Are you as adventurous as this Nordic couple at Christmas?

They say there’s no place like home but there’s also no place like Nairobi. So why celebrate Christmas in the same place every year when you can spend it exploring somewhere new?

Are you as adventurous as this Nordic couple at Christmas?
Photo: Thorunn Bjarnadottir and Sindri Sigurdsson

Thorunn Bjarnadottir is a travel aficionado. The Icelander has spent the better part of the last 25 years living between Scandinavia, Africa and the United States. Moving around the world is second nature to Thorunn, whose mother works in development aid for the Icelandic ministry.

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“My mum has been dragging me around since I was a small kid,” she tells The Local. “Every couple of years I’m used to being in some new place!”

Despite the regular upheaval, she “wouldn’t change it for anything” and has herself relocated to New York and Stockholm, where she currently lives. Growing up, Thorunn and her mother would often spend Christmas in some far-flung place – Yuletide abroad has become “a thing” which Thorunn’s fiancé Sindri Sigurdsson has also embraced.

For Sindri, the best part of spending Christmas abroad is discovering how different cultures celebrate and gaining new perspective on the holiday.

Photo: Thorunn Bjarnadottir and Sindri Sigurdsson

“Last time we were in Malawi for Christmas, we went to a safari park for a couple of days,” he recalls. “We spent Christmas Day in the bush, out in nature. The locals put on a party which everyone could join. There was dancing and singing, it was quite different coming from Iceland!”

This year will be the couple’s second Christmas trip to Malawi and their third abroad, having spent Christmas 2015 in Mozambique. Thorunn has also spent the festive period in Namibia, Uganda, Cape Town, New York and, of course, Iceland, where the couple celebrate every other year.

Christmas in Cape Town

Of all the cities to spend Christmas, Thorunn says Cape Town is her favourite. The coastal city in South Africa has it all: an abundance of nature, a mix of African and European culture and more once-in-a-lifetime activities than you can shake a stick at.

Read more about Cape Town in Lufthansa’s travel guide

Photo: Thorunn and Sindri deep sea diving

“I’ve spent a couple of Christmases in Cape Town. It’s beautiful! You get a nice mix of African culture but it’s also very European so you have vineyards, and it’s very modern with everything in the city. You can go swimming, take a sunset cruise, see African animals, see real township life. One time I went swimming with penguins!”

Thorunn and Sindri will complete their upcoming Christmas trip with a short but eventful stopover in Nairobi followed by a romantic day in Paris to celebrate their anniversary. 

Read more about Paris in Lufthansa’s travel guide

With just 18 hours in Nairobi, Thorunn has meticulously planned every minute so they don’t waste a moment.

“There’s a safari park attached to the city so it’s really close to get to,” she explains. “Somebody will pick us up at the airport, take us for safari then take us to an elephant orphanage. Then we’ll go to a giraffe centre where you get closer interaction with the animals, before having some lunch at a local place where we can also buy some traditional items.”

Photo: Thorunn on safari

Christmas traditions

Even Scrooges can’t help but feel somewhat attached to their local Christmas traditions. But spending Christmas abroad doesn’t mean abandoning them entirely. And besides, says Thorunn, it comes with other perks.

“Initially we would bring food with us and try to make it as ‘normal’ as possible. But you would always have sunshine and a different climate than you would otherwise have in Iceland. It’s still festive but it’s quite nice to wear a dress and not trudge through snow in your Christmas outfit!”

Thorunn, Sindri (and Thorunn’s mum) still celebrate Icelandic Christmas on the 24th, opening presents and gathering around the table for a family meal. However, they’re not against experimenting with new Christmas customs – even traditions that originate half the world away.

“Last year we did make quite a significant deviation,” recalls Thorunn. “Icelandic Christmas is on the 24th so we opened presents that evening but instead of making a big deal of cooking dinner, we decided to make it a Japanese Christmas and ordered KFC!”

Dreaming of a white Christmas

Thorunn appreciates the merits of a warm Christmas, but she’s had her fair share of white ones too. In her native Iceland, but also New York where she was based in 2008. She might not have swum with penguins or taken many sunset cruises, but the Big Apple is among the most magical places to spend Christmas.

Photo: Thorunn in New York City

“That year my mother was in Iceland so she came to visit me for Christmas and New Year. It was -14 degrees but there are so many Christmas lights and so many people! It’s really, really festive.”

Read more about New York in Lufthansa’s travel guide

Thorunn and Sindri agree that every Christmas spent abroad is unique but, as the old maxim goes, absence makes the heart grow fonder.

“Once you go somewhere different, the next year you appreciate Christmas ‘at home’ more,” says Sindri. “It refreshes your holiday spirit.”

We’ve partnered with Lufthansa to launch a group for travel fans across Europe. Members can share stories, exchange travel tips and ask #WhereToNext? Join now to find out about weekly flight voucher giveaways and a big surprise in the new year.

This article was produced by The Local Creative Studio and sponsored by Lufthansa. Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.


IN IMAGES: Spain’s ‘scrap cathedral’ lives on after creator’s death

For over 60 years, former monk Justo Gallego almost single-handedly built a cathedral out of scrap materials on the outskirts of Madrid. Here is a picture-based ode to his remarkable labour of love.

IN IMAGES: Spain's 'scrap cathedral' lives on after creator's death
File photo taken on August 3, 1999 shows Justo Gallego Martinez, then 73, posing in front of his cathedral. Photo: ERIC CABANIS / AFP

The 96-year-old died over the weekend, but left the unfinished complex in Mejorada del Campo to a charity run by a priest that has vowed to complete his labour of love.

Gallego began the project in 1961 when he was in his mid-30s on land inherited from his family after a bout of tuberculosis forced him to leave an order of Trappist monks.

Today, the “Cathedral of Justo” features a crypt, two cloisters and 12 towers spread over 4,700 square metres (50,600 square feet), although the central dome still does not have a cover.

He used bricks, wood and other material scavenged from old building sites, as well as through donations that began to arrive once the project became better known.

A woman prays at the Cathedral of Justo on November 26, 2021. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
A woman prays at the Cathedral of Justo on November 26, 2021. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)

The building’s pillars are made from stacked oil drums while windows have been cobbled and glued together from shards of coloured glass.

“Recycling is fashionable now, but he used it 60 years ago when nobody talked about it,” said Juan Carlos Arroyo, an engineer and architect with engineering firm Calter.

Men work at the Cathedral of Justo on November 26, 2021 in Mejorada del Campo, 20km east of Madrid.
Men work at the Cathedral of Justo on November 26, 2021 in Mejorada del Campo, 20km east of Madrid. Photo: (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)

The charity that is taking over the project, “Messengers of Peace”, hired the firm to assess the structural soundness of the building, which lacks a permit.

No blueprint

“The structure has withstood significant weather events throughout its construction,” Arroyo told AFP, predicting it will only need some “small surgical interventions”.

Renowned British architect Norman Foster visited the site in 2009 — when he came to Spain to collect a prize — telling Gallego that he should be the one getting the award, Arroyo added.

Religious murals on a walls of Justo's cathedral. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
Religious murals on a walls of Justo’s cathedral. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)

The sturdiness of the project is surprising given that Gallego had no formal training as a builder, and he worked without a blueprint.

In interviews, he repeatedly said that the details for the cathedral were “in his head” and “it all comes from above”.

Builders work on the dome of the Cathedral of Justo on November 26th. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
Builders work on the dome of the Cathedral of Justo on November 26th. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)

The complex stands in a street called Avenida Antoni Gaudi, named after the architect behind Barcelona’s iconic Sagrada Familia basilica which has been under construction since 1883.

But unlike the Sagrada Familia, the Cathedral of Justo Gallego as it is known is not recognised by the Roman Catholic Church as a place of worship.

Visit gaze at the stained glass and busts in of the cathedral's completed sections. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
Visit gaze at the stained glass and busts in of the cathedral’s completed sections. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)

‘Worth visiting’

Father Angel Garcia Rodriguez, the maverick priest who heads Messengers of Peace, wants to turn Gallego’s building into an inclusive space for all faiths and one that is used to help the poor.

“There are already too many cathedrals and too many churches, that sometimes lack people,” he said.

“It will not be a typical cathedral, but a social centre where people can come to pray or if they are facing difficulties,” he added.

A photo of Justo Gallego Martinez on display at his cathedral following his passing. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
A photo of Justo Gallego Martinez on display at his cathedral following his passing. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)

Father Angel is famous in Spain for running a restaurant offering meals to the homeless and for running a church in central Madrid where pets are welcome and the faithful can confess via iPad.

Inside the Cathedral of Justo, volunteers continued working on the structure while a steady stream of visitors walked around the grounds admiring the building in the nondescript suburb.

“If the means are put in, especially materials and money, to finish it, then it will be a very beautiful place of worship,” said Ramon Calvo, 74, who was visiting the grounds with friends.

FIND OUT MORE: How to get to Justo’s Cathedral and more amazing images