Great Escapes

European Travel Blog


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A beer tour of Bruges

Between the beautiful architecture, tasty chocolate, charming cobbled streets and army of swans, there is another key ingredient to a holiday in Bruges lurking away in atmospheric pubs and inviting shops. No trip to Belgium, and its most visited tourist destination, is complete without sampling Belgian beer. Ali from Great Escapes recently returned from a beer-heavy trip to Bruges. This is his conclusion of his time in the medieval city and exposure to Belgium’s true gift to mankind.

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Chocolate, waffles and beer were at the forefront of my mind when I visited Bruges recently. I have long been a big beer fan, having previously worked for a beer magazine, and not many places do it much better than Belgium. Much to my girlfriend’s delight, I dragged us into giant bottle shops in the middle of walking tours, grabbed a refreshing pint before midday and even took us on a tour of the city’s oldest surviving brewery.

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I’m pleased, and slightly amazed to say, we both had a great time delving into the beery heritage of the city, and it is certainly an activity I would encourage holidaymakers to explore during any break to Bruges; particularly those travelling by Eurostar, as avoiding those pesky flight weight restrictions will ensure you can bring back as many bottles as you can carry home with you!

One of the first big beer stops that visitors to Bruges should make is at De Halve Maan, Bruges’ most historical brewery. Beer has been brewed here by the Maes family for centuries and today, the brewery and its adjoining museum are open for guided tours, culminating in a free glass of De Halve Maan’s most famous product, Brugse Zot. Tours take place every hour between 11 am and 4 pm and tickets can be booked on their website or purchased upon arrival.

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The next stage of your trip, which comprised about 65% of my visit, should be spent dipping in and out of Bruges’ fine beer pubs and bars. Two reign supreme in the city, Cambrinus Beer Brasserie and ‘t Brugs Beertje. The former can be found to the north east of the Grote Markt on Philipstockstraat and has one of the thickest beer menus I’ve ever had the pleasure to peruse, while the latter is located on Kemelstraat to the south east of the GroteMarkt. It was in Cambrinus Beer Brasserie where I sampled a bottle of Westvleteren 12 – often referred to as the world’s greatest beer.

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When your beer pub and bar pilgrimage has come to an end, you’ll want to find a suitable shop where you can purchase your new favourite beers for their journey back to the UK. Look no further than The Bottle Shop, discovered on Wollestraat just a stone’s throw from the Grote Markt. This remains the largest beer shop I’ve ever set foot in, and I managed to purchase 12 beers here to transport home with me.

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It is safe to say that beer nuts will find a haven in the city of Bruges, but even those who don’t consider themselves a fan of the world’s finest beverage will be intrigued by the history of the city’s beer culture, or better yet, find themselves converted.

If you’re more of a wine and champagne kind of person, make sure you take a look at some of our Great Escapes to France.


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Cycling in Holland

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Following on from my experience cycling in Belgium, Holland is arguably even more rewarding to explore on two wheels, such is the magnitude of the country’s cycling infrastructure. Whether you find yourself pedaling through remote countryside or amid the hustle and bustle of a major city, bikes commonly outnumber cars (and even people in Amsterdam), ensuring that cycling is a safe and speedy way to get from point to point, or attraction to attraction. My summer cycling tour took me through Holland and saw me pass through the likes of Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Utrecht and Nijmegen, and I firmly believe that exploring the country by bicycle is one of the best ways to spend a holiday in Holland.

Cycling around Rotterdam

The first stop of my cycling adventure through Holland was Rotterdam and its surrounding area. The flat landscapes are ideal cycling conditions, ensuring that making up large distances in short times are easy for even inexperienced cyclists. The countryside to the south of Rotterdam is sparse and isolated but beautiful, dotted with windmills, farms and canals leading up to the city itself.

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Rotterdam is an interesting city, presenting a lot of modern architecture and intriguing art galleries. For those spending their holidays in Amsterdam, Rotterdam is just a short train journey away and it is easy to transport your bikes on board if you fancy cycling around the city. One of my favourite destinations in easy cycling distance of Rotterdam is Kinderdijk, and specifically the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Kinderdijk Windmills. In 1740 19 windmills were built around the area for drainage purposes, and today these mills comprise the largest concentration of old windmills in the country. Shame it was raining so much when I was there!

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Cycling in Amsterdam

There are more bicycles than inhabitants in the city of Amsterdam, so it comes as no surprise that the city is practically built for cyclists. Holidays in Amsterdam are best enjoyed on two wheels as it allows you the ease of travelling from attraction to attraction safely and quickly. Cycle lanes are found throughout the city and bike rental is readily available and very reasonably priced.

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There’s no better way to spend a mild morning or warm evening than cycling alongside the pretty canals of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Canal Ring and the beautiful old architecture of the Old Centre – one of the largest in Europe. The Jordaan neighbourhood is another pleasant place to cycle, filled with lots of hip bars and aromatic eateries that will inevitably lure you into their charms.

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Cycling in Utrecht

A pretty little city set just to the south-east of the capital Amsterdam, Utrecht is predominantly a student city, home to one of the country’s most prominent universities. This lends to Utrecht’s vibrant and artistic identity, enjoyed by tourists and locals alike. Many people leave Utrecht feeling even more charmed than they did when they left Amsterdam, perhaps due to the fact there are less tourists and more of an authentic vibe around the city.

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While Utrecht may have less iconic sites than Amsterdam, there are still a number of impressive landmarks to encounter while languidly pedaling around the cobbled streets. Dom Church is among the most memorable, towering above the city and the Oudegracht canal below, while the City Hall is another unique building worth a spot or two on your camera.

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Cycling in Nijmegen

The final stop on my cycling tour in the Netherlands was the city of Nijmegen, located in the south-east of the country and just a short ride from the border with Germany where my European trip continued. The cycle from Utrecht to Nijmegen is the perfect reminder of how efficient the Netherlands’ cycling infrastructure is. I spent much of the day’s ride about 30 metres from a busy motorway on my own cycling path – often moving faster than the gridlocked traffic!

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The compact centre of Nijmegen is another great place to explore by bike, with striking squares and eye-catching landmarks, such as the buildings bordering the Grote Markt, well worth a visit. Nijmegen is also known for its WWII history and its marvellous bridge, famous for the Operation Market Garden offensive.

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If cycling isn’t really your thing, you can still visit the wonderful Netherlands with Great Escapes, in addition to many other fascinating European destinations.

If you’d like to learn more about my cycling adventures around Europe, you can read more on my blog.


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Discover the history of Cologne

A self-drive or Eurostar holiday to Cologne will introduce visitors to a city boasting a wealth of historical and cultural attractions. This should come as no surprise; the city holds a history spanning over 2,000 years and amazingly several cultural monuments dating from the city’s early years are still standing today. You’ll discover them stood beside medieval and modern landmarks, all combining to showcase a city of immense affluence and intrigue.

Given the history of Cologne, you’ll find an endless list of attractions, sites and stories to discover during your city break. To help you connect with the most fascinating elements of Cologne, we’ve put together a timeline of the city’s fascinating history and culture.


Roman Cologne

There is a long history of Romans residing beside the River Rhine, a history that Cologne has been a significant part of. Several signs of the Roman civilisation can be found in the city, from the Roman foundations beneath the City Hall, the famed Roman Tower which was built in the first century AD and the Weidener Grabkammer burial chamber which contains spectacular furnishings. For the best insight and information into the city’s Roman era, look no further than a visit to the fantastic Roman-German Museum.

The Cathedral

Arguably one of the most prominent landmarks in the history of Cologne, Cologne Cathedral towers above the Old Town, offering panoramic views from 157 metres up across the roofs of the city. The first stone was laid in 1248, though the cathedral as it stands today wasn’t completed until 1880. Miraculously, the cathedral survived heavy bombing during WWII and today the building is maintained and resorted by a team of 80 stonemasons, glaziers, roofers and several other specialists.

Image source: Kolntourismus

Image source: Kolntourismus

Romanic Churches

Touring the many Romanic churches found across the city is easily one of the top things to do in Cologne. There are twelve Romanic churches that contribute to the culture and history of Cologne, from St. Andreas and magnificent St. Gereon to charming St. Maria Capitol and the towering Groß St. Martin (pictured below).

Image source: Kolntourismus

Image source: Kolntourismus

The Old Town and Medieval Cologne

Picturesque charm resonates throughout Cologne’s Old Town. Over 70% of the city was destroyed during WWII, but much of the breath-taking medieval architecture and buildings were rebuilt to their original appearance. Today, one of the best places to enjoy the atmosphere of the Old Town is over a glass of Kölsch – a traditional Cologne beer – off the cobbled medieval streets of Heumarkt.

Image source: Kolntourismus

Image source: Kolntourismus

Hohenzollern Bridge

Cologne’s iconic bridge provides passage across the River Rhine, while also simultaneously blending history and modern culture. The bridge was built in 1907 and then rebuilt after WWII, reopened to the public in 1948. It is a proud feat of German engineering, but for many today, the bridge is perhaps best known for its ‘love lock’ tradition. This involves tens of thousands of padlocks being secured to the bridge by different couples, symbolising their love. It is estimated that the padlocks have added over two tonnes of weight to the bridge!

Image source: Kolntourismus

Image source: Kolntourismus

Modern Cologne

The modern day city holds another important chapter in the history of Cologne and its captivating culture. The city has become a haven for shoppers with one of Europe’s biggest shopping areas, found along Hohe Straße and Schildergasse, just a stone’s throw from the city’s cathedral. Art lovers will also revel in the opportunities presented by Cologne, especially via the world-famous Museum Ludwig and the ART Cologne festival held every April. Koelner Zoo is another famous modern day resident of the city, popular with tourists and locals alike. Cologne is also recognised for its diversity and acceptance of different cultures, famed as being one of the most gay-friendly cities in Europe.

Image source: Kolntourismus

Image source: Kolntourismus

Read more about Cologne via our informative guide.


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The best views in Amsterdam

The Netherlands’ capital, Amsterdam, is one of Europe’s most picturesque cities, boasting a network of fairy tale-like canals, romantic bridges and splendid architectural gems. The city is also famed for being home to the one of the most extensive historic city centres in Europe, with 7,000 buildings registered and recognised for their history. It’s safe to assume then that your camera will be busy during a holiday to Amsterdam, and to ensure you capture the finest photographs to take home with you, we’ve put together a list of the best views in Amsterdam – make sure you pack an extra memory card and battery!


The Canal Ring

Given that the city is built around and on a winding and curving network of canals, it is likely that you’ll stumble across one or two top spots for capturing that perfect view of Amsterdam’s waterways. We think one of the best views in Amsterdam can be enjoyed from one of the several bridges crossing over the Keizersgracht, especially at the junction with Leidsegracht where you can enjoy a fantastic view of several bridges, boats and canals.

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Source: Holland.com

The historic buildings

There are numerous historic buildings of interest to those on holiday in Amsterdam, from Anne Frank’s House and the Oude Kerk, to the Begijnhof and the countless traditional, medieval houses that line the canals. The best way to absorb Amsterdam’s architectural splendour is from the water on a canal boat tour. From here you’ll enjoy some of the best views in Amsterdam, as well as the opportunity to access nooks and crannies unreachable on foot.

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Photo credit: Alberto Mateo | Holland.com

Amsterdam in the snow and ice

If you find yourself on an Amsterdam holiday in the winter months, you’ll have the best chance of seeing Amsterdam in the snow. The wintery façade of the city is beautiful, providing some incredible snowy views for your camera to capture. During particularly cold winters it isn’t unusual for the canals to freeze over, triggering a bizarre scene of ice skaters whizzing along the winding canals.

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Source: Holland.com

The city skyline

One of the best ways to absorb the sprawling beauty of Amsterdam, especially the old centre, is from up high where you can enjoy a view of the city skyline. There are several places that offer an impressive view across the roofs of Amsterdam, but the most popular is Sky Lounge Amsterdam, a classy bar serving up tasty drinks and bites.

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Photo credit: INTERPIXELS | Shutterstock

Canal sunrise

The orange glow bouncing off the water and heritage buildings are a beautiful view not to be missed in Amsterdam. The sunrise is the cause of this marvel, best enjoyed from any canal bridge in a relatively open area, such as along Brouwersgracht. Just make sure you’re facing east!

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Image credit: Dennis van de Water | Shutterstock

Church of St. Nicholas

Easily one of the best views in Amsterdam, peering across to the towering turrets of the Church of St. Nicholas, with the shimmering waters of the Oudezijdsvoorburgwal canal before you, is an unforgettable moment to capture in your memory and on your camera.

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Image credit: Neirfy | Shutterstock

Amsterdam by night

The city lit up at night is one of the most breath-taking scenes from any holiday in Amsterdam. There are several spots to discover the best of the city’s illuminated character, but we think Amsterdam Centraal Station emits an extra special sense of grandeur when the sun goes down and the lights come on.

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Image credit: Neirfy | Shutterstock

 

Tempted by a holiday to Amsterdam? Whether it is a self-drive adventure or a comfortable journey by Eurostar, check out our range of holidays to the Netherlands.

Share your favourite views of Amsterdam by commenting below.


 


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Top 5 château breaks in France

Our range of châteaux are among the most exciting and rewarding properties at Great Escapes. The grandeur and flamboyance of one of France’s most impressive and historic buildings make for an unrivalled holiday experience. Whether you opt for the rolling vineyards of the Champagne region or a base close to the ocean in Pas de Calais, we have a range of breath-taking châteaux awaiting holidaymakers in 2016. To help inspire you further, we’ve put together a list of our top 5 château breaks in France

 

1. Château de Fère

Located in the stunning and famed Champagne region, Château de Fère is the perfect base for exploring the vineyards, verdant hills and historic towns of Champagne. The fully restored chateau dates from the 16th century and is set amid the imposing ruins of a 13th-century medieval castle. This 5-star hotel and spa is a pleasure to stay at, equipped with luxurious suites and rooms, a gastronomic restaurant managed by a Michelin-starred chef, pool facilities, and a stunning location amid the pristine countryside of Champagne.

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2. Le Château Fort de Sedan

Introducing another of Champagne’s premier châteaux, Le Château Fort de Sedan is part of the largest medieval castle in Europe; surely one of the most prestigious places to rest your head during château breaks in France? A step back in time will be awaiting you at this château, with original stone walls ensuring that the character and medieval charm is retained throughout the hotel. Comfort isn’t sacrificed however, with large and relaxing bedrooms decked out with all the usual mod cons, while an on-site bar and restaurant promises to keep guests fed and watered with the best culinary treats of the region.

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3. Château Hotel Mont Royal

Located only 35 minutes from wonderful Paris, a stay in Château Hotel Mont Royal will reflect all of the romance, flamboyance and style of the French capital. This stunning 18th-century château can be found nestled in the heart of the picturesque Chantilly Forest, providing a relaxing and peaceful escape from the hustle bustle of Paris. The hotel’s immense location and splendour is reflected in its facilities, boasting a spa, fitness centre, sports infrastructure and an ancient ballroom in which the hotel’s renowned restaurant is set. The guest rooms are thoughtfully decorated, while also providing all of the comforts of any modern hotel, promising all-round relaxation during chateau breaks in France.

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4. Château Hotel Clèry

Surrounded by five acres of parkland amid a wooded grove within the realms of a charming French village, the stunning manor house that encompasses Château Hotel Clèry is a remarkable sight to behold. Awakening your Downton Abbey dreams, albeit in the wrong country, the splendour and traditions of this hotel encapsulates a unique and flamboyant holiday experience. 25 beautifully decorated rooms are on offer, as well as a reading room, bar, terrace and gourmet restaurant called ‘Le Berthier’.

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5. Château Tilques

An attractive 19-th century château set in beautiful parkland and reflecting an attractive Flemish style, Château Tilques is one of our most popular châteaux. Just a short drive from Calais, Château Tilques is one of the most accessible of its kind for those on self drive holidays, introducing visitors to a region of France famed for its verdant countryside and winding canals. Features at this hotel include a comfortable lounge bar, an indoor swimming pool, classic château rooms and more modern rooms, as well as a fantastic gourmet restaurant.

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Tempted by a holiday to France full of splendour and style? Have at our full range of chateau breaks in France.


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New Year in Cologne

If you’ve ever been to Cologne, you’ll already know that it’s a beautiful city and a great place to visit at any time of the year. But what about heading over to celebrate the New Year? We’ve looked at different events and activities that you can find in Cologne on 31st December, which we hope will inspire you to take a trip…

Fireworks display

Find a spot along the riverbank of the Rhine or one of the bridges for the best view of these spectacular midnight fireworks. Be sure to get a spot fairly early, as it gets quite busy later into the evening.

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River cruise on the Rhine

With a selection of boats to choose from, all with a different party style, you can watch the magnificent fireworks display while cruising along the river Rhine. Setting sail in the early evening, you can take your pick between a night of live performances, including authentic Cologne music or 70s and 80s, just to name a few. You can book a river cruise here.

Visit the Old Town

Explore the historic old town, where you can find lots of little shops down meandering streets and eye-catching colourful buildings – a lot of which were rebuilt after the Second World War.

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Image credit: Charlie Dave

Live music

If you’re more interested in a beer-and-a-band kind of evening, make your way down to the Lanxess Arena, get a traditional Kölsch beer and enjoy the evening’s entertainment. This year a band formed in 1970 titled “Bläck Fööss” will be gracing the stage.

Panorama Cologne Triangle

Although the building isn’t open to watch the late night fireworks, it’s still worth a visit, as from here (for those of you who don’t mind heights) you can see a panoramic view of the city from 29 floors up, which will no doubt look incredible when lit up at night. Find out more about booking a ticket here.

Köln Panorama

If you’d like more information about short breaks to Cologne, or would like to book a trip, pay a visit to our website.


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Cycling in Belgium

One of the best ways to explore Belgium is on two wheels. The flat landscapes, superb canal pathways and close proximity of major attractions ensure that cycling during your holidays in Belgium is an ideal way of discovering the country. This is exactly what I did during my latest trip to Belgium where I biked between the beautiful cities of Ypres, Ghent and Bruges.

Cycling in Ypres

The first city of my five-day cycling tour of Belgium was Ypres, a beautiful old city built around a grand central marketplace adorned with splendid buildings. Ypres is perhaps best known as the location for intense fighting during WWI, with countless tourists visiting the city every year to embark on battlefield tours.

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Cycling along the canal into the city saw me pass a number of war cemeteries and memorials, including the Essex Farm Cemetery where I encountered a memorial to John McCrae, the writer of the iconic In Flanders Field poem. The most poignant landmark for reflection is the beautiful Menin Gate. Every day at 8pm a service is held beneath the gate in memory of the fallen WWI soldiers whose graves remain unknown. The Last Post Ceremony, as it is called, was played out for the 30,000th time in July 2015.

Beyond the scars of war, the city was a thrilling place to cycle. As I bobbed around on the cobbles I absorbed the beauty of the magnificent Cloth Hall, stopping for refreshment in the form of a Belgian beer in the marketplace. The following day I began my cycle to Ghent.

Ieper: De lakenhallen Foto Tijl Capoen

Image credit: Tiji Capoen

Cycling in Ghent

To the northeast of Ypres is the marvellous medieval city of Ghent. Admittedly the ride from Ypres to Ghent takes a long time, with the distance between the two cities around 90 km, but I encountered some great stops along the way. Kortrijk and Waregem presented pleasant locations for me to take a break every couple of hours, and these could easily be incorporated into a three-day ride to Ghent. The ride didn’t feel long, hugging a great network of canal cycle paths, ensuring that avoiding traffic was never a factor of the ride.

Royalty Free

The city of Ghent itself was equally appealing. I stayed just outside of the city’s Begijnhof, and it was wonderful cycling around these practically-deserted streets and admiring the medieval architecture. I followed the network of canals next, discovering some fantastic views throughout the city, one of the best coming in the form of the Gravensteen castle.

It is the city centre that forms the jewel in Ghent’s crown however. Home to an unrivalled range of landmarks and attractions, including the striking Saint Nicholas’ Church and the towering Belfry from where you can enjoy unprecedented views of the city.

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Image credit: Emi Cristea

Cycling in Bruges

The ride from Ghent to Bruges is one of the simplest in the country, following a straight river pathway west along flat countryside for around 45km. The only hitch is the wind, with notorious headwinds slowing the progress of those cycling from east to west. The prize at the end of the ride makes it worth it though, with incredible Bruges awaiting you with its wonderfully-preserved old town.

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Image credit: Jan Darthet

The core of Bruges’ old town has little traffic, making cycling one of the best ways to explore the highlights of the city. I started in the Grote Markt, grabbing a beer in a bar set on the outside ring which allowed me to sit and admire the stunning Belfry as it chimed away in the sunshine. The neighbouring square is called Burg Square, home to the grand City Hall and the Basilica of the Holy Blood, and was another highlight of my visit. The Church of Our Lady and its grounds were one of the final places I cycled to (with a tourist agenda), before spending the rest of the day sampling some more of the city’s highlights.

These mainly consisted of chocolate, beer and waffles, serving as my fuel for the next day’s cycle into the Netherlands. There are a range of great chocolate shops and beer cafes, but I opted for Dumon Chocolatier and ‘t Brugs Beertje respectively. I also took a tour of the city’s brewery, De Halve Maan, and sipped a few of their beers in the brewery bar. It’s safe to say I was wheeling my bicycle back to my accommodation that evening.

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Image credit: Jiang_liu

Even if you’re not keen on cycling, you can visit all of these wonderful destinations with Great Escapes, as well as several other alluring destinations across Europe.

If you’d like to read more about my European cycling adventure, you can find further details and stories on my blog.