Even before leaving for study abroad, I was ecstatic about the idea of experiencing the holiday season in Europe. As someone who prefers summertime, the holiday festivities are always a glimmer of joy in an otherwise colder, greyer landscape. I am also well aware of the fact that Europe is said to be home to some of the most magical cities to visit during Christmas. Fortunately, I happened to do most of my traveling in December—trips are cheaper to buy further out, and I wanted to avoid my busy midterm schedule in November. In the last few weeks of my program, I visited Rome, Florence, Brussels, Amsterdam, and Paris. In this blog, I discuss my three favorite cities to experience the holiday festivities.
Experiencing Madrid during the holiday season is another reason I’m glad to have studied abroad during the fall semester. Since Madrid is my home city, I got to know most of the main Christmas attractions. Plaza Mayor transforms into the city’s most popular Christmas Market. Plaza de España becomes home to a smaller market, and one of the most popular ice skating rinks in the city. Lights are strung up across the city, and Christmas trees are put up in nearly every plaza, primarily Puerta del Sol, Plaza Mayor, and Plaza de Oriente. Trees and foliage in the Royal Botanical Gardens and Retiro Park are lit up in fantastical displays of holiday lights. A gigantic light ball, weighing seven tons, appears on Gran Via, right in front of the Metropolis building. The Spanish equivalent of April Fool’s Day, El Día de los Santos Inocentes (Day of the Holy Innocents), is observed on December 28. Due to this, many of the Christmas markets are filled with prank items and assorted toys. There is also a Christmas bus that, for just five euros, takes you all across the city to see every Christmas attraction and holiday light display.
Brussels is another city that I am grateful to have visited in the wintertime. The Grand Place (or Grote Markt) is the central plaza in Brussels. It’s surrounded by beautifully intricate gilded buildings, and is stunning any time of year. But in the winter there is a holiday music and light show where the buildings are lit up in different colors, running every hour on the hour starting at 5 p.m. In the plaza, there is also a huge Christmas Tree and Nativity Scene. The Brussels Christmas Market is another quintessential European Christmas experience. There are stalls selling food and drinks and all kinds of holiday accessories. A Ferris wheel, ice skating rink, merry-go-round and other attractions accompany the market and there are holiday lights strung up across the city.
On my last night in Paris, I was walking back from Palais Garnier along Av. de l'Opéra, when the Paris Ferris wheel caught my eye. Lit up against the pale, sun-setting sky, the Ferris Wheel rose tall in the distance. With no other obligations for my last few hours, I decided to change course and wander closer to the “Roue de Paris.” As I made my way towards the Ferris Wheel, I unknowingly stumbled upon the most popular Christmas Market in all of Paris: La Magie de Noël (“The Magic of Christmas”) at Tuileries Garden. In fact, La Magie de Noël is even more than a market, with dozens of Christmas-themed amusement park rides, including bumper cars, carousels, swings, funhouses, and more. There’s also an ice skating rink, and dozens of traditional Christmas-market stands, selling hot wine, macaroons, chocolate, soup, hot chocolate, and dozens of holiday sweets. Happening across the Paris Christmas market is one of the most serendipitous moments I can remember, and one of my most memorable experiences of my entire study abroad.
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<p>Hello! My name is Kyla Hunter and I am a rising junior at Duke University studying Mechanical Engineering, with a focus on Energy & Environment. Although I was born in Princeton, New Jersey, bouncing around between different states as a child was the beginning of my interest in exploring new settings and meeting new people. I have long dreamed of studying abroad and am thrilled to be participating in the IES - Engineering, Math & Science Program in Madrid this fall. On campus, I am a Residential Assistant for first-year students and a tour guide for the School of Engineering. In my free time, I can often be found drawing in my sketchbook or playing the piano in the common room. I look forward to sharing some of my experiences as I navigate new cultural, social, and academic endeavors in Spain!</p>