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Greece

Overview: A flavorful melting pot of sparkling night spots, fresh seafood, sizzling Mediterranean passion and mythical legend, Greece is a fascinating and enchanting destination – whether lounging on a sandy stretch, or exploring ancient relics.
 
 Greece‘s urban hubs are home to some of the world’s most glorious and prized ancient and medieval architecture – such as Athens‘ white marble Parthenon and Thessaloniki’s proud Byzantine churches – and the setting of some of humankind’s oldest tales. On the coast, find bustling, umbrella-peppered beaches and secluded sandy coves, washed by turquoise waters and regularly doused in sunshine.
 
 Off shore, Greece‘s 1400 islands, such as party-hard Mykonos and picturesque Santorini, offer a rainbow of paradisiacal settings for an idyllic island-hopping adventure. Find true Mediterranean peace on Kefalonia and Amorgos, ideal hiking terrain on the peaks and troughs of Crete, and prime scuba diving and sea kayaking conditions around pretty much every coastal corner.
 
 But to explore the islands in the best way possible, you should charter a sailing boat. Most sailing holidays last one week, and give you the luxury of being able to explore hidden coves, put down anchor in an emerald bay, or moor up along the quay in one of Greece’s countless little fishing villages.
 
 When it comes to places to stay, you’ll be spoilt for choice. Those looking for extreme comfort might opt for a five-star resort complete with a luxurious spa and villas with private plunge pools, or a quaint boutique hotel furnished with traditional antique furniture, while those who prefer a back-to-nature escape can simply pitch a tent under a tree with a sea view at one of Greece’s many well-equipped campsites. Welcome to Greece!
 
At a glance:
  • Population: ~ 11.1 million
  • Area: 131,980 sq. kms
  • Capital city: Athens (pop. 729,000)
  • Currency: Euro (EUR)
  • Time zone: UTC+1 / Summer UTC +2
  • Religion: Christian (95% Greek Orthodox), 3% Islam.

Switzerland

Overview: Look past the silk-smooth chocolate, cuckoo clocks and yodelling – contemporary Switzerland, land of four languages, is all about epic journeys and sublime experiences.
 
 This country begs outdoor escapade with its larger-than-life canvas of fantastic landscapes etched so perfectly one wants to cry – or at least grab boots, leap on board, toot the bike bell and let spirits rip. Skiing and snowboarding in the winter wonderlands of Graubünden, Bernese Oberland and Central Switzerland are obvious choices. But there is plenty to do when pastures are green. Hiking and biking trails abound in both glacier-encrusted mountain areas and lower down along lost valleys, mythical lakeshores and pea-green vines. View the natural grandeur from the sky in a balloon basket or parachute, or afloat from a white-water raft. Most appealing of all, you don’t need to be a mountaineer to do it.
 
 The perfect antidote is a surprise set of cities: the capital Bern with its medieval Old Town and world-class modern art, fantastic Zurich, deeply Germanic Basel and its bold architecture, shopping-chic Geneva astraddle Europe’s largest lake, tycoon-magnet Zug (play millionaire over a slice of liqueur-soaked cherry cake). Switzerland is a country to discover..
 
At a glance:
  • Population: ~ 8.1 million
  • Area: 41,300 sq. kms
  • Capital City: Berne (pop. 122,000)
  • Major City: Zurich (pop. 342,000)
  • Currency: Swiss Franc (CHF)
  • Time zone: UTC+1 / Summer UTC +2
  • Religion: Christian (Roman Catholic and Protestant)

Czech Republic

Overview: A historic jewel at the heart of Europe, the Czech Republic packs a sizeable punch for such a small country; from its majestic castles to its medieval towns, its elegant SPA resorts to its scenic national parks.
 
 Most visitors to this Central European country limit their sightseeing to the culture-crammed capital, Prague. Romantically named ‘The City of a Thousand SpiresPrague boasts some of the finest churches on the continent, dotted amongst cobbled lanes, classical opera houses and medieval bridges – and all watched over by a formidable fairytale castle. Its blend of ancient monuments, interactive museums, green parkland, fine restaurants, subterranean breweries and bustling markets ensure there isn’t a dull moment in this bohemian city. Yet Prague is just one of the Czech Republic’s many draws.
 
 Day-trippers from the capital will find plenty of attractions within easy reach. Karlovy Vary – or Karlsbad as it is often known – is a picturesque SPA town famed for its hot springs, which have been soothing aches and pains since the 14th century. Karlštejn is a giant Gothic castle hidden among wooded hills, and the sworn protector of the Bohemian crown jewels. And Plzeň (also known as Pilsen), the 2015 European Capital of Culture, boasts a pretty old town and a wealth of fascinating museums.
 
 Meanwhile, the northern border of the Czech lands is home to the snow-capped mountains of Krkonoše and the towering rock formations of Český Ráj (translation: Bohemian Paradise) while the central and southern regions lay claim to Český Krumlov – a UNESCO World Heritage Site and perhaps the most beautiful town in the entire country (though it’s fighting stiff competition from nearby Telč) – and the wild forests of Šumava National Park. And all throughout the country there are enough beautiful castles, idyllic spa towns and eye-catching natural features to last a lifetime.
 
 Yet for all this, the Czech Republic is far more than the sum of its sights. Aside from all of the things to see, it has a unique blend of tradition and modernity.
 
At a glance:
  • Population: ~ 10.6 million
  • Area: 79,000 sq. kms
  • Capital city: Prague (pop. 1.2 million)
  • Currency: Czech Koruna (CZK)
  • Time zone: UTC+1 / Summer UTC +2
  • Religion: 60% agnostic / 27% Christian (Roman Catholics).

Spain

Overview: Passionate, sophisticated and devoted to living the good life, Spain is at once a stereotype come to life and a country more diverse than you ever imagined.
 
 Spain‘s diverse landscapes stir the soul. The Pyrenees and the Picos de Europa are as beautiful as any mountain range on the continent, while the snowcapped Sierra Nevada rises up improbably from the sun-baked plains of Andalucía; these are hiking destinations of the highest order. The wildly beautiful cliffs of Spain‘s Atlantic northwest are the scene for some of Europe‘s most spectacular drives, even as the charming coves of the Mediterranean are still the continent’s summer destination of choice; despite decades of overdevelopment, numerous unspoiled corners remain. And everywhere you go, villages of timeless beauty perch on hilltops, huddle in valleys and cling to coastal outcrops as tiny but resilient outposts of Old Spain. Spend as long as you can in places like these.
 
 Spain‘s story is told with endless creativity through its arts and architecture. Poignantly windswept Roman ruins, cathedrals of rare power and incomparable jewels of Islamic architecture speak of a country where the great civilizations of history have always risen, fallen and left behind their indelible mark. More recently, what other country could produce such rebellious and relentlessly creative spirits as Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso and Antoni Gaudí and place them front and centre in public life? Here, grand monuments to the past coexist alongside architectural creations of such daring that it becomes clear that Spain‘s future will be every bit as original as its past. For all such talk, this is a country that lives very much in the present. Whenever it happens, you’ll find yourself nodding in recognition: this is Spain.
 
At a glance:
  • Population: ~ 46.8 million
  • Capital city: Madrid (pop. 3.3 million)
  • Area: 504,900 sq. kms
  • Currency: Euro (EUR)
  • Time zone: UTC +1 / Summer UTC +2
  • Religion: Christian (Roman Catholic).

France

Overview: Welcome to France. A country that seduces travelers with its unfalteringly familiar culture woven around café terraces, village-square markets and lace-curtained bistros with their plat du jour (dish of the day) chalked on the board.
 
 Cultural Savoir-Faire France is all about world-class art and architecture, Roman temples and Renaissance châteaux, iconic landmarks known the world over. Stroll the lily-clad gardens Monet painted and savor un café at the Parisian café where Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir met to philosophize. See glorious pasts blaze forth and imagine the life of a French king at bourgeois Versailles. View tomorrow’s art starts in squats secreted in abandoned 19th-century Haussmann mansions in Paris, or at new headline-grabbing museums up north.
 
 Gastronomic Art de Vivre or perhaps it is the French feast of fine food that woos so many travelers. (This is, after all, the country that entices more than any other: more than 80 million visitors a year, ranking it the world’s top tourist destination. But know that gastronomic France goes far deeper than Parisian bistro dining, long lunches outside, shopping for fruit and veg at the market and wolfing down croissants hot from the boulangerie (bakery) for breakfast. Learn how to make petits fours with the kids in Paris or flip crêpes in Brittany;  tour a Provençal melon farm; harvest olives, peaches and cherries in the hot south… and understand that food is as much an art de vivre (art of living) for the French as an essential to survive.
 
 “How can one describe a country which has 365 kinds of cheese?” once asked former French president Charles De Gaulle. Even today, it’s a very good question.
 
At a glance:
  • Population: ~ 64.3 million
  • Capital city: Paris (pop. 2.2 million)
  • Area: 547,030 sq. kms
  • Currency: Euro (EUR)
  • Time zone: UTC +1 / Summer UTC +2
  • Religion: Christian (mainly Catholic).

Austria

Overview: Mountains, lakes and deep alpine valleys. Austria has lots of culture to get into, and iconic landscapes for getting away from it all.
 
 Austria is fabled for its cultural life, especially in Vienna, where white Lipizzaner horses move to the tunes of classical music, angelic choir boys pledge their innocence to the heavens, and innovative and provocative theatre, opera and classical music can be enjoyed in exciting seasonal programs. No less grandiose is the architecture, which is often combined with performance or visual arts in the one ensemble. But the cultural experience of Austria is also about the undiscovered, the regional and the grassroots – the artists and performers working in the provincial capitals. It’s about geographically far-flung and unusual exhibition spaces huddled in long valleys – valleys dotted with small towns and which together form a heartland of the country. Anyone with an eye for the nuances of everyday life will also find much of informal cultural interest. This is definitely one country where the grandiose and the everyday, the provincial and the idiosyncratic, and the iconic and the concealed stand in poetic contrast.
 
 The mountains, valleys and lakes of Austria and the fantastic nature in Innsbruck and Salzburg are legendary and provide one of the world’s most spectacular backdrops for outdoor activities. Dominating the country is the towering eastern Alps, where in winter skiers and snowboarders test their mettle. Come summer, some of the winter ski trails complement vast networks of hiking or mountain-biking trails, often serviced by a cable car. The mountain meadows make for a perfect picnic spot in warm weather. Austria’s thousands of lakes are also fine places in summer for swimming and relaxing – some are chilly and glacial, others warm, splashy playgrounds.
 
 Glorious architectural riches include reminders of the once-powerful Habsburgs, who dominated central Europe for seven centuries; the capital of Austria, Vienna, is magnificent with its ornate Opera House and the imperial Hofburg, while many other cities are similarly infused with historical magic, notably Mozart‘s birthplace, Salzburg, with stunning baroque churches set before a backdrop of snow-covered peaks. Thanks to the modest size of most towns, the great outdoors is never far away.
 
At a glance:
  • Population: ~ 8.5 million
  • Area: 83,900 sq. kms
  • Capital: Vienna (pop. 1.7 million)
  • Currency: Euro (EUR)
  • Time zone: UTC+1 / Summer UTC +2
  • Religion: 63% Christian (Roman Catholics), 7% Islam.

Italy

Overview: Despite incessant praise, travelling in Italy remains one of those rare experiences in life – like a perfect spring day or the power of first love – that cannot be overrated. In few places do history, art, fashion, food and la dolce vita (the good life) intermingle so effortlessly. There are sunny isles and electric blue surf, glacial northern lakes and fiery southern volcanoes and an urban landscape that harbors more UNESCO World Heritage sites than any other country in the world. Few places offer such variety and few visitors leave without a fervent desire to return.
 
 Understandably, the artistic and architectural treasures of Rome, Venice, Florence and Naples draw visitors to them like moths to a flame. Not content with conquering most of the known world and bringing it within the embrace of the Roman Empire, the Venetians dispatched Marco Polo to unchartered lands right off the map, while Giotto, da Vinci, Brunelleschi and Michelangelo set the tone for the great ‘rebirth’ of Western art and architecture, the Renaissance.
 
 Look around you at all those splendid palaces, paintings, churches and monuments and you may wonder if there isn’t something in your delicately floral prosecco with its overtones of apples and pears. Actually, there is: hundreds of years of hard graft and an unswerving devotion to traditional techniques and terroir. From the neatly banded stone terraces of the Cinque Terre, which snake from sea level to crest gravity-defying precipices, to the blousy hillsides of Chianti, the riverine plain of the Po valley and the volcanic slopes of Etna, like its art, are designed to elevate regional cuisine and your general wellbeing.
 
 As the endless parade of courses start arriving, you’ll notice that the country much like its cuisine is an endless feast of experiences. No matter how much you gorge yourself, you’ll always feel as though you haven’t made it past the first course.  The choice is dazzling and bewildering. So take the advice of the locals. Slow down, sit back, tuck that napkin in and simply promise to come again.
 
At a glance:
  • Population: ~60 million
  • Capital city: Rome (pop. 2.7 million)
  • Area: 301,400 sq. kms
  • Currency: Euro (EUR)
  • Time zone: UTC + 1 / Summer UTC +2
  • Religion: Christian (mainly Catholic).