They may not spring to mind as readily as Spain or Portugal when you think European vacation, but the following countries have fascinating things to share, showing many different faces of Europe.
As soccer fans will know, the finals of the European Football Championships are held in Poland and Ukraine between June 8 and July 1. You might also want to check out St. Dominic’s Fair in Gdansk, running for 23 days in August. It’s one of the largest cultural and commercial events in Europe, with more than a thousand merchants, music, actors, and all the fun of the fair.
Visiting a salt mine sounds about as exciting as watching laundry dry. But the Wieliczka mine and museum in Krakow is breathtaking. And unique. UNESCO recognized it as such. Begun in the 13th century and operating until the 1960s, miners have carved out huge halls, chapels, figures and monuments, as well as a subterranean lake. The tourist route starts 64 metres below ground and descends to 135 metres. (www.poland.travel)
Nature lovers flock to Hungary’s Puszta (or Steppes) for the birdlife, the spiral-horned sheep, buffalo and horses grazing on open plains. The UNESCO site also offers abundant thermal springs, drawing health seekers. Around the Tisza Lake region, gastronomy reigns, showcased in folk festivals (the plum jam is unsurpassed) and wine tastings.
Hungary goes glitzy in Budapest, sizzling with nightlife. The two-part city (Buda and Pest on either side of the River Danube) offers spas galore. Thermal baths are a big thing here, a social thing.
Another city divided by a river is Kaposvar, reached by road or rail from Budapest. It became a modernist artist colony in the last century, and now celebrates an annual City of Painters festival, this year from May 24 to May 27. (www.gotohungary.com)
Latvians are gearing up for 2014 when Riga is the European Capital of Culture with new conference halls and a library building known as the Castle of Light.
Meanwhile, opera and ballet festivals draw thousands. Sigulda Opera Festival at the end of July is just one of many. This is also the time of the Cesis Art Festival, and in August the Saulkrasti Jazz Festival. Music continues to rule with the Baltic rock festival, Positivus, July 20 and 21. (www.latvia.travel)
Snuggling across the top of Croatia, Slovenia is in the spotlight this year as Maribor shares European Capital of Culture honours with Guimaraes in Portugal. About 130 kilometres from Ljubljana and a 2.5-hour drive from Vienna, Maribor is Slovenia’s second largest town with its historic centre on the Drava River. A popular ski resort, it’s also known for its summer sport opportunities. And its old town, Lent, is a photographer’s dream. (www.slovenia.info)
Just below Slovenia on the Adriatic Sea, Croatia is home to Dubrovnik, Split and a pattern of islands to delight tourists of any taste.
Taste is what Croatia’s Days of Asparagus are all about, between March 23 and May 1, celebrated across the Istrian peninsula, famous for its wild asparagus and for truffles. (Truffle season is celebrated from September to November.)
Dubrovnik is known for its rich cultural program and its annual Summer Festival (July 10 to August 25) and now it adds Shakespeare to its roster, from April 23 to May 7. A more modern art form, animated film, has its own festival – Animafest – in Zagreb, May 29 to June 3. And in Split, the city founded by Emperor Diocletian, summer is celebrated throughout July and August with music, drama, and dance. (www.croatia.hr)
Bosnia & Herzegovina
Sitting 99 percent inland on what was the former Yugoslavia, Bosnia & Herzegovina has plenty to offer the curious visitor. In the northern town of Banja Luka, for instance, the Kozara Ethno Festival in June and July focuses on songs and customs from ages past performed by the Kozara people. Traditional cuisine is also on the menu.
Festivals and carnivals block the calendars and they cover the gamut of topics from children to literature. When the weather cools, November is the time for Fashion Week in Sarajevo when Bosnian style gets its own show. (www.bhtourism.ba)