Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 19, 2017

With splendid Mediterranean beaches, Baroque architecture and ancient temples, Malta rivals the Greek Isles.

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The classics reinvented

Affordable alternatives to six dream vacations on the Continent

European vacations have been luring North American travellers for decades with their charm, history and stunning views. But certain continental hot spots aren't as unique as visitors seem to think.

Here are six new options to the classics on everyone's list. All rival their better-known counterparts in terms of ambiance. The fact that they happen to be less crowded and more economical is just an added bonus.

The other Provence

Provence is a wonderful place to spend a week — or a year. Yet devotees who would have you believe it’s a one-of-a-kind destination are being overly enthusiastic. If you grab a map of southeast France and point to any dot in the adjoining Cèze River Valley (tourisme-ceze-ardeche.com) you’ll probably hit a quaint village backed by lavender fields and olive groves.

The valley borders Provence and has a distinctly similar appeal. A single 15-kilometre stretch, for example, encompasses spots such as La Roque-sur-Cèze (a medieval outpost that is both a registered historical site and one of France’s 150 designated Most Beautiful Villages); canal-laced Goudargues (where plane trees and contented swans vie for your attention); and Montclus (a seductive tangle of buildings dominated by a 12th-century castle keep).

All boast an assortment of heritage homes that Peter Mayle wannabes can rent for considerably less than comparable properties in Provence. The river provides swimming and canoeing opportunities. White water rafting, spelunking and other adrenalin-charged alternative are available less than an hour north in the Gorges de l’Ardeche (Europe’s answer to the Grand Canyon); while major attractions like Avignon and the Pont du Gard lie an hour south.

Continental romance

Venice, Rome, Paris, Prague: all are impossibly romantic locales. But if you’ve been there and done those, take a look at Ljubljana (visitljubljana.si). Slovenia’s premiere city offers similar enticements, albeit on a smaller scale.

As a national capital, it has its share of monuments and museums; and, as a university centre, it has more cultural accoutrements than you would normally find in a city of 275,000. Nevertheless Ljubljana’s charm rests on simple pleasures rather big-ticket attractions, which means you can put down your guidebook and focus on your partner. Strolling hand-in-hand — whether up to the hilltop castle or across the cobbles of the compact city core — ranks as a must-do. Or you can rent a bike for €1; romantic riverboat rides and hot air balloon trips are also a relative bargain at €8 and €80 respectively.

Like neighbouring Italy, Slovenia is known for culinary delights (think prosciutto, porcini mushrooms and fine local wine) all of which are best savoured at one of the many intimate eateries that line the Ljubljanica River.

Iberian beach break

For decades the prospect of sun, surf and sangria has been luring those of us from colder climes to the coastal resorts of the Iberian Peninsula. Taken together Portugal’s Algarve and Spain’s Costa del Sol pull in around 14 million visitors each year.

That’s not necessarily good news if you're looking for a quiet patch of sand to plop down on. So why not follow vacationing locals and head for the more serene, budget-friendly belt that separates the two regions? Dubbed the Costa de la Luz (spain.info) or Coast of Light, it covers roughly 300 kilometres from the Portuguese border to Spain’s southernmost tip; and since it hasn’t been overdeveloped, you get to lounge in the shelter of dunes not the shadow of highrises.

When you’re ready for something more challenging than reapplying SPF 40, consider exploring the vast marshlands of Doñana National Park: a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve that promises unparalleled bird watching in spring and fall.

Windsurfing, sailing and horseback riding are popular activities elsewhere on the coast, as is golf (courses here include Montecastillo, a top tournament spot designed by Jack Nicklaus). For an urban fix, wander the labyrinthine streets of Cadiz’s evocative Old Town or veer inland to sip sherry in its “birthplace,” Jerez de la Frontera.

Bella Tuscany

Ah, those idyllic Tuscan hill towns. Cortona, Montepulciano, San Gimignano qualified as well-kept secrets until Frances Mayes’ best-selling books appeared. Now everyone under the Tuscan sun seems bent on checking them off their bucket list.

Sure, the scenery is sublime and the food divine. They are hard to appreciate, though, when those ubiguitous tour buses keep disgorging passengers. For a more authentic and affordable Tuscan experience try Massa Marittima (massamarittima.info), 65 kilometres southwest of Siena. Perched atop a hill with views sweeping over fertile farmlands to the Tyrrhenian Sea, it is a quiet town with only 10,000 residents. But don’t let the small size fool you. La vita is definitely dolce here.

Massa Marittima grew rich in the Middle Ages through silver and copper mining, and its principal buildings date from that period. In the lower town, a 13th-century Romanesque cathedral and palazzo-cum-museum line the perimeter of Piazza Garibaldi. The upper town with its clock tower, cloister and imposing gates is equally captivating.

Both areas are dotted with down-home trattorias that specialize in regional fare like wild boar and offer wine from the Monteregio di Marittima DOC. Despite all this, there’s seldom a tour group in sight.

Habsburg splendour

Anyone smitten by Vienna or Budapest will surely fall for Zagreb (zagreb-touristinfo.hr). It is closer geographically to those cities than to Dubrovnik (Croatia’s own tourist hotspot) and, thanks to centuries of Habsburg rule, the same could be said of it aesthetically. Zagreb’s Upper Town retains a medieval feel; however the 19th-century Lower Town has an imperial look that is unmistakably Austro-Hungarian.

The interlocking parks and promenades of its Green Horseshoe are edged with pastel public buildings that look startlingly familiar. Standouts include the glorious National Theatre designed by Viennese architects and the Art Pavilion which was actually transported here from Budapest.

What’s inside Zagreb’s Habsburgian beauties is impressive too. Take the Mimara Museum which houses everything from Chinese porcelain and Persian rugs to paintings by Caravaggio, Goya, Gainsborough and Degas. It is merely one of the 50-odd venues that have earned Zagreb the nickname City of Museums.

Another attribute it shares with Vienna and Budapest is a lively café culture. Order a kava crna or bijela (black or white) and prepare to linger. “Taking coffee,” with a side of people-watching and pastry nibbling, is the ultimate Croat pastime.

Mediterranean idyll

Southern Europe’s sun-washed isles have a magical, almost magnetic allure; hence obvious choices such as Majorca, Santorini or Rhodes are packed and, by extension, pricey in summer. Malta (visitmalta.com), on the other hand, is comparatively undiscovered — at least by tourists. In ancient times, empire builders came to capitalize on its strategic location, midway between Africa and Europe. And part of their legacy is a staggering array of historic sites.

Upper-crust crusaders turned the city of Valletta into a model of Baroque excess. Even more striking are the Ggantija Temples in Gozo: predating the pyramids by 1000 years, they are thought to be the oldest freestanding structures on earth.

If you're more into tanning than touring, this sunny archipelago supplies the requisite beaches along with the Mediterranean’s clearest water (a plus for snorkellers and divers). If it’s nightlife à la Ibiza you’re after, Malta has that too. MTV hosts a mega-concert in Floriana each summer (Lady Gaga and the Black Eyed Peas headlined last year); while the Paceville resort area draws clubbers year-round by importing renowned guest DJs from across Europe. Once all the hotels and restaurants are factored in, it’s fair to say Malta has everything except a high profile.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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