Most Decembers, the impressive tree at Aliados attracts triperos (as the residents of Porto call themselves) and visitors alike to celebrate the season with lights and musical performances, and make beautiful Christmas memories. As we know too well, though, 2020 is not like most years. This year, the tree and the usual public celebrations have been cancelled, but we still have lovely lights to enjoy while out shopping, albeit masked and socially distanced. Porto will be under modified lock-down over Christmas and New Year’s, and Tom and I will have a quiet holiday mostly at home.
As we round the corner to 2021, the arrival of a vaccine against Covid-19 is the best gift the world could receive in this pandemic year. Despite this good news, it will be a while yet before we can travel far afield. In the meantime, as we enjoy our time together at home, Tom and I will embrace local Portuguese traditions—bacalhau on Christmas Eve, for example. We will also lift a glass to wonderful Christmas memories from years past. Won’t you scroll down and join us as we reminisce?
Just three years ago we traveled in Southeast Asia over the holidays and into a bright new year, beginning with almost a month in Malaysia. We visited Melaka’s small Portuguese community, where families strung Christmas lights and opened their homes to sightseers. And, although we had been forewarned, Tom and I were amazed to see some of the most lavish Christmas decorations anywhere, in Kuala Lumpur’s enormous shopping malls. They were decorated to the hilt and Christmas carols rang out as crowds packed into restaurants and thronged the halls for photo opportunities. Our journey through Malaysia was mostly about food, especially in Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Ipoh, but Christmas offered a colorful, surprising start to our time in Southeast Asia!
We visited Modena on a rainy December trip to Italy’s Emilia Romagna region. The city was decked out for Christmas, and served as our base for a week of sampling the region’s gastronomic delights. A highlight was meeting Chef Massimo Bottura, whose animated storytelling gave a special luster to the food on our plates at Osteria Francescana. Earlier this year, the chef charmed us, and so many others, with preparation of his family’s lock-down meals, streamed live on Instagram. It was a fond reminder of a sweet pot in the heart of Emilia Romagna.
Basel’s Christmas market, Switzerland’s largest, sprawls over several locations in the city’s Old Town. During our years in Switzerland, the market was central to our holiday celebrations. At the Barfüsserplatz Christmas market, we shopped for handmade goods and stopped for potato puffs, waffles, and crepes at stands beside Barfüsserkirche, the church founded by barefoot Franciscans. The Christmas market at Münsterplatz, just around the corner from our home, was a great place to stop off for a snack and a glass of wine on the way home from work. And just as memorable as the markets, were traditions such as the Christmas Eve concerts at the Münster and the parade of Santas on Harleys on 6 December. That motorcycle parade is one of our most striking Christmas memories from Basel.
Strasbourg and Colmar, just over the border in Alsace, were frequent Christmas market destinations, as well. The vivid Christmas lights of Strasbourg were an event in themselves, but one year we were delighted to be in France’s “Capital of Christmas” when the city celebrated the 20th anniversary of its “Grand Sapin”, the enormous tree in Place Kléber. Even closer to home, the small-town vibe of Colmar was on show every year at Christmastime, with plenty of joy for the little ones, and good food and wine for adults.
Germany boasts some of the best-known markets in the world, and we have Christmas memories of three of them. Baden-Baden is known for its curative waters and the contemporary art on display at Museum Frieder Burda. When we visited its Christmas market, we discovered intimate, chic, and family-friendly stalls serving up delicious sausages, mulled wine and holiday sweets. Just two hours from Basel, but so different!
Finally, with what must count as our most Christmas-y travels ever, we were invited to join the official openings of markets in both Dusseldorf and Cologne, an experience that delivered a deep dive into German holiday traditions. From the scent of honey and fresh waffles wafting from the Dusseldorf train station to the Reibekuchen with molasses sampled at Stadtbrükchen’s Little Star Market, there were taste treats aplenty in Dusseldorf’s six(!) Christmas markets. The tree lighting at Markplatz opened the season with singing, pronouncements from the mayors of Dusseldorf and Lillehammer, Norway (who traditionally provides the tree), officially launching the Rhineland holiday season.
Later, over several delightful evenings in Cologne, it was time to join merrymakers at the Christmas markets nearest the Cathedral, the Town Hall and the Rhine River. Perhaps the most evocative was the ceremonial opening of the original Market of Angels in Neumarkt, and visits to three other markets at Rudolfplatz and Cologne’s Belgian Quarter.
In 2021—Back to the future?
Tom and I don’t know where we will be this time next year: perhaps traveling, sampling the foods and cultural traditions of a new or nostalgic destination? Perhaps right here in Portugal, with a return to the lively holiday celebrations we experienced in prior years? Either way, if past is prologue, we will be ready to join in the festivities wherever we find ourselves, and make new Christmas memories.
Feliz Natal e um Feliz Ano Novo!