Sure, the great European cities do have their appeal, but they can also be over-crowded and touristy. Head to one of these stylish smaller cities to enjoy all the charm of Europe, including great cafés, restaurants and shopping, with half the hassle.
At the end of the 19th century,Turin became the first capital of united Italy, and its grand baroque architecture and sophisticated café society are legacies of this past.
WHAT TO SEE
With plenty of specialist food shops and exquisite art nouveau cafés lining the long main streets, it’s clear that this busy city has a passion for gutsy, Piedmontese food, chocolate and the aperitif. Turin boasts several culinary inventions: grissini (breadsticks), Lavazza coffee and Martini. Vermouth was first created here in the 1780s, and cocktails are a speciality. However, it’s chocolate that takes pride of place. And as the home of Nutella, Ferrero Rocher and the classic hazelnut and chocolate concoction, gianduja, it’s seems a shame not to indulge. Passionate foodies love Turin for hosting the biennial Salone del Gusto (International Food and Wine festival), organised by the Slow Food association (slowfood.com), where hundreds of enterprising food producers exhibit their quality produce.
Stick to the city centre and it’s easy to navigate on foot, and a weekend is all you’ll need to visit the central sites. Many of the main shopping streets have covered pavements, so come rain or shine you can stroll at leisure. Pick up one of the tourist authority brochures devoted to chocolate and opt for one of the designated trails around the city.
WHERE TO EAT
You’re spoiled for choice for places to enjoy morning coffee or lunch. For a taste of grand Turin choose
Caffè Baratti & Milano (0039 011440 7138), an art nouveau coffee shop/restaurant. Caffè Mulassano (0039 01154 7990) is tiny, pretty as a jewellery box, and the toasted sandwiches come on a silver cake stand. On chilly days, warm up with the hot buffet at Pepino (0039 011 54 2009) or cool down with an il Pinguino, Pepino’s famous choc ice. For a formal evening out, dinner at the opulent Del Cambio (0039 01154 6690), where you’ll be served rich and traditional Piedmontese dishes, is ideal. For lunch in the country, the Michelin-starred Gardenia (0039 011983 2249), which has a dining terrace, is a short drive.
WHAT TO BUY
a Turin-style twist, try the chocolate-coated ones.
chocolate sweets, or plain chocolate discs made
of 95 % cocoa solids, both stylishly packed from Guido Gobino (0039 011566 0707).
WHERE TO STAY
The four-star Le Meridien Lingotto,10 minutes from the centre, lemeridien.com.
Emirates Airlines offers daily flights, via Rome.
Return tickets start at Dhs4,300 (emirates.com).
The real foodie secret about Turin is not where to go, but how to enjoy the cocktail hour to the full. Two bars to try are the lively Tre Galli (0039 011521 6027), in the pedestrianised historic city centre, and Il Posto (0039 011566 0709), which is popular with the locals. For the price of a drink, you will also get a generous plateful of stuzzichini (appetisers), including cold meats, cheeses and breads.
The capital of the Languedoc and Rousillon, Montpellier, in southern France, is full of wonderful shops, food markets and restaurants.
What to see
The Place de la Comedie (also know as l’Oeuf), in the busy but largely pedestrianised old town, is a wide plaza fronted by the 19th-century opera house and full of lively old cafés and bistros, and a morning market (Mon-Sat, 7.30am-1pm). At the northern end, next to the tourist office, marks the beginning of the botanical Champs de Mars, a traditional promenade and park with small ice cream stalls offering a huge variety of flavours – perfect for a leisurely stroll. In the park, you will also find the Pavillon Fabré, a free museum space.
Just as Padstow has Rick Stein, so Montpellier has the Pourcel twins, Jaques and Laurent. In 1988, after working for some of the best chefs in France, they opened Le Jardin des Sens, 11 Av St Lazare (0033 049958 3838, jardindessens.com), on the outskirts of Montpellier, which is regarded as one of the finest restaurants in France. Since then, they’ve gone on to build an empire. In Montpellier this includes a prêt a manger-style takeaway shop, Sens, a cookery school Atelier de Cuisine and a chain of informal modern restaurants La Compagnie des Comptoirs, 51 rue Francois Delmas (0033 049958 3929). So, whatever your budget, you can enjoy their cooking.
Where to eat
Montpellier also caters for its big student population with lots of cheap bars and eateries. For something more typical of the Languedoc, try the great-value Chez Marceau, 7 Place de le Chapelle Neuve (0033 046766 0809), which serves local food on a shaded terrace at incredibly good-value prices. If you are a fish lover, a local favourite is Le Saleya, Place du Marché aux Fleurs (0033 046760 5392), where the menu is market- led and regional. For a gourmet experience to remember, visit the monastic Michelin starred Cellier-Morel at La Maison de la Lozère, 27 rue de l’Aiguillerie (0033 046766 4636), which specialises in modern versions of regional dishes.
What to buy
Cooks in the Languedoc favour duck fat, so for lovers of duck fat there are boutiques selling locally produced confit of duck, as well as goose confit and cassoulet. A trip to this region would be incomplete without buying, or at least trying, the local Roquefort cheese. This area produces some of the best Muscat (sweet) wines, also look out for red wines from the Minervois region, the small vineyards of Costières de Nîmes and any wine from Château Puech-Haut.
Where to stay
Le Guilhem, 18 rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau, is a mid-priced 16th-century town house. Most rooms overlook the gardens and breakfast on the sun-drenched terrace is a delight (00 33 046752 9090 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org).
Air France flies from Dubai via Paris Charles de Gaulle, tickets from Dhs2,750 (airfrance.ae).
Hidden gem Five minutes from Place de la Comedie is rue St Guilhem, a street dotted with food shops selling everything from local wines, regional cheeses to chocolate shops giving cooking demonstrations. At the end of the street, the Arabic quarter begins. Here there are several North African pastry shops where they make and cook their cakes in the window.
This Gothic Belgian city, once Europe’s greatest economic and cultural hub, is back on the map thanks to its buzzy nightlife, world-renowned fashion designers and, above all, its fabulous foodie scene.
WHAT TO SEE
The main attraction is Rubens’ house; the painter returned here in 1611 after making his name in Italy, and built a palatial townhouse with fabulous Italianate gardens. Visitors also flock to the Gothic cathedral, the stylish clothing emporia in the St Andries district and the highly-rated fashion and diamond museums (Antwerp is the diamond capital of the world).
WHERE TO EAT
Restaurants in Antwerp are jaw-droppingly good, and portions are ridiculously generous. Look out for the local ingredients, such as candied chicory, wild mushrooms, foie gras and tiny, tasty grey shrimps. De Kleine Zavel, Stoofstraat 2 (0032 3231 9691) offers seriously good food in a charmingly unpretentious fin de siècle setting, featuring excellent seafood and game dishes, with a liberal use of melted foie gras, chef Carlo Didden’s favourite ingredient. L’Ile Perdue, Amsterdamstraat 33 (0032 3213 1737), in the up-and-coming Eilandje docklands area, is cosy and offers excellent value. Authentically prepared French favourites, from bouillabaisse to choucroute, mix with robust local dishes, including oysters and pheasant, in season.
Canal, Leopold de Walestraat 2 (0032 3237 2700) is an indoor-outdoor brasserie opposite the Museum of Fine Art and next to the wonderful Ann Demeulemeester fashion emporium. Open from breakfast until late, it’s a good choice for casual eating in ‘T Zuid. At Del Rey, Appelmanstraat 5-9, there’s all-day gourmandising in a ladylike dining-room attached to a chocolate shop, where even the coffee served with cream and chocolates on a silver tray is an event. Lunch dishes, like the sophisticated signature lasagne layered with salmon and halibut, are also superb.
Het Dagelijks Brood, Steenhouwersvest 48 (open from 7am-7pm) is a bakery café in the heart of the St Andries fashion shopping district specialises in cheap but very cheerful boterhammen (open sandwiches), soups, salads and snacks.
WHAT TO BUY
Chocolates, of course. Locals spend hours debating the virtues of Burie on Korte Gasthuisstraat versus Pierre Marcolini in the Diamond District mall. But don’t decide before checking out Del Rey on Appelmanstraat.
Bread is another claim to fame – try the rye and raisin loaf or suikerbrood (sugar bread) at Goossens, Antwerp’s oldest bakery. It’s on Korte Gasthuisstraat, down the road from Philip’s Biscuits, source of Flemish specialities, such as speculoos (cinnamon cookies), gingerbread and peperkoek (honey cake).
Home of Obsession on Lange Gasthuisstraat sells exquisite table linens and china.
WHERE TO STAY
Slapenenzo, Karel Rogiersstraat 20 (0032 3216 2785), a stylish b&b in ‘T Zuid – Antwerp’s trendy south side, close to the best boutiques and nightlife. Visit slapenenzo.be.
The city centre is compact enough to walk everywhere – even to ‘T Zuid. Trams cover major routes, but it’s an inexpensive taxi ride to Michelsen, Eilandje or other further-flung districts.
Fly KLM to Antwerp from Dubai. Return flights start from Dhs3,250, visit klm.com
HIDDEN GEMSMichelsen’s, a brilliant and friendly neighbourhood butcher and deli just outside the city centre on Anselmostraat. Sip complimentary espresso while queueing for crème d’Anvers, the wonderful rich pork pâté named after the city; foie gras at prices half those in England (the shop will vacuum-pack for travel) and the best shrimp salad in the world. No tables, but any of the colourful preparations can be taken away in a crusty baguette. And don’t miss the fromagère next door for local cheeses.