Ditch the Crowds

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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).

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