Lake Lucerne, Switzerland.
Lake Lucerne, Switzerland. Contributed

Europe: Hidden gems

CONQUERING five cities in three countries over six days with nary a sword, stallion nor aircraft in sight can take it out of a girl. Instead of a trusty steed, I rode the rails through country villages and busy cities, past farmhouses and fields, over rivers and around lakes between Belgium, France and Switzerland.

I would not recommend you try this in six days - unless collecting 2000 photos in record time is your aim - but as an appetiser of off-the-beaten-track cities, it was perfect. Travelling through Europe by rail is very easy. There is none of the palaver that air travel entails - checking in hours before take-off, having laptops, lippy and liquids screened - and train stations are invariably located right in the heart of city centres.

Here's a quick guide to five European cities, all easily accessible by rail.

Brussels, Belgium
I had preconceptions that were nicely shattered in Brussels - especially by the brunette who flashed her naked body in front of the Mannequin Pis statue while her companion took photos. Belgium is famous for several things, namely the Smurfs, Tin Tin, chocolate and, of course, beer.

The first you will find emblazoned on murals on 34 buildings around the capital city, while the deliciously sinful Belgian chocolate is pretty much everywhere. If you head to Place du Grand Sablon you'll find about half a dozen chocolatiers ready for your custom.

If you're a bit of an art buff, then the new Magritte Museum is a must-see. And, of course, in the home of Stella Artois it would be rude not to sample a drop. There are more than 125 breweries in Belgium producing more than 400 beers and each must be poured in the right glass.

But beware the Bush Amber, with 12 per cent alcohol content, it'll knock you sideways.

Strasbourg, France
Strasbourg in eastern France near the German border, is possibly the prettiest city in Europe. The town was settled 3000 years ago and the historic centre is surrounded by the River Ille. It offers yet another photo opportunity of cobblestone streets and ancient, quaint buildings are around every corner. Take a river cruise/tour for fascinating tales of Torture Bridge where baddies would be thrown into the river sewn in sacks, and ladies of ill-repute were dunked near the waste outlet of the local butcher to teach them a lesson. The majestic Cathedral of Our Lady (which took 200 years to build) will take your breath away and if you visit over the weekend, you can browse the flea market for antiques.

Lucerne, Switzerland
This Swiss city on the northwestern banks of Lake Lucerne is most famous for two things: Chapel Bridge - which bursts with bright red geraniums and begonia, and the very moving Dying Lion sculpture that Mark Twain described as the "saddest and most moving piece of rock in the world".

The 200m wooden bridge that stretches across the lake was built in 1333 and in the 1700s, paintings depicting Lucerne's history were added under the ceiling. Tragically, a fire in 1993 destroyed about half of it - including many of those paintings. But it is still one of the most picturesque parts of the city.

The Dying Lion of Lucerne is an amazing sculpture hewn out of the stone wall at Glacier Garden. His body is slumped with a broken spear in his back and his face contorted in agony as a memorial of the deaths of 600 Swiss Guard at the Tuileries in France in 1792 who were there to protect Henry XVI. That was the last time Switzerland took sides in a war. Lucerne is also blessed with beautiful old churches, the lake, waterfront bars and shopping in the historic quarter, as well as in newer parts of the city.

Locarno, Switzerland
Locarno is on the Swiss/Italian border and is probably most famous for its International Film Festival each August. But Locarno is a lovely stop without the flicks, too. Take the cable car up Cardada-Cimetta - the mountain that affords sweeping views over the lake and beyond. And with an almost Mediterranean climate, it has lots of lovely places to eat - and drink grappa. All I can say is you need to keep candles well clear of your face when drinking this putrid-tasting beverage. Not that there was a nasty incident, but you can never be too careful when swilling something akin to nail- polish remover.

Montpellier, France
Montpellier is a university town about 10km from the sea. But unlike student towns you may be used to, Montpellier is elegant with beautiful city squares, 88 fountains and little cobblestone alleyways that meander past bars and cafes until you pop out at a big old cathedral. At 1000 years old, it is considered young by European standards and is most famous for violin making. There wouldn't be an orchestra in the world that doesn't have a violin from Montpellier. The shopping here is great - from designer boutiques and antique shops to souvenirs and curiosities. From here, Paris is just over three hours away by TGV train, Nice is 4.5 hours and trains also connect to Spain.

IF YOU GO
* For information about Rail Europe, visit www.raileurope-nz.com
* Singapore Airlines fly to 10 European cities. See www.singaporeair.com

Megan Singleton was hosted by Rail Europe and Singapore Airlines. Visit her travel blog at www.bloggeratlarge.com



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