In January I went on a road trip through Europe where I had 10 days to get from Paris to the Swiss alps. Since my trip was based around snowboarding, I was going in winter. As it was going to be quite cold and dreary, I decided that I wanted to stop at beautiful little snowy towns along the way that looked magical in winter with Christmas lights, markets and amazing history. After a lot of research I decided on a route that would take me though the following towns, I have to say none of them disappointed, they were all wonderful and definitely a must see in winter.
First stop was Bruges which is only 3 hours from Paris. We left on the 30th of December in order to celebrate New Years in Bruges. I was looking for a cute place for New Years that would be fun but not too full on like a NYE in a big city. We stayed in the heart of Bruges in the Crown Plaza. It was the perfect location, walking distance to all the sites. Bruges is like a chocolate box town, everything is picture perfect. We arrived at night to a buzzing little town. The main square had an ice staking rink set up right in front of the famous bell tower, that was lined with Christmas markets selling food and hand made trinkets. The atmosphere is something I won't ever forget, being surrounded with amazing medieval buildings while songs like the maccarina were played! On the last day of the year we decided to hire bikes and go riding around the town. It was such a great way to see everything. The windmills and big open areas are beautiful, but so are all the hidden little lane ways that you can lose yourself in. New Year's Eve was in the large square with a stage set up. Various musicians were playing popular sing along songs where the crowd joined in. It was kind of like a large karaoke event! It was honestly one of my most favoured New Years I have ever had, the atmosphere was so beautiful that it was infectious. Never have I seen so many generations mix so well together. Family's laughing, singing and line dancing together while drinking schnapps out in the icy cold night. I am so conditioned to teens not wanting to be seen dancing with their parents and older family friends.
Gent is about half an hour down from Bruges and it is known as it's more popular big brother. While they are very similar in architecture Ghent definitely does have more of a 'lived in' feel about it. The restorations of buildings are not as prefect or are incomplete, there is a real mix of new and old buildings together and it has more of a city feel as its buzzing with locals and commuters.
The Christmas markets are big in Ghent, a number of alleys and streets are lined with stalls selling food, beer, and a large array of trinkets. We were here on the 1st and 2nd of January and lots of places were open and people out and about. There was definitely an aftermath of New Years with streamers and confetti sprawled along the river sides, indicating that Gent is quiet the party destination.
There are many Churches and Castles in the city center, wherever you walk, you will come across them nestled in amongst the newer buildings. They are beautiful from the street and even more stunning from inside. All are from the gothic era, so they also can also look a bit spooky!
Let's not forget about the food! While in Belgium you of course have to try the chocolate and waffles, there is a reason they are famous for it, literally to die for!
From Ghent we headed south down into Germany. We were making our way to Bamburg and decided to go via the beautiful Rien river and pick somewhere to stay along the way. The Rien river is a very popular place in summer, so while it wasn't warm and as green, it was still very beautiful. There are castles around every corner and we ended up checking out a couple. We stayed the night in a tiny town called Schewtzinger. We were in an amazing place that had a giant wooden water mill in the middle of it. The dinner menu was in German and no one there could speak a word of English, it was fun night trying to communicate with the locals!
The next morning we went on a castle tour, and of course only in winter they don't have the English option! So we were in a German tour trying to pretend that we knew what was going on when everyone was laughing at the jokes! It was incredible to be able to see so closely a fully maintained castle and see how people lived thousands of years ago.
We arrived into Bamburg late at night to wake up to snow falling the next morning. The entire town had a beautiful light dusting of snow. The architecture was now very German with their iconic coloured buildings complete with the exposed wooden framing and window shutters. With a rushing river flowing through the town there are walking bridges dotted along the river to explore.
This town is definitely a little shopping hub, so many great shops to wander through with all of the best winter gear. As my feet were freezing in the snow I ended up getting some winter boots that would finally stop me slipping over everywhere! This town was much bigger then other other towns with lots of locals out and about, I could have easily stayed here another day!
Just an hour from Bamburg is Rothenburg. Arguably my most loved small town on this trip. When you arrive you see a huge wall circling the town with a watch tower above the road which you drive through. This town is completely surrounded by this fortress wall and 40 odd other watch towers. Once you come through the gates it's like you have entered a fairytale dream! The setting of Pinocchio is inspired by this town, and you can see why, this town is filled with hand made toy stores and Christmas shops. We had just missed the Christmas markets that they hold in the town square, word on the street is that they are some of the best in the country. The town centre even has its own huge coo coo clock that pops out on the hour. The charm this place has is just infectious. We just spent the day wandering the streets, looking though all of the hand made toy stores, and the most amazing Christmas store - Kathe Wohlfahrt. You must check it out when you are here.
In terms of the food, there were some amazing bakeries with so many delicious treats, and for dinner you will get warm and very full with the traditional German hearty meals around town.
This town is up on top of a hill so it has some beautiful district views that you can go check out. This town is quiet, friendly, laid back and just absolutely stunning. You must, must go here!!
Three and a half hours south west of Rothernburg is Colmar which sits on the very edge of France. This picturesque river side town is bursting with colour. The architecture is still very German but the colours are so bright and bold, it kind of feels like Morano in Venice but with a French twist. While there is still a lot of German influence, you definitely notice that you are in France. The French food is amazing and the shopping, argh it's so good. Colmar has a mix of busy main streets and tranquil back laneways along the waters edge. This is quite a busy little town with lots happening each day and night to get involved in. Do note that they don't open restaurants up for dinner until 8.30pm at night! We were walking around for about an hour wandering why everything was closed and all the restaurants were empty!!
We made our way down into the French alps to the famous town of Chamonix. It was like arriving into a winter wonderland, the energy of the town was infectious. We had been in so many lovely little towns that it was exciting to now be on a town that was filled with so many other travelers creating that real holiday mode. The bars were vibrant, the food options endless and of course the amazing backdrop of Mount Blanc. We arrived late at night so we hit the streets straight away to get our bearings. I have to say all the food was incredible in Chamonix. The patisseries in particular were amazing. Knowing we were heading to Switzerland next, this was our last chance to get our French cuisine fix. We had only one full day on the mountain in Chamonix and unfortunately one side of the resort was shut due to high winds and it rained! A case of bad luck! We ended up just doing a half day on the mountain as we got so wet!! The upside is we got to spend the rest of the day immersing ourselves in the town's culture, shopping, eating and sight seeing. So I definitely have it on my list to return for the snow.
From chamonix we made our way into Switzerland to the alpine village of Verbier. A small road zig zags back and forth from the valley floor up one side of the mountain where the town is perched half way up, with the ski resort above it. This town is really adorable, unlike Chamonix, it's a much more relaxed and quiet small town. All the buildings are cute A frame wooden log homes that a covered with snow. In terms of food, we had arrived into the land of fondues and cooking on hot rocks! Needless to say we ate a lot!! The weather cooled right down and we were getting fresh snow everyday, however our bad luck hadn't quiet left us yet. On our second day up the mountain, my husband managed to break his ankle when his snowboard collided with a big metal post hiding under the snow. It was honestly like finding a needle in a haystack, it was some pretty back luck! The rest of our stay then turned into hospital visits and eating!! The scenery was so beautiful, so I guess there are worse places to be stuck! Again, Verbier is on my list to return to, it's a stunning little town.
Due to the broken ankle, our travel insurance company wanted us to come home for scans and surgery, however we needed to get a number of medical clearances before we could fly. We were meant to be going off to Zermatt for the next 6 nights, so we were advised to continue with our trip until our flights home were sorted. So off to Zermatt we went, crutches in hand! Zermatt is a car-less town, for the purpose of keeping the beautiful serenity of the town, and this quirk is what originally drew me to Zermatt. There is a huge parking station that you leave your car in then you jump on a train that takes you up to Zermatt. They do have some tiny little taxis driving around which was a godsend with my newly disabled husband! As soon as you arrive you instantly feel relaxed and excited all at the same time. It feels like you are a million miles away for anything, which you kind of are! I would say Zermatt would be in the middle of the scale between the busy party town of Chamonix and the relaxed town of Verbier. It seemed to have both vibes at different times. Although it was getting midway through January now, it still felt very christmasy, I think it was because there are horses pulling sleds of people around town that you can hear most of the time off in the distance as the horses have little jingly bells on them.
We thought we would only end up being here a day or two, but it ended up that we were here the full 6 nights before we got sent home. The long stay was planned to get some good snowboarding in, but that was now off the table, so we were forced to do everything but go on the snow. I thought it would get boring but there was so much to do for the non skiers. In terms of exploring the mountain, there are heaps of walking only trails going up into the snowy woods. You can also go in the gondolas without skis/ snowboard to explore the mountain. The final gondola is the highest in the world taking you to 4,000 meters. At the top you are right on the boarder of Switzerland and Italy, with stunning views each way. There is a museum, restaurant and a lift that takes you down into the glazier. A tunnel has been carved out of the ice with so many stunning ice statues and features.
There is also a train you can get on that takes you up the mountains. Giving you great vistas of the alps along the way. At the top there are igloos that you can dine in and spend the night in, and a big centre at 3,100 meters with shops and food available.
Down in the town, there are countless shops, bars, and restaurants. The streets of Zermatt are definitely the place to be seen, lots of women are in their best clothes parading the streets. The bars and clubs are big every night of the week with music pumping out of them onto the streets until the sun rises. While everything in Switzerland is notoriously expensive, the upside is the quality can't be faulted. The food was exceptional with every type of cuisine available. Ice skating outdoors would have to be one of my highlights, with Mt Matterhorn as a back drop, it was just so beautiful.
So if you ever find yourself if Europe in winter, be sure to add some of these places to your list and you be enchanted by their beauty.
I am planing to finish the rest of my winter Europe trip later this year, so stay tuned for part 2!!