About half of The Netherlands has been reclaimed from the sea and almost a quarter of it is below sea level, creating a country with a latticework of canals, rivers and lakes. Explore this flat, pretty land by weaving through the stunning waterways on a barge, with bikes onboard. Cycle out to discover storybook villages which have been the inspiration of many painters, and at the end of the day return to your floating hotel. The Netherlands is perfect for biking and the Dutch are incredibly cycle-friendly. Cycle beside dykes, through tulip fields and admire the hush of a windmill’s sails gently turning.
Built on a maze of extensive waterways, many lying below sea level, Amsterdam is a city known for its canals. Cycling is without question one of the main forms of transportation, with bike lanes getting the green light in the busy central city streets, and where multi-storied parking buildings are home to thousands of bikes every day. Bikes aside, the waterways which meander across the land abound in history with classic Dutch architecture, including Anne Frank’s home, hugging the banks. It’s a city proudly showcasing great art museums which play a major role in the heritage of this laid-back city. This place buzzes by day and night: restaurants, ‘space cake’ cafés, street artists, a lively Red Light District and a vibrant cheese market.
Belgium has special significance for Kiwi travellers. More than 4700 New Zealanders are buried here in about 80 cemeteries throughout the country. A growing number of Kiwis now make a pilgrimage to these wartime resting places and to the battlefields of Flanders. Starting at the Grand Place in Brussels Old Town, you’ll discover that this is a city of museums, beautiful buildings and enticing cafés – think moules, frites and Belgium beer. Art galleries that celebrate everything from renaissance to surrealist works, city parks, puppet theatres, lace boutiques and chocolate shops fill your days. Brugge, chocolate box picturesque is a perfectly preserved medieval city with cobbled squares and canalside walkways. To really enjoy this popular city you need to stay overnight to see the fabulous evening floodlighting and make an early start to wander around the market square and climb the 13th century Belfort which towers 83 metres above the city centre and leans almost a metre to the east at the top. The 366 steps to the top will test your determination and its bells will keep you on schedule.
Talk about a city of contrasts! One minute you’re following the path where the Berlin Wall stood, reading the graffiti on some of the sections that still stand or feeling the choking emotion that comes over you when you are dwarfed by the plain grey columns that have been erected as a Holocaust memorial. The next you are wandering the peaceful and tranquil paths that wind through the Tiergarten. At Potsdamer Platz, where after reunification, an architectural competition was held and international architects vied for the right to rebuild a complete city district in the heart of the city – talk about modern! One of the most fascinating areas of Berlin is the pre-war Jewish Quarter that has been taken over by contemporary art galleries to create ‘gallery mile’.
In Germany all roads lead to Frankfurt: it is where the major autobahn’s and railways connect as well as being home to the second largest airport in Europe, so it is the perfect place to start or end any Central European excursion. Visitors tend to gloss over Frankfurt not realising that it is home to some of Europe’s finest museums, many of which are clustered around the banks of the Main. If you have a particular interest it’s highly probable Frankfurt has a museum for you: architecture, film, communication, art, cultures, nature and even leather - they can all be found here. In fact, the whole city is one big living museum!
Munich is a trendsetter city. It gave the world pale lager beers, Helles and Pilsner, beer halls and gardens, and of course the world-famous Oktoberfest. Sipping on a stein, munching on a hearty bierwurst and listening to some oompah music – you’re in Munich; you just have to do it. Walk it all off visiting Marienplatz where the faux Middle Ages Rathaus stands over the city. Aim to be there at 11am to see the glockenspiel clock re-enact two stories from the 16th century. The Frauenkirche is a real piece of medieval architecture that you can’t miss and you can easily spend an hour wandering through Viktualienmarkt (the Victual Market).
The Rhine River is one of Europe’s most beautiful, flowing from Switzerland 1,320km to the Netherlands and into the North Sea. An area of outstanding natural beauty is Germany’s Middle Rhine Valley and the Rhine Gorge has been made a UNESCO-listed site thanks to having the world’s highest concentration of castles, historical towns, beautiful countryside and vineyards.
Romantic Road and The Black Forest
Marvel at the Bavarian landscapes, half-timbered chalets and magnificent castles with alpine foothills forming a stunning backdrop along the Romantic Road. Meander from Frankfurt to Munich, pass scenery mirrored in Lake Constance and explore the enchanting Black Forest, straight out of Brothers Grimm fairy tales.
The cows and goats really do wear bells in Switzerland, you really can feast on chocolate and fondue (or chocolate fondue!) and best of all if you’ve over-indulged you can still reach the summit of a Swiss alp with no effort at all.
Switzerland is synonymous with mountains, and although you can get to the top the hard way, part of the charm of this landlocked nation is to reach the summit by other means. The world’s steepest cog railway will take you all the way to the peak of Mt Pilatus, or watch awe-inspiring scenery slip by on a train journey between Zermatt and St Moritz. In Zermatt board one of the highest cable car rides in Europe to the summit of Klein Matterhorn where you can get one of the best views of the famous Matterhorn - and on a clear day you can see more than 40 peaks over 4000 metres high. Then there’s the Jungfrau Railway in the spectacular Bernese Oberland and the incredible trip to the highest train station in the world at 3454 metres – a journey of tunnels, glaciers and icy grottos.
Back closer to sea level, its cities too are distinctively different – lakeside Lucerne has its iconic covered bridge; cosmopolitan Geneva has the United Nations in residence; Zurich, famed for its bankers, is surprisingly trendy, and of course where could be more fashionable than Montreux and St Moritz? Cheese lovers will make a pilgrimage to Gruyère perhaps, but there are many other villages to explore too, such as picture postcard perfect Appenzell and Andermatt, or Morcote on the shores of Lake Lugano.
Austria blends alpine scenery with an atmosphere of lost empires and past grandeur. Nowhere is the sense of history stronger than in the capital Vienna, the seat of wealth and power for the Hapsburg royal dynasty. Hear it in the angelic voices of the Vienna Boys’ Choir and see it in the rippling muscles of the Spanish Riding School’s beautiful stallions. It’s even tangible in the waft of coffee aromas and the sinful richness of a slice of Sacher-Torte in a Viennese Kaffehaus.
Vienna’s modern face offers treats like the quirky and colourful Hundertwasserhaus, a unique building designed by the eccentric architectural genius Hundertwasser, featuring undulating floors, trees growing inside and a grass-covered roof. Salzburg, the birthplace of Mozart, has music in its very soul, and also boasts Baroque architectural masterpieces including one of Europe’s largest castles, the Hohensalzburg Fortress. Further to the west, nestled among the mountainous Austrian Tyrol, lies Innsbruck. Venture beyond its medieval alleyways and glittering 15th century Golden Roof for your own “Climb Every Mountain” moment as you wander through a flower-filled alpine meadow and past chalets bedecked with cascades of geraniums.
Austria shares borders with nine countries, from tiny Liechtenstein to Hungary, linked to Austria by the mighty Danube. This makes it the perfect launch pad: board a boat in Vienna and cruise upstream into Germany, or head south all the way to the Black Sea
No country has burst more colourfully onto the world’s stage since the collapse of the Iron Curtain than the Czech Republic. It’s one of the youngest countries in the world – born as the result of the Velvet Divorce with the Slovak Republic in 1993, which in turn flowed from the Velvet Revolution and freedom from the USSR in 1989.
The star of the Republic’s show is its capital Prague, the resplendent, glorious jewel in its crown. Left largely unscathed by bombing in the Second World War and then hidden behind the Iron Curtain, its architecture is beautifully intact. The Golden City, with its sprawling castle, gargoyle-festooned cathedral and historic Charles Bridge, deserves all its top billing but the Czech Republic has much more waiting in the wings. There is no better place to start than Prague but don’t forget that along with its awesome sights it is also home to cosy pubs and street cafés – perfect places to watch the world go by and taste some of the best beers in the world.
Beyond Prague lies a fairy tale land of castles, forests and picturesque towns such as Ceský Krumlov, embraced by a meander of the Vltava River, and the medieval city of Kutná Hora in the heart of Bohemia. Visit at Christmas time and be enticed with the aroma of freshly baked gingerbread. The great news is that the Czech Republic is also sprinkled with spa towns – the perfect way perhaps to soak away a few too many dumplings!
It says something for the unique culture and people of Hungary when their favourite activity is playing chess while soaking at an elegant thermal bath complex. Taking to the water in Hungary is a tradition and one not to be missed especially in Budapest, the nation’s stately capital. The River Danube flows through the centre of the city, separating the ancient towns of Buda and Pest. As you explore the city’s medieval heritage, don’t be frightened by the crazy-looking names. Your pronunciation may not fool the locals, but they’ll be thrilled to hear you try and will go out of their way to make you feel welcome. For something completely different head to the Statue Park, the last resting place of more than 40 statues from Hungary’s Socialist past.
Beyond the city lie lakes and spa towns and the vast Hungarian Plain that still pounds with the sound of hoof-beats – the Hungarians love their horses. Join them on a ride, or watch the Magyar cowboys demonstrate their awesome abilities. Meet Hungary’s dynamic young generation in the university city of Szeged and wander the cobblestone streets of arty Szentendre, one of several towns along the picturesque Danube bend.
Hungarian cuisine reflects this country’s unique heritage. The Turks introduced coffee and paprika and it is from here that hearty, rich goulash soup originates. Try turkey roasted with fruit, and for dessert, chestnut cream. Live life to the full the way the Hungarians do.
Poland is a country with a 1000 year history, which has seen its fair share of wars, yet despite the vast destruction during WWII, a lot of cultural wealth and rich traditions remain. The capital, Warsaw, went through huge reconstruction and is now bustling full of cafés, restaurants, galleries and the walled UNESCO Old Town. Stooge through antique shops and luxurious boutiques, enjoy a reflective coffee amongst the bookshelves in a café-bookshop. Somewhat miraculously, Krakow emerged from WWII totally unscathed, its eclectic mix of cobbled streets, castles, church spires, and the largest medieval square in Europe stand perfectly preserved. The tree-lined promenade encircles the centre of the city, leading from the Florian gate to Wawel Castle. There is a whimsical charm existing across the city for your discovery. Littered with monuments, museums and holocaust memorials, Poland’s painfully blighted past cannot – and should not – be ignored. But it’s not history alone that shapes this revered country.
Whether you’re tramping from cities to towns, or Baltic coastal villages and ethereal forests, seek out a traditional Polish way of life. Frequent the many milk bars (bar mleczny) and eat wood grilled sausage with a side serving of cabbage. Stand before the windows of elaborate cake displays and salivate over poppy cakes, cream cakes and fruit filled strudels, and experience orchestras, operas and choirs in the grandest of concert halls. If you tire of town life, venture away from the hustle and into Poland’s rich countryside which is teeming with woodland, rivers and forests, Carpathian hillside and a network of lakes and waterways perfect for kayaking and canoeing.