One of the many great things about Europe is the magnificent way it celebrates the Christmas season. Throughout the continent, a spirit of festivity 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.
With that said, this is the first in a series of posts on the various ways Christmas is celebrated in Europe. While each country has its own festive quirks, many of them share the greatest of the ancient traditions and it’s a joy to be enveloped by it.
Germany, for example, is one of the most magical places to experience the season. This seems ironic, as it’s arguably Europe’s most progressive, twenty-first century nation. But old traditions die hard and Germany reaches far into its medieval past to embrace and celebrate the season. From the Austrian border to the Baltic Sea, from the Black Forrest to Berlin, Germany comes alive at the holidays. Its people break out the gingerbread recipes, the carols, and the colors of the season.
The 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 the bundled-up shoppers and sightseers with classic old Germanic carols, their puffs of visible breath ascending into the sky on the frosty air.
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 predominantly Catholic South and Protestant North (this, after all the birthplace of Luther and Protestantism). Jolly St. Nicholas looms in the dreams of children eager for the big day to arrive.
It’s a good reminder that there is more to Germany that Oktoberfest and the Autobahn. They keep the best of their ancient traditions very much alive as they indulge in the classic sights, sounds and tastes of Christmas festivity.
Growing up in the Midwest, my Thanksgiving was the traditional spread of turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie, devoured at a relative’s home in suburban Chicago. But I grew up to be an inveterate traveler and spent the holiday in many places—one of the best was the historic, colorful Belgian city of Bruges.
Several years ago I was serving an internship at the US Embassy in London, and received a four-day weekend as per federal law. I packed a bag, recruited a friend, and took advantage of the holiday to visit one of my favorite Northern European locations.
Once a prosperous medieval port city, Bruges saw its fortunes vanish when its waterway silted up. The Flemish jewel’s centuries of slumber had an unintended boon for twenty-first century travelers: its cobbled alleyways, picture-book canals and magnificent Market Square survive to thrill romantics and history buffs alike.
My friend, a fellow American who was visiting me from back home, had never heard of the place. This presented another great opportunity I relished: playing tour guide in Europe. At first she was skeptical of spending the holiday in an unfamiliar city, but my description of a city that offered authentic Gothic architecture, romantic canals and Crusader-era cathedral housing an ancient relic piqued her interest. She also seemed to warm to the idea when told that Belgium makes the finest chocolate and beer in the world (in fact, Belgium has almost as many beers as there are days in the year).
Having won her interest, we met up in London on a Wednesday, flew to the Brussels and caught a train to Bruges. A steady rain greeted us as we settled into a little bed and breakfast I’d enjoyed on a previous visit. I promised my exhausted buddy that tomorrow would be a lot more fun.
Thanksgiving was spent showing my hometown friend some of Bruges’ charms, like the bell tower that has overlooked the Market Square since 1300 and the historic Basilica of the Holy Blood (home of a priceless relic brought home to Bruges from the Crusades—the reputed blood of Jesus—and the Gothic artistry of the ancient City Hall.
Under a chilly drizzle, we munched on hot, greasy French fries from a stand in the Market Square and admired the pointy gilded architecture. After licking our fingers we checked out the Michelangelo kept in a nearby church and then continued wandering along the canals that lace the city. A major part of the experience was, of course, browsing the numerous chocolate shops lining the alleyways just off the colorful square.
Our thanksgiving feast was in a little Italian café off a cobbled lane, where a pizza was washed down with a delicious locally-crafted strawberry-flavored beer (Frambozen). Dark chocolate, freshly made by a nearby confectioner’s, was the dessert. After introducing my pal to a few more fine Belgian beers (Trappist monk-brewed dark, and a white beer called Dentergems), a post-feast stroll around the backstreets capped off the night.
The following Sunday I returned to London while my friend flew home to Chicago with a bagful of delectably pralines, a well-earned hangover, and a few good stories. I relished playing tour guide in Europe, and I still do.
I’ve had many interesting Thanksgiving experiences before and since, but my holiday spent in the historic, idyllic little Belgian city still brings a smile. Stuffing and family is great, but I really miss that beer.
Having just come back from another great trip, I’m reminded again of the richness of Europe and the gifts it keeps on giving to any traveler willing to seek them out. I went to France on assignment for three mid-size, nationally-distributed magazines, and set to work almost immediately. It’s amazing how profoundly engrossing traveling and learning can be, especially when you have the added incentive of a contract for a story that must be delivered. Poking around the countryside and investigating ancient abbeys, ruined castles, and little medieval towns gives me a charge like nothing else. It satisfies my twin desires of adventure and knowledge.
As usual, the interactions with locals carbonated the experience. Sharing a bench—and soon after, a lively conversation—with a local man in half-timbered Rouen or chatting with the lady at the café table next to mine in the pretty little Burgundian city of Beaune added texture to the photos I’d taken. The clusters of pixels in my camera contained beautiful images of churches and historic buildings, but the connections forged with the everyday residents of these places gave depth and perspective to the memories in my own mind—a depth and perspective I hope will be felt by my readers.
It’s the local people—like the kindly town archivist in the German city who helped me make sense of his community’s tragic WWII history—that are the real repositories of history and tradition. Without him, I’d never had known about the moving memorial that sits on a seldom-visited hill just outside the town. It was a powerful, emotional experience to visit the lonely hill—the last resting place of so many of his community who lost their lives while the dueling armies fought it out around them—alone at sunset.
At those times you realize that the pretty stuff is only architecture.
Other travelers met on the road have become new friends too; I’ll soon be swapping trip highlights over email with the LA filmmaker from the Rhine River Valley village of Bacharach, the Seattle-area photographer from St. Goar, and the US psychology student from Colmar.
As I sit here shaking off jetlag and organizing my hastily-scribbled notes, I smile as I think about the experiences I crammed into my short trip. The research I did and the photos I took will yield excellent material for my article assignments. But more importantly, the experiences are already sowing the seeds of ambition for my next adventure overseas.
“Marrying into a culture is a strange pinnacle of interaction. All of these travelers and travel writers think they’re so “extreme” because they visited this place or that place or ate this or bungee jumped off that, but — in my experience — there is nothing more challenging than truly learning language and culture to the point that you can have a genuine relationship with your mother- and father-in-law. That is some crazy shit . . . trust me.” Thomas Kohnstamm, interview
Oh yes. There is so much wisdom in this quote I can almost feel it coming out of the screen and slap me across the face, Chuck Norris’ style.
In brief: I’m sitting at the table I sit at every day for hours on end, writing, researching and imagining the new worlds that hang before me, stylized into the colors of a world map. My fiancee has left for her training session on the benefits of Chinese tourism to the local hotel industry. I think I’ll have another cup of coffee as soon as I finish this post. I have a bunch of bills to settle, and I know I’ll have to explain myself in a foreign language that sounds increasingly less foreign to my ears. I don’t see any Himalayan peak nor any series of earthen huts with thatched roofs from my window. There is just a solitary row of damp saris and t-shirts flapping in the wind.
Today, there won’t be any exciting hike, nor any backpacker competition to ascertain who stayed on the road for longer and with lesser cash. However, I might end up running at the park, skirting the hungry monkeys in search of food to avoid getting a rabies-infected bite and spend the night at the hospital. Or, I could visit my friend at the Buddhist sanctuary, sit under an outgrown branch”stolen” from the original Bodhi Tree, and sip cardamom tea. I’ll leave the visit to my in-laws for later, during the weekend. Today, I don’t feel like making the drive.
I glance out of the metal bars affixed before my apartment’s door frame, and I see nothing that could resemble “traveling”. At the same time, I feel like I’m as far as possible from any traveling stereotype. Strange, isn’t it?
We’ve all heard horror stories from our friends—and have many of our own—about certain airline experiences. With the sheer volume of flights scheduled around the world on any given day, it is a statistical certainty that there will be the occasion snafu, and sometimes it’s your flight’s turn to have the bad day, and sometimes it isn’t. So, it’s generally wise to not let one friend’s horror story or isolated incident inform your opinion of an airline.
That’s what I thought when I head of a friend’s troubles with Air Berlin the other day. Living in Copenhagen, she was scheduled to fly to Miami for a short vacation to see family. Due to an epic screw-up on the airline’s part, she has found that the soonest she could reach her destination would be in two days, thus destroying her much-anticipated visit. This was compounded by the fact that they were reportedly rude and unhelpful.
She was crushed and angry, so I took her rant about the airline with a grain of salt, especially considering the sterling reputation of the normally efficient Germans. She was crushed and angry, so I took her rant about the airline with a grain of salt—until I read this.
In fairness, other friends who have flown the airline reported nothing but positive experiences. But when a major magazine runs a story about an airline’s slow-motion meltdown and includes the line, “Germany’s second-largest airline has become a mesmerizing spectacle of shaming and apology” in the first paragraph, there is definitely grounds for warning my fellow travelers to think twice before booking until the company sorts itself out.
Recently I was asked by a magazine to look at possibilities for a travel article. Specifically about some Western European locale that featured prominently in World War II, but hadn’t been covered too widely. Turns out it was not an easy task. While scouring my map of Western Europe looking for places that hadn’t been done a thousand times already, the thought entered my mind, “has it all been done before?” Just as when I’m playing my guitar and writing a tune, I wonder if every possible permutation of chords has already been explored.
The more I stared at the map, my eyes raking over familiar place names, the more I began to despair at the thought of “it all having been done.” Later that day, while talking to a friend, she mentioned in an off-hand way how her grandpa, who’d recently died, and was given a deeply moving military burial. “Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry to hear that. He was really nice. Actually, I had no idea he’d been in the military.”
“Neither did I”, she said. “He only mentioned it a couple times that I recall, and I was a kid, so I didn’t really care.” Evidently she found out while talking to his friends and other relatives at the funeral. She proceeded to tell me the harrowing and sometimes grisly story about her granddad’s exploits in World War Two, where as a young man he fought bravely in France and Germany, and was awarded medals for valor.
“I didn’t know this stuff till recently,” she said, a tone of amazement in her voice. “And I never saw the medals or knew about them till they were taken out of a drawer and put in his coffin with him. He had lots of them. He was always so quiet; he kept all of that stuff inside.”
Reflecting on the conversation, I realized that, yes, there are still great stories to be told about amazing lives; stories that often go unknown until that life is extinguished. It’s just a matter of asking; of seeking. Every location holds its own stories too, just like people. I recall the many times I have found that a flower-blanketed field was the scene of an epic medieval battle that decided the fate of nations, or that a pile of stones in the countryside was once a soaring abbey that witnessed a coronation of a great king beneath its vaulted ceilings.
And that is our job as travel writers, and as people fortunate enough to be able to tell these stories: We need to seek, we need to ask. Because there are stories worth telling, and they hide in the most unlikely of places, like a quiet valley, a broken-down complex of haunted stones, and a kind old man’s heart.
If you’ve been traveling for any length of time then you’ve been asked the same questions a million times:
The questions get tiresome sometimes, but I understand why people ask. To be honest, I ask them, of other travelers, myself more often than I should. People are interested. They’re curious. The life of a traveler is one that seems shrouded in mystery and romance, when really it’s more likely to be dust and exhaustion on any given day. And so we answer: enthusiastically on the days when we feel like world conquers and the last of the free people. Patiently on the days when it feels tiresome. Philosophically on the days when we’ve had too much wine or the news from someplace we love brings sad tidings and we remember a place that no longer exists.
There is one question that I truly cannot bear. Every time it is asked, I’m at a loss. I have no idea how to answer. It stumps me without fail.
How was your trip?
My internal monologue runs something akin to this:
Memories run like old movie tape through my head in a flickering parade of colour, sound and smells: things there really are no words for. I remember a hundred people and a thousand conversations and those handful of life changing moments, none of whom or which can be done justice in a trite answer. How do I sum up the awe of sunrise over Angkor Wat, with the ghosts of hundreds of years of history watching with me? Or the deep meaning of one sentence gifted by an ancient Vietnamese man who took an afternoon to teach our children brush drawing: Life is short, but art is long. How can I sum up the depth of my aversion to Jakarta? Or the absolute relief of sinking into the cool waters of Chieow Laan Lake? Or the physical joy of finding salad in Bali? It’s impossible to communicate the internal lessons absorbed by climbing a 75 meter high tree with no safety gear in Australia, or found on the bamboo floor of a meditation room in Ubud, or standing beneath the killing tree in Cambodia, or lighting incense sticks at the feet of a giant golden Buddha on a sweltering afternoon.
How was your trip?
Great question. Terrible question.
How was your entire year while I was gone? Quick, sum it up for me in three snappy sentences. Can’t do it? Indeed.
And so, I do my best. I can recite the stats and the stories. I can play back the highlights reel; but that’s not really answering the question. I can’t tell you how my trip was, because it has nothing to do with the quantifiable externals, and it has everything to do with all of the things I learned, the ways I changed, and what the world taught me that I hadn’t seen yet. If you have a day, and you really want to know, a traveler can begin to scratch the surface in answer to that question.
More to the point: my journey isn’t over, and neither is my “trip.” Perhaps it never will be, which makes the question a hard one to answer.
There is one voyage, the first, the last, the only one.
— Thomas Wolfe
A good traveler knows that it isn’t the number of places you’ve been that counts, it’s the number of meaningful experiences. Just like the saying, “it’s not the number of breaths you take that matters, it’s the number of moments that take your breath away.” Same with traveling. Miles mean little, so do stamps in your passport. That stuff is ancillary to the true story: the adventures themselves (be they emotional, fun, or just plain interesting) and the souls you were lucky enough to encounter along the way.
For example, a friend asked me today, “So how many places have you been to?” I get asked question a lot. My answer is always, “I don’t know. Never counted. But you know what? I’ve got a scar from Scotland, some friends from Florence and a parking bill from Budapest.”
All true, and all linked to great travel memories. All the best travelers use this sort of yardstick to measure their experiences abroad. The key is perspective: think qualitatively, not quantitatively.
Having said that, I think it’s safe to assume the Hungarian police have given up expecting me to pay that stupid fine they left on my windshield. To this day I’m not quite sure what it says on that thing, but it looks cool in a frame. As for the scar from Scotland, that’s another story altogether.
My travels in northern France have always provided vivid reminders of the battle for Normandy, which raged from D-Day through the summer of 1944. Though partially healed by the decades, scars still remain in the rolling countryside, picturesque villages, and gentle beaches.
Sixty-nine years ago today, the Allies waded ashore on the beaches of Normandy, France, and began the liberation of Europe from Hitler. A US veteran of the Normandy campaign said recently, “Out of my squad of 13, only 3 survived.” His story was not unique. The fighting was ferocious, and casualties on both sides were severe.
On each of my visits to this beautiful area, I have been struck by the locals’ affection for Americans. The French are not normally known for their liking of the US tourist, but in Normandy, the appreciation for the US sacrifice is strong. Several coastal villages fly American flags and bear plaques in the town square commemorating the day of their liberation by US troops in June of 1944.
Some reminders are particularly evocative for me. For example, I find few sites as poignant as the rusted ports lurking in the waves just off the coast of Arromanches-les-Bains.
Not far from the immaculate rows of gleaming marble headstones of the US cemetery at Omaha Beach, the tiny beach village of Arromanches-les-Bains was chosen to be the main port of the Allies. Still visible in the surf are the ghostly hulks of the prefabricated ports known as “Mulberry Harbors”, designed to move those millions of pounds of Allied men, vehicles, and supplies from ship to shore in the fight against Hitler.
The skeletal iron beasts, now rusted and worn away by decades of tide and salt water, serve as a 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.
The years go on, but the echoes remain.
As a fan of great museums, England, and historical stuff in general, I’m excited about a brand new museum that has just opened this week.
Located in the historic dockyard of Portsmouth on England’s picturesque south coast, the Mary Rose Museum houses the sixteenth-century hulk of the HMS Mary Rose, the pride of Henry VIII’s navy. Built in 1511, the massive warship sank off the coast of England in 1545 while fighting the French fleet. After ages under the waves, her remains were resurrected from the sea by marine archaeologists and installed in the new museum. A museum that, incidentally, is situated in the very dockyard in which the ship herself was constructed.
But it’s the collection of objects from within the ship—thousands of sixteenth-century items being called the largest trove of Tudor-era artifacts ever assembled—that are the real stars of the museum. By a stroke of fate, the silt of the sea floor created a virtually airtight tomb for the small objects within the vessel. The resulting collection of relics is so well preserved that it has been dubbed “the English Pompeii” for its quality and poignancy.
The artifacts on display within the hull include miraculously preserved musical instruments, rosaries, board games, silverware, weapons, book covers, medical equipment, furniture, coins, and even the remains of several of the Mary Rose’s sailors. Facial reconstructions of the recovered skulls put a human dimension to the 500 men who perished with the ship, as do the everyday items they used. Combs with Tudor-era lice still trapped in them are also in the exhibit, as are the remains of the ship’s dog.
Taken together they are sure to tell a story of lives lived and lost within a sixteenth-century ship’s creaking timbers.
I can wait to see this for myself.