New Zealanders love their summers (except for the vagaries of weather that come with them) so it’s hard for even enthusiastic travellers to consider flying to the Northern Hemisphere in the dead of its winter.
I’ve recently returned from my second trip to Europe and Russia in winter convinced that it’s well worth giving up a few weeks of sunshine for. And let’s be honest, there’s no guarantee of constant sunshine and warmth at home in summer so what’s to lose?
So, for those who might be even a little tempted here’s a brief guide to holidaying in the European winter.
Dress for the conditions
Although at home there are still a few staunch Kiwis who sail though winter in shorts and jandals, Europeans know they need the proper gear to keep warm in temperatures that even in the daytime can be well below freezing.
My best friends on my most recent trip were a pair of fur (artificial) lined ankle boots with non-slip soles. I bought them in the end-of-winter sales and they were smart enough not to look out of place on the streets of Prague and Vienna. Worn, along with a pair of merino-possum socks, I never had cold feet. You could take knee-high boots but winter clothing and footwear is heavier and takes up more room in your luggage – significantly so.
Hats, scarves and gloves are not optional extras – very few Europeans will venture out in winter without this trio. Because I wanted to take photos I opted for mittens or, for a change, a pair of finger-less gloves that still kept my hands warm enough but meant I could still operate my camera.
Thermal underwear…or not: The problem with these is that although they keep you toasty warm outside, you will rapidly cook inside unless you can easily remove some layers. Unlike New Zealand, where even some restaurants seem to regard heating in winter as an optional extra, everywhere in Europe is well heated, in some case, almost too well heated.
A feature of winter travel is the ritual donning of outerwear before venturing into the cold and then putting it all back on again on the way out, and then returning to find missing gloves, scarves left over the back of chairs and so on. This does mean you can still bring lighter, dressier clothes to wear at concerts and restaurants – in fact if you don’t have some lighter weight clothes you will swelter inside.
If you find sleeping in very warm rooms a problem I’d consider taking a bed sheet with me. All the hotel rooms I was in only had duvets and in some it was either impossible to open a window or turn down the heat sufficiently. No duvet – cold; duvet: sauna.
Those long winter nights
Both my winter trips were timed to coincide with New Year celebrations and in the case of Russia, in time for the Russian Orthodox Christmas on January 7. The cold, the snow (if you’re lucky) and the early nights are the perfect backdrop for festivals of fairy lights, giant illuminated Christmas trees and winter markets.
So, although it does get dark early (in St Petersburg, for example, sunrise is at about 10am and sunset just after 4pm in early January) European cities come alive then with illuminations and brightly lit shops open until late. If you’re a skater you’re in luck too as temporary ice skating rinks are set up in picturesque locations such as Warsaw’s Old Town Market Place.
Many so-called Christmas markets stay open until well into the New Year. When we think of markets we probably mostly think of products to buy but most of the stalls I saw this year featured food and drink. The markets are a place to sip mulled wine, hot grog (made with rum) and hot chocolate. Most European hot chocolate, by the way, puts the majority of NZ hot chocolates to shame, with the best being made of melted chocolate or chocolate shavings rather than hot milk mixed with cocoa powders. Heaven in a cup for chocolate lovers.
One of my favourite lunches was eaten perched on a stool at an open-air stall in one of Budapest’s main squares, wrapped up like a Teletubby and drinking mulled wine and eating Hungarian sausages with mustard and roast winter vegetables.
I was surprised to find that just because it’s winter and there’s sometimes snow on the ground, many café outdoor seating areas are still open. The beautiful main square in the heart of Krakow’s old town, for example, is fringed with cafes in summer, but remains so in winter too, thanks to heavy duty plastic screens and generous use of patio heaters.
What else to do in the evenings other than to admire the lights, eat and drink?
The Christmas-New Year period is a great opportunity to see opera, ballet and orchestral concerts as many of the big companies are in town (as opposed to summer-time when they are either touring outside Europe or on a summer break).
It’s even possible to book tickets (right down to your choice of seat) on line from New Zealand and there were absolutely no glitches at all. On just one night in Prague this year there was Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet, Verdi’s La Traviata opera and several short orchestral concerts performed in some of Prague’s most beautiful churches. Tickets were very reasonably priced: “box” seats i.e. front row of the first balcony for La Traviata cost $90 and were $55 for excellent seats for The Gypsy Baron in Budapest.
This year in Warsaw I listened to exceptional young Polish pianist, Klaudia Kudelko, perform an hour of Chopin in a tiny concert venue, in which the young Chopin himself had performed when he was just 13. And when I ventured outside it was snowing.
Perhaps best of all travelling in Europe in winter means dodging the worst of the summer hordes. Certainly Prague in between Christmas and New Year was almost as busy as it is in summer but elsewhere there were few queues or crowds. Even gorgeous Cesky Kumlov, a Unesco, World heritage-listed town a two-hour drive from Prague, was relatively empty.
Experiencing a country, or a region in winter is a way to better understand what makes a nation tick and a time when you will most likely encounter more Europeans on holiday than tourists from further afield. After travelling through Russia in January I now have an insight into how the cold has helped shape the Russian soul in a way that a visit in summer could never have done. The same applies to central Europe where people over the centuries have found ways to lighten and warm the winter.