Sharpen your skiing skills in Portugal
It is hard to imagine snow in Portugal since it bathes in the sun both in winter and summer. But as it turns out, right at its very centre stands Continental Portugal’s highest mountain, Torre, part of Serra da Estrela National Park. The only peak higher is Mount Pico in the Azores. At the very summit of the national park (1993 m) is the country’s only ski resort which shares its name with mobile phone operator Vodafone (Vodafone Ski Resort). The reason: the British telecommunications network was its main sponsor during its construction. The small resort has four ski lifts and nine pistes from beginner to advanced skiers and snowboarders alike. It is like any other ski resort, until you go down it, that is, and you’re back in warm, green Portugal. If there isn’t enough snow, they fire it out of guns. If you don’t know how to ski/snowboard, they will teach you at the school there. And if the eight-kilometre piste seems low on bends, go for a drive around the national park. There’s a more exciting panorama at every turn, where views of snowy mountains give over to frozen valleys. Numerous villages surround the area, selling traditional souvenirs: knitted goods, chorizo sausage and cheese. But please remember that Vodafone is such a popular place in Portugal that you might not even get something as basic as a place to stay for the night. At a nearby mountain hostel in Penhas da Saude, rooms are booked by whole groups six months in advance. But it’s understandable!
Pamper yourself in Hungary
If you think that Hungary’s thermal bathhouses are passe, then try the only one the town of Miskolc has. The only one of its kind in the whole of Europe, this hydropathic establishment is located inside a cave, which for an entire century was eroded by thermal water. There, beside the standard pools, is a whole network of water labyrinths, through which it is a pure pleasure to go. The bathhouse is famous for its jacuzzi halls, waterfall walls, galleries with jet stream massage and its open-air swimming pool, which temperature reaches 28 degrees. It is particularly pleasant to swim there when all the surroundings are covered in snow. The most unusual part of the complex is the dark, domed hall, which is lit only by the water below and the innumerable artificial stars in the stone ceiling. It is wonderful that a normal cave could be turned into such a unique bathhouse.
Have the time of your life on the Canaries
This February the Canary archipelago will see the jubilant times of its legendary carnival, during which the streets are filled with film stars and cartoon characters, as well as much flora and fauna. It has been named the largest carnival in Europe and the second largest in the world after Rio de Janeiro’s famous carnival. On two neighbouring islands of the archipelago, namely Tenerife and Gran Canaria, there will be the grandest of outdoor fetes – so grand that in 1987, the Guinness Book of Records recorded that more than 200,000 people in Santa Cruz de Tenerife simultaneously danced salsa. Some time in the 17th century, when the Spanish once and for all settled in the Canaries, King Philip IV of Spain decided to have lots of fun and stage a wedding. The order was that men were to dress as women and the aristocracy to dress as servants. That is how the carnival tradition, which over the last 230 years has become world famous, was born. Not only is it known for its dancing and revelry, but also for its all-engrossing programme, which is put together by a large and friendly collective over a whole year. The carnival’s most popular events are the crowning of the carnival queen and ‘the burial of the sardine’. The former occurs at the start of the carnival and the latter closes the festival madness. In the competition for carnival queen, participants compete wearing the most luxurious outfits, which can sometimes weigh in excess of 100 kg. The carnival’s closing ceremony is also a very cheerful event, despite its name. On the island’s main square, a papier mache fish is burned and its ashes scattered on the beach. The carnival’s timing is different every year; it all depends on when Easter falls, and it should end by the start of the Catholic feast of Lent. This year (3-21 February), prepare your masks and costumes with a comic book hero theme, as that is the theme of this year’s festival.
Catch the Northern Lights in Iceland
When charged particles ‘attack’ the upper layers of the atmosphere, it is what’s called the Aurora Borealis or the Northern Lights – the same lights that decorate a clear night sky in yellow and green. This phenomenon occurs year round, but is most visible in the Arctic Circle, from October to March, on clear, cloudless nights, at ten to one in the morning. The Northern Lights are to Icelanders and Laplanders what snow is to us; but for tourists, they are a wonder all the same. Furthermore, interest in Iceland, one of Europe’s coldest countries, is heating up with the recent eruptions of its volcanoes. Coincidentally, NASA experts predict that in 2012, the Northern lights will be at the brightest they’ve been for the last 50 years! They say that when similar activity was observed in 1958, the lights were seen in Mexico on three occasions. This, you will agree, is a great deal further south of the northern latitudes. It would be a sin to miss this opportunity.
Feast on chocolate in Lviv
The time to add a bit of sugar to your life is just before St Valentine’s Day, at the annual chocolate festival in Lviv. Its fifth celebration is taking place in the southern Ukrainian city from 9 to 12 February. Its organisers promise to arrange a bit of the sweet life for every visitor for the entire four days. For refreshments there will be chocolate beverages and delights, and treats from chocolate fountains. For entertainment there’s the making of the tallest cake, master classes and secret recipes, and theatrical and musical performances, as well as romantic films. Lviv has been producing delicacies made from cocoa since mediaeval times. At the beginning of the 20th century, it became the second chocolate capital of Europe after Switzerland’s Bern. The locals’ love of sweets evolved into countless tsukerni (from the Ukrainian word tsukor meaning ‘sugar’), that is, cafes, whose assortment of sweets and chocolate bars brings happiness to even those with the most discerning sweet tooth. Today, Lviv holds the due title of chocolate (and cafe) capital of the Ukraine. So long as football fans have yet to take over the streets of the ancient city on this, the eve of the European Football Championship, now is the perfect time to dive into the romantic sea of chocolate.