"Happy New Year!!" Personal Page by SWFC_Fan
I'd never particularly enjoyed New Year's Eve in the UK. The 31st of December meant overcrowded pubs, inflated admission prices, long taxi queues and masses of drunken revellers. Or, in later years, it tended to mean a few cans of beer in front of the TV, struggling to stay awake to see Big Ben strike midnight and sloping off to bed as soon as the last note of Auld Lang Syne had been struck.
That all changed in 2007 when I was struck by the blindingly obvious; I was on vacation from work for a week or two and, with Christmas celebrated and Boxing Day football fixture attended, there was no need for me to stay in the UK any longer than necessary! The Christmas chocolates would still be there waiting for me when I returned home in January of the following year!
So, I resolved to celebrate the turning of the years somewhere different each year. Call it a "New Year's Resolution" if you like...only this is one that I intend to keep! This is how things are going so far...
2007/08 Reykjavik, Iceland
Visiting Reykjavik for New Year was a relatively late decision that my friend and I took in December of 2007. As such, we were stung with expensive flights and accommodation costs.
It also meant that we hadn't fully researched what to do on New Years Eve. We knew that we should make our way to Hallgrimskirkja in the run up to midnight, to see the clock strike 12 and to enjoy panoramic views of fireworks being let off all over the city.
But what would we do before the midnight celebrations? I'd read that Icelandic people celebrate New Year with family and friends at "Brenna" bonfires that are lit throughout the city. I'd seen tour operators offering trips to these bonfires, giving us the chance to celebrate with the locals. That sounded a bit too touristy for my liking though; I was sure that we could find a Brenna bonfire ourselves and cut out the (expensive!) middle man.
How wrong I was! And how wrong the guy on reception at our guesthouse was. He had suggested that if we head down to "the beach" we should have no problems finding a bonfire. We headed out around 7 or 8pm and walked towards the seafront, braving the bitterly cold sea air. There was no sign of smoke, no sign of fire...
We gave up our search and made our way into the eerily quiet city centre. Passing by dozens of closed restaurants and pubs we began to question whether we should have booked ourselves on an organised Brenna bonfire trip after all!
Such thoughts were reinforced when a short while later we found ourselves sitting at the bar in one of the few open pubs – Enski Barinn ("English Pub") – surrounded by other tourists. This had the potential to be like a New Year's Eve back home...except we were paying 700Kr (£6) for a pint of beer!
We drank slowly as we watched an increasingly drunken local man trying his luck on the "wheel of fortune" game behind the bar. Each spin cost him 1,500 Kr (about £12.50) and he was paying for 3 spins at a time. Sometimes he would lose, sometimes he would win a quantity of beers or shots of spirits. Each time he was successful, he would distribute the drinks to other patrons. When he won 8 pints of beer, he instructed the barman to pass two of them to my friend and I. We thanked him, and he slurred that he didn't even like beer. This probably wasn't the right game for him!
Shortly after 11pm, we left the bar and climbed the hill to Hallgrimskirkja church. Reykjavik was much busier now; crowds were forming, the atmosphere was buzzing and many people were carrying either fireworks or bottles of alcohol with them.
The firework display that marked the end of 2007 was spectacular! Our decision to choose Reykjavik as our New Year destination was well and truly vindicated. Fireworks were being set off throughout the city...and we were in the perfect position to see them all!
As the breathtaking display of pyrotechnics died down, the crowds began to make their way back down the hill towards the centre of town. While Reykjavik had been quiet in the last few hours of 2007, it was anything but quiet in the opening hours of 2008. Bars were now open, crowds were flooding the streets and the atmosphere was a lively and jovial one. We enjoyed a few more beers and a few shots of the local Brennivin and Opal liquors, before returning to our guesthouse in the early hours of the morning.
2008/09 Bratislava, Slovakia
We failed to learn from the previous year's mistake and again left our flight and accommodation bookings much later than we should have.
My friend and I eventually settled on Bratislava as our destination of choice to see out 2008 and see in 2009.
Bratislava's New Year celebrations had a good reputation and carried a tagline of "Welcome to Partyslavia". This year, however, the tagline could just as easily have been "New Year, New Currency" for Slovakia was ditching the Koruna and adopting the Euro on 1st January 2009. The new currency seemed to be overshadowing the new year and even the midnight countdown graphic featured a large, rotating, neon Euro symbol.
In the early evening, Bratislava was certainly much livelier than Reykjavik had been at the same time the previous year. Live bands were performing on a stage in Hlavne namestie (the Old Town square) and a DJ was playing music from another stage to thousands of revellers in nearby Hviezdoslavovo square. There were food stalls selling burgers and hotdogs and drink stalls serving beers and cups of mulled wine.
It was bitterly cold (minus 6C), but we barely noticed as we got caught up in the New Year party atmosphere. Most of the streets in the Old Town were filled with people and moving between the two aforementioned squares, as we kept doing throughout the evening, meant battling slowly through a mass of bodies.
As midnight approached we followed the crowds as they made their way to the banks of the River Danube in anticipation of the New Year countdown and the ensuing firework display. When midnight struck, the skies lit up and we were treated to a firework display that was almost as spectacular as the one we had witnessed in Reykjavik 365 days earlier.
2009/10 Marrakech, Morocco
This was the first New Year's Eve that my girlfriend and I would be spending together, so we wanted to make it a special one. We booked our flights months in advance, before the prices skyrocketed, and secured a booking in a traditional riad close to Marrakech's famous Djemaa el-Fna square.
Unlike the previous two years, this was the first time I'd be celebrating New Year in warmer climes than the UK. Daytime temperatures were close to 20C and there was plenty of winter sunshine for us to enjoy.
We spent our days in the run up to New Year eating, drinking and generally soaking up the atmosphere around Djemaa el Fna and the surrounding labyrinthine streets of the medina. I knew in my mind where I wanted to be when the clock struck midnight on 31st December, and that was standing at one of the tea carts in Djemaa el Fna with a glass of strong ginseng and ginger tea and surrounded by the frenetic activity of one of the world's most bustling squares. Restaurants and hotels were hosting special events, with lavish set menus, dance shows and sparkling champagne, but I wanted to be out on the streets experiencing a more authentic end to the year.
On New Year's Eve, we booked ourselves in for a hammam in the basement of our riad. It seemed like a symbolic way to end the year, by washing away the dirt of 2009 and starting 2010 with a renewed freshness. We stripped to our swimwear as a Moroccan lady threw buckets of hot water over us and scrubbed us clean.
With all those toxins sweated out, we promptly replenished them by sharing a bottle of wine in the room of our riad before heading out to eat in Djemaa el Fna square. The square was bustling and busy, noisy and atmospheric, with sights, sounds and smells attacking the senses. This had nothing to do with it being New Year's Eve though; Djemaa el Fna is like that every night of the year!
We visited a rooftop cafe to enjoy glasses of mint tea and to take photos of the square in all its glory, before returning to ground level as midnight approached. We took up our positions at one of the tea carts and, with glasses of tea in hand, awaited the chimes of midnight. Except, there were no chimes. There was no countdown. There was no firework display. A few muted cheers and clinking of glasses amongst other tourists was the only signal that 2010 was upon us.
Within minutes, the food stalls began to close and the square began to empty. It was just another night on Djemaa el Fna. As New Year celebrations go, this one was low key...but I enjoyed it that way!
2010/11 Munich, Germany
I'd seen videos of Munich's notorious New Year celebrations on Youtube...and I wanted to be a part of them! Amateur footage showed the central Marienplatz square looking like a war zone amidst a series of bright flashes and loud bangs. As firework displays go, this one looked spectacular! It would certainly be a contrast to the previous year's more sedate celebrations in Marrakech.
So, we booked our flights and accommodation in the summer and looked forward to ending 2010 in Bavaria.
I liked Munich immediately. The city just seems to have been designed with enjoyment in mind; whether that be drinking large steins of beer and devouring plates of pork knuckle and bratwurst in atmospheric beer halls or enjoying the green open space of the Englischergarten.
Temperatures were around freezing and there were occasional snow showers throughout our stay.
We didn't have any real plans for New Year's Eve itself, other than to ensure we were at Marienplatz for the midnight fireworks.
With no restaurant reservation in place, we were fortunate to get the last table at "Shanghai" Chinese restaurant and we enjoyed a nice meal before heading out into the cold night.
We passed through Marienplatz and the atmosphere was already getting a bit "edgy". Fireworks were already being let off and, in some cases, thrown across the square to startle unsuspecting passers-by.
We made our way to Isartor and found a lively party taking place. It was in fact "die grosste Feuerzangen Bowle der Welt", or the "world's largest burnt punch event"! We warmed ourselves up with mugs of burnt punch (hot red wine and rum), before heading back to Marienplatz.
Things were really starting to hot up in Marienplatz as 2010 drew to a close. Fireworks were flying; some were being fired towards surrounding buildings, some were being thrown towards crowds of people causing them to scatter and some were being placed on the roads causing passing vehicles to stop for their own safety. We should probably have read the warning signs and retreated to somewhere safer, but we were keen not to miss out on the midnight celebrations.
As midnight approached, two fire engines positioned themselves in the centre of Marienplatz. The purpose of this was apparently two-fold; on the one hand it was presumably a safety measure, but on the other hand, it seems they were there to sound their sirens at midnight to signal the end of the year. As the sirens rang out, the fireworks flew, the sky flashed and the air was thick with smoke. Loud bangs filled the air for several minutes and we were living the reality of the scenes we'd watched on Youtube, feeling mixed emotions of excitement and fear. There was no control or organisation to the firework display. People had simply brought their own fireworks along and were firing them off wherever they saw fit, often in the direction of other people, causing panic as crowds attempted to avoid an approaching rocket!
The chaos continued as we made our way back to the S-Bahn station and Emma was struck on the thigh by a firework. It hit her with such a force that she thought it was still lodged in her leg or had even passed right through it. Thankfully, it hadn't. But it had caused severe swelling which developed into a painful bruise that took several months to disappear.
It was a horrible start to 2011, but thanks to the 1 hour time difference between Germany and the UK, we decided to banish the accident to the dying stages of 2010!
2011/12 Lisbon, Portugal
Understandably, after the previous year's painful events in Munich, Emma was keen that our next New Year celebration should be somewhere a little safer!
I'd visisted Lisbon in March 2011 and was keen to make a return visit, so I suggested it to Emma and we invited her parents along.
We booked our flights and accommodation several months in advance to avoid being stung by New Year price rises.
Portugal, like much of Europe, was in the middle of an economic crisis as 2011 came to an end. Reports in the local newspapers explained that Lisbon's budget for Christmas decorations and New Year fireworks was a mere fraction of what it has been in previous years. It showed. Christmas trees and fairy lights were a rare sight.
We spent New Year's Eve day at Parque das Nacoes; an area of parkland, entertainment venues, a shopping mall and a marina near the Vasco da Gama bridge. This was one of the venues that was advertising a spectacular firework display to mark the start of 2012. I had considered staying there to see in the New Year, but decided there would probably be a better atmosphere in the city centre.
I struggled to find much official information online about Lisbon's 2012 New Year celebrations, but from what I could see from previous years, it seemed that the best places to watch the fireworks were either Praca do Comercio on the banks of the River Tagus in the centre of Lisbon or Torre de Belem, several kilometres further along the river in the suburb of Belem. We opted for the former, as getting back from Belem might prove difficult if the trams stopped running at midnight.
Lisbon city centre in the early evening had the same eerie quietness to it that Reykjavik had had four years previous. There were more bars and restaurants open than there had been in Reykjavik, but the streets were much quieter than I had expected; certainly much quieter than they had been in either Bratislava or Munich in previous years. I'd read reports of street theatre performances taking place around metro stations on New Year's Eve, but there were no such signs of this around the stations at Baixa-Chiado, Restauradores or Rossio.
We first passed through Praca do Comercio at around 8pm and there were no signs at all that any celebrations would take place there later. There were no food and drink stalls, there were very few people around. We went for a meal at "Roman's" Italian restaurant on Avenida Liberdade – they'd hiked their prices up and were offering a special New Year menu with champagne included.
By 10pm, Praca do Comercio was only a little busier. I was starting to worry that there would be nothing to see come midnight. To kill some time, we walked into the Alfama district. There's a cracking little bar there, "Ginja d'Alfama", a hole-in-the-wall bar that has become my favourite watering hole in Lisbon, and we decided to drop in for a drink. Alas, it was closed when we arrived, so instead we enjoyed a pleasant stroll through Alfama, passing busy Fado clubs, on our way back to Praca do Comercio.
We sat on the wall by the river, looking down towards the 25 de Abril Bridge and Belem. From 11pm, the crowds started to increase significantly and we were soon glad that we had taken up prime positions on the riverside wall.
By midnight, the square was crowded. We were either going to be treated to a firework display, or we'd all been duped by Internet forum postings into believing that this was the place to be at midnight!
Thankfully it was the former. Firework displays took place at Belem and across the river on the opposite banks of the Tagus. We were in a prime position to see both displays and, much to Emma's delight, we were watching them from a distance where there was no possibility of being hit! The fireworks lasted for about 10 minutes. They were much lower key than the displays in Reykjavik, Bratislava and Munich in previous years – but a few hours earlier I hadn't even been expecting that much!
2012/13 Bilbao, Spain
It's July 2012, the rain is lashing against the windows as we endure another wet British summer and our attentions are turning towards our end of year trip. We scan the various flight search engines looking for cheap flights and are buoyed by the fact that the fares still look very reasonable for New Year.
We only have 5 days, so we don't want to go too far afield. We consider Warsaw (an exciting capital, but perhaps a little cold? Emma still has painful memories of a winter weekend we spent in Gdansk where temperatures dipped to minus 28 Celsius!). We consider Porto (warmer than Warsaw, but we spent last New Year in Portugal, so we'd like a change this year). We consider a host of German cities that can be reached cheaply on Lufthansa flights (Berlin, Hamburg, Dresden, Leipzig...) and a variety of more southerly destinations where the sun is more likely to shine (Valletta, Larnaca, Valencia, Seville...).
After much deliberation, we take the plunge and book easyJet flights to Bilbao...so we will end 2012 in the Basque Country!
We are looking forward to a crawl through the city's pintxos bars, an exploration of the Guggenheim Museum and a visit to the seaside town of San Sebastian.
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