The Joys of a Spring Vacation in Europe

  • 01 of 05

    Springtime in Europe - It's More Than Just Cheap!

    street view in europe
    Alf/Getty Images

    Springtime is a fabulous time to come to Europe. Sure, you might get a little rain, but there are medieval arcades to walk under and churches to duck into, like the one above. Otherwise, the air is often crisply clear for photography, the spring vegetables are special, the wildflowers profuse, and you'll read about all that in our guide to Europe in Spring.

    The problem comes when I read an article about spending some part of the off-season in Europe. I'm always a bit miffed at the incredible narrowness of focus. It's always about saving money--and virtually nothing else. Excuse me, but if you simply want to save money, stay home, eat cheap food, work hard, pat the dog, buy toilet paper derivatives. I'm not kidding. Well, I am about the toilet paper derivatives--and I really shouldn't encourage the overpaid financial institution louts who discovered a way make gambling instruments out of people's mortgages and things that end up crashing economies that we'll be paying for for years but...ahem, but, in any case, here are the bullet points MSNBC slings at the potential tourist in 5 reasons to visit Europe in spring:

    • Airfares are cheaper
    • Hotels are cheaper
    • Rental cars are easier to reserve at bargain prices.
    • Museum​s are not crowded
    • And last but not least, the Europeans are home. (What? Of course they are. There are no tourists clogging their streets and their favorite restaurants and now's the time they can eat and play in peace--and it's cheaper.)

    It's all true, of course. Perhaps spring is the right time to vacation in Europe if you're one of those intelligent people who aren't all that keen on traipsing from museum to museum at a time when the mercury is threatening to burst through the top of the thermometer. If you were and you went anyway, you'd notice the museums are all crowded. Yes, with sweaty tourists, the least daft among them wondering why they chose the summer season to get acquainted with Renoir's brush strokes when the whole of the host country's population has had the good sense to leave town by puttering zippily in their tiny cars en mass to the beach. Any beach.

    Let me assure you that there are actual benefits to traveling in the Spring season. Flowers for one. You've heard of them. Perhaps you've even bought them for your sweet honey when a date you were supposed to remember passed like a freight train in the night (if so I'm guessing that you're male).

    Europeans, though, raise the humble flower to a whole new level. In fact, between 1634-1637 diseased tulips with unique properties sat at the peak of a speculative bubble (you could trade a single bulb for an entire estate) which eventually crashed the Dutch economy for many years. Better to dabble in toilet paper derivatives.

    Today, every ten years the Dutch celebrate their flower growing prowess with a big show called Floriade, there are geraniums in just about every window in Italy, and France awards communities that have flowered their villages profusely; you'll notice the signs indicating: Ville Fleuri.

    But you likely didn't come for flowers in a row or in pots. Perhaps you've come for the wildflowers.

  • 02 of 05

    Flora and Fauna - From Wildflowers to Bears

    wildflowers in the sun
    James O'Neil/Getty Images

    You can't imagine how many people from outside Europe are enamored with the European poppy. A European poppy is red, unlike the California poppy, which is orange. Thus people are surprised by the poppy and gaze in wonderment at the places where poppies carpet the countryside.

    Where I live in the Lunigiana the early March flower carpet includes crocus.

    March is also the time for the flowering of Mimosa, a symbol of International Woman's Day. Many fruit trees are in blossom in March and April.

    In late April the tulips start blooming in the Netherlands. Sure, you think of the Dutch when you think of tulips, especially in Keukenhof Gardens, but Floralia Brussels celebrates spring blooms at the castle of Groot-Bijgaarden where you can see spring flowers in bloom: "500 varieties including 300 tulip varieties."

    April and May are ideal months to visit the Greek temples in Agrigento, Sicily. The weather is perfect, the wildflowers are in bloom, and the tourism is lazy and relaxed.

    Bears wake up in April in Central Finland's Taiga Forest. And they're hungry! But you can see them up until June if you're lucky. April in Scandinavia brings spring flowers, and the Aurora Borealis, the "Northern Lights" can be seen up until April as well.

    In the north of England, you can see The Harrogate Spring Flower Show. Serious gardeners might want to attend the Chelsea Flower Show - The Greatest Flower Show on Earth according to Ferne Arfin.

    And let's not forget Ireland. how about planning a Spring trip to Irish National Stud and Japanese Gardens, Tully (County Kildare)? Nothing like studs, gardens and a restaurant to get the old blood flowing. And, as a special bonus in St. Fiachra's Garden you'll get to discover "St. Fiachra, whose statue can be found in a lake. He is the patron saint of gardeners and also helps those struck down with sexually transmitted diseases." You don't want to miss that!

    Of course, when the gardens are going great guns, the spring vegetables can't be far behind. 

  • 03 of 05

    Spring Fruits and Vegetables In European Markets (And Restaurants!)

    spring market in europe
    Michael Duva/Getty Images

    After a long winter of roasted root vegetables, Romans look forward to a bitter green called puntarella, a form of chicory, which is a late winter green that flourishes in Lazio. It's the harbinger of spring, dressed with a little oil and chopped anchovy.

    In Italian spring markets, you'll find many familiar and many unfamiliar vegetables. There will still be artichokes in spring, and they will be inexpensive, but there will be several kinds. Our favorite is the spiny artichokes of Sicily and Sardinia. They've evolved to shoo away the sheep; practically every plant in Sardinia has spines!

    Other oddities include our favorite, agretti, a marsh grass that you saute in a little oil and some garlic, seasoning lightly if at all because it has a saltiness inherent in its place of birth. There are also Cardoons (cardoni in Italian, a relative of the artichoke) and the onion-like bulb in the picture called lampascione, really a specific type of hyacinth bulb that was once ​cucina povera, the cooking of the poor, and now has become quite fashionable as a side dish in Puglia preserved "sottolio" or under oil.

    This is Italy, of course, with which I'm most familiar. But other markets will offer their own unique specialties. The wild strawberries of France come to mind, but even rarer, the strawberries grown in the Aveyron are special and ripen earlier than garden strawberries.

    Ferne Arfin of UK Travel reminds us that "April kicks off a two-month asparagus festival in the Vale of Evesham in Worcestershire in the Cotswolds. White asparagus season in Germany and the north of Europe starts in May.

    Yes, people in Europe to all out to celebrate asparagus, white, green or wild as all get out.

    Greece has much the same spirit of gathering and many of the same spring vegetables as Italy, according to Greece Travel guide deTraci Regula:

    "In Greece there would be some spring horta available - field greens, what yia-yias (grannies) in black with plastic bags are gathering roadside, surprising the inattentive motorist. There's a lot of variety -any of about 80 types - but a lot of that doesn't ever make it to the markets. Wild spinach and wild asparagus and a dandelion-like herb called Zohos will definitely show up on tables or in "spinach" pies (spankopita), though the asparagus is so prized it will usually be served on its own. These are all supposed to be especially nutritious - the wild asparagus is supposed to ensure the conception and birth of healthy male children in particular."

    And don't forget spring lamb. In my neck of the Italian woods, it's not about just any spring lamb, it's about specific geographical zones in which sheep thrive. It's Zeri lamb for us, some of the best lamb I've tasted.

    To take advantage of these unique foods you might not find in restaurants, you need a kitchen. You can get one in most vacation rentals. 

    Let's move on to that fabulous spring light and the angry spring clouds that make that travel photography special.

  • 04 of 05

    Spring Light - A Delight!

    view of mountains and clouds
    © eleonora galli/Getty Images

    Many tourists lug a heavy DSLR around Europe, hoping to capture that perfect image. If you're a landscape photographer, you'll be glad you visited Europe in the offseason.

    It's unlikely you can get a photo like this in summer. We've tried. When the sea warms up and the air temperatures are cooler at night and warmer in the day, a haze forms off the sea--and you'll not see the sea or the city of Carrara nearly as clearly in a picture taken from this distance. Spring and Fall (and even winter) are your best bets.

    Strong overhead sunlight is also the worse kind of light for most pictures. It turns people ghoulish, darkening the eye sockets while blasting the forehead with white light. In spring and fall the "golden hour", the time when the slanting light is warm and inviting and you get that romantic glow in your pictures, occurs earlier in the day, just as you're getting tired from sightseeing rather than when you're at dinner. Better pictures are easier.

    So consider Spring as a season you might want to choose for a vacation in Europe. The pages that follow might provide some incentive--they're some of my favorite pictures taken in springtime.

    Continue to 5 of 5 below.
  • 05 of 05

    Spring Trees - Skeletons as Vacation Picture Props

    picture of trees in a field at sunset
    Ingmar Wesemann/Getty Images

    You can use spring trees to add mystery to a picture like the one above. In summer you wouldn't even see the castle towers, but now they are visible and mysterious, a vision from a horror movie; who's in that tower, shackled to the wall?