Europe is dotted with plenty of historic cities where unique cultures have thrived for centuries. Thanks to the mountainous landscape in certain regions, some of these cities are also set against dramatic snowcapped
backdrops that offer visitors the chance to combine a cultural sojourn with an exploration of the great outdoors.
Located in the north of Spain, Huesca is a gateway to the Pyrenees and an area rich in Romanesque architecture, ski resorts, and stunning mountain landscapes. Perched on a hillock with the rolling Pyrenees mountains as a backdrop, Huesca’s history goes back to over 2,000
years, with cultural highlights including the Plaza del Seminario, the Romanesque San Pedro el Viejo monastery, as well as the Huesca Cathedral, built in the 13th century on the site of a mosque. Not far from the city is the Cañones de Guara Natural Park which is popular for canyoning. Beyond the city, the most characteristic landscape is formed by summits and green valleys, dotted with national parks like Ordesa and Monte Perdido (a UNESCO site). Hiking is a great way to explore this landscape, which also includes the most southerly glaciers in Europe. Some of the best ski stations in Spain can also be found in the Huesca Pyrenees.
Nestled in the sheltered bay of Lake Geneva, the town of Montreux is surrounded by vineyards set against the breathtaking backdrop of the snowcapped Alps. Famous for hosting the Montreux Jazz
Festival, another popular attraction is the medieval Chillon Castle, located on a rocky island and featuring fortified walls and towers, the dungeons of which once held Lord Byron. Thanks to its mild climate, vineyards carpet much of the landscape between the lake and the mountains. The most famous of these is the UNESCO-listed Lavaux, the terraces of which are accessible by footpath and a purpose-built train. A little further afield is
the winegrowing region of Aigle, with stunning Aigle Castle as a
Montreux is also a good base for railway enthusiasts – ride the Rochers-de-Naye rack-railway, or the panorama train to the Bernese Oberland. Up in the nearby mountains is Glacier 3000, a year-round winterland where you can ski or toboggan.
A tiny country – at 25km long by 12km wide – wedged between Switzerland and Austria, Liechtenstein may be famous for its banking and denture industry, but it does have other eccentricities. This mountain principality is governed by a prince who resides in Vaduz Castle perched high above the capital city, and on its national day, the prince’s family invites residents to
have beer in the castle’s garden. In 2011, the whole country was available
for rent at US$70,000 a night as part of a marketing scheme; hosting 150 guests, it involves customised street signs, wine tasting at the prince’s estate, and even your own temporary currency. Many visitors stop here for a short trip to get their passports stamped for a souvenir; those staying longer can explore the country’s great outdoors – there is a remarkable number of trails to hike and slopes to ski given the country’s size.
The capital of Tyrol, Innsbruck is scenically squeezed between 2 impressive mountain chains. The jagged rock spires of the Nordkette (2,000m) are easily accessible from the city centre via a 20-minute gondola ride. Nordkette is Innsbruck’s mountain adventure playground; in summer, it’s a great location for hiking, via ferrata, and mountain biking – the Nordpark Singletrail is a renowned MTB freeride route. Come winter, there are several ski routes to tackle too. As it’s hosted the Olympic Winter Games three times, Innsbruck is a major winter-sports centre, where skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, and ski mountaineering are popular. In addition to a number of surrounding ski villages, the Olympia Skiworld Innsbruck is a massive area with nine resorts. The historic city of Innsbruck is also not to be missed: check out the Altstadt (Old Town) for its Golden Roof, the Imperial Palace and the Cathedral of Saint James; in December the
town hosts its famous Christmas market.
BOLZANO (BOZEN), ITALY
The city of Bolzano (Bozen) is situated close to the mighty Dolomites mountain range; straddling Italy and Austria, the town itself is a quaint mix of German and Italian influences. The Dolomites is the birthplace of Via Ferrata, the routes of which were originally used by both the Austrians and Italians to bring soldiers and supplies around the harsh mountains; today these routes attract climbing enthusiasts from around the world.
The Dolomites are also home to 20,000km of hiking routes and 1,200km of ski trails, with plenty of huts dotted around the landscape providing sustenance. Nearby Ritten is a popular area in summer due to its number of
summer spas and hiking trails.
There are over 350km of hiking routes, most offering panoramic views of the Dolomites. Themed hiking trails include the Ritten Theme Walkway and the Chestnut Way, which pass through Roman roads, Earth Pyramids, vineyards and pasture lands.