Biarritz, and in particular the Hôtel du Palais, were once popular with royalty, with Queen Victoria and King Alfonso XIII of Spain frequently visiting the exquisite palace built for Napoleon III’s wife, Empress Eugenie. Having established itself in the mid 18th century as a bath-city, its history is closely tied to the Atlantic Ocean, in particular, The Bay of Biscay, which was once a popular whaling spot. Napoleon would bath in the coastal waters, and since the early part of the 20th century, Biarritz’s coast has widely been considered Europe’s premier surf spot.
Having previously been divided, with the old town separate from the castle, Limoges was unified in 1792 to form a single city, although the original walls can still be seen in what is now the city centre. It is also home to the remains of a Gallo-Roman amphitheatre – one of the largest used in what was then Gaul.
Home to the word’s oldest university, Bologna has been at the heart of commerce and progressive thinking throughout its existence. The city’s efforts to maintain its heritage mean that churches, towers and works of art have been preserved beautifully, despite suffering extensive damage during the Second World War. Visitors should definitely climb Le Due Torri (The Two Towers), which architect Minoru Yamasaki used as inspiration when designing the World Trade Center in New York.
Cologne’s status as a key city within the Frankish Empire in medieval Europe can still be seen today, with the Rhine playing an influential role in trade between east and west. Of the 12 medieval gates that were in use, three are still standing, as is the Cologne City Hall, which is the oldest town hall in Germany still in use. Legend has it that Cologne Cathedral is home to the bones of the biblical Wise Men, supposedly housed in the Shrine of the Three Kings, the largest reliquary in the western world.
When conquering Angoulême, Clovis I seriously injured his leg. To immortalise this moment in history, the appendage was carved in stone into the wall of a 2nd-century tower. Head to the Leg of Clovis to pay tribute to the first king to bring together the Frankish tribes under one ruler. The city is famous for its association with comic books, being home to the International City of the Comic Book and the Image – a public institution of cultural cooperation where all the comics published in France are registered. As a result, many of the walls in the city centre are used as canvases for fantastic artwork.
In France, only Paris officially boasts more historic buildings than Bordeaux. Home to relics of the Roman Empire and intricate Gothic architecture, its Musée des Beaux Arts houses work by Rubens, Matisse and Picasso. Military aficionados will appreciate the BETASOM submarine base. Once used by the Italians and Germans in the Second World War, it has now become a cultural exhibition centre.
Also known as the birthplace of the pizza. What was traditionally a meal for the poor was named after Queen Margherita of Savoy when she visited Naples, and the city remains home to arguably the best pizzas in the world today. Elsewhere, head to Castel Nuovo, the residence of King Charles I, Naples’ first king, in 1282. Day trippers should see Pompeii and Herculaneum, the incredibly preserved Roman cities buried by Mount Vesuvius‘ volcanic eruption in 79 A.D.
The city’s university, established in 1431, is one of the world’s oldest, and includes the likes of François Rabelais and René Descartes among its alumni. The university excelled in theology, medicine and the arts and still has over 2,400 students attending today. The building itself is a brilliant example of city’s wonderful architecture, in addition to the Baptistère Saint-Jean (the country’s oldest church) and the Église Notre-Dame-la-Grande, one of the oldest Romanesque churches in Europe.
One of the wealthiest and most forward-thinking cities of Renaissance Europe. Whether it is through artists such as da Vinci, Botticelli and Michelangelo, the philosophy of Machiavelli or the science of Galileo, Florence has always been a hub of creativity. The Uffizi Gallery, which is among the best museums in the world, is a must-visit, while fashion lovers can revel in the knowledge that they find themselves in the birthplace of Roberto Cavalli and Gucci. Sports fans should try to visit Florence in June to catch calcio storico, the city’s unique form of medieval football which has been played out in Piazza Santa Croce every year for the last 500 years.
Go to the East Side Gallery to see a 1,316m long preserved section of the Berlin Wall. Brandenburg Gate, built in the late 18th century, has been the site for major historical events since its construction. While it stood as a symbol for Nazi power during the Second World War, since the fall of the Berlin Wall it is now seen as a symbol of peace and unity. Visitors to the city should also see the Holocaust Memorial, where 2,711 concrete slates of various sizes fill an area of nearly five acres.
Its location as a westerly port has meant that La Rochelle has been constantly fought over since its foundation as a harbour city in the 12th century. You can visit the remains of Vauclair Castle, built by Henry II of England in the 12th century after he married Eleanor of Aquitaine. The port also became an integral location for the Knights Templar; the Templar Cross can be still be seen in the walls and floor of the Cour de la Commanderie, their ancient headquarters.
To experience the best of Europe by train, you can visit all of these spectacular destinations and more with Voyages SNCF.