Em­brac­ing Europe in the win­ter months

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - LIFE & TRAVEL -

Ev­ery time I travel to Europe in the off­sea­son, I find my­self en­joy­ing a cool and comfy tran­quil­ity — and not miss­ing the heat and crowds that so of­ten come with peak sea­son. But even more than that, I en­joy catch­ing Europe by sur­prise — at its can­did best, liv­ing ev­ery­day life. When I travel out­side of the tourist sea­son, Europe seems even more wel­com­ing than nor­mal.

Some of my warm­est Euro­pean mem­o­ries have been gained while wear­ing a sweater in the off­sea­son. Lin­ger­ing over cafe creme in a nearly tourist-free Paris, I’m joined by a tiny bird on the next wicker chair as we watch Parisians pa­rade by. I en­joy a theater and mu­sic scene de­signed for lo­cals rather than tourists. I take my time at a chateau in France’s Loire Val­ley, with a big log on the fire and guards re­laxed and happy to chat. I sit alone on a peb­bly Ital­ian Riviera beach and step into the won­der of St. Peter’s Basil­ica in Rome with none of the jos­tle. Bun­dle up and get con­vivial with Europe in the off­sea­son and you’ll un­der­stand why, for so many, that’s a fa­vorite time to travel.

There are also some prac­ti­cal ad­van­tages to trav­el­ing in the off­sea­son (con­sid­ered Novem­ber through March). Air­fare is gen­er­ally cheaper. Out­side of places that get lots of busi­ness trav­el­ers, ho­tels and Airbnb-type rentals are also less ex­pen­sive, and you can some­times even bar­gain for deeper dis­counts.

In win­ter, you can usu­ally walk right in at sights that are plagued with lines in peak sea­son. With­out hav­ing to buy ad­vance tick­ets, you can of­ten show up when you want at places like Florence’s Uf­fizi, Paris’ Or­say and Barcelona’s Pi­casso Mu­seum. Sight­see­ing crowds are thin­ner, al­low­ing you to spend some time en­joy­ing Europe’s trea­sures up close.

Of course, win­ter travel also comes with draw­backs. Be­cause much of Europe is at Cana­dian lat­i­tudes, days are short, and it’s gen­er­ally dark by 5 p.m. The weather can be cold, windy, driz­zly and gen­er­ally dreary, and you’ll need to pack heav­ier, in­clud­ing a good wa­ter­proof coat and shoes.

In win­ter, sight­see­ing pri­or­i­ties change. You’ll prob­a­bly do less me­an­der­ing and ex­plor­ing of neigh­bor­hoods, and more beel­in­ing to and from sights. Mu­se­ums pro­vide a warm and cozy haven, while out­door sights can be harder to en­joy: Frigid weather can drain the fun out of even the Eif­fel Tower and other must-sees.

Many sights op­er­ate on shorter hours in the off­sea­son, of­ten clos­ing around sun­set. English­language tours, com­mon in the sum­mer, are not as com­mon in the off­sea­son, when most visi­tors are na­tives. And win­ter sight­see­ing can be es­pe­cially frus­trat­ing in smaller tourist towns, where many sights and restau­rants close down en­tirely.

Off­sea­son is a fine time to visit big cities, which bus­tle year-round, as well as the Mediter­ranean re­gion (Italy, Spain, Por­tu­gal, etc.), which is of­ten hor­ri­bly hot and crowded in the sum­mer, but fairly mild in win­ter. While Europe’s won­der­ful out­door evening am­biance tends to hi­ber­nate dur­ing win­ter in the north, it sur­vives all year in the south. And, of course, in some places, such as Switzer­land, win­ter ac­tiv­i­ties — ski­ing, sled­ding and other snow sports — are an im­por­tant part of the cul­ture (and tourism).

The month lead­ing up to Christ­mas is an es­pe­cially fun time in Europe. For in­stance, Ger­man towns big and small light up with Christ­mas mar­kets, high­lighted by car­ol­ers, fes­tive decor, ar­ti­san or­na­ments and other hand­i­crafts, and sea­sonal treats such as hot spiced wine. Christ­mas mar­kets are also pop­u­lar in Switzer­land, Aus­tria and other coun­tries.

In Lon­don, Paris and other cities, build­ings and streets dress in their hol­i­day best, and out­door ice rinks pop up. In Paris, hun­dreds of fresh-cut fir trees line the Champs-El­y­sees, sparkling with a daz­zling dis­play of lights. In Bri­tain, a fun hol­i­day tra­di­tion is the “panto” — campy fairy­tale plays with out­ra­geous cos­tumes, sets, dance num­bers and au­di­ence par­tic­i­pa­tion.

Late win­ter brings more rau­cous rev­elry, when var­i­ous Mardi Gras/Car­ni­val cel­e­bra­tions brighten the mood through­out Europe in Fe­bru­ary. The quin­tes­sen­tial des­ti­na­tion is Venice, which erupts for 18 days in an ex­trav­a­gant fes­ti­val of cos­tumes, par­ties, din­ners, themed pa­rades and mas­quer­ade balls — a fi­nal de­bauch­ery be­fore the re­stric­tions of Lent. The fes­tiv­i­ties end with a huge dance on St. Mark’s Square, lit with fire­works.

Out­side of hol­i­day and fes­ti­val times, Europe is quiet in win­ter. While fields and squares are filled with color and vi­brancy in the sum­mer, in win­ter the at­mos­phere feels in­ti­mate, as naked branches, lonely vis­tas and soli­tary can­dles flick­er­ing in win­dows of­fer a peace­ful charm with the promise of life and re­newal just around the cor­ner.

Rick Steves (www.rick steves.com) writes Euro­pean travel guide­books and hosts travel shows on public tele­vi­sion and public ra­dio. Email him at [email protected] steves.com and fol­low his blog on Face­book.

SAN­DRA HUNDACKER/RICK STEVES’ EUROPE

Trav­el­ers who visit Paris in win­ter get to ex­pe­ri­ence a less con­gested, more Euro­pean Europe.

SI­MON GRIF­FITH/RICK STEVES’ EUROPE

Revel­ers in or­nate, out­ra­geous cos­tumes and col­or­ful masks de­scend upon Venice dur­ing Car­ni­val.

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