From France’s “little Gauls” to Iceland’s unusual non-glacial landscapes, Europe’s most stunning landscapes are the nation’s famed coastal towns.
Le Havre, France
One of the most picturesque bays in Europe, the small port of Le Havre plays host to some of France’s leading shipyards. A boat builder’s shops are next to an idyllic marina, which in turn overlooks the city’s magnificent harbor, set against the azure of the North Sea. Le Havre’s harborside stretch stretches right down to the banks of the North Sea – the setting of wartime hero Capt. Bligh’s desperate attempt to save the crew of the Endurance from starvation.
A mixture of medieval walled city and proud 19th-century capital, Croatia’s capital Zagreb boasts both beaches and mountains. A short cable car ride from the heart of the city’s centre, the Krsko Salt Sea Resort is laid out like a roller coaster with hot springs, nudist beaches and luxury hotels.
Grecian temples, Renaissance palaces and historic shopping – Nantes ranks as one of France’s most atmospheric cities. The ancient city has its romantic origins – it was born in 46 B.C. in the shadow of the ancient Greek town of Corinth, which itself bore the name of an ancient Roman city. The main pyramid at the Pantheon (first built in 1345 B.C. and named in honour of Italy’s most famous Roman) provides the backdrop for what is one of Nantes’ main attractions.
This picturesque Bavarian town recalls the heyday of old-style music halls when traditions including the impersonal, largely indifferent repertory theatre thrived. Dubbed the birthplace of opera after the 18th-century composer Richard Wagner (and host to the troupe’s first opera in 1781), the Stubenbach Garten, once one of Austria’s oldest concert halls, now serves as a vast veranda. Bavarian folk traditions are still evident in music halls and restaurants here, with regular performances of wind, flute and flamenco.
Tumbling down a spiral staircase resembling a school house, Amsterdam’s Red Light District (or the Oudemainen) may be Europe’s oldest permissive atmosphere. Known as a “gentlemen’s haven” from the 1870s, the district is one of the city’s most beguiling districts, home to street performers from Scandinavia to Morocco. The area was later invaded by a wave of gay and bisexual men fleeing the Nazi concentration camps.
Sebastiaan de Vryers’s townhouse, Avila, Spain
Set in a mountain wonderland of cacti, palm trees and waterfalls, Asturias in northwestern Spain is a paradise for adrenaline junkies and adventure junkies. Known as the “Little Gauls” because of its potato-growing culture, Sevilla is a buzzing city in the clouds, and the central square is a magical sanctuary for absconding penniless drunken revellers, or local pigeons seeking refuge from sea fog. The landscape itself is breathtaking – mountain ranges rise at intervals to create a tapestry of dark stone canyons, and sea jagged cliffs wrap around volcanic pillars.
—Terence O’Flynn of Mail & Guardian Travels is an expert in Europe’s vast, multi-faceted cultural and artistic scene. His latest book is British Summer Tours (Ten Speed Press, 2012). The author travelled across Europe last year.