Five winter escapes

winter escapes christmas markets

Feature for Waitrose Kitchen magazine, detailing five different ideas for winter experiences – from Vienna’s Christmas markets to wassailing in Cornwall.

Waitrose Kitchen is one of the UK’s most successful supermarket magazines, published by John Brown Media with a circulation of over 400,000 readers. The article was published in the December 2012 issue of the magazine.

Client: Waitrose Kitchen Magazine
Publication date: January 2013

Five winter escapes for Waitrose Kitchen


DECEMBER – Vienna’s Christmas markets

Nowhere does Christmas quite like Vienna. From the end of November the city fairly crackles with Yuletide cheer, especially around the famous Christkindlmärkte (Christmas markets) which take over its streets and public squares. These open-air markets have been a tradition since the Middle Ages, and they’re full of festive charm. Stalls sell traditional gifts such as tree ornaments, hand-carved toys and wooden mangers, while shoppers sip beakers of hot glühwein (spiced wine) and the scent of candied fruit and roasting chestnuts drifts out on the crisp evening air.

Do Vienna’s classic Christmas market is the Magic of Advent (, held in front of the grand City Hall, but there are lots more to explore – the ones at the University Campus ( and Spittelberg ( are equally atmospheric but usually less crowded. The Schönbrunn Palace (, the Habsburg’s lavish summer residence, hosts its own Advent Village complete with gingerbread stalls, oompah bands and a lavishly decorated Christmas tree.

Eat Vienna’s café culture is legendary. Many of the city’s coffee-houses have their own signature cakes – tuck into sperltorte (almond and chocolate-cream cake) at the Café Sperl ( or sachertorte (chocolate cake with apricot jam) at the stately Café Sacher. For classic Viennese cuisine such as wienerschnitzel (veal cutlet) and tafelspitz (boiled beef), head to one of the city’s cosy beisln (beerhouses): Griechenbeisl (mains €10-25) is among the oldest and best.

Sleep Snug rooms and a super rooftop terrace make the Hotel Kärntnerhof (d from €110-140; a solid choice in the Old Town. Boutique style and Art Deco furnishings characterise the Radisson Blu Style Hotel (d €229-289;, one of Vienna’s top luxury hotels.

Local Knowledge For many Austrians, Christmas just isn’t Christmas until you’ve heard the Vienna Boys’ Choir ( This cherubic troupe performs every day at the Burgkapelle (Royal Chapel), but tickets at Christmas are like gold dust, so you’ll need to book months in advance.

FEBRUARY – Carnaval in San Sebastian

In Spain, February isn’t a month for hunkering down from the winter cold – it’s a time to get out and party. This is the month of carnaval, the lively street pageants which are held across much of Spain to herald the coming of spring and as one last hedonistic hurrah before the onset of Lent.

Few carnivals are more colourful – or more chaotic – than the one held in mid-February in San Sebastian, when thousands of locals dressed in crazy costumes parade through the city’s streets, accompanied by floral floats and marching bands. Great pans of paella sizzle by the roadside, and pop-up stalls serve street snacks such as papas pobres (literally ‘poor man’s potatoes’, a potato, onion and pepper stew), chorizo (spicy sausage) and croquetas (cheese or potato coated in breadcrumbs).

Carnaval is bookended by two more celebrations: Los Caldereros (Tinkers’ Day), which commemorates the traditional springtime arrival of Roma tinkers in San Sebastian, and Iñudes y Artzaia, when young men and women promenade through town dressed as nursemaids and shepherds.

Do Even in winter, temperatures are surprisingly balmy in San Sebastian, and a stroll along the city’s iconic beach, Playa de la Concha, is a must. The best views of the city are from the summit of Monte Igueldo, which can be reached either on foot or via a clanking funicular railway. Afterwards, pay a visit to the Museo Chillada Leku (, an open-air sculpture garden devoted to Basque artist Eduardo Chillada.

Eat Pintxos – the Basque version of tapas – is the snack of choice in San Sebastian. The best place to try it is in one of the tiny bars of the Parte Vieja, San Sebastian’s old town: Astalana (dishes from around €3, Calle de Iñigo 1) and La Cuchara de San Telmo (dishes from around €3, Calla de 31 de Agosto 28) are both local favourites. San Sebastian is also considered to be the home of nueva cocina española (Spanish nouvelle cuisine), and boasts more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other Spanish city – including budget-busting Arzak (starters from around £15, mains from £30-40,, run by acclaimed chef Juan Maria Arzak.

Sleep With its minimalist rooms and townhouse setting, Pension Altair (d from €84, is a modern take on a Spanish pension. Villa Soro (d €185-240, is more luxurious, with 25 deluxe rooms inside a listed 19th-century villa.

Local Knowledge Many locals avoid San Sebastian’s busy city beaches and head for the quiet sands and surf breaks of Playa de la Zurriola instead.

FEBRUARY – St Agatha’s Feast Day, Sicily

Sicily’s a popular summer getaway for Italians, but precious few people make the trek across in winter, which makes this an ideal time to see the island’s more traditional side.

In the first week of February, the coastal city of Catania holds Sicily’s largest religious festival in honour of its patron saint, St Agatha – a local girl who was martyred after spurning the advances of a Roman prefect called Quintianus.

The three-day festival begins with a dawn mass on the 3rd February, after which St Agatha’s relics are placed on a silver fercolo (carriage) and hauled to the top of nearby Monte Sanguiliano. The celebrations continue until the 5th with sacred processions through the city’s streets and spectacular fireworks displays.

As always in Italy, food plays a crucial part in the festivities: loaves, cakes and pastries are baked in Agatha’s honour, including the dimple-shaped cakes known as Minni di Virgini (breasts of the virgin) – a reminder of the cruel punishment Agatha was forced to endure.

Further along Sicily’s southern coastline, the town of Agrigento hosts another foodie festival in February: the Sagra del Mandorio in Fiore (Almond Blossom Festival), when dances, concerts and alfresco feasts are held to celbrate the annual nut harvest.

Do Catania is known for its Baroque architecture, best seen on the grand boulevard of Via Etnea and the town’s show-stopping main square, Piazza del Duomo. The town also makes a perfect springboard for a trip to Mt Etna (, which smokes away on the city’s northern skyline.

Eat For wood-fired pizza, Catanians swear by Al Cortile Alessi (mains €8-15, Via Alessi 34-36), while Osteria Antica Marina (meals €30-35, is the choice for delicious Sicilian-style seafood.

Sleep Retro furniture and funky design combine at Bad Catania (d €60-80,, the city’s trendiest B&B, run by a duo of local artists. Il Principe (d €119-179, has chic rooms and a great location on one of Catania’s qunitessentially baroque streets.

Local Knowledge Join the locals for a mosey around the morning food and fish markets, where you can pick up everything from sea urchins and swordfish steaks to pesto just like mamma used to make.

DECEMBER – Winter in Lapland

Hidden away in Finland’s far north and cloaked in snow and ice for over half of the year, Lapland is a true winter wilderness. Stretching for hundreds of kilometres around the Arctic Circle, this is one of Scandinavia’s most isolated corners: the temperature never gets much above 10˚ below, and snowmobiles and dog-sleds are often the only way to get around, so it’s the ideal place to embrace winter in all its bone-chilling splendour.

There’s a wealth of wintry experiences on offer, from mushing with huskies through frozen forests to sleeping out on the tundra in your very own igloo – but inevitably, it’s the chance to visit Santa Claus in his North Pole home that draws most people here.

However you spend your time, you’ll definitely need something to ward off the cold. The best solution is to follow the Finnish example and nurse a hot mug of glögi (mulled wine), or better still, down a shot of schnapps or koskenkorva viina (Finnish vodka). Don’t expect turkey on the Christmas table, though – the traditional Finnish Joulupöytä (literally, ‘yule table’) consists of a smorgasbord-style feast of stews, casseroles, smoked meats and fish, as well as the ubiquitous pickled herring.

Do You couldn’t come to Lapland and not visit Father Christmas. Start out at touristy Santapark (, with its candy-cane stalls, Yule-themed restaurants and gingerbread-baking elves, then arrange your own private visit to Santa’s grotto on a reindeer-draw sleigh. Afterwards, escape into the wilderness with a stay at a log-cabin and a view of the Northern Lights courtesy of Lapland Safaris (

Eat Lapland’s capital, Rovaniemi, has a decent choice of restaurants. Nili (mains €16-30, serves authentic Lappish cuisine such as sautéed reindeer, whitefish, and desserts made with cloudberries, or you can dine inside an igloo at Snowland’s Igloo Restaurant (mains €12-28, 

Sleep Despite the name, the Hotel Santa Claus (d from €120, in Rovaniemi is refreshingly kitsch-free. If you prefer to be out in the wilderness, try the lovely log cabins and geodesic igloos at Kakslauttanen (cabins from €180,

Local Knowledge The Northern Lights are usually visible between August and April, but they’re notoriously unpredictable – locals say November and March are usually the best months to see them.

DECEMBER TO JANUARY – wassailing in Cornwall

Carols might be Britain’s best-known winter tunes, but a much older style of Christmas song survives in the westcountry – and that’s the wassail. From the old Anglo-Saxon term waes hail, meaning to be healthy, these hearty ditties are traditionally sung on Twelfth Night to ensure an abundant apple crop, and remain a winter custom in many of the westcountry’s cider orchards.

At Trelissick Gardens (, near Truro, locals gather once a year for a torch-lit walk around the orchard paths, led by the King and Queen of Wassail, decked out in their woodland regalia of leaves, twigs and apple branches. After the singing of the Wassail Song, beakers of hot cider are passed around and a roaring fire is lit to fend off the winter chill.

Another of Cornwall’s winter traditions takes place on 23rd December in the seaside village of Mousehole, where locals bake the dish of stargazey pie, a pilchard pie in which the fishes’ heads are left poking through the crust. It’s cooked in memory of local fisherman Tom Bawcock, who supposedly ended a terrible famine by braving high seas and winter storms to land a bounty of fish. The day is still known locally as Bawcock’s Eve in the plucky fisherman’s honour.

Do Winter’s a surprisingly lively time in Cornwall. From early November, the Eden Project ( transforms itself into a wintry wonderland during the Time of Gifts festival, complete with a full-size ice-rink. Mousehole’s famous display of Christmas lights lights up the harbour in December, while in nearby Penzance, the Montol Festival ( celebrates the Winter Solstice on 21st December with a masked parade through the town’s streets.

Eat The peculiarly-named Untitled by Robert Wright (mains £14.95-£19.75; serves a sophisticated British-Mediterranean menu, while 2 Fore St (mains £16-20; in Mousehole specialises in French-inspired classics such as Cornish bouillabaisse and pot-roast chicken.

Stay The Old Coastguard Hotel (d £110-195, has recently been renovated and sits in a wonderful spot on the edge of Mousehole, with sweeping views across to Mount’s Bay. For quirkier style, Artist Residence Penzance (d from £60-125, has eleven rooms, each of which has been individually styled by a local artist.

Local Knowledge The Ship Inn ( in Mousehole is the best place to try proper stargazey pie, ideally washed down with a pint of locally-brewed St Austell Ale.