10 undiscovered gems of Europe
Europe’s newest sovereign state, Montenegro, or Crna Gora (Black Mountain), as the locals call it, was formed in 2006, after it broke away from Serbia. With a strikingly beautiful coastline on the southern Adriatic and a thickly forested, mountainous interior, this small country certainly rewards exploration. The medieval coastal cities of Kotor and Budva are among the most picturesque in the whole Mediterranean. Their tumultuous history includes periods of Byzantine, Venetian, Turkish, French and Austrian occupation, and their charming old towns are a photographer’s dream. Nearby are soft, golden beaches, while away from the coast, Montenegro’s spectacular national parks offer dramatic scenery and numerous opportunities for hiking and wildlife watching.
2. Portuguese Pousada
Portugal’s pousadas were originally conceived in the 1940s by the government, which wanted to preserve historically important buildings by converting them into luxury hotels. Castles, monasteries, palaces and other sites were added over the following decades, as well as purpose-built hotels in especially attractive natural locations. The pousadas were privatized in 2003, and there are now 34 pousadas located throughout Portugal, including in the Azores, all offering a unique experience with the highest standards of service and comfort, including swimming pools, tennis courts and delightful gardens. Amongst others, visitors can stay at a renovated 16th century convent in the Algarve, a baroque palace in Porto or a comfortable lodge in Portugal’s stunning national park.
Jutting out into the northern Adriatic, most of the heart-shaped Istrian peninsula lies within Croatia, although neighbouring Slovenia and Italy both have a foothold to the north. From the intriguing Italian border-city of Trieste and the scenic Slovenian fi shing village of Izola to the picturesque Croatian towns of Rovinj, further along the coast, and Pula, with its awe-inspiring Roman remains, it’s easy to see why it’s known as the ‘Terra Magica’ or Land of Magic. On the other side of the peninsula is Kvarner Bay and the lovely Dalmatian islands of Krk, Rab and Lošinj, known as the ‘sunshine island,’ and boasting one of the prettiest harbours in the Mediterranean. Inland Istria is real off-the-beaten-track territory, with rolling green hills and peaceful medieval towns, such as Hum, which, with a population of 24, claims to be the smallest in the world.
The ‘heel’ of the boot-shaped Italian peninsula, Puglia is one of the most remote and unspoilt regions of the country, a land with a rich culinary tradition and legendary, full-bodied wines as well as a wealth of historical and architectural treasures, most notably the distinctive trulli, the whitewashed medieval dwellings with their conical roofs, some painted with religious symbols, which fi ll the UNESCO World Heritage town of Alberbello. The fascinating limestone caves at Castellana, with their curious stalagmite and stalactite formations are worth exploring, while the city of Lecce, known as the ‘Florence of the South’ due to its grand baroque architecture, is a real highlight. The Romanesque cathedral in Italy’s easternmost city, Otranto, houses a remarkable 12th century mosaic, and the town’s 15th century castle - made famous in Horace Walpole’s gothic novel - is redolent with history.
The largest island in the Mediterranean, Sardinia is very distinct from mainland Italy in terms of its history, culture, cuisine and language, and its uniqueness and wild, natural beauty make it an unforgettable holiday destination. The spectacular ‘Costa Smeralda’ - the Emerald Coast - in the northeast, has been popular with the rich and famous since the 1960s, but the whole island is ringed with fantastic fine, sandy beaches, such as along the ‘Costa Verde’ - the Green Coast - on the west. History is everywhere in Sardinia, from Neolithic rock tombs and circular Bronze Age towers, known as ‘nuraghi,’ to Carthaginian ruins, Roman theatres and baths and Byzantine Churches. Sardinia’s rugged interior is no less interesting, and its varied landscapes of dense woods, mountains and lakes reward deeper exploration.
6. River Order
Rising in Moravia, in the Czech Republic, and meandering through south-western Poland and along the German-Polish border towards the Baltic Sea, the River Oder is navigable for long stretches and passes through diverse landscapes, nature reserves, historic cities and seaside resorts. The charming Polish city of Wrocław and the German border-town of Frankfurt-an-der- Oder, lie along its course, while Germany’s energetic capital, Berlin, is only around 80km from its western bank. Cruising along the wide Oder River is a relaxing experience, and there’s plenty to see along the way. The old Iron Curtain frontier port of Szczecin, in Poland, is home to the elegant Castle of the Pomeranian Dukes, while beyond lies the Oder Lagoon and bracing national park on the Baltic island of Wollin.
Snowy Alpine peaks, picture-postcard Mediterranean seaside towns, great swathes of forest, and glacial lakes, tiny Slovenia has it all. Breathtakingly beautiful Lake Bled, in the heart of the Julian Alps, is undoubtedly the country’s most photographed sight, with its island and pretty 15th century church. Slovenia’s relaxed capital city, Ljubljana, blends the best of central European and Mediterranean culture, and is adorned with stately baroque architecture, a fi ne hilltop castle, Roman remains and the extensive, 200-year-old Tivoli Park. The vast UNESCO listed Škocjan Caves, housing one of the largest underground canyons in the world, is another unmissable sight, while no visit to Slovenia is complete without enjoying the scenic delights of its short Mediterranean coast at resorts such as historic Koper.
With its rich cultural traditions, enticing cities and wild countryside, Poland is a joy to explore. The capital, Warsaw, with its faithfully restored Old Town, is fi lled with museums, galleries and excellent restaurants. The perfectly preserved medieval city of Krakow is easily one of Poland’s most appealing destinations. The awe-inspiring Wawel Castle, the poignant synagogues of the old Jewish Quarter and Poland’s biggest town square are just some of the attractions, while not too far away, the Auschwitz concentration camp is a sombre reminder of the country’s darkest days. Other highlights include the charming cities of Wrocław and Gdansk and the lush Białowieza National Park, populated by European bison.
9. The Balkans
With its long and tumultuous history and varied cultures, the Balkans is one of Europe’s most complex and intriquing region. Croatia’s bustling capital city, Zagreb is often overlooked by travellers heading to the alluring islands off the Dalmatian coast, but it’s a worthy destination in itself, home to captivating art galleries and museums and pleasant open spaces and parks. Zagreb also makes a good base for exploring the region, including sights such as the Plitvice Lakes National Park to the south, with its spectacular lakes and waterfalls. Also worth seeking out is the ancient city of Split, once the stronghold of the 3rd century Roman Emperor Diocletian, whose vast palace still stands here. Bosnia’s capital, Sarajevo, surprises visitors with its many museums and historic Ottoman-era mosques, and the beautiful churches, palaces, gardens and galleries of Belgrade, the stately capital of Serbia, are among the real highlights of the Balkan Peninsula.
The ancient pilgrimage destination of Santiago de Compostela, with its magnificent cathedral, has been welcoming travellers for the last 1,000 years, but the wider region of Galicia remains one of Spain’s best-kept secrets. In the northwest corner of country, this is a unique region with Celtic heritage and its own cultural and culinary traditions. Galicia’s jagged Atlantic coastline is ringed with striking estuaries and beaches, including the popular semi-circular white sand beach at Sanxenxo and the dramatic Playa de las Catedrales, widely regarded as one of Spain’s best. The coastal city of Coruña is worth a stopover for its beautiful parks and excellent museums, and Galicia’s six natural parks, encompassing rich and diverse landscapes, offer countless opportunities for hiking, caving and wildlife watching.
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Article published on: 28th September, 2014