Europe holidays

Travel

Europe’s hidden coasts: the Maremma, Italy

This stretch of southern Tuscany is chic but discreet – disappear into the dunes, discover beguiling coves and stay on rambling estates amid stunning scenery

Italians were born for beaches. Summer means serried rows of sunbeds and regimented beach games. It’s all about bonding and strutting your stuff in matching tangerine mankinis.

But relax: it’s not all like that. Southern Tuscany makes a more stylish splash. Sugary sands are framed by pine groves and low-slung hills, revealing serene, post-impressionist landscapes. In the Maremma, south of Grosseto, set designers are seemingly in charge of the sunsets and rosemary-scented scrubland running down to the sea.

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Travel

Europe’s hidden coasts: the Deep Mani, Greece

Few tourists venture beyond the Mani’s spectacular Diros caves, but further south lies a dramatic coastline of sleepy fishing coves and fortified villages

The Mani, the central southern prong of mainland Greece, is divided into two halves. The Outer Mani, with the pretty coastal villages of Kardamyli and Stoupa, is now well known for offering a more authentic holiday experience than many of the islands. The Deep Mani, further south, is a different prospect, with its rugged coastline broken by only the occasional cove. Far fewer people visit here, and even fewer stay.

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Travel

Europe’s hidden coasts: Costa Maresme, Spain

The coast just north of Barcelona is often overlooked by visitors. But with miles of sandy beach, great restaurants and a coast-hugging train, it’s a perfect escape

I love Barcelona but sometimes you have got to get out of town. Sitges? Lovely, but it can be as rammed as the Ramblas. The Pyrenees? Yes, but in summer I need a beach! OK then, the Costa Brava. But have you seen the queue of cars down to the “secret” beach that only grandma Lola knows about?

Hmm, perhaps the city’s not so bad. Barceloneta beach is just 10 minutes from the centre and there’s at least 10 square centimetres of sand per person.

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Travel

Europe’s hidden coasts: the Côte d’Argent, Landes, France

This wild Atlantic coast, south-west of Bordeaux, is backed by forests and nature reserves and includes the finest sandy beach in France. Yet even in mid-summer you can have it to yourself

Halfway between the great sand dune of Pyla and the posh surf and golf resort of Hossegor, is the finest stretch of sandy beach in France. South-west of Bordeaux, the Côte d’Argent begins at Mimizan Plage, where a river splits the beach in two.

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Travel

Europe’s hidden coasts: Costa de Prata, Portugal

Central Portugal’s pristine beaches are pounded by the Atlantic and dotted with simple restaurants, but barely touched by tourists, making it a haven for those who crave space – and great seafood

Theo and I saunter along the road from Aveiro that crosses its wide, shiny, tame lagoon, and arrive in north Africa, or so it seems. We find scissored-leaf palm trees and heavy white sand dunes on the march, and the relentless wild rumble and roar of the unquiet Atlantic.

Portugal’s Centro region is baffling. It’s between Lisbon and Porto, thus easy to get to and easy to get around. It has peerless beaches, a treasury of gorgeous historic towns and villages, and endlessly lovely people. The pristine coastline, horizons and skies go on forever. Yet there’s almost nobody here. This isn’t spooky: indeed we feel privileged, transported to earlier, more innocent times when Theo was a kid and I was a new, naive dad. So we spend timeless days basking in the richness of space, and soaking in the luxury of simplicity.

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Architecture

Le Havre, a short break built on concrete chic

Le Havre is celebrating its 500th anniversary, but its architectural gems are modern masterpieces built from the ashes of war – and now a world heritage site

Few cities make you want to stroke their walls, but in Le Havre it’s hard to resist caressing the concrete. All but obliterated by allied bombing in the second world war, France’s second-largest port city was entirely rebuilt according to the meticulous vision of Auguste Perret, supreme master of liquid stone and tutor of Le Corbusier.

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Travel

Kickin’ Kiev: Why the Ukraine city is looking to Eurovision to jump start tourism

Ukraine’s historic capital may be preparing for the pop and ‘nul points’ of Saturday’s Eurovision but, kitsch aside, it is developing its edgy creative atmosphere

Kiev is sparkling and radiant as spring sunshine sets the gilded baroque churches ablaze. Snow banks begin to melt; shoulders drop and faces soften. The city, and its people, look newborn.

Kiev may have a reputation for political unrest (gained during the Maidan protest-cum-revolution of winter 2013-14) but today’s visitors are unlikely to see it. Instead, this city offers tourists a taste of bar life with an edge, softened – this week at least – with a dollop of Eurovision kitsch.

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Travel

Volcano and earthquake museum to open in Iceland

The Lava Centre, a new interactive attraction in the shadow of the infamous Eyjafjallajökull volcano, will bring to life the ‘fiery heart of Iceland’

A new attraction exploring Iceland’s unique and volatile geology is to launch next month. Lava, the Iceland Volcano & Earthquake Centre, is an interactive museum that examines the natural forces that led to the creation of Iceland over millions of years. It opens on 1 June.

Located in the town of Hvolsvöllur, one hour’s drive east of Reykjavik, the centre is in the shadow of three of the country’s most prominent volcanoes, Katla, Hekla and Eyjafjallajökull. The latter became a household name in 2010 when it released an ash cloud that shut down European air space.

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Art

Art from the Alps: a journey to Giacometti’s homeland

Switzerland’s mountains are stunning but the art of the Giacometti family enriches the cultural landscape, too. With a retrospective of sculptor Alberto opening at Tate Modern next week, our writer tours the area that inspired him

Chugging to the Landwasser Viaduct through the village of Filisur on the Glacier Express, it’s hard not to laugh at the views. Switzerland is unbelievably good-looking. The vistas almost look fake – the lakes too scenic, the villages too chocolate-box. Even the goats look like they should have agents.

A country this beautiful is always going to be about the outdoors, but if you visit the region of Graubünden this summer (and more than 1 million people will, for the hiking, the biking, to swim in the lakes or dance at the festivals), make sure you don’t just stare at the mountains – Graubünden has a surprising art heritage, too.

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Travel

Giro d’Italia: 10 great restaurants en route, and places to watch the race

The 100th Giro, which started this week, races from Sardinia to the Dolomites. For cycling correspondent Colin O’Brien, the journey is also a gastronomic pilgrimage

Following a grand cycling tour as part of the press pack can be a gruelling task. You spend lots of time in cars, and most of your nights in cheap and not so cheerful hotels. But to make up for that, there’s always dinner. Lunch is usually a rushed affair, but once the action is finished and the day’s chores have been taken care of, there’s little to do other than find a restaurant and sit over a good meal and a couple of glasses of wine.

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Travel

Norway’s Arctic north: eco-cabins and sea eagles

A new activity resort brings guests right up against the wonders of the Arctic Circle, with floor-to-ceiling views over the fjords. Peter Carty is captivated by the flora, fauna and Norse mythology

It is the largest raptor I have ever seen. The sea eagle flapping imperiously across the tree line has a wingspan of well over two metres. Each mighty wing is tipped with feathers like huge spatulate fingers, while the white plumage at its rear resembles exhaust smoke – fitting for this B-52 of avians.

The Steigen archipelago in northern Norway is almost as remote as it gets in Europe, lying 62 miles inside the Arctic Circle. Among other dramatic features, it is home to the continent’s largest colony of sea eagles. My base here is the tiny island of Manshausen, where a resort and activity centre has been created by polar explorer Børge Ousland – the first person to reach the North Pole in a solo and unsupported expedition – as a place for exploring “the harmony between people and nature”.

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Travel

10 of the best cafes and restaurants near Paris’s major attractions

Lunch near Paris’s big draws doesn’t have to be expensive or touristy. A short walk from the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre will reveal a classic bistro, stylish brasserie or locals’ favourite

Everyone visiting Paris is likely to end up among the crowds at its most famous sights; the problem that arises, then, is that there is rarely anywhere reasonable to stop for lunch – either price- or quality-wise. To miss out on the chance of a great meal in somewhere such as France is shame, especially as there is invariably a hidden gem just round the corner. So, here is a selection of classic-but-affordable bistros and brasseries, plus surprising health food and vegetarian options, and the chance to sample Asian and North African cooking too.

All places cited are children-friendly, and ready to prepare a small-portion special dish, say pasta or chicken

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Travel

Great Brittany: discovering the Crozon peninsula

If you’re going to Brittany – keep driving west. You’ll find huge uncrowded beaches, plenty of delicious seafood and some fairly dodgy festivals

The road to Lost-Marc’h is lined with blue hydrangeas. In this wild Atlantic setting, the tame shrub normally associated with suburban front gardens has taken on a vivid new life, tumbling over stone walls and winding its way into the hedgerows.

To our left, heather-clad cliffs plunge towards secret coves, which tempt us to pull over at every lay-by. We keep driving west, passing through tiny hamlets where the dour, granite walls of the sturdy slate-roofed cottages are leavened by front doors and shutters painted in vibrant cornflower blue.

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Travel

Brussels city guide: what to see plus the best bars, hotels and restaurants

Ignore the cynics, Brussels is one of Europe’s most cosmopolitan cities, with hip bars and cafes, vintage markets and a fine line in the ‘9th Art’

Living in Paris, I am used to getting a surprised look from French friends when I tell them I am off for a fun weekend in Brussels. For sure, this may not be a top-10 destination for sightseeing, though the monumental Grand Place, with its ornate guild houses and palaces, ranks alongside Venice’s Piazza San Marco as Europe’s most breathtaking square. But the Belgian capital is forever reinventing itself with hip new places to stay, restaurants, bars and nightlife, as well as shopping that spans designer fashion boutiques to vintage bargains at one of the great authentic flea markets on the Jeu de Balle square.

Every weekend there is an event taking place, from the funky Food Truck Festival to nonstop concerts and street theatre in Brussels Summer Festival, followed by Design September and Brussels Fashion Days in October. There’s some serious partying during Belgian Beer Weekend (2-3 September) and the month-long traditional Christmas market.

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Travel

City breaks with kids: Nantes

This cycle-friendly city on the river Loire has family attractions galore, super street art and tasty food options for children

In this series: Paris | Barcelona | Amsterdam | Berlin | London | Rome

Not any more … Nantes is a wonderland for kids and parents. The city, on the river Loire, has seen a cultural reinvention in the past 10 years and there’s easily enough to do to fill a week – or a few days en route south, as my family and I tend to do. The best place to start is the Île de Nantes, the creative hub of the city on an island in the river. Here, the masterminds at Les Machines de L’ile Nantes have created a steampunk playground where a robotic elephant carries passengers on its back (rides €8.50 adults, €6.90 children) and sprays water on bystanders. Nearby, a carousel inspired by Nantes native Jules Verne and his novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea whirls visitors around on mechanical masterpieces such as smoke-breathing dragons, flying fish and fearsome anglerfish (ride prices as above). It’s possible to tour the workshop and see future creations taking shape.

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Architecture

Concrete thinking’s in fashion at Brussels’ brutalist Jam Hotel

Budget hotels always offer basic, boxy rooms, but not many are as creative as this alternative gem in the Belgian capital

Brussels is a city of grand townhouses and art nouveau. Yet plonked in the middle of the Belgian capital, on a nondescript street corner, has appeared a hotel that looks like downtown LA had it been swallowed by lava. An old 1970s art college has been redesigned and rebuilt, by people who usually make film sets, to become the oddest, most fashionable, most affordable stopover in Europe.

The reception desk is held up by a pair of motorcycles dipped in concrete – above it rest maquettes, Paolozzi-like little bricks of angles and texture. Three guests under 10 years old leap joyfully between leather sofas and concrete benches while they wait for their parents to check into one of the Supra rooms which sleep five, one up by the ceiling, in what they call a “cabine bed”.

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Travel

Normandy conquest: all-action family fun in the French countryside

On a group family holiday at a Normandy chateau, a sceptical dad is pleasantly surprised by how much fun the entertainment and activities are – and that doing nothing is an option, too

Call it an exercise in contrasts. At the summit of Mont Saint-Michel, the bronze statue of the archangel is glinting in the midday sun, sword raised and wings outspread. At the foot of Mont Saint-Michel, a small jam-smeared boy is wriggling through a tiny window in the fortress wall and idly breaking into the courtyard of a gendarmerie. The archangel is the protector of the mount. The boy is my son.

Four of us – me, my wife, our four-year-old daughter Bethan and seven-year-old apprentice cat burglar, Joe – have come to western Normandy to join 15 other British families on an all-ages adventure break. This group day trip is a mere bit-player in the week’s itinerary. The holiday is primarily based 45 minutes inland, at an old countryside chateau near Les Chambres on the Manche coast, near Brittany. It’s a wholesome setting in which rabbits hop, peacocks preen and mobs of croissant-fuelled children tear around, brandishing makeshift lightsabers.

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Travel

10 of Bilbao’s best pintxos bars

The city’s many bars are piled high with pintxos, the Basque country’s take on tapas, which are a great way of sampling regional specialities for a few euros. Or string a few together to create a brilliant bar crawl

Bilbainos consider good pintxos a fundamental joy of daily life, and bars dedicated to providing them abound; jocular crowds rather than fancy decor or high prices are the clue to the best. Many also offer a good-value menú del día. The best place to get a flavour of what’s on offer or start a pintxo crawl is Calle Ledesma, in the centre of Bilbao. It’s an eating party street lined with bars, with outdoor tables all the way down the middle. Explore pintxo styles through the ages by starting with old favourites such as Cafetería el Molinillo and Artajo and then move on to stylish additions like Bilbao Berría (now with a central London branch).

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Travel

Discovering Portugal’s wild side

For unspoilt countryside, top camping, hiking, wild swimming, plus great local food and wine – and all doable in a weekend from the three main airports – try one of these itineraries from Edwina Pitcher’s Wild Guide Portugal

Away from the busy coastal resorts, Portugal is a timeless and magical place. To the north and east, there are wild mountains and sparkling lakes; to the south and west, there are dusty olive groves, secret beaches and hidden caves; and everywhere you will find rustic villages, standing stones, magical woodland and hilltop castles. So head inland from the airports on one of these three weekend itineraries and discover a country where shepherds bake bread, villagers make wine, honey and olive oil, and the hospitality is perennial.

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Travel

Want a holiday where beer is just 70p a bottle? Head to Sunny Beach, Bulgaria

Sunny Beach is Europe’s cheapest beach-break destination for the fourth year running, according to the latest survey of typical holiday costs

UK tourists looking for a budget beach-break should head to Bulgaria, where a bottle of beer costs just 70p and a three-course meal for two – including a bottle of wine – will set you back less than £20, according to a new holiday costs report.

The Balkan country’s flagship resort, Sunny Beach, has been ranked the best-value beach resort for the fourth year running by the Post Office Travel Money Holiday Costs Barometer, which compares the average costs of tourist staples in European holiday destinations.

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