In search of a very special Christmas experience.
6 December, 2018
Jotunheimen is Norway’s most popular national park and wilderness escape. Waterfalls are frozen between the clefts of high peaks, and an altitude above the timberline provides spectacular panoramas and magnificent sunsets in frigidly clear skies. The national park has an excellent mountain hut system linked by cross-country ski trails that will have you swishing through powder snow surrounded by jagged peaks during the day, and admiring swathes of glittering stars as you soak up the deep mountain silence at night.
Lake Bled, Slovenia
The Julian Alps, just over an hour north of Ljubljana, is Slovenia’s greatest draw-card. Lake Bled is a crystal lake surrounded by alpine peaks and rounded off with a castle on a rocky crag. Walk the water’s edge, or take to a traditional rowboat to soak up the scenery. Out on an island, the Church of the Assumption adds to the picturesque panorama. Further into the mountains within Triglav National Park, Lake Bohinj is just as beautiful, like a wonderful scene from a souvenir snow dome.
Prague, Czech Republic
Few locations encapsulate the magic of Christmas more than the baroque town square in the centre of Prague’s old town, overlooked by towers, turrets and gargoyles – especially if you’re lucky enough to see it under snow. A giant Christmas tree adds sparkle, puppet shows and a life-size nativity scene with real animals and children, and adults can enjoy svařené vino (hot wine) and sugar-coated cakes. Meanwhile, schoolchildren in regional costumes come from across the country and provide carols to serenade the crowd. Magical.
Lapland is famous as the home of Santa, but long after Christmas there are reasons aplenty to visit the Arctic Circle, where you can see reindeer herds and admire the northern lights. A thrilling way to experience the landscape is on a husky tour. After instruction on how to handle the dogs, you’re off with a hiss of runners and a frenzied barking that soon settles to panting and the pattering of paws as you glide through a winter wonderland of icicles twinkling on pine trees.
Visit this alpine resort and you can absorb the winter scenery without ever having to strap on skis. Just wrap up warmly and head to a restaurant terrace, where you can keep yourself warm with Schnapps and a convivial fondue meal. One of the best is high above the town at Findel, within sight of tumbling glaciers, pine forests and the Matterhorn, a sheer pyramid of rock cutting the sky like an axe. At night, its outline is illuminated by moonlight in a magical winter scene.
Want to swap shopping malls for a more traditional shopping experience? Nuremberg’s Christmas market is held in the old-town square beneath its castle walls and features nearly 200 stalls offering traditional buys such as enamelled music boxes, incense burners, tree decorations and wooden figurines. Honey cakes and ‘plum people’ (figurines made from prunes) are regional specialities. Live bands and choirs entertain crowds in the evenings, when the market is illuminated with thousands of tiny lights. There’s also a children’s market with historic carousels and entertainment.
Sitting astride 14 islands, Stockholm is beautiful in winter when snow dusts old-town rooftops and restaurant windows flicker with candles. Soak up the ambiance – and get the adrenaline going at the same time – by renting skates and taking a spin on the ice rinks in historic royal gardens Vasaparken or Kungsträdgården. The more daring can join a guide and skate on the frozen harbour for fabulous views of the city. When you’re done, a warming glass of glögg (mulled wine) counteracts the nipping of Jack Frost.
If you want a cosy winter getaway with history and culture, head to Innsbruck in the Austrian Alps. It combines medieval old town and imperial palace with hip nightlife and dolce vita attitudes derived from a large student population and proximity to Italy. Even better, it’s surrounded by staggering mountains. Hop on Nordkette railway and 20 minutes later you’re at 2,269 metres amid incredible panoramas. Don’t miss Bergisel ski jump either, whose restaurant provides a dizzying look at ski-jumpers at practice.
If you want to escape the bustle of ski resorts then take up snowshoeing, a beautiful way to spend time away from crowds. The winter walking sport is easily learned. Snowshoes let you float on the surface of the snow, rather than sink into it. Sun reflects off ice like diamonds, with the odd colour adding cheerful basics to the white scene: red jackets, green pine trees, big blue sky. If you find your feet, guides will lead you on more daring walks on glittering, ice-encrusted glaciers.
Danish hygge (cosiness) comes to Copenhagen over Christmas, especially in Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen’s endearingly old-fashioned amusement park. It sparkles with hundreds of trees and 50,000 fairy lights and finishes at the end of December with a fireworks festival. You can take the rides, ice skate on the frozen lake and plunder market stalls for wooden dolls and apple dumplings. Jolly old St Nick makes regular appearances. Meanwhile, the polar bears of Copenhagen Zoo, science-based activities at Experimentarium City and dozens of family-friendly activities during the Christmas Festival also keep the kids amused.
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