It’s the crowd that draws me to this coffee shop, just up from the apartment I’m occupying on a back-road of Barcelona.
More specifically, the lack of crowd. I remember walking past here in the height of summer - and there was a queue stretching out the door. When the city’s really buzzing at the height of the tourist season, this place is - shall we say - a bit awful? Too much noise, massive queues, harassed-looking staff, and the very opposite of chilled out.
But today, in the run-up to Christmas, it’s perfect. All the corners of the place are quiet, including the ones with the comfiest seats. The background noise is no louder than a murmur.
The lady behind the counter gives me a beaming smile (it’s a family-run place, and I know these times of the year are when foot-traffic turnover is lowest, so every paying patron is more than welcome). It’s the perfect place to spend a few hours at the back with my laptop, nursing a pastry and a few coffees and able to pay real attention to what I’m writing.
I love Europe in winter. I mean, I love Europe in summer too (I’m biased in all the ways here). But however exciting it can be when the energy of a place is turned up to eleven and the crowds are swarming, I find it a much more pleasant experience - and far more sustainable, in terms of nervous-system overload - to visit ‘out of season’ (outside the three summer months when tourism goes super-crazy).
All this is so far from a “travel secret” these days that it amazes me that the bulk of people still travel to Europe in June, July and August. Why is this still a thing? Why do people willingly put themselves through all that stress?
But I know my privileged position here, to be able to choose otherwise. The reason “midsummer holidays” exist is that many businesses still work in traditional schedules that only allow their staff to take a proper holiday-length vacation during these months. And I certainly understand some of the other stuff.
There’s the draw of the longer daylight hours, the maxed-out heat and so on - but it seems common knowledge (at least in the UK) that they’re more than offset by the crowds, the insanely hiked prices and the general woes of peak-season travel. Yet off-peak travel is only possible with a bit of freedom in your work-life schedule.
But really, if you have any vacation-choosing wiggle-room here, you should use it.
This year and next, Wheel and Anchor is running its European LiveAway programmes at times of the year that might look a little…unconventional? Madeira in February? Sicily in March? If you’ve never tried visiting in these months, you might not know what to expect. It may need a little unpacking. So - let’s unpack.
In Western Scotland where I’m writing this, February is often a bitter thing, with icy winds that really slice through you. Temperatures can be anything from 7°C (45°F) to just above freezing at 1°C (34°F). It’s not Europe at its chilliest (you’ll find the lowest temperatures deep in the continental mainland, particularly up on the high ground) but it can be unpleasantly bracing.
In contrast, places Madeira or Cyprus at this time are at least a good 10°C warmer, and a lot sunnier. The reason is all that sea. Just as the proximity of the ocean in the height of summer keeps things fresh, it also blunts the cold of winter.
By British standards, winter in Barcelona is “summery” (or at least like our tail-end of Spring). Even though politically the UK is no longer part of the EU, it’s still a corner of Europe - yet its experience of a “European winter” is significantly colder (and rainier, and, well, bleaker) than the European countries around the Mediterranean.
So, banish the idea that it’s “cold” in the Mediterranean at this time. Cool, perhaps. You might need a warm jacket, and occasionally an umbrella. But if the sea’s nearby, it’ll be a rare thing indeed to see ice riming the windowsill of your hotel or guest-house.
Then there’s the locals, including bar and restaurant staff. Do you travel to make those authentic connections with people who live in super-interesting places, even to spark up conversations that help you see what it’s like through their eyes? Then don’t visit when everyone’s run off their feet.
Peak tourism means nobody has the time to chat - and probably everyone’s nerves are a little more frayed than at other times. But in the winter, you’re far more likely to be gifted with their attention (and as I said at the start of this year, it’s a great way to overhear things), and more likely to learn something new and unique about a place - including seeing how the whole place runs when everything isn’t dependent on tourists.
Plus, you’ve probably guessed about the prices. It’s the same everywhere: when demand is high, the cost of everything surges, sometimes absurdly. Travelling around Europe on the low end of the average travel writer’s budget, I simply couldn’t afford to go anywhere during the peak season - but by visiting Greece in September and October, Barcelona in December and southern Spain in February and March, I could stretch my money to make everything manageable.
(And this was before the pandemic - so, considering how much Europe is keen to welcome visitors again, I expect these times of the year to be a globetrotter’s paradise of good deals.)
So yes, please, do try visiting corners of Europe when they’re not so busy (perhaps via the LiveAway programme, which Gordon explains more about here). The benefits are so many - but for me, it’s how I learned that you can come to appreciate somewhere as a seasonal favourite.
It might not be your cup of tea (or country-appropriate beverage) at the height of the tourist season, but out of it, you might really fall in love with the place - and want to come back another time, when it’s this quiet again, so quiet you can actually listen, actually talk to people, and actually hear yourself think…
A refill of my coffee? Oh, go on then. Why not?
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