Heidelberg’s festivalsBaden-Wurttemberg Tourismus Marketing GmbHBy Christine Potter

With our Canadian dollar at its strongest ever against the euro and pound sterling, this is an excellent time to visit Europe.

There’s plenty of excitement: women’s FIFA in Germany, Floriade in Holland and two European Cities of Culture – Tallinn, Estonia and Turku, Finland. You could become a goddess in Rome or Go Blonde in Latvia. And Greece and Ireland will always be gorgeous, despite their much publicized economic problems.

Benz, Beer & All That Is Berlin
It’s 125 years since Carl Friedrich Benz obtained his patent for the world’s first car and celebrations happen all year in recognition of Germany’s automobile industry. The highpoint is Summer of Cars. Carl developed his invention in Mannheim and wife Bertha drove the first long-distance car trip, now a pleasant Memorial Route from Mannheim to Pforzheim. In Mannheim’s Technoseum, replicas of early Benz cars and other historic motors are on show.

In Heidelberg, festivals focus on the romantic hilltop castle ruins overlooking the Neckar River. The Spring Festival (international music, March 19 to April 17) attracts thousands. Fireworks light the skyline on June 4, July 9, and September 3 and the Castle Festival (with mixed events) runs from the end of June to mid-August.

In Hamburg they party on the shores, on the water, and in the air to commemorate the port’s 821st birthday May 6 to May 10, with parades of tall ships, historic ships and vessels of all kinds.

A church reformer married a runaway nun almost 500 years ago and Lutherstadt – the wedding of Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora – is celebrated annually in Wittenberg every second weekend in June with musicians, entertainers and historical artisans. “Ozapft is” calls the Mayor of Munich (“the barrel is tapped”) and – you guessed it – Oktoberfest begins. From September 13 to October 3 visitors flock to the festival for steins of beer, food, rides and oompapa Bavarian music in the beer tents. It’s a don’t-miss experience, but carry plenty of coins for the washrooms.

In Berlin, FIFA Women’s World Cup kicks off June 26. Nine venues are involved and the final soccer match takes place in Frankfurt on July 17. The Real Berlin Marathon, among the world’s top five, runs September 24 and 25. October 3 marks German Unification Day with celebrations around Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag. Music fills the air with everything from classical to rock. For more information go to www.germany.travel

Ponts & People-Watching
If you hear mariachis in Marseille or bite a burrito in Boulogne, it’s because this is the Year of Mexico in France. We’re unlikely to travel there to learn about Mexico, but we will (and do) arrive in droves to enjoy that country’s own ambience. Like the Ponts (Bridges) exhibition appropriately held in Avignon at the Palais des Papes and the Pont d’Avignon itself, until June 30.

Speaking of art, a visit to the Louvre in Paris can now be done in the company of experts giving mini-lectures – they’re on the new audio guides, which include on-screen maps

On the Riviera picturesque communities dot the coast between Cannes, Nice and the Principality of Monaco. A leisurely way to tour the route is by train, but if leisure is an alien concept, consider the Ironman France. Held in and around Nice on June 26, the cycle portion is a hilly, albeit scenic, challenge. It’s followed by the swim element and four marathon laps along the famous beach, where the scenery “quickly drowns the pain” according to officials. We think they’re not talking about golden sand, but the beauties adorning it. The finish is full of pageantry and fireworks.

In Cannes, the Film Festival runs from May 11 to 22. It’s a fun place to be and people-watching doesn’t get any better.

A less visited area is Brittany on France’s Atlantic coast. Here, in the medieval town of Quimper, the Festival de Cournouaille (July 19 to 24) is the largest celebration of Breton culture, with participants dressed in many different traditional costumes. Concerts, parades, markets and dancing run into the wee hours on the quayside, around the cathedral and by the 16th-century bishop’s palace. Brittany is known for its ancient standing stones (at Carnac) and for its unique culture. Learn more from www.franceguide.com

The Acropolis in AthensShutterstock/DimitriosThe Agora, The Acropolis & Outdoor Theatre
Take a moment to stand still almost anywhere in Greece and softly breathe. It’s easy to feel the presence of ancient philosophers, even among the bustle of Athens. A stroll through the Agora transports you to the route of Plato and Aristotle and you tread without crowds. They’re up on the Acropolis visiting the Parthenon. Not to suggest you miss those amazing sights – just visit them as early in the day as possible. A combo ticket combines a visit with the Acropolis and other sites.

Don’t miss the New Acropolis Museum, overlooking the ancient Theatre of Dionysus and gleaming on the hill between Plaka and Makrigianni. Some say it’s exactly where the city began.

The construction unearthed important finds dating back 4,000 years – as if you could dig anywhere in Athens without discovering treasures – and these are on display beneath glass floors, in the walls and throughout the museum.

From June 25 to July 4 Athens hosts the XIII Special Olympics World Summer Games. The event, for athletes with intellectual disabilities, includes 24 competition categories.

Among the vast range of artistic events throughout Greece, the summer Epidaurus Festival is one of the most important. For more than 40 years the festival has recreated Greek classics in the ancient theatre at Epidaurus, about a two-hour drive from Athens on the Peloponnese. The official program is not available until spring, but almost any performance in this acoustically stunning theatre is an unforgettable experience.

More information at www.visitgreece.gr

Siena’s central plazaShuttterstock/Cedric Crucke

Fish Festivals & Roman Goddesses
From ski resorts to fashion and design centres to ancient monuments and culinary high points, from sporting events to fun festivals and major exhibitions, Italy doesn’t disappoint.

If Florence is in your plans, check out the Maggio Musicale festival in May and June – book early for the most popular operas and concerts. More opera resounds through Pesaro in Le Marche region on the Adriatic at the annual celebration of native son Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) August 10 to 24. (Rossini’s works include The Barber of Seville and William Tell.) Pesaro, off the main tourist path, is a working fishing town with an interesting historic centre and wide sandy beaches.

Still in Le Marche but inland, Porto Recanati is a pretty hill town on the Conero Riviera, with cycle races, beach sports and marathons. Among the summer events are culinary occasions like the Roasted Sardine Festival and Blue Fish Festival.

In Rome you’ll find charming restaurants by meandering along back streets. You’ll also find some great markets, like La Soffitta Sotto i Portici  – fascinating to browse through albeit short on bargains, but with every collectible imaginable. It’s held every first and third Sunday from April until October (except August) from 9 a.m. to sunset at Piazza Augusto Imperatore.

If you’re in the city on April 17, don’t miss the Birth of Rome, celebrating the founding by Romulus in 753 BC with parades, gladiator shows and traditional banquets at venues like Circo Massimo and Fori Imperiali. Female visitors might try out for Dea Roma, a contest to choose a representative of the Goddess of Rome, open to all women. You can enter through Gruppo Storica Romano (who also offer gladiator lessons) at their website www.gsr-roma.com.

One of Italy’s most famous events is Siena’s Corsa del Palio, between July 2 and August 16. The bareback horse race around Siena’s central plaza (Campo) draws thousands each year. The best way to see it? From a Campo-side hotel balcony – if you can get one. More about Italy from www.italiantourism.com

Golf in PortugalTurismo de Portugal/Praia del Rey Golf & Beach ResortTrue Travel Values

Charming is the word to describe Portugal, Madeira and The Azores. Seaside villages, fortified mountain towns, and diverse landscapes haven’t changed for centuries. What is new is a dedication to quality tourism. (Example: a 1980s hotel strip on the Troia Peninsula was recently imploded to make way for smaller, greener hostelries and a number of heritage buildings have been converted to new pousadas, the unique hotel line using palaces, convents and monasteries. More are planned.)

Portugal’s golf courses are legendary, the variety of outdoor activities is huge, the wine country is renowned and historical attractions are everywhere. The icing on the cake: it ranks among Europe’s best travel values.

Getting across the country was made easier last year with a new high-speed rail system, but curious visitors with time to spare will enjoy exploring twisty secondary roads and mountain passes.
Museums abound throughout the land and islands, and of special note is the award-winning Portimao Museum in the Algarve, housed in the old sardine canning factory.

Braga, in the north, is the place to experience Holy Week (April 1 to 4) when the city is decorated with flowers and lights.

Few places rival Madeira for horticulture and this year’s Flower Festival, May 5 to 8, celebrates the island’s wealth of flora in Funchal. It’s a visual and olfactory treat. Madeira also has its Golf Open (May 19 to 22) at Porto Santo Golfe, part of the PGA European Tour.

On the Azores, Santa Maria Island’s annual Mare de Agosto (August Tide) International Music Festival attracts leading international names to perform world music on the ocean-side stage. Held the second week in August, check www.azoresweb.com for 2011 dates and for more about the islands. Find out more from www.visitportugal.com

Old CityJanice StrongQuirky & Conventional
Birthplace of Dali and Picasso, home of Gaudi’s gaudy architecture, and site of Frank Gehry’s futuristic Guggenheim Museum where a 3.5-metre flowering dog guards the entrance – is anything predictable about this country?

Yes. If you go, you’re sure to love it and you’ll find fiercely upheld traditions and whimsical creativity living side by side.

Some coastline suffers from tourist overload, true, but travel inland to towns like Toledo, Salamanca, and Seville, to the northern coast or hilltop villages, and you’ll see what the heart Spain is all about.

Madrid is an important European business centre, home to the Royal Family and government headquarters but it knows how to have fun, too. Soccer fans know it for Real Madrid, and night clubs and tapas bars abound. Madrilenos flock to Plaza de Espana after 10 p.m. (no self-respecting city Spaniard even starts tapas before that). But this is also a great place for lunch Spanish style – large and late, followed by a siesta. To get a feel for Old Madrid, head to Puerta del Sol, said to be the centre of the country. Here is Kilometre Zero – a stone slab from which all distances in Spain are measured.

Barcelona may be “second city” size-wise, but it rivals Madrid for fun. As the head of Catalonia, it’s also a centre for Gaudi’s architecture, with the famed Sagrada Familia (Gaudi’s unfinished cathedral) as a focal point. No visit is complete without a stroll along Las Ramblas and into the Old City (Barri Gottica).

Notable Spanish dates for 2011 include Seville’s Feria de Abril, despite its name this year from May 3 to 8, with bullfights, flamenco dancing, fiery national costumes and lots of parties; Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls, part of the San Fermin Festival July 6 to 14; and the Tomatina Tomato Fight in Bunol, August 24, when truckloads of really ripe tomatoes become ammo for a flinging match. Do not wear good clothes. Confirm dates before travelling, and find out more about Spain from www.spain.info/ca

LondonBritain On ViewBikes, Eisteddfod & Clootie Dumplings
Canadians love the UK for its variety, says Sandie Dawe, CEO of VisitBritain. The favourable exchange rate – best ever for Canadians – doesn’t hurt, either.

“We’re the home of Shakespeare, The Beatles, Harry Potter, Wimbledon and the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games,” says Dawe. “We’ve got great theatre, most museums are free, and we can rival any country with our culinary offerings.”

The big draw this year is The Royal Wedding (of Prince William and Kate Middleton if you’ve been on another planet) on Friday, April 29 at Westminster Abbey. The day is a public holiday and the whole country will celebrate.

The Savoy Hotel has reopened in London after a $160 million refurbishment and if you can’t afford to stay, at least visit for a cuppa and admire the Edwardian and Art Deco grandeur.

A new cycle hire program makes it easy to get around London. A 24-hour access fee (one pound sterling) gets you a cycle at numerous city depots. Rides of 30 minutes or less are free. So exchange your bike at any depot within 30 minutes for the day’s free transport! You might like to visit some of the sites for next year’s Olympic and Paralympic Games (July 27 to August 12, 2012).

Hot new theatre openings include Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Wizard of Oz at the century-old London Palladium on March 1, and Ghost – The Musical opening at the Piccadilly on June 22.

Scotland’s Year of Food and Drink continues until May with chances to taste great northern cuisine and classics like haggis, cock-a-leekie soup and clootie dumplings. While in the land of skirling pipes and swirling kilts, catch the Edinburgh Festival between August 12 to September 4 and the Edinburgh Fringe from August 5 to 29.

In Wales – agog over the wedding of their very own prince – the annual Eisteddfod is held in Wrexham from July 30 to August 6. The event draws more than 160,000 to the eclectic mix of art and entertainment. And lovers of the outdoors can enjoy Wales’ Gower Peninsula at any time (I can attest, it is spectacular), but a Cycling Festival in mid- to late-September is particular fun, with 18 rides from gentle to challenging. Find information at www.VisitBritain.com