Rules of life: one never needs an excuse to take a long weekend away. Fact! For those of you who live in the United Kingdom, we are pretty lucky to have Europe and North Africa right on our doorstep. With over 50 countries to choose from in this region, I find when I or my friends travel, the usual suspects always seem to crop up: Paris, Barcelona, Rome etc. With so much variety, the choice can be somewhat overwhelming, especially if you are unfamiliar with some of the countries. This week, I suggest some unique locations in Europe and North Africa for you to consider for your next long weekend abroad.
The capital of the Italian Piedmont region, Turin lies along a picturesque stretch of the River Po. Here, in the home to iconic Italian car giant Fiat, cars and chocolate are a matter of pride. The city is the European capital of Baroque, and is made up of elegant arcades and grand public buildings that feel comparable to the charm of Paris and Vienna. With beautiful gardens, innovative food and wine, traditional and contemporary arts and fantastic museums, Turin has something for everyone.
Where to Stay
For a touch of classic luxury, head to the Principi di Piemonte, located in the city centre. The hotel exudes a charming atmosphere of class and style. Located near the Porta Nuova train station, and easily accessible from Turin’s Caselle Airport using public transport, Principi di Piemonte is the ideal location for visiting the city, exploring the fashionable boutiques of Via Roma, and visiting the monuments and buildings that are the heart of Turin.
- The Slow Food movement was born in Lingotto, Turin by founder Carlo Petrini and a group of activists during the 1980s, with the aim of defending regional traditions, good food, gastronomic pleasure and a slow pace of life. Set in an expansive converted factory, Eataly Torino Lingotto, houses a vast array of sustainable food and drink, along with beautiful affordable kitchenware and cookbooks. There is an abundance of specialist counters, including bread and pizza, cheese, pasta, seafood, Piedmontese beef. Lunch is served daily. This is the epitome of foodie heaven.
- Make sure you also check out Museo Egizio. It has one of the most impressive collections of Egyptian artefacts in the world.
I had heard very mixed reviews about Reims before visiting and was lead to believe the town lacked character. I disagree entirely. It was everything you would expect from a charming medieval cathedral city. However, be aware that the wineries are less than idyllic. For rolling hills of vines and countryside, make sure you include a stop to Épernay and nearby local villages.
Located in North Eastern France, Reims is famed for being the unofficial capital of the Champagne wine-growing region and is home to many of the champagne houses. Equally as synonymous with the city is Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims, where French Kings were crowned for more than 1,000 years.
Diligently restored after WWI and again following WWII, Reims boasts beautiful pedestrian boulevards, Roman remains, art-deco cafes and a flourishing fine-dining scene; proudly home to four Michelin-starred restaurants.
Where to Stay
For an authentic touch of the champagne lifestyle, you must stay at Les Crayères. Formerly the home of the de Polignac family, the “chateau style” property is located in the heart of Reims, nestled in a seven-hectare park full of lush vegetation. Treat yourself to a divine meal of refined French Haute Cuisine at Le Parc**. Meilleur Ouvrier de France and double Michelin starred, Philippe Mille, have created a superb gourmet menu, alongside pastry chef, Yoann Normand and head sommelier, Philippe Jamesse, a worldwide renowned champagne expert.
- Without a doubt, you must visit the grand Gothic Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims, famed for its imposing stained-glass windows and carved portals, including the “Smiling Angel”. The church was erected on the historic site of Roman baths. The commanding structure reaches skywards 81 meters and protectively overlooks the town below.
- You will obviously be in Champagne to taste the sweet nectar of golden bubbles. Domaine Pommery should be at the very top of your itinerary. In 1868, Madame Pommery launched the largest construction project of the century in Reims, transforming 18 kilometres of chalk quarries into wine cellars and art galleries. Expect the wonderful and unexpected at Domaine Pommery. It is really like Willy Wonka’s magical factory, but for adults with a love of champagne. Splash out and treat yourself to a bottle of Pommery Cuvee Louise Champagne. One of my all-time favourites.
The hidden gem between Brussels and Bruges is a bustling university town with charming bicycle lined cobbled streets, and winding canals. It is an exciting city of reinvention. Parts of the city centre are lined with creative street food vendors, whilst young entrepreneurs push their creativity in neighbourhoods further afield, with new bars and clubs popping up like wild field mushrooms in Sint-Amandsberg, Gentbrugge and Muide. With wealth and history dating back to the Middle Ages, the Flemish are proud and respectful of their heritage. The pedestrianized centre is known for medieval architecture including 12th-century Gravensteen Castle and the Graslei, a row of guildhalls beside the Leie river harbour.
Where to stay
I’d suggest emulating the life of a local and getting yourself an Airbnb. As Ghent is not as well-known as Bruges, you are likely to find something beautiful and luxurious and centrally located for great value. The average price for a night in Ghent on Airbnb is £84. Ghent is small enough to get around easily, and almost everything is within walking distance from the centre of town.
- Beer, waffles, Moules-frites, and what else? That’s right, Belgium chocolate! No trip is complete without bringing back some of the delicious confectionaries. Try new chocolatier, Joost Arijs, who is making the locals all hot and bothered with his minimalist shop, located at Vlaanderenstraat 24.
- Ghent has a colourful street art scene. Head to the junction of Sleepstraat, Grauwpoort and Rodelijvekensstraat, where the Ghent’s street artists including Bué The Warrior and Roa, have come together to create a vibrant tableau, with less well-known artists.
Turkey is a vibrant city that straddles two continents, separated by the Bosphorus Strait. The great city has attracted armies since the age of the Greeks and is rich in history and culture. The art and architecture are rich in Byzantine and Ottoman influence and flourishes in churches, mosques and palaces with mosaics and frescoes.
Summer evenings are often warm and chic roof terraces welcome guests for cocktails with incredible views of the glittering skyline. And many seafood restaurants line the bountiful Bosphorus, offering diners incredible views. It is a cosmopolitan city you won’t want to miss.
Where to Stay
For the ultimate luxurious getaway, head to the Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at the Bosphorus. Once a 19th-century Ottoman palace, the hotel is located on the seafront with unbeatable views. The property fuses traditional Ottoman architecture and contemporary furnishings, and the 170 bedrooms are all spacious and magnificently decorated.
- Without a shadow of a doubt, you must see the Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Mosque). Located on the site of the Great Palace of Byzantium, it was built during the reign of Ahmed I (1609-1616). The iconic landmark features an awe-inspiring 20,000 blue tiles upon the central domes. The opulent design features six minarets (more than any other mosque at the time it was built), and the largest Ottoman mosque courtyard. The interior is just as grand and features tens of thousands of intricate İznik tiles, and 260 windows that filter ambient light into the place of worship. It is absolutely amazing.
- For incredible panoramic views of Istanbul, head to 360 Istanbul for lunch or cocktails. In addition to the alluring views, the restaurant has an impressive selection of local wines in addition to the international selection, and the food is delicious. As the sun sets, expect to see a glamorous evening crowd and international DJ’s.
- I really enjoyed visiting the Basilica Cistern. Constructed in 532, it is the largest surviving Byzantine cistern in İstanbul. It was originally designed to service the Great Palace and was able to store up to 80,000 cubic meters of water delivered via 20km of aqueducts from a reservoir near the Black Sea. The symmetrical structure is buried deep beneath street level and made of 12 rows of 28 carved columns.
Affable and relaxed, Gothenburg is alluring to both tourists and locals alike. Combining sophistication with old world charm with the juxtaposition of industry, it boasts a flourishing contemporary art scene and is known as the world’s more “sociable” place. The walkable city is by the Kattegat, and is the second largest city in Sweden. The 17th-century canals weave through the city, and trams rattle along the streets. Aplenty with boutiques, cosy cafés and atmospheric bars, Gothenburg is a gem you should discover.
Where to Stay
I’m a fan of the Dorsia Hotel & Restaurant. The hotel is opulently furnished, featuring decadent velvet curtains, jacquard carpets, Regency-style chairs and black, polished furnishings. This boutique hotel feels like a palace. The hotel promises to treat each and every guest “nothing less than royalty.”
- Located in the heart of the city is an old Gothic church that houses a large indoor fish market, warmly called Feskekôrka (Fish Church). The Swedish do delicious fresh seafood. Grab something to eat and head outside to eat it whilst enjoying the sunshine.
- Gothenburg is an archipelago of 20 islands that are easily accessible for a day or overnight trips. A regular ferry service operates between the islands. They have some great hiking trails, or you could hire a bike and cycle around taking in the scenery.
Not strictly a European city, but also not far from home and worth a mention; Rabat, the enchanting Moroccan capital is often overlooked by the bustle of Marrakesh. Located at the mouth of the River Bou Regreg, the palm-lined boulevards, unspoilt beaches located on the doorstep of the city, attractive 12th-century kasbah perched overlooking the water, and a bustling medina makes it a great choice for a long weekend away.
Where to Stay
For boutique style luxury with fine dining, head to Villa Diyafa, located in the affluent Ambassadors District, 20 minutes from the city centre and airport. This oasis of luxury and tranquillity has luscious gardens, an attractive pool area and a traditional Hammam for spa treatments. The hotel’s spacious interiors feature high ceilings, and large windows looking out to the beautiful gardens. Furnished with the elegant Andalusian decor and infused with locally-inspired artwork and accents, you will feel like a king.
- Make sure you cross the lagoon either by foot, tram or rowboat, and head to Salé. Here you will discover historic buildings, a diverse range of cosmopolitan restaurants and a bustling medina. Unlike the medinas of Marrakesh, this one is far less menacing.
- So, I’ve not seen it for myself, but I am told that the Argania tree (pressed to produce Argan oil), though not the most aesthetically pleasing plant in the world with its rough, thorny bark and gangly, crooked branches; attract admirers in droves. Hordes of goats that can usually be found perching in them feasting on the fruit and nuts off the tree. That would be some sight!
Until next time, safe travels.
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