English speaking visitors to France, cherchez-ing a perfectly grilled steak haché or a nicely browned frite, could do worse than head for French restaurant chain Courtepaille. If your grasp of the language is limited to an embarrassed ‘merci’, it’s probably Bon Appetit all round and none the wiser. But for those with a slightly wider vocabulary, confusion reigns. Because Courtepaille directly translates as ‘Short Straw’, not the first name choice for a successful restaurant you’d think, right? Wrong. In France, if you draw the short straw you’re the lucky winner.
Black cats are another source of confusion when it comes to good luck/bad luck. Apparently The Pilgrim Fathers (who really should have had more to worry them) believed black cats were agents of Satan. But, for centuries, canny Scots have thought the melanin rich felines brought prosperity. Gamblers fear black cats and pirates love them – handy to know if you’re in Vegas or sailing the high seas.
Some superstitions are widely held: smash the bottom of an empty boiled egg shell so a witch can’t make a boat out of it: bird droppings are good luck: a single magpie is a bad omen: don’t put new shoes on a table: spilled salt isn’t good (counteract with a pinch over your left shoulder and into the devil’s eye): and a tall, dark stranger as your first visitor of the New Year heralds excellent fortune (yes, we used the word ‘herald’).
But we think it’s probably fair to say that the best superstitions/omens/etc are based on indigenous lore and legend. They’re certainly some of the strangest (only in Iceland would they give citizens’ rights to elves), most eccentric and, occasionally, plain creepy – Mexico you know who you are! So before we douse ourselves in bird droppings and catch us a couple of magpies in preparation for another Friday the 13th, here’s our good guide to some superstitions of the world – wise travellers, heed our words!
credit: Sergio Rozas
Friday 13th in Spain is just a day like any other. Because, although the Spanish are uncommonly superstitious, it’s Tuesday 13th that’s the unluckiest day in their calendar. And we’re not just talking, watch out for ladders and spilled salt: Tuesday 13th in Spain is a day of mortal dread. As they say – Martes 13, ni te cases, ni te embarques (Tuesday 13th, don’t get married or set sail).
Visiting Russia and tempted to make Blinis? Before you start slathering on the sour cream and caviare, beware. Don’t ever eat the first pancake out of the pan, it belongs to a witch and if she doesn’t get it she’ll get you. Most seasoned pancake makers don’t care, the first pancake’s never that great anyway.
It’s probably not surprising that the birthplace of the magnificent Brothers Grimm should have a healthy stock of very unhealthy superstitions – mostly about death and dying. Our particular gory favourite is the belief that the wounds of a murdered corpse will start to bleed afresh if the body is touched again by the murderer.
credit: Janek Kloss
Forget the poetry, stout and fantastic oysters, if you visit Ireland it’s the fairies you have to watch out for. This may not be of interest to the average traveller, but if you’re renting a holiday house you might want to make sure it wasn’t built on a Fairy Path. According to Irish legend, fairies travel all over the country and if you build a house on one of their routes you’ll never know peace as long as you live. To make sure you don’t fall foul of a fairy: choose your site, stick a post in each of the four corners and if they’re still there in the morning it’s a fairy-free-zone.
The highly intelligent Magpie recognises its mirror image, hence its liking for shiny stuff and glass reflections. But if you’re Scottish you don’t believe any of that old scientific nonsense: a single Magpie on your window sill means death is coming to your home.
Want to ward off evil in Italy? Well, if you’re an Italian man, just grab the front of your trousers (think Michael Jackson Thriller). Yes, that gesture which has most of womankind rolling their eyes in disgust, is actually designed to ensure the bad thing you’re talking about doesn’t happen to you.
If you’re wandering around Yorkshire and you chance to come upon a hairy caterpillar, pick it up and hurl it over your shoulder for good luck – it’s one of those ‘not such good luck for the hairy caterpillar’ things, we know!
credit: K. G. Hawes
Lighting a votive candle in a Catholic church is something almost everyone does, whatever their beliefs. But in France, never light a candle from another candle because only the prayer of the original will be answered.
Wear a turquoise bead when you’re visiting Greece to ward off the evil eye. But watch it closely, if the colour starts to fade, danger is coming your way.
Come any Friday in Brazil (13th or otherwise) wear white clothes and you’ll have good luck. And, to make sure you always have plenty of cash, get yourself an elephant statue for the house and place it with its back to the door – Brazilian Feng Shui.
Finnish folk love a sauna and with every sauna comes a ‘Tonttu’. The Tonttu is a Sauna Elf, and if you forget to throw water on the stove for the Tonttu, he’ll curse your next sauna visit.
When visitors come knocking at the door in Holland the superstitious Dutch rush to answer because it’s said that if the door blows open on its own you’ve invited the Devil into your home.
Famous foragers that they are, no outdoorsy Swede with any sense ever picks heather and brings it home as ancient lore dictates they won’t live to tell the tale.
And finally, for this Friday and any other Friday – watch out for flying swans: if you see them overhead in the morning it’s good luck, but in the evening they’re a very bad sign.
credit: Ben Brewer
With the weather in the British Isles taking a nippy turn, we thought it was worth reminding everyone just how beautiful and magical the United Kingdom can be when snow starts to fall.
Please enjoy this unusual collection of frosty images, and have a wrapped-up weekend.
Black are my steps on silver sod;
Thick blows my frosty breath abroad;
And tree and house and hill and lake,
Are frosted like a wedding cake.
- From ‘Winter Time’ by Robert Louis Stevenson
Osley, England. By tj.blackwell
Greenwich Park, London. By law_keven
Aldwych, London. By Joffley
Hoveton, Norfolk. By Gerry Balding
Fowey, Cornwall. By midlander1231
Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh. By 0olong
Cardiff Bay, Wales. By geezaweezer
Belvoir Forest, Belfast. By peripathetic
St. Pancras, London. By E01
The Henry Moore Foundation, Hertfordshire. By Paul Stevenson
Featured image by Joe St.Pierre
While much of the world is putting up trees for Christmas or lighting menorah for Hanukkah, there is another spiritual celebration awaiting us in December, one that is mysterious, ancient and intriguing, allowing a perfect excuse to visit this beautiful and historic corners of the British Isles.
Let us tell you about winter solstice…
Frost & berries © Unhindered by Talent
While temperatures have been plummeting in Europe for what feels like many months already, winter solstice actually marks the official beginning of winter. Most people in the UK will be aware of the day winter solstice falls on, as it’s also the shortest day and longest night of the year. Not everyone will know though that this is also the time when the sun appears lowest in the sky due to the Earth’s angle on its axis and its position relative to the sun. It is for these reasons that celebrations are focused on the specific time the sun rises, reaches its peak and then sets. This year the sun will be at its highest point at 11:12 am on 21st December.
There is evidence to suggest that this astronomical event has been recognised since neolithic times, when the stars, moon and sun influenced farming and mythologies and theories about life. Archeologists say that Stonehenge was built in around 3100 BC for the marking of the sun’s setting on winter solstice, and a prehistoric monument of similar age found in Ireland called Newgrange was built on a man’s line of sight for the sun’s rise on the same day.
Newgrange © Collin Key
While Stonehenge is a magnificent and mind-blowing sight to see at any time of the year, marking winter solstice here a once in a lifetime experience, with several solstice stalwarts from a number of “New Age Tribes” gathering to mark the most important day in their calendar. Winter solstice is seen as an occasion of ‘spiritual awakening’ and people watch the sun to see what it predicts for the year ahead.
With access to Stonehenge being limited all year round and in particular on winter solstice, there is a special organised tour on the day so you’ll need to book tickets in advance.
Winter solstice at Stonehenge © Mark! Ch.
Not far from Stonehenge is Glastonbury, a place more famous for its muddy music festival that its historic roots as one of the most popular places to celebrate winter solstice. On what is believed to be a man-made mound – though it has never been excavated to investigate further – stands Glastonbury Tor: a lonely church tower believed to be the last in a long line of monuments that have stood here in honour of both winter and summer solstices. This site has connections to many historic legends, including that of King Arthur. Climb up to have breathtaking views of the sun rising and setting across the patchwork of green fields that make up the surrounding countryside.
Glastonbury Tor at dawn © midlander1231
If you’re looking to become an observer – or participant – in winter solstice in Glastonbury or Stonehenge, you could combine this experience with a stay in the Somerset countryside, where rolling hills will keep you away from the hustle and bustle of cities, and may just provide the perfect backdrop to your own private winter solstice celebration.
First image © Hackworth