For the North American traveller, Europe is a fairly straightforward prospect — at least on its first few go-rounds. But once one has done the biggies — London, Paris, Berlin, Rome and Madrid — where to next? And how best to justify an ocean crossing when the superstars are no longer part of the equation?
Enter the classic road trip. It won’t be news to backpackers, but road tripping really is an ideal way to explore the European heartland, and that goes for travellers of all ages. While the route options across the continent are virtually endless, the Brussels to Prague stretch makes for a gorgeous and time-efficient journey, with enough large cities along the way to ensure a trip that’s loaded with museums, great food and shopping, and gay-friendliness.
Spanning a little more than 900 kilometres in total, the Brussel-to-Prague route covers three countries, four languages and scores of the world’s top attractions – not to mention myriad opportunities for veering off-road to experience timeless smaller towns along the way.
In the gay scheme of things, our journey, fittingly, begins at the site of Europe’s earliest major annual Pride event (Brussels Pride, in mid-May), and ends at the home of one of the summer’s last (Prague Pride, in mid-August). It also takes us from the centre of European gay equality in the west to a gay-friendly frontier outpost of an otherwise increasingly gay-hostile east.
Situated roughly halfway between Amsterdam and Paris, Brussels straddles Europe’s Dutch- and French-speaking realms. After the Second World War, Brussels’ bilingual flair made it a natural meeting point for the new European Union, of which it’s since become the de facto capital. Brussels is also, of course, the capital of Belgium, one of the most gay-forward countries in the world — the second to legalize gay marriage, in 2003, and the first and still only nation to elect an openly gay leader, current Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo, in 2011.
The standard lighthearted Brusselite attitude toward life is summed up neatly by the city’s most famous icon, Manneken Pis. Now nearly four centuries old, he’s still the same naughty little two-foot bronze boy he’s always been, irreverently and quite nakedly piddling into a fountain in the city centre.
Beyond its fun-loving, welcoming and cosmopolitan natives, today’s Brussels offers visitors a wonderful mix of pleasures, from the old-Euro charm of the guild halls lining its Grand Place, to excellent shopping (Avenue Louise for posh types, the Dansaert area for the trendy), to fantastic food and drink (especially its famous specialties of mussels, fries, chocolate and beer), to a lively and diverse gay scene centred in the Saint-Jacques quarter.
By far, the most common onward sightseeing directions from Brussels are north (to Antwerp and Amsterdam) and southwest (to Paris). But why be common? Just 100 kilometres to the east is the boldly uncommon Liège (pronounced lee-EHZH), Belgium’s third-largest metropolis in terms of population, but arguably its number one in terms of sauciness and Francophilia.
It may not be the most photogenic city on Earth (owing mostly to its long industrial history), but Liège more than compensates with an overtly friendly populace and a café and nightlife scene that’s fairly remarkable for a city of its size (just 200,000 inhabitants). The centre of the action is the pedestrianized Le Carré (The Square), where you’ll find the city’s best shopping and the bulk of its infamous nightlife scene. Don’t miss the campy and locally iconic Relax Café, nor the nearby gay-owned restaurant Histoire Sans Faim. Another important gay meet-up point, Le Petit Paris, can be found on Place du Marché.
For an unforgettable experience, come to Liège on Aug 15, when it celebrates its rebellious spirit most bellicosely at the annual Outremeuse folklore festival on the mid-city island of the same name.
Just an hour to the east is another city well known for its wild annual party, Cologne. Here the Carnival season (just before Lent) is Europe’s largest and liveliest, with a drag-filled performance series, Röschen Sitzung, that’s a huge gay draw. With its two separate thriving gaybourhoods of Alter Markt (Old Market) and Rudolfplatz, Cologne (or Köln to locals) has long been known as the gay capital of Germany — despite what a Berliner might tell you.
Founded by the Romans in the first century BCE, Cologne is now home to just over a million people, making it Germany’s fourth-largest city. Best known to many for its iconic cathedral (Kölner Dom), Cologne also boasts a slew of excellent museums (more than 40 in all), a very active arts community, a pulsating nightlife scene and an overall warm and sexy vibe. It’s the biggest German city to straddle the Rhine River (much to the consternation of its northern neighbour and fierce rival, Düsseldorf) and often serves as a gateway for those touring the castles and wineries of the Rhineland region.
Cologne’s Pride (or CSD, short for Christopher Street Day, as all German Pride events are called) covers two full weeks in late June and early July. One of the oldest in Germany, it’s also one of the largest in Europe, usually drawing about a million participants.
About 200 kilometres southwest through the Rhineland and Hesse regions is Germany’s next largest city after Cologne, Frankfurt. Too often glimpsed by tourists only from inside its massive international airport, Frankfurt has much to offer those who make the easy trip into town. Its abundance of world-class cultural institutions — from the incredible (and incredibly diverse) Städel, to the excellent Museum of Modern Art, to the completely unique Dialog Museum (where visitors are led through total darkness by a blind guide) — lead Frankfurt to often be called the “City of Museums.” It’s just one of the city’s many nicknames — others include “Bankfurt” (in honour of the array of powerful global financial entities that are based here, including the European Central Bank) and “Mainhattan” (a nod to both its unique-in-Germany skyscraper-filled skyline and its setting along the Main River, pronounced “mine").
For gay visitors, Frankfurt offers a conveniently condensed area of bars and clubs located right at the heart of town, the so-called “Bermuda Triangle” bordered by Konstablerwache, Bleichstrasse and Eschenheimer Turm. A surprisingly diverse spectrum of the LGBT rainbow is well represented here in this compact cluster, everyone from mainstream homos to dirty daddies to indie queers. Frankfurt’s Pride happens in July, with a Saturday parade and a huge street fair lasting the entire weekend.
Two hours farther east is a stunning German city that’s steeped in world history, some of it far from pleasant. Nuremberg (known locally as Nürnberg) grew to prominence in the Middle Ages, when it became the unofficial capital of the Holy Roman Empire. For this reason, centuries later it was also considered hallowed ground by the Nazis, who held some of their most important rallies here. In due course, the city became the focus of intense Allied bombings, then international post-war attention as the site of the Nuremberg Trials, the military tribunals that brought the Third Reich’s most notorious war criminals to justice.
Painstakingly rebuilt after the war, today’s picturesque Nuremberg is, with half a million residents, the second-biggest city in Bavaria, after Munich, and the largest in the Franconia region. Headlined by its 12th-century castle, Nuremberg’s so-called Historical Mile is loaded with great sights for tourists, including the home of its most famous son, 15th/16th-century painter and thinker Albrecht Dürer. Widely considered the greatest figure of the Northern Renaissance, Dürer may very well have been a member of the LGBT family – several of his letters and paintings hint at his keen interest in male beauty, and one need only look at his self-portraits to understand that he was not only rather handsome and fastidiously groomed himself, but also deeply enamoured with his own appearance.
About 300 kilometres east of Nuremberg is Prague, the fairytale-esque city that’s beloved by tourists for its gorgeously preserved city centre, its abundance of great museums, its fantastic and relatively inexpensive shopping and dining, and its excellent and burgeoning arts scene.
As in Nuremberg, the red roofs of Prague’s skyline are presided over by its famous castle. Now a massive complex of museums and attractions, Prague Castle had its regal heyday under the maybe-gay Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, a passionate lover of art, science and alchemy who drew some of the 16th and 17th century’s greatest thinkers to his court, which he had relocated from Vienna.
Prague has, thankfully, shaken off its unfortunate post-Cold War reputation for porn and prostitution, and the city’s gay scene is now diverse, open, forward-leaning and positively flourishing, standing as a bright beacon of hope within an otherwise ever more gay-antagonistic former Soviet bloc region. Prague Pride, first held just two years ago, is quickly becoming one of the continent’s must-hit annual LGBT events.
While the preferred North American road trip method is generally by car, Europe’s elaborate and efficient train system makes rail travel a viable and, depending on a few factors, possibly even cheaper and easier method of getting from city to city. RailEurope offers a great Pass Finder page that will help you sort which pass is right for you (for the Brussels to Prague itinerary, ranging from about $550 for second class to just $638 for a first-class “Eurail Select Pass 3 Countries” pass that allows eight travel days within two months). For quicker journeys, it may be cheaper to purchase individual one-way train tickets directly from Deutsche Bahn.
Renting a car in Europe is certainly an option, but not without tacking on more problems and costs. Many rental companies will allow picking up in one city and dropping off in another, but crossing national borders makes things prickly, especially when the Czech Republic becomes involved. (It may prove much simpler and more cost-efficient to leave the car in Nuremburg, then head on to Prague by train.) Auto Europe and Europe by Car scan rates for many rental companies, or check directly with the big international outfits like Hertz and Avis or one of the Europe-wide chains, such as Sixt or Europcar. If you’re not a manual-transmission driver, make sure you reserve a car that’s automatic, which is far less common in Europe than in North America.