Few places pack the punch of Europe. From its Northern Lights to its Southern shores, this drama queen keeps on thrilling, surprising and confusing with her extraordinary wealth of sights, sounds, peoples and parties. Overwhelming it can be, confusing for sure – just perusing a map of the crowded Old World will reveal cities, mountain ranges, seas and even countries you may never have even heard of. But the good news is that whatever you decide to do here, you’ll leave blown away by the sights, sounds, tastes and other sensations you’ll experience: there simply is no way to tour Europe and not be awestruck.
Greece offers a myriad of experiences, landscapes and activities. It is the pulsing nightclubs of Mykonos and the ancient beauty of Delos; the grandeur of Delphi and the earthiness of Ioannina; the rugged hillsides of Crete and the lush wildflowers of spring. It is the blinding light of the Mykonos sun, the melancholy throb of Thessaloniki's rembetika (blues songs), the tang of home-made tzatziki, the gossip in the kafeneia (coffee shops). It is the Parthenon - solitary and pristine - lording it over the hazy sprawl of Athens.
Greece is a country with a hallowed past and an at-times turbulent present. Appreciation of the achievements of its classical past has tended to overshadow its development as a free nation since the War of Independence from the Ottomans in 1821. Many foreign Hellenists imbued with a romantic ideal of the Greece of Pericles and the Parthenon are blithely ignorant that Greece today is a vibrant modern European country. It is equally a land where the languages of recent migrant communities from the Balkans, Africa and Asia - not to mention the English and German of EU migrants and retirees - contribute to Greece's status as one of Europe's more recent multicultural societies.
Few countries have a tourist image so plagued by cliché as Ireland. From shamrocks and shillelaghs to leprechauns, lovable rogues and 40 shades of green, there’s a plethora of platitudes to wade through before you scramble ashore on the real Ireland.
But it’s well worth looking beyond the tourist tat, for the Emerald Isle (oops, there we go again) is one of Europe’s gems, a scenic extravaganza of lake, mountain, sea and sky that’s still gorgeous enough to make your jaw drop despite the best efforts of developers to scar some of the most beautiful bits with serried ranks of holiday homes. From the lonely, wind-lashed wilderness of Donegal to the picture-postcard harbour villages of County Cork, there are countless opportunities to get outdoors and explore, whether it’s surfing the beach breaks of Bundoran, cycling the coast of County Antrim, or hiking the hills of Kerry and Connemara.
There are cultural pleasures too, of course, in the land of Joyce and Yeats, U2 and the Undertones. Dublin, Cork and Belfast all have top-notch restaurants, party-on pubs and a foot-stomping live-music scene, while you can track down impromptu pub sessions of traditional Irish music in places like Galway, Doolin and Killarney. And there’s a wealth of history to discover, from the countless medieval castles and early Christian monasteries to the powerful political murals of Belfast and Derry, and one of the biggest concentrations of prehistoric monuments in Europe.
So enjoy your Guinness by all means, but push aside the forest of shamrocks for a bit and try to get a glimpse of the real Ireland.
Declared one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites for its undisputed beauty and the uniqueness of its natural landscape, the Amalfi Coast is the land characterised by the oxymoronic combination between mountain and sea, the farmer and the fisherman. The mountain, that thanks to the intense work of man, has been adapted to the demands of life over the ages. It plunges steeply into a sea, creating charming coves, deep fjords, cliffs, caverns, bays, natural arches and small pebble beaches; natural elements that have created, over the centuries, an enchanting, sinuous and seductive landscape: it is certainly not a coincidence that this area is known as the land of the Sirens, in the Homer's epic poem "Odysseus". Typical houses, painted in warm pastel colors, follow the natural slope of the foothills of Mounts Lattari, leaning against each other, creating a very picturesque landscape. From the characteristic terraces, built with dry stone walls, expands the intense scents of the lemon groves, the vineyards, the broom, the bright colors of bougainvillea which, combined with the smell of salt air, creates a unique sensory experience.
Istanbul is hot. And we’re not talking about the weather. These days, there are more happening restaurants, bars, galleries and clubs around town than there are exquisite Ottoman mosques (and that’s a lot). The international fashion and design press have been talking up İstanbul ad nauseam, but the most significant thing about the accolade ‘World’s Hippest City’ is that İstanbullus themselves have come believe it. The creeping sense of decrepitude that had fallen like a pall over their once-all-powerful home town has vanished, replaced by a sense of energy and innovation not seen since the days of Süleyman the Magnificent. The city’s over-abundance of important historic buildings and exciting new art galleries and museums provides visitors with more than enough to see during the day, but it’s at night that the place swings into high-velocity, mega-stylish action. Locals are flocking to see and be seen at an ever-growing array of bars, clubs and restaurants, bringing with them an infectious sense of joie de vivre and a discerning ability to judge these places on their standard of service, drinks, music and food as well as their position in the what’s-hot-and-what’s-not stakes.
Despite incessant praise, Italy continues to surprise and delight. If you get it right, travelling in the bel paese (beautiful country) is one of those rare experiences in life that cannot be overrated.
In few places do art and life intermingle so effortlessly. This may be the land of Dante, Michelangelo, da Vinci and Botticelli but it’s also the home of Salvatore Ferragamo, Giorgio Armani and Gualtiero Marchesi. Food, fashion, art and architecture – you’ll quickly learn that the root of Italian pathology is an unswerving dedication to living life well. A surprising number of Italians care deeply about the floral aftertastes of sheep cheese, the correct way to cut marble and the nuances of a Vivaldi concerto. Lurking behind the disinvoltura – the appearance of effortlessness – is a passionate attention to life’s fi ne print. So slow down, start taking note of life’s details and enjoy your own bella vita.
Then there’s the food. Italy is quite literally a feast of endless courses, but no matter how much you gorge yourself, you’ll always feel as though you haven’t made it past the antipasti. Even the simplest snack can turn into a revelation, whether you’re downing a slice of Slow Food pizza, a paper cone of fritto misto (fried seafood) or pistachiofl avoured gelato. The secret is an intense, even savage, attention to top-notch ingredients and fresh, seasonal produce. Although the origins of Italian food are earthy and rustic, and the Slow Food Movement aims to protect those artisanal roots, the modern Italian kitchen is also endlessly inventive. Get creative in Eataly’s Slow Food super market, sample top-class wines at Rome’s International Wine Academy and tour vineyards and olive groves to learn the latest production techniques that go into making that award-winning wine and olive oil sitting on your dining table.
As if in homage to its people’s love of fashion, Italy’s outline – a ‘boot’ – makes it one of the most recognisable countries in the world. It is long and elegant – c’e bella – and is flanked on three sides by four Mediterranean seas (the Adriatic, Ionian, Ligurian and Tyrrhenian). The northern wall of the Alps and the Dolomites frostily encircle the north, fringed by sparkling glacial lakes, while fiery volcanoes – Vesuvius, Etna and Stromboli – simmer in the south. Beyond the stereotypical image of art cities and museums, Italy is a place for doing as well as seeing. What can top descending the vertical chasm of the Gola Su Gorropu gorge or riding cowboy-style across the marshes of the Maremma and diving sun-split waters full of coral and barracuda? So, just when you think every nook and cranny of this amazing country has been explored, experienced and exhausted, flick through a few pages of this book and discover that some of Italy’s best-kept secrets lie right beneath your nose.