Hamlet near Valnontey, Italy

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Hamlet near Valnontey in the Gran Paradiso National Park, Italy

This nameless place is barely a place at all. A collection of less than 10 buildings, this hamlet is snuggled deep within the majestic Valley of Valnontey on the French-Italian border. From October to March, the hamlet is buried under heaps of snow, and closed in on either side by the steep valley walls. There is no running water here, nor is there electricity. In winter, the only access is by cross country skiing (the area is beloved for the sport) or snow shoe. The village of Valmontey is the closest civilisation, and it’s still a couple of kilometres away – at least 30 minutes by snowshoe. And Valmontey is by no means large: it has a couple of restaurants, a hotel or two, a old church, and a shop – all very weather-dependant. Aosta, for which the greater Aosta Valley is named, is further 60 minutes by car down the narrow mountain track, if the weather is good. If the weather isn’t good, get comfortable, because you aren’y going anywhere. The villages and hamlets of Gran Paradiso are the kind of place people go to get off the beaten track. Hard to access, remote, rustic, and removed from civilisation, the people of this valley live side by side with mother nature. Deep in the Gran Paradiso National Park, the Valley of Valmontey is alive with wildlife – birds, foxes and most famously, the ibex – a deer-like animal topped with corkscrew antlers. The air is clean and pure. The modern world feels very far away. But amongst the charming wooden chalets – many built by hand – it doesn’t take long to feel right at home.

Christmas market in Prague, Czech Republic

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Market Square, Prague, Czech Republic

Christmas markets have been under attack lately, unfortunately quite literally. Besides the obvious sadness surrounding this, the changing dynamics of Christmas markets (i.e., the need to secure them as if they are war zones), is a sad notion. These markets are an old – in fact, very old – tradition through much of Europe. Beginning their tale in medieval times in the Germanic regions of central Europe, the first markets were held in the 14th and 15th centuries in order to officially ‘initiate’ the Christmas season (or the ‘Advent’). They are meant to be places of merriment – food, drink, music and dancing are common elements – as well as places of economy – merchants and artisans peddle their goods to Christmas shoppers – and, in a historical sense, a place of religion with Nativity scenes and theatrical productions from the Bible, though this element has fallen from popularity in modern Europe. The most famous Christmas markets are still often found in the Germanic part of Europe, such as Dresden, Vienna, Strasbourg, Nuremberg, Dortmund, Cologne and of course Prague, though this tradition has spread to nearly every major and many minor cities in Europe. From Lincoln, England to Sibhiu, Romania, from Lyon, France to Tallinn, Estonia, Europe’s main squares have been dotted, lined and filled with stalls of all shapes and sizes, peddling artisanal goods such as jewellery, clothing, soaps, food, chocolate, wood carvings, paintings, perfumes, knives, dolls, toys, puzzles, figurines, sausages, blankets, tea leaves, scarves, Christmas ornaments, and pretty much anything else one can think of to Christmas shoppers of all kinds. They are a place associated with joy, the gift of giving, and the Christmas spirit, and are a long-lasting tradition throughout Europe. Let’s hope they stay that way…

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Sacra di San Michele, Sant’Ambrogio, Italy

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Monastery of Sacra di San Michele above Sant’Ambrogio, Italy

Imagine foreboding, nebulous labyrinths forming the veins of an ancient stone bibliotheca in the heart of a mountaintop monastery perched deep in the Italian Alps. While the labyrinth itself may exist not in stone but simply on the pages of a famed Italian text, the monastery seemingly holds dark secrets and a forgotten past. The inspiration for the epic tale of ancient mystery, The Name of the Rose, written by none other then the famed Umberto Eco (RIP), the Sacra di San Michele is a silent beauty lost in the snowy woods of the Val de Susa. Looming over the hushed, 11th-century alpine village of Sant’Ambrogio di Torino, the Sacra is best reached on foot, ascending Mount Pirchiriano via the ancient mule track worn smooth by centuries of millions of pilgrims who have come this way to pay homage to this sacred site of mystery and religion. Benedictine for most of its history, Sacra di San Michele is now managed by the Rosminians, though its mountaintop perch has been home to humans since Roman times when the site lay upon the road from Rome to Gaul. Difficult to pinpoint the monastery’s exact origins, a monk called William (not the one in The Name of the Rose!) claims the Sacra was founded in 966 (though he also claims it to be founding during the time of the pontificate Sylvester II who ruled some 50 years later). On the other hand, tradition states that it was built by St. Giovanni Vincenzo the hermit, who was simply following the commands of the archangel Michael (and consequently, the stones used somehow miracle-d themselves to the top of Mount Pirchiriano). No matter who laid the first stone, the Sacra is a long-lost stone beauty, which gave backdrop to Umberto Eco’s magnificent, foreboding tale of intrigue.

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UFO Taste Restaurant, Bratislava, Slovakia

UFO Taste Restaurant over Danuage River in old town of Bratislava, Slovakia

UFO Taste Restaurant, Bratislava, Slovakia 

Is that…a UFO? Little green men? Is the alien invasion hinted at in the X-Files coming true? No…no…and still no. Though bearing an interesting semblance to a flying saucer, this strange structure is the man-made UFO Taste Restaurant, hovering 85m above Bratislava and the beautiful Danube River, where you can gouge on unique Mediterrasian food and sip colorful cocktails while appreciating how tiny the snow-covered buildings, cars and people look far below your table. The restaurant’s immense windows let you appreciate how beautiful the city looks bathed in fog on the chilly winter’s day. Little-known and little-visited Slovakia  with its capital Bratislava may have their setbacks (it’s a small city and a small country, and not always as elegantly magical as nearby Budapest, Prague or Vienna), but there is no doubt that this a proud nation working to recover after so many challenges facing this part of Europe in the last few decades. Unique quirks such as this UFO restaurant, city centre statues like Cumil, arresting graffiti and restaurants that mix tradition with newness are slowly turning this hidden European capital into a shining gem.

Reykjavik, Iceland

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Reykjavik, Iceland

The beginning of January is a cold time of year. It brings to mind snow and hot chocolate and fireplaces…interestingly enough, these are important things year-round in Iceland. But once you get past the cold, once you embrace it, you’ll start to fall in love with this little northern capital in this little rugged island country. Containing 120,000 people (therefore containing 1/3 of Iceland’s population), this is the most northern capital in the whole world! Here, you’ll find little wooden houses, snow-capped mountains and clean air. In fact, it is one of the cleanest, greenest and safest cities worldwide. Supposedly established in 870 AD, it wasn’t much of a city until it was founded in 1786 as a trading outpost. Despite its growth over recent centuries, Reykjavik is far from the hustle-and-bustle you find in most capital cities – instead, it is a relatively relaxed, chill and happy place. Even if it is a bit chilly and sometimes a little (okay very) dark. But Iceland wouldn’t be Iceland without a little of both !

Lublin, Poland

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Lublin, Poland

Snow falls softly on this silent, barren town. The chilly air has driven most of the locals inside and kept most the tourists away. What’s special about this place is that this little town straddles both Eastern and Western Europe. Warsaw is the political and economic centre, Krakow, the cultural capital, and Gdansk, the gateway to the Baltics. While many imagine these places as the dark and somber Eastern Europe, little by little they are becoming more and more modern, upscale, and integrated with the western half of the continent. Lublin, however, feels exactly what you’d imagine from an Eastern European town, right down to the little houses, market squares, and light snowfall. Walk its small streets, feel the snow land on your head, and duck into a local establishment for pierogies and beer!

Col du Mollard, France

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Col du Mollard, France

Rather a Winter Wonderland, eh? It’s hard to believe that only two hours west of this snowy landscape, it was  already spring–flowers were in full bloom, sunbathers were in the park in dresses and short sleeves, and street vendors were selling sunglasses at an exceptional rate. For a small country, France really does have a lot to offer: the sunny Mediterranean to the south, chic Parisian culture to the north, rolling fields in the centre, magnificent Alps—with magnificent skiing—to the west, not to mention picturesque villages, sprawling metropolis and everything in between. It’s easy to take a break from the city by heading east—you’ll soon find yourself in the mountains surrounded by snow, ice and little wooden chalets. For those of you who love to ski even when the weather is getting warmer, never fear—there’s always the Alps. And the pre-alps. And the countryside in general. France has an enormous skiing culture—you may even call it an obsession—that seems to be as integral to the country’s cultural identity as baguettes, public murals, turreted chateaus, sprawling vineyards and blocks of cheese.

Warsaw, Poland

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Warsaw, Poland

It gets cold in Poland; everyone knows that. And, okay, five months of the sun setting around 15h does get annoying after awhile. But you have to hand it to the Poles–they do a good job at making the best of their long winters. For example, around Christmastime and extending through January and February, they decorate the streets, squares and other public places with brightly-lit, fun-shaped decorations. Certain days, they have a light show in the main square. People sell hot wine on the streets. This past year, they set up a small light maze at Wilanow, the former Summer Palace (now part of Warsaw). The theme this time was “games”–hence the giant cards and figures representing the different suites, chess pieces, a Magic 8 ball (which for reasons unknown actually said “7”–perhaps it is only supposed to represent a pool ball), etc. With the over-sized, over-simplified objects, all game pieces from a hodgepodge of games, I felt a little bit like Alice walking through a very cold and very dark Wonderland. Bizarre, a little, but still. You have to appreciate the effort. Just because it’s cold and dark doesn’t mean that it has to be miserable.

Poznan, Poland

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Orpheus Fountain, Poznan, Poland

One of the many statues dotting Poznan’s beautiful and colourful old market square is Orpheus, the ancient Greek myth known for his ability to charm anything–alive, dead, or inanimate–with his music. Well, I must say I believe his stories because he certainly charmed me. It was a cold, snowy day, It was still January, and everybody else had been smart enough to stay home. But not us–a €20 return ticket was too much to resist. Orpheus charmed me with Poznan’s beautiful square–painted so intricately, its magnificent town hall, its statues, its famous clock with the rams butting heads, its ancient churches, its snow-covered wonderland. Its honey beer, its pierogis, its cozy bars–yes, Poznan has won me over, snow and all.