Tour Europe's great canal cities: Water worlds

There is one Venice but there are many. Amsterdam, Bruges, Copenhagen, Hamburg, St Petersburg, Birmingham, even: they all claim, or receive, the epithet of "Venice of the north". Then there are the "Venices of the East" – too numerous to name here – like Dhaka, Lijiang, Suzhou, Malacca, Udaipur, Bangkok and Ayutthaya. Annecy, a city in France, is known as the "Venice of the Alps".

Such is the timeless appeal of the canal city that the Americans had the temerity to call a whole Los Angeles neighbourhood after the Italian original. Decades later, they even created a replica indoor version of Venice at a Las Vegas casino, replete with faux gondoliers, gondolas (crafted in Venice) and even an US-style "wait-list" for a ride in one.

And, yet, while nowhere in truth quite compares to Venice, many cities with water running where streets might, or should, be, are nearly as beguiling as La Serenissima herself, no less those in Europe. Certainly, canal cities like Venice – recently worryingly declared the most endangered heritage site in Europe – can seem quaint and more than a little artificial today.

But that ignores the fact that less than a hundred years ago the canals that flow through these cities were vital aquatic arteries for the transport of goods, food and people, and even for defences. The gondoliers of Venice, once essential transport providers, numbered 10,000 in the heyday of the Venetian Republic. Nowadays there's 400-odd of them.

Despite their dependence in the 21st century on tourists, canal cities, with all that controlled flowing water and huddled ancient buildings where car-clogged streets would today exist in any other place, still captivate us with their beauty and their novelty. In Europe, by taking a series of trains from Paris, it's possible to circumnavigate the continent, visiting a quintet of the grandest canal cities, with a handful of other cities, sans canals, in between.

BRUGES

THE ROUTE High-speed train from Paris Gare du Nord to Brussels Gare du Midi, with a connection to Bruges aboard a local train; two hours and 51 minutes, 300 kilometres.

THE CANAL CITY My grand canal cities of Europe by train tour begins in Paris, itself a city of canals to some extent, with the Canal St Martin district having become in recent years one of the French capital's most fashionable districts. But, when I'm there, Canal St Martin, wouldn't you know it, is undergoing its every-15-years cleanup. By the time I leave Paris, in not the most propitious beginning to a tour of the romantic canal cities of Europe, 36 tonnes of rubbish have been extracted from the canal, which was commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1804 as a passage for goods and fresh food.

The roll-call of recovered items includes abandoned bicycles, motorcycles, a wheelchair, a toilet bowl, two 75 millimetre shells from the First World War, a pistol and two empty safes.

Paris, still in a state of emergency following last year's outrages, farewells us with a mass taxi strike, the city's drivers protesting the rise of Uber, meaning we have to struggle on the unforgiving Metro laden with luggage from our hotel near the Arc de Triomphe to Gare du Nord. Mercifully, it's a relatively short and easy trip to Bruges, the first true canal city on my itinerary, via Brussels, mainly aboard the high-speed and luxurious Thalys intercity train.

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If Venice is a city of pigeons then Bruges, the egg-shaped canal city in northern Belgium, is a city of swans – as I discover when I arrive a few hours after departing Paris. Like feathery props, they neatly frame canalside scenes that hardly need any further visual assistance.

It's winter when I visit and Bruges' canals – flanked by ancient benevolent almshouses and overlooked by towering Gothic cathedrals, the number, bulk and majesty of which rival Venice – are happily not frozen. But the city's tourist canal boats, which ferry tourists around the city in the warmer months, are forlornly dormant – covered and tethered to the walls of canals.

Of course, these days it's hard to utter the name "Bruges" without rekindling memories of the art-house film that ostensibly put it on the mainstream travel map. Despite being an intelligent and enjoyable piece, the darkly droll British crime film In Bruges has been a blessing and curse for the Belgian city. It alerted millions to the city's existence but it also, to a certain degree, trivialised it.

A shame, since this is a city of substance. In medieval times Bruges was an important commercial centre in Europe, its network of canals clogged with traffic generated by the cloth trade; the city was once as much renowned for its skilled weavers as its painters.

Tucked away in a serene garden setting off a canal-side street, the Groeninge Museum houses a world-renowned collection of the art of the so-called Flemish Primitives. There are masterpieces by Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling, Hugo van der Goes and Gerard David.

Elsewhere, one of the most gorgeous sights in Bruges is Beguinage, a white-washed convent complex that was once home of the beguines: women freed by nuns from a life of vice or violence to live in celibacy and prayer.

In this devout city, you can even view what is said to be the blood of Jesus Christ, brought back to Bruges from the Crusades. It's displayed in a vial inside the Basilica of the Holy Blood located in the Burg – one of Bruges' most sublime squares.

All of that high art and divine worship can leave a visitor a little giddy. Never fear. Around the corner in Markt, Bruges's Market Square, you can pause and buy a bag of Belgian frites – never, ever, call them French fries when in Belgium – from one of vans in the shadows of the Belfry, a trio of stupendous towers completed in the 15th century. See bezoekers.brugge.be/en

WHERE TO STAY The gracious, though somewhat service-free, 45-room De Tuilerieen, conveniently close the Groeninge Museum and photogenic Rosary Quay, faces Bruges' swan-studded main canal. The city's main attractions, including the architecturally rich Burg, are within easy walking distance. See hoteltulierieen.com

AMSTERDAM

THE ROUTE Local train from Bruges to Antwerp Centraal Station, one hour and 28 minutes, 109 kilometres; high-speed train from Antwerp Centraal Station to Amsterdam Centraal Station, one hour and 12 minutes, 159 kilometres.

THE CANAL CITY If raw sewerage is the signature smell of a slowly sinking and rotting Venice, then it's the pervasive whiff of cannabis that is the most characteristic aroma of Amsterdam. But I didn't expect it to hit me even as soon as I arrive at the city's 19th Centraal Station railway station, having travelled from Bruges, via Antwerp, before I set foot in the city proper.

I've only allowed a night in Amsterdam, which after Venice is perhaps the most famous of canal cities, in order to make time for my next stop, Hamburg, a city I've not previously visited.

One of the most touristy, though essential, pastimes in Amsterdam is to take a boat ride around its 17th century canal ring, built, like its counterpart canal cities elsewhere, for the transportation and delivery of goods and food as well as people. There's no better time to do so than at dusk.

I like to think of it as the voyeur's hour, the time of the day when it's possible to literally peer into the lives of Amsterdammers. The views afforded from a train can be voyeuristic enough, but it's nothing compared to what you can spy here after dark, and our route doesn't even take us by the city's raunchy red-light district.

From the vantage point of your tour boat you can watch householders at rest in the moments before they draw the curtains on the massive windows of their lopsided 17th and 18th century gabled canal-houses – in those times the homes of merchants, financiers, craftsmen, doctors, lawyers, politicians and artists – leaning into each other at odd-angles like some police line-up of drunken sailors.

You can see right inside houseboats, too, as the tour boat makes its way along the canals. I spot an oblivious 30-something father, mother and child sitting down to an early dinner. I'm struck, too, by the standard of interior design inside most of the houseboats we pass. They could qualify for spreads in Elle Decoration.

While the houseboats are at eye level I have to glance up to the canal-houses, most of which are no more than 10 metres wide, with their impossible, drapes-defying high ceilings, inevitably bearing elaborate chandeliers and enormous oil paintings. The occupants read newspapers, sip a glass of wine or perhaps listen to music.

Such is the importance of canals to the historical and contemporary fabric of Amsterdam that there's actually a whole museum devoted to them. Not even Venice, an open-air museum in its own right, has such an institution like this one, which through multimedia exhibitions the Museum of the Canals tells the story of how Amsterdam's canals were carved out swamped land. See iamsterdam.com

WHERE TO STAY The 150-room INK Hotel, located a short tram ride from Amsterdam's Centraal Station, is built inside three canal-house-style buildings which once belonged to a Dutch newspaper. In keeping with the theme, ornamental rolls of printing paper, ink bottles and antique typewriters line the walls of the public areas, including the excellent restaurant and bar, as well as the rooms. See mgallery.com

HAMBURG

THE ROUTE High-speed train from Amsterdam Centraal Station to Hamburg HBF, via Osnabruck. Five hours and 11 minutes, 465 kilometres.

THE CANAL CITY Every canal city, in its own distinct way, projects the national characteristics of country to which it belongs. If Venice and its canals represent the shambolic though ultimately brilliant nature of Italian life and culture, then Hamburg projects the efficiency and orderliness of the German character and engineering.

The surprisingly attractive northern German port city may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of romantic European canal cities, but it actually boasts more canals than Amsterdam and Venice. Speicherstadt, its most famous canal district, even received a UNESCO World Heritage listing last year.

From my accommodation, the Fairmont Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten, I'm able to walk to it along the pleasant canals that weave their way through the spruce city centre, dominated by the late 19th century Rathaus (City Hall), and all the way down to the port and the busy River Elbe.

In its UNESCO listing, Hamburg was recognised for its imposing multi-storey red-brick warehouses, dating to the late 19th century, from where cocoa, coffee and spices from Germany's far-flung colonies were received and traded. Half of the warehouses in Speicherstadt, which feels like a series of gigantic man-made canyons, were destroyed in World War Two.

But there are still more than two dozen giant warehouse blocks as well as six ancillary buildings, all linked by a network of canals and bridges through and below which mainly tour-boats pass today. A short walk from Speicherstadt in the Kontorhaus district is the remarkable modernist Chilehaus, a 10-storey chocolate-coloured clinker-brick office block built in 1924. Next door is the nearly as impressive Sprinkenhof, which, along with Chilehaus, was among the first of Europe's high-rise buildings. See english.hamburg.de

WHERE TO STAY Hamburg's most famous, elegant and best-located accommodation, the 156-room five star Fairmont Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten, opened in 1897. It overlooks Inner Alster Lake with the attractive city centre and the Speicherstadt canal district an easy stroll away. See fairmont.hvj.de

VENICE

THE ROUTE High-speed train from Hamburg HBF to Munich HBF, five hours and 59 minutes, 612 kilometres; Munich to Venice, via Verona, seven hours and two minutes, 543 kilometres.

THE CANAL CITY When you arrive at Santa Lucia Station, Venice's main and sole railway terminal now stuffed full of new and generic boutiques so that it feels like an upmarket suburban shopping centre, the signs are unpromising.

Buskers blare out raucous rock wholly unsympathetic to the setting, unattractive pre-fab ticket booths for the vaporetti waterbuses line the shoreline and waiting water-taxis bob about the Grand Canal waiting to slug visitors with their exorbitant fares.

No matter how much preparation you do prior to your visit to Venice, the city can be among the most initially perplexing as you, laden with luggage, struggle to establish the least traumatic and expensive route from the station to your hotel. A few years ago Venetians, fed up with the noise emanating from clunking of wheeled Samonsites and the like on cobbled streets, considered banning them, eventually thinking the better of it.

But once released from your luggage (the five euro per bag for a porter is worth it), Venice despite all that ubiquitous water, reveals itself one of the world's great walking cities. Unlike its counterpart canal cities, Bruges, Amsterdam, Hamburg and Annecy, after all, not a single motorised vehicle, let alone a bicycle, is allowed to trespass its lanes, squares and bridges.

Venice's monumental main attractions, such as Piazza San Marco, Basilica San Marco and the Doges Palace, are well-known, and over-trammelled. In the peak-season, Venice can receive as many as 100,000 visitors a day, 30,000 of them passengers from cruise ships with most of them crowding into St Mark's Square. No wonder the City of Venice has been considering installing turnstiles there.

Yet even with Venice's population having plunged to 58,000 – the lowest since its foundation days – it's still possible to commune with the locals, especially if you visit in winter, in the under-visited Dorsoduro, one of the city's six sestieri or neighbourhoods.

It's located to the south of the city where the crowds tend not to venture. The City of Venice, conscious of the pressures under which places like St Mark's Square from tourists, to likes to promote this sestieri in a possibly futile attempt to disperse visitors across the city. Venice, it seems, may well sink from the sheer weight of tourists before it sinks into the mud on which it's built. See comune.venezia.it

WHERE TO STAY The unpretentious four-star Hotel Canal Grande is located, as the name suggests, right on the Grand Canal. Santa Lucia Railway Station, where the vast majority of visitors arrive in Venice, is just across the Grand Canal. Venice's somewhat less trammelled sestieri (six districts) San Croce and Dorsoduro are on your doorstep. See hotelcanalgrande.it

ANNECY

THE ROUTE High-speed train, Venice to Milan, two hours and 35 minutes, 279 kilometres; high-speed TGV Milan to Annecy, via Chambrey Challes-Les-Eaux, 337 kilometres .

THE CANAL CITY Breaking the journey in Milan after leaving mid-afternoon from Venice means that you get to travel in daylight the next day with the scenery of the French Alps unveiled from the moving vantage point of the train. I'm heading to Annecy, a canal city in the French Alps and the last of five on my journey around Europe.

Although it's little known by foreigners outside of Europe, this delightful city of canals, castles and chateaus has been a popular and salubrious tourist destination for the French since the 19th century. And it's one of the most ancient cities in the Alps, with its origins able to be traced to the 11th century.

Closer to Geneva than it is to Paris, by the 13th century, Annecy became part of the region of Genevois and the Duchy of Savoy, transforming the city into an important administrative and judicial centre. It wasn't until the 1860s that the Annecy was reunited with France.

Its compact size makes it even more perfect for walking than the other canal cities I've visited. Even the River Thiou, which runs through city, is one of the shortest in France at just five kilometres in length. Annecy's quintessential postcard canal scene is the 12th century Le Palais de L'lle. An erstwhile fortified house courthouse, mint, prison and now museum, with its triangular frontage dominated by a small turret with narrow windows, it resembles an elephantine boat becalmed in the middle of a canal.

WHERE TO STAY Les Loges is a small collection of sophisticated and exceptionally well-equipped designer apartments located right in the heart of Annecy's historic Medieval city centre. Straight out the front door are restaurants, bars, cafes and speciality food shops. See leslogesannecy.com

FIVE MORE CITIES TO VISIT ALONG THE WAY

ANTWERP

Antwerp was itself once a canal city but the watercourses that once flowed through it have since been filled in and built over. Home to one of Europe's most beautiful railway stations, Antwerp remains the world capital of the diamond trade as well as a cutting-edge fashion centre. Don't miss Rubenshuis, close to Antwerp Central, the historic 17th century palace-like home of the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens, now a museum and art gallery. See visitantwerpen.be

MUNICH

If you're travelling the length of Germany and onto Italy, this much-loved Bavarian city is the perfect place to stop for a night as it allows for daytime sightseeing through the Tyrol region of Austria, which includes its alpine capital of Innsbruck. Although the area around Munich's main railway station can be seedy, the city centre proper is full stunning squares, department stores and massive beerhalls, the oldest in Germany. muenchen.de

MILAN

Love it or hate it, Milan is as important to Italy as London is to England and Paris is to France. And two of its principal attractions, its white-marbled duomo begun in the 14th century and Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, one of the world's oldest and most glorious shopping malls, are located adjacent to each other. One of Milan's other great buildings is its monumental Centrale Station which was opened in 1931. See tourism.milan.it

LYON

Lyon, regarded as France's second city even though Marseilles is bigger, is the perfect antidote to Paris. One of the city's most distinctive features is its much-loved bouchon, traditional egalitarian restaurants serving affordable, hearty Lyonnaise cuisine. A favourite is Les Lyonnais in the old town near to the funicular up Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, the cathedral that crowns the hill overlooking the city. See en.lyon-france.com; restaurant-lyonnais.com

PARIS

The French capital is still recovering from the shock of the events that befell it last November with a noticeable decline in the number of foreign tourists on its famously expansive boulevards. But Paris, with its six major railway stations, including the important Gare du Nord and Gare du Lyon, remains the perfect start and end point for a train journey around Europe as well as for connections on the Eurostar through the Channel Tunnel to London. See en.parisinfo.com

FIVE TIPS FOR TRAIN TRAVEL IN EUROPE

ARRIVALS AND DEPARTURES Don't assume that the station at which you arrive is the one from you which you will depart for your onward destination. Many sizeable European cities, such as Paris and Milan, have multiple stations from which trains depart to all corners of the continent. Be sure to check your ticket.

TIMING IS EVERYTHNG Get to your (correct) station for your departure so you have plenty of time to locate your platform and carriage number (at many stations there are handy alphabetical charts showing where each section of the train will arrive). On some routes it can nowadays be required to pass through airport-style security before boarding. Arriving late at your station can leave you flustered and confused.

STATION BREAK One of the advantages of arriving a little early at the station is that this allows time to enjoy it, since Europe is home to some of the most beautiful railway terminals in the world. Aside from some magnificent architecture, many stations have been modernised with shops, restaurants, cafes and bars.

EMOTIONAL BAGGAGE Heavy luggage can be a real burden when travelling on European trains. Modern as they can be, there's not always generous amounts of storage space for bags. Hoisting bags on and off to trains can be difficult, too, what with most trains having steps to negotiate from the platform below. Backpacks are an alternative to conventional wheeled luggage but they tend to identify you as a tourist and a target for thieves.

QUESTION TIME If you're unsure ask someone – most people, including railway staff, speak English and there is usually an information booth in the middle of most stations. It's also worth remembering that a European railway station is all about connections rather than direct routes so be prepared to change trains not once but twice or even more in order to reach your destination.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

railbookers.com

qantas.com

accor.com

http://smartraveller.gov.au  

TOURING THERE Railbookers is a UK-based tour operator specialising in tailored-made multi-day packaged holidays by train in Europe and other parts of the world Asia and the United States. It can arrange all itineraries, ticketing and accommodation bookings. On its self-guided tours you travel by day, rather than sleeping on trains, and stay at hotels by night, meaning you don't miss out on Europe's famed scenery. Check the Australian Government's Smart Traveller site (website above) for security updates on travel to Belgium. See railbookers.com

STAYING THERE Railbookers is able to book all of the featured accommodation as part of its packaged itineraries for rail holidays around Europe. In addition to the featured and recommended accommodation, the author also stayed at Hotel Baltimore, Paris, Sofitel Bayerpost, Munich, La Gare Hotel Milan and Hotel Carlton Lyon. See mgallery.com; sofitel.com.

GETTING THERE Qantas operates daily flights to London Heathrow from Sydney and Melbourne via Dubai, with air connections to Paris. Eurostar runs multiple daily high-speed rail services (which can be reserved through Railbookers) between London's St Pancras International and Paris's Gare du Nord terminals. See qantas.com

Anthony Dennis was a guest of Railbookers, Qantas and Accor.

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