Christmas is coming, which means it’s time to plan a European break to one of the many fantastic Christmas markets and savour a taste of festive tradition.
It goes without saying that Strasbourg, the Capital of Christmas, has an exceptional market, set in front of the Gothic style cathedral. It’s the oldest in France, founded in 1570, and features over 300 stalls selling mulled wine, sweets, decorations and gifts. A huge tree towers above the shoppers, and at the foot of the cathedral is an ice skating rink. With events and concerts taking place during the season, it’s no wonder 2 million visitors flock there each year.
Comprising four markets located in a network of underground caves, the Valkenburg Christmas market is as much about art and history as it is gifts and trinkets. In addition to the stalls, there are numerous murals and sculptures depicting the Christmas story and the history of the caves. It’s a truly atmospheric place to explore. Above ground is Santa’s Village, complete with wooden chalets selling delicious treats and a giant singing Christmas tree adorned with 5,000 lights.
There are no fewer than six markets in Cologne, each with its own atmosphere and character. Children will love the Märchenweihnachtsmarkt, or Fairytale Market on Rudolfplatz, which features characters from the Brothers Grimm fairytales, a twinkling carousel and stalls selling wooden toys. The Alter Markt in the Old Town is a picture of rustic stalls and cobbled streets, with themed alleys such as Futtergasse, which sells speciality foods, and Glitzergasse, where you can find fashion accessories. There’s also the Angel’s Market, adorned with glittering lights, and the Cathedral Market, with its impressive Christmas tree and live music performances.
Home to the largest Christmas market in northern France, Amiens is a delightful spectacle in winter. Visitors enter through a huge archway into a village of stalls offering locally produced treats and gifts, and the cathedral is lit up at nightfall, bringing its stonework to life through the son et lumière. Carol singing and children’s activities take place throughout the period, and visitors can buy everything from traditional wooden crafts to hand-made glass and Angora sweaters.
Prague’s picturesque charm is enhanced during the festive period, with a nativity scene and huge Christmas tree taking centre stage in the main square. Both here and Wenceslas Square are packed with stalls selling crystal, jewellery and nibbles, and in the week leading up to Christmas, tubs of water containing carp dot the streets. Or leave the crowds of the city centre behind and visit the market at Namesti Miru, where carol singers serenade the shoppers and leather gloves, winter woollies, biscuits and tree decorations can be found on the stalls.
“OK, you ready?” A voice 20 feet away at the wheel of a boat hollers at me.
Clad in a bikini and a life jacket, sitting in the middle of Boca Lake in Tahoe, California, I’m really not sure that I am. My gloved fingers grip the handle and I bob about trying to keep the large and cumbersome water skis attached to my feet upright. It is my first lesson.
“Now,” Craig, a seasoned slalom skier says, “We’ll tow you along and when you’re ready, you shout ‘Hit it!’ We’ll put the power on, and you let the boat just pull you up.”
It sounds easy enough. We chug along for several seconds while I attempt to find my balance and pluck up some courage all at once, and then I yell, “Hit it!” Just like he said. The boat zooms off, my feet push down, my legs straighten a fraction, my behind graces the water’s surface for a split second, and then I’m head-first straight into the lake, water in my eyes, ears, mouth, up my nose. I surface, coughing and spluttering to see the boat coming back around.
“When you go down, there are two rules: one, let go of the rope; two, hold your breath,” Craig laughs and throws me the rope for round two.
The first thing you need to know about learning to water ski is that it hurts. You’ll get back, take a shower and wonder where all the bruises came from. The second thing you need to know is that you’ll go head first more times than you’ll care to own up to. So why do people do it?
Well, it’s sort of addictive. Getting up on the skis becomes a challenge you don’t want to back down from and the challenge teases you. You can expect the first few tries to be a disaster, but then slowly, you begin to understand it. You begin to gauge where your balance needs to be – slightly back but not too far back or you’ll go down butt first. You begin to recognise the feel of the skis gliding on the water, to pinpoint when to push yourself up to standing.
And as you get better, and just a little further out of the water before you fall, you can’t help but agree to try again.
Then it happens, and it’s beautiful. Suddenly you’re skimming across the surface of a lake and despite not being entirely sure how you got there, you are skiing. At this point, it’s best to enjoy the moment without worrying too much about how you’re going to stay up – this often leads to falling again.
From here it’s about balance and keeping your legs a consistent distance apart. It’s often easier to ski at a faster speed, as you can pull back against the boat a little. Shorter people, inevitably, struggle less than those of us who are tall. Being built like Bambi, I survived no more than thirty seconds on the skis. But there comes a point where even the smack of cool water at 30mph can’t subdue the elation that gliding across the surface brings.
- Beginners should start on a quieter lake where the water is flat – breezes and traffic make it harder to stay balanced.
- You may find it easier to drop a ski once you’re up so that you’re more centred.
- Struggling with skis? Wakeboarding is another, slightly easier option to try while you get the hang of getting vertical.
Set in the heart of the Alps, the Tirol is arguably one of Austria’s most spectacular regions and an area that attracts tourists all year round. The summer brings nature lovers, walkers and water sports enthusiasts, while in winter it becomes the territory of snow sports aficionados, who flock to the slopes during the day, and to the lively resort bars and restaurants at night.
With a staggering 15,000km of marked trails traversing the landscape, Tirol is a paradise for walkers, both seasoned and novice. There’s something to suit both adventurers and families, the common factor for all being the area’s magnificent scenery.
Running 413km from east to west, the Eagle Walk is separated into 33 sections, offering something for every skill level. Those after a shorter and gentler walk can try Stage 3 – Hintersteinersee to Kufstein. This stage is great for nature lovers, taking you through lush countryside with an abundance of wild flowers, and has plenty of mountain huts and restaurants along the way where you can stop for refreshments. Stage 14 is also a little less strenuous, starting at Innsbruck and finishing at Solsteinhaus Lodge. It’s a three hour trail that leads through forest and pastures with a few steeper gradients along the way.
Those up for a greater challenge might pick Stage 4, a seven hour hike that covers 17km and climbs 1,330m. It begins at the pretty town of Kufstein and ascends steadily through old-growth forest before revealing stunning views across Inntal Valley. There’s also a chance to explore the Hundalm Ice Cave, discovered in 1921 and filled with bizarre and fascinating ice formations. Stage 17 is also a strenuous but rewarding hike, offering spectacular views of Alpine lakes and sunny plateaux. You’ll walk on a stretch of Roman road that dates back to 15BC and discover the charming Fernstein Castle along the way.
Combine a little Tirolean culture with walking on the Culture Hiking Trail in Seefeld. Starting at Reith, this beautiful countryside route reveals ten historical and cultural curiosities as it heads towards Leithen. Walkers will learn about the impact of World Wars I and II on the region, discover the legend of the giant Thyrsus and visit a traditional Tirolean tavern serving local cuisine. A gentle walk of only an hour, it’s ideal for introducing children to the region.
The more intrepid may dare to enter the Tirol’s spirit realm, the gateway to which is accessed from the Leutasch Gorge. It’s a 3km trail that’s said to cross the shadowy domain of the Spirit of the Gorge, home to goblins and water sprites. Thundering waterfalls, strange rock formations and bottomless whirlpools present a breathtaking example of Alpine majesty – and a worthy abode for a supernatural creature.
A mountain region inevitably has its freshwater lakes, fed from springs and snow melts, which glitter against the stunning backdrop of snow capped peaks and sheer rocky faces. Lake Achensee, Tirol’s largest lake, gleams like a jewel in the Achental Valley, edged with beautiful beaches at Eben and Pertisau. Its refreshing temperature and clear waters make it popular with bathers, sailors and surfers. A light southerly wind prevails in the morning, and a stronger northerly wind in the afternoon, providing great conditions for water sports beginners and experts. Sailing, surfing and kiting schools are dotted around the lake, enabling visitors to hire equipment and book lessons.
Achensee is also popular with divers thanks to good visibility and rising fish stocks. One of the top dive sites for experienced divers is Hechenberg, where the wreck of a boat can be found. Nearby Schwarzenau is ideal for beginners, with three Volkswagen Beetles that can be explored at a depth of just 8m.
Located west of the village of Natters and south of Innsbruck, Lake Natterer See is an especially good location for families, thanks to its wide variety of facilities. Swimming is the primary sport here, but visitors can also play water polo or try canoeing and windsurfing. Children will love the Happy Swing, a 66m long slide that deposits kids with a splash into the water. There’s even more to do on land: archery, trampolines, beach volleyball and boccia are all available.
Those looking for a quieter, scenic place to engage in water sports will love Frauensee, a small lake hidden in Lechaschau, close to Reutte. It’s an idyllic lake with waters that reach 24 degrees in the summer, and reserved for swimmers. Although only reaching a depth of 6m, nearby Lechausee is popular with divers thanks to its excellent visibility. All sorts of aquatic plant life can be found beneath its surface, and it’s a great place for beginners to start discovering the underwater world.
Biking is one of the Tirol’s signature summer activities. From gentle, creekside tracks to challenging mountain terrain, families, beginners and thrill seekers will all find a trail to try. Offering up 920km of cycle paths and a number of rental shops where both regular and electric bike can be hired, the region is a magnificent place to ride, with plenty of trailside inns serving delicious cuisine along the way.
Road cycling is a popular way to see the area, with a range of flat and gently undulating terrain proving perfect for leisurely cycles. An ideal warm-up circuit is the Spertental Valley ride, a 30km trail which climbs 645m and delivers some gorgeous Alpine scenery. There’s also enough to excite experienced road cyclists, who might choose to head for Rettenback Glacier, the highest point that can be reached by road bike, or tackle Kitzbühel Horn Peak, Austria’s steepest climb. The latter is 23km ride that features a continuous ascent of 8km, sure to work up a sweat.
The real adventure, however, is in the mountain biking routes that cover Tirol. Traverse ridges and mountain passes that reveal an unbroken stream of epic landscapes. Beginners may prefer to use a bike lift to reach the top of a trail before plunging down slopes that belong to skiers in winter, but seasoned enthusiasts will relish the toil of a climb before reaping the reward of the downhill stretch. The Paznaun Valley’s Ischgl alone has 40 different routes, ranging from simple trails that wind through wild flower meadows, to tough, rock-strewn rides that will set the heart racing.
The Nordkette single track trail is one of the ultimate rides, being one of Europe’s most difficult downhill stretches. Take the gondola up, then let loose on this fast track with its tight bends and rock drops for a truly exhilarating mountain bike experience.
In the winter, the Tirol becomes the realm of snow sports enthusiasts. Fresh, powdery snow covers the slopes and visitors flock from all over Europe to enjoy the pistes and resorts. The primary activities, of course, are skiing and snowboarding, for which there are countless resorts both large and small.
Among the biggest and most lively is Kitzbühel, which has been hosting ski races since the 19th century. With a variety of pistes for all abilities, as well as snowboarding fun parks and off-piste routes, it’s a great place to get immersed in the ski and snowboard culture. After a day on the slopes, there’s plenty to entertain in après-ski, from intriguing boutiques for keen shoppers to restaurants, bars and clubs for the party animals.
With a kids’ ski zone, a well maintained terrain park and a natural track for sledding, St Anton is another excellent resort for all ages. There are workshops and private lessons available, as well as professional guides to create a fun day in the backcountry. Once again, après-ski is a big part of the experience, with slope-side entertainment, live music and much more to entertain.
Those looking for a less developed place to enjoy the snow will love Grän Ski Resort, a mountain playground with a friendly feel. It’s great for those of intermediate ability, with wide trails and a designated speed course where you can set a personal best or race your friends. There’s also some free-skiing terrain for the more advanced.
If you’re after something a little more sedate, there are plenty of places to try snowshoeing and winter walking. It’s the perfect opportunity to take a break from the buzz of the resorts and indulge in magical winter scenery. Venture on a hike in the picturesque Reutte Nature Park or take a guided snowshoe walk in the Kaunertal Nature Park and savour the unspoilt landscapes and the peace of the surroundings.
For detailed information on outdoor activities in Tirol and where to find the best trails, resorts and locations, visit www.tyrol.com.
Looking at going on holiday alone? In days gone by, such trips may well have been seen as the refuge of the lonesome – generally bearded – traveller with a large carriage-filling rucksack in tow. Not anymore. One-in-three of us now are planning on going on holiday alone, with both genders and travellers of all ages happy to board a flight solo. Of course, while solo travel isn’t for everyone, for many others it is the very definition of freedom.
Below, we take a look at ten of the best places to go if you’re setting out on your own to experience the world.
Soon to be renamed Czechia (we won’t go into the absurd details), the Czech Republic has much for the solitary traveller, from vast natural beauty to fantastic nightlife and culture. For nightlife, capital city Prague is ideal, with unique nightclubs (Cross Club is the best) and traditional beer houses, or pivovary. However, the Czech Republic is more than just beer and partying (though neither are to be sniffed at). The small country has some of the best scenery and nature the world has to offer, particularly Český ráj (translated as Czech Paradise) and České Švýcarsko (Czech Switzerland), which boasts beautiful mountains and great photo opportunities. Make sure you Czech them out. Sorry (he’s not sorry – Ed.).
Plan your visit with a Czech Republic travel guide.
Brussels hasn’t enjoyed the best publicity in the last year, which is a shame as it’s a fantastic and often overlooked city, particularly if you’re aim is to wander around rather than plan a strict itinerary. The Sint-Katelijne district is filled with hip bars, restaurants and clubs where the staff are more than happy to chat and introduce you to the city’s culinary specialities. Stop in at Monk bar, try fresh seafood or, if you’re feeling adventurous, take a daytrip in the nearby Wallonia region, which has excellent opportunities for cyclists. In general, Brussels may be more suited to ambling than it is rambling, but that sounds ideal to us. More frites anyone?
Get your Brussels travel guide today.
Sarajevo has topped many Top Ten lists in the last decade – due to its resurgence following a brutal siege in the 90s – and the city is perfect for the more adventurous solo traveller. Modern shopping streets sit literally yards away from medieval markets which have barely changed in hundreds of years. The best way to enjoy it? Sit in an open-air souk cafe with a traditional Bosnian coffee. A tad on the bitter side, they’re nonetheless delicious and a great accompaniment as you jot down your thoughts and take stock of your solo adventures.
Purchase your Sarajevo travel guide today.
Lake Bled, Slovenia
In reality, we could put any part of Slovenia in here, but it’s Lake Bled we’re going to focus on. An hour away from the capital, Ljubljana, Lake Bled is a breathtaking place. Both families and sports enthusiasts make the most of the crystal clear waters but the best way to enjoy it, in our opinion, is to simply walk around, before hiring a rowing boat to the country’s only island. Home to the Baroque Church of the Assumption of Mary, it’s about as picturesque as you can get. From there, a calf-troubling jaunt up the hills to Bled’s 11th-century castle is a must, where stunning scenery awaits. Bled, sweat and tears, yes, but well worth the hike.
Find a Slovenia travel guide online today.
It may be further afield, but it’s well worth the journey. New York may have the reputation, but it also has the crowds. Boston is a more relaxing, though no less vibrant, city. The Athens of America, as William Tudor put it, Boston has a fantastic mix of architecture, from colonial to modern day, and an extremely friendly population for a large American hub. With bustling Somerville and Cambridge just over the water, it’s a fantastic city to walk around if you have a decent amount of time on your hands. Just don’t expect to have enough time to remember how to spell Massachusetts… no one’s got that much time to kill.
Buy a travel guide to Boston today.
Dublin isn’t the only town in Ireland, you know. Killarney, in County Kerry, is perfect for solo travellers. The town itself has a bustling, youthful vibe, with great restaurants and typically Irish bars offering live music every night of the week. What’s more, Killarney National Park sits right beside the main town. With 100km2 of countryside, it has beautiful castles, many lakes, and an abundance of wildlife including deer. Dublin who?
Find a Killarney travel guide now.
Berlin may have gained a reputation as the hipster capital where picky nightclub bouncers dictate who’s in and who’s out, but there’s far more to the city. For those who like to walk around, the city has an array of wonderful street art and great cafes, while culture vultures can lose themselves in Berlin. From art galleries to historical museums, there’s something for everyone. Our pick? Unlike Checkpoint Charlie itself (a tourist trap), the Checkpoint Charlie Museum is a fascinating window into Berlin’s post-war years. Oh, and yes, do eat currywurst. Food might be better shared with others, but that’s just the sort of thing people who have to share would say.
Plan your visit with a Berlin travel guide.
Paris is for lovers, and if you’re travelling alone, you’re likely single or in need of some much needed breathing space from him/her/them. A beautiful city on the French coast – such as Nimes – will prove ideal. The climate is perfect for those who like to travel alone without wearing ten layers of clothing, and its Coliseum is one of the oldest in the world without suffering from ‘Rome prices’. And as for the ruins, well, let’s just say that blog of yours is going to have a fair number of new photos soon. Watch the likes roll in. Just remember your old pals at Road Less Travelled when you’re famous, yeah?
Find out more with a Nimes travel guide.
Lake Maggiore, Italy
Yes, the Italian lakes are all beautiful, but Lake Maggiore is the pick of the bunch. Immortalised in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, it’s easy to see why the Italian lake took the novelist’s fancy. Pristine waters sit beside beautiful restaurants and cafes and, unlike Como and some of the busier lakes, Maggiore has a more laid-back feel, ideal for those going it alone. But the cherry on top has to be the cable car up to Mottarone, a mountain with stunning views of the surrounding Alps in Italy and Switzerland. Take as long as like, just don’t forget that camera.
Learn more with a Lake Maggiore travel guide.
Believe us, we didn’t think Basel would elbow out the likes of Amsterdam or Barcelona on this list, but that’s before we went. Granted, if you’re not into museums, this one might not be for you, but if you are, well, you’re in the right place. A city of only 300,000 inhabitants, it boasts over 40 of the things; not bad for a town that still can’t decide how it likes to be pronounced (some go for Bah-zel, others Ba-ahl). Museum Tinguely’s our favourite, but the city is also ideal in that it sits at the tripoint of the Swiss-German-French borders. If you’re holidaying alone you want to fit in as much as possible, and with the Black Forest and Saint-Louis nearby, you won’t be short on activities.
Buy a Basel travel guide to plan the perfect journey.
I’m no stranger to the Ring of Kerry, though as a tourist it’s an unusual destination for me. My father was born in the small town of Cahersiveen, my mother’s parents not far away. For most of my childhood, I spent at least a month each year running around the mountains behind my grandmother’s house or up the road to the local sweet shop, enjoying a freedom to roam that I wasn’t allowed back in London, with its abundance of cars and other dangers.
This year I returned as part of a press trip to find that much has changed, though I’m glad to say many of the traditional attractions remain as appealing as ever.
Ireland’s fifth-biggest county, Kerry sits in the south west and is famed for its scenic drives, particularly along the Ring of Kerry road, a 179-kilometre route which takes in small towns such as Cahersiveen, Sneem, and Waterville, but also the larger towns of Kenmare and Killarney, well known for its beautiful national park and its lively nightlife.
Like many natural wonders, the Ring of Kerry road has to be seen to be truly appreciated. It can be enjoyed by both car and coach, but in my experience car is by far the best option as you can stop to take photos whenever it suits you. Moreover, the roads in this part of the world are narrow (coaches only travel in one direction as a result) and, while the drivers are highly experienced, it does lead to a few hair-raising moments as they meander around tight bends.
The good news for those uninterested in either option is that a number of cycle tours operate around the Ring of Kerry, and a new green way is set to open in 2017. Many of Ireland’s railways fell into disuse in the second half of the 20th century, and are now being repurposed for cyclists. The route will provide a safe passageway for those on bikes, as well as stunning views.
However, it’s not just the scenery that makes the Ring of Kerry road worth travelling to. Visiting the local towns is a must, and another reason to avoid coach travel if possible.
Cahersiveen may be a sleepy place these days, but it is brimming with history. An old barracks beside the river resembles an Indian-style building (legend has it plans for a base in the Punjab were mixed up with this one) while the town is also the birthplace of Daniel O’Connell, a key figure in Ireland’s history and a man known as ‘The Liberator.’ Meanwhile, Portmagee was a sleepy fishing village until recent years, but with scenes from Star Wars: The Force Awakens filmed on the beautiful Skellig islands, interest in the area has soared.
Visiting the islands is a once in a lifetime experience and both the views and sense of peace are stunning, which may well explain why a group of sixth-century monks decided to make it their home. Make sure to book ahead though, as the islands are only accessible by boat and are limited to fifteen visits per day (up from two). Moreover, they are often booked up three months in advance and are weather dependent.
For those in search of a little more stardust, Waterville was once a favourite of Charlie Chaplin, and the town centre has both a statue and comedy festival in his honour. To be honest, though, the above places are merely the tip of the iceberg and, despite the relative small size of the region, you could spend a couple of weeks travelling around and stopping in at various towns and villages. You’ll just have to go and find out for yourself.
TRAVEL TO THE RING OF KERRY
You can discover the Ring of Kerry yourself by travelling to Cahersiveen and booking a stay at one of the many popular hotels in the region. Take a look at the great deals available below.
Art, when travelling the world, can give you a real insight into country’s cultures, people, and even politics. But when speaking of art, it’s not always the case that we’re talking about pieces hanging on a wall in a gallery. Some of the most important pieces of art can, in fact, be found decorating the streets that we walk along on a daily basis. And all around the world you’ll find some stunning example of such street art.
You can’t begin an article about street art without mentioning Berlin. This German city is a hub for those wishing to discover (and also try their hand at producing) street art. In the borough of Kreuzberg, you’ll find many large and influential pieces of street art. Victor Ash’s Cosmonaut looms large over Mariannenstrasse, and you’ll find Belgian street artist Roa’s mural of native German animals to have once frequented Berlin, at Skalitzerstraße.
Most of the street art found in the city, however, is contained to the East Side Gallery. This open air gallery made from pieces of the Berlin Wall is a stark, yet colourful, reminder of Berlin’s history. Painted by 118 artists from 21 different countries around the world, you’ll find that much of the artwork produced is a political commentary of the monumental event that took place between 1989 and 1990. Some of the most famous pieces from the gallery are the images of an East German Trabant car breaking through the wall, and that of Honecker and Brezhnev locking lips.
When writing about street art in London, you’ll always hear mention of Shoreditch – home to a number of famous pieces of street art by world-renowned artists. You’ll find Banksy, many pieces produced by Roa – including enormous the crane on Hanbury Street and the aptly placed sleeping pig on Bacon Street – and also Louis Masai, who is known for creating street art of endangered animals.
Just this year, Tower Hamlets became home to the Endangered 13 project. Thirteen artists took on the task of covering the 120-metre stretch of railway arches with street art, designed to raise awareness of endangered species around the world. When exploring the quirky area of Camden you will also come across a number of political and celebrity pieces of street art produced by the illusive female street artists Bambi. Amy Winehouse, Nelson Mandela, and even the Queen have all been immortalised on walls around North London.
When in Prague, there is one place you must not miss if you are looking for street art: the Lennon Wall. Back during the Czech Republic’s communist rule, ‘Lennonists’ used the wall to express their love for John Lennon and what he stood for after he passed away. Many times it was painted over and many times it was painted on once again. Now this once-quiet square, located in the heart of Old Town, is a great spot in the city to read messages of love and peace.
But street art isn’t just limited to these countries. You’ll find it anywhere if you’re looking out for it. Whether it is in Melbourne’s colourful laneways, or hidden in the Tivoli car park in the city of Dublin. So, when travelling next, why not take time admiring the pictures and stencils that adorn the walls, instead of just passing them by? Street art is more than just aesthetic adornments. It is used to make political statements, highlight a worthy cause, and showcase certain parts of history.