B and I are fairly experienced travelers. Between the two of us, we’ve visited dozens and dozens of countries. We should have things figured out, right? Well, nope. On at least five trips, we have inadvertently visited a country during a major holiday. We fell prey to the inexcusable (although unintentional) thought of ‘that’s how it is in America, so it is probably how it is there.’ This post highlights five times we’ve experienced unexpected holidays while traveling. And what we’ll try to do in the future so it doesn’t inadvertently happen again.
May Day in Finland
May Day is the first day of May. And it is a SUPER big deal in some places, like Finland. Which we learned when we tried to visit. Vapuu, as it is known in Finland, is celebrated by university students dressing up in overalls and sailor hats. I’m not exactly sure why, to be honest. But it is pretty cute to see loads of people wearing sailor hats around. The culmination of the event happens when a poor fountain gets covered in soapy bubbles and a DJ does his thing with blaring electronic dance music.
The downside of these festivities is that the market was closed and I was unable to purchase the reindeer skin rug I was coveting the day before. (Additional lesson learned: always buy things if you think you’ll regret not doing it!)
Christmas Week in Germany
I totally recommend spending Christmas in Germany. It is downright magical going to a Christmas market every day. You will have to know a few things though, like that the Germans take the holiday seriously.
We knew we’d be on our own on Christmas day. We didn’t realize we’d have to fend for ourselves for most of the week! B had read up on how everything was closed the day after Christmas (Boxing Day) so we made sure to stockpile food just in case. However, we had spent the previous Christmas vacation in Belgium and thought Germany would be the same and some things would be open. Nope. Bad assumption. It was surprising just how much stuff was closed for several days during the week of Christmas. Germans must just really like spending time with each other, holed up in their homes.
Whit Monday in Denmark
I’ll be honest, I still don’t really understand what Whit Monday is. (It’s the day after Pentecost, another day I’m a little unclear on.) In Denmark, this means stores are closed and a 5K races through downtown Copenhagen. We stumbled upon this holiday on our visit to Denmark and weren’t at all prepared for it. On my list of things to do in Denmark, I really wanted to visit something Viking-ish. Unfortunately, our day to visit the Viking Museum coincided with a holiday and we were out of luck.
Whit Monday also means stores are closed, which was another bummer. Fortunately, the one thing we planned that was open was Trivoli Gardens, an awesome amusement park. I was pleased as punch when I saw lots of the stores that I wanted to visit outside the gardens were inside also, and were open during the holiday. Hooray! I could shop ’til I dropped and then go on a giant swing ride.
St. Rosario in the Azores
B and I booked an AirBnB in a small town in Maia, in the Azore Islands. When we drove into the town, we noticed people standing in the roads. After some illegal one-way road driving, we made it to a public parking spot and opted to just get out and walk to our rental. Good thing we bailed on driving when we did!
We had arrived in town on of the Maia’s local holidays, the celebration of St. Rosario. To celebrate, people had filled the roads with beautiful and intricate flower decorations. There is no way anyone was driving around town. Soon a religious parade came down the road with various groups holding up alters and different bands playing.
After the parade had circled the town (which didn’t take too long, given the size of town), people came by and swept up the flowers and people resumed normal life. We couldn’t have timed it more perfectly to see this unique celebration.
Danish Constitution Day in the Faroe Islands
The Faroe Islands are their own country, but fall under Denmark’s sovereignty. I suppose we didn’t expect them to celebrate Denmark’s constitution, but alas, they do. In the small capital of Torshavn, where we were staying, shops and stores closed in celebration. The Faroes are kind of a fend-for-yourself kind of place, so we were able to cook food at our AirBnB. We were lucky, in that we had already explored Torshavn and checked out everything we wanted on a day that wasn’t Constitution day.
Our celebration of this holiday included exploring the beautiful landscape and scenery as we drove around the islands. I’m not sure if the Faroese have other celebrations, other than closing down stores. To be honest, we were always a little confused as to where people where, even when it wasn’t a holiday. The holiday just made it feel even more ghost town-ish.
How to Prepare for Unexpected Holidays
It seems a bit cheeky to offer advice when we’ve just laid out our unexpected holidays while traveling failures. But we can all strive to be better travelers. So in the future, B and I will be more diligent at looking into future destination’s holidays.
The best way to learn about your destination is to research. Look online, there are lots of websites dedicated to listing out holidays in different countries. Wikipedia does a fine job of listing all the countries, but if you know where you are going you can cull that further. I also like to look in guide books, as they can not only list the holidays, but also what to expect.
How to Cope with Unexpected Holidays
Even if you do your research, sometimes you are going to be caught unaware. For example, there is no website for the tiny town we were visiting in the Azores. And even if there was, it certainly wouldn’t be in English. So how do you cope? Well, you’ll need to be prepared for the most important things.
Always have some food on hand. If you are staying at an AirBnB, this is much easier as you can pick things up at a grocery market. If you are in a hotel, it might not be a well rounded meal, but keeping snacks handy will ease a crisis. When B and I travel, we often end up with grocery bags of food we’ve picked up along the way. The night before we leave we have to eat our way through our stockpile.
Ask the locals
In the Faroes we saw some signs on doors about holiday hours. When we found a Faroese shopkeeper who spoke English, we could ask her about what was going on. If you are at a hotel, you can ask your concierge about what will be opened/closed and how to get around.
Roll with it
Lots of unexpected things happen when you travel. While there will inevitably be some disappointments and surprises along the way, it doesn’t have to be the end of the world. During the Vapuu festival in Finland, we were unable to go shopping. Yes, that was sad, but in the long run, our strange memories of that holiday will last much longer than the thing I was going to buy.
I have no doubt we will stumble upon unexpected holidays while traveling in the future. It will force us to change our plans and adapt. But we will also get some amazing pictures and stories about how we were lucky enough to experience how people in those countries celebrate their holidays.