I always thought that I had to fly 12 hours to a far-flung corner of the globe to get a truly different experience. But how wrong I was.
Europe is so close to home, yet you can experience a completely different way of life and discover such varied (and beautiful) scenery. You’ve got the dramatic landscapes of Iceland and Scandinavia. The history of Greece. The romance of Italy. The vast lakes and mountains of the Balkan states (the ‘new kids on the block’, so to speak).
Then, of course, there’s the food: Cypriot mezze dishes, perfect for warm evenings al fresco; indulgent Austrian cakes and pastries; Swiss fondue, a great sharing meal; home-cooked Italian dishes, the recipes handed down through generations; the fresh fish and seafood of the Croatian and Slovenian coastlines. And did I mention the wine? Every country seems to offer a great option to pair with its local food choices. It’s lovely to bring a bottle home and recreate the memories in your own kitchen of a delicious meal from the continent.
So, which European destinations are the ones to watch for 2019? Read on and find out…
A perennial favourite which is well known and loved by many, Italy is our top-selling European destination.
Traditionally the Italy fix was delivered by the well-trodden cities – Venice, Florence and Rome. But these cities come with high prices and big crowds, so it’s interesting to see some of the smaller areas becoming more popular. I loved the peace and tranquillity of Orta San Giulio, set on perhaps the prettiest of the northern Italian Lakes.
We also see a lot of interest in celebrity haunts such as Lake Como, made famous by George Clooney and his new family. And I think every celebrity chef worth his apron has delivered a cookery programme from the lesser visited southern areas of Italy. Puglia (the heel) is very popular, with its whitewashed hill towns and centuries-old farmland and is in easy reach of Matera in the neighbouring region of Basilicata, which is European City of Culture for 2019.
Calabria (the toe) is also high on the list and becoming well known for its cucina povera, or ‘peasant cuisine’. Historically, the area has been the poorest in Italy, and the locals tended to cook with cheap, easily sourced local ingredients.
Who would have known about the delicacy of sea urchins for breakfast, or guessed that some of the vegetarian risottos were so easy to make? I was particularly excited about visiting an establishment that produced the local ‘nduja sausage, which now appears on many of our pizza menus. I was a bit taken back that it had just two ingredients – pork fat and chilli. Well mixed, but not great for the waistline (although delicious in small doses)!
I enjoyed a trip to Sicily last spring as it was so diverse. The bustling capital of Catania. The intriguing salt pans in Trapani, where suntanned locals still turn the salt by hand. The ancient Greek site of the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento (not actually a valley – the temples are more on a hill! Luckily we had a welcome stop for a refreshing, freshly pressed pomegranate granite).
Next on my list is Spain – and this isn’t really about the fly-and-flop attraction of the sunny Costas. The Spain we love is a mixture of stunning scenery, rich history and conquest, a culture of festivals and excellent tapas from across the regions.
Northern Spain hosts the Camino route, a popular pilgrimage route that takes you to Santiago de Compostela. If walking isn’t top on your agenda it can easily be navigated by road, and the historic sites along the way enjoyed at leisure.
I particularly like the parador hotels we use. They’re government-owned buildings with colourful pasts that have been renovated and converted into lovely hotels, retaining their character and history.
We’ve also found a little gem in the peaceful seaside town of Roses, which plays host to our ‘Little Boats of Catalonia’ itinerary. There’s a pretty promenade to stroll along and walk off indulgent seafood dinners, and it’s in a great location to be able to get out and explore Barcelona and the coast of the Costa Brava (you can also pop across the border – we sail the Canal du Midi on a delightful barge).
This country will never fail to impress and has seen huge interest this year. It’s no surprise, really, thanks to its stunning scenery, lakes and mountains, hearty food (including creamy cheeses and, of course, amazing chocolate).
Swiss efficiency can often make people laugh, but it lends itself to the perfect running of some of our favourite rail journeys in the Alps. They open up this mountainous country and allow so much to be seen so easily from the comfort of your carriage – picture tunnels through snow-covered mountains and bridges over steep-sided valleys. Switzerland was simply made for memorable train travel.
Slovenia retains a lot of its character and charm from days gone by. It’s truly unspoilt and not at all over-developed.
Probably the most famous area is picture-postcard Lake Bled, with its pretty island on the lake, church spire rising upwards and 11th-century castle. I remember sitting on a hotel terrace by the lake and sampling one of the creamy layered vanilla cakes – the krema rezina – as I watched the world go by. There are some lovely local legends and stories, and my favourite is the legend of the sunken bell. It refers to an inconsolable widow at the castle who gathered all her valuables to have a bell cast in memory of her murdered husband, whose body had been thrown into the lake. The bell duly arrived but was lost on its way over to the chapel in a storm on the lake. Legend has it, you can hear it ring from the depths even today!
Slovenia also boasts a charming Riviera, with some lovely towns to stay in. Portoroz is quite modern and cosmopolitan, while neighbouring Piran is smaller with a Venetian influence. Both offer excellent fish, seafood and crisp local white wines.
Portugal is my favourite European destination – I visited it three times last year. I was lucky enough to experience ‘Grand Designs of Portugal’ back in October. It took us beyond Lisbon and through a land with beautiful ancient towns, varied culture and ever-changing landscapes – no two days were the same. We visited Portugal’s own Venice – the coastal town of Aveiro – and went as far north as Valenca do Minho, a walled old town which looks across the mountains into Spain.
I returned for a trip with my family to celebrate a special occasion in Lisbon and we were not disappointed. I got a true thrill in being able to take the family to somewhere I had really enjoyed and seeing them get the same pleasure.
After a fascinating tour in Belem around the Jeronimos Monastery I was tickled pink to find the first bakery to produce the famous pasteis de nata, a warm custard tart in a crispy pastry case that is sprinkled with cinnamon as a final topping. The pastries were made to make money for the monastery and have become a celebrity in their own right.
Before I leave Portugal, it would be remiss to not mention the fabulous cruising on the River Douro, which has become increasingly popular. It is an elegant and relaxing way to travel, again taking in the changing landscapes. I was quite excited to see that the Spirit of Chartwell vessel cruises this stretch of water – the same boat that took the Queen along the Thames for her Diamond Jubilee celebrations.
For another side to Portugal, try Madeira. It is easy to see why it’s so popular with the UK market. It is a stunning island with volcanic landscapes, historic cities and a craggy coastline. Most importantly, it tends to have glorious weather all year round.
Whilst the scenery will keep you occupied, the island also hosts a popular flower festival in April/May each year, when the streets become a vibrant showcase for bright petals. The highlight is the magical parade of flower-bedecked floats travelling through the city accompanied by dancers, singers and costume-wearing children.
It’s a perfect destination for winter sun escapes – and I hear that the local fortified wine is very enjoyable too. Dry or sweet, depending on your taste buds, but all produced locally in this lush, tropical location.
Cyprus is another firm favourite. We tend to focus on relaxing, stay-put holidays here. I particularly love the modern town of Protaras in the south-east. You can walk along its seafront promenade and soak up the sea views before heading into town for dinner at one of the many restaurants.
One night I headed out of town into the hills to a small village for a traditional local tavern meal. I lost count of the number of dishes they served (apparently 27) – the selection was fantastic, from local meat cuts and sausages and fish pieces to succulent vegetables, and even garlicky snails. It was all washed down with an ice-cold beer and finished with some local brandy. What a memorable evening.
It is easy to escape the bustling tourist areas into the sun-scorched hills to villages like Lefkara. They haven’t changed in years – the local ladies sit on their doorsteps hand-making lace. It’s really enjoyable to stroll the narrow streets and watch a tradition that hasn’t changed in years.
I would also highly recommend a trip or stay in northern Cyprus. It is very unspoilt, traditional and hospitable. It has a fascinating history that takes us back to the time of the Crusades, when Richard the Lionheart crossed the country on his way to the holy land. The more recent history at Famagusta is also incredibly interesting. I enjoyed strolling along the narrow streets of Nikosia and visiting the traditional markets, admiring the silk fabrics and sampling the strong (but delicious) local black coffee.
The last place I am going to include in my must-see destinations in Europe is the small town of Oberammergau in southern Bavaria. It’ll be showing the 42nd Passion Play in 2020 – but as tickets are already on sale and expected to sell out, we are considering this one early. It isn’t solely for religious people – more for people wanting to experience and see how a village has been shaped by a pledge from many years ago. As a plague was sweeping across Europe, residents promised that if they were spared, they would put on a passion play every decade as a thank you. From then on there were no further deaths – and the village started planning to keep its promise.
The play consumes village life. It becomes tradition in a family for members to audition and take on similar roles – but there are strict criteria. You now have to have been born or lived in the village for a minimum of 30 years to be able to take to the stage. Roles are highly prized and the preparation is quite involved. For example, from Ash Wednesday the previous year the men are not allowed to shave their beards or cut their hair.
Oberammergau is a very traditional mountain village. It’s well known for the beautiful paintings on the sides of the houses, depicting the roles of the inhabitants or local scenes. It is also home to a wood carving school and attracts artisans from across the country to study and create the lovely carvings that make popular keepsakes from a stay.