Great Escapes

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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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New destinations for great escapes: Amsterdam and Cologne

Last month we launched our new brochure for 2015 featuring self-drive and Eurostar breaks to Northern France and Belgium with two new destinations being featured, namely Amsterdam and Cologne. Both cities are easily reached by Eurostar, via Brussels with onward high-speed train connections and make great short break destinations.

AMSTERDAM

Amsterdam is one of the liveliest and most cosmopolitan cities in Europe and its compact size means you can see most of the main attractions on foot, or even by bicycle, in just a few days.

36065_16881239_Serenity Use Only Photography credit: Kavalenkava Volha / Shutterstock

Possibly the city’s most distinguishing feature are the warehouses and elegant homes of the 17th century merchants from Holland’s Golden Age when it was the richest city in the world. These line the 165 canals which are collectively a UNESCO World Heritage site. They are spanned by over 1,000 bridges; that’s even more than Venice.

36057_17624032_Serenity Use OnlyPhotography creidt: S.Borisov / Shutterstock

The city also boasts some 50 museums and art galleries including the Rijksmseum, with its stunning collection of paintings by Dutch masters, the Stedelijk museum of modern art, not to mention the Van Gogh Museum,  as well as Anne Frank’s House, to name but a few. You’ll also find some fabulous markets, great street art as well as street food, a great range of restaurants, cafés and bars with a superb choice of beers. What’s not to love?! Packages are from £64pp. This price is based on one night’s bed & breakfast at the three star West Cord Art Hotel with two sharing a room and return ferry travel for a car and four passengers.

COLOGNE

Germany’s fourth-largest city was founded by the Romans in 38 BC. Today it is one of the most diverse cities in Europe with a never ending list of attractions. On a walk around town you’ll discover an ancient Roman wall, medieval churches, avant-garde buildings and  a new postmodern quarter right on the Rhine.  Whether on foot, bicycle or even on a river cruise, Cologne is a beautiful city with its famous cathedral’s twin spires dominating the skyline. In fact the Dom is the country’s largest cathedral and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Remarkably while it was started in 1248, it was not finished for over 600 years later in 1880.

o Haake / KölnTourismus GmbHPhotography credit:  Udo Haake / KölnTourismus GmbH

Cologne, like Amsterdam, is a city for all seasons. Don’t miss the beer halls of the Altstadt (old town) which are lively anytime of year and the fabulous museums and art galleries can also be enjoyed whatever the weather. In spring join in the Carnival and in winter explore the Christmas Market.

Owner Dieter Jacobi / KölnTourismus GmbHPhotography credit:  Dieter Jacobi / KölnTourismus GmbH

Packages are available from £66pp. This price is based on one night’s bed & breakfast at the four star NH Cologne City Hotel with two sharing a room and return ferry travel for a car and four passengers.


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Picture Postcard from…. Trinity Abbey, Vendôme

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The abbey of the Trinity was founded in 1033 by Geoffroy Martel, Count of Vendôme.

Legend has it that the count and his wife one night saw three shooting stars fall so, having sought advice from the Bishop of Chartres, the count founded the abbey dedicated to the Holy Trinity that the three stars were said to symbolise, placing the altar on the very spot where they had fallen.

The abbey has many Romanesque features, including the 80 metre high bell tower, while the western façade is a truly beautiful example of Flamboyant Gothic architecture. Inside there are many stunning features, not least the Romanesque stained-glass window of Our Lady, in the Holy Sacrament Chapel, which dates back to 1125.


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Picture postcard from… Bruges, Belgium

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St. Bonifaciusbrug in Bruges*

One of the most photographed bridges in Bruges, St Bonifaciusbrug bridge is actually one of the youngest in the city, dating back to the early 20th century. You’ll find it in a particularly charming area with cobbled streets, historic buildings and the sound of horses hoofs clip-clopping passed pulling carriages full of tourists, as are the little boats that pass under the bridge. It’s a very romantic spot and the perfect place to it sit down on one of the hidden benches and watch the world go by.

The Church of Our Lady, seen here in the background, took two centuries (13th-15th) to build. It has many lovely art treasures, most notably a beautiful Carrara marble Madonna and Child sculpture by Michelangelo. One of only a few of Michelangelo’s works that can be seen outside Italy.  While currently being renovated, this lovely church is still well worth a visit and the 1 Euro fee to see the famous sculpture.

*Image courtesy of Flanders Tourist Board

Antwerp at Christmas


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Dates for 2014 Christmas markets in Belgium and France

Christmas may seem a long way off and is probably one of the last things you want to think about in the middle of Summer, however, with the provisional dates already released for many of this winter’s festivities the best hotels, in convenient locations for visiting Europe’s top Christmas Markets, will soon fill up.

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Belgium


Antwerp

Kerst & Creatief Beurs, 15th & 16th November 2014

A cost Christmas market with original gifts and some surprising performances at Antwerp Expo. Hobbysalon.be

Christmas Market, 6th December 2014 to 5th January 2015

There’s plenty to see in Antwerp with Christmas markets at de Groenplaats, Handschoenmarkt, Grote Markt and Suikerrui. VisitAntwerpen.be

Antwerp at Christmas

Christmas Fair & Ice Rink, 6th December 2014 to 4th January 2015

A second Christmas market and ice skating rink at Steenplein.  VisitAntwerpen.be

Bruges

22nd November 2014 to 2nd January 2015

Bruges looks particularly pretty during the festive season and while the Christmas market in many of the other cities listed here may be bigger, the setting for the Bruges Christmas market couldn’t be lovelier. There will be stalls on the Market Square and an ice-rink and stalls on Simon Stevinplein.

Bruges Christmas

Winter Moments with Flowers, 21st to 30th November 2014

In addition Winter Moments with Flowers, runs from  at Site Oud Sint-Jan, Mariastraat 38. This is an exhibition for lovers of Christmas spirit, decorations and flowers. Daily flower arranging and demonstrations take place alongside numerous exhibitors highlighting party ideas. Happenings.be

Midwinterfest 14th December 2014

A festive Christmas market with a huge range of traditional and original Christmas gifts and tasty treats to tempt you, held in Balstraat.

Brussels

Winter Wonders, 28th November 2014 to 4th January 2015

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I visited Winter Wonders in Brussels for the first time last year and had a fabulous time.  The European Christmas market is held in the heart of the city on Place Sainte-Catherine. The big wheel and the ice rink at Marché aux Poissons, where I saw a really fantastic skating display, will both be back again this year, as well as some 150 stalls and the magical son & lumière illuminations on the Grand-Place.  WinterWonders.be

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The Festival of Ice and Snow Sculptures runs from mid-December 2014 to early February 2015. It showcases artistic snow and ice sculptures, which are kept at a chilling -6°C. This year’s theme will be revealed just before the opening!  VisitBrussels.be

Ghent

Ghent Winter Festivites, 5 December 2014 to 11th January 2015

Ghent’s city centre will be turned in to a winter wonderland with an ice-rink, a giant Ferris wheel and the Christmas market at Konenmarkt. This year, the Castle of the Counts will be part of the winter festivities and decorated as a winter castle, with special night openings and events. VisitGent.be

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Christmas Market, 5th December to 4th January

A small market from St Bravo’s Square to the Corn Market, with international stalls offering traditonal products from their countries plus mulled wine, tasty treats and live music.

Light Festival, 29th January 2014 to 1st February 2015

Every three years the Light Festival lights up the city with works by international light artists. The city’s nights will become the backdrop for a surprising spectacle, ingenious installations, spectacular performances and beautiful events, all based on light.

Hasselt

Winter Village, 15 November 2014 to 4 January 2015

This cosy winter village offers Flanders’ largest mobile skating rink, the House of Santa Claus and a fun Ferris wheel in Kolonel Dusartplein.  For the little ones there is also a small Christmas train.  Winterland.be

Leuven

Winter Season, 11th to 31st December 2014

Stroll through one of the loveliest Christmas market in the country, enjoy an intimate Christmas concert, sip a sparkling winter beer or just get lost in the enchanting streets full of candlelight and conviviality.

Christmas Market, 11th to 21st December 2014

Once again, Monseigneur Ladeuzeplein and Herbert Hooverplein will serve as the enchanting backdrop for this Christmas market, one of the oldest Christmas markets in Belgium.  LeuvenseKerstMarkt.com

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Mechelen

The market provisionally dates are 13th to 21st December, however, this may be extended.  It is centred on Grote Markt, City Hall, IJzerenleen and Veemarkt with food and drink stalls and stalls offering ideas for Christmas gifts.

Ostend

Winterjis, 28th November 2014 to 4th January 2015

The Wapenplein will be covered with a transparent marquee measuring 2,600 m2 and forming a unique backdrop for a magical winter landscape. Step inside and be amazed by the stunning setting, magical lighting and fairytale decorations designed by Neverland, the set constructors of the world famous dance festival Tomorrowland. Check Winterijs.be for updated details.

Ypres

Christmas in Ypres,  28th November 2014 to 4th January 2015

Christmas Market, seasonal entertainment and ice rink on  Grote Markt.  Kerstmarkt-Ieper.be


France


Amiens

21st November to 28th December 2014

Amiens is one of the the largest Christmas market in the north of France bringing the magic of Christmas into the heart of the city.

Arras

 28th November to 30th December 2014

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Arras, the town renowned for its tapestries of the late Middle Ages, holds a spectacular Christmas market on the Grand Place with some 60 stalls offering a wide range of arts and crafts and local delicacies.

Lille’s Christmas Market

21st November to 28th December 2014

The one of the biggest Christmas Market in northern France is held in Lille and attracts nearly a million visitors each year.

Lille Christmas Market

Paris

15th November 2014 to 6th January 2015

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What better time to visit the ‘City of Lights’ than at Christmas. For more details of the various markets and festivities visit About France.

Reim’s Christmas Market

21st November to 28th December 2014

You’ll find around 120 stalls at the Christmas market at Reims. Street entertainers, carol singers and magicians all add to the festive atmosphere.

Rouen

8th December to 13th December 2014

Held in front of the Cathedral the Marché, this small Christmas market has some lovely stalls selling arts and craft and local delicacies plus there are two ice rinks.

For some great value Christmas market breaks check out our latest newsletter.

Eiffel Tower lit-up by night, Paris


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Picture postcard from… Paris, France

Eiffel Tower lit-up by night, Paris

The Eiffel Tower by Moyan Brenn

Located on the Champ de Mars in Paris, France, the Eiffel Tower is one of the most well-known structures in the world.

It was named after the engineer Gustave Eiffel, whose company designed and built the tower with Eiffel himself paying 80 percent of the tower’s construction costs. It was originally planned to stand for 20 years after which it was intended to be sold as scrap metal. However, in a bid to save it, Eiffel erected an antenna on top of the tower and financed experiments with wireless telegraphy. The tower proved enviable in sending and receiving wireless messages, particularly for the French military. Today, more than 100 antennae on the tower send radio and television broadcasts around the world.

More great shots from Moyan can be found on Flickr.


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Bastille Celebrations in Paris

As I’m sure you are aware Monday, July 14 is Bastille Day, an annual event when the whole of France celebrates the storming of the Bastille Prison and the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789.  If you are in France next Monday we’d love to hear about the celebrations where you are. Even better send me some photos! You can email me at Kathryn@GreatEscapes.co.uk.  

Here are a few highlights of the celebrations in Paris for Bastille Day 2014.

Paris’ Military Parade

A military parade along the Avenue des Champs-Elysées is the highlight the regiments of the French military, which will parade in the morning. This year’s theme is the Centenary of The Great War.

© Paris Tourist Office - Photographer : Marc Bertrand

© Paris Tourist Office – Photographer : Marc Bertrand

The day’s programme (subject to change)
9.10am Troops, gather at the Place de l’Etoile / Avenue des Champs-Elysées.
9.20am Inspection of the troops.
9.45am Honorary detachments of the Republican Guard take their places at Place de l’Etoile and Place de la Concorde.
10am Arrival of the President of the French Republic at Avenue de Friedland. Welcome by General Pierre de Villiers, Chief of Defence Staff, and General Hervé Charpentier, the Military Governor of Paris. Review of the troops.
10.15am Tribute paid to the President of the French Republic by the 1st infantry regiment of the Republican Guard at Place de la Concorde. Welcome by the prime minister, M. Manuel Valls, the Minister of Defence, M. Jean-Yves Le Drian, secretary of state for veterans affairs, M. Kader Arif and Général Benoît Puga.
10.20am Opening event.
10.35am Opening fly-past led by Air Marshal Thierry Caspar-Fille-Lambie.
10.45am Parade of troops on foot led by Brigadier Henry Bazin.
11.25am Parade of motorized troops led by General Marcel Druart.
11.45am Closing event.
12 noon Departure of the President of the French Republic.

© Paris Tourist Office - Photographer : Marc Bertrand

© Paris Tourist Office – Photographer : Marc Bertrand

Paris’ fireworks

The fireworks will be launched from Bassins du Trocadéro and can be viewed from the Champs de Mars and Trocadéro.

11.00pm: A firework display lasting 35 minutes with the theme “Guerre et Paix”.

© Paris Tourist Office - Photographer : Amélie Dupont

© Paris Tourist Office – Photographer : Amélie Dupont

Firemen’s balls

Numerous firemen’s balls happen each year in stations throughout France, in general starting at 9pm and going on until 4pm. Some have an entrance fee while others are free but have a traditional donation barrel. The money collected will be used to improve the working conditions of staff.

A list of balls in Paris and the surrounding regions can be found here.

And don’t forget, if you are in France that day (or have been in the past) we’d love to hear about the celebrations where you area and see your photos.  You can email me at Kathryn@GreatEscapes.co.uk.