The 10 Best Cities to Visit along the Tour de France Route

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One of Europe’s greatest sporting traditions is racing towards the finish line.  As fans watch 22 teams cycle over 2000 miles in 23 days, it’s fair to ask: What would summer in Europe be like without the Tour de France?

The world’s most prestigious bicycle race has been going strong for 111 years.  Since 1903 it has been held every July – with the exceptions being World Wars I and II.  The aim?  Back in 1903 it was to sell newspapers.

Today male riders from all over the world travel to France to undertake the grueling 21 stages held in France’s most beautiful (and challenging!) scenery.  The USA has three teams participating in this year’s Tour de France.  They, along with the remaining 19 teams, are shown every day for three weeks on almost 200 television channels to an estimated 3.5 billion people!  The Tour de France is the most popular, annual sporting event on the planet.  While millions are glued to their TV screens to watch the final hour of the daily stages, millions also line the route in France – often camping out for days at a time just to get a good spot.

While the route varies every year, it always features the (extremely difficult) Alps and the Pyrenees mountains, and despite being the Tour de France, the route can also take riders into neighboring countries; this year England and Belgium were included.  (The tour actually kicked off in Yorkshire.  It then continued into Southern England, with riders traveling from Cambridge down to London.)  Each day the rider with the best overall time dons the yellow jersey, which can change many times during the competition, and Paris always hosts the show-stopping finish on the Champs-Élysées.  The riders are currently heading for the Pla d’Adet mountain resort near Saint-Lary-Soulan, which brings us to the question: Why do so many people across the world love this French bicycle race?!

wine vacation in France

This year riders will cycle past Bergerac's vineyards.

Besides witnessing some of the world’s finest athletes push themselves to their absolute limits, the main attraction is obvious: France.

Watching the race gives one an outstanding view of France’s picturesque countryside.  As the peloton cycles past vineyards, fields of lavender, medieval hill towns, castles and soaring mountains, at times we feel that we too are there. 

And if you’ve always dreamt of visiting France on vacation, the Tour de France can serve as a handy roadmap of beautiful spots.   

Where does this year’s route take the cyclists over the 3-week race?  Excluding Paris and the featured English and Belgian cities, below is a list of Our 10 Favorite Cities to Visit Along The 2014 Tour de France Route!

 

 

#1 Reims: (also spelled “Rheims”)

Champagne-Ardenne Region

Stage 6

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Notre-Dame de Reims Cathedral

Known as the Champagne capital of France, the ancient city of Reims is over 2000 years old.  Despite the fact that Reims was heavily bombed during World War I, the city still houses very interesting ancient Gallo-Roman monuments and medieval architecture.  Reims’ history is crucially linked with the history of the French monarchy, as 29 kings of France were crowned inside its Gothic crown jewel: Notre-Dame de Reims Cathedral.

Before their coronations, the kings traditionally crashed in the archbishop’s beautiful Palace of Tau.  The cathedral, palace and the former Abbey of Saint-Rémi (which is located next to the 11th-century Basilica of Saint Rémi) form a joint World Heritage Site.  

Located just 90 miles northeast of Paris, Reims is a popular day trip from Paris, particularly for those in search of Champagne tastings.  The best Champagne houses in France have cellars in Reims.  Most offer tours and tastings.  Particularly popular are Moet & Chandon, Pommery, Mumms and Taittinger.  On Stage 7 riders traveled a half-hour south of Reims to the very pretty town of Epernay, another Champagne mecca included on this year’s Tour de France route.

 

 

#2 and #3: Nîmes and Carcassonne

Languedoc-Roussillon Region

Stages 15 and 16

Historical sightseeing in France France

The Roman Arena of Nîmes

This region of France is all too frequently overlooked by those traveling to France on vacation.  For those who do come, Nîmes and Carcassonne are two of the region’s biggest draws. 

The South of France is home to some of the world’s most important Roman architecture.  (It’s often in better condition than what you’ll find in Italy.)  Nîmes is one such case.  During the Roman era, this was a happening place!  It was prosperous and very populated. 

Though it began as a mere colony, Nîmes became an important city in Rome’s province of Gallia Narbonensis.  Today visitors travel to Nîmes to see the city’s outstanding historical monuments including the Maison Carrée; at over 2000-years-old, it is one of the best-preserved Roman Temples in the world.  The city’s Roman arena is generally considered the best-preserved Roman amphitheater in all of France.  It is still used today for bullfights.  And a short drive northeast from Nîmes will take you to one of the most famous Roman aqueducts in the world: the magnificent Pont du Gard, a World Heritage Site.

 

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La Porte d'Aude, Cité de Carcassonne

Languedoc-Roussillon is home to two other important World Heritage Sites: the Canal du Midi and the historic fortified city of Carcassonne. 

Carcassonne is one of France’s most storybook towns.  When exploring this beautiful, tower-adorned, walled town – you’re likely to ask yourself, “Where are all the damsels, knights, peasants and court jesters hiding?” 

It’s touristy – for good reason!  Carcassonne’s thick walls have seen a lot of action: Romans, Visigoths, Franks (Charlemagne), Saracens, Crusaders.  If you want to base yourself in one city and visit Nîmes and Carcassonne on day trips, try Montpellier!  Also located in between Nîmes and Carcassonne, the pretty port town of Sète merits a day trip.

 

 

#4: Lourdes

Midi-Pyrénées Region

Stage 18

Religious pilgrimage to France

The market town of Lourdes

Before the final stage of the Tour de France – which will finish on Sunday in Paris – riders will spend this last week tackling southwestern France. 

Several of the most challenging stages will take place there in the Pyrenees, a mountain chain that largely follows the border between France and Spain. 

The mountainous scenery is spectacular – national treasures for Spain, France and the tiny nation of Andorra. 

 

While the Pyrenees span several French regions, we’re focusing on the Midi-Pyrénées region at the moment.  In addition to hiking, mountain climbing and skiing, the area is also home to some important cultural attractions.  The most famous is the world-renown pilgrimage site of Lourdeswhich is located in the foothills of the Pyrenees.  As a result of Marian apparitions that occurred in Lourdes in the 19th century, a sanctuary to Our Lady of Lourdes was constructed.  It remains one of the most popular Catholic pilgrimages sites in the world.  While Stage 18 won’t take riders through Lourdes itself, they will literally go right around it as they leave Pau and approach the heights of the Pyrenees.  

 

 

#5, #6 and #7: Pau, Bergerac and Périgueux

Aquitaine Region

Stages 18, 19 and 20

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Pau Castle

As we just mentioned above, stage 18 will begin tomorrow in Pau – a very pretty city located 25 miles northwest of Lourdes.  Pau is located in France’s region of Aquitaine.  It has been included on the Tour de France a whopping 65 times! 

Pau’s prize cultural monument is its magnificent medieval castle, which is sometimes called the Henry IV Castle. Today the Château de Pau houses an interesting museum. 

The capital of Aquitaine is Bordeaux, and as the race this year doesn’t go there, we’re going to tell you all about its little wine cousin located just to its east: Bergerac (yes, like “Cyrano”). 

 

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Medieval Périgueux

Not that the Tour de France riders will likely have any, but Bergerac produces some truly excellent wines!  Bergerac is the final city on stage 19 and the first city on stage 20.  Although located within the region of Aquitaine, it forms part of the department of Dordogne, an area that is home to some of France’s most important prehistoric sites like cave paints found in the Vézère Valley.  Of all the inclusions of this World Heritage Site, the Lascaux caves are the most famous.  

En route from Bergerac to the Lascaux Caves (which cannot be visited but visitors can see an exact replica), you will pass through another great spot on this year’s Tour de France: the market town of Périgueux.  Small it may be, but Périgueux is home to some fantastic medieval architecture and interesting ancient attractions like the Gallo Roman Vesunna Museum, which was built amid the ruins of the Roman villa. 

The town’s cathedral is also a World Heritage Site, having been on the part of the route of Santiago de Compostela in France.  Périgueux is also known throughout France for its food products – particularly truffles and fois gras. 

 

 

#8: Lyon

Rhone-Alpes Region

Stage 12

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Lyon and the Saône River

On the twelfth stage riders cycled just west of another World Heritage Site in France: the Historic Site of Lyon.  

Lyon was an incredibly important city to the Romans.  They founded it roughly 2100 years ago as the capital of the Three Gauls.  Lyon’s history is absolutely dazzling.  Today the city’s different districts tell its fascinating history in storybook fashion, along two scenic rivers. 

In the original Roman part of the city, visitors can still see excavations of Roman monuments including a 2000-year-old theatre that could accommodate an audience of 10,000 people!

It’s not just Lyon’s ancient history that is interesting.  It was also an important city in the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance.  It absolutely thrived in silk production, spice trading, printing, publishing and banking.  And Lyon’s prosperity continues, a fact made evident by its beautiful architecture and town planning.  The city is famed for its annual Festival of Lights (Fête des Lumières), which is held every December.  Having produced many of the country’s top chefs like Paul Bocuse, Lyon is often called the food capital of France because of its rich culinary traditions.

 

#9: Besançon

Franche-Comté Region

Stage 11

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Besançon's Citadel, a World Heritage Site

During the race riders have also traveled over to the eastern fringes of France and cycled south along the country’s border with Switzerland. 

Stage 11 began in Besançon,a beautiful riverside city encircled with thick forests in the foothills of the Jura Mountains.  The city is known for its impressive, iconic citadel, which is a World Heritage Site. 

It was designed by French military engineer extraordinaire to King Louis XIV: Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban.  

 

 

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Quai Vauban, Besançon

Besançon’s historic center is absolutely one of the loveliest in all of France with its beautiful blend of Roman, medieval and Renaissance structures.  

The city it also home to one of France’s oldest public museums: the Museum of Fine Arts and Archaeology.  Dating back to the late 1600s, its collection arguably contains some of the finest artwork you can see in France outside of Paris. 

Several centuries ago, Besançon was also known both as a spa resort town (because of an abundance of nearby salt deposits) and as the watchmaking capital of France.  

Besançon is easily visited on a day trip from the Burgundy wine region.  Beaune and Dijon (yep, like the mustard) are both roughly an hour away by car.

 

#10: Saint-Rémy-de-Provence

Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur Region

Stage 15

Vacation packages to Provence

The ruins of Glanum are located just south of Saint-Rémy.

Our last recommendation from this year’s Tour de France route is one of sunny Provence’s shining stars: Saint-Rémy-de-Provence

The town, which is located a short distance south of Avignon, has been inspiring folks since antiquity. 

It is one of the oldest towns in France, having been founded by Celtic tribes before the Greeks and Romans arrived.  Visitors traveling to Saint-Rémy who are interested in the town’s ancient history can check out the fantastic Roman archaeological site of Glanum. 

 

sightseeing in Provence

Van Gogh spent a year in the Saint-Paul Asylum in Saint-Rémy.

Saint-Rémy has played host to some interesting historical characters.  It was the birthplace of Nostradamus.  The Provençal town is also often associated with Dutch painter, Vincent Van Gogh, who spent one year in an asylum in Saint-Remy.  Many of his most-famous paintings, including The Starry Night, were painted in Saint-Rémy.   

We hope you’ve enjoyed reading about our favorite spots along the 2014 Tour de France route!  For official information about the Tour de France, please click hereFor information on all our vacation packages to France, including Fly and Drive options, Paris and Bordeaux packages, Paris and Burgundy packages  and escorted tours, please click hereAlso consider checking out our great sightseeing tours in France.  Lastly, if you have a group of friends or family members interested in traveling to France, our Groups Department would be happy to customize an itinerary – just for your group.

 

Safe travels!

 

 

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Traveling to Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro and Salvador de Bahia: Amazing Music, Colonial Architecture and Mind-Blowing Scenery

vacation package to BrazilTwo weeks into FIFA’s 2014 World Cup and Team USA has made it through to the next round.  It’s been a surprising start in Brazil.

The defending champion, Spain, has already been knocked out, as have England and Italy – both of whom are generally football powerhouses.  France is doing well – as are the Netherlands, Mexico, Chile, Colombia, Uruguay, Argentina, Switzerland and Costa Rica.

However, it’s the home team, Brazil, who is gearing up for another win, having already won the World Cup more times than any other country.  We’re now however going to temporarily leave the field to take a brief look behind the matches to examine two of the most interesting host cities of the World Cup: Salvador de Bahia and Rio de Janeiro.

 

Salvador

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Carnival street parties, coconut-flavored seafood dishes, colonial treasures, capoeira on the streets, caipirinhas on the beach and the Afro-Brazilian rituals of Candomblé – Salvador de Bahia has a satisfying, exotic blend of European, African and Native American cultures, which appear in the city’s fantastic music, cuisine and architecture.

Why is that?  Located in the northeastern state of Bahia on the spectacularly scenic All Saints Bay, there is much to appreciate and soak up in Brazil’s third-largest city.  Salvador is one of the oldest cities in all of South America, having been founded by the Portuguese in 1549 as the political and religious capital of the Portuguese Crown’s colonial possessions in the Americas.  As a result, much of Brazil’s wonderful patrimony resides in its former capital city.  Salvador is awash with colorful, gorgeous architecture and historic monuments – so much so that its entire historic center, which contains the city’s famed Pelourinho quarter, is an official UNESCO World Heritage Site that houses the city’s Cathedral, historic convents, colonial mansions, lovely squares and Baroque palaces.

Key to fully appreciating Salvador while on vacation is understanding its past.  The success of Portugal’s vast sugar plantations in Brazil yielded over 300 years of slavery.  Millions of West Africans were forced to Brazil as slaves, and many of them arrived in the port of Salvador.  (It should also be noted that many indigenous people were also enslaved by the European colonists in Brazil.)  Bahia’s African heritage is evident across the state.  You can see Afro-Brazilian influences in the many tasty dishes served throughout Salvador’s abundance of great restaurants, cafes and street stalls.  You can see it in the folk art and traditional dances like capoeira.  You can hear it in the marvelous musical rhythms heard in Salvador’s cafes and bars and on its street corners.  You can witness it in religious ceremonies as many locals still practice Brazilian varieties of West African religions like Candomblé.

vacation package to BrazilSalvador’s warm and exhilarating ambience is infectious.  Its unstuffy, neighborhood bars and cafes are welcoming.  Its live music is amazing – and you’ll hear drumbeats and Afro-Caribbean axé rhythms simply by walking down the street.  It should come as no surprise that some of Brazil’s most iconic musicians like Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso hail from Salvador.

The city’s fantastic music and great energy make it somehow feel alive.   And we’ve all seen images on TV of Brazil’s colorful, vivacious carnival celebrations.  While many cities found along the country’s dazzling coastline enjoy non-stop, carnaval revelry in the days preceding Lent, the different styles of music and dance can vary from city to city.  Salvador’s celebrations, which are so vast they require planning throughout the year, entice visitors to its pretty squares and streets from all over the world.

vacation package to BrazilSo you may be asking, what exactly is there to visit in Salvador de Bahia?  The city has a cornucopia of fantastic cultural attractions.  Out of the many historic buildings and squares (that date on average from the 1500s to the 1700s), consider checking out the Cathedral Basilica of Salvador, the Palácio Rio Branco, the Praça Municipal square, the Rococo Church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim (arguably the most important church to Salvador’s locals), and the St. Francis Church and Convent (Igreja e Convento São Francisco).  The outstanding Museu de Arte Sacra is also worthy of a visit.  In the Lower Town (Cidade Baixa), we recommend visiting the Mercado Modelo, Salvador’s former Customs House and “storage” area for slaves not yet auctioned off.  Today is it a great place to buy souvenirs and local handicrafts.  The easiest way to reach the Lower Tower from the Upper Town is to take the Lacerda Elevator, whose Art Deco style has made the ride an attraction in and of itself in Salvador.

And for nature fans?  After your sightseeing in Salvador you’ll be happy to know there is plenty of relaxing, sunshiny downtime to be had in and around Salvador.  Its beautiful bay is home to some of the best beaches in Brazil including the famed Porto da Barra Beach and Flamengo Beach.

vacation packages to BrazilVisitors can select beaches whose waters are calm (for children), while surfers often head to beaches teeming with great waves.  South of the city and accessible by catamaran, the beach in the village of Morro de São Paulo (located on Tinharé Island) as well as the beaches on the remote island of Boipeba offer visitors a taste of paradise in South America.  Hikers too won’t be disappointed with Salvador’s natural offerings; Chapada Diamantina National Park, located west of Salvador, is a popular destination in Bahia for hikers in search of remarkable Brazilian scenery.

 

 

Rio de Janeiro

vacation package to BrazilRio is likely a great deal more recognizable to international tourists than Salvador.  Photos of its rare cityscape, dreamy beaches and eye-catching bay are so iconic, for many they’re almost synonymous with “Brazil.”

Rio is a city that has dramatically been shaped by its nature.  Possessing so many memorable natural wonders, Rio’s population gradually filed in and settled among the spectacular backdrop, nestled between mountains and sea – along its shores and on its hillsides.  For its geography alone, Rio is a must.  Add to that a laidback attitude, a great culinary scene, friendly locals – and an unbelievable presence of spirited celebrations, music and nightlife.

What’s the story?  While not the capital of Brazil, Brazil’s second largest city sure has had a heck of a lot of experience as a capital city.  Long before the Portuguese appeared in Brazil, battled with the French for control of the area, and founded Rio in the 16th century, various indigenous tribes were already living in the paradisal lands around Guanabara Bay.  (Those that did not die from disease were then killed off, enslaved or forced to assimilate.)  As the city grew, so did its port, and by the mid-18th century Portugal’s monarchs decided to move their colonial capital in Brazil from Salvador to Rio de Janeiro.

Not long afterwards (in a highly unusual colonial twist!), when Napoleon’s invading troops made for Portugal, its monarchs made their escape to their wealthiest colony: Brazil.  The capital of their Kingdom of Portugal was moved from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro, and many of Lisbon’s noble families followed.  Not long after, Brazil gained independence in 1825, and Rio became the capital of the short-lived Empire of Brazil and then of the First Brazilian Republic.  It remained the capital of Brazil until 1960, and even today it is still the capital of the State of Rio de Janeiro.  During its history, thousands of slaves from Africa also ended up in Rio de Janeiro, as did European colonists – and later European immigrants.  Therefore, the city’s colorful cultural make-up is a blend of European, African and Native American cultures.  For example, the origin of carnival is European and Catholic, but Brazil’s tradition of celebrating carnival turned into something unique because of the characteristic, African rhythms and dances that make the country’s carnaval so very Brazilian.

vacation package to BrazilWhat is there to see and do in Rio?  Rio is one of those cities where one never runs out of things to do.  During the day – if you’re not sightseeing, you’re lounging on one of its famous beaches, hanging out in one of its pretty parks, shopping in one of its many boutiques or unwinding in one of its cafes.  In the evening, Rio eagerly bursts into party mode.

Tourists flock (and rightly so) to visit Sugar Loaf Mountain (Pão de Açúcar), which marks the city’s dramatic entrance into Guanabara Bay.  The backdrop of the mountain rising out of the bay and framed by beaches is an image of Rio known round the world.  Another is of the statue of Christ the Redeemer, whose soaring height offers visitors a breathtaking panorama of Rio from atop the forested, “hunchbacked” Corcovado Mountain in Tijuca National Park.

Rio is a paradise for sports fans wanting to fill their vacations with swimming, climbing, hiking, surfing, rappelling, sea kayaking, hang gliding, golfing, biking and scuba diving.  And one cannot separate Rio from its amazing beaches.  The most popular ones include Copacabana, Ipanema and Arpoador.  If you have the time and want something more remote, head to the picture-perfect Lopes Mendes beach on the nearby Ilha Grande (Big Island).

vacation package to BrazilHow about Rio’s cultural activities?  Don’t make the mistake of writing off Rio as just a beach party town.  It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage City with great architecture, interesting museums and a thriving music scene.  Most of Rio’s historic architecture lies in its walkable Downtown “Centro” area.  It is there that you will find many of Rio’s best museums, historic churches and monuments, pedestrian avenues and colonial buildings.

Worthy museums to consider visiting in the downtown area include the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes (Fine Arts Museum), the Museu Histórico Nacional, and the Museu de Arte do Rio (MAR).  Important historical, architectural sights to check out in Rio’s Centro neighborhood include the Candelária Church (Nossa Senhora de Candelária); the 275-year-old Paço Imperial (Imperial Palace), located in Praça XV square; the magnificent São Francisco da Penitencia Church; and the beautiful Teatro Municipal, which lies on the edge of Cinelândia Square.

The city’s South Zone is home to its most iconic neighborhoods and beaches like Ipanema, Leblon and Copacabana.  Cultural attractions of interest there include the Museu da República, the Historical Museum of the Army and Copacabana Fort, and the outstanding Jardim Botânico (Botanical Garden).

One of Rio’s cultural giants is its music.  It has developed from the city’s multicultural background, and it’s a key component in the city’s fabled nightlife.  While on vacation in Rio, you’ll hear all kinds: choro, capoeira rhythms, pop rock, bossa nova, funk Carioca and of course – samba!  Rio’s samba schools are legendary, and they rule the city’s carnival celebrations.  Most of Rio’s famed samba schools are located in its North Zone, as are most of its hillside favelas.  Rio’s Sambadrome Marquês de Sapucaí is the parade setting where the city’s many neighborhood samba schools perform during carnival, decked out in colorful, elaborate costumes.

vacation package to BrazilRio’s carnival is often dubbed the biggest party in the world, and we’re inclined to agree.  However, a close runner-up would have to be Rio’s famous New Year’s Eve celebration: réveillon.

Every December 31, millions of spectators donning white clothes head to Copacabana Beach for one of the world’s best fireworks shows.  A city at ease with crowds and content with celebrations, Rio is a pro at hosting events.

In addition to this year’s World Cup, Rio has been selected to host the 2016 Olympic Games – the first South American city to ever host the games.  On Sunday, July 13 it will host the final match of the 2014 World Cup.  We can’t tell you who will win, but we can tell you it will be played in Rio’s epic Maracanã Stadium.

We hoped you’ve enjoyed reading about Salvador de Bahia and Rio de Janeiro.  For information on our vacation packages to Brazil, please kindly click here.

Safe travels – and go Team USA!

 

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Outdoor Vacations: Five of Europe’s Greatest National Parks

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Today we’re celebrating some of Europe’s greatest national parks.  When traveling to Europe, many of us automatically think of CITIES, museums, back-to-back sightseeing, sports matches, theater shows, concerts, nightlife, etc.  These are all exciting, great parts of any vacation – and we highly encourage all of them.  However, there’s one thing we’d like you to not skip entirely when planning your next vacation to Europe: nature.  After all, Europe is home to some of the most beautiful national parks, nature reserves and gardens in the world!

And for many of us, vacation can’t be 100% sightseeing…  It’s also about relaxing and disconnecting from stress.  Visiting Europe’s national parks is a chance for fresh air, peace and quiet.  Combine those with picture-perfect landscapes, and the results are quite invigorating.  Now you might be asking, how am I supposed to get to these fantastic national parks?  That depends.  Some are located a short distance from major cities.  Others are much more remote.  Some are best to visit by car, while many can be reached with public transportation or on a sightseeing tour.  Therefore, without further delay – here are five of Europe’s greatest national parks!

 

1.  Parc national des Calanques

Location: France (near Marseille, Cassis and Aix-en-Provence)

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Between France’s second-largest city, Marseille, and the pretty port town of Cassis lies one of the country’s most beautiful natural attractions: the CalanquesWhat are calanques?  Often described as Mediterranean fjords, calanques are rocky coves or inlets found along the Mediterranean coastline.  It is believed the hair-raising formations were once very deep valleys that were partially flooded with water thousands of years ago.  An amazing panoramic view of the entire area can be had atop the colossal Cap Canaille cliff.

The rocky calanques are home to lovely pine forests, walking paths and exceptionally beautiful, pebbly beaches.  Today visitors and tourists head to this national park to sail, dive, swim, climb, hike or walk along the nature trails.  Approaching the shore by boat, the sea fades from sapphire-blue to turquoise, and one of the best ways to experience the Calanques is by boat tour.  Most sightseeing boat tours depart from Marseille or Cassis, and while aboard – even when far out – the water is so crystal clear that you can often see all the way down to the bottom.

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There is much to appreciate in this western corner of Provence.  In addition to invigorating days filled with sunshine, sparkling seas and fresh air, visitors can pay a visit to Marseille’s historic port, dine on authentic bouillabaisse or enjoy the shopping in lovely Cassis.  If you’re interested in winetasting, this is an excellent Provençal area to be in as both Cassis and the nearby fishing village of Bandol are both internationally-renown wine regions.

 

2.  Berchtesgaden National Park

Location: Bavaria, Germany (near Munich and Salzburg, Austria)

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Located a stone’s throw from Germany’s southeastern border with Austria, Berchtesgaden National Park is actually closer to Salzburg than to Munich.  This beautiful Bavarian park is Germany’s sole national park in the Alps, and exploring it is like walking around inside your favorite postcard.  One of the biggest draws of the park, which is an official UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, is the dazzling Lake Königssee.

If you’re looking for fresh air and a pristine, mountainous background to temporarily escape from city sightseeing, the park has over 140 miles of walking trails with varying levels of difficulty: relaxing paths that crisscross the valley, higher-intensity routes through mountain pastures and ambitious hikes to the summit.  Berchtesgaden is easily visited on a day trip from Munich.  Visitors traveling from Salzburg often pair a tour to Berchtesgaden with one of Austria’s famed attractions: Hallein’s ancient, underground salt mines.

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History buffs often travel to this area because of its connection with the Third Reich.  North of the park, above the market town of Berchtesgaden is a retreat area called Obersalzberg.  Because of the remarkable views, Hitler – along with other senior Nazi officers – built their vacation homes there.  While most of these homes no longer exist, visitors can still visit the Kehlsteinhaus chalet (Eagle’s Nest), which was completed just before the outbreak of WWII as a present for Hitler’s 50th birthday.

 

3.  Plitvice Lakes National Park

Location: Croatia (68 miles from Zagreb, 93 miles from Zadar, 170 miles from Split)

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Set in the heart of Croatia – in one of Europe’s most beautiful karst landscapes, Plitvice Lakes National Park is a Croatian superstar.  We’re not even kidding – some people travel to Croatia just to visit this legendary park!  What’s the big deal about the park?  The waterfalls – and the vivid colors of its sixteen lakes (shades of grays, blues and greens).  Unsurprisingly, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Natural Site.

vacation packages to Croatia

There are hiking trails located throughout the park, and ticket costs include the park’s electric boat rides and panoramic train rides.  And as Plitvice Lakes National Park is one of Croatia’s best tourist attractions, it is relatively easy to get there (on sightseeing excursions and escorted tours, and using public transportation).

 

4.  Dolomiti Bellunesi National Park

Location: Northeastern Italy, the Veneto region

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Already famed amongst European vacationers wanting to ski, mountain climb or hike, the Dolomites are largely unknown to most Americans.  These pale-colored, rugged mountains form part of the Alps, which descend into two of northeastern Italy’s regions: Trentino-Alto Adige and the Veneto.  The Dolomites are classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Natural Site, largely because of their spectacular shapes and striking beauty.

You wouldn’t be alone if you mistook this mountainous corner of Italy for Austria.  It once was, and as soon as you visit you’ll instantly observe a fantastic blend of Italian, Austrian and Alpine cultural elements at play – in the cuisine, customs, music and even language.  Some locals in this area speak more in German (or in another language called Ladin) than they do in Italian.

The Dolomiti Bellunesi National Park is located inside the Veneto, a truly wonderful region of Italy that is also home to Venice (its capital city), Verona, Padua, Belluno and Vicenza.   From Venice you can drive to the park in roughly an hour and a half (unless of course you get sidetracked passing through Treviso, the home of Prosecco – Italy’s most popular sparkling wine).

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Did you ever imagine you could have Venice’s beautiful canals along the Adriatic Sea and the Alps on the same trip?!  You can in the Veneto region.  Specifically near the park, in addition to the town of Belluno, other beautiful Dolomite towns and resorts to visit include Bressanone, Cortina d’Ampezzo, Sappada and San Martino di Castrozza.  Alternatively, driving north you can travel from the Dolomiti Bellunesi National Park to the Austrian city of Innsbruck in under four hours.

 

5.  Cairngorms National Park

Location: Northeastern Scotland

vacation packages to Scotland

Our last national park recommendation today will take you deep into the heart of the Scottish Highlands.  As the largest national park in Great Britain, Cairngorms National Park is home to over 1700 square miles of wild, mountainous beauty and everyday Highland life.  Five of the United Kingdom’s highest mountains are located within the park, and while the park does house the very scenic Cairngorms Mountains, its official boundaries extend beyond to include many lakes, forests, moorlands, towns and villages.

There are historic castles, gardens, art galleries, whiskey distilleries, museums, farmer’s markets, pubs and restaurants – all inside the park.  Visitors can also enjoy the wildlife, amazing views and extensive hiking trails.  Available sports inside the park include skiing, fishing, swimming, biking, golfing, walking and shooting – and Highland Games!

Skiing vacations in Europe

This ancient area was once the land of Celtic clans and Pictish tribes, and the ambience is extraordinary.  Despite the remote feeling in certain areas of the park, it is actually easier than one would expect to reach by car or train from Inverness, Glasgow or Edinburgh.

 

We’ll level with you – Europe has so many great national parks, that we didn’t manage to squeeze them all into this post.  Therefore, we will follow up soon with another post on our remaining six favorite national parks in Europe.  If you would like more information on our go-today vacation packages, please click here.  And while it’s not necessary to have a car to reach all the parks on this list, we do have some great-value, affordable Fly & Drive vacation packages to check out if you prefer to rent a car, grab a map and hit the road on your own!

Stay tuned and safe travels

 

 

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