Fast track to stardom

Old world ... the Alcazar de Segovia's East Tower offers a sweeping view of the landscape.
Old world ... the Alcazar de Segovia's East Tower offers a sweeping view of the landscape. Photo: iStock

High-speed rail and budget airlines are bringing new destinations into the spotlight, writes David Whitley.

Kiev, Ukraine

One of the great unsung cities of eastern Europe, Kiev is easily as beautiful as Prague or Budapest yet attracts a fraction of the tourists.

It's a city of golden domes, bizarre open-air gyms, riverside parks and an extensive monastery complex that digs deep into underground caves and tunnels.

In recent years, Ukraine has removed visa restrictions and flight prices have come right down. This was partly prompted by budget airline Wizz Air setting up direct flights from various European cities and now the full-service airlines have had to cut prices to compete.

Visitors will also find a party ethic. Beer seems to be regarded as a soft drink to be swigged in the street, everyone is dressed to impress and the main road is regularly closed off and turned into a concert venue.

Sooner or later, the umbrella-wielding tour guides will lay siege to Kiev but for the moment it's probably the most exciting city in eastern Europe.

Segovia, Spain

The high-speed rail line from Madrid to Valladolid has been open for two years now and it has worked wonders for Segovia.

It now takes just over half an hour to get from Madrid to Segovia and as a day trip, it's hard to beat. Segovia is most famous for the Roman aqueduct, dating back nearly 2000 years, which doubles as the entrance to the old city.

From there, the narrow cobbled streets of the old city lead to a castle that fits just about every fairytale cliche. The rooms inside tick both the opulent and historic boxes, while the views from the tower over the plains are awesome.

Segovia's increasing popularity isn't good for cute little piglets, however. This is Spain's cochinillo asado (roasted suckling pig) capital.

Metz, France

Another overlooked city that has benefited immeasurably from a high-speed rail link is Metz. The fast trains have ensured the journey from Paris takes only 80 minutes, while the new Pompidou Centre should also assist in attracting tourists.

The extravagantly designed Pompidou Centre is a branching-off of the famous museum in Paris and is due to open in May.

The centre should be a destination in itself - something Metz has needed for a while. It's a gorgeous city, where Roman ruins sit alongside distinctive churches.

Street terrace cafes, the Moselle River and brilliant night-time illuminations make Metz a charming place to while away a day or two. But now it has a must-see attraction that should draw in visitors to explore the rest of the city.

Thessaloniki, Greece

The biggest city in northern Greece has also seen recent benefits from increased airline connections - and travellers are beginning to figure out there's more to Greece than Athens and island-hopping.

Thessaloniki likes to think of itself as Greece's cultural capital. It obviously can't compete with Athens in terms of ancient history but Thessaloniki has a more contemporary bent.

Many of the best Greek poets, musicians and writers of recent years have come from the city, which is also known as Salonika. It's a university town with a good reputation for restaurants, bars and nightlife.

There's also a more Eastern feel to Thessaloniki. The city spent a lot of time under Byzantine and Ottoman rule and the Turkish quarter was the only part of the old town to survive 1917's Great Fire.

Thessaloniki has plenty of good museums and Roman ruins to look at as well but its main selling point is that it's an attractive, fun-loving city - and one that you can end up staying in for longer than you expected.

Montenegro

Montenegro has been consistently touted as an emerging European hotspot for a few years now. There's good reason for this, with its combination of gorgeous beach towns and mountainous interior.

The resort towns of Budva, Ulcinj and Bar tend to be most popular with Eastern European tourists but the Bay of Kotor and the scenic drive up to Cetinje are the highlights from an international perspective.

Charter and budget airline flights to Tivat airport are increasing. This is relieving the need to go through tedious customs procedures after flying into Dubrovnik, just over the Croatian border.

But the big news from Montenegro this year is the reopening of Sveti Stefan. During the 1970s and '80s this small island attached to the mainland by a causeway became a famous retreat for the rich and famous.

It has been closed for refurbishment for a few years but is due to reopen in the middle of the year, with Aman Resorts providing the luxury accommodation.

Tatras mountains, Slovakia

When it comes to mountain holidays in Europe, the Alps are usually what spring to mind. Perhaps, at a push, the Pyrenees.

But a combination of bargain-hunting and a spirit of adventure is increasingly sending skiing and walking fans further east. The Tatras are sandwiched between Poland and Slovakia and, while not as spectacular as the Alps, they can be pretty darned idyllic. They're also cheaper by a long distance but the range shouldn't be mistaken for a budget Alps substitute - there's an altogether different vibe.

The gateway to the Tatras is Poprad and the airport nearby has started getting arrivals from across Europe. Slovakian airline DanubeWings has undergone a large expansion and has plugged Poprad into the European flight map.

Poprad is also home to the AquaCity resort, which boasts in-pool light shows, water slides and a spa where you can undergo cryotherapy treatments at minus 120 degrees.

The Tatras are arguably better visited in summer - the lakes, cable cars, funicular railways and hiking trails are at their best when most of the snow has gone.

Valletta, Malta

Within Europe, Malta has long held a reputation as a somewhat fusty beach holiday destination for the older crowd. But if the host of new ferry routes from Italy and budget airline flights from across the continent are anything to go by, the Mediterranean island nation is more popular than ever.

For those who aren't too fussed about joining the sizzling mature flesh on the beaches, Malta's incredible history is its major drawcard.

Much is related to the Knights of St John - an order that dates back to the Crusades and called Malta home for a long time. They're responsible for the fortifications that can be found all around Valletta. The walls, cannon batteries, sentry towers and forts hugging the coastline make for a spectacular frame - Valletta is arguably Europe's most picturesque capital city.

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