Head to Europe for a late fall getaway and, as a bonus, you might get a great head start on your holiday shopping. It's far less crowded than in summer, flights are cheaper, and with a holiday gift list in hand, you can pass on the junky souvenirs and buy some really nice things in good conscience.
I have a job that doesn’t allow for summer vacations, so I travel in the fall. And I’m not talking about September and October. I’m talking about the time just before or just after Thanksgiving.
I’ve discovered that this is a good time to go to Europe. It’s far less crowded than in summer, flights are cheaper (I’ve never paid more than $500 round trip), the hotels and B&B’s aren’t all booked, and you get to see more of the local people (in other words, you don’t always find yourself seated next to fellow Americans wherever you go).
Sure, the days are shorter and the attractions are sometimes closed. And the weather can be “iffy” (though it can also be surprisingly glorious). But iffy weather isn’t always a bad thing; it gives you a good excuse to enjoy a warm pub, or linger over a bottle of wine, or spend a whole day exploring museums.
Another benefit of fall travel is that it comes right before the holidays, a time when you really do need to shop. In fall, you can pass on the junky souvenirs and buy some nice gifts in good conscience. I’ve found some truly wonderful things on fall shopping trips, and they weren’t that expensive (if you discount the airfare). Moreover, they make great gifts. Just being able to say, “Oh, I picked that up for you in Sorrento” — or in Dublin, or in Paris — adds a certain cachet to any present.
Mind you, I don’t head to Europe just to shop. Nor do I shop the whole time I’m there. Buying presents is something that just happens as I walk through cities and towns on my way from one sight to another. I can’t help myself. Every window, every little shop, every street has its allure. As I browse, I get a true feel for the area I’m visiting. And I almost always see something that someone on my gift list would love.
WHEN IN ROME
Rome is a perfect example.
I once wandered over to see the Spanish Steps. The steps were littered with people, and I was trying hard not to step on them, yet it was nice to be with the milling crowd. I discovered shortly that many of the people were on their way to shop, for just below the Spanish Steps is the exclusive shopping street Via Condotti. The street is a sight in itself. For example, people-watching here turns up glamorous furs and designer clothes on both adults and children.
I found a great gift on a narrow street right off the main shopping thoroughfare. Italians are known for enjoying food and dining, and their kitchen stores are amazing. This one offered heavy stainless-steel cutlery, modern dinnerware and many interesting kitchen items. My companion, an accomplished cook, was drawn like a moth to a flame.
We found olieris, cruets for dispensing olive oil, with curved-top stoppers that somehow reminded us of chemistry labs. They are perfect for drizzling oil on salads or on pasta. You’d think they’d be everywhere, but we’ve only seen them in Italy and Spain — and now in the kitchens of a daughter and friends (and in my own kitchen, of course).
Some Italian stores are so tiny they’re intimidating. But the quality of the merchandise is often very high, so just pluck up your nerve and go in. I chanced upon a baby clothes store in Naples no bigger than a walk-in closet. European baby clothes seem to be made of finer fabric than we get in the States, and the window display was promising, so I went in. The store’s inventory was arranged on shelves that reached all the way up to the 12-foot ceiling; a sliding ladder provided access to hard-to-reach items. After much hand gesturing to establish the age of the baby I was buying for, the clerk painstakingly got down at least 20 outfits, in the end producing just what I wanted.
Italian cities often close their shopping streets to motorized traffic, which makes me think of what streets were like in ancient times, when many of these thoroughfares were first built. One of my favorites - and it happens to be Europe’s oldest pedestrian shopping street - is Via Mazzini in Verona.
Head there after touring the supposed palazzo of Juliet, which is furnished as it might have been during the era of the Montagues and Capulets. Stepping out on the balcony overlooking the small, private courtyard makes Shakespeare come alive and puts you in a romantic mood (provided you ignore the ubiquitous Italian schoolchildren milling about below). While you may not find your Romeo here, the Via Mazzini and Verona’s nearby market square, the Piazza Erbe, do offer a variety of specialty shops where you might find a gift for that special person in your life. The jewelry is especially nice.
GIFTS NEW AND DIFFERENT
While I can’t really afford most of the clothes in stores along Via Condotti, at Harrods, or in the chic shops of the Mercerie in Venice, these are wonderful places for spotting trends. New fashions are on view here at least a year before they hit the States. My grown daughters love the clothes I find for them in Europe, because then they are ahead of the curve.
Beribboned blouses were a big hit two years ago; I found them in the Italian chain store Coin while on a day trip in Sorrento. In London last winter, I couldn’t bring myself to buy my daughter one of the mod-style dresses that are making a comeback (once was enough!), but I did notice that pink was still in style and orange appeared to be the trendy new color.
If up-and-coming art is your thing, check out the street artists, who abound in cities like Paris, Rome and Venice — almost everywhere in Europe, in fact. Look for them outside museums or at scenic attractions (they’ll definitely be looking for you). Buy what you like, and remember that this is the lean time of year for the artists, so you can negotiate. You’re sure to get some bargains: two for one, three for one — sometimes better. If they like you, they’ll throw in a painting or two just for good measure.
European shopkeepers have a flair for presentation, too. Even the tiniest stores provide cute little boxes for earrings, bracelets, hairpins and other small gifts — the kind that are easier to pack than a painting.
SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE
No matter where you go — big town or small village — you can find gifts that will thrill a friend or relative. Amsterdam yielded a find that I have never seen in America and still wonder why: an insulated metal teapot for my tea-drinking friends (and for me). It practically called to me from the window of an ordinary store in a line of grocers, hardware sellers, and butchers on the way to a favorite pub along the Prinsengracht Canal.
Paris, the City of Light, is even more brilliant during the holidays. After climbing to the top of the Arc de Triomphe to view the brilliantly festooned Avenue des Champs-Elysées, I joined thousands of Parisians and shopped my way under the lights.
A late-evening stroll along the Seine took me past big stores like Habitat and La Samarataine, which had aromatic food stalls set up outside to entice passers-by. There are no discernable shopping hours in Paris, and many stores are open well past 10 p.m. But you may need to start shopping early; department stores like Le Printemps and Galleries Lafayette require almost a day in themselves.
Favorite finds include tins of pâté and jars of exotic mustards (from the food stalls), but my biggest purchase came from small bookstore that carried English editions and unique coffee-table books. I picked up a “French Impressionist Cats” book for a cat- and art-loving friend. It featured all the famous paintings I had just viewed at the Musée d’Orsay — reproduced beautifully, but with cats instead of people.
In London, the holiday season kicks off at 8 a.m. on November 1, when Father Christmas shows up at Harrods. Rooms throughout the store are dedicated to unusual holiday gift ideas or decorations. The Harrods label on any food item makes it a credible gift; I got some specialty mustard and mint sauce for friends. Earlier in the trip I had purchased Christmas tea and coffee at Betty’s Café, a delightful tearoom in York in northern England.
London abounds with shopping districts like Knightsbridge (Harrods, Sloane Street), Oxford Street and Covent Garden, which all gear up for the holiday season. My favorite shopping place is Burlington Arcade, off Piccadilly Road, where a wide variety of high-style and cozy shops offer their wares under one roof. It’s wonderful to stroll through here, especially if it’s cold and rainy (which it often is in November and December in London). Built in 1819, Burlington Arcade still has top-hatted attendants, called “beadles.”
RELIVING YOUR TRIP
The best part of buying holiday gifts in Europe is that each one brings back fond memories when it is opened, worn, used, eaten, or displayed.
I get to relive my trips each time I see that watercolor of Venice on my son’s wall, or when a friend tells me she served the Parisian pâté at a dinner party, or when my daughter tells me the sweater I bought her in Italy was perfect for a recent night out.
Of course, I don’t remember the actual shopping. Seeing my gifts makes me remember the places — where and what I ate, the historic or new sights I saw, the museums I visited, the people I talked to or just observed — all the glorious parts of Europe that I love, in between the rounds of shopping.