Letter from Europe

Category: Seasons

About this blog

Our Letter from Europe is published about once a month and reports on issues of culture and travel.

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Issue no. 2021/6

Lenten cod

Across southern Europe, and most particularly in Portugal, it is the season for bacalhau - the salted, dried cod which is a staple in the Portuguese diet. This much sought after version of cod is a strong Lenten tradition in many Catholic countries.

Issue no. 2021/1

Breaking the Ice

This weekend sees the annual ritual of the opening of the ice in anticipation of the Orthodox Feast of the Theophany on Tuesday. Often this is done by creating a hole in the shape of a cross, allowing the faithful to totally immerse themselves in icy waters.

Issue no. 2020/13

Travels with Saint Paul

Even if you don’t have a thread of religious fibre in your body, try reading the Acts of the Apostles, and see what you make of it as a travel narrative. You may want to have a good atlas of the ancient world to hand as you follow Paul on his meandering itinerary through Lystra and Phrygia to Mysia and beyond.

Issue no. 2020/11

A Taste of Heaven

Christianity is not especially sweet-toothed, though the Old Testament psalms do drip generously with honey. Shift to the New Testament and there are loaves, fishes, but not much by way of dessert. Yet by the 16th century, convents in Sicily and the Iberian Peninsula were very much into the business of producing sweets for sale to those living beyond the convent walls.

Issue no. 2018/6

Mind the ice

There was talk, as we all waited to leave the overnight ferry from Hoek van Holland in Harwich, as to whether there would be any trains. "It was like the blitz here last week," said one woman, who had evidently escaped the wild English weather by taking a weekend break in Rotterdam.

Issue no. 2018/5

Winter games on a soft border

Winter skating on the River Doubs, which marks the frontier between France and Switzerland, is a common seasonal pastime in the Jura region. As Switzerland and France are both party to the Schengen Agreement, this is a classic "soft" border, one which people can freely move across without let or hindrance.

Issue no. 2018/2

Barra connections

Islands breed patience – among both the living and the dead. Especially in mid-winter in Barra, when the storms can be relentless. For us, however, there is a rare pleasure in being at the mercy of the elements. One feels connected with nature in a way which is harder to discern in Berlin.

Issue no. 2017/31

A time for birds

We have had still days over Christmas - even halcyon days for those who know their Greek mythology. It suited the rain geese. The birds are more commonly known as the red-throated diver. Elegant in water, but ungainly on land, the rain goose is feted for her ability to anticipate a coming storm.

Issue no. 2017/8

Thoughts for the 8th of March

Today is International Women's Day (IWD). In the ecclesiastical calendar, Rome assigns 8 March to St John of God, who died on this day in 1550. He was, as it happens, a thoroughly decent guy who in the latter years of his life worked in Granada (Spain) as a printer, publisher and bookseller.

Issue no. 2016/20

Walking with friends

Summer is slipping into autumn and the leaves in forests around Berlin are already falling. We walked through mixed woodland pondering the sounds and smells of beech, oak, hazel and pine. Before long, we came to Chorin where the remarkable red-brick ruins of a 13th-century monastery are a reminder that there is more than just nature in this sparsely populated region of rural Brandenburg.

Issue no. 2015/21

The Seven Sleepers

In some parts of Europe, 27 June is marked as the day of the Seven Sleepers. In Germany, the weather on Siebenschläfer is seen as indicative of what sort of summer we can expect. Stable weather on 27 June bodes well for the weeks ahead. But wild weather on that day indicates that rain rather than sun is in store for July and August. But folk wisdom across Europe varies from country to country, culture to culture.

Issue no. 2015/17

Pentecost in the heart of Bavaria

It rained last night on the hills above the Inn Valley in Bavaria. Lucky were those pilgrims who had the luxury of a bed in one of the many small inns and guest houses which are to be found along the route of Saint James. Nourished in body if not yet completely in soul, the small groups of pilgrims wander south towards Altötting, a small town in Bavaria which is less than a day's walk from the border with Austria.

Issue no. 2015/11

A season of shadows

It is the season for shadows. No other week in the ecclesiastical calendar comes with such a hefty dose of liturgical theatre as that which concludes with Easter. It is a week which has its highs and lows, its exuberant periods of light balanced by dark interludes.

Issue no. 2014/37

A Christmas journey

The Magi set a trend by travelling in the dying wick of the year. This is the season when most folk just want to hunker down by the fire with friends and family. But it is actually a very fine time for exploring. One of the finest travel memoirs of the last century is Patrick Leigh Fermor's account of his journey on foot from Hook of Holland to the Marches of Hungary in the winter of 1933.

Issue no. 2014/35

New rail services across Europe

Four weeks from today much of Europe will awaken to new train timetables. Each year in December, new schedules come into effect across the continent. The big day this year is Sunday 14 December. We take look at a dozen positive developments worth noting.

Issue no. 2014/28

Wealden diary

The equinox has passed and now a hint of frost dances by dawn on the more sheltered meadows. Restless stonechats are busy on the high heaths, where we stand and gaze on distant Wealden ridges fading into misty morning sunshine. This is one of Europe's finest post-industrial landscapes.

Issue no. 2014/18

Gozo threads

The island of Gozo, Malta's kid sister, is indeed a sanctuary, a place apart. All the more so during these last days of June when a sequence of Catholic feast days are the cue for village festivities.

Issue no. 2014/15

Much ado about the Ascension

There was often much ado around San Marco on Ascension Day. At least if Canaletto's celebrated paintings of Venice on the Feast of the Ascension are to be believed. The particular ceremony that caught Canaletto's attention was the annual dedication of the Venetian Republic to the Adriatic.

Issue no. 2014/10

Music for 25 March

March 1714 was a good month for Johann Sebastian Bach. On the second of the month, he was promoted to the plum job of Konzertmeister at the Weimar court. This was quite an achievement for a man who was only 28 years old. The terms of the new appointment required that each month Bach should present a new cantata in the Schlosskirche (Palace Church) at Weimar, and the first of those performances was scheduled for 25 March - 300 years ago today.

Issue no. 2014/8

Springtime on Ærø

Ærø in four words: hilly, hospitable, homely, hyggelig. The Danish island is the place to be at times like this. It is mellow and calm, a small island that wants spring to come sooner rather than later. The hilltops are scattered with ancient passage graves, burial mounds and cairns.

Issue no. 2014/7

Sweet Cambria

Wales is a place for miracles. Perhaps the greatest miracle of all is that Wales is there at all, that it has a strong cultural identity and a language that is still spoken. Wales is nothing if not tenacious. It has a knack of getting into your blood. And it is all the better for being difficult to grasp.

Issue no. 2014/6

Defending Mother Russia

You might believe that a garage is merely a concrete shed where you park your car overnight. But think again! Alexey doesn't have a car but his corrugated-iron garage figures mightily in his lifeworld. It is his space, a secluded reserve away from the family where Alexey takes an hour out every evening. Today, on the holiday devoted to those who have defended Russia, the menfolk of the country expect a few extra privileges - even if they have never actually gone to war.

Issue no. 2014/4

Reclaiming Weimar

Snow falls over all the city, covering the cobbles and the pathways. In the gentle stretch of parkland that lines the valley of the Ilm, snow drapes the follies and the ruins. In the middle of Weimar, statues of stern men are laced with light snow. A tricorne for Goethe, an icicle for Schiller.

Issue no. 2013/40

The storm

It is one of those wild sulphurous days, and the bare heath beats to the roar of the winds. The storm sweeps in from the west. The drenched heath lies low. And it survives the fierce onslaught. The forest at Froeslev is less fortunate.

Issue no. 2013/39

An Advent meditation

The sky takes on a different quality in the run-up to Christmas. The grey cloud-folds of Advent have rolled back, and suddenly the air is brighter, drier and clearer. The trees have been flayed by autumn. Only bare skeletons remain, their outlines haunting the December landscape. Winter is creeping over Europe, its progress marked by the candles on our Advent wreath. First one candle, then two, last Sunday a third, and today as dusk falls a full flush of four candles burning bright.

Issue no. 2013/36

Winter comes to Kroscienko

The winter snows have come to higher parts of the Carpathians, and already the beech woods and forests of fir are clad in white. Kroscienko, a little village in the Polish hills, is very quiet this time of year. Were it not for the fact that the road through Kroscienko leads to a border crossing with neighbouring Ukraine, there would be scarcely anyone passing through Kroscienko.

Issue no. 2013/32

Hidden Devon

We wandered through Devon byways, passing Kingdom's Corner to reach the River Dart at Worthy Bridge. From there it was an easy stroll down the valley towards Bickleigh. John Lean farms a handsome herd of White Park cattle here. He has 150 head of cattle on the steep slopes of the Dart. They are magnificent animals.

Issue no. 2013/29

Noli timere

It is again that time of year when I find my hands peppered by thorn pricks. Blackberries mark the month. Wondrous little taste bombs protected by thorns, treasure for scavengers. There's nothing common about the common blackberry: rubus fructicosis. They are the very essence of summer distilled in a single fruit.

Issue no. 2013/24

Falling apples

The second of the spas - the Apple Spas - is marked today over much of central and eastern Europe. It coincides, as every year, with the Feast of the Transfiguration - a milestone in the ecclesiastical calendar. The Apple Spas is a day when great baskets of apples are taken to the morning celebration of the Divine Liturgy in village churches. It is a day that reminds us that a change in the seasons is not far hence.

Issue no. 2013/18

Hercules in Lazio

The time is coming when residents of Rome escape the Eternal City. Rome is not a place to stay in summer. Many from Rome head north into the hills of Lazio, where Etruscan, Roman and Renaissance threads intertwine in history and culture. The lakes pull the crowds. There are three in particular, all marking the site of old volcano craters: Bolsena (with its two pretty islands), Bracciano and the much smaller Lago di Vico. The latter is just about three kilometres across, and the entire lake is quite hemmed in by the hills.

Issue no. 2013/11

Travel writing: the view from home

During these first days of April, we have not ventured far from home. And yet there is a tangible sense of having travelled - if not through space, then through time. Ten days ago, much of eastern Germany was still formidably wintry. The little pond in front of our scriptorium was so thick with ice that it was a skating rink for the cats who prowl by dusk.It seems this year, the journey from winter has a dose of drama about it.

Issue no. 2013/10

A season of grace

It is Good Friday again, a day that jolts much of Europe out of its regular routine. It is a day for pilgrimages - some avowedly secular, others more religious in character. Large crowds from the Saarland region of Germany will flock over the border to the French town of Bouzonville which today hosts its celebrated Good Friday market. So popular is this event that an otherwise abandoned cross-border rail route is reopened for just one day each year to allow special trains from Germany to Bouzonville and back.

Issue no. 2013/5

The fifth season

Welcome to the fifth season. Spring, summer, autumn, winter... and now the fifth season. This weekend, and the day or two thereafter, mark the culmination across Europe of fifth season frolics. It is carnival time. The normal rules of social engagement, most particularly with anyone in authority, are suspended.

Issue no. 2013/4

A time for blessings

Today is Candlemas Eve, definitively marking the end of the Christmas season in western Europe. Modern custom in secular Europe is often to dismantle Christmas decorations well before the Epiphany, but in many churches across the continent cribs and Christmas trees remain in place until just before Candlemas, the feast which falls tomorrow (2 February).

Issue no. 2012/40

The ghost of Christmas past

Okay, so the Mayans are getting the blame for their miscalculations. But the upside is that we can all enjoy another Christmas here on planet earth - and thus all that comes with the Feast of the Nativity. For a lot of homebound earthlings, tied to their televisions, that means a marathon of movie reruns.

Issue no. 2012/37

Retreating into Advent

Have we lost the ability to wait, to keep vigil, to be patient? This weekend, much of Europe marks the start of Advent. In many countries this is still a season defined by quiet reflection in anticipation of Christmas. For some, these weeks in the run-up to Christmas are intimately associated with a modest level of asceticism - not as harsh as Lent, but inclining that way.

Issue no. 2012/25


Last Sunday, the Feast of the Transfiguration in the Orthodox calendar, was the Apple Spas. Across much of Orthodox Europe, the spoils of the new harvest were offered up at church services. No matter that the combine harvesters are still hard at work in the fields. No matter that the apples still hang heavy in the orchards. Change is in the air.

Issue no. 2012/18

The naming of sons

You probably don't chart your progress through the year with an ecclesiastical calendar. We do, but in truth we cannot really recommend it as a sensible way of confronting modernity. Today, in that part of Europe which favours Rome over Constantinople, is St John's Day - more precisely, the Solemnity of the Birth of St John the Baptist. The Orthodox communions will wait another 13 days before giving a little festive cheer for St John.

Issue no. 2012/12

Musings for May Day

Across much of Europe, May is ushered in by a night of bonfires and revelry. "All a matter of keeping the witches at bay," says our friend Milena who lives in a small village in Bohemia. Across the Czech Republic, the vigil of May Day is the cue for pálení carodejnic (the witch burning). There are bonfires and broomsticks aplenty and folk stay up till dawn. The shift from April to May is a liminal moment in the calendrical affairs of the European continent - one of those edgy, dangerous temporal boundaries that deserve to be taken seriously.

Issue no. 2012/7

Women on the rails

International Women's Day (IWD), which is celebrated today in many countries across the world, has been a feature of the European social landscape for more than a century. From the outset, IWD gave focus to a range of initiatives across Europe that pre-dated the designation of a special day. For example, Emmeline Pankhurst's suffragettes had already been very effectively promoting women's rights in England, while Clara Zetkin and her followers had been pursuing a similar agenda in Germany.

Issue no. 2011/38

To nothingness and night

Poems enliven the passing of the old year. Germans might reverently recite lines from Goethe this evening ('Zwischen dem Alten, Zwischen dem Neuen') while the English might favour Tennyson ('Ring out the old, Ring in the new'). We opt for John Clare who angrily, provocatively, compellingly charted a changing rural England in his verse. His lines on the eve of the New Year ('Old papers thrown away, Old garments cast aside') communicate the sense of exile and a palpable disconnect with the past that were so strong a feature of Clare's life - the past fading to nothingness and night.
Issue no. 2011/37

Brussels: the past is another country

In most European capitals these young migrants make little imprint on the cultural life of the city. But as we said last week, when we wrote on the matter of Christmas markets, Brussels does thing differently. The Belgian capital has a radical demeanour and a willingness to engage with gritty, difficult topics. The unconventional inflects everyday life in Brussels.

Issue no. 2011/36

Less bratwurst, more Brussels

This Advent we have caught a dash of Christmas spirit in several different countries across Europe. Mulled wine comes with a variety of accents, sometimes with hints of cinnamon and citrus, elsewhere more honey and black pepper. It has been fun to wander through Christmas markets from Strasbourg to Southwark, from Brussels to Berlin, and it is also an instructive lesson in globalisation.

Issue no. 2011/21

Ramadan in the Far North

Ramadan, the annual month of prayer and fasting for the world's Muslim population, is just starting, so it is worth sparing a thought for Muslims who live in Europe's northern regions. To refrain from food and drink between sunrise and sunset is a tough challenge, though one doubtless made easier when underpinned by a firm faith. But with Ramadan moving forward towards mid-summer each year, the issue of an appropriate fasting regime for Muslims in Europe's polar regions is a very real one.

Issue no. 2011/12

Russian life on the Riviera

Come on, grab your camera and join us as we explore one or two spots along the coast this Easter morning. It is a stunning spring day, the blue waters of the Mediterranean seem an even deeper blue than yesterday, and the air is so clear that we'll be able to see right along the coast to Cap Ferrat and beyond. "Christos voskres." Yes, that's a phrase we shall certainly hear a lot today, especially as the Orthodox and Western celebrations of Easter coincide this year.

Issue no. 2011/1

Kicking off the New Year

New Year's Day. Again. Aching heads for those who took their Hogmanay revelries a little too seriously. We slipped into 2011 in a little house on the edge of a heath on one of the North Frisian islands. Yet Estonia awakens today to the euro as its beautiful kroon banknotes are consigned to currency history.

Issue no. 2010/4

Winter in eastern Germany

The temperature was still around minus fifteen when we alighted just after midday from the slow train at Grunow. It was a bitterly cold winter morning, sunny and clear, with a numbing east wind. The countryside east of Berlin has a delicate beauty.

Issue no. 2010/2

Celebrating the Epiphany: 20 C+M+B 10

If you have ever travelled extensively through continental Europe, you will surely have noticed chalk inscriptions on door lintels. These chalk marks are intimately associated with the Feast of the Epiphany, which is celebrated today (6 January).

Issue no. 2009/37

The feast of St Nicholas

St Nicholas is the ultimate all-purpose saint. His patronage extends to virgins, sailors, children and pawnbrokers. And he is patron saint of Bari in Italy, where the local fishing community makes much of the feast.

Issue no. 2009/11

Palm Sunday

Major liturgical feasts like Palm Sunday are reminders of the calendrical divide that still splits Europe in two. The Iron Curtain may have gone (twenty years ago this autumn, according to those commentators who see the breaching of the Berlin Wall as the defining moment), and yet still there are considerable differences between the two halves of Europe. Yes, in the west it is Palm Sunday today, and Easter Sunday next week.

Issue no. 2009/2

Serbian Orthodox Christmas

Bitterly cold temperatures over central and eastern Europe last evening and this morning do nothing to diminish enthusiasm for the celebration of the Orthodox Christmas. While Orthodox Christmas is underway, daily demonstrations in Belgrade dilute the peaceful spirit.

Issue no. 2008/35

Santa Lucia

Santa Lucia is patron saint of Siracusa, the island fortress city on the Sicilian coast, where Lucia was born in the late third century. The story tells of her being martyred in her home city at the tender age of twenty. Of course, Santa Lucia's feast is marked in Siracusa, but it is to northern Europe that we must look for the most demonstrative expression of the cult of light associated with Santa Lucia.

Issue no. 2008/32

11 November: a date to note

While some nations have marked Armistice Day today, in many European countries the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month has a very different symbolism. At mid-morning today the Carnival season started. Now Carnival is something you may associate more with Shrovetide and the run-up to Lent than with mid-November.

Issue no. 2008/11

Swiss spring

May Day may still be more than a fortnight away, but Zürich takes time out today for an early spring festival. Rain looks set to put a dampener on this year's Sechseläutern. This is a peculiarly Swiss occasion. The name refers to the "six o'clock bells" and marks the time of year when, with the evenings slowly lengthening, it becomes possible still to enjoy some daylight after finishing work.

Issue no. 2008/2

The soul of Switzerland

To cross the threshold of the Wilmersdorf church today is truly to enter another world. For today, in the Eastern Orthodox ecclesiastical calendar, it is Christmas Day. The twin virtues of ardent faith and a strong sense of attachment to a diaspora community create magnificent theatre at this Berlin outpost on the high days and holy days of the Orthodox year.

Issue no. 2007/35

Seasonal diversions

Christmas-tide travellers, if they are lucky, might get a privileged glimpse into the lives of others. The results are not always comforting. Dervla Murphy, writing in Through the Embers of Chaos, recounts an invite to a post-Christmas soirée in Zagreb in late December 1991.

Issue no. 2007/6

Shrovetide frolics

Consider a journey that starts in the Swiss Alps and ends in an abandoned city in the south Caucasus region. To be more precise, we'll start at Pontresina, just over the hill from St Moritz. It's a place where poets and philosophers used to come for their holidays. From Matthew Arnold to Herbert Marcuse. Stefan Zweig was a regular, and discovered in Pontresina what he claimed were the best petits fours in the world.

Issue no. 2007/1

"a time of gifts"

With the expansion of the eurozone in mind, we have been taking a close look at the map of Europe that features on the reverse side of all euro banknotes. Curious, is it not, that the Faroe Islands are depicted on the map (even though they are not part of the EU) while Malta is not? The Isle of Man is shown, but not the Isle of Wight. This cartographic curiosity is unravelled in the January 2007 issue of hidden europe.

Issue no. 2006/33

Celebrating Christmas

Christmas generates its own extraordinary traditions across Europe - but they differ greatly from country to country. Even the date on which the celebrations reach their apotheosis varies across the continent. In Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, children get a foretaste of Christmas on the eve of St Nicholas (5 December), or on the feast day itself (6 December).

Issue no. 2006/1

Orthodox Christmas in Cetinje - Christmastide till Candlemas - That Christmas Quiz

Cetinje, a little town that sits on a plain high in the mountains of the Republic of Crna Gora (Montenegro), is the onetime capital and still the spiritual centre of the Balkan republic that finds itself nowadays ambiguously attached to Serbia. Last evening, as on every Christmas Eve in Cetinje, people gathered at dusk for the traditional burning of Yule logs.

Issue no. 2005/26

Hidden europe Christmas quiz

The antics that some Europeans get up to as part of their Christmas festivities seemingly know no bounds. In the British Isles, there is a particular tradition of Christmas quizzes. None is more august, or more difficult, than that with which a good percentage of the population of the Isle of Man tussles over the Christmas period.

Issue no. 2005/25

Samnaun (Switzerland) - hidden europe 6

Samnaun is an utterly surreal spot, not least this past week or two while this out of the way community in eastern Switzerland hosted its annual Santa Claus championships. Chimney climbing and displays of sledging prowess were the order of the day as teams from across Europe competed to claim the prize title.

Issue no. 2005/24

Latin superstition in Sardinia - the Moldova-Romania border - Christmas gifts

Sardinia is a place steeped in superstition, as the English novelist DH Lawrence discovered when he rushed through the island and found it a curious place, 'lost between Europe and Africa and belonging to nowhere', as he wrote in Sea and Sardinia (1921). Blood feud in the Sardinian hills may be a thing of the past, but there remains an enigmatic quality to life in the remoter parts of this island.

Issue no. 2005/14

Harvest festivals in eastern Europe - Lammastide - hidden europe 4: preview

Today, 19 August, is a sight to behold in Orthodox communities from the Barents Sea to the Black Sea. For everywhere in this region, it is the moment to give thanks for the year's harvest, and the churches are packed for the ritual blessing of honey and apples. As always, it coincides with one of the great feasts of the Orthodox calendar, that of the Transfiguration.

Issue no. 2005/7

Corpus Christi - Karelian babushkas

Across much of Europe, today is a public holiday on account of the Catholic solemnity of Corpus Christi. It is a feast that comes with a heavy helping of curious cultural customs. Wander through many small towns in central Europe this afternoon, and you'll see why today is often called 'Wreath Day' (Kranzltag in German).