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The new way to do Europe

The new way to do Europe
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First Published: Sat, May 26 2007. 12 16 AM IST

Updated: Sat, May 26 2007. 12 16 AM IST
Wroclaw, Poland. Until a couple of months ago, I didn’t even know how to pronounce the name of this city in southwest Poland. Nor did Poland appear on the list of countries I intended some day to visit.
Yet here I am, very surprised. Wroclaw (pronounced VROH-slav) turns out to be one of the jewels of Europe. With its medieval centre highlighted by a vast town square, a 13th-century cathedral and 30-odd cultural festivals each year, Wroclaw is a tourist’s delight—particularly since there are practically no lines to get into anything. Even the food, quite good, belies the reputation of Polish cuisine for being heavy and greasy. I’m staying in a small, old hotel, tastefully restored, its restaurant in a vaulted medieval cellar—and it costs only $80 (about Rs3,280) to fly from London.
A whole new Europe is opening up to travellers thanks to the continuing expansion of the continent’s low-cost airlines. Led by Dublin-based Ryanair and London-based EasyJet, a flock of new airlines are now flying to literally dozens of once hard-to-get-to European cities. Ryanair alone says it has increased the number of smaller cities it serves by roughly 35% in the past two years, most recently adding Zadar, Croatia, and Maribor, Slovenia. In France, there’s the ancient walled town of Carcassonne in the Pyrenees. Striking beaches and craggy hills mark the town of Olbia in northern Sardinia. Split, Croatia, sits on the Dalmatian coast and dates back to ancient Roman times. Girona, Spain, offers gastronomic adventures rivalling those of Barcelona.
These locations also offer better value, certainly compared to European capitals this summer. Near the ancient hill town of Bergamo, Italy, $300 buys a room in a lakeside villa during the peak months of summer. The same rate gets only a basic room in Rome. Bergamo is an hour’s drive from Milan, but when I saw this town, with its nearby lakes and mountains, any temptation to go to Milan quickly faded.
A dearth of tourists also adds to the charm. Right now, Americans are a scarce commodity on the planes of discounters, particularly more obscure ones such as Wizz Air (Hungarian), TUIfly (German) and Cimber Air (Danish). At these small towns, you can get in and out of the airport in minutes, just the way travel used to be decades ago.
Another upside is being able to take an easy side-trip from a major hub. Visitors to London, for example, can see Wroclaw, too, by taking a two-hour flight on Ryanair. Before the airline added the route, the same trip would have taken at least five hours, including a transfer in Warsaw.
But be prepared for inconveniences that are so often part of these airlines keeping costs down. Discounters often use outlying airports instead of major hubs—Paris Beauvais Tillé Airport, for example, versus Charles de Gaulle. Some, such as Ryanair, have tighter restrictions on how much baggage you can check in before paying an excess charge. The infrastructure at some destinations has yet to catch up with the tourism influx; arrivals at Bergamo airport have more than quintupled since 2002, to 4.6 million last year, but new hotels there haven’t opened as quickly.
The boom in low-cost carriers has already reshaped travel in Europe—though the market has so far been mostly Europeans taking holidays and planning bachelor parties. Large carriers such as British Airways have been forced to drop prices on popular routes. Last week marked the start of a round of summer sales for many carriers, with one-way flights being offered for $20.
I took three recent side trips—Girona, Spain; Wroclaw, Poland; and Olbia in Sardinia, Italy. Visiting these places is a very different experience from going to London or Paris. While you typically arrive in major capitals armed with guidebooks, recommendations from friends and stacks of information from the Internet, not much has yet been written about outlying destinations like these. It can be more fun this way—you’re not weighed down by the obligation to cross famous buildings off a master list you’ve prepared. Here’s how I did it:
What Spanish city, not far from the French border, has cutting-edge restaurants, a wonderful Old Town of medieval stone buildings, winding alleys and ramparts; and a lively night life spurred by its universities? Barcelona, population 1.6 million, isn’t the only answer to this question. There’s also little Girona, population 90,000, a stone’s throw from Girona Airport. It’s also about 96km from Barcelona, so discount airlines pitch Girona as a low-cost flight alternative. On Ryanair alone, you can fly to Girona from 36 cities, including London.
Try doing this in Barcelona or any other touristy medieval town in Europe: In Girona, I climbed the stone steps to the top of the ancient city wall and walked a good distance, taking in the panoramic views. I was the only person there, without even having to buy a ticket for the privilege. Barcelona’s famous walking street, La Rambla, has a counterpart in Girona, but you’re more likely to be sharing Girona’s La Rambla with university students, not with tourists.
There’s a 15th-century cathedral on top of a steep hill that boasts of the widest nave in the world, and there’s an old Jewish quarter steeped in history, since Jews were important contributors to life in Girona until they were expelled from the country by the Catholic kings of Spain during the 15th-century Spanish Inquisition.
Girona currently has about 22 hotels, with a total of roughly 1,000 beds. More hotels are on the way. When I interviewed the director of promotion for the city, she bragged that Girona would be getting a new hotel this autumn. A Hilton? A Marriott? No, she sheepishly admitted, it will have 10 rooms.
There’s a big bonus to Girona, and it’s a 30-minute bus or train ride away. The town is Figueres, and the bonus is one of the world’s best little-known museums, the Dali Museum. Figueres is Dali’s hometown, and this extensive museum captures all the wit and playfulness of the artist. I laughed the entire way through the fuchsia-coloured building.
Although Barcelona is known for its food, no restaurant there gets more than one star from the Michelin Guide to Spain. But Girona has a two-star, El Celler de Can Roca. When I ate lunch here, I had a meal made up of many innovative courses with a complex mix of ingredients such as fresh sea urchin roe with seaweed and gelatin.
A restaurant’s wine list is usually a source of big profits, but the list here offers something I’ve hardly ever seen: The cheaper, everyday wines sell at a normal markup, maybe three times retail. But the prized wines, including older vintages, are priced at just about what you’d find at a wine store. Why lose out on what could be hundreds of dollars of markup on just one bottle? “That’s our policy,” says Josep Roca, who runs the dining room. “We want to turn our customers on to beautiful wines.”
The tourist booklet at my hotel calls Wroclaw a “mini-Prague, only without the scamming taxis, neon strip club signs and similar absurdities”. For once, it isn’t hyperbole (although it’s an insult to Prague, the Czech capital). Both Wroclaw and Prague threw off the Soviet yoke at about the same time. Both are lovely medieval cities with historic buildings, an abundance of old churches, cobblestone alleys, and bridges spanning beautiful rivers.
The difference is that Wroclaw is 10 years behind. It doesn’t have fancy boutiques and a wide range of bars and restaurants—yet. “The brand name is still not created,” mayor Rafal Dutkiewicz concedes. “The pronunciation of Wroclaw is difficult. Americans are not interested in Poland in general.”
This lovely city is a walk through history—Czech, Tartar, Russian, German and finally, when the entire German population was forcibly expelled after World War II, Polish. Some of the central square, laid out in the 13th century, was levelled by bombs in 1945 when the city was still known by the German version of its name—Breslau. The buildings were so faithfully reconstructed it’s impossible to tell the old from the new. My advice is to get there before the world learns how to say VROH-slav.
Instead of hordes of tourists, I was able to meet people who actually live there. One day, at a food market, for instance, I saw local white asparagus, a great delicacy in Europe. I quickly headed for a popular Polish restaurant on the town square to see if I could order some. The waiter said they weren’t part of Polish cuisine, but gave me directions to an Italian restaurant. For a few dollars, I had a big plate of white asparagus that would have cost a small fortune in Rome or Paris—where I could hardly imagine a waiter directing a potential customer to another restaurant.
Wroclaw is so untrendy that it takes a while to adjust to the fact that buildings are renovated to keep them standing, not to impress tourists with flashy new designs inside old shells. When I walked into the Art Hotel, where I stayed, I was initially so put off by the small, gloomy lobby that I almost walked out to find another. But my room was clean and comfortable and the bathroom, modern. I realized the renovation had none of the glitz you see in restored boutique hotels in more fashionable cities—perfectly capturing the spirit of Wroclaw.
Speaking from his elegant office in the Gothic city hall overlooking the town square, the mayor and his project director, Igor Chilimonczyk, laid out ambitious plans to make Wroclaw a centre for upscale, cultural tourism—this, despite the hordes of budget travellers flying in from Britain, some of them far more interested in Polish beer than in museums. “We don’t want to be another Barcelona,” says Chilimonczyk. That might be wishful thinking: Late one night in Wroclaw, I saw several groups of British men staggering down the street.
Still, I found myself genuinely thrilled to be, for once, in a medieval city where there’s no “must-see” except for the cathedral. That meant walking down narrow alleys and into courtyards because they looked intriguing, not because my guidebook told me to.
OLBIA, Sardinia
The elite who vacation in Porto Cervo on Costa Smeralda (Emerald Coast) are more apt to come in by yacht. But, on EasyJet, about $120 can get you to the nearby town of Olbia, gateway to this stunning stretch of coast in the north.
It’s a strange combination—budget travellers mixing up with the likes of European royalty and rock stars like Peter Gabriel (who has a house in Porto Cervo). At this glamorous coastal town, your lunch bill can exceed your air fare. A five-minute drive from my hotel into town cost an outrageous $30 each way by taxi. On top of that, the English-speaking driver I hired at the airport charged almost $70 an hour.
But if you’re willing to forgo staying in the centre of things, life needn’t be that expensive. My hotel, the Grand Hotel of Porto Cervo, spread out on a slope above a rocky beach, offered every amenity, from tennis courts to three swimming pools. Even in summer, excepting the peak month of August, a double room can be had for $180 a night.
And meals can be good value if you know where to go. My driver took me to a local restaurant called Idea Food Piccola where, in typical Italian fashion, our lunch took 90 minutes. As I sat on the veranda of an old house, smiling waitresses brought out heaping platters of perfectly prepared, straight-from-the-Mediterranean seafood. The cost: $20.
The Emerald Coast was developed into a yachting haven in the 1960s by a consortium led by the Aga Khan, and the stunning beauty of the area can’t be ignored. Buildings had to be low density and adhere to strict architectural codes—low-rise, with red-tile roofs and buff-coloured walls. Just taking a walk—looking at the lush green hills carpeted with wildflowers and the wild olive trees—was a thrill.
The taxi driver who took me on a three-hour tour of the countryside and villages between Olbia and Porto Cervo kept criticizing the Costa Smeralda. “This isn’t the real Sardinia,” he said. “This is Disneyland. To see the real Sardinia, you have to go into the hills.” To make his point, he drove me to the house he was building. I could hardly believe my eyes. It was set in a field blazing with wildflowers. Half a mile away was a village on the slopes of a hill, topped with a small medieval castle.
This setting backed up his thesis that the focus of the wealthy foreign tourists on the sea was misplaced. Here, just half an hour from an area where oceanfront land sells for a small fortune, a taxi driver can afford to buy one of the most beautiful plots of land I had ever seen.
Trip Planner
Getting there:Girona's Airport is a major hub for Ryanair and is served by several other low-cost airlines.
Where to stay:AC Palau de Bellavista Hotel is the newest and nicest in town (www.activereservations.com); rates start at about $175 (approx. Rs7,155)
Where to eat: El Celler de Can Roca, a Michelin two-star restaurant, stands out for the reasonable prices of its higher-class wines. Menu prices are the same for both lunch and dinner, with the $105 fixed-price menu concentrating on innovative dishes. I found the fixed-price menu's reliance on emulsions (almost all the dishes could be eaten with a spoon) off-putting and would recommend choosing a la carte. (www.cellercanroca.com).
Getting there: Ryanair flies to Copernicus Airport, Wroclaw, from eight European cities, including London. The central historic core is compact enough, and the walks beautiful enough, so that the only taxi you'll need to take is from the airport to the hotel.
Where to stay: The Art Hotel, in a renovated historic building, is pleasant and comfortable, with a good breakfast buffet (www.arthotel.pl); rates from about $130. For a modern hotel, try Sofitel Wroclaw (www.sofitel-wroclaw.com). Rates start at around $200.
Where to eat: There are two excellent Polish restaurants right on the main square, called Market Square. Gospoda Wroclawska, where I ate pigs' blood baked in an apple, also has delicious shelled crayfish and roast pork (Tel: 48-71-342-7460). Karczma Lwowska serves the food of Lviv, once part of Poland but now in the Ukraine (Tel: 48-71-343-9887). Both are about $30 a person for three courses and a beer.
Getting there: The main low-cost carrier to Olbia Costa Smeralda Airport is EasyJet, flying from Switzerland, London and Berlin. Once there, taxis are so costly it’s preferable to rent a car to get to the nearby Costa Smeralda (Emerald Coast). The website www.ciaosardinia.com, sponsored by the Olbia airport authority, has car and hotel package deals.
Where to stay: I visited several hotels on the Costa Smeralda, but found the Grand Hotel Porto Cervo one of the nicest and the best value (www.grandhotelinportocervo.com). Rates are from $178 a night but are usually higher in August.
Where to eat: Idea Food Piccola Ristorazione in Olbia is great for seafood lovers (Tel: 39-340-715-0559). Around $20 a person. Orange, the restaurant at the Grand Hotel Porto Cervo, is deservedly popular. About $75 a person.
Undiscovered Gems: 10 Easy Side Trips
Below, 10 short European trips, including the cost of a one-way flight from London on 12 June on low-cost airlines
1.Stavanger, Norway
Norwegian Air Shuttle, $148: On a peninsula in southwest Norway, this beautiful city is in the heart of fjord country. Lots of old buildings remain in the 12th-century city, and public transport includes a network of ferries. Cold weather isn't unusual, even in summer.
2. Westport, Ireland
Ryanair, $67 (to Knock-West Ireland): If you rent a car, you can explore the coastal villages and marvel at the scenery of West Ireland, including rugged hills, pristine beaches and endless pubs for your pint of Guinness.
3. Sylt, Germany
Air Berlin, $125: The largest of the North Frisian Islands in the North Sea just across from Denmark, Sylt is famous for its hiking in the sand dunes and mudflats that reveal a fascinating ecosystem. Kampen, an upper-crust beach resort, is the place to stay.
4. Balaton, Hungary
Ryanair, $30: The 80km-long Lake Balaton has little resorts and hiking trails along the shoreline and ferries to tiny villages. The spa town of Heviz is just a few minutes from Balaton's airport. Also nearby is Keszthely, a market town first settled in the Middle Ages.
5. Bergamo, Italy
Ryanair, $20: An old hill town with nearby mountains and lakes. Bergamo's low-key atmosphere is an antidote to the chic and urban congestion of nearby Milan. In the town square, delicious snacks, including every variety of pizza by the slice, can be eaten outdoors.
6. Bilbao, Spain
EasyJet, $46: A former industrial city, Bilbao's highlights include the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum, the Fine Arts Museum and the picturesque Old Town. San Sebastian, one of the best eating cities in Europe, is an hour's drive away.
7. Carcassonne, France
Ryanair, $30: This ancient walled town in the Pyrenees is now a World Heritage Site. Surrounded by lush countryside, the city offers tours of the winding medieval streets and boat rides down the nearby Canal du Midi.
 8. Les Iles d'Hyeres, France
Ryanair, $40 (to Toulon): This is the westernmost part of the Riviera, far from the crowds and high prices of Cannes. Fly to Toulon airport, take a taxi to the harbour and a boat to Porquerolles or Port-Cros, the two prettiest of the Hyeres Islands.
9. Split, Croatia
EasyJet, $148: The second largest city in Croatia, Split sits on the popular Dalmatian coast and has impressive architecture from various periods, including Romanesque churches, medieval houses, and Roman ruins.
10. Bari, Italy
Ryanair, $80: The capital of Puglia, Italy's newest “in" spot. Puglia is a poor area in the heel of Italy's boot, with a spectacular Adriatic coastline and a cuisine built around pasta, grilled meats and seafood. Rent a car and stay in bed-and-breakfasts in the surrounding countryside. 
(Write to wsj@livemint.com)
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First Published: Sat, May 26 2007. 12 16 AM IST
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