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Europe, the museum of western civilization and the cradle of western culture, is not content to rest on its many, many laurels. From the ancient glories of rowdy Rome to the bike-lined canals of Amsterdam; from the sexy and stuffy grandeur of London to the passion and paella of Spain; from sultry Paris to exciting Berlin, Europe is everything you ever thought it was and a whole lot more.
If you're looking to consolidate the well-worn impressions of the European experience you certainly won't be disappointed, but stay on your toes because Europe is changing faster than anyone can imagine - not a bad time to come along for the ride.
EUROPE TOURS & TRAVEL:
BELGIUM Tours, Travel and Activities
If Belgium's spotlight on the European stage is a little dim, it's only because its people are rarely boastful. This slow-burning country has more history, art, food and architecture packed into its tiny self than many of its bigger, louder neighbors.
A rich and bubbling vat of beer, chocolate, oil paint and bureaucrats, Belgium gives off the heady smell of the bourgeoisie. But stir the pot a little and you'll find an 'artificial state' made up of two parts Germanic Flemings to one part Celtic-Latin Walloons.
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FRANCE Tours, Travel and Activities
The French wrote the book on la vie en rose and gave the world champagne and camembert, de Beauvoir and Debussy, the Tour de France and the Tour Eiffel. There's a term for their seductive lifestyle - Douce France (Sweet France) and you'll find yourself using it often.
Although the ubiquity of Levis and Le Big Mac flusters the country's cultural purists, a year in Provence or a weekend in Paris will explain why half the world grows dreamy over stalking Paris's streets or picnicking Manet-style sur l'herbe
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NETHERLANDS Tours, Travel and Activities
The Dutch aren't bogged in their cliches, even though bikes, dykes, windmills and blazing flower fields are pretty much the norm outside the major cities. Do as the locals do - grab a bike and explore. The Netherlands is a very big small country, and full of salutary surprises.
One of the chief pleasures of the place is its lively contrast between pragmatic liberalism and the buttoned-up just-so primness of a culture founded on Calvinist principles.
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AUSTRIA Tours, Travel and Activities
Austria has few peers as a year-round holiday destination, with plenty of winter sports in the Alps, some of the most impressive and overblown architecture in Europe and an unrivalled musical tradition that even The Sound of Music couldn't sully.
The cities have plenty to engage visitors. Vienna is the capital, hub of the country's musical life and littered with beautiful buildings. Music, art and architecture reach baroque perfection in Salzburg, Mozart's birthplace.
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CZECH REPUBLIC Tours, Travel and Activities
The Czech Republic is all things to all people. From the pulsing capital Prague to the back-in-time villages of Moravia, from toiling up mountains to lounging in spas, from the world-famous Pilsner to the strains of Smetana and Dvorák, there's an experience to suit every taste.
Stunning architecture is not limited to Prague - there are plenty of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque facades in other towns.
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GERMANY Tours, Travel and Activities
Germany wears its riches well: elegant big-city charm, small picture-postcard towns, pagan-inspired harvest festivals, a wealth of art and culture and the perennial pleasures of huge tracts of forest, delightful castles and fine wine and beer are all there for the savoring.
Deep in the heart of Europe, Germany has had a seminal impact on Continental history. From Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire to Otto von Bismarck's German Reich, Nazism and the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall, no other nation has molded Europe the way Germany has - for better or worse.
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HUNGARY Tours, Travel and Activities
Hungary is a heart-stealer; it will lure you back again and again to sample its rich wines, lounge in its thermal spas, gaze at its birdlife and make one more attempt to master its hermetic language. It has all the luxury of western Europe with a Magyar twist and at half the cost.
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POLAND Tours, Travel and Activities
For centuries, Poland has been a bridge between the East and West. Set in the heart of Europe, Poland is a multifaceted country where the capital and medieval towns are trawled by contemporary city slickers, and where horse-drawn carts negotiate country lanes, untouched by progress.
Poland remains reasonably cheap and safe, with hospitable people who welcome visitors. Over the past decade, it has developed into a modern, vibrant and progressive state, yet at the same time it maintains its traditional culture. It's a fascinating destination and now is a good time to go.
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SLOVAKIA Tours, Travel and Activities
Slovakia, the former Czechoslovakia's less glamorous partner, emerged dishevelled and sleepy after the 'Velvet Revolution' of 1989. Although it's now holding its own in a rebuilding Eastern bloc, there's a refreshing absence of Prague-style glitz and clamour.
This is a land of real spirit, where folk traditions have survived the domination of foreign rulers and a plethora of castles and chateaux pay testament to untold wars and civil conflicts. And the people have come through it all with their welcoming spirit intact.
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SLOVENIA Tours, Travel and Activities
Rich in resources, naturally good looking and persistently peaceful, Slovenia has been doing just fine since its break from the former Yugoslavia in 1991. No longer the undiscovered, bargain gem that it was, Slovenia still remains a wonderful antidote to much of Europe's crowds and high prices.
Many of its cities and towns bear the imprint of the Habsburg Empire and the Venetian Republic, while up in the Julian Alps you'd almost think you were in Bavaria. The relative affluence of this country on the 'sunny side of the Alps' is immediately apparent.
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SWITZERLAND Tours, Travel and Activities
Switzerland may be neutral but it is certainly not flavorless. The fusion of German, French and Italian ingredients has formed a robust national culture, and the country's alpine landscapes have enough zing to reinvigorate the most jaded traveller.
Goethe summed up Switzerland succinctly as a combination of the colossal and the well-ordered. You can be sure that your trains and letters will be on time. The tidy, just-so precision of Swiss towns is tempered by the lofty splendor of the landscapes that surround them.
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