The holiday season – especially the weeks just before Christmas and through the New Year - is one of the most joyful times of year for me. There is nothing better than spending Christmas Eve and Christmas day with my family. I love it all – the decorations, the cookies, the music, the chaos of kids opening gifts. There is nowhere else I want to be on Christmas Eve (unless perhaps I can take the whole family to Italy with me).
But I also love to travel during the holiday season, to experience the many ways that Christmas and the New Year are celebrated in other places. European Christmas markets enchanted me several years ago on a Christmas Market cruise. The markets along the Rhine River in Germany and in Strasbourg, France, are enchanting, a real storybook Christmas. The market booths were colorful and filled with gifts, decorations, and handcrafted toys. There were also gingerbread, eggnog, mulled wine, and, my favorite, kartoffelpuffers - potato pancakes, cooked outdoors and served with sour cream and applesauce. For me, the scent of those cooking will always be synonymous with a German Christmas market.
I also loved celebrating the New Year and Epiphany in Italy. At Christmas, Lucca and Florence are filled with lights and fanciful window displays. Each church has a presepe di Natale (Christmas Nativity scene), some small and some, such as the outdoor one near the Duomo in Florence, with life-size figures. In Lucca, I watched the arrival of the wise men on horseback and listened to a reading of the Christmas story on the night of Epiphany. These solemn celebrations were countered with the exuberant arrival of Old Befana. (To read more about Epiphany in Italy click here https://www.twopartsitaly.com/blog/2017/1/5/three-wise-men-and-a-witch-epiphany-in-italy)
Holiday travel in the United States is wonderful too. One of my favorite trips took me to Asheville, North Carolina, a in December. At the holidays, a host of special activities make Asheville a perfect destination. The Christmas atmosphere begins in the lobby of the Grand Bohemian Hotel (a definite splurge) decked out from top to bottom with lights and greenery. The Grand Bohemian is in Biltmore Village, just a few minutes by car from downtown Asheville. This area has a quaint village feel, top-notch dining, unique shops, and a festive holiday vibe complete with carolers.
Asheville is also home to the Biltmore estate, the largest privately owned house in America. And what a house it is - 200+ rooms, 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, and 65 (count them) fireplaces. There are exquisite rooms, a vintage kitchen, glass-roofed winter garden, and even an indoor pool in the basement. Imagine living here!
The estate grounds are expansive with open fields, gardens, a conservatory, stables, and river views. Visitors can hike, watch a blacksmith at work, or take a horse-drawn wagon ride to see the outer portions of the property. There is also great shopping in the gift shops and good dining opportunities.
The Biltmore is fabulous in any season, but it really shines at Christmas. Each room is elaborately decorated and filled with greenery, there are countless Christmas trees, elaborate floral arrangements, and mantels overflowing with Christmas spirit.
The special evening candlelight tour includes a guide sharing much of the home's history, roaring fireplaces, flickering candles, and choir performances in the winter garden. Reservations are required for these special evenings.
Asheville is also host to the National Gingerbread House Competition, held at the Omni Grove Park Inn. This year is the 25th annual competition with the houses on display through January 4. The inn, a massive stone building set in the hills on the edge of town, is fascinating to see. And the gingerbread creations – wow! They range from simple children’s creations to architectural and artistic masterpieces in gingerbread. Gingerbread and Christmas go hand in hand and this was a perfect holiday activity. It was fun listening to the oohs and aahs of the visitors, each one picking out their favorite creation. Below are a few of my favorites.
This year I will spend the holiday season at home in New Mexico, I'll enjoy my hometown celebration and time with my family, but you can bet that I'll be remembering past holiday travel and daydreaming of future holiday adventures. I hope you enjoy the holiday season too - whether at home or away. -post by JMB