It’s Lent. Has been for nearly a week now. After the big, bad party of Carnival and Mardi-Gras it’s time to get clean and shiny for Easter with 40 days of ‘self-denial, simplicity, spirituality, contemplation and conversion’. Not such a fun time to take a holiday then?
Well you’d think not, but I’m reliably informed that the real deal about giving up stuff for Lent is to ‘replace vice with virtue’. And let’s be honest, that idea’s pretty open to interpretation. So although foregoing meat for Lent is fairly common practice worldwide, replace that particular vice with fish and seafood and it’s not such a hardship. Bavarian monks came up with a plan to bend the Lent beer ban centuries ago. Most of the earth’s loveliest places do ‘spiritual and contemplative’ as standard. And anyone who’s ever travelled with more than hand baggage knows the true value of simplicity.
So whatever you do, don’t give up travel for Lent, just be a little more virtuous about the places you go and the things you do – here are a few personal Lent Observations to start off with…..
France & Spain for fish
The French verbs ‘to fish’ and ‘to sin’ are almost the same (give or take an accent) so it’s no surprise to find that there’s a certain piscine slant to Lent in France. Even April Fool’s Day here is known as Poisson Avril. And you should watch out for small, shifty children intent on sticking paper fish to your back to mark you as ‘un fou’.
If you prefer your fish without a side-order of humiliation, head for Marseilles. The birthplace of bouillabaisse is where you’ll find my favourite French fish market. Le Marché aux Poissons on the Old Port’s Quai des Belges (not to be confused with the big, wholesale fish market) is where locals head every day between 8am and 1pm to get the pick of the day’s catch fresh off the boats. The vendors will clean your fish while you wait and the sheer choice makes giving up meat for Lent fairly easy.
Lent or not, the average Spaniard eats over 30 kilos of fish and seafood a year and much of it comes from the gorgeously wild Galician coast. This is the place for monumental waves, unspoiled beaches, colourful little fishing villages and ancient myth and legend. The capital of Galicia, Santiago de Compostela, has one of the world’s most important and incredible ‘Semana Santa’ (19th – 27th April) so if you’re up for celebrating the end of Lent with some excess and spectacle you should definitely witness this at least once.
Pembrokeshire for purple
Purple symbolises penitence, so no surprise that it’s the traditional colour of Lent. But, being a congenial and forgiving sort, I recommend you go easy on yourself and just contemplate the natural prettiness of purple this spring. Picton Castle Gardens in Pembrokeshire, West Wales are lovely this time of year and the biggest attraction (literally) is the largest Rhododendron in the world – named ‘Old Port’ for its amazing display of purple flowers www.pictoncastle.co.uk
Bavaria for vice-free beer
Back in the day beer-loving Bavarian monks devised a plan to beat the sobriety of Lent by brewing ‘Starkbier’, also known as ‘liquid bread’. Apparently it was so foul the Pope had no hesitation giving it the okay for Lent since he assumed no one would drink the stuff anyway – how wrong he was. Centuries later the Bavarian capital Munich celebrates those cunning monks and their strong stomachs with the annual ‘Starkbierfest’ (21st to 30th March). The festival has a reputation with connoisseurs so the beer’s obviously a lot better these days – and if the pope says it’s alright … www.muenchen.de
Paris for converts
Paris won’t scream ‘virtue’ any time soon but you can do a bit of vice balancing this Lent with an Autolib Subscription. Autolib’s the city’s electric car scheme and its clean, sweetly silent vehicles are now a common sight on the boulevards and rues of the world’s most visited city. Easy to use and reasonably priced, all you need to convert your carboncentric ways is a passport, European driving licence and a bank or credit card (Autolib’s now in Bordeaux too) www.autolib.eu
Netherlands for simplicity
To truly understand simplicity in all its complex forms, stand perfectly still and contemplate the stark minimalism of a Piet Mondrian canvas. Mondrian is one of the Netherland’s most celebrated artists (and this is the country that gave us Vermeer, Van Gogh and Rembrandt) so the lack of a permanent exhibition of his works on home turf has always been a bit of a bugbear for the Dutch. Now the magnificent Gemeente Museum in The Hague houses the world’s largest collection of Mondrian masterpieces along with the work of his fellow countryman, De Stijl. The museum also has major works by Kandinsky, Picasso, Monet and Francis Bacon, exhibitions just for children, fantastic interactive exhibits and it’s just beautifully designed www.gemeentemuseum.nl
Poland for spirituality
It’s traditional in Poland to celebrate the Stations of the Cross during Lent so for many the country is a place of pilgrimage in the weeks before Easter. One of the most revered and visited pilgrimage sites is Kalwaria Zebrydowska in South Poland. The church here was built to mirror the great church of Golgotha in Jerusalem and, along with the monastery, it’s one of Poland’s most important UNESCO World Heritage Sites. And whether you visit to worship or just to admire the art and architecture, this is a very peaceful place to appreciate the true meaning of Lent.
Inspired to travel during Lent? Well it’s guaranteed you’ll enjoy some very creative cooking in most places (Italy’s love of meat means new heights of ingenuity for the next 40 days). There’s plenty to contemplate as always. And the less devout of us can just put our own spin on ‘vice for virtue’ – as ever. But, on a final note, I’d just like to remind everyone: giving up Brussels sprouts for Lent doesn’t count.
While conducting research for this post, I was half-expecting to find all manner of blasphemous links between the New York City Easter Parade and Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter. My assumption was based on how crazy the hats have become over the decades as they bob down Fifth Avenue perched on the heads of thousands taking part in the Bonnet Festival, an essential component of the Easter Parade. However, aside from a few photographs of those intentionally (or maybe not?) dressed as The Hatter, I discovered that the event is still seen by many as a very religious and spiritual event, falling on Easter Sunday. The Easter Parade also holds a special place in the hearts of not-theologically-inclined New Yorkers as a unifying event where people from all over the city and the world descend on downtown Manhattan to celebrate new and fresh beginnings; a new season, a change in the weather, the birth of new things and yes, maybe the felting of a new crazy hat.
“She hates travelling and will make a mess.”
“What if he runs away?”
My favourite things about Paris? Pistachio Macarons, Musée D’Orsay, flea markets, cycling at night, stationery and small, specialist shops.
Yep, the French tradition of ‘a shop for everything and everything in its shop’ can be a might irritating at times – try buying painkillers in a supermarket. But I find myself more than a little prepared to overlook the odd inconvenience if the flipside is cheese shops, chocolatiers, milliners, shops that sell drawing paper by weight, violin shops, button shops and, best of all by several long miles, booksellers.
I’m always a little surprised that Greece only has seventeen UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It’s Greece, which is basically ‘Ancient Greece’ as far as I’m concerned. So that would make it the land of Tragedies, Choruses, Oracles, Gods, Goddesses and effectively the inspiration – one way or another – of just about every work of art and literature in existence. And not just ‘Old Masters’ and ‘Classics’ – The Cohen Brothers are well known for their nods to the Odyssey: ‘Oh Brother Where Art Thou’ gives a writing credit to Homer (850-800BC) and the Gorfein’s wandering cat in ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ is, of course, called Ulysses.