duxford, England
Revered as a major Royal Air Force (RAF) base during the legendary “Battle of Britain”, RAF Duxford also boasts an Imperial War Museum. With more than 200 historic aircraft ranging from rickety World War I biplanes to the B-17 Flying Fortress to the SR-71 Blackbird, the collection is arguably the finest in Europe. Also on display is part of the Imperial War Museum’s vast trove of historic photographs, uniforms and documents.
RAF Duxford, situated in bucolic countryside outside Cambridge, was founded during World War I but earned its place in history during the darkest days of World War II. In preparation for his planned invasion of Britain, Hitler launched the full might of the Luftwaffe at England’s factories and cities in 1940.
The bombs killed indiscriminately. His aim was as psychological as it was practical; he sought to terrorize the population and break Britain’s will to fight. It fell to the undermanned RAF to defend the homeland.
As the sector station for Fighter Command’s No. 12 Group, Duxford Air Base was in the thick of the battle. Casualties were immense. The pilots who fought in the Battle were enshrined in lore as “The Few”.
In June 1944 the planes launched from the same runways would protect the Allied fleet as it steamed toward Normandy. It would also gain fame as one of the homes of the fighter escorts for the Allied bombers that pulverized Nazi Germany’s industrial might.
RAF Duxford continued as a fighter station after the war and was decommissioned in the 1970’s. With over thirty authentic buildings recognized by the British government for their historical significance, the base was granted to the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in 1976 and has been a world-class center of exhibits and education ever since.
Mulberry Harbors and Museum, Arromanches, France
The tiny French coastal town of Arromanches, perched on the sands of Normandy, holds another of my favorite war sites. Not far from the immaculate rows of gleaming marble headstones of the US cemetery at Omaha Beach, the beach village had its fate permanently altered when it was chosen to be the main port of the Allies.
One of the most vexing logistical challenges for D-Day planners was the issue of transferring the move millions of pounds of Allied soldiers, vehicles, weapons, and supplies from ship to shore once the troops had established a beachhead. At Churchill’s order, engineers were set to the monumental task of constructing giant ports nicknamed “Mulberry Harbors”, designed to accomplish the feat.
Before the blood had washed away from the Normandy sand, the ports were unloaded from ships and attached by brave engineers under enemy fire. While bullets still flew the ports were operational and offloading tons of materiel per hour for the final push against Hitler’s Riech.
Today, a very well done museum perches above the coast and describes the incredible engineering task undertaken to build the ports. It gives even a layman like me a good idea of how this was pulled off, and of the massive challenges (storms, waves, German gunfire) that the Mulberry builders had to contend with.
But this isn’t the most moving part of the area; the really evocative sights are sitting just off the coast and demand no entrance fee. Still visible in the surf are the ghostly hulks of the prefabricated ports themselves. The skeletal iron beasts, now rusted and worn away by decades of tide and salt water, serve as a silent reminder of the world-changing event that came to Normandy’s shores. And they remind us of the ordinary people—most now passed away—who found themselves swept up in the gale force of history.
When it comes to the ways of love and romance, no aphrodisiac is quite so potent as travel. On the road — freed from the dull routines and restrictions of home — you become more open, more daring, more willing to seize the moment. Away from home, the people you meet (be they locals or fellow travelers) seem sexier, more exotic, less repressed — and this makes you feel sexy, exotic, liberated. Freed from your past, happily anonymous, and filled with a sense of possibility, you are never more willing (or able) to fall headlong into a love affair.
The only downside is this: Rekindling things when you get home almost never works. Regardless of how great you and your lover felt in Rio; regardless of how seamlessly the two of you bonded in Paris; regardless of the memories you cherish from Koh Samui, you are risking heartbreak if you try to resume the romance in Hackensack or Burbank or Minnetonka.
I used to wonder why this was the case — why, after sharing intense travel experiences, my relationships with the intriguing women I met in Cuzco or Tel Aviv would sour into a series of uninspired emails, awkward phone calls and (on occasion) anticlimactic reunions. Why would everything change once we’d stopped traveling?
I finally got a clue to the problem several winters ago in Thailand, when I met a Belgian lass I’ll call Katia. Willowy and doe-eyed, with a sexy pout and effortless European grace, Katia would have been out of my league back home — but in the colorful madness of Bangkok, we somehow fell into an easy love affair. Together, we took a train down to Khao Sok National Park in southern Thailand, where we stayed in a tree-house hotel, swam the jungle-rivers, drank Mekhong whiskey, and shared the stories of our lives. After a week, when it came time for Katia to fly back to Brussels, I felt like we had really connected — that our time together had amounted to something special.
Katia must have felt the same way, since — over the course of the next several weeks — she told me how much she missed me, how much she cared for me, and how much our time together had meant to her. When she eventually invited me to join her in Brussels for Christmas, I didn’t hesitate: I bought a plane ticket and flew out as soon as I could.
Once I arrived in Brussels, things fell apart almost immediately. When I tried to put my arm around her as we walked to meet her friends at a bar, Katia curtly warned me not to touch her in front of her friends (“They know I’m not sentimental like that,” she told me). Once in the bar, Katia continually scolded me: for eating too much; for not sitting up straight; for not asking her friends the right kind of questions. For some reason, I’d suddenly become an embarrassment to Katia — an uncultured American fool who couldn’t do anything right.
The disappointment went both ways: Back in Thailand, Katia was laid-back and affectionate, and she’d talked about her passionate calling to design jewelry; in Brussels, I’d quickly discovered that she was a shrill busybody who used her art studio mainly to play computer games. When we visited Belgian museums, Katia sneered at my ignorance of art history; when I read a book on the train to Louven, she scolded me for not looking out at the scenery; when we ate dinner with her parents, she lost her temper when I didn’t pay enough attention to the conversation (which, I reminded her, was mostly in Dutch). In Thailand, Katia had found pleasure in the simplest moments; in Brussels, the only times she seemed remotely satisfied were when we were arguing.
After a week of being trapped in a small Brussels apartment with Katia, I had a realization: despite everything that had happened between us in Thailand, she was still complete stranger to me. I had fallen for Thailand as much as I’d fallen for Katia, and she had done the same. The world we’d experienced together as travelers was, in many ways, a transient fantasy world — and the mountaintop experiences we’d shared in Asia amounted to a sandcastle by the time I’d arrived in Europe.
Indeed, if the anonymity and renewal of travel makes love bloom easier, returning to the noise of your home-life makes road-romance reunions that much harder. Despite all the memories you’ve shared on the road, you can’t pick up the relationship where it left off, because that place is now thousands of miles away.
Last summer, after having not communicated for four years, Katia sent me an email suggesting we meet up and talk. We met — as friends — in Paris, and I felt like I got to know my old Belgian lover for the first time.
It can be difficult to find new angles through which to view places you already know well. Human nature being what is, it takes a conscious effort to see anything through new eyes. We tend to see only what we’re familiar with, and what strikes our vision on the most surface levels: the old buildings, the people, the streets, the here-and-now bustle that is so easy to get caught up in. But shifting our approach is sometimes needed if we are to really appreciate all the layers and the richness any place has to offer.
As a travel writer I’m always forced to do this, and though it’s challenging, it always rewards me with a much deeper perspective of a city’s beating heart and long-hidden scars.
For example, trying to find a topic in which to write about can suddenly have me thinking thematically. In the case of Amsterdam, I was recently casting about for a theme. The picturesque canals and predictable clichés are worn out. I wanted to go deeper.
Of course, a well-deserved reputation for religious tolerance in previously intolerant times is a strong undercurrent in the city’s history, shaping its character. But everyone knows about the city’s lenient attitude towards marijuana and prostitution. The pot-selling “coffeshops” and the brightly painted brothels of the Red Light District are hard to miss, and at any rate weed and sex are not exactly major taboos anymore. So, in doing this “personality profile”, as I like to view travel writing, I decided to focus on the less well-known, more hidden-in-plain-sight landmarks that quietly but effectively tell the story of Amsterdam’s legacy of tolerance in intolerant times.
The point is, looking around the city for these things forced me to look through fresh eyes. I began to notice things I hadn’t paid much attention to before. Statues and plaques commemorating Amsterdam’s history—normally easy to pass over in the bustling, thoroughly modern city—began to emerge from the background, as if reaching out through the centuries to educate me with a silent power.
Paying attention to these small reminders eventually told a story, a long and rich narrative, of how the city’s philosophy of tolerance became a beacon for many persecuted people seeking a safe refuge from their own country’s intolerance in a way that the pot bars and sex shops could not. Small churches emerged from the urban crush and hordes of camera-toting tourists, inviting me into their quiet, solemn interior just as they’d invited minority sects whose beliefs had marked them out for discrimination. Small Catholic churches in times of Protestant intolerance (and vice versa) thrived here, as did humble little synagogues that operated without interference or malice from the city’s fathers.
Around a corner from a busy street, a small brick building in a quiet courtyard bears a faded plaque indicating that English pilgrims came here to worship before heading to the New World. They prayed here, and then boarded the Mayflower to escape persecution in their home country. They were made to feel comfortable here.
The remnants of more recent times came to the fore as well. I begin to notice the many houses bearing historical plaques indicating that the occupants courageously sheltered Jewish families during the Second Word War.
Not far away a statue of a portly, none-too-attractive dockworker seems at first glance to be a forgettable, bland post-war tribute to laborers. Look closer and you’ll find an inscription indicating that it memorializes the brave stand of the Amsterdam’s dockworkers, who staged the first strike undertaken in Occupied Europe to protest the mistreatment of the city’s Jews by the Nazis.
The strike, held a few days after 400 Jewish men were herded together on the spot where the statue now stands, was brutally put down by the SS within hours, and is remembered by few today. The statue’s rotund subject was a real-life non-Jewish dockworker who participated in the strike because he felt it was the right thing to do.
A small room in the city’s historic Dutch Theatre, once a point of assembly for Jews about to be shipped off to concentration camps, holds a humble memorial of three little stones. The memorial seems unimportant. Search for the true story, however, and you’ll find that the three stones represent a local man named Walter Suskind, his wife and small daughter. Suskind smuggled 1,200 Jewish children to safety during the war. In 1945 his work was discovered by the Nazis and he and his family were themselves sent to Auschwitz, never to return.
Soon I begin to understand how many centuries’ worth of brave Amsterdammers have risked it all to welcome and aid minorities in dark times, and that courage was common place in the face of tyranny. It underscores the strength of Amsterdam’s heritage of tolerance more than any fashionable pot bar or cheesy sex shop ever could.
My point is, the “what” that you look for isn’t nearly as important as the act of searching for new ways to connect to a city’s unique DNA. The important thing is looking from a thematic perspective, searching for that thread of history that informs its culture. This can provide the prism through which you can see through the here-and-now veneer and access the richness of a city’s historical character, forged in the crucible of time and trial.
I have recently decided that wander-lusters come in many varieties- many more than I had thought. You know, we like to find our commonalities so it is comfortable to believe that a traveler is a traveler is a traveler is a traveler. But one man’s treasure is another one’s trash. That is true for the non-material treasures we find out on the road just as it is in “real life” back home with material things.
For instance when my husband and I were conversing about the reasons why we travel, one man said that our travel style would not be his idea of a good time at all, even though he considers himself a traveler too. For him, travel is about photography and natural beauty. And if he can’t take his camera lenses somewhere, then it won’t be as joyful to be there.
The fact is, there are as many types of travelers as there are types of people. There are people who love history and that’s why they travel. And people who love people and that’s why they travel. Or people who love animals and that’s why they travel. It goes on and on.
Of course, most of us who love travel probably have many passions sourcing that love. We love people and adventure and culture and artwork and nature…and that is why we travel.
For that reason, it can be hard to answer that question…”Where was your favorite place to travel to?” One place fuels one passion while another place fuels another.
Thus, I give you my 15 paradises for my 15 different passions.
Zakynthos is just the place to go to feel like the rest of the world’s hustle is out of reach. The towns are small and everything is on “island time.” The day’s itinerary often included “jumping into blue water” and “riding a scooter along the cliffs.”
Amritsar is essentially the birthplace of the Sikhs and is home of their most important temple, the Golden Temple. Unlike some religious sights, the Golden Temple is both accommodating to tourists and apathetic of them. I love that. They are purely going about their own religious duties here and while tourists are welcome (as long as they cover their heads and remove their shoes,) there are no disgenuine displays for them.
It’s a place to soak up a genuinely fascinating series of religious practices. Men and women bathe in the waters, there is a kitchen dedicated to serving literally thousands of poor people and visitors, and many of the men have enormous turbans and long swords at their sides, important pieces of the Sikh disciplines.
Anyone who’s been to Prague disagrees with me on this but I have yet to see Prague (hopefully this fall). So until I see Prague, Vienna wins out as my favorite city for architectural beauty. Every building has that gorgeous stature of something built in a time when things were beautiful instead of efficient. The effect is quite romantic. Unfortunately the Rathaus, one of the most impressive buildings in Vienna, is frequently hosting private festivals, parties, events, etc. So you cannot always get very close to it if a special event is going on.
Not to worry though. Every other building is beautiful too.
Queenstown is not only gorgeous but also has at least three different area mountains for skiing, snowboarding, etc. etc, including The Remarkables which are…remarkable! But you aren’t out of luck if you dislike skiing or snowboarding. You can go sky-diving or hang-gliding or hiking. There’s something for everyone.
Switzerland is full of incredible views at every turn. Just driving to your destination is an activity in and of itself simply for the scenery throughout the Swiss Alps. Unfortunately, it’s heinously expensive.
I love Thai food. Everything from the fried noodle dishes of Pad Thai and Pad See Ew to the soups like Tom Ka Gai and Tom Yum. Thai food is full of the delicious flavors of kefir lime, lemongrass, ginger, coconut milk and other novel things. If you like spicy food go for the Pad Kra Pow (minced chicken in peppers and basil) or if you like the sweeter dishes, go for the Tom Ka Gai, (a coconut based soup with straw mushrooms, pea eggplants and other quintessentially Thai ingredients.)
Bangkok in particular is a good spot for Thai food because you will be able to find Northern Thai dishes as well as Southern Thai dishes. Also Bangkok has lots of street vendors with quality dishes for sometimes even less than a dollar.
Fiji is not only home to some pretty amazing tropical fish, but to some impressive soft corals as well, which contributes greatly to its popularity as a spot for diving and snorkeling. Snorkeling is a beautiful adventure in the Yesawas where there’s no telling what you’ll see in the clear waters. (…anyone know what that thing in the picture is? We could never figure it out!)
Next time someone asks you where your “favorite place to travel” is, what will you say? Do you have a favorite place for each of your interests?
It’s an increasingly accepted as fact that, as a nation, we have allowed a work culture to develop where taking time off is seen a sign of disloyalty or lack of care, and where extended time off is more of a concept than a reality. It’s also a given that more and more data suggest that the costs of this approach in stress and lack of free time for rest, recreation and family is having a profoundly detrimental effect on our society.
Traveling in Europe always brings the difference between the US and European cultures with regard to work/life balance was illustrated in sharp relief for me. It’s one thing to hear how the Europeans put priority on the “life” side of the balance, and it is another to see it in action. As many know, the Europeans enjoy social benefits such as maternity as well as paternity leave, and up to six weeks of vacation time per year.
To see the very obvious benefits of that strategic choice for a shorter work year play out in the lives of everyday Europeans illustrates the point. Watching families strolling in the parks, laughing and chatting happily, on a weekday afternoon or visiting with friends over a drink in a café—enjoying the free time their generous benefits affords them—is to reinforce any stressed-out American’s suspicion that we are on the wrong side of the equation.
Of course, there are economic trade-offs along with such benefits. With less time focused on work and more time focused on free time, GDP is affected and taxes are high to support these benefits. Countries with a historically take-it-easy approach to life such as Italy and Spain had no trouble swapping time at work for time with friends, but how do these policies fare in the more traditionally industrious nations of the north? Does this bother many of them?
Not very much, it seems. “Everyone hates taxes of course,” a German told me, “but we willingly make the trade-off because it’s a good bargain. The time is more valuable.” Another said, “We made the conscious choice to arrange the society this way, with the emphasis on maternal and paternal leave and more vacation time. It has many positive benefits. We just do with a little less material things.”
In a surprising finding that bolsters the arguments of proponents for more European-syle work arrangements, a recent analysis from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (link to the study is here) found that workplace productivity doesn’t necessarily increase with hours worked. Workers in Greece clock 2,034 hours a year versus 1,397 in Germany, for example, but the latter’s productivity is 70 percent higher. In other words, there’s not necessarily the direct correlation that our system is predicated on.
“You Americans kill yourselves with antiquated work policies,” says a French acquaintance. “You have two weeks of vacation, if you are very lucky. We are a very prosperous, industrialized economy with a national healthcare service too. We make it all work.”
I knew it begged an inevitable question, and my friend asked it. “So why can’t you?”
That statement and its inevitable question was put to me many times, in many places. It is a question I brought back to the US with me. It stayed in my mind as my flight arced across the Atlantic and over the North American continent, remaining as an important souvenir. The issue was never about lingering in cafés or visiting the Alps, but rather the stuff of a good life: choices, time and freedom to make of it what we will. Would you be happier and more productive if you had more of these? What will it take for us as a society to finally demand it?
This week I returned from a month and a half overseas working as a tour guide, helping to lead two different groups on an epic Best-of-Europe grand tour. The experience was a new one for me; after years of exploring the continent’s cobbled backstreets and ancient cities as a solo travel writer, I found myself with the unique opportunity of being a guide for one of America’s most well-respected touring companies.
A couple of concerns dogged me as I flew over the Arctic Circle, the plane making its slow path from my home base of Seattle to the tour departure point of Amsterdam. Questions like, how would I be able to handle a large group as we steam across the continent day in and day out? And, how will the mechanics of moving groups from one site to the other in an efficient way work? But these concerns paled next to the most significant challenge: Helping the scores of American travelers connect to the history and culture of the places they came so far to experience.
Staring out my window at the endless expanse of the north Atlantic, I began to feel the weight of the responsibility settle into my gut. How do I curate this experience for our flock? I’d always done it for myself just fine; teaching others how to appreciate the richness of Europe was something I’d never needed to do beyond my writing. It was easy enough to crank out articles about the places I’d visited and about the treasures—the food, the history, the people, all the things that make up the culture—those places had to offer. Would I be able to help our travelers connect to them and appreciate them in the same way that I did?
The teaching I’d done before—giving free travel talks at public libraries to would-be travelers who were interested in learning how to create their own independent European adventure—was indispensable. The classes I’d taught had given me a sense of what tickled a traveler’s fancy and what common-sense issues they worried about. This gave me the advantage of being able to anticipate questions and concerns, sometime before the group members even knew they had them.
The true challenge was facilitating the tour member’s experience of the culture. It was in trying to cast new food experiences as a part of good travel, as “sightseeing for your palate”. It was in helping them fend off museum overload by urging them to see the art of the Louvre and the Accademia with their hearts rather than their mind. It was in not rushing through another “check the box” locale (don’t rush through St. Mark’s square, I counseled, just take your time and find your own way to relate to the space). And it was in fending off cathedral overload by teaching that architecture was art we walk through—art that took generations of devoted believers and craftsman to create—rather than just another drafty old building.
Finally I kept the old teacher’s maxim close to my heart: “The task of the teacher is to honor the integrity of fact while at the same time igniting the student’s imagination.”
Over the course of the following weeks I’d work on striking that balance, always trying to bring long-ago stories and long-dead people to Technicolor life. Success for the tour guide also means the tourists returning home knowing that the struggles, the tragedies and triumphs of those who inhabited the majestic castles and cobbled city streets so long ago set the stage for the world as we know it today.
The trick to achieving that was helping them forge an emotional connection to the events a given site had witnessed; that its history was not just a collection of faceless dates and facts, but human beings with hopes and dreams who lived in similarly dramatic times of war, economic uncertainty and dramatic social change. Those folks tried to make the best of it, and somehow got through it. We can too. But more than just the appreciation of history, it’s the appreciation of the culture that really informs a successful travel experience. My hope is that the tour members came away with a renewed perspective on how Europe’s endlessly varied tapestry of cultures, while wonderfully diverse, are similar to our own in the most fundamentally human ways.
If you ever find yourself in the trying but satisfying role as tour guide, I think you’ll find that those lessons are your tour members’ best souvenirs.