Germany special: It's time to discover Europe's secret

For a country at the heart of the Continent and the host of this year's World Cup, Germany still remains relatively unknown to outsiders. Mark Rowe takes time to get to know the hills, towns and culture of this beautiful land
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The Independent Travel

1. Dresden: 800 years old

The Saxon city of Dresden marks its 800th anniversary this year. While the city merits a visit at any time, the celebrations will add an extra touch of colour. Big events include City Festival Week from 14 to 23 July, when street theatre performances and open-air concerts will take over much of the city.

Then there's a historic parade on 27 August, which will start with the presentation of a huge birthday cake with 800 candles. Dresden's attractions include the Frauenkirche, which was gutted by Allied bombing, but was restored last year. The new town, or Neustadt, has cafés, clubs and restaurants aplenty to attract the night owls. New hotels are also opening in the city. A fine example is the Maritim on the banks of the River Elbe, a stone's throw from the Saxon parliament building. Why go? A chance to see this outstanding city flaunt past and present.

Contact: The German Travel Centre (0208-429 2900; german-travel-uk.com) offers a two-night package in Dresden from £198 per person. This includes return flights and splendid accommodation at the Maritim hotel.

2. Beyond the red light district

Hamburg is one of Europe's most impressive port cities, and the opening of a floating hotel there has filled an obvious niche. The Cap San Diego is a museum ship, converted from a 1960s cargo boat that plied the waters between her home city and South America for 20 years. Located on the Elbe, the ship has eight passenger cabins and a suite. The opening comes just ahead of May's harbour festival, which commemorates the 12th-century decision to make Hamburg a free city. The festival runs from Friday 5 May to Sunday 7 May. Events include a parade of tall ships and traditional vessels followed by a regatta and a firework display.

Why go? Discover there's more to Hamburg than that infamous string of sex shops.

Contact. Cap San Diego (00 49 40 364209; capsandiego.de) offers cabins from £45 per night.

For more information on the harbour festival, contact the Hamburg tourist website (00 49 40 3005 1300; hamburg-tourism.de).

3. Bridging the gap in Berlin

Berlin's canal system tends to be overlooked by the weekend break crowd, but the city has 20 square miles of water and, like many European cities, claims to have more bridges than Venice. A good way to explore the waterways is on a self-drive cruiser. Recent changes in European Union rules means that UK travellers no longer require a licence to take a self-drive cruiser into the heart of Berlin. The canals pass most of the major points of interest, taking in the city's cathedral, the historic St Nicholas Quarter and cruise past the Reichstag and Sir Norman Foster's signature glass cupola. The cruisers all have sun decks for dining alfresco.

Why go? The perfect way to avoid the crowds - your own floating accommodation offers comp lete flexibility.

Contact: Connoisseur (0870 160 5641; connoisseurafloat.com) offers one week's boat hire from £969, onboard a six-sleeper cruiser, with three double cabins, each of which has a shower room, a saloon and a galley.

4. A little slice of Bauhaus

Dessau is one of the homes of the Bauhaus style of architecture, and visitors can pay homage at the Bauhaus museum complex consisting of the Bauhaus Building (bauhaus-dessau.de) and the Masters' Houses, home to architectonic works by Walter Gropius, Hannes Meyer, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and their colleagues.

On a related theme, a tour to this part of the country should also take in the city of Leipzig. It saw the first protests that brought down the old German Democratic Republic and it has many buildings of extremely important architectural merit. The city's old warehouses are also undergoing a period of regeneration and the changing shape of the city is fascinating to witness.

Why go? Dessau and Leipzig are compelling cities which, surprisingly, are rarely visited by British tourists.

Contact: DER Travel (0870 1420960; dertour.co.uk) offers a three-centre holiday, flying into Berlin and travelling by rail to Dessau and Leipzig from £589 per person, including flights, train travel and accommodation in four-star hotels.

5. Green-fingered gardeners

In the 18th century well-to-do German families were inspired by visits to English landscape gardens and returned home to create their own secluded havens with tree-bordered lawns, interspersed with romantic looking buildings, follies and temples. Cash-strapped German aristocrats have recently begun to open these gardens to the public in return for tax relief, allowing visitors to enjoy some of the country's finest collections of trees, flowers and plants in an array of exotically designed gardens. More than 300 private parks and gardens are now open, with more expected this year. Outstanding examples include magnificent rhododendron parks near Nuremberg, beautiful collections of roses close to Passau and Lake Constance and a palm tree collection on the outskirts of Stuttgart.

Why go? Britain and Germany have a good deal more in common than either would care to admit - and a love of gardens is one of them.

Contact: Visit the garden section of the German Tourist Board website, germany-tourism.co.uk /pages/parks_and_gardens.html

6. The best Mozart song cycle

An attractive option for classical music lovers who have yet to tire of the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mozart is to download your favourite classics on to your iPod and cycle along the Mozart path in southern Bavaria. The route runs for 260 miles past Lake Chiemsee and towns such as Wasserburg. The route takes in Bad Reichenhal (which stages a Mozart Week from 12 - 19 May and Mozart Summer Concerts on 7 and 9 July) and Berchtesgaden.

Why go? Perhaps the best of the Mozart-themed activities.

Contact: Visit the English- language version of mozartradweg.com.

7. Head east for the lake district

The region of Mecklenburg Lower-Pomerania (which is pushed up against Poland in Germany's north-eastern corner), though still widely undiscovered by the British traveller, is increasingly drawing in visitors attracted by its reputation for miles and miles of unspoilt nature stretching as far as the eye can see.

The region is breathtakingly beautiful and it features as many as three national parks and seven nature reserves. Outstanding features, which are not to be missed, include the white cliffs of the island of Rügen and the vast lake district, which boasts more than 1,750 lakes. The region can be easily explored by car, bicycle, horse, on foot or on water. If you're in need of the bright lights, the regional capital Schwerin, which is built around 10 lakes, is well worth an extended visit.

Why go? In a densely populated country, this is the place to escape the crowds.

Contact: Visit the helpful English language website auf-nach-mv.de/home2. html. "The Rough Guide to Germany" also has a very useful section covering the whole region. Schwerin is three hours away from Berlin on the train.

8. Hold the Black Forest plateau

The attractive southern city of Freiburg is often bypassed by visitors who are heading for the Black Forest. Yet the old town, with its 14th-century former Franciscan monastery, is one of the finest of its kind in the country. The Fischerau quarter alongside the canal is an area of beautifully maintained houses and bars, making it an ideal spot for a quiet stroll.

The cathedral, or Münster, is a Gothic masterpiece. Art lovers also have the opportunity to visit the Modern Art museum. You can either walk or take the cable car to the 18th-century Schlossberg and the new lookout tower offering panoramic views of Freiburg, the Black Forest and the vineyards. Freiburg claims to be surrounded by more vineyards than any other city in Germany.

Why go? Put the Black Forest on hold for a while - this is one of Germany's most charming cities.

Contact: Taber Holidays (01274 594656; taberhols. co.uk) offers three-night breaks to Freiburg which start out at £404 per person. This package includes return flights to Frankfurt as well as a connecting rail service to Freiburg.

9. Head for Saxon Switzerland

The national parks of the Elbe Valley are opening up to foreign hikers, attracted by the scenery and easy walking of an area known as Saxon Switzerland. The best base is Krippen, which is downstream from Bad Schandau, a convenient starting point. Routes can take in the peaks of Schrammsteine and Kuhstall, while you can also hop on a rare rural tram to visit the Lichtenhainer waterfall.

Why go? Spectacular rock formations in the heart of the former East Germany.

Contact: Ramblers Holidays (01707 331133; ramblersholidays.co.uk) offers seven nights, based in Krippen, from £572 per person including flights.

10. Bremen: a port in any storm

The outstanding old Hanseatic port of Bremen has recently opened its first design hotel. The ÜberFluss ("abundance") is on the waterfront overlooking the river Weser. The Dutch-built, four-star hotel features 51 luxurious rooms decked out in lamps by Habitat's design director, Tom Dixon, and Charles Eames-style furniture. Facilities include a spa and a pool. Part of the network of Hanseatic ports, Bremen is charming. Check out the old town and the Schnoorviertel, which once housed the city's fishermen.

Why go? Germany's hotels rarely disappoint in terms of value for money - this one has flair and style to boot.

Contact: Hotel Uberfluss, Langenstrasse 72, Bremen (00 49 421 322 860; hotel-ueberfluss.com. Double rooms from £123.

The best: Berlin break - Something to bank on

Rocco Forte's Grand Hotel de Rome in Berlin is due to open in the early autumn and promises to stand out even among Berlin's line-up of luxury hotels. It is located near the Brandenburg Gate and off Unter den Linden. Constructed in 1889, the listed building once housed the Central Bank of the German Democratic Republic. It will retain many of the building's original features. Each of its 103 bedrooms and 43 suites will be a contemporary mix of "Berlin Style" glass and steel, inspired by the architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel. The six-storey property has an Italian restaurant, pool and spa in the former bank vault. Rocco Forte Hotels (00 49 30 460 60 90; roccofortehotels.com). Doubles from around £300 per night.

The best: Grand cruise - A river of white wine

Almost all the most beautiful German cities are built on rivers, and many of those are on the Rhine. An excellent way to explore Koblenz, Worms and Mannheim is aboard a deluxe river boat. A typical round trip will depart from Mainz and head left to explore the Mosel river before returning upstream. There's at least one stop every day where you can either explore independently or sit back on deck with a glass of finest white as you pass vineyards and majestic castles. The Rhine is one of Europe's most attractive rivers. Peter Deilmann River Cruises (020-7436 2931; peterdeilmannrivercruises.co.uk) offers a seven-night package along the Rhine and Mosel aboard a cruiser from £1,400 per person including flights and full board.

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