AFFORDABLE EUROPE

Ditch the Crowds

Tuscany, Prague, the Amalfi Coast, and Provence are all super places but victims of their own popularity. They're overrun and overhyped--and have the prices to prove it. Tweak your itinerary and avoid the hordes by heading for these alternatives to five of Europe's most famous destinations.

Andalusia's Atlantic Seaboard...rather than Mediterranean Andalusia 
 The Spanish region of Andalusia is almost a country unto itself. Most travelers stick to the 'circuit cities' of Granada, Seville, and Cordoba, and largely ignore the more authentic Atlantic coast.

Skip the flashy, overdeveloped Costa del Sol in Malaga Province and head for the dry, corrugated interior for the fabled pueblos blancos (white villages), including Ronda, birthplace of bullfighting, a hilltop city of antique bridges straddling a ravine.

Jerez de la Frontera bequeathed the world sherry and is the center of Andalusia's Roma (Gypsy) population. Scope out smoky, late-night clubs in the labyrinthine Gypsy Quarter to experience the Roma's greatest contribution to Spanish culture: flamenco, a confluence of Iberian, African, and Oriental music and dance.

The sun-washed city of Cadiz is one of Europe's oldest living settlements, founded by Phoenicians in 1104 b.c. People-watch on the neoclassical main plaza and stroll the oceanfront gardens.

Huelva Province's miles of beach dunes are remarkable for their unblemished beauty--and lack of foreign visitors. Coto Donana National Park, Spain's largest and most diverse nature reserve, hosts the Pentecost romeria, a four-day walking pilgrimage that culminates in a festival of fancy dresses, flower-decked oxcarts, and folk dances in the one-horse town of El Rocio.

Two-minute guidebook: Reserve well in advance at the popular state-run paradores (parador.es). Two memorable ones--with sweeping views and handy locations--are Ronda's Plaza de Espana ($145, 011-34/95-287-7500) and Arcos de la Frontera's Plaza del Cabildo ($140, 011-34/95-670-0500). Hotel Dona Blanca in Jerez is charming ($85, 011-34/95-634-8761, hoteldonablanca.com). Some rooms at Hotel Francia y Paris in Cadiz overlook the plaza ($93, 011-34/95-622-2348, hotelfrancia.com).

Andalusia is the land that invented tapas. In Ronda, head for Almocabar ($15, Calle Ruedo Alameda 5, 011-34/95-287-5977). In Jerez, try Bar Juanito ($10, Calle Pescaderia Vieja 8-10, 011-34/95-633-4838). Cadiz and Huelva Provinces have been praised since Roman times for their tasty seafood. The best in Cadiz is El Faro ($30, Calle San Felix 15, 011-34/95-621-1068). In El Rocio try Aires de Donana ($35, Avenida de la Canaliega 1, 011-34/95-944-2719).

Languedoc...rather than Provence 
 These days, Provence's simple charms--not just the lavender and sunflowers--are carefully pruned to please the tourists. Shift your gaze west to Languedoc, a slice of the French Mediterranean equal to Provence yet with its own subtle mysteries.

The ancient Roman buildings of Nimes include the Arena, which hosts bullfights during the summer--a reminder of the Spanish vibes that spice up the southwest of France. The luminous provincial capital, Montpellier, is a garden city with touches of genteel shabbiness. With its fairy-tale turrets and cone-capped towers, the 1,000-year-old castle town of Carcassonne, saved from ruin in the mid-19th century and meticulously restored, strikes some as too EuroDisney. But the hulking walls are awesome, and they harbor the delicate Saint-Nazaire church. Affluent Toulouse is known as la ville en rose, "the pink city," thanks to the historic center's rosy bricks. The sculpture-encrusted facade and octagonal belfry of St. Sernin--the world's largest Romanesque church--supply the backdrop for a motley weekend flea market.

The Pyrenees village of Rennes-le-Chateau guards Languedoc's deepest riddle. For centuries, folks whispered of buried Cathar gold. Then, in 1890, penniless parish priest Berenger Sauniere restored the church, at great expense and with shocking details like a sculpture of the demon Asmodeus and the Latin inscription THIS PLACE IS TERRIBLE. Some claim he found treasure and sensational Apocryphal manuscripts inside a hollowed-out column.

In Brignac, 30 miles west of Montpellier, former winery La Missare is now a B&B ($73, 011-33/4-67-96-07-67, la.missare.free.fr). La Maison du Chapelier is a fanciful, flower-filled mansion in Esperaza, 25 miles south of Carcassonne ($79, 011-33/4-68-74-22-49, esperazabedandbreakfast.com). In Montpellier, try the elegant Hotel du Parc ($77, 011-33/4-67-41-16-49, hotelduparc-montpellier.com). In Toulouse, the Hotel Albert 1er is a refined bargain with a big buffet breakfast ($70, 011-33/5-61-21-17-91, hotel-albert1.com).

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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