Our winter traditions
5 Eurail colleagues share winter tips from their home countries
Winter in Europe brings cold days and long nights, with some northerly towns not seeing the sun for weeks. But it’s not all darkness and gloom. Europeans have had centuries to craft the perfect winter survival kit of traditions, festivals and meals. There are big holidays like Christmas and New Year celebrated across the continent, but also quirks and surprises more numerous than Europe’s countries and languages. We asked our diverse Eurail team to tell us how their home countries endure and enjoy the winter season.
Theo | England
The Christmas countdown in south-west England begins as soon as Halloween has snuffed it. On 1 November, Costa Coffee release their Christmas specials and we eagerly await the John Lewis Christmas advert, which is basically an Oscar-worthy movie.
Christmas Day is all about the Christmas dinner, eaten as lunch to provide digestion time. Plates are piled with roast turkey, bacon-wrapped sausages, brussels sprouts, parsnips, roast potatoes and cranberry sauce. It has to be timed so the Christmas pudding is lit on fire and gobbled up before the Queen’s Speech! Lots of gift giving is of course a given, but a white Christmas cannot be guaranteed. To experience real snow, “Southerners” have to climb the mountains of “The North”.
As winter ends we celebrate Pancake Day, the start of the countdown to Easter. We eat more pancakes on this day than the rest of the year combined! They are usually homemade, crepe-style and always sweet. Did you expect England to be healthy? Pfft. Good food is how we survive the winter.
Petya | Bulgaria
If you find yourself in Bulgaria in the cosy winter season, you might witness some unusual customs that can't be seen elsewhere. At midnight on 24 December, an ancient ritual called Koleduvane takes place. Young, unmarried men gather in a group and go from house to house, singing Christmas carols dressed up in special garb. The ritual symbolises the blessing of each home for health and prosperity for the upcoming year.
On 6 January, which is the Epiphany in the Bulgarian Orthodox tradition, you’ll see priests throwing crosses in the icy waters of a river or lake. All willing men jump in after it, hoping to be the first one to reach it. The saying goes that whoever catches the cross will be healthy and wealthy throughout the whole year. Are you getting goosebumps already? You should be! These and many more colourful traditions await you should you go Winterrailing in Bulgaria.
Michaela | Austria
Despite the low temperatures, Austrians love spending their winter outdoors. In the period leading up to Christmas, many beautifully-decorated huts would usually spring up all around Vienna, where people gather to drink Glühwein (mulled wine) and eat hot potatoes and roasted chestnuts.
A very popular activity among locals in winter is to gather at so-called Heuriger. These are traditional wine taverns in the woods on the outskirts of the city. If you don’t feel like leaving downtown, you can relax in one of Vienna’s old-fashioned coffee houses with a hot drink and observe the locals.
While December is all about cosiness, the atmosphere changes in January when the ball season starts. Men and women dress formally and attend one of the many well-renowned waltz balls in Vienna. You can easily buy or rent the appropriate attire in stores, so there’s no reason not to join.
Want to get away from the city for a change of scenery? The mountain resort of Semmering is just over an hour away by train, and the ride takes you over viaducts and through tunnels in a magnificent snow-covered landscape.
Irem | Turkey
Although Turkey is well-known as a summer holiday destination, it also offers a wide variety of activities during winter. It is quieter in this season, there are no tourist crowds, and it’s rather cheap compared to other European countries.
The winters in Turkey are long and provide ski enthusiasts with perfect conditions, incredible slopes and long ski tracks to try out. The best example is the Sarıkamış Ski Resort in eastern Turkey, which sees an average of 2.1-2.4 metres (7-8 feet) of snowfall and features one of the world’s longest ski tracks.
Another place to put on your winter bucket list is Cappadocia, where you can ride a hot air balloon through the magical landscape of natural volcanic formations called ‘fairy chimneys’. These chimneys reach up to 40 metres into the sky and look particularly beautiful in the winter months, with a dusting of snow.
You can also visit the 10th-12th-century painted cave churches, or one of the eight-level deep underground cities from the Goreme Valley Open-Air Museum.
Maud | The Netherlands
11 November will always be a special day in the Netherlands' southern provinces, Limburg and Brabant, since this is the start of the new "Carnival Season". Rooted in Catholicism, Carnival is a three-day national feast where you can dress up, dance and go crazy before the "fasting period" starts. It usually occurs in late February or early March.
Another Dutch tradition during the winter months is the feast of Saint Nicholas. Every year, Sinterklaas and his helpers (Pieten) travel all the way from Spain to bring chocolates, sweets and gifts to the Dutch children. He celebrates his birthday on 5 December, when families gather around the fire and exchange presents with each other.