Europe’s second cities

Simon Calder
07 April 2015

Swap London for Brighton, Lyon for Avignon, Amsterdam for Leiden and Copenhagen for Malmö. Simon Calder travels away from the main hubs to discover the handsome, historic and ancient destinations a short trip in the other direction

Copenhagen to Malmö and Lund
Kastrup airport serves the Danish capital and boasts an express train that reaches Copenhagen’s central station in just 14 minutes. On the other platform, though, stands a train that will take you across an international frontier and one of Europe’s most spectacular sea crossings.

The Oresund link combines road and rail, and bridges with a tunnel, to connect Denmark with Sweden. From Copenhagen’s airport you reach Malmö Central in just 20 minutes. (That’s twice as fast from the Danish hub than from Malmö’s own airport.) Taking the link also delivers more than an exhilarating international rail trip to Sweden’s third-largest city. Emerge from the subterranean platform at Malmö’s railway station, cross the canal (or is it a moat?) and you step straight from the 21st century into a medieval centre. Stortorget, the city’s biggest square, is dominated by the copper-roofed city hall, the Radhus, built in 1546.

Your eye is always drawn, though, by Scandinavia’s highest building: the Turning Torso, Santiago Calatrava’s 2005 skyscraper that turns heads as it appears to twist to face the sea. Follow the eyeline to the water’s edge and you reach Ribersborgs Kallbadhus: an open-air public bath, jutting into the strait separating Denmark from Sweden.  

A further 12 minutes along the line, and several centuries back, Lund is Sweden’s oldest city. Just five minutes walk from the station stands its geographical, spiritual and intellectual core: the Domkyrkan. When it was built in the 12th century, this soaring Romanesque cathedral was the most spectacular structure in Scandinavia. And, as you walk through its soaring interior and hear the echoes of the ages, you may conclude that it still is. Check the time on the 15th-century Astronomical Clock. Time to get back to the airport? It’s only 32 minutes across the strait. 


Frankfurt to Heidelberg
Fifty-one minutes — including a quick, easy change in Mannheim — takes you from the airport serving Europe’s financial capital to the filmset for a fairy tale. At least that is how Heidelberg, with its rambling old castle, riverside setting and civic good humour, strikes me.

This ancient settlement has a strong claim to be the prettiest town in southwest Germany. It straggles along the banks of the Neckar, sheltered by densely wooded hill. The south bank, where you will find the old town, demands your attention. Dodge the bicycles along Hauptstrasse to reach the castle that Mark Twain described as ‘deserted, discrowned, beaten by the storms, but royal still, and beautiful’.

In the Castle Gardens, the bust of Goethe is a reminder that Germany’s greatest writer used to walk here. He also crossed the river, and so should you: on the opposite bank, the Philosophers’ Way is the walk that reputedly inspired poets and thinkers. It was completed in 1841, and is punctuated with panoramas across to the main town. Along the way, a landscape engraving dating from 1620 shows how little of the place has changed.

Next head for Heidelberg’s classic Bierkeller: the convivial Palmbräu Gasse at Hauptstrasse 185. One signature dish is Schwäbische Maultaschen, a Swabian speciality that resembles a southwest German take on ravioli (and costs less than €10). Despite the preponderance of one-litre steins, it is perfectly acceptable to sip a Palmbräu beer from a glass one-third of the size. Then take the Bergbahn, the mountain railway to the summit of the Königstuhl (king’s throne), the steep hill that dominates the city, for some altitude on a city with attitude.

Amsterdam to Leiden and The Hague

Beneath the concourse at Schiphol airport, the railway station offers fast and frequent trains to Amsterdam Centraal. Yet an equal and opposite number of departures head south and west away from the Dutch capital. The first two stops for inter-city trains comprise a pair of cities that, like Amsterdam, seduce with sheer good looks and humanity – yet they have a refreshing absence of crowds.

Leiden sits prettily just 16 minutes away from the airport. Rembrandt’s hometown offers the intense and intricate flavours of historic Holland, centred on the course of the Rhine. The river once marked the northern extent of the Roman Empire colonisation, and today the water still defines the city. Running parallel to it are the retail artery, Haarlemmerstraat, and the medieval Breestraat.

The past is a constant companion in Leiden. Within the city centre there are 35 hofjes: small courtyards with almshouses. The dominant place of worship, Pieterskerk, is the place of rest of John Robinson, the leader of the English group who became the Pilgrim Fathers and in 1620 sought religious freedom across the Atlantic.

A dozen years after the Mayflower reached the New World, and as the Dutch Golden Age was beginning, Johannes Vermeer was born in Delft, south of The Hague. His 17th-century masterpiece, Girl with a Pearl Earring, is world famous and justly so. And in June 2014 the portrait finally came home to a location that matches its genius, when the replenished Mauritshuis reopened in The Hague. This 1637 mansion, built from a fortune made in Brazil, stands across the canal from a small round tower: the office of the Dutch prime minister. Even though Amsterdam is the capital of the Netherlands, political and diplomatic business is conducted in The Hague. Rippling out to the north are streets lined with handsome mansions, many of them embassies. The city’s Hollands Spoor station, a late-19th-century gateway complete with a Royal Waiting Room, is just 29 minutes from Schiphol airport.



London Gatwick to Brighton
Every day, hundreds of people touch down at Gatwick, the UK’s second largest airport, and many of them head straight for the capital on one of the fast trains to central London. In 1936, Gatwick set the pattern for the modern airport, with a covered walkway to a dedicated railway station astride the main line south from London – a line that has existed for nearly a century longer than the airport. 
Yet take the other platform and you can be in the seaside city of Brighton in 
just half an hour.

The railway south from Gatwick frays into several strands, taking you to the historic county towns of East Sussex and West Sussex (Lewes and Chichester respectively), as well as Hastings and Bognor Regis. However, Brighton is the main draw.
As soon as you step from the train, you realise that you have arrived at a city on a different orbit. The handsome Victorian railway terminus is planted at the top of a rise leading down to the seafront. The beauty of Brighton is that there is so much to delight you. Since 1783, it has been a bolt-hole for the aristocracy, not to mention a gateway to gaiety in the widest sense, with a long tradition of indulgence and a well-earned reputation as the LGBT capital of Britain.

The Royal Pavilion resembles a second cousin of the Taj Mahal that has wandered off and planted itself just inside the Sussex shore. If ever you struggle to define the word ‘exotic’, just cite this pleasure palace with its twirling domes, gilded dragons and carved palm trees.

Queen Victoria found Brighton distinctly unamusing and promptly ended the Royal Pavilion’s role as a venue for regal intrigue. Yet by then the resort’s reputation was sealed. It is still synonymous with indulgence — and, as you will find when you eat, drink and shop there, still rather beautifully dishevelled.

Lyon to Orange and Avignon

Lyon airport is the odd one out here. It has a spectacular railway station served by frequent high-speed trains – yet none of them go to the glorious centre of the city at the confluence of the Rhône and the Saone (for that, you need the tram — another one-off, being an express that covers the ground in under 30 minutes).

The train south to Orange takes a mere 80 minutes and has a terrific advantage: it starts fast, but once it reaches the Rhône Valley it returns to the ‘classic’ line, which clings beautifully to the river.

Orange was founded by the Romans, and the neat, tight grid of streets is still apparent. Two millennia on, the triumphal arch and amphitheatre pay tribute to the empire that transformed Europe. The cafés and restaurants are rich with the produce — and, in particular, the wines — of Provence.

A further 16 minutes south, Avignon Centre station unlocks a bigger city that has a special relationship with Rome. In the 14th century, seven popes resided in Avignon, and the Palais des Papes, a massive Gothic monument, is their legacy. Within its bulky exterior you can find an intricate interior of chapels and cloisters. Next door, within a structure two centuries older, Nôtre-Dame des Doms d’Avignon is filled with flamboyant Baroque. Also in the 12th century, the city built what has become its global icon: the Pont St-Bénezet, now a bridge to nowhere — and, along with the cathedral and palace — a UNESCO World Heritage Site.