“Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house not a creature was stirring… Except anyone who’s wrapping last-minute gifts, basting a bird in a panic, or pacing sleeplessly, trying to understand how so much stress can be inspired by a ‘holiday’.
All of which makes this the perfect season to give yourself the gift of travel instead, regardless of what flavour of holiday you celebrate.
True, transit hubs are also crowded with high-stress travelers and weather related delays and cancellations abound, but a mixture of preparation and intermittent attitude adjustment can help. Wherever you roam, leave time between connections, ‘carry on’ exclusively if possible, and – when things do go south – take five deep breaths and repeat after me…
‘Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things: air, sleep, dreams, sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it” – Cesare Pavese
With that lofty thought in mind, here are a few recommendations for destinations that I’ve called home, temporarily, for the holidays.
For a festive setting, Prague (Czech Republic) and Brașov (Romania), are excellent options.
With a howling nightlife and club scene, Prague is a madhouse year round. For example, it’s one of the go-to choices for European bachelor and bachelorette getaways. Let that sink in. Feeling jolly yet? I imagine it depends on what type of festivities you prefer. Prague is a truly great place to party. If you’re looking to experience the magic of the city in relative quiet, however, start your wandering early in the day with no plans and keep your eyes open.
Brașov also offers festive trappings, but it’s far lower key, boasting laid back charm and a ski hill right outside town. As you might expect, the atmosphere during winter in Transylvania is by turns cheery and somber depending on the time of day, quality of light and the weather.
For history without the hassle, Italy in winter is simply jaw dropping. Rome is busy any time of year, but in late December you won’t be waiting in line for hours to get into sites like the Coliseum and the Vatican Museum, or baking in the heat as you would in summer. Once there, keep moving: Venice and Pompeii are similarly tourist free. If time permits, stop in downtown Naples and take in views of the volcano responsible for Pompeii’s destruction and/or head to Matera, way down in the instep of the boot, and wander the Sassi di Matera, a cave city that’s been constantly inhabited (more or less) since 7000 BCE.
Typical summer getaways also make for ideal winter trips by virtue of the fact that this time of year they’re exactly where the action isn’t. As options, Malta and the Greek Islands provide entirely different historical, cultural and culinary flavours, as well as experiences you simply won’t get in high season.
In Malta’s capital, Valletta, roam seemingly endless fortifications that figured heavily in the nation’s defense during the 1565 Ottoman siege and the constant pounding by the Axis powers in World War II.
A trip to the coast of Gozo is also a must. The Azure Window may have collapsed in 2017, but the coast is that much more stunning when it’s not rammed with swimmers, snorkelers and divers.
On Santorini, the lack of crowds and mild weather make the hike up and down from the port, and from Oia to Fira much easier. Then again, Santorini is also that destination where you could just spend your entire stay soaking in the views from your digs. Oia is known for its startlingly beautiful sunsets and the panoramic views from Fira are equally impressive. If you’re up for a lengthy hike (2-5 hours depending on your pace) the cliffside path that links the two towns is the best way to take in everything in between.
Want to avoid major cities and big ticket tourist attractions altogether? Try Erg Chigaga in Morocco or Cornwall in the UK.
Visiting the Moroccan Sahara requires planning ahead and a fairly serious time commitment. Cheap flights by discount carriers from European destinations to Marrakech help some, but book your desert outing well in advance. The experience is vastly different depending on where you go once you’re in the desert, so if solitude is your goal, head for Erg Chigaga as opposed to the more popular Erg Chebbi.
On the other hand, Penzance in Cornwall is a great summer destination for surfers. Winter however, offers a different pace and vibe entirely; slow and quaint in the extreme, but also big on natural beauty. You can hike trails at Land’s End or between Marazion, Penzance and Mousehole.
Now, I’d like to say these outings always went exactly as planned, with perfect weather, no sudden flight cancellations, or trips to the hospital. None did, and honestly, that made them all the more memorable and, ultimately, valuable.
Italy and Greece were surprisingly uneventful – Venice didn’t end up flooding, the folks trying to drag someone out of a car in front of me during a minor labour disturbance in Naples were unsuccessful, and on Santorini I actually fell… unexpectedly and completely head over heels for that doggie in the photo.
Getting to Prague, however, involved multiple delays and an almost holiday halting cancellation of a discount flight from Milan. Given the weather – what your average Canadian would consider a ‘light dusting’ of snowfall – the next flight out from Heathrow was surprisingly delayed to several days later. That left roughly 200 highly irritated passengers, from our flight alone, stranded at the airport on December 23rd. Furious? You bet. Beaten? Nope. We threw in our lot and rented a coach with approximately 80 complete strangers and drove through the night.
As for our multiple destination outings (Malta/Romania and Morocco/UK), well, if you spend enough time in vehicles with people sneezing and hacking their way through various seasonal illnesses, you might catch a cold. We did. It passed. We moved on.
Unfortunately, in Cornwall, my wife also managed to contract Norovirus. Why? Because she had a cough and I insisted she go to emergency to get checked out. Meanwhile, the BBC was simultaneously insisting people avoid hospitals for minor complaints altogether owing to an outbreak of said Noro. So, yes, I own that one
I also own twin occurrences of cellulitis – a skin infection that, according to verywellhealth.com, ranges ‘from mild and annoying to life-threatening’. My experience fell somewhere between the two and featured sudden projectile vomiting, intense pain from toes to groin, and a leg that would make a horror film special FX artist weep in envy. The first time it was from sandboarding in socked feet while in Morocco. The second resulted from a wee cut on my big toe in Malta that didn’t seem serious enough to warrant a thick coating of Polysporin.
On the upside I know more about cellulitis than most people, and how to avoid it. And I also can now confirm that the healthcare in Romania is both free and excellent. Seriously, no complaints; the ambulance ride, the tests, finding out I wasn’t having a heart attack – all about as pleasant as you could hope for.
Additionally, alternating between wheelchair and cane to get around meant spending more time with our Romanian guide, who graciously welcomed (insisted) we come to his family’s communist era apartment for a Christmas visit. A win/win situation that provided us with a truly unique chance to pack in home cooked traditional holiday eats and locally distilled Palinka, and allowed our guide to convince someone else to rock the Santa costume that year. Sure, a beardless, relatively svelte Kris Kringle with a pronounced limp isn’t exactly to script…
But his 5-year-old son was thrilled all the same.
As gifts go travel is something you unwrap, unpack, and revisit in your mind over and again. You may not get exactly what you expect. It may not be entirely stress free, but as an antidote to the ordinary, it just can’t be beat.