It's never a bad time to go to Europe. Well, July and August can be pretty intense, which is why I tell folks that May and June - as well as September and October - are terrific times to hit the continent. The weather is (usually) good and the crowds are (generally) lighter, which means less jostling in front of the Mona Lisa and fewer elbows flying on the way up the Spanish Steps in Rome.
I could list a hundred places in Europe that I love, but here's a quick Monday morning look at ten particular favourites you might want to check out:
1. Scotland. I had a coffee last week with the Scotland Tourism folks, and they've dreamed up a lovely campaign for 2012 that's based on Scottish culture. They brought over several artists to explain the concept; a bagpiper who plays with all sorts of other musicians, including a band that plays Indian music. He's also part of something called The Treacherous Orchestra, which looks like all kinds of fun. They also had a maker of lovely jewelry from up in the Orkney Islands and a fabulous watercolour painter from southern Scotland. All that talk of the lovely hills and sounds of Scotland got me all fired up on Saturday to watch Local Hero, one of the great movies of the 1980s and a lovely, quirky bit of filmmaking. Made me want to go back so badly!
2. Portugal. I've been harping on this country for a while, because it's both beautiful and a bargain. You can often find four-star hotels for $100 a night; about what you'd pay for a chain hotel in Belleville. There are gorgeous beaches, top-class cities such as Lisbon with its famous trams, lovely mountain villages and great food and wine. Good golf, too.
3. Holland. This year marks Floriade, an incredible horticultural display that happens every 10 years. Or maybe once a decade. This time it's centred in southern Holland in Venlo, and it's said they've planted 1.8 million bulbs, plus 5,000 rose bushes (it's not just spring flowers) and 190,000 perennials. I can only imagine what that must look like. There's also a cultural program, including concerts, and it runs from April to the fall.
4. Prague. I was there only once, but fell in love with the architecture and the old streets. Oh, and the beer. Toss in the Charles River bridge and the old castle on the hill above town and you've got a lovely spot that's also a bit cheaper than many cities in Europe.
5. Sweden. It's expensive, but it's a beautiful place. Stockholm is a stunning city on the water, surrounded by small islands. The city comes alive in summer when the good weather comes. Not a fan of big cities? My son studied in Lund, in southern Sweden, last year and said it was a great university town. The New York Times featured Lund in a story last year.
6. Switzerland. The mountains and lakes are even prettier than you might imagine. But there's also a huge variety in this country. The south is Italian-speaking, near Ticino, while other parts are quite French or speak Swiss-German and feel more like Germany. And the cities are quite sophisticated and lively. Pride Day is a big thing in Zurich. I was there near Pride Day a couple years ago and the place was jumping. I also saw an older guy riding a bike ahead of me on the street wearing nothing but a red thong. So there is that....
7. Ponza, Italy. I featured this island in Star Travel last year. It's a stunner that's maybe an hour or an hour and-a-half ferry ride from the coast, not far from Rome. There are huge, chalky cliffs and lovely beaches and a small town with a beautiful harbour. You can rent a small boat if the weather's good and explore the beaches and caves, or just soak up the atmosphere at a harbour-side table at lunch or dinner (see photo).
8. Slovenia. Another perennial fave. It used to be part of Yugoslavia but has been its own country for some time now. The eastern part feels like Hungary, while the northern section has towering mountains and borders on Austria. There's a small section that dips onto the Adriatic as well, sandwiched between Italy and Croatia. And the town of Ljubljana has a bit of a Salzburg feel to it, but cozier and less touristed. Great plazas and fun shops and great food, plus the tidy, wondrous Lake Bled, with its island church and mountain and castle views. Really one of the jewels of Europe.
9. Bordeaux. Even if you don't like wine, it's a beautiful area of France. The city itself surprised me, with its gracious architecture and small cafes in narrow, teeming streets packed with atmosphere. East of the city, in the Dordogne Valley, are lovely rivers and winding, country roads and huge castles and fabulous food; fresh fruits and incredible cheeses and lots more. Definitely one of this country's top regions.
10. Wales. Another way to enjoy the UK while skipping the London Olympics. A beautiful coastline that goes on forever, with fabulous hiking and walking trails and glorious golf courses. I found several old abbeys to explore, and there are rivers for canoeing or kayaking and surprisingly good and sophisticated cuisine in both Cardiff and even at smaller, out-of-the-way Bed and Breakfast places.
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