My European Vacation Favourites – Part 1

Landmarks & Icons

Pont de Pierre in Bordeaux - Aquitaine, France

In my travels around Europe, there have been many cities, regions, and sites that I have enjoyed and vowed to return to. The following stick in my mind but are by no means the only ones. We all know that on a European vacation, there is sure to be a treasure-trove of wonderful places to visit, and I personally had a huge problem deciding on a selection to recommend to you. Nevertheless, here we go.

The Idyllic Lake District, England

Located in the extreme north west of England, the Lake District is not just a region but a scenic National Park made up of a series of serene lakes, rugged mountains rising up out of the sides of the lakes, and several attractive very British market towns. With its green fields, stone cottages, dry stone walls, and rolling fells, the landscape of the Lake District will definitely charm you.

Starting with the lakes, you have a wide choice, with the principal ones being Coniston, Windermere, Ullswater, and Derwentwater. Just standing on any of these lake shores admiring the surrounding countryside is thrill enough. If you want a different perspective, then take one of the many boat cruises available on the larger lakes. If you are energetic, you can take short walks or long hikes in the Lake District. There are companies who organize walking itineraries including accommodation, transfer of luggage from one point to another, and detailed maps showing points of interests. Or, you can linger a while in one of the market towns such as Keswick, Ambleside, or Coniston, where you can browse the small shops, have a hearty but tasty typical English afternoon tea, or stop in at one of the many traditional-style pubs for a pint.

Waterwheel at Ambleside, Lake District, England, UK
Waterwheel at Ambleside, in the Lake District

You can visit Dove Cottage, the place where William Wordsworth, the famous English poet, used to live, on the edge of Grasmere. The cottage’s rooms are full of artifacts from when Wordsworth lived here happily with his sister, wife, and three children. The Wordsworth Museum & Art Gallery next door houses one of the main Wordsworth collections, including many original manuscripts and some creepy death masks of some famous Romantic figures.

You might want to try the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway, a pocket-sized railway originally built to ferry iron ore from the mines out to the coast. These days it is a major attraction with miniature steam trains that chug along for 7 miles down the Eskdale Valley between the coastal town of Ravenglass and the village of Dalegarth – a great way to view the countryside.

Remember reading Beatrix Potter books? Because of her love of the Lake District, she spent much of her time here. When she died, she left 14 farms and 4000 acres of land of her own beloved countryside to the National Trust for all to enjoy. Hill Top is a 17th Century house near Hawkshead, and was once Beatrix Potter’s home. It is open to the public as a writer’s house museum.

You can also head down memory lane at the Lakeland Motor Museum with its collection of 30,000 exhibits. This includes 140 classic cars and motorbikes all carefully assembled over 50 years. However, the museum isn’t just about cars. To quote the museum, the entire collection is “presented in a social context with a host of rarities to awaken some special motoring memories.”

After this brief outline of the pleasures of the Lake District, to sum up, I quote the 18th Century writer, one John Brown, “The Lake country is a glorious region, of which I had only seen the similitude in dreams, waking or sleeping…I longed to slip out unseen and to run away by myself in among the hills and dales.”

Suggested Itineraries:
3-Day The English Lake District and Hadrian’s Wall
8-Day England Lake District (Self Guided Walking Holiday)
6-Day York, The Dales, Lake District and Hadrian’s Wall

Lake District, England, UK

Bordeaux, France – also known as Little Paris

Bordeaux is certainly a famous wine type and also a wine region in South West France, but often it is ignored as a very interesting and attractive city well worth staying in for a few days. It is also, of course, a handy gateway for visits to the wine-growing areas just outside town. Bordeaux is a fairly large city but the most interesting attractions are in the very centre. It is also a city to enjoy by foot. The affluent districts of Bordeaux just north of the centre have been nicknamed “Little Paris,” and I have heard it said that the inhabitants feel Bordeaux is a rival to Paris in some ways.

One of Bordeaux’s attributes is that it lies on the banks of the Garonne River. In fact, the centre is separated from some of its suburbs by this wide stretch of water. The first thing that struck me on arrival here was the elegance of its many classical buildings from the 18th Century found in the centre. Like Paris, it is the architecture which creates a charming ambience. These types of buildings also line the quays of the river for around 1 kilometre/half a mile. An excellent example of this is the Place de la Bourse, built in the mid 1700s. A stroll down the quays of the river will immediately immerse you in history.

Palais de la Bourse Located at Bordeaux, France
Palais de la Bourse

So what to see? An expansive public square in Bordeaux is the Esplanade des Quinconces, considered to be the largest square in Europe. Built in the early 1800s, the square’s monumental fountain honours important past citizens. Nearby is the Jardin Public, where you can visit the Botanical Gardens and the Natural History Museum.

A wonderful Gothic edifice, the Bordeaux Cathedral, dates back to the 11th Century. The masonry carvings are very interesting, as is the 50 metre / 180 feet high belfry. You can climb the tower’s 231 narrow steps after which the reward will be spectacular panoramic views of the city.

Continuing on with my architectural theme, the Grand Theatre was built in 1780 by the same architect who designed the Palais Royal and the Theatre Francais in Paris. It is grand in every sense of the word, with its colossal columns and statues of Greek muses and goddesses.

Belltower at Basilica of St. Michael, Bordeaux, France
Belltower at Basilica of St. Michael

The St. Michel Basilica is another important church. Along with the Cathedral of Saint Andre, it is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. This basilica took 200 years to build from the 14th to the 16th centuries. From the top of the belfry, you can again take in stunning panoramic views of the city. After visiting the basilica, make sure you stroll around the Saint Michel Quarter that surrounds it. This is the most colourful and atmospheric neighborhood in the whole of Bordeaux, and twice a week – on Monday and Saturday mornings – the square of Saint Michel is transformed into a lively marketplace.

One more architectural gem is the Pont de Pierre (Stone Bridge) which blends in perfectly with the city’s elegant riverfront buildings. The bridge spans the Garonne River with 17 graceful arches supported by foundation piles set into the riverbed.

Bordeaux is also a city with more than its fair share of museums and art galleries. The Musée des Beaux-Arts takes up 2 wings of the 18th Century City Hall. Highlights here include Flemish, Dutch, and Italian paintings from the 17th century. A favourite of mine is the Bordeaux Wine and Trade Museum, which is located in the building of an old wine merchant. You can learn about the history of the wine trade with artifacts, videos, and a guided tour, followed by a personal wine tasting and presentation of wines of the region by one of the staff.

I feel I haven’t really scratched the surface of the delights of Bordeaux, and should mention there are quaint shops, cafes, gardens, and an abundance of very French restaurants. I can only suggest to find out more, you visit Bordeaux, France on your European vacation.

Suggested Itineraries:
3-Day Bordeaux Stopover
9-Day A Taste of Bordeaux – Back Roads Experience

Aerial View of the City of Bordeaux, France
Aerial view of the city of Bordeaux
Dresden, Germany – a Beautiful City Literally Risen from the Ashes

If you are looking for a reasonably quiet and laid-back destination, on your European vacation, which offers lots of wonderful buildings, a long history, lush green spaces, and a unique charm, then head to Dresden in South East Germany. It is amazing to think that although 80% of Dresden’s historic centre was destroyed during World War II, all the important landmarks have been rebuilt to their former glory. Although not so specific, it was originally part of Eastern Germany and off limits to most of the west.

One’s first impression is of spaciousness. The River Elbe flows through the centre, with lots of greenery on both its banks along which you can take a leisurely stroll. The Old Town hovers above the river and makes for an attractive skyline. Simply stand on the promenade and look down on the river and the greenery to be drawn in by the view. Dresden has been described as “Germany’s Florence” and it’s no wonder.

Dresden Cityscape Over the Elbe River, Dresden, Germany
Dresden cityscape over the Elbe River

Let’s start with the Old Town, also known as Altstadt. Along with the interesting district of New town (Neustadt), it was planned and constructed on the orders of Saxon monarchs. From the 19th century the city grew by incorporating other districts, but the Old town contains the majority of Dresden’s treasures. Neumarkt Square is the city’s best known square and one of the places restored to its old self. It has a wonderful charm, characterized by its gabled houses built in Baroque style. In the square is the Frauenkirche (Church of our Lady). It was completely destroyed during the war, and the first time I visited Dresden, it had been determined that it be faithfully rebuilt. When I was there at that time, an area containing hundreds of pieces of stone all laid out perfectly in sections was a remarkable sight. The patience to do this as a precursor to the rebuilding boggles the mind. The ruins of the Frauenkirche and its surrounding area remained untouched for many years, acting as a memorial. Today it has been totally rebuilt. This magnificent domed Baroque church once again dominates Dresden’s skyline.

Frauenkirche Church, Dresden, Germany
Frauenkirche Church in Dresden

The most architecturally beautiful section of the Elbe’s banks in Dresden, dating back to the mid 1700s is Brühl’s Terrace – known as the “Balcony of Europe.” From the terrace you can see many of the sites around Dresden, including the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts, Dresden Fortress, and the Albertinum art museum, plus great vistas of the River Elbe. The terrace was originally part of ramparts built to protect the city.

The Royal Palace, or Dresden Castle, also destroyed, was reconstructed to create a museum complex. The best known is the Green Vault, one of Europe’s most magnificent treasure chambers with some 3,000 treasures.

The most significant building from the late Baroque period is the Zwinger Palace, Dresden’s answer to Paris’ Versailles, and originally built in 1709. Apart from its setting in spacious ornamental gardens, it contains various museums including one of the world’s largest collections of Dresden porcelain. The Armoury has an extensive collection of weapons, suits of armour, and ceremonial garments.

Bruehl's Terrace, Dresden, Germany
Bruehl’s Terrace at night

The Semperoper opera house, largely destroyed during the war, has been considered one of the world’s loveliest. This magnificent hall is an architectural delight and is home to the Saxon State Orchestra, as well as being a venue for symphony concerts and ballet.

Something a little different is Pfund’s Dairy in the Neustadt district. The Guinness Book of World Records has named it “the most beautiful dairy shop in the world.” The interior decoration of the dairy shop, which was founded in 1880, has amazingly embellished tile paintings in a Neo-Renaissance style. Every inch of the walls, ceiling, floor, and counters of this little dairy shop is covered with hand-painted tiles produced by Villeroy & Boch, in cooperation with local artists. Apart from the shop, there is also a café.

Dresden’s Neustadt neighborhood is a mixture of the bourgeoisie and the bohemian, with its alternative scene of eccentric cafes and pubs, art galleries, small theatres, and little shops. It’s a great place to spend some time while in Germany or on a European vacation.

To sum up Dresden, it’s a beautiful city that has heroically reinvented itself.

Suggested Excursion:
Dresden’s Neustadt by Night – Bars and Pubs | Germany

Zwinger Palace Courtyard, Dresden, Germany
Zwinger Palace courtyard

Next:
My European Vacation Favourites – Part 2
My European Vacation Favourites – Part 3