Christmas – a time for family festivities and home comforts. Or, if you’re a travel writer – make that a not very well organised travel writer – a time for ending up somewhere a bit odd, that you hadn’t quite planned. Where they don’t celebrate Christmas in quite the same way that you do. If indeed they celebrate Christmas at all.
To mark the holiday season, I give you my tales of five foreign festive periods, four continents, three Christmas Days in the sun, two walks on the beach, and a wonderful new-born baby (no, not that one).
Never quite managed to involve a partridge or a pear tree.
It seemed like a good idea – borrow an apartment on the Calabrian coast, en route to write the first edition of the Rough Guide to Sicily.
In Calabria, it turns out, everyone leaves their apartments on the coast to go and spend Christmas with their loved ones, who don’t live on the coast. Especially the pizza restaurant guys, shopkeepers and bar-owners. But long walks on empty sandy beaches, and an entire panetone found in a cupboard, made Calabria Christmassy in the end.
Fairy chimneys, cave-dwellings, snow-capped mountains – you have to admit, Cappadocia has the lot for a proper Christmas. I stayed with a motley bunch of international drifters, and our gracious hosts – while not celebrating Christmas themselves – indulged our desire to wrap up sweets and trinkets from the market and hand them out as gifts. We drank Efes beer and sang carols, while the snow fell gently outside on the remarkable wind- and weather-sculpted rocks.
Fully entering into the spirit of things, or because no one else would do it – it was definitely one of those things – I agreed to appear on stage at a village school play, dressed as Pai Natal – Santa – in the full beard and red-tunic outfit. No one had thought to tell my children, who were waiting in the wings with their classmates. This is what I heard as the line progressed ever nearer. ‘That’s not Pai Natal, that’s your dad’ – ‘No it isn’t’ – ‘Yes it is’ – “no it – oh hello dad’. You’ll be thinking that ruined Christmas for everyone, but in fact the traditional Portuguese Christmas dinner does that all by itself – boiled salt cod, boiled potatoes, boiled cabbage, boiled chickpeas and boiled eggs.
New South Wales, Australia
The motherlode, the apex, the acme, the zenith of all Christmas destinations for pale northern Europeans. It’s sunny and hot! And you can have a barbecue instead of turkey! On Christmas Day! I know! Amid a general air of faint hysteria (We can go to the beach! On Christmas Day! I know!), fuelled by unwise amounts of Chardonnay, we took our inflatable Christmas tree, our Santa hats and our snorkels and sat in the warm surf, 12,000 miles from friends and family but otherwise entirely content.
This, to be fair, wasn’t my idea. It was down to my parents, who decided to have a baby – me – in West Africa. Did this set the pattern for a life of travel? Possibly. All I know is that my first Christmas was spent bathed in a warm African sun, and it’s warm suns of any kind that I suspect I’ve been chasing ever since. Still got the Christmas present by the way – hello Mr Bear.
So I bid you Afishiapa, Feliz Natal, Buone Natale and Happy Christmas. May your travels be merry and bright.
And don’t forget the ideal Christmas gift – my new ebook, which any travel enthusiast would be delighted to receive!