With travel possibilities slowly increasing, we’re looking at European destinations that are easy to get to, but offer the chance to see and do some wonderful things without being caught up in the crowds
Croatia’s beautiful Dalmatian coast has been widely known to travelers for some years now as a cheaper alternative to Italy (occupying as it does the eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea, opposite the Italian peninsula). It’s a region that now relies heavily on tourism, but with reduced crowds this summer, you can find more hidden places.
Mljet is the most southerly of Croatia’s larger islands, and is also its greenest. Covered with dense forests, the entire island is designated a national park. The seas that surround it are home to a wealth of marine life, and the gentle, clear waves lapping at the seared sands is a sound to relax your mind and body.
It’s also home to a number of lakes which are popular swimming spots for the (relatively few) visitors, and when you’re finished splashing about you can relax and watch the sunset with some local wine, olives and goat’s cheese. If you’re feeling more energetic there are places to rent bicycles to explore the interior of the island, or kayaks to travel around the coastline. There’s history to discover at the Church and Benedictine Monastery (one of the oldest in the Adriatic), and with regular ferry connections to Dubrovnik, it’s easy to see the rest of the country as well.
“Travel bubble” has become rather a buzz phrase recently, with good reason, and at a particular place in this region of southern France, you can take that rather more literally. Located close to the villages of Puget-Ville, La Bouilladisse and Montagnac-Montpezat among others, there are collections of curious little plastic spheres that double as cute-yet-glamorous places to stay. Imagine lying back in the plush bedding and gazing up at the stars… what luxury. Some of them even come with their own open-air jacuzzi!
There’s a lot more to see in the surrounding area though, as the scenery veers dramatically from the swampy wetlands of the Camargue and the Rhone River valley, to the crags and passes of the mountains in the northern part of the region.
There’s also Marseille, the second-largest city in France, and a place that’s curiously overlooked when it comes to travel. Sure, it doesn’t have the glamour of Paris, the stately air of Lyon or the modern sophistication of Bordeaux, but it’s an exciting place, a mixture of France and north Africa come to life. A center of art, theater and music, it sprawls chaotically between the Mediterranean and the Calanques national park, and is, without doubt, one of Europe’s coolest cities.
So whatever sort of holiday you’re after — city break, the great outdoors, a bit of luxury, or everything combined, this part of France has everything you’re looking for.
The Rhine Castles Trail, Germany
As one of the nations that really knows how to build a good castle, it’s a joy to hike through Germany from one to the other, following river valleys, heading into dense forests, or yomping across wide open fields under blue summer skies. I’m on the verge of breaking into song just thinking about it.
Hiking the Rhine Castles Trail from end to end is a journey of 200 km, and along the way you’ll come across 15 or so of Europe’s mightiest and most fairy-tale castles. Indeed, in the 19th century, the dreamy nature of the steep-sided valleys covered with trees and little villages, crowned by the soaring towers of a castle inspired so many poets, painters and writers that period became known as the Rhine romantic era.
If you’re planning to through-hike, it’s probably a good idea to book accommodation beforehand, just to be sure, but every village will have somewhere to eat, drink and congratulate yourself on your progress.
Interestingly, if you don’t want to do the whole thing, you could simply make a weekend of it. The Mittelrheinbahn railway route that runs hourly between Cologne and Mainz stops in many of the towns along the route, so you can hop on and off at the start and end of the day. And of course, don’t forget to plan a few hours into your itinerary to go inside and explore the castles!
The Alentejo, Portugal
If you’re after somewhere with a rich culture of food and drink, a wonderful climate, a rugged coastline, high-end luxury or quaint village life, the Alentejo is all of this and more.
Its name means “beyond the Targus (river)”, and that’s exactly where it is, between Lisbon to the north and the beaches and holiday resorts of the Algarve to the south. Initially it can seem a rather barren part of the world, with rocky hillsides and sun-blasted fields, but it’s the landscape and the climate that helps produce some of the finest wines the Mediterranean has to offer.
It also has a cuisine unto itself, with a huge variety of local bread accompanying delicious soups and stews, all garnished with locally grown herbs such as coriander, oregano, even mint, and lashings of olive oil.
Once you’re done exploring the interior, hopping from vineyard to village and back again, head to the coast for surfing, swimming, and watersports of all kinds. Walk along the windswept cliff tops with the Atlantic crashing below you, and gaze for miles out to sea, knowing that this amazing experience is yours and yours alone.
Let’s play a bit of word association. Parma…? Ham, I’m willing to bet. Parmesan cheese, maybe. Or if, like me, you grew up watching Football Italia on TV, that wonderful Parma team who won the 1999 UEFA Cup. So what else can we learn?
Well, it’s a city in the north of Italy, around 90 minutes by train from Milan, and an hour from Bologna. It’s not a huge place either, with just under 200,000 inhabitants. Yet it’s this relative anonymity that has meant it’s one of the most well-preserved cities in Italy, with scores of churches, some dating back to the 10th century; some wonderful palaces and stately homes; theaters and public spaces that have been in use for 800 years; Roman bridges and city walls that have withstood both time and aggression for generation after generation.
If you’re looking for a relaxing city break, Parma is perfect. Small enough to be walkable in a couple of days, a distinct lack of tourists as people overlook it for the shinier baubles of Milan, Rome, Naples and the like, reasonably priced trattoria and small, friendly bars in which to sit late into the evening. It really is Italy in microcosm.
A slightly unusual choice to finish off, as Chios is actually the fifth-largest of all the Greek islands, and does get a fair amount of tourists; however those that do come tend to only focus on one part, the mastikahoria, or mastic villages, a series of fortified settlements built in the 14th century by the Genovese to cultivate and protect mastic, a type of gummy sap produced by trees of the same name.
Wonderful though these are (Pyrgi, with its intricately painted houses is like nowhere you’ve ever seen, while Olympi and Mesta are all twisting alleyways and flower-covered balconies), it’s worth spending some more time getting to know the rest of the island.
Rent a car or a scooter and head for the hills. Chios is known for its wide-ranging and high-quality citrus fruit production: indeed, it’s sometimes known as myrovolos, or the fragrant island, and you’ll find out why as the scent of oranges and tangerines hangs in the air as you make your way between the leafy, green fields.
There are also a number of archaeological gems to discover, as the entire island is dotted with Byzantine-era villages, and there’s a museum to Byzantine life on the main square of the island’s biggest town, helpfully also called Chios. So if you’re looking for an island holiday with a bit of something extra, maybe Chios is the one for you.
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