Southern Germany is famed for its castles and two of the most fantastical are near Füssen, below the Bavarian Alps. Start at Schloss Neuschwanstein (above), King Ludwig II’s 19th-century pile, also the model for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle. Next, hop across to the Neo-Gothic Schloss Hohenschwangau, where Ludwig grew up.
In 1730, a farmer in Steingaden witnessed the miracle of his Christ statue shedding tears. Pilgrims poured into town in such numbers over the next decade that a new church was built to house the weepy work. The Wieskirche is Unesco-listed and one of Bavaria’s best-known Baroque churches. Inside the circular structure, eight white pillars are topped by gold capital stones and swirling decorations.
From the vineyards of Wurzburg to the foot of the Alps, the 250-mile-long Romantic Road is a popular journey through southern Germany that ends at Ludwig II’s crazy castles. The route can be done by tour bus, but a car will give you more flexibility to see the ostentatious palaces, Bavarian churches and chocolate-box medieval towns and villages, such as Rothenburg ob der Tauber.
The dreamy haze of the Bavarian Forest National Park extends for around 24,250 hectares along the Czech border. Its thick forest is home to deer, wild boar, foxes, otters and birds, and is crossed by marked hiking and cycling trails. For information, go to the park’s website or the visitor centre close to Neuschönau village.
Across Europe, countries have their own Christmas traditions, but some leapfrog borders and become annual staples for people the world over. One such custom is the German Christmas market. Characterised by stalls of handcrafted gifts, baked regional specialities and cauldrons of glühwein, German Christmas markets are atmospheric and festive events enjoyed by many. Aromas and tastes are a key part of the experience, as are the sounds of musicians playing and choirs singing.
But the history of the Christmas market is more prosaic. Rooted in the late Middle Ages, European winter markets allowed townspeople to stock up on vital supplies before the cold months set in. Take a look at some of Germany’s earliest and most authentic Christmas markets, which all have their own backstories and fascinating peculiarities underpinning the extravaganza as they have become.
Taking its name from the original Dresden Christmas stolen, the Striezel, this market has at the core of its celebrations the cutting of the giant stolen. If that’s not eccentric enough, the market is also host to Pflaumentoffelfest – an event honouring the history of the Pflaumentoffel, a decorative chimney sweep figure made out of prunes once sold by children as a good luck charm. Carved wooden ornaments also play a significant part in Striezelmarkt’s history – they were first sold here after the German Peasants’ War when unemployed miners took to hand carving as a way of earning money.
Frankfurt is one of the oldest Christmas markets in Germany, at over 600 years old. Traditionally, religious mystery plays were performed here, but today you’re more likely to be greeted by merry music around a 30m-tall Christmas tree. Track down Bethmaennchen – traditional Frankfurt Christmas confectionery – loved by writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
This year the market brings an international flavor to proceedings with the help of its European neighbours and twin towns. Alongside arts and crafts from local artists, find influences from Latvia, Hungary and Switzerland. The market spreads across several of the town’s central spaces, but the main square is where Santa makes his annual entrance on 6 December. The market can be explored on a guided tour, during which you’ll uncover its history as well as come across traditional local crafts.
The Thuringia region offers a varied choice of Christmas markets. Take Erfurt, which brings bags of historical charm with its blend of medieval and Gothic architecture. St Mary’s Cathedral and the Church of St Severus make a magnificent backdrop to this quaint market. Also in Thuringia is the Unesco World Heritage town of Weimar, where you can skate on ice before relaxing with a warm drink in the winter village.
Bulgaria’s Wine Village (above)
Tucked beneath imposing sandstone cliffs, Melnik is full of traditional houses with wooden balconies, and has been celebrated for its wine for more than 600 years. Bottles of local vintages are sold for as little as £2, or try the fun new Museum of Wine, with tastings included in its £2.50 entry fee.
Markets of Hamburg
This north German port is known for its Unesco-listed Speicherstadt district of vast red-brick warehouses, but it’s also home to Germany’s longest farmer’s market. At the twice-weekly Isemarkt, set up under the elevated U-Bahn tracks, 200 vendors sell all kindsof quality produce, with much for just a euro or two.
Despite its population of 1.4 million, Munich (or “München,” as it’s called in German) feels small. This big-city elegance is possible, in part, because of its determination to be pedestrian- and bike-friendly, and because of a law that no building can be taller than its church spires. There’s ongoing debate about changing this policy, but there are still no skyscrapers in downtown Munich.
Walking through Munich, you’ll understand why it is consistently voted one of Germany’s most livable cities – safe, clean, cultured, a university town, built on a people scale, and close to the beauties of nature. Though it’s the capital of Bavaria and a major metropolis, Munich’s low-key atmosphere has led Germans to dub it “Millionendorf” – the “village of a million people.”
Dawdling in the sunlit main square called Marienplatz (“Mary’s Square”), I love to take in the ornate facades of the gray, pointy Old Town Hall and the Neo-Gothic New Town Hall, with its beloved glockenspiel – only 100 years old – that recreates a royal wedding from the 16th century.
Nearby, you can experience small-town Munich at the Viktualienmarkt, long a favorite with locals for fresh produce and friendly service. While this expensive real estate could have been overrun by fast food places, Munich keeps the rent low so these old-time shops can carry on.
Surely Scotland’s fruitiest weekend away, The Pineapple is an elaborate architectural joke. The 4th Earl of Dunmore got the idea during his tenure as Governor of Virginia, where sailors would indicate they were safely back from a sea voyage by spiking pineapples on their gateposts. Dunmore marked his own return to home in 1777 with a commission for 37 feet of intricately carved masonry, its stone leaves apt decoration for a hothouse growing pineapples.
Internal accommodation is mercifully unprickly, with two cosy bedrooms, a country-style kitchen and a living room with log fire. The Pineapple presides over a huge walled garden open to the public, but guests also enjoy a private back garden, and there are some lovely nearby walks with views of the River Forth and Ochil Hills.
Arrive: Dunmore is on the A905, the closest motorway is the M9. Regular buses run from Stirling to Dunmore. Alternatively, the nearest railway station is six miles away in Larbert, which has services to Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Claiming the dubious honour of being the ‘most haunted castle in Britain’, Chillingham has acquired its ghosts over the course of eight centuries. A medieval pile complete with crenellated parapets, this 12th-century garrison castle is home to several spiritual residents, including a frail white figure found in the pantry, and the mysterious `blue boy’.
The Torture Chamber displays arcane instruments of punishment, and in the dungeon visitors can see the crude graffiti etched into the wall by former inmates. Ghost tours take place at night and you can stay in one of several self-catering apartments. Our favourite is the Grey apartment, furnished with a four-poster bed, antiques and wall-mounted horns.
Arrive: Chillingham is off the A1 between Berwick-upon-Tweed and Alnwick.The castle is around an hour by car north of Newcastle, and 1.3/4 hours southeast of Edinburgh. Public transport to the castle is limited.
Sat on the pebbly beach of Dungeness, Seaview is a peaceful spot to watch the waves roll in as small craft bob gently across the English Channel. Once home to working fishermen, this two-storey cottage has had its net store converted into a second bedroom, and its interior given a nautical-style makeover — with blue-striped linens, log burner and decorations made from shells and driftwood.
Round the back, sheltered from sea breezes, there’s a large wild garden that’s ideal for summer barbecues — load your grill with seafood caught that day by local fishermen. Extend your sea view by braving the climb to the top of nearby Old Lighthouse, a mighty 46 metres tall. Also close by is an RSPB bird sanctuary, a great place to stroll mile after mile of shingle while spotting bitterns, little-ringed plovers, Slavonian greebs, smews and wheatears, depending on the season.
Arrive: The nearest train station is a half-hour cab ride away in Rye, East Sussex, with connections to Ashford International, and on to London.
If aiming for a full fruit bowl of accommodation experiences, these coconut-shaped floating cabins should be next on your list. Eight are to be found bobbing gently on the Domaine des Grands Lacs, a vast wetland in the little-visited region of Franche-Comté. Most are accessible only by boat, giving a sense of romantic isolation only enhanced by the absence of electricity — light being provided by solar-powered lamps, or good old-fashioned candles.
A breakfast of croissants with local jams and honey appears daily on your landing deck, but guests can also arrange for the delivery of champagne or a platter of regional meats and cheeses. The point is to do not very much at all except enjoy the natural surroundings, but on a fine day it’s fun to hire a kayak or a bike to explore the lakes and surrounding trails.
Arrive: The nearest airport is Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg, about a 1.1/2 hours’ drive away. Fly there from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Heathrow, Luton, Manchester or Stansted, with BA, easy Jet or Ryanair. Car hire starts at around £40 per day.
Cadiz epitomises fiery Andalucian living: famed for sherry quaffing, flamenco dancing and boisterous carnivals. Participants on the Luzia Epicurus course get their bearings looking over the city (above), before moving on to the Bodegas Pedro Romero, a six-generation sherry house, and Bolonia beach, with tall dunes giving views across the Strait of Gibraltar to Africa (3-day course from £365, inc excursions and meals, not inc accommodation; luzia-photo-courses.com)
Arrive: Jerez is the closest airport to Cadiz— Iberia offers flights from London Heathrow, changing in Madrid. From here, trains reach Cadiz in half an hour.
Stay: Cadiz’s Hotel Argantonio, in an elegant 19th-century townhouse
From the riotous clubs of the Weimar Republic in Cabaret to the fall of the Iron Curtain in Goodbye Lenin, Berlin’s history has made it a stirring backdrop to movies. Play a part in this cinematic tradition by joining the Met Film School on a two-day course, shooting around the Tempelhof district. Learn the ins-and-outs of making a movie, from script-editing to lighting techniques, directing professional actors and cutting a mini feature.
Arrive: EasyJet flies to Berlin Schonefeld Airport from Edinburgh, Gatwick, Luton and Manchester while British Airways flies to BerlinTegel airport from Heathrow.
Stay: The Circus Hotel has simple, bright rooms in the Mitte district.
There can be few landscapes better savoured from a saddle than the French countryside south of Carcassonne — a patchwork of tumbledown villages, looming fortresses, thickly wooded valleys and mountain rivers, with the Pyrenees as a backdrop. To see it, join Unicorn Trails’ Pyrenean short break — a three-night horse-riding trip suitable for novices, clippety-clopping atop trusty steeds. Participants are based at the village of Cranes, spending three nights stabled in a rustic b&b and passing the days trotting through the oak forests nearby with an instructor. Among the destinations on the itinerary is Rennes-le-Château, a hilltop town that enjoyed five minutes of fame after being mentioned in The Da Vinci Code.
Arrive: Ryanair flies to Carcassonne from London Stansted and Liverpool, with seasonal flights from East Midlands and Glasgow.
Even 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, eastern Germany is a relatively cheap place to travel. Leipzig retains reminders of that era, from the Stasi Museum, with its exhibits on the communist state’s secret police, to the beautiful Nikolaikirche, the church at the centre of the revolt in 1989. The once-shabby city is now better known for bar-lined streets such as Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse, and art venues that include Galerie fur Zeitgenössische Kunst, showcasing contemporary post- World-War-II artworks.
ARRIVE: Ryanair flies to Leipzig from Stansted.
STAY: Pension SchlafGut has bright and modern room sand apartment rentals.
Although a walk in the medina brings constant entreaties to part you from your dirhams, Fez is a great budget city. Its riads are good value and Moroccan design can transform even modest digs into escapist spaces. The city’s Ville Nouvelle has rationally laid-out streets and the best hotel deals, but it’s the medina, or Fes el-Bali, that captures the imagination. Here, you’ll find lanes crowded with donkeys ferrying cargo, leather-dying pits, ornate fountains, shops selling slippers in every colour and glorious examples of Islamic architecture.
ARRIVE: Ryanair flies to Fez from Stansted.
STAY: DarEl Hanaisa cosy riad in the medina.
There are few European capitals more affordable than this proud city on the Danube. Restaurants are reasonable and, in a city where it’s usual to hit the town every night, there are clubs and bars to suit all budgets. The techy Dorćol neighbourhood is good for kafanas (cafes) serving Balkan dishes such as ćevapcići (mincemeat kebabs), while cobblestoned Skadarska has a bohemian charm. The signature drink in Serbia is rakija – a brandy calculated to knock the stuffing out of first-time drinkers.
ARRIVE: Air Serbia flies to Belgrade from Heathrow, and Wizz Air from Luton.
STAY: Travelling Actor is a boutique pension.
Dresden is Germany’s phoenix city – rebuilt and restored from the ashes of its WWII destruction to reclaim its former majesty as a cultural capital. Come high summer its squares are packed with tourists keen to witness this profound transformation – but see it in winter and you might have corners of it to yourself, with chunks of ice drifting along the Elbe, and a dusting of snow crowning the spires and rooftops.
Get your bearings with a trip to the Frauenkirche – the church whose Baroque dome affords sublime views over the city, currently celebrating the 10th anniversary of its reconstruction.
Take part in a local winter tradition by boarding the Lossnitzgrundbahn on a journey north into the Saxon countryside. Hauled by a chugging steam locomotive, services rattle through Dresden’s suburbs, before passengers dismount near Moritzburg Castle – a hunting lodge surrounded by sprawling parkland, likely swathed in mid-winter snow.
MAKE IT HAPPEN
CityJet is the only airline directly connecting Dresden with UK, with flights departing from London City.
Dresden is also within a direct 90-minute train ride Leipzig-Halle Airport
The Lossnitzgrudbahn narrow-gauge train runs six timesdaily, departing from Radebeul Ost station at the northern edge of Dresden. From here, it’s a half-hour ride to the grounds of Mortitzburg Castle. The castle itself is shut in winter, though the grounds remain open, with skaters often venturing onto the frozen lakes.
Stay at Hotel Schloss Eckberg – a turreted stately home set in leafy grounds on the eastern edge of the city.
An incredibly scenic cycling route that takes you through the picturesque vineyards of Côtes-du-Rhone and Ventoux. With breathtaking views of the magnificent Mont Ventoux – where this year’s Tour de France is set to finish – this seven-day tour twists through quaint country lanes littered with pine trees and Roman sites. Pedal across green plains and foothills, before reaching the medieval village of Aubignan, which is surrounded by theatrical fourteenth century ramparts. Take the time to stop off at one of the many traditional markets and be sure to admire the well-manicured gardens.
Expect abundant culture and maritime charm; there’s no better way to explore this largely untouched destination. Rügen Island’s included in the Baltic Sea cycle route, and it takes eight-days to explore this rarely visited part of Germany. The island odyssey begins on Stralsund’s beaches, before passing sensational chalk cliffs and fanciful fishing villages. Once you reach Putbus and Baabe, you’re really off the beaten-track, which is lined with marvellous woods until the coast. Make a stop at Jasmund National Park and sample a Sanddorn ice-cream, made from sea buckthorn berries.
For 13 days, you’ll make your way through Yangon, Mandalay, Mount Popa and Inle Lake, which is an unimaginable freshwater floating village. Cycle into Bagan markets and freewheel past antiquated temples. There really isn’t a better way to explore this extraordinary land, which is scattered with gilded pagodas. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a seasoned cyclist or a fairweather rider; there are a huge variety of territories to explore. Descend down the grandiose, sloping plains of Bagan or through open farmland. Or climb through Pindaya to catch a boat ride into villages on stilts.
This gorgeously green northern region of Spain is a cyclist’s dream. The jagged coast is wildly dramatic, decorated with multi-coloured and vibrant fishing ports. Venture past coves and rolling hills, whilst inland, mountains soar high above deep valleys, which boast delightfully rustic villages. Stop off at the Jurassic Museum, where you can walk in the giant footsteps of a Tyrannosaurus rex – literally! Before you know it you’ll be riding along the heart-stopping San Lorenzo beach boardwalk, heading towards the harbour of Lastres, the steepest of Asturias’ quaint fishing villages.
Home and inspiration to Cranach the Elder, Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Liszt, Richard Strauss, and Friedrich von Schiller, Weimar is also closely associated with the much revered German poet Goethe, who lived here for close to sixty years (he penned most of his major works here, including his epic drama Faust) and is buried here.
Nietzsche spent his last years here, and Walter Gropius founded the revolutionary Bauhaus movement of architecture here. Long marooned behind the Iron Curtain, its recent honoring as a European Capital of Culture has inspired a cultural and intellectual revival.
All the traditions of the fine arts, music, literature, architecture, and philosophy are kept alive in Weimar in its small museums, institutes, theaters, and festivals. Long protected as a cultural jewel, it went untouched by WW II bombing and was kept intact during the decades of Communist rule. New life is now being breathed into the small cobblestoned city.
Local officials are divided about the other legacy Weimar left: the Buchenwald concentration camp, located 6 miles north of town. Ignore it and accentuate the positive? Embrace it, acknowledge it, and then move on? Certainly the city has seen the very best and the very worst of German history.
Stay in the historic Deco-and Bauhaus-decorated Elephant Hotel, on the stage-set Marktplatz; dating from 1696, no one can remember the origin of its name, but everyone from Richard Wagner to Hitler has found lodging here. From Weimar, wrote Goethe (who celebrated his 80th birthday at the Elephant), “the gates and streets lead to every faraway place on earth.”