Thongs

Why Sweat Lodges And Old Rocks Should Be Added To Your Bucket List

Thanks to Contiki we’re shining a light on the best European Winter has to offer; and it’s not all carols, eggnog and log fires.

Have you all noticed what a warm winter it’s been? Well, at least in Sydney, where we’ve been enjoying 24-degree days IN THE MIDDLE OF WINTER. If my science training taught me anything, it’s that the temperature in winter is exactly half of what it will be in summer. That means we’ll be having 48-degree days all summer long. Did you know that beer boils at 45 degrees? Okay, I know very little actual science.

Basically, I’m urging all of you to get out while you’re still alive. What’s the opposite of down under? Up north, baby. So slide on those long johns, break out that sexy parka, and cover your entire body in delicious seal blubber (not in that order), because there are a bunch of under-explored things to be doing in Europe this winter.

1. Traipse around giant castles (and eat giant schnitzels) in Salzburg, Austria

Salzburg

Hohensalzburg Castle; Julie Andrews definitely walked on this. (image via Pedro Paulo Boaventura Grein)

“High on the hill lived a lonely goat herd…” or so sang Sister Maria. Salzburg, set high amongst the Austrian Alps, was the location for The Sound Of Music (but don’t hold that against it). Amidst the utterly daggy nostalgia tours (“Look in awe at the church where a nun turned her back on God to marry a rich man with the highest sperm count in wartime Europe!”), there is an awesome modern art museum, not to mention great beer, and restaurants with schnitzel the size of your damn head.

Salzburg is the kind of small, quintessential European city you’ll want to tick off at least once in your life. Schlep up to the Hohensalzburg Castle for a world-class view, and if you’re feeling extra touristy, journey deep into the nearby salt mines. Plus, tell your Grandma you walked where Christopher ‘Captain von Trapp’ Plummer did, and she’ll get so excited she’s sure to slip an extra fiver in your Christmas card.

2. Ski in Andorra

Remember on 30 Rock when Jerry Seinfeld talked about the secret European country only rich people know about? Andorra is not that, but when you visit, you’ll feel like someone’s made a private skiing country just for you.

Andorra is one of those tiny (as in less than 100,000 permanent residents tiny) European countries no one teaches you about in Eighth Grade geography, probably because selfish old Mrs McGrath was trying to keep it to herself. It sits on the border between France and Spain, and aside from being a tax haven, its primary purpose is to provide affordable skiing holidays to travellers like you. Head there now as it’s gaining serious popularity, and you’ll want to make the most of it before it becomes the winter Ibiza (BYO ‘Ministry of Sound’ megamix).

3. Haggle at the St-Ouen flea markets in Paris

SaintOuen

Waste all yr money at the Marché St-Ouen! (image via Paris Sharing)

We’ve already told you about the crazy, life-threatening winter activities you can do in the City of Lights, so this tip goes out to the vintage-loving kids who are more into bargain-hunting than bone-harming. Wait for one of those crisp-yet-beautiful Parisian Sundays and head down to the Marché St-Ouen in the 18th arrondissement. It’s the largest flea market in Paris, with over 2,500 stalls.

“Walking around outdoors for hours in the middle of French winter, are you crazy?” I hear you ask. Um, duh, flea markets are all about the haggle. If Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables taught us anything (aside from how to really blue cheese me off), it’s that cold people are desperate, so go get that bargain, gurl! FYI: Definitely pick up a French phrase or two; no one wants to be that dude pointing to a vintage cigarette case, yelling in English (but for some reason with an inexplicably bad French accent), “HOW. MOOCH. EEEZ. DEEEEES!?”

4. Look at old rocks in Cumbria, England

Cumbria

Amsterdam has all the stoners, and Cumbria has all the stones (image via Weldon Kennedy)

Ever get to the end of a big party holiday, and realise you could have stayed at home and just gone to the pub every night, such was your lack of cultural experience? Well, no one could accuse you of leaving no stone unturned* after you visit scenic Cumbria. Located in the northwest corner of England, it’s closer to Scotland than London — perfect if you get all blustery at the thought of romantic icy moors.

Often referred to as the ‘hobbit-hole of England’, Cumbria boasts some truly amazing scenery and ancient stone monuments. If you like the idea of visiting Stonehenge without having to admit that you went somewhere so touristy, you can visit Cumbria’s series of stone circles dotted around the region (stay with me, kids). Spend a few days in a (warm) Bed and Breakfast, get off the beaten track, and have something compelling to talk about when people ask you about your holiday. YES, ANCIENT ROCKS ARRANGED IN A CIRCLE ARE INTERESTING!

*Don’t actually turn the stones, they’re really old.

5. Shop and ice-skate in London

SomersetHouse

Somerset House, aka “London’s most glamorous skating rink.” (image via sheeprus)

Don’t listen to people who tell you to avoid London because its full of Australians; we’re all in Brooklyn now, anyway. Considering Old London Towne gets six-and-a-half days of actual summer, visit in the colder months for the true winter experience. Plus, you can get all Christmassy just like Enid Blyton used to write about, instead of the sweaty-prawn- drunken backyard cricket travesty we call a holiday.

In making the most of London in the festive season, you can’t NOT go ice skating. Avoid the super touristy Hyde Park rink (which IS totally decked-the-halls-out with Xmas cheer, if you’re into that), and head to Somerset House. It’s right on the Thames, it’s beautiful, and Harper’s Bazaar calls it “London’s most glamorous ice rink”. There’s even live music and cracking DJs throughout the skate season.

Once that’s done, do some shopping but DO NOT visit Harrod’s. Instead, hit up Liberty in the heart of the city; it’s a classic English department store minus Harrod’s tourists. To balance out your decidedly posh experience, slum it with a visit to Old Spitalfield’s Markets for some top notch vintage (but only on Thursdays).

6. Eat at Moeders in Amsterdam

Moeders

The hodge-podge madness of Moeders (image via jimforest)

The Dutch aren’t super famous for their culinary skills, which is strange given the amount of food that’s probably consumed when tourists hit peak munchie. Contemporary Amsterdam is a lot more than stoned frat bros giggling their way up and down the red light district: it’s the home of hipster bicycle heaven in Europe, for one.

But as we know, winter = eats, and if you’re trekking your way through cold Europe, you better believe you’re going to wanna eat your own ever-increasing bodyweight to keep warm, so make sure you stop off at Moeders restaurant. The name literally translates to “mothers”, but don’t worry, this isn’t some kinky MILF-themed Dutch diner. It’s super kitschy, with hodge-podge cutlery and walls lined with antique pans, plates, biscuit tins… and hundreds of pictures of mothers. Okay, so that’s a little weird, BUT you’ll get to experience their ‘rijsttafel‘ (literally, “rice table”), a delicious by-product of Dutch colonial expansion into Indonesia. It’s an extreme buffet-cum-degustation filled with satay sticks and spiced pickles, so go on an empty stomach or you’ll roll out of Moeders and straight into one of Amsterdam’s canals.

7. Sweat in a sweat lodge in Helsinki, Finland

Sauna

They’re not all naked. (image via Chris Freeland)

So by now, you’ve been jumping all over wintery Europe and it’s time to warm up for real, and start acclimatising to the horrific Australian summer you’re about to return to. Avoid the ice holes, and head towards Finland’s national pastime: the sauna. Saunas and Finland go hand-in-hand, to the point that back in the middle ages, the Finns were said to be the only people in Europe who “took a bath every week.” This is, of course, disgusting, but don’t fear because 21st century Finns bathe all the time, and saunas have since become rather spiritual in their culture.

Trust me, an extended schvetz in one of these things and you’ll start seeing the face of God, too. The traditional way to sauna in Finland is completely nude, and unlike the famed bathhouses of Tokyo (I see you, Hugh Jackman), they’re mixed-gendered. But don’t worry about it getting bom-chika-wow-wow, for as the Finns say: “Okaisen on kayttaydyttava saunaaa samalla tavalla kuin kirkossa” (“In the sauna, one must conduct himself as one would with God.”). So no kind touching!

Nic Holas mainly fills his time with the creative management of performance, media, and the arts. His writing has appeared in Hello Mr magazine and Cosmopolitan. You can find him on Twitter @longlivecanapes, or living out his fantasy life as a celebrity attache at utauberkoolja.com

Feature image via narnua

Follow Contiki here on Twitter.