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Take off this Weekend

Travelling doesn’t always mean getting away from the bustle of city living. There are plenty of cosmopolitan holidays on offer to cities around the world. Here are some of our favourites…
Bergen – Norway
Flight Time: 2 hours

An old city with a young soul, Bergen is comprised of the very things that define Norway’s beauty – ice blue fjords, verdant mountains and air so pure you can almost feel it cleansing your lungs. With a necklace of seven mountains behind it and the sparkling North Sea in front, Bergen offers a revitalising outdoor city break with activities such as boat trips along the fjords or the Funicular ride to Mount Floyen, which reveals the impressive might of the mountain range offset by the sea. Don’t be put off by its nickname, ‘the city of rain’, Bergen is fairly warm thanks to the Gulf Stream and, in summer, there is almost no night time. Despite being devastated by several fires over the centuries, it is still the quintessential Hanseatic city, with wooden houses dotted along the coastline, cobblestones paving the streets and contemporary architecture present in the form of museums and galleries.

During the days of midnight sun, a favourite pastime is drinking beer by the harbour, while for the more culturally-minded, a performance by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra – one of the oldest in the world – or a visit to Trouldhaugen, composer, Edvard Grieg’s home, is a real treat. No wonder Bergen was named the European City of Culture in 2000. And, seeing as the country’s capital Oslo has just been named one of the most expensive cities in the world, it’s best to pay a visit to Bergen before prices rise even more as the rest of the world hears about the city’s many delights.

City Fact File
The non-stop flight time from the UK is two hours. Bergen is one hour ahead of GMT. Braathens flies from Gatwick and further north, while Widerøe flies from Aberdeen.

Package deals on www.ebookers.com start from £227, which includes a three-night stay at the Hordaheimen, literally minutes from the harbour – contact Scandinavian Airlines (SAS).

Alternatively, if you want to book your hotel and flights separately, low-fare specialist Norwegian Air Shuttle offers return flights starting from 85 Euros. There are also a number of cheap hostels in the city centre. Currency required – Norwegian Krone.

Riga – Latvia
Flight Time: 2 hours 56 minutes

Since shedding its reputation as an oppressed former Soviet city, Riga has more than made up for its years of neglect and suppression. Dubbed the ‘cultural centre’ of the three Baltic republics – Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – Riga’s heart reveals a city still in love with all things artistic and proud of its vast smorgasboard of architecture, ranging from its medieval Old Town, to classical 19th century wooden buildings. The Dom Cathedral with its 6,786 pipe organ is well worth
a visit. Antique shops aren’t cheap, but they offer more than the usual tourist tat.

One product they offer in abundance is Baltic amber used in jewellery, which usually costs a mint in the UK. Latvians take drinking very seriously but if it’s a sophisticated city break you’re after, steer clear of places like the Dickens pub, (designed to imitate an old English pub) and head towards the skyline bar in the Reval hotel for a panoramic view of the city or the Rigas Balzams, an atmospheric cellar bar with delicious Latvian food.

As with any modern city, Riga has its fair share of tacky clubs, but if it’s a true depiction of Latvia that you are after, stick to Old Riga, where a blend of ancient buildings and clubs like the jazz-fuelled Casablanca and the rustic ‘Nobody Writes to the Colonel’ club, offer something different from the norm.

As one of the least westernised cities of the Baltics, it’ll offer you an insight into Latvian culture that you wouldn’t get otherwise and at a much lower price.

City Fact File
Holiday expert Richmond Travel (www.richmondtravel.co.uk) offers unbeatable deals on flights, hotels and package trips to Riga to suit you and your budget. Staying at the Albert Hotel will cost £59.50 per person for two nights.
Currency required – Latvian Lat.

Lille – France
Flight Time: 1 hour 46 minutes

While Paris may seem the obvious short break choice in France, its perceived lack of hospitality and intimacy illuminates the finer points of its northern counterpart, Lille. If, for instance, upon arrival you are unsure of where to eat, the locals are more than happy to recommend their favourite choices or point you in the direction of La Cloche, which is famed for beef cooked in beer, or Les Trois Brasseurs, which has its own micro-brewery.

With buildings that resemble the grand mansions of Brussels more than the baroque buildings of the capital, Lille, offers intercity links to many cities in Europe if you fancy a day trip. The Rue de Faidherbe is a particular attraction because of the opera house although the grandeur of the buildings alone merits a visit. Art buffs are in for a heavenly experience at the Palais de Beaux-Arts, which has an immense collection of Masters including Monet and Renoir, while the Museum of Modern Art features Miró, Modigliani and Picasso. More Flemish-looking than French, its narrow cobbled streets conceal within their folds many delights – explore tiny street cafés, market stalls and rich cuisine that mirror its geography as a coastal city.

City Fact File
Cresta Holidays do a two-night package deal at the Comfort Hotel Opera, including travel by Eurostar for £139 per person. Visit www.crestaholidays.co.uk. Eurostar charge from £55 per person return and journey time is around 1 hour and 46 minutes, visit www.eurostar.com. For an unusual experience, stay at the 4-star Hermitage Gantois, which used to be a monastery, although we’re not quite sure the monks would approve of all the opulent luxury. Directline City Breaks offers a night package deal with Eurostar, staying at the Hermitage for £299 per person.

Tallinn – Estonia
Flight Time: 3 hours

Standing strong against the tide of tourism that has all but consumed rival destination, Prague, Tallinn is clearly one of the best preserved medieval cities in the world. Perfect for escaping the urban grind, its core which dates from the 11th to 15th century remains almost undisturbed, with a consistent stretch of old Dominican monasteries, medieval meeting halls and Russian Orthodox churches sharing space with a growing number of inconspicuous bars and restaurants. That doesn’t mean you can’t go for the regular tourist fare if you don’t want to, but for a true taste of Estonia’s legacy, you must sample the culinary delights that represent the country’s previous rulers.

Troika, apart from being architecturally beautiful, looks like it has emerged from a Russian fairytale, with dishes like pancakes and red caviar, while medieval, Olde Hansa serves dishes with names better suited for royal repasts, such as wild boar. That’s not to say Tallinn doesn’t have one foot in the modern world – its reputation for sophisticated, classy bars is growing with models and the body beautiful flocking to hotspots like the Venus Club, which is replete with red carpets and wall to wall greenery. Other attractions include Viru Gate, the point where the new town flows into the older part and the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral decorated with rich mosaics.

For short visits though, its worth a trip to the Estonia Open Air museum, which presents an interesting view on life in Tallinn over the ages.

City Fact File
Flights to Tallinn take around 3 hours and the city is 2 hours ahead of UK time. Have a look at www.lastminute.com – it does superb deals from £141, with two or three nights stay at the Hotel Reval Central, in close proximity to Viru Square. Estonian Air and EasyJet both fly to Tallinn, the latter costing around £129. Hotel Schlossle is brilliant for 15th century fairytale ambience and costs 377 Euros per night for a double room. Currency required – Estonian Kroon. Be sure to check out the latest rates online before you leave.

Fez – Morocco
Flight Time: 3 hours

Don’t be surprised if you rub your eyes in disbelief at your first glance of Fez; it is mind-blowing to think that a 3-hour flight can transport you into a world so radically different from your own. The exotic atmosphere and aroma of spices, cobbled lanes and throng of people pressed in and around the narrow lanes, remind us that the city seems virtually unchanged from its ancient roots. The cultural and spiritual centre of Morocco, Fez’s greatest attraction, apart from the Moorish buildings, is the shopping. Colourful souks dotted all over the city crammed with intricate painted pottery – which Fez is noted for.

Antiques, beautifully-woven carpets, olives immersed in new and wonderful oils and a hundred and one other shopper’s delights await you. However, there are 9,000 streets and unless you are extremely brave, it’s best to hire a tour guide for the day, so that as well as guiding you to the best parts, he can also haggle on your behalf. Hidden under a veil of secrecy and shadow, it takes an expert to open your eyes to the real face of Fez. If you are strapped for time, make your way to the Merenid tombs, which are bordered by the Atlas Mountains. Don’t miss out on the most magnificent of the city’s palaces and mosques – like the Karaouine. For a closer look at how deep the city’s legacy goes, you can find the oldest university here, where all the wood and mosaics are hand-carved, or for £50, take a trip to Volubilis, the city founde in 3BC – it’s well worth the journey.

City Fact File
Fez is famous for its Riads (private houses) and palatial hotels. Expedia offers three nights at the Hotel Mounia, which is a typical Moorish hotel with arched porticos, located centrally. Flying with Royal Air Maroc, it costs £415 per person. Flight times are around 3 hours from London. Currency required – Moroccan Dirham.

St. Petersburg – Russia
Flight Time: 4 hours

We should consider ourselves lucky Peter the Great built St Petersburg. It is a culturally-rich, gloriously beautiful city. Home to undoubtedly the world’s greatest open-air museum, the Winter Palace, other points of interest such as the summer residences of the Tsars and the Hermitage – stuffed with Rembrandts – are the legacy of a royal past.

Distinctly different from other leading European cities, St Petersburg is a city that serves up a magnificent feast of culture without charging extortionate rates for the privilege. A typical Russian meal of borshch, blintz and caviar washed down with ice cold vodka will set you back just £6. Whatever the style of holiday, previous visitors all agree on one thing: you must take in a live ballet performance at the Mariinsky. Theatre is simply not the same as it is in England, set in a city with snow-sprinkled rooftops, fairytale spires and vast onion-domed palaces, it is altogether
a new experience.

City Fact File
Described as the best address in town, the Astoria Hotel on St Isaacs square is a must. The Baltic Travel Company (www.baltictravelcompany.com) does a two night package deal for £495, including transfers and flights with British Airways (BA). Other flights booked through BA are considerably more expensive, starting from £437. Flight time is around 4 hours with a time difference of +3 hours. Currency required – Rouble.

Pissouri – Cyprus
Flight Time: 3 hours 40 minutes

A world away from the ghastly tourist traps of Limassol and Paphos, Pissouri opens the door into the real world of Cyprus: rustling olive trees, bright blue skies and tiny local tavernas clutching the hilltops. The air even smells better here, away from the faux fish and chip shops and Irish bars.

As far as beach holidays go, it has a mixture of pebble and sand, but the blindingly blue Mediterranean sea that opens at the feet of the town is so beautiful, you won’t really care whether your resort is on a pebble beach or not. At times, Pissouri feels like it exists within its own bubble of tranquillity, and although there isn’t that much in the way of sight-seeing, it instills a calmness into the soul that isn’t always found in other sunny destinations. Food and drink in particular, are exceptionally good. Fresh fish from the sea is generally grilled and served with roast potatoes, but pick a day when you don’t have much to do but snooze and have a full-blown mezze for lunch. An endless supply of delicious grilled lamb, haloumi cheese served with freshly-picked tomatoes and roast chicken with stuffed feta mushrooms will ensure the only activity you’ll be capable of is recovering flat-out on fluffy towels by the azure waters.

City Fact File
The Columbia is a favourite resort in Pissouri, with its own spa and gourmet cuisine. A Junior Suite can cost around 130 Cypriot pounds (CYP) – but remember the CYP is stronger than Sterling. The nearest airport is Paphos, and return flights from British Airways cost around £180. Visit www.columbia-hotels.com. The flight time is roughly 3 hours and 40 minutes.

Alghero – Sardinia
Flight Time: 2 hours 30 minutes

It may be closer in proximity to Italy, but Alghero’s essence is distinctly Spanish. Attaining the perfect equilibrium between intimacy and liveliness, its many secluded bays are offset by its flourishing fishing port, from which point all activity in Alghero originates. An emerald-green sea conceals a reef of beautiful coral and the scent of wood drifts in from the pine forest behind.

Forget buzzing nightlife, sipping on deliciously blended cocktails while watching the sun set on the horizon is a much more preferable activity and in keeping with the tranquil atmosphere. Ornate churches and wrought-iron balconies add to Alghero’s charm, as do the local inns which serve excellent food. Renowned for its seafood, wonderfully crafted paellas and native specialities melt on the tongue. A gastronomes delight, Carasau, a paper-thin bread, makes a perfect accompaniment to starters, while there is a nod to Alghero’s Italian influence, in its distinctive ricotta-filled ravioli and seafood pasta dishes.

How to get there
The Villa Las Tronas has its own private rock beach, but at 210 Euros per night it is a bit pricey. If you’re on a budget, try www.algherorelax.info, which features fab apartments – ask for prices. Ryanair offers return flights for a fantastic £28 (with tax) from London Stansted. Don’t forget your Euros!

Innsbruck – Austria
Flight Time: 3 hours 40 minutes

For something more substantial than your average skiing holiday, Innsbruck is steeped in a history so rich it is bound to exhilarate your mind as much as the alpine air will stimulate your body. Although it is renowned for being the host of two winter Olympics, its legacy goes far beyond the 20th century, seeing as the Hapsburg kings used to hold court here. Innsbruck still bears the marks of royalty, such as the Ambras castle with its great art collection and a number of historic churches.

Of course, being part of the Tyrolean Alps means the scenery is outstanding, which is best appreciated by skiing down one of the 200 trails woven around the mountains.

Monuments nestle comfortably alongside designer shops and a buzzing nightlife, while the Funicular ride to the top of the mountain unveils the entire beauty of the valley under your feet. A truly unmissable spectacle. Don’t forget to check out the world-class opera!

City Fact File
You could try staying at Haus Silvia, situated next to the town centre with mountains as a backdrop. The private rooms cost 224 Euros for four nights. Another perennial favourite has to be the Schwarzer Adler – a quirky hotel in which the décor includes stunning fashion design houses, Versace and Swarovski. Opodo offers Lufthansa flights from Heathrow for £233 (with tax) for four nights. Visit www.opodo.co.uk for the latest deals. The flight takes around 3 hours and 40 minutes.

Currency required – the Euro.

Bilbao – Spain
Flight Time: 2 hours

If it’s the bustling city atmosphere of Barcelona and Madrid you’re after, then Bilbao is not for you. If, however, you want an equal blend of stunning scenery, exquisite food and as few fellow tourists as possible, look no further. The beautiful outdoors is blended seamlessly with the man-made, such as the Guggenheim Museum set against a sparkling river and vivid green hills. Walking is the best way to discover the city and there are tours that take place on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Try ambling around the Casco Viejo, which is the older part of the city. As for the local cuisine, the tapas is unsurpassable, from tangy fish dishes, rich meat dishes and tiny snacks of pickles, cheeses and local sausages speared with toothpicks. To wind down in the evening, make like the locals and try some sparkling white wine, small shots of beer or cider at the Sidreria.

There are a number of winter festivals like the month-long puppetry extravaganza to experience. The quiet beach of Playa de Bakio is a great spot in the summer.

City Fact File
Sondica is the nearest airport and www.ebookers.com offers an extremely reasonable three-night break at the Barcelo Avenida – moments from the Guggenheim – for £220 per person (with tax), flying British Airways. Alternatively, Easyjet does flights from £30 providing they are booked well in advance. The flight time is just under 2 hours and the time difference is +1 hour.

Currency required – the Euro.

Antalya – Turkey
Flight Time: 4 hours

Known as the Turkish Riviera, Antalya’s blue flag beaches, impeccable service and abundance of luxury hotels may seem to detract from the real spirit of Turkey, but that isn’t the case. Underneath a perennially blue sky, Antalya’s main attraction stems from the fact that it can be whatever holiday you make it. Only a four hour flight from England, you can dip into the tourist traps on the Kaleici harbour, or take an adventurous wander along the Roman walls hugging the coastline that yields tiny restaurants and open air bars. Spa hotels allow you to retreat into the warm fuzzy cocoon of the western world, providing a good launchpad to dip into the hot glare of the city. It’s clearly a place that is moulded by the weather, as Antalya is packed with stone courtyards cooled by leafy trees and trickling fountains. For proper sightseeing, it’s worth hiring a local cab driver to take you to the neighbouring Duden and Kursunlu waterfalls and Aspendos, a 2nd century Roman theatre. Antalya proper contains some worthy places like the Archaeological museum and the shopping bazaars
in Konyaalti.

City Fact File
Hillside Su, a renowned spa hotel in Antalya is a haven for the weary and prices start from £150 for a room with a balcony. FlyThomasCook.com offers a return flights for £117. Flight time from the UK is four hours. Currency required – Turkish Lira.

Varna – Bulgaria
Flight Time: 3 hours

Bulgaria is one of the best kept Balkan secrets. It is a beautiful land of contrasts with cradling beaches and a majestic mountain range. Unexpectedly, it has fairly pleasant weather for most of the year and even if you do visit during the crisp winter months, hot mineral springs dotted around the landscape will send the warmth back into your body.

The city’s charm is drawn from the contrast between its medieval roots and its young soul, provided by the 20% student population living in it. Its legacy as a sea port is all around you, punctuated by the Marine Gardens which contains a natural history museum, aquarium, zoo and planetarium.

If you can tear yourself away from the beaches dusted with golden sand long enough to go sightseeing, the Black Sea Museum and the 19th century Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin is well worth a few hours out of your sunbathing schedule. The latter is an impressive landmark, while the extensive ruins of the Roman Spa in the centre of town are equally impressive. If you can’t decide on what you want from a short break, Varna has a great mix of all you could want from a holiday.

City Fact File
It is cheaper to book your flights and hotel together when visiting Varna. Balkan Holidays offers subsidised rates on great Varna hotels such as the Kempinski Grand Hotel Hermitage, which costs roughly £239 for two nights, but for £510 for two people you can get a two-night stay at Hotel Varna – with flights thrown in for good measure.

Get online and visit www.balkanholidays.co.uk for full details of the latest offers. Flight time from the UK is around 3 hours. Currency required – the Lev

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