Whether or not you’re a shopper (and I can’t say that I am, particularly), I do love me some good travel mementos. However, I’m not talking about the rubbish you see at the average stand aimed at tourists who barely know where they are (I’ll never forget the joints hawking spangly Mexican sombreros at the Leaning Tower of Pisa).
Whether you’re shopping for yourself or others, there are certain items that will always be worth seeking out. Paintings and other kinds of art are a prime example – whether charming watercolours from the sidewalk artists of Montmartre in Paris or Prague‘s Charles Bridge, or folkloric renderings from the hills of Guatemala or Peru or the beaches of the Dominican Republic. Antiques are another – and they don’t have to be of the pricey variety, either. Local music recordings (though in the era of the MP3 and streaming music, this is less special than it used to be). And of course food and drink are always popular, but these of course get used up – and in some cases (such as some kinds of meats and cheeses) you’re not allowed to bring them through home-country customs.
In any case, here are just a few of my favourite specialities from Iberia’s top destinations. We must perforce start in Spain, of course. Plates, fans, and various other items decorated with intricate damascening (damasquinado, top) – gold or silver inlayed onto an dark background – are characteristic of Toledo; while nearby Talavera de la Reina has long been famous for its ceramics (various other regions of Spain have their own ceramics traditions, from Asturias to Valencia). Spain is also known for its leatherwork, from shoes to belts to jackets. For something to put on your walls, how about a bullfighting or flamenco poster, recent or vintage?
Edibles and potables include saffron (azafrán, above right), and a wide variety of tremendous tipples which aren’t necessarily exported from the country’s various wine regions (most especially its sherries from Jerez). There are also many delicious olive oils that are not exported. And finally, a personal favourite of mine is sea salt. Many of the above products can be found in shops in Madrid, Barcelona, as well as in other larger cities. OK, now on to elsewhere on the continent…
France So many French products are so widely available across le monde these days that it’s not easy to find truly meaningful, unique items in situ. But bespoke perfume and botanicals would be one of them, blended on the spot. If you happen to be down in Biarritz or elsewhere in the French Basque country, pick up a fine wool beret to cut a rakish figure back home. Similarly, if you get cold winters where you live, a fisherman’s sweater from Brittany will keep you stylishly toasty. Linens from Provence are delightful, and the selection (and often the prices) are much better here than you’ll find at home. Paris fashion of course I don’t have to tell you about (and there are plenty of options for haute couture savings, by the way, including dépôts ventes and destockages). And of course if you don’t live in a city with a shop that sells macarons, a stop in a shop like La Durée in Paris is always deliciously recommendable.
Germany Well, if you ever wanted to own a cuckoo clock, here’s your chance to find perhaps the best selection on earth – knock yourself out. Slightly more portable and affordable, beer steins are also quintessentially German, and make a colourful addition to your curio shelf. I could suggest lederhosen and dirndls as well, but really – the chances of most of you ever wearing such things back home except perhaps on Halloween are pretty minimal. Speaking of seasonal holidays, Germany has a very well developed Christmas decorations and crafts tradition (especially beginning in the fall, but also year round in some shops in some cities). Finally and less traditionally, of course, there are still wee, souvenir-size chunks of the Berlin Wall floating around (so to speak), sometimes even nicely packaged in lucite and everything.
Italy My favourite souvenirs come from Venice, of course – those would be Murano glass, as well as its graceful, often dramatic Carnival masks, and Burano lace tablecloths, dresses, and other household items and garments. Faenza pottery is the country’s most famous ceramics, originating in the city of the same name in Emilia-Romagna. Here, too, you’ll find some of that legendary Italian fashion (up north outside Milan there are some outlets that can get you smartly attired at a fraction of the stratospheric prices on, say, Milan’s Via della Spiga and Rome‘s Via Condotti. Keep an eye out for the great Italian wines, too, that you won’t see exported.
Morocco I know this country across the Strait of Gibraltar isn’t Europe, but I include it because many visitors to Spain pop over here, and this is one exotic place to go shopping as well as touring. Berber carpets, rugs, kilims, and blankets are marvelous choices here (I own a couple myself), but the souks and shops of various cities and towns also sell a wide variety of crafts in all price ranges. Top stuff to look for includes leatherwork (one particularly characteristic local item are babouches, colourful leather slippers). Metalwork items, especially in copper and brass, and often with ornate designs, include trays, lanterns, and frames. Silverwork and silvery jewelry is also big. Especially in Essaouira and relatively nearby Marrakesh, look for gorgeous polished thuya wood items.
Netherlands Top of my list here is Delftware, that classic blue-and-white glazed pottery – and since this is such as small country, unless you’re really racing through, chances are you could get over to the eponymous and lovely canal city of Delft to get some right at the factory (if not, it’s sold elsewhere, of course). And stereotypical as it may seem, the Dutch do indeed love their tulips, and if you’re a gardener or flower-lover, you can pick up some tulip bulbs here that will bloom into varieties you’re unlikely to see at home, bringing back travel memories down the road. If you want to bring back something a little unusual for your home wet bar, consider a bottle of local jenever, the juniper-flavoured national tipple similar to gin. And finally, yes, you could always buy a pair of wooden shoes, if you’d like to hang them on the wall. But trust me, you won’t want to wear them grocery shopping.
Portugal Spain’s next-door neighbour is of course famous for its ceramics, and especially its azulejos, glazed tiles from the original blue-and-white to gorgeous multicolour extravaganzas, from individual pieces to entire murals. Wines are also big (especially port, which originates in the eponymous northern city of Porto, and a wide variety of the young wine known as vinho verde, which is largely not exported). So is olive oil – of which, again, you won’t find much Portuguese-branded product beyond the borders, but the quality can be exquisite. Finally, one final quirky item here is accessories such as handbags made from cork, of which Portugal is the world’s single largest producer.
Whew, I am totally all shopped out for now! But there’s more to come: in my next post I cover the Americas.
In the meantime, what have I left out, and what are your favourite souvenirs from your favourite places?