Five original Eurostar breaks
The Eurostar takes 2¼ hours from St Pancras International to Brussels (from £60). Changing at Bruxelles-Midi/Brussel-Zuid station, it’s another 75 minutes to Rotterdam (from £45). Eurostar tickets to ‘any Dutch station’ are £5 cheaper, but the connection may be slower.
Champagne-Ardenne: The one for wine
The countryside around Reims and Épernay is a tableau of low hills with neat green rows of vines in their folds, marked here and there by a church spire or the turrets of a château. So far, so French – but these vines have a special destiny that will set them apart from others in equally bucolic corners of this wine-obsessed nation. In an area 129 square miles in size, white wine grapes are grown, the product of which will be fermented a second time inside the bottle to create the fizz that is the hallmark of champagne.
This ‘king of wines’ got a head start in the prestige stakes because of the royal connections of Reims – one of the main cities of the historic province of Champagne, and the place where the kings of France were crowned. Today, the pageantry is reserved for the eight local ‘maisons’ (champagne houses), such as Taittinger and Mumm, whose musty cellars can be visited as part of engaging guided tours followed, of course, by tasting sessions (tours around £8; taittinger.fr, ghmumm.com). For dinner, one sterling choice is Le Boulingrin, a genuine, old-time brasserie from 1925 (mains from £11).
A half-hour train ride south from Reims is Épernay, lying deeper in the heart of champagne country. More champagne houses offer tours here, including Moët & Chandon, Mercier and De Castellane. But the draw of Épernay is as a base for heading out into the surrounding vineyards. Champagne Domi Moreau runs vineyard tours by minibus from Épernay, or by bicycle starting from the nearby village of Mancy (cycle tours £12, minibus tours £16). You can find other suggestions for exploring the area by bicycle at champagne-ardenne-tourism.co.uk.
Le Clos Raymi, in Épernay, is a refined hotel with seven Art Deco-themed rooms (from £90). Grand Hôtel des Templiers is a neo-Gothic extravaganza in central Reims, with stained glass and period furnishings throughout (from £175).
Reims is between four and five hours by train from St Pancras International, including the connection time in Paris or Lille – Paris has more frequent services than Lille, but requires a 10-minute transfer on foot between the Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est (from £90).
Aachen: The one for spas
What did the Romans ever do for Germany? The people of Aachen might have an answer – their city was kickstarted by legionaries who took a fancy to the area’s steaming, mineral-rich waters. Charlemagne (Carolus Magnus in Latin), founder of the Carolingian Empire, made it his capital in 794, and other conquerors followed, from Napoleon to Casanova. Today, the city is known by a multiplicity of names – Aix-la-Chapelle to the French, Aken to the Dutch, Aquisgrana to the Italians – that testifies to the fame of this one-time centre of political power and remedial bathtime in Western Europe.
Many of the spas today are clinics offering serious-sounding treatments for aches and complaints. One very accessible place, however, can be found at Carolus-Thermen, which is not afraid to use words such as ‘relaxation’ and ‘indulgence’ (spa visits from £8.50). Its elegant indoor and outdoor pools are kept at a pleasantly warm 32–34°C, with steam baths, hammams, and saunas for those who prefer something a bit hotter.