Photo: Sergio Padura
Americans can’t get enough of Paris, as becomes painfully clear each summer, when it swarms with tourists. Relief waits a train ride away in Île de Noirmoutier: You’ll be greeted by the scent of mimosa and the sight of bobbing yachts and families picnicking on the beach. Thankfully, Europe is still full of under-the-radar gems like this French retreat. And we can’t resist spreading the word about the latest emerging hot spots, from Eastern Europe’s hippest art scene to a sleepy district of lakes and castles.
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The continent is so varied that even with 17 countries sharing the euro currency, it can barely keep from splintering back into thousands of microcultures. While this complicates the financial markets, it has an upside for travellers: continued opportunities for discovery. You’ll never walk into a beach bar in Bergen, Holland, and one on the Aegean Islands and have the same experience.
So while the hunt is always on for the next Tuscany, you’ll find that Spain’s answer—the little-touristed northeast Matarranya region—has its own distinctive accent. Its patchwork of vineyards, rivers, and olive groves lies at the confluence of the ancient Aragon, Valencia, and Catalonia kingdoms. The feeling is still a bit regal, especially at the Hotel Torre del Visco, a surprisingly affordable 15th-century palace in Fuentespalda (population: 368).
Further afield, in Estonia, there’s a secret island of juniper forests, fishing villages, and small farms that was the last stronghold of Estonian pagans until the 13th century. Looking for a windmill? You’ll get your photo-op with the country’s last working wooden version here.
For more of a scene, look to the Netherlands and a beach town that’s recently made waves. Like the Hamptons, but with clogs, Bergen is becoming a second-home haven for newly monied Germans and Dutch who prefer bike rides and outdoor cafés to power lunches.
It takes extra effort, sure, to reach these European spots, but the reward comes with that sense of being let in on a fantastic secret—and the opportunity to experience a place rooted in local tradition before it’s really discovered and altered.
And if you just can’t forget Paris, consider you’ll probably get to transit through one such glittering European hub along the way.
Click here to see the getaways >
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On the tiny island of Muhu--accessed by an ice road in winter--you'll find working windmills, thatched cottages, and a 13th-century pagan church. The population is only around 2,000, but this island 100 miles from Tallinn is rich with tradition, dating back to 1227 when an army of Christians crossed the ice and ended the Estonian Crusade.
Padaste Manor may not be that old, but it still has some 700 years of history under its Danish-style eaves. Experience what a descendant of one of those crusaders (the last private owner, Baron Axel von Buxhoeveden) thought of as impeccable taste in the hotel, whose outbuildings merge the old world styles of St. Petersburg (to the east) and Denmark (to the west).
The third biggest town in Poland comes from industrial roots (it was called the Manchester of the East), but lately, for culture, few evolving Eastern European cities can compare. Art in all forms is everywhere--from Hollylodz, the centre of Polish cinematography (its film school has three Oscar-winning alumni, including Roman Polanski) to the Lodz Atlas Arena, where Elton John will perform in Summer 2012.
Along Piotrkowska Street, one of the longest in Europe, there are more than 100 bars, often heaving with live music, and restaurants serving fantastic Polish and Jewish dishes (try Anatewka, where a violinist serenades guests). All roads eventually lead to Manufaktura, a 74-acre 19th-century industrial campus now filled with shops, museums, a carousel, cinemas, party spaces, and everyone you need to meet in Lodz.
Historically, artists and writers came here to be inspired by the coastline, just a 45-minute ride from Amsterdam, but Bergen has seen a recent influx of the newly monied, creating a scene that suggests the Hamptons with clogs. The good news is that if you're not lucky enough to own a local vacation home, you can rent one of the funky, if basic, villas scattered around for a few hundred dollars a week (try holiday-rentals.co.uk).
The luncheon spot SB Noord, whose weatherworn wooden terrace is strewn with chairs, overlooks the sunniest spot in the Netherlands. Rent a bike to cycle to the beach (three miles from town) and the pine forest, then head for microbrews and calamari at Fabel's, all done up in oak and bluestone and set beside a ruined church and cobblestoned streets.
The capital city of Lugano is also the spiritual home of Italians in Switzerland, which adds a sexy slouch to an otherwise buttoned-up country. True, there is a Michelin-starred restaurant (the Galleria Arté al Lago), and Ticino is only a motorboat ride from the paparazzi-happy Lake Como region, but because this is technically Switzerland, the trains always run on time (to the ticking of Patek Philippe watches), and a politeness and white-glove service perseveres.
Spend your nights in the Villa Castagnola, the former residence of the czars on the shores of Lake Lugano, and you'll be instantly initiated into the lifestyle of long lunches, boat trips to the lake, and perfectly toned guests sunning themselves in the private gardens. Hiking and biking are popular activities, and there just happens to be Alpine skiing up the hill.
True, Kate Moss and Jade Jagger have been spotted on Formentera, but this Balearic Island is still far removed from the tabloid headlines and flash of its sister, Ibiza. A ban on beachfront building has kept the thumping clubs and flophouses that serve them from coming ashore, leaving the unspoiled beaches and the rustle of palm trees as backdrop and soundscape to a holiday of sunset cocktails and afternoon siestas.
Still, if you're looking to sunbathe with Leo and his ilk, you'll find them at Gecko Beach Club; just avoid August, when the Spaniards somehow manage to bring the party to this bohemian haven on earth.
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