Happy Europe Day! Yes, I know the timing could be better, what with the whole Brexit thing, but regardless of that, we should all be thankful for the peace and unity that’s existed on our continent for the best part of 70 years.
Because that’s really what Europe Day celebrates, as 9 May marks the anniversary of the ‘Schuman Declaration’, a speech given in 1950 by the then French Foreign Minister, Robert Schuman, during which he set out a plan for a new form of political cooperation that would make war between Europe’s nations unthinkable.
This effectively set the wheels in motion for European Union, and even though Britain is currently working out the details to leave, let’s put that to one side and celebrate one thing we can all agree on - Europe is packed with fabulous holiday destinations, most of which are within a couple of hours flying time from the UK.
To demonstrate the huge variety of options available, we’re going to take a look at a classic city destination, a sunny island of brilliant beach resorts and more, and a magnificent area of mountains, valleys and stunning scenic beauty.
With its historic canals, gondolas, bridges, churches, museums, winding streets and cheery piazzas (as well as pizzas!), Venice is an iconic and instantly-recognisable city that makes it onto pretty much every traveller’s bucket list.
And so it should. I went there with high hopes (and such is my nature was prepared to be disappointed) and the beautiful, amazing city totally surpassed all my expectations.
For starters, visiting Venice is a lot like visiting the past. Not only do many of the wonderful buildings date back centuries, but there are precious few of the modern world’s fast food or coffee shop chains and, of course, no cars on the canal-filled main island - the only way to get about is on foot or by boat.
All of which means you’re instantly engaged and immersed in the rich atmosphere of Venetian life, which seems to carry on at its own pace.
Everywhere you go there’s something fascinating or jaw-dropping to look at - from the Renaissance and Gothic palaces that line the Grand Canal thoroughfare, to the Byzantine mosaics of St Mark’s Basilica, where the bell tower offers great views over the city’s red roofs, to the stunning artworks in the Doge’s Palace.
The Inferno and The Harrowing of Hell by Herri met de Bles won’t be to everyone’s taste, but seeing them at close quarters was worth the entrance fee alone, as far as I was concerned.
As I said, the harrowing paintings won’t be to everyone’s liking, but here are some of the must-do sights and activities in Venice that everyone should enjoy.
Hit the streets
Walking is easily the best way to explore Venice, as well as to get a real feel for the place. You can cross the canals by bridges, or in large gondola ferries known as traghetti.
Visit St Mark’s Basilica
This stunning church in the Piazza San Marco is actually the third building to stand on the same spot, and contains an incredible array of mosaics, domes, statues, and, if you believe the myth, some of the saint’s remains.
Tour the Doge’s Palace
You don’t have to like macabre paintings to visit the Doge’s Palace (though it helps!), as the wonderful building on St Mark’s Square is like a giant piece of artwork in itself, and tours also take you across the iconic Bridge of Sighs to the nearby prison cells, where Casanova was once an inmate.
Take a ferry to Burano
Murano is probably the best-known island in the Venetian Lagoon, courtesy of its famous glass factories, but I much preferred its delightful neighbour Burano, where the streets are lined with brightly-coloured houses, art galleries, shops and restaurants.
Eat pizza alfresco
There’s no better way to enjoy pizza than seated at an outdoor table on a balmy evening - and you don’t need to walk far from Piazza San Marco to find restaurants where the prices are infinitely more affordable. The house wines are great value, although my companions quickly became enamoured by the locals’ favourite aperitif, Aperol spritz.
Take a gondola ride
Oh go on then. I know they’re a tourist trap and ridiculously overpriced but a gondola ride is still a wonderful treat, and an especially romantic gesture if taken at dusk. And if it doesn’t spoil the mood too much, you could share the ride with others and split the cost.
A rather different - as well as bigger - island to the many that make up Venice, Cyprus is a long-established holiday hot-spot and the sort of place that can very credibly lay claim to having ‘something for everyone’.
The Mediterranean island attracts everyone from families to clubbers, courtesy of its wonderful sandy beaches, (more than 60 of which are Blue Flag-certified), fascinating ancient sights, lovely food and a mix of laidback and lively resorts where you’ll be kicking back.
There’s plenty more to explore away from the coasts too, including beautiful scenery, most notably in the Troodos Mountains, and sleepy villages where little seems to have changed in centuries.
The island has been divided since 1974 when Turkey invaded the northern third, and although there are some lovely resorts and attractions in this area - from the coastal treasures of Kyrenia and the lovely Karpas Peninsula to the ancient Roman city of Salamis - for the purposes of this blog I’m going to concentrate on the Greek area of the island.
But not before I mention the fascinating capital city of Nicosia, which itself is divided into Turkish and Greek halves and is the world’s last divided capital. Often overlooked by tourists, it’s the island’s cultural centre, with an Old City that combines vibrant street life, lively bars, cafés and rich history, in the form of colonial-era architecture, churches, mosques and museums. At the very least, it’s worth a day trip from your holiday haven at the coast.
Speaking of which, the Greek part of the island has a number of wonderful seaside resorts, largely divided between two key regions - Larnaca in the east and Paphos in the west. Both have an array of attractions and places to stay or visit, with three main resorts in each area which I’m going to explore here.
Protaras is the area’s most family-friendly resort, not least because of its beautiful golden sandy beaches with clear shallow waters that are perfect for those holidaying with youngsters. There’s a great selection of restaurants, bars and cafés on the main strip, and if you fancy a break from resort life, head south to Cape Greco National Forest Park, and take a walk among the protected pine forest trails.
Further south still is Ayia Napa, which is starting to overcome its reputation as a clubbing mecca and party paradise for the 18-30 crowd. That’s because away from the bars and clubs you’ll find one of the best beaches on the entire island - Pantachou - a pretty old town, Venetian-era monastery and some great fish restaurants in the harbour area.
Nissi Beach is realistically part of Ayia Napa, but worth a mention of its own because it’s not only arguably one of the world’s best beaches - 500 metres of glorious white sands that the word paradise was coined for - but the nocturnal entertainment is rather more laidback than its lively neighbour. Local tavernas and village restaurants are the order of the day here, and the perfect way to wind down after a trip to WaterWorld. This is a giant waterpark that sits on a little island just offshore... and WaterWorld also happens to be the English translation of ‘nissi’.
Probably the best-known resort on Cyprus’ west coast, Paphos is a traditional harbour town with a handful of golden beaches, a pretty marina and a surprising selection of historical sights, including Kato Paphos Archeological Park - which features mosaics that date back 2,000 years - the Tombs of the Kings and Paphos Castle, a Byzantine structure that sits right at the water’s edge.
Limassol is the biggest resort in Cyprus and, not surprisingly, covers all the holiday bases, with a lovely seven-mile stretch of beach, lengthy promenade, huge range of bars, cafés and restaurants, especially in the attractive Old Town, and array of cultural attractions. These include an archaeological museum, the ancient Limassol Castle, which also houses the Cyprus Medieval Museum, and the Prokymea Sculpture Park, located right on the seafront.
Coral Bay is home to yet another stunning Blue Flag beach, this time in the form of a sandy, horseshoe-shaped cove with shallow turquoise waters ideal for family bathing. The lively seaside town is home to rustic tavernas and friendly restaurants, as well as contemporary cocktail bars, and the coastal views are impressive if you look inland too, as the bay is overlooked by limestone cliffs.
The limestone cliffs of Coral Bay are one thing, but if you’re looking for spectacular natural wonders, how about the Bavarian Alps?
The beautiful mountains, and the valleys that surround them, are the big (and I mean big!) attraction for Bavaria, an intoxicating land of stunning scenery and fairytale castles in southeast Germany, where the natural wonders lend themselves to a range of activities to suit all types of holidaymaker.
The choice of season is crucial of course, as the region enjoys golden summers and white winters, meaning you can hike the hills and enjoy watersports on the lakes or wrap up to hit the snow-covered slopes on skis and snowboards.
And if that all sounds a bit sporty, there are plenty of options for more relaxing pursuits, whether you want to relax on one of the lakeside beaches, wander the cobbled streets of villages such as Lindau and Füssen, visit an ancient castle or take in the cosmopolitan attractions of Munich.
The Germans also love a party, so the Bavarian calendar features lots of exciting annual events, including carnivals, concerts, Christmas markets and food and beer festivals, with Oktoberfest being the main one.
As well as sampling the local bratwursts and brews, here are a few top things to do in Bavaria:
Visit the castles
Bavaria is known as castle country, and many can be seen along the ‘Romantic Road’ just outside the fairytale town of Füssen. And speaking of fairytales, the region’s best-known castle is Neuschwanstein, which was built for King Ludwig II in the late 1800s, and also provided the inspiration for the castle at Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom.
Hit the peaks
The Bavarian Alps are as popular with hikers in summer as they are with skiers in winter, but whatever time you visit the views will take your breath away. Take the cable car to the top of Zugspitze, Germany’s highest peak (at nearly 3,000m), and you’ll enjoy views over four countries - Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Austria - from the top.
Make a splash
As well as mountains and valleys, Bavaria is home to a number of lakes, not least in Funfseenland where five stunning expanses of water offer all manner of pursuits, from a gentle boat ride to energetic kayaking or windsurfing. You can also hike or bike along the shores, or how about a balloon ride high above?
Tour the capital
Bavaria’s capital, Munich, might be renowned for its huge beer festival Oktoberfest, but there’s plenty to see and do all year round, from wonderful architecture - especially the Romanesque and Renaissance churches in the main square - to an array of art and craft galleries and a vast selection of shopping options, from high street brands to designer boutiques. Oh, and you can create your own beer festival by sampling some of the local brews at one of the city’s many traditional pubs.
Foray into the forest
The Black Forest region, close to the borders of France and Switzerland, is renowned for its beautiful scenery, cuckoo clocks and gateaux, and is another Bavarian highlight. Here the landscape ranges from steep mountains to gentle hills, Alpine meadows to narrow valleys where rivers wind through the idyllic countryside. Here you’ll also find Lake Titisee, the largest natural lake in the region and a lovely spot to relax on the shore or head out on the water in a pedalo or a sailing boat.
Europe has so many incredible holiday destinations to choose from, with city breaks, sunny beach holidays and cultural getaways just all a short flight away from the UK.
So, if you would like to explore some of the destinations mentioned in this blog, or see where else your RCI membership can take you on your next holiday, click on the RCI Resort Directory button and start your accommodation search.
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