Ditch the Crowds

By Jeffrey Kennedy
November 16, 2006
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).

Try Languedoc cuisine at Vintage Cafe in Nimes ($12, 7 rue de Bernis, 011-33/4-66-21-04-45). Garden restaurant Alexandre is a worthy splurge outside Garons, on the way to Montpellier ($50, route de l'Aeroport, 011-33/4-66-70-08-99). In Montpellier, dine outside on the square at Mosaique ($30, 21 rue Vallat, 011-33/4-67-60-77-23).

Southwest Crete...rather than the Amalfi Coast 
 The Amalfi Coast has beguiled the rich and famous for decades. But rewind to an earlier era, to a string of cliff-clinging fishing villages untouched by tourism. What was Amalfi like then?

It was like rugged southwest Crete today. There are no roads, just dry-stone shepherds' tracks, the only traffic an occasional herd of sheep or goats. The air smells of oregano and thyme; mulberry and oleander add strokes of color. Cicadas keen in the summer heat, and winds dust everything red with Saharan sand.

Deep chasms in the Lefka Ori (White Mountains) make for legendary hiking. By day, trekkers swarm the port of Chora Sfakion (Sfakia), but after the last bus returns north to Chania, everything reverts to the sigha-sigha (slowly-slowly) attitude. Linger and you'll soon be knocking back ouzo with blue-eyed fishermen descended from ancient Dorian tribes.

From Sfakia follow the dizzying trail west, high above the Libyan Sea. The first stop is Sweetwater Beach, popular with nude sunbathers and bare-bottomed snorkelers. Farther on, light some frankincense at the whitewashed shrine commemorating Saint Peter's first Grecian landfall. Past laid-back Loutro, the hamlet of Finix boasts prehistoric ruins. Arrange with a boatman to drop you off for a few hours at Lissos, a ravine marked by a church cobbled from marble fragments, a hillside necropolis, a mosaic temple floor, and a frescoed Byzantine chapel.

At Paleochora, the land flattens to a broad beach--though prevailing westerlies make sunbathing a bit gritty. Feeling Homeric? Grab a ferry south to the even more isolated isle of Gavdos, where Odysseus dallied seven years with the nymph Calypso.

Restaurants serve the catch of the day, homegrown vegetables, and tree-ripened fruit. The family-run Old Phoenix restaurant and hotel in Finix has sea-view balconies, private bathrooms, and A/C ($15 meals, $40 doubles, 011-30/28250-91257, old-phoenix.com). The Daskalogiannis Hotel in Loutro is a white villa facing the pier ($60, 011-30/28250-91514, loutro.com). Andreas Fasoulakis and family cook up local dishes in Sfakia's Taverna Lefka Ori ($20, 011-30/28250-91209, chora-sfakion.com). Hotel Stavris is a shady choice in the heart of Sfakia, with fine views from the balconies ($28, 011-30/28250-91220, hotel-stavris-chora-sfakion.com). Vritomartis Hotel, less than a mile from Sfakia, is the region's premium accommodation, almost a resort, but the tone is anything but snooty; the pool and beach are clothing optional, and rates include dinner ($120, 011-30/28250-91112, naturism-crete.com).

Ljubljana...rather than Prague 
 Only a dozen years ago, Prague was "rediscovered" and crowned as eastern Europe's hip, cheap destination. Now simple hotel rooms cost $200 and the narrow, cobbled streets are mobbed with sightseers. Ride the next trend wave two countries to the south: the city of Ljubljana.

The walkable capital of Slovenia is filled with cozy, Viennese-style beer halls, wine cellars, and clubs. In nice weather locals fill the terrace cafes lining a maze of pedestrian-only streets.

The city's nickname, White Ljubljana, comes from such pale structures as St. Nicholas's Cathedral and the elaborate Fountain of Carniolan Rivers, inspired by Bernini's work in Rome's Piazza Navona. You'll also see Austrian influences and a dash of bold, folksy Slavic motifs--Ljubljana managed to avoid being disfigured by too many Communist-era concrete blocks. Take a nighttime walk by the Ljubljanica River and admire the lighted curlicues of the rococo facades.

This is a university city, so cultural life, art, and music thrive, with a centuries-old classical tradition that enticed composers like Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler to visit. Forests surround the 1,000-year-old hilltop castle, where views stretch to the distant Alps. Greenery carpets nearby Tivoli Park.

Atmospheric lodgings are not the city's forte. Comfortable and reasonably priced modern establishments include the City Hotel ($120, Dalmatinova 15, 011-386/1-234-9130, hotelturist.si) and the Best Western Premier Hotel Slon ($125, Slovenska 34, 011-386/1-470-1100,bestwestern.com). The Pri Mraku guesthouse is a more personalized, though plain, alternative ($110, Rimska 4, 011-386/1-421-9600, daj-dam.si).

Expect a combination of Balkan, Italian, and central European cooking, with seafood from the Adriatic. Pleasantly old-fashioned As is one of the best restaurants for original fish and pasta creations ($15, Knafljev prehod, 011-386/1-425-8822). River-view seating makes Ljubjanski Dvor good for lunch ($15, Dvorni trg 1, 011-386/1-251-6555). On the road to the castle, candlelit Spajza is popular for Slovene cooking with French and Italian trimmings ($15, Gornji trg 28, 011-386/1-425-3094).

Le Marche...rather than Tuscany 
 Due east of Tuscany, over the Apennine Mountains, is the noticeably undervisited region of Le Marche. Stretched along the Adriatic coast, it's home to the ideal Renaissance city, splendid Urbino. In the 15th century, Urbino's ducal court patronized painters such as Piero della Francesca and local hero Raphael.

During an evening stroll in Ascoli Piceno--a town noted for its rowdy Carnival and deep-fried olive ascolane stuffed with minced meat--rub elbows with the gentry on Piazza del Popolo's polished travertine pavement lined with mismatched colonnades.

At the pilgrimage center of Loreto, pay homage to the Virgin Mary's modest home, airlifted from the Holy Land by angels in the 13th century. Outside the beach town of Cattolica--halfway between the resorts of Rimini and Pesaro (the latter is best for basking, with its soft, pearl-gray sands)--visit haunted Gradara Castle and learn the tale of its doomed lovers, Paolo and Francesca, condemned in Dante's Inferno to a whirlwind of insatiable lust.

Le Marche is also the site of some of the country's top natural attractions. The Monti Sibillini range is the star of the Apennines; climb to bizarrely blood-red Lake Pilate under Devil's Peak.

Urbino's unsurpassed accommodation is Hotel San Domenico, a former convent opposite the Ducal Palace ($126, 011-39/0722-26-26, viphotels.it). The airy, Bauhaus-style Hotel Pennile sits a mile from the center of Ascoli in a lush pine forest ($93, 011-39/0736-41-645, hotelpennile.com). Pesaro's luxurious Hotel Vittoria is right on the beach, with a pool ($126, 011-39/0721-34-343, viphotels.it).

The food of Le Marche is fantastic: seafood on the Adriatic side, and pasta and polenta accented with truffles, wild mushrooms, and game in the hillier interior. Urbino's Osteria l'Angolo Divino has a wood-beam ceiling and a rustic menu ($30, Via S. Andrea 14, 011-39/0722-32-7559). Right on Ascoli's main square, Ristorante Tornasacco manages to be traditional and elegant yet still charge modest prices ($40, Piazza del Popolo 36, 011-39/0736-254-151). At the beach, on Pesaro's Riviera Adriatica, the Bagni Gilberto has a cafe, a low-key ristorantino, and beach services ($15, Viale Trieste 32, 011-39/0721-32-887). For a real restaurant, try romantic Il Commodoro ($35, Viale Trieste 269, 011-39/0721-32-680).

Plan Your Next Getaway
Keep reading

True Stories

Two new prizes: Eurail passes & all-inclusive Mexico! The best response before December 29 wins two First Class Eurail Flexipasses, courtesy of Railpass.com. The pass is good for 15 days of travel within a two-month period in the 18 European countries served by the Eurail network. The prize also includes free or discounted travel on high-speed trains, river steamers, and ferries. Valid March 1, 2007, to April 30, 2008. For more info on Railpass.com: 877/724-5727, railpass.com. If yours is the best response between December 30, 2006, and January 31, 2007, you'll win a seven-night stay for two at the brand-new all-inclusive Riu Vallarta resort in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, courtesy of Riu Hotels & Resorts. Valid April 1, 2007, to March 31, 2008. Blackout dates apply. Airfare not included. For more info on Riu Hotels & Resorts: 888/666-8816, riu.com. Both prizes are subject to availability, nontransferable, and nonnegotiable, and they can't be redeemed for cash value. How to enter E-mail TrueStories@BudgetTravelOnline.com or True Stories, Budget Travel, 530 Seventh Ave., 2nd Fl., New York, NY 10018. Sorry, we can't return photos. Read the full guidelines. Winners! The winner of September's contest is Garrett Erkenbeck of East Syracuse, N.Y. His prize is a five-night trip in Ireland, courtesy of the folks at Dooley Vacations. Instead of a typical spring break in Miami or Cancun, I chose an International Expeditions cruise in Chilean Patagonia. I was 21 and the next youngest person was 52, so I quickly became the talk of the trip. At first I was hesitant, but I soon found myself having the time of my life--not just because of the dramatic scenery while rounding Cape Horn, but also because I made many older friends from whom I learned a great deal. Plus, I got lots of free desserts since so many passengers had diabetes and couldn't eat theirs! Upon returning home, my friends told me about their long nights partying and dancing, and eventually inquired about my trip. "I did the same," I replied, jokingly, "but with a completely different crowd." The winner of the October contest is Danette Oien of Shoreview, Minn. Her prize: a vacation rental courtesy of Rentalo.com. I had to go San Francisco for business, so I decided to fly in a few days early to see the sights. As I was leaving my hotel, I noticed a crowd of people gathering for a parade, so I stayed to watch--and saw way more than I'd bargained for! Pharmacist Humor While sightseeing in Paris, my uncle got a terrible sore throat. He went to a pharmacy, but the pharmacist didn't speak English, so my uncle made guesses: "Aspirina? Aspirino? Aspirini?" At which point the pharmacist exclaimed, "Aha!" and handed him a package of white tablets. Soon after, my uncle crammed himself into the elevator that led to the Eiffel Tower observation deck. As the doors closed, he pulled out the quarter-sized "aspirini" and popped one into his mouth. He began coughing and gagging. The other people in the elevator turned and shrieked. Then, when he started foaming at the mouth, they took cover. At the top, my uncle spat out the "aspirini," inspected it, and realized it was an Alka-Seltzer. Eric C. Williams, Reston, Va. Dude Needs a Ziploc After a long day of exploring Granada, Nicaragua, my friend and I stopped in a liquor store for beer. When the clerk asked me something, I smiled and said, "No." He opened my beer and poured it into a plastic bag. I finally figured out that I had declined to put down a deposit on the bottle. Carron Hampton, Savannah, Ga. Favorite Setting: Category 5 Last year I was at a beachfront resort in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, when I was relocated to a shelter because of Hurricane Wilma. Everyone was gathered around, clutching blankets, pillows, and flashlights. You can imagine my surprise when I spotted one woman's items on a table in full view--including a rather large phallic-shaped massager. I never saw her again during the next three days, but I imagine she had a much more relaxing time riding out the storm than the rest of us did. Shi Ann Ingalls, Harrah, Okla. "Right, But How Do I Look?" Ten years ago I was 25 years old, recently single, and in the best shape of my life. I was spending a week at a beautiful resort in Sonora Bay, Mexico, so I put on my hottest swimsuit, along with my cute matching scrunchy, and headed out to the beach. After six months of daily workouts I was looking good and I knew it. The beach, fairly deserted, wasn't meeting my desire for attention, so I grabbed a Boogie Board and swam into a lagoon that was closer to a populated area of the resort. Doing my best to look sexy and irresistible, I was slowly drifting into the center of the lagoon when I noticed several guys waving their arms at me. I began to swim over for a little flirting, but I realized that they were yelling at me to get out of the water. Disappointed that they weren't into me, I finally figured out what they'd been yelling: "You're swimming in the hotel cesspool!" Deborah Baranovics, Glendora, Calif. You can find more True Stories in the December 2006/January 2007 issue of Budget Travel magazine.

Disney Makes More Magic

The folks at Disney recently hosted a razzle-dazzle press event at New York's Palace Theater to launch their Year of a Million Dreams, actually a 15-month bonanza of new attractions and giveaways. Actors took the stage hoisting giant puppets from Finding Nemo--the Musical, premiering in Orlando this January. Puppeteer Michael Curry (The Lion King) and Tony Award-winning composer Robert Lopez (Avenue Q) are among the show's all-star team. Nemo fans will also be able to climb aboard "clamobiles" for Epcot's ride The Seas With Nemo and Friends. It creates the sensation of traveling through a coral reef that is home to the animated characters Dory and Marlin as well as actual fish. Not to be outdone, the Magic Kingdom has come up with a live show, Dream Along With Mickey, as well as the Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor Comedy Club. The movie's one-eyed hero will do stand-up comedy and incorporate the best jokes text-messaged in by audience members. A good part of the dream fulfillment will come from Disney's giveaway, running through December 31, 2007. Enter to win a Disney Vacation Club membership, tickets to after-hours park events, a set of mouse ears, or even a trip around the world as grand marshall in Disney parades (disneyparks.com/rules). The catch is that one of the niftiest prizes can't be won through the giveaway: nearly every day, a lucky visitor at Walt Disney World will be tapped by staffers to spend that night at Cinderella's Castle. Its Royal Suite, overlooking the Magic Kingdom, has two canopied queen beds and a wood-paneled parlor with stained-glass windows. A group of up to five people will dine at Cinderella's Royal Table, pose for photos with Cinderella, and get a VIP viewing of either SpectroMagic or the Wishes fireworks show. Similarly, at California's Disneyland, visitors will be chosen at random to spend the night in the new Mickey Mouse Penthouse. The park is putting the finishing touches on an underwater ride, the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, and has whipped up a rock and roll soundtrack for its California Screamin' attraction. For 16 weeks this spring, the classic Space Mountain rides at both parks will be rockin', too. Related Stories:   Two Disney Dweebs Spill Their Juiciest Secrets   Real Deals: Bahamian Cruise & Disney Visit, $799