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Flowing from the Swiss Alps to the Hook of Holland, the Rhine is a merger of European cultures and landscapes, writes Ben Coates

Hiking over the rocks near Tujetsch, I was surprised to find a lighthouse. My surprise wasn’t due to its appearance: the lighthouse was modest in size and rusty red, with the squat proportions of a wine cork, and barely visible through a jacket of mist. What made it extraordinary was its location: perched atop a mountain in Switzerland, more than 200 miles from the nearest coastline and 2,000 metres above sea level.

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As the 30th anniversary of its fall approaches, a cycle ride along the route of the Berlin Wall reveals a once-divided city now open and welcoming

It makes for delightful cycling: dappled sunshine, a smooth path, birds in the trees. The only clue that this isn’t just any woodland trail is the height of those trees: the oaks and beeches are young, barely three metres tall.

That’s because we’re riding on what, until 1989, was the “death strip” – the zone between Berlin’s inner and outer walls, filled with tripwire machine guns, trenches and dogs, and guarded by soldiers in watchtowers. This November sees the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and I’m riding stretches of the Berliner Mauerweg – the 160km trail tracing its path – to see how the city has rearranged itself in three decades.

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After starting in London, this itinerary takes in Lake Geneva, the Austrian Tirol, and the heights of the Zugspitze in Bavaria, with stunning views all the way

A brace of fine Swiss lakes, glorious mountain views and some of Europe’s most comfortable trains are all good reasons to head for the Alps. It’s a region where few trains require advance reservations, so you can really take advantage of the freedom to roam. Lake Geneva is a good first goal on a one-week trip. Take the 07.31 Eurostar from London St Pancras to Paris, then transfer from the Gare du Nord to the Gare de Lyon for the midday Lyria train to Lausanne. It’s a shade over seven hours from London to the shores of Lake Geneva, where a top accommodation choice is not in Lausanne itself but in the small village of Grandvaux, perfectly positioned above the Lavaux vineyards, with glorious views across the lake to the Alps beyond.

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Gothic architecture, modern art and ‘singing beer’ give this cultural city its liberal atmosphere

You could think of Cologne as a sixth-form college to Berlin’s infinitely cooler art school. In comparison it feels as if it is all student cash bars and puppyish idealism, spider plants at every turn, and still a lot of love for the Beatles – Germany’s fourth largest city has been twinned with Liverpool since 1952.

Go into any street in the centre and you’ll see a glorious muddle of architecture, 19th-century mansions next to 1950s tiled houses and new-builds in steel and glass. Very little feels sacred here, apart from the Romanesque churches and, of course, the Dom – Cologne cathedral which mixes in Gothic arches with Gerhard Richter’s dreamy, pixelated, stained-glass windows. Built in 1248, it’s the fourth-tallest cathedral in the world. Cologne seems really good at never quite topping the statistics, although it does have Germany’s largest mosque, the Cologne Central Mosque, a modern design with its concrete and glass dome and glass walls.

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The Bavarian capital is famous for its parks, history and beer halls, but its underground music and neighbourhood restaurants are worth checking out, too

Nomiya offers an elegant blend of Japanese food and Bavarian gemütlichkeit (a feeling of warmth, friendliness and good cheer – the German version of hygge). The rustic Japanese tavern and restaurant has been run by Ferdinand “Ferdi” Schuster for over 20 years, and has become an institution in the Haidhausen district, on the eastern bank of the Isar. Occasionally, guests are regaled with impromptu performances by local musicians. Yakitori and sushi go well with cold beer in traditional half-litre steins. And be sure to ask for a Tilmans, a fine local lager made by young independent brewer Tilman Ludwig.
• Small plates from €2, mixed sushi plate €17.50, Wörthstrasse 7, nomiya.de

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At Schloss Elmau in southern Germany top classical musicians ‘play to stay’, so guests can enjoy performances between spa sessions, yoga and amazing views

We were halfway to the spa when something stopped us. We’d been padding along in slippers and pastel-coloured towelling robes, staring idly at the snowy mountains outside. And then we heard it. The sound of a violin: a few snatched phrases, soaring, uplifting, broken up by short periods of silence. Somebody with considerable skill was practising. In the hotel.

Later that morning, having enjoyed a soaking in the largest hammam this side of Istanbul, we wandered past the main staircase in our hotel’s reception. A family was gathered on the stairs, chatting. The patriarch – a man in his 70s with wild grey hair – carried a cello on his back. We’d seen him the night before, the man with the cello. Playing Brahms, Schumann and Schubert, accompanied by his talented children, the youngest a boy of 14.

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As Germany celebrates the centenary of the influential art movement, we tour the cities where it started, flourished and, ultimately, proved too ‘degenerate’ for the Nazis

Under a leaden winter sky, the low-rise residential blocks in Berlin’s Hansa Quarter couldn’t be called pretty. Built in the late 1950s to revive a district razed during the second world war, they’re boxy and unadorned. The trees are skeletal, the gardens bare. But when I look up, I see upkeep and pride. Smart furnishings are visible through large windows. My eyes wander to a sleek, white edifice by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto and then down to ground level and some single-storey atrium houses by Danish designer Arne Jacobsen. A bold pillared building by Oscar Niemeyer is about light and space as much as housing.

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The owner of Gasthaus Böbel is the local butcher. And with everything from sausage wallpaper to pillows, he has taken his obsessions and run wild

Name: The sausage hotel.

Official name: Gasthaus Böbel.

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The witch’s house in the two-centuries-old tale of Hansel and Gretel is today inspiring ever more extravagant gingerbread creations and constructions across Europe and the US

The tradition of decorated gingerbread houses began in Germany in the early 1800s, supposedly popularised after the not-so-Christmassy fairytale of Hansel and Gretel was published in 1812. The Grimms’ original fairy tale includes the line: “When they came nearer they saw that the house was built of bread, and roofed with cakes, and the window was of transparent sugar.” (In later versions it became gingerbread, rather than just bread.) Inspired by the story, German bakers began to craft small decorated houses from lebkuchen, spiced honey biscuits.

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Berlin’s club scene makes money for the city – and a lot of noise. A new initiative will soundproof venues, helping to protect clubs from closure

Clubbers of the world rejoice: the techno mecca of Berlin is to receive a €1m (£900,000) boost from the local government to protect its renowned clubbing culture.

The funding will go towards soundproofing projects, with the aim of improving relations between venues and local residents, based on a similar project in Hamburg. The noise protection programme, which was proposed last year and came into effect on 30 November 2018, indicates the importance of Berlin’s nightlife culture and its relevance to the city’s economy, including the tourism industry.

Related: Nightlife reports: clubbing in Berlin

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