Category Archives: European Culture

Enjoying European culture to help get the most from your trip to Europe.

Christmas traditions in Europe

As we celebrate the Christmas holiday, there are a number of unique celebrations and traditions around the world that originated in Europe.  Throughout Europe, countries like France, Germany, Norway, England, and others have their own unique ways of celebrating Christmas.

As we look ahead to Christmas, here are some well-known and unusual Christmas traditions throughout Europe.

1.  Mistletoe – This tradition originated from the Celtic Druids around 500 B.C. in England.  These pagan worshipers loved nature and believed that holly and mistletoe warded off evil spirits and helped ensure futility.  In the Christmas tradition, mistletoe was symbolized everlasting life through Christ and faith which would never die.

An English tradition, kissing under the mistletoe has been practiced for years though no one is certain how the tradition started.  It probably has something to do with with the fertility celebration by the Druids.

Mistletoe (Flickr: Dramatic)

2.  Christmas cards – The first Christmas card was issued in December 1843 by Sir Henry Cole.  During this time of the year, holiday messages were written on calling cards to friends and acquaintances.  Sir Henry Cole was too busy and hired London artist John Calcott Horsley to design a card with a Christmas message.  The first Christmas card greeting read “Merry Christmas and a happy New Year to you.”  With post offices in England and the United States, this Christmas tradition was spread.

Christmas Card (Flickr: mjurn)

3.  Fruitcake – For people who have tasted fruit cake, it is something that is either loved or hated.  However, the tradition of the fruitcake began in Italy.  Italians have a variety of fruitcakes – panettone (big bread), pandoro (golden bread), panforte (strong bread), and pandolce (sweet bread).

Fruitcake is a blend of break and fried fruits celebrated and eaten throughout various regions in Italy.  While each region enjoys its favorite, the history of fruitcake is debated.  Many believe it may have been created in the 12th century by Sienese monks.

However, the popular, romatic story of fruitcake is that of panettone,  A baker from Milan fell in love with a woman and wanted to capture her love with a delicious cake.  His mixture included eggs, candied fruit, and too much yeast.  The result was panettone version of fruitcake which is popular all over Italy.

Panettone (Flickr: ben hanbury)

4.  Silent Night – This famous Christmas carol was first performed in Austria in 1818.  Legend has it that a local priest was out on Christmas night to bless a baby.  On his way home, the experience of that night on a starlit evening inspired him to write a poem.  Franz Gruber, the church organist, set the poem to music and on Christmas Eve 1818, the song was performed for the first time.  In Obendorf, Austria, the Silent Night Chapel stands on the place where Gruber and priest Joseph Mohr stood as it was performed for the first time.

5.  Nutcrackers – Nutcrackers were believed to originate from the Nürnberg region of Germany.  Legend has it that a man was on his deathbed but schoolchildren sang to him and he recovered.  In appreciation, he gathered what he had – wire, prunes, figs, and walnuts – and made a little man.  These became very popular and were sold in the markets.

Over the years, the Nutcracker became a wooden figurine of policeman, soldiers, and more used to crack the toughest of nuts.  These wooden versions were designed in 15th century Saxony as miners became woodworkers and developed these popular figures.

Nutcracker (Flickr: mikejmartelli)

For many celebrating Christmas, many of the popular traditions originate from Europe.  From mistletoe to Silent Night, the origins of these traditions go back many years.  While the origin of some of these Christmas traditions aren’t certain, it is these Christmas traditions which make celebrating Christmas in Europe so memorable and fun.

Turku: European Capital of Culture 2011

I always love reading about the new European Culture Capitals every year, because typically those cities get lots of cash to put on a good show and upgrade their tourism infrastructure.  This year is no different, with two great nominees in the line up.  Today I’d like to highlight Turku, Finland’s former capital city.  I’ve mentioned it before as a great daytrip from Helsinki, and by the looks of it, Turku is planning on a wizz bang party for most of 2011.


River Aura inTurku by Joni-Pekka Luomala

Turku is one of the larger cities in Finland, so you’ll find a lot of great restaurants and bars/pubs.  There’s a lot of old world architecture as well – a great balance between an urban area and a quiet town.

What’s on for the culture capital?  Well, here are some things that caught my eye:

  • A special event for Easter at the Museum of Agriculture.  Something about Easter eggs perhaps?
  • Live jazz nights all spring and summer
  • A “modern electronic” music festival – Turku has a thriving club scene so I suspect this will attract some good European talent
  • The Tall Ships regatta, which I’ve seen in Amsterdam and loved, will be in Turku in August
  • “Pitch Black” gallery nights, where you’ll be led around a guided tour of an art gallery…in the dark.
  • Comics Rule: over the summer, some of the road signage will be turned into comics.  (It looks like they might be in Finnish, or Swedish – the city is bilingual – so they might be more funny if you ask a local for the explanation.)

So looks like Turku should be on your travel itinerary for 2011.

Click here for the lowest prices on Turku hotels

Swedish Winter Activities – Ice Hockey Games

Stockholm is in the midst of another winter.  It happens every year and every year it is dark and cold.  That’s one of the reasons Stockholm isn’t always at the top of the list of best places to visit in Europe during the winter.  Which is a shame.  The city has so much to offer.  Stockholm is amazing shrouded in snow, and the Christmas markets are hard to beat.

But there are so many other things going on in the Swedish winter.  Like sports.  There’s bandy, and ice skating, and skiing.  And hockey.  Of course, hockey.  The Swedish professional hockey league, Elitserien, is one of the best hockey leagues in the world.  The talent pool is deep and is usually home to several NHL prospects or former NHL players.  One year the second division even managed to sign Ed Belfour, a potential Hall of Fame player to play for the season.

Ice Hockey in Sweden

The nice thing about ice hockey in Sweden is that you don’t need to be interested in hockey.  The game becomes more of a cultural experience.  The singing, the chanting, the mass of people in black coats preparing to head back into the Swedish winter waiting outside, it all comes together to give a greater understanding of Sweden and a look at a part of life that so many people forget when traveling abroad.

It needs to be experienced in person. It also needs to be noted that if you have small children who speak Swedish, the language can be a bit, well, adult.  Be warned, but enjoy!

More Tips for Things to Do in Sweden

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Reliving recent German history in Berchtesgaden

During my two week stay in Munich and the Chiemsee this summer, I decided to visit one of the most important documentation centers about recent German history, the Obersalzberg in Berchtesgaden.

Berchtesgadener Land

A trip to Berchtesgaden is feasible as a Munich day trip, the journey takes approx. 3 hours (each way) either by car or train.  Once you arrive in Berchtesgaden take to RVO bus #838 to take you up the mountain to the Obersalzberg. The documentation is a permanent exhibition of the Institute of Contemporary History Muncih-Berlin and to date the only permanent exhibition worldwide to cover all the essential aspects of the Nazi period in Germany.

The halls are arranged around Wachenfeld House which Adolf Hitler purchased in 1933 and then converted into his holiday resort Berghof. And of course, Obersalzberg contains the Führerbunker underneath  the exhibition halls.

Admission to the center is EURO 3 and you can either join a guided tour or walk around on your own, look at photographs, watch old Wochenschaus and videos.

Entrance to the documentation center

Then follow the signs and descend into the bunker. What struck me as chilling in the truest sense of the word was how vast, dark and very cold the many, many rooms are. Having to take refuge in a bunker this deep and big must be haunting, with water dripping off the walls and floors and not much by way of amenities.

Aisles in the bunker

Rooms were marked as office, guest quarters etc. but they resembled prison cells more than temporary living quarters. They are also all totally empty. I expected some sort of furniture or memorabilia of the times, but there is absolutely nothing.

Dripping walls

Another point of interest to visit in Berchtesgaden is the Eagle’s Nest, a big chalet which was a project of Martin Borman and presented to Adolf Hitler as a50th  birthday present . It’s located high up on a mountain and there is an access road which was blasted out of solid rock and completed in only 13 months. Since 1952 the Eagle’s Nest road is closed to public traffic and a bus service takes visitors to a viewpoint. From there a stone lined tunnel leads straight into the mountain and an elevator which takes the visitor up another 406 ff straight through the heart of the mountain and into the building itself. The Eagle’s Nest is open from mid May until the end of October.

Footpath down from Obersalzberg to Berchtesgaden

I didn’t visit the Eagle’s Nest because after my visit to the Obersalzberg, I walked back into Berchtesgaden on a winding footpath which leads through dense forest and affords views of the beautiful Berchtesgadener Land. It was also a means to unwind after the truly moving experience of viewing the documentation.

Tips for What to Do in Germany

We’ve lots of travel tips for what to do in Germany.

St. Lucia Day in Stockholm, Sweden

Winter is a surprisingly good time to visit Stockholm.  Or at least December is.  Despite the dark, the Christmas lighting and any snow lying around really brightens up the city.

With all that darkness, brightening up the city is pretty important to most Swedes.  That’s what makes Lucia such a great holiday.  Way back when calendars weren’t always on the same page as they are now, the longest day of the year was said to be the 13th of December, St. Lucia day.  Today, that tradition is celebrated in Sweden with candles to light the winter (and plenty of delicious baked goods).

The traditional celebration involves a young woman, chosen as Lucia, leading a procession of stjärngossar, or star boys.  On her head is a wreath of candles, and in her hands she carries lussekatter, or St. Lucia Buns, along with coffee.

Photo by Bengt Nyman.

In the early 1900s, an official Lucia was elected in Stockholm and that has continued to this day.  Every year, voting is held for Lucia, who is then crowned at Skansen and leads a procession on Luciadagen.

This year, the crowning will occur on the 4th of December, the procession will, of course, be held on the 13th of December. Skansen during the Christmas season is an amazing experience.  Coupling that with the Lucia procession is even better and makes for one of the best places to visit in Europe during the holiday season.

More Stockholm Tips

You’ll find lots of tips for things do do in Stockholm in our best of collation post.

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More Tips for Things to Do in Sweden

We’ve lots more travel tips for what to do in Sweden.

Religious “Street Art” in Deia, Mallorca: A Photo Tour

I spent a very enjoyable afternoon walking around the village of Deia in the north west of the Spanish island of Mallorca.  I was taken by the beauty of the paintings of religious scenes on tiles embedded in walls throughout the village. I tried to find out more about the paintings in an online search but nothing came up. Below are photos of some of this “street art” in Deia.

Please leave a comment if you have any information about Deia’s religious “street art”.

When in Rome: Ludus Magnus – training ground of gladiators

When Rome sightseeing at the Colosseum, be sure to take the time to cross the street and peer into the area known as the Ludus Magnus. Two thousand years ago, this was the largest and most prestigious of Rome’s gladiatorial training schools.

The Ludus Magnus was built during the reign of Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD). Ancient records of its construction exist, but it had been built over and its exact location remained a mystery until it was unearthed in an excavation in 1937.

Renderings based on excavations and ancient records are believed to be quite accurate. As the image below illustrates, the Ludus Magnus once boasted s central practice arena where gladiators learned and trained, surrounded by limited seating for spectators. Rooms around the training area contained barracks for the gladiators and storage for the equipment. Underground tunnels connected the Ludus Magnus with the Colosseum.

Rendering courtesy

Today, just over half of the arena and the barracks remain. The brick-work of the present-day ruins would have been covered with marble at the time of Ancient Rome.

Peer down at the remains of the school that once trained Rome’s best gladiators. Better yet, enjoy stunning views of the Ludus Magnus and the Colosseum over a glass of wine from the rooftop terrace of the adjacent Hotel Gladiatori .

If you are visiting the Ludus Magnus, you are just three blocks away from the portico marking the spot where  Pope Joan’s true identity was discovered. Why not enjoy a short stroll in the pretty neighborhood of Celio in order to visit this curious medieval site?

Armistice in the Compiègne Forest, France

Tomorrow, 11 November – Armistice Day, is observed and commemorated differently around the World today. In France it is a national holiday, and most if not all communes will hold ceremonies at their monuments aux morts where they will remember their forefathers who fought and died for their country during World War I.

This bronze sculpture of a sword that strikes the Imperial Eagle of Germany is set in Alsatian sandstone and inscribed “To the heroic soldiers of France – Defender of Fatherland and of Right – Glorious liberators of Alsace and Lorraine”, photograph by Mark Wilson.

Armistice Day, as we all know, marks the end of World War I, the day the Germans surrendered to Allied forces. Armistice was signed, by the various signatories representing the Allied forces and the Germans, between 5:12 AM and 5:20 AM, Paris time, and surrender was scheduled for 11 O’Clock that day, 11 November 1918. This was the hurried result of what was a desperate and pressured process that had begun towards the end of October when German leaders realised defeat was imminent. After a flurry of telegrams between the German command and Allied leaders, the threat of revolt breaking out throughout Germany forced the issue.

The German delegation was taken to a secret location, and in the Allied Commander-in-chief, Marshal Ferdinand Foch’s private railway carriage the final details of the Armistice agreement were thrashed out for three days. That secret location was the forest of Compiègne.

Photograph by Mark Wilson.

Still today the exact spot in the forest commemorates the signing. Slabs of granite mark the spot where the Foch’s carriages stood, and where the carriage occupied by the Germans stood.

Foch’s train went back into service, but in November 1927 it was returned to the exact spot where the Armistice was signed. The carriage was placed in a specially constructed shelter, known as the Clairiere de l’Armistice. There the carriage remained until 22 June 1940 Hitler, Goering, Keitel, von Ribbentrop and others marched into the Clairier, and in the very same carriage the Nazis demanded and received the surrender armistice from France.

Photograph by Johnny Rooke.

The Clairiere de l’Armistice was destroyed during the Occupation of France during World War II, and Foch’s carriage was taken as a trophy to Berlin. But in the dying days of the Third Reich, Hitler ordered the SS burn the carriage and destroy the ashes – nothing was to be retrievable. But on 11 November 1950 a replacement carriage – itself built in 1913 at the same time Foch’s carriage was built and correct in every detail – was rededicated on a restored Armistice site in the forest of Compiègne.

Compiègne is only a 50 minute train journey to the north from Paris’s Gard du Nord. There are around 20 trains a day. For anyone visiting this great European city, Karen has written produced a great summary of all best things to do in Paris, as included on the Europe a la Carte blog. Beside the Armistice memorials in the forest of Compiègne, there is also the spot where Joan of Arc was finally apprehended. And besides the forest there is the Château de Compiègne, the seat of the Second French Empire – but that will have to be the topic of a future post.

Do you know what’s on your Euro?

Much of Europe is now on the Euro, a single currency intended to make trade and commerce more seamless across the continent.  But do you know what’s on those coins and bills that you, in a rush, just stuff into your purse and pockets?

If you’ve got some coins and currency, go and get them.  Don’t rush – I’ll be here when you get back.

You’ve no doubt heard the arguments and controversy about changes to currency within your own home country.  But imagine trying to debate such things for a currency that covers such a vast swath of land, politics, and traditions?  The basic principles that the Euro operates on now are pretty clear; here are a few things you can look out for on your next trip.


Euro Coins are not standard across Europe.  One side of the coin is, which contains the geographic outline of the continent.   The other side is dependent on the issuing country,which will have its own specific design for the opposing side of the coin.

No worries – a Monaco Euro coin works just fine in Amsterdam, and vice versa.


Unlike the coins, countries have no control over what’s displayed on Euro bills issued by the country.  You can tell where a note was issued by the leading characters on the serial number, otherwise it’s just like any other.

But what about those images?  These are meant to represent architectural periods throughout European history.  Here’s the full list, since you more than likely won’t see all of these when visiting (unless you are richer than Karen or I – if so, please send some bills.)

  • 5EUR – Classical, grey colour
  • 10EUR – Romanesque, red colour
  • 20EUR – Gothic, blue colour
  • 50EUR – Renaissance, orange colour
  • 100EUR - Baroque and rococo, green colour
  • 200EUR – Iron and glass, yellow colour
  • 500EUR – Purple, modern/20th century architecture

Useless Trivia: It seems that the country that printed a Euro coin or note isn’t always the country that issued it.  Sorry, I just report the  news, I can’t explain why.

Photo Credit uggboy

The Berlin Wall: Famous for its destruction

Amanda has been doing a wonderful job writing about all there is to see in Berlin (Check out here Best of Berlin Travel Tips as well as Berlin’s Haus am Checkpoint Charlie Museum). And to be perfectly honest, she inspired me to revisit the trip I made there a while back.

I knew very little about the history behind the Berlin wall.  I’m at the age where I don’t really remember the events leading up to the fall of it, and it wasn’t distant enough to necessarily be covered in depth in my history classes, but not close enough that it was covered in my current events classes.  Basically, my education failed me.

I knew the wall fell. I knew it fell in 1989. I knew it was symbolic and historic and plenty of other -ics.  But I didn’t know what to expect when. visiting this Berlin sightseeing attraction.  It’s a strange idea in the first place.  How does one visit something that is historic for its very destruction?  I wanted to see it because it no longer existed.

That’s what made exploring Berlin so much fun though.  Because walking around the city, I suddenly stumbled upon a lone cement panel.  Remnants of the Berlin wall.  I headed to the east side and found a large stretch of wall which out into perspective just how high it was, just how dominating it was.  And of course, I wandered through the East Side Gallery and realized that here was an incredible stretch of the wall still standing.

Some trips stand out.  Berlin stood out.  For what was there, and for what wasn’t.  It’s a strange tip, I know, but go to the city of Berlin and look for what isn’t there as well as what still remains. 

Best of Berlin Tips

Read our Best of Berlin tips to help plan your trip.

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Tips for What to Do in Germany

We’ve lots of travel tips for what to do in Germany.