Measuring in at only the size of Northern Ireland, Montenegro may be small, but is infinitely inspiring with a glorious coastline, shimmering lakes, and over 60 soaring mountains reaching peaks of over 1,800m and cushioned by five national parks, all criss-crossed by some epic hiking and cycling routes. It even has a wine culture – Lake Skadar is home to more than 30 wineries that you can tour.
An archipelago of over 1,000 islands that cling to its celebrated coastline, Croatia is so much more than somewhere to island hop. With peninsula after peninsula of matchless cycling routes, it is a dream of a country to explore on two wheels, finding vineyards that do tasting tours en route and chancing across secret beaches that offer somewhere heavenly to cool off after a hard day’s pedal.
A rich tapestry of Saxon, Viking and Roma influences, Romania is a beautiful and largely undiscovered mosaic of alpine highlands, coastal wetland and magical ancient woodland where bears and wolves still prowl. The welcoming locals live at a human pace, clip-clopping from A to B on horse and cart and producing a distinctive, but delicious smorgasbord of regional food and drink.
Finland is about as fantastical as you can get – life here is shaped by the bipolar seasons: sublime summer days barely see the sun set, yet intense polar nights can hit -30oC. A rustic experience of lakes, mountains and wood cabins, Finland is all about winter activities: a place to explore on snowshoes, learn to mush a pack of huskies, and pray for a glimpse of the ethereal Northern Lights.
A country of both momentous heritage and natural might, France’s palpable vigour immediately injects a spring into any visitor’s step – the titanic peaks and shimmering sapphire lakes of the Alps are resplendent with or without snow; the Pyrenees are a haven for skiers, walkers and bikers; and Provence, another cyclist’s mecca, is the lavender-scented, quaint stone-villaged stuff of any Francophile’s dreams.
Newsflash: Spain does not equal the Costas. It is a country of so much more than sunbeds and crap paella. From the atmospheric Moorish pueblos of Andalucia, to the stunning walking and cycling you’ll find across Catalonia and lofty peaks to rival the Alps, the real Spain is about getting outside, making the most of the sun, and chancing upon towns and experiences you never knew you’d find.
Nowhere is more associated with sophistication, passion and outright cool than Italy: a country of fabulous towns, peerless history and irresistible food. Made for a quiet stroll, or a full-on hike, the Amalfi Coast is a dizzying land of gleaming seascapes and impossibly chic seaside towns; Rome’s imperial grandeur needs no introduction; and Tuscany’s hills and vineyards shout ‘escapism’ at every turn.
The undisputed cradle of Western civilisation, Greece is a wonderfully diverse blend of primeval history and traditional culture all played out against a backdrop of island clusters, mountains, gorges and mainland national parks. Besides its tremendous collection of age-old archaeological sites, it also has a fantastic swathe of beaches and over 4,000km of coast road to explore on two wheels.
Here’s a word association game: women… handbags… women that look like handbags; blatant sexism aside (men can look like handbags too), seriously, there is so much sun-scorched skin in Marbella, you’ll think you’ve walked into a tannery. Other than that, there’s booze, bars, Brits and lots of fake… Rolexes. Oh, and money and ‘macho’ men too, but that’s about it sadly. Spain, it ain’t.
Small and stubbornly independent like a toddler, but with the brash, yet undoubtedly plush addition of lots of money and millionaires, Monaco might strike you as an exciting option for a short trip to luxuriate in the glamour of it all. Actually though, it isn’t the glitzy destination of yesteryear and is nowadays a constant construction site full of big, ugly tower blocks all struggling for space.
Though some European countries have a worse track record than others for this heinous abuse of animal rights (stand up Spain, Italy and France…), it’s never a good idea to go and see dolphins at a dolphinarium – cramped captive conditions where they’re made to ‘perform’ tricks. Some are technically illegal and morally they’re offensive too; if you want to see cetaceans, head to the Azores instead.
Cruise ships? In Venice? Surely that’s akin to putting a McDonald’s in the middle of a Slow Food farm: silly. Silliness aside, the deep channel dredging that’s done to allow these lumbering ships to cruise Venice’s distinctly classy Grand Canal has scarred the lagoon’s delicate eco-system disturbing marine life as well as displacing sediment. Do what you’re supposed to do and grab a gondola.