Sou­venir shop­ping in Europe? Lighten up

The Buffalo News - - TRAVEL - Rick Steves (rick­ writes Eu­ro­pean travel guide­books and hosts travel shows on pub­lic tele­vi­sion and pub­lic ra­dio.

Shop­ping in Europe can be fun, but don’t let it over­whelm your trip. On one guided tour of the British Houses of Par­lia­ment I saw half the group skip out on the tour to sur­vey an en­tic­ing ar­ray of plas­tic “bobby” hats, Big Ben briefs and Union Jack panties. Fo­cus on lo­cal ex­pe­ri­ences, and don’t let your trip be­come a glo­ri­fied shop­ping spree.

As a fa­natic about pack­ing light, I used to wait un­til the end of my trip to shop, then go hog wild in the last coun­try I vis­ited (and flew home heavy). One sum­mer I trav­eled with a 16-pound backpack and avoided shop­ping un­til the last week of my trip – when, in Spain and Morocco, I man­aged to ac­cu­mu­late two me­dieval chairs, two sets of bon­gos, swords, a mace and a camel­hair coat – most of which are now in my at­tic.

Now I know bet­ter and shop light when it comes to sou­venirs. Here are a few ideas for lightweight, pack­able sou­venirs found in some of my fa­vorite places in Europe.

Christ­mas Or­na­ments in Ger­many: Rothen­burg is one of Ger­many’s best shop­ping towns. Figurines, wine glasses and beer steins are easy to find, but if you want to shop light, con­sider a Christ­mas or­na­ment. Rothen­burg is the head­quar­ters of the Käthe Wohlfahrt Christ­mas trin­kets em­pire, which has spread across the half-tim­bered reaches of Europe.

Tourists flock to the two big­gest stores, just be­low Rothen­burg’s Mar­ket Square, where they hun­grily fill lit­tle wo­ven shop­ping bas­kets with good­ies to hang on their trees (items hand­made in Ger­many are the most ex­pen­sive).

Mu­seum Gift Shops in Am­s­ter­dam: Gift shops at ma­jor Dutch mu­se­ums (such as the Ri­jksmu­seum and the Van Gogh Mu­seum) are a bo­nanza for shop­pers. Con­sider pick­ing up books, post­cards, un­usual posters, dec­o­ra­tive items or clever knick­knacks fea­tur­ing works by Rem­brandt, Van Gogh or Ver­meer. Th­ese gift shops are also a good source for books you may not see elsewhere.

Hand­made Pa­per in Swe­den: The town of Lessebo in the Swedish Glass Coun­try has a 300-year-old pa­per mill (hand­pap­pers­bruket) that’s well worth a visit. Mak­ing hand­made pa­per us­ing strictly tra­di­tional meth­ods, Lessebo’s mill is a study in the way things used to be: Cot­ton fibers are soaked un­til they be­come pulp, packed into a frame, pressed, dried, glazed and hand-torn into the per­fect size and shape. This pa­per has long been cov­eted through­out Swe­den for spe­cial pur­poses, and its ex­cel­lent gift shop has ar­ti­sanal wa­ter­color pa­per, sta­tionery and cards that will last a life­time.

Ties in Croa­tia: Croa­t­ian sol­diers who fought with the French in the Thirty Years’ War had a dis­tinc­tive way of ty­ing their scarves. The French found the look stylish, adopted it, and called it à la Croate – or even­tu­ally, cra­vate – thus cre­at­ing the mod­ern neck­tie. If you’re in the Adri­atic port of Split, look for Croata, a bou­tique that sells neck­ties with tra­di­tional Croa­t­ian mo­tifs, such as the checker­board pat­tern from the flag or char­ac­ters from Croa­tia’s ninth-cen­tury Glagolitic alphabet.

Lace in Bel­gium: You can visit high-end stores in Brus­sels, but Bruges’ Kant­cen­trum (Lace Cen­ter) is a mu­seum and school that teaches you about lace­mak­ing while you shop. Ex­hibits ex­plain the dif­fer­ent ways to make lace, and a com­puter lets you try dif­fer­ent tech­niques your­self – it ain’t easy. The payoff is up­stairs in the demon­stra­tion room, where ladies chat mer­rily while mak­ing lace, usu­ally us­ing the bob­bin tech­nique per­fected in Bruges. Ob­serve as ladies toss bob­bins: They fol­low maze­like pat­terns with a for­est of pins to help guide their work. The re­sult is on sale in the gift shop, along with ma­te­ri­als for mak­ing lace on your own.

Soc­cer Swag in Barcelona: Sports fans love jer­seys, scarves and other gear as­so­ci­ated with the wildly pop­u­lar FC Barcelona (aka “Barça”) soc­cer team. You can find knock­offs at tourist shops, but for the real thing, visit Camp Nou Sta­dium – Europe’s big­gest, with a ca­pac­ity of over 99,000. A tour takes you through the fa­cil­ity and a mu­seum – and at the end, of course, there’s a big shop to buy of­fi­cial Barça gear.

Leather in Florence: Florence’s long leather­work­ing tra­di­tion was born at Santa Croce Church, where Fran­cis­can monks per­fected the art of bind­ing gor­geously il­lus­trated manuscripts. To­day, the ven­er­a­ble leather school at the church is the city’s most fa­mous place to buy leather goods, but you’ll see leather for sale all over Florence. A wal­let or belt is a nice, pack­able pur­chase.

Wher­ever you go, avoid sou­venir carts out­side of big mon­u­ments, where the goods tend to be over­priced and cheesy. Do your shop­ping in places that of­fer a fun cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ence. If you shop smart and lo­cal, a few well-cho­sen items can help you cap­ture the essence of a place for years to come.

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