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Rural Retreats

Discover the country on the move, or just stay put and take in the surrounding landscape.

Rural Retreats
Rush hour on the back roads of Sicily. © Photolibrary.com

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Touring Sicily in a classic orange Fiat 500.

AS I parked outside the San Domenico Palace Hotel in Taormina — Sicily’s grandest hotel, in one of Italy’s glitziest seaside resorts — its two doormen beamed and gave me a synchronised thumbs-up. “Cinquecento!” they bellowed. “Number one car in the world!” Then they looked aghast in silence at the amount of luggage I’d managed to fit, Tetris-like, into the back of my tiny 1968 bright orange Fiat 500.

I’d hired one of nine vintage Fiats that two Sicilian brothers and their cousin (Antonio, Sergio and Danilo) have refurbished. They have no air conditioning, no seatbelts, and at times it can feel like you’re driving a child’s drawing of a car that’s come to life. But what they do have is style. Away from Taormina’s chaotic one-way system that necessitated impossibly long loops around the town just to get a few metres in the other direction, the beauty of the first Fiat 500 — pop icon as much as an automobile — became clear. As with cycling, I felt a part of the landscape I was driving through. I was connected with the road and everything around me. I was really here… in Sicily.

As the sun sets at aperitivo time in Taormina, everyone’s attention turns from the sea to the slumbering mounds of Mt Etna in the distance. It’s an omnipresent force on the island, from the views from the top of the third-century BC Greek amphitheatre to the flute of delicious extra brut Spumante from the Murgo winery at the foot of the volcano that starts every supper.

It was only natural to want to get closer to it, so I set off one morning and headed towards Catania along the coast and then inland. I twisted through small villages, great expanses of green, pine woodlands and dusty, silver olive groves. With no better ultimate destination in mind, I drove to the Murgo vineyards close to Santa Venerina and stopped for lunch. It seemed churlish to visit without a wine tasting, so I checked in for a night at the elegant old stone farmhouse that the vineyard runs as a B&B.

The next day I joined one of the organised tours that Antonio, Sergio and Danilo run with their fleet of mini motors. With five Fiats in convoy — each driver equipped with a walkie talkie relaying information from a guide leading the way in the first car — we toured a variety of locations from the Godfather movies. Finally we parked at the opulent Castello degli Schiavi (‘castle of the slaves’), its balcony immediately recognisable from its part in the movies, even without Al Pacino raging on it.

Here I relished the role of shameless tourist, having my picture taken in Pacino’s spot, and then repeatedly beside my cute orange automobile beneath the castle’s turrets. Novelty factor aside, that car looked so much cooler, and so much more Italian in every shot than anything I could ever have picked up at your average car rental.

How to do it: 500 Vintage Tour convoy tours from €129 (£111) per car; rental from €299 (£259) for a weekend. British Airways flies daily to Catania from London from £98 return. Quintessentially Travel offers four nights at the San Domenico Palace Hotel, including BA flights and a weekend’s hire of a vintage Fiat 500 car, from £850 per person.
www.500vintagetour.com  www.britishairways.com  www.quintessentiallytravel.com

ALPINE ESCAPE

Blessed with a Mediterranean climate and dotted with palm trees, Lugano has Hugh Graham having to remind himself he’s in the Swiss Alps

When you go hiking in the Swiss Alps, you expect to see many things: chalets, St Bernard dogs, cowbells, maybe a bit of Edelweiss. You don’t expect to see palm trees. But palm trees are exactly what you’ll find in abundance on the shores of Lake Lugano, in a sun-kissed southern corner of Switzerland. Sea green waters, gaudy subtropical blooms and lush sugarloaf hills add to the surrealism of the scene.

On my four-hour hike from the top of Mount San Salvatore (3,000ft) to the Italianate village of Morcote, I don’t encounter a single goat, but several bright green lizards dart out of my way. There are no twee, Heidi-style hideaways in these hills, either. Instead, pastel villas and stylish modernist boxes glow in the sun, while far below, sunbathers lounge at lidos in the dreamy city of Lugano. Am I really in the Alps? Surely this is Rio or the Cote d’Azur. In fact, Lugano has been nicknamed both the Swiss Riviera and the Rio of the Old World, thanks in part to its balmy microclimate. Sheltered from cold northerly gusts by a vast Alpine wall and warmed by the mild föhn wind, the Ticino region is also a suntrap.

The culture is as Mediterranean as the climate. Fellow hikers greet me with buongiorno (Italy and Lake Como are just across the border from Lugano); many villas and churches along the five-mile route have red-tiled, Lombardy-style roofs; and village eateries serve polenta, not fondue.

Occasionally, I remember I’m in Switzerland. The cool air on the shady, silver birch trails feels Alpine fresh and the forest path is efficiently signposted with Swiss flags painted on tree trunks.

I can see majestic, snow-capped peaks in the distance. But often it feels more like Amalfi than the Matterhorn. Cafe trellises are dripping with purple wisteria in the romantic villages of Ciona and Carona. At the San Grato botanical gardens near Carona, the lake and mountain vistas are framed by flaming exotica – rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias and magnolias.

The flamboyance comes to a climax above Morcote. At the Parco Scherrer, the brilliant blooms are backed by architectural follies, while the Santa Maria del Sasso, an ornate Renaissance church perched above the lake, is flanked by rustling palms and giant aloes.

It’s a sultry finale to a subtropical hike, best topped with a gelato by the lake in Morcote and a lazy boat cruise back to Lugano. Or, for more Mediterranean fantasies, take the boat to Gandria, a rocky lakeside village, from where you can walk back to Lugano along the Olive Tree Path. Carved into cliffs among old olive groves, this three-mile lakeside trail is tailor-made for romantics: you’ll see kissing couples, but no lonely goatherds. But that’s Lugano, where Alpine walks come with a hint of La Dolce Vita.

How to do it: Flights with Swiss from Heathrow to Lugano via Zurich, from £150. Seven nights’ B&B at the three-star Acquarello Swiss Quality Hotel in Lugano, including flights, from £644 per person.  www.swiss.com  www.stc.co.uk

NIRVANA FOR BIKES

The Netherlands’ vast number of cycle routes provide Carlton Reid with the perfect family holiday

“Could you tell us where is the fietspad, please?” The old Dutch woman looked at us as if we were mad. Why would this crazy English family be asking where the cycle path was? She pointed to the bold-painted mushroom down by my front wheel.

“Ah, thanks. Er, hadn’t seen that.” There are 5,500 such paddestoel dotted around the Netherlands. These small white direction markers are made of fibreglass and, critically, each has a unique, five-digit number on top. These numbers are on cycle touring maps, so — GPS eat your heart out — you can easily fix your exact location.

These markers have been a feature of the Dutch countryside since 1918. All of this we learned afterwards. At the time, we felt a bit daft, wondering how we could have possibly missed the now positively obvious waymarkers.

From then on, they became beacons, allowing two of our three kids to cycle ahead at speed, racing each other to the next mushroom. Hanna and Josh may have been weighted down with panniers — a deliberate parental ploy — but that didn’t stop them speeding ahead, egging each other on to greater and greater speeds.

An elderly woman cyclist smiled at them on a forest trail, finishing her Dutch sentiments with the word ‘Zoetemelk’, a reference to Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk, who won the 1980 Tour de France.

Ellie is a softie and, on cycle holidays, she prefers to go slow and be pushed up hills rather than tax her little legs. So the Netherlands at least gave my arm a rest.

Of course, what the Netherlands lacks in altitude it makes up for in horizontal hills — the wind by the coast can be fearsome. On a family bike holiday, we can pretty much handle any sort of weather; it’s the cars we’re not keen on. Even in the sleepiest parts of Norfolk, you can never be sure a speeding car won’t flash around the corner. Fear of imminent death isn’t the best way to spend your holiday.

That the Netherlands is famously cycle-friendly is a given, but it’s still mildly shocking to see the level of bike love. It was a revelation to find out almost everywhere could be reached without having to mix with cars. Our cycle tour took us to Texel for a few days. This is the largest of the Frisian Islands, the most westerly of an archipelago that extends to Denmark.

Before we made our way back to the start, and the ferry home, we pitched our tent by the sea and cycled to and from restaurants (and cheese-making farms) without having to worry about speeding traffic. Car-free equals carefree.

We had started out from IJmuiden, the ferry port of Amsterdam. Not the most pleasant of locales, but at least the bike path started straight away. Bliss.

How to do it: DFDS Seaways ferry from North Shields to IJmuiden. The cost for a family of five, plus bikes, is about £300 each way. Stichting Natuurkampeerterreinen, the foundation for natural camping sites, has some very quiet campsites tucked away in often lovely locations, all listed in The Green Book, €14.95 (£13.50). There are 4,200 B&Bs throughout the Netherlands registered with the ‘Friends of Cyclists’ scheme, ‘Vrienden op de Fiets’.
www.dfdsseaways.co.uk  www.natuurkampeerterreinen.nl  www.vriendenopdefiets.nl  www.holland.com

SEEKING SOLACE

In search of some peace and relaxation, Rhiannon Batten finds Muxima in the southwest corner of Portugal the ideal place to unwind

Tranquility exists under deceptively raucous conditions at Muxima, in the far southwest of Portugal. This former farmstead turned hippie chic guesthouse may be surrounded by nothing but cork and eucalyptus trees, but that doesn’t mean you are shrouded in silence.

Stripy, the family’s pet donkey, operates as a distant alarm clock (on those mornings when he can muster the energy to bray), a family of frogs around Muxima’s natural swimming pool natter in syncopated harmony as the sun rises and sets, crickets skitter and whirr in the lavender bushes and lizards cause a rustle as they scurry over sun-dried leaves.

If all this activity sounds distracting, in reality it’s anything but. Amid this natural background hum, it’s far easier to switch off than it would be in more muffled surroundings. In fact, staying here and waking to the drowsy southern Portuguese sunshine, it’s hard to do anything except unwind.

Go for a stroll through the surrounding forest, sway back and forth on a swing rigged up under an ancient cork tree, read stretched out on a cushion-strewn daybed pulled out on to a shady terrace or take a dip in the swimming pool and let the cool, reed-filtered water give you a natural high.

When you’ve slowed almost to a stop, the best way to crank yourself slowly back into gear is to set out on a gentle exploration of the surrounding attractions. Within a 15-minute drive or an hour’s bike ride west of Muxima (Muxima’s owners, Sofia and Jorge, will kit you out for free) are two of Portugal’s best beaches — Amoreira, where you can watch the Aljezur river meet the ocean from a rustic clifftop fish restaurant, and Arrifana, where surfers almost outnumber waves when the swell is good. Also in this area is the Southwest Alentejo and Vicentine Coast Natural Park, home to at least 200 bird and 750 plant species, many of the latter endemic to Portugal.

Or go east, winding 25 miles up into the region’s almost deserted green hills and forests to the small market town of Monchique. Just below this is a tiny but picturesque spa town, Caldas de Monchique, that’s home to a clutch of restored, postcard-perfect 18th- and 19th-century buildings. In one of them, on a pretty cobbled square, is the 1692 Restaurant, which does a good trade in ‘mountain’ salads topped with local cheese and ham. If you have the appetite for it, you can also drink the town’s mineral-rich water, though most visitors prefer to bathe in it instead, booking in for a spa treatment or a swim at the decadent Villa Termal das Caldas de Monchique spa resort.

Back at Muxima, there are few more pleasant ways to spend an evening than by strolling for 20 minutes or so along pretty, blossom-littered and jasmine-scented lanes to the town of Aljezur, hunkered below a ruined Moorish castle. Stop for fresh fish and a carafe of local wine at Restaurante Pont’a Pé by the river before wandering home under the stars. With just the sound of those skittering crickets for company, you’ll have mastered the perfect recipe for relaxation.

How to do it: Double rooms at Muxima start at €100 (£86) per night for B&B. The guesthouse is around an hour’s drive from Faro airport, to where Ryanair, EasyJet and Monarch fly from various UK airports, with fares from around £60 return. One week’s car hire costs from around £150 with Avis. Alternatively, travel by train and bus and Jorge and Sofia will come and pick you up from Aljezur.  www.muxima-montesferreiros.com  www.ryanair.com  www.easyjet.com  www.monarch.co.uk  www.avis.co.uk

Village People

In the heart of the Troodos Mountains, Maria Pieri discovers the real Cyprus and a traditional way of life – and comes close to a rude awakening

Stepping into the shadows, we were gestured by our guide to enter one of the traditional houses in the Cypriot village of Kakopetria, in the heart of the Troodos Mountains. The doors were invitingly open and the cool dark interior promised a respite from the heat. As we noseyed our way round the room, a door to our left was slightly ajar. There rested the owner of this heavy stone and wooden home we were rudely intruding upon. Retreating quickly, we did our best not to wake him.

As legend would have it, Kakopetria, meaning ‘bad stone’, was named after a big rock crashed down from the mountain, killing a young couple during their wedding ceremony. If this is the worst that fate has thrown at this village, then so be it, as it’s prospered well despite its name.

We were exploring Old Kakopetria — built to the west of the Solea Valley and surrounded by thick forest between the banks of two rivers — and discovering its hidden shops, local inns and church, while trying to navigate using the random street signs.

Beautifully inviting, the village consists largely of traditional wood and stone houses with quaint balconies among narrow cobbled streets, usually with a seated local making their wares or gearing up for a chat.

We were stopped several times as we ambled through the narrow cobbled streets, to buy the traditional glyko — translated as a sweet, but also referring to fruit in syrup and anything from walnuts to watermelon peel and cherries — that the world-weary and aged grandmothers were making in the streets beside their homes. Sparking up conversation, we were obliged to provide a sympathetic ear to their woes and walk away with at least two or three jars to appease them.

The old village isn’t easy to negotiate, but overlooking all of this is one of its most picturesque attractions. The Mill Hotel and Mylos Restaurant, easy to spot, is imposingly set into the mountain above. Dating from the middle of the 17th century, the building was originally owned by the church, but eventually fell into disrepair in the 1950s.

Today it has been fully restored with a much-lauded Greek restaurant and a 13-room hotel, sensitively complementing the mill’s original design with dark woods and heavy, deep patterned rugs. It makes the most of the thick stone walls, keeping the heat at bay.

Rural Cyprus is still very much undiscovered by visitors to the island and this village, and many others like it, offer a richer and more culturally rewarding experience. Agrotourism (promoting trips in working agricultural villages, where people can join in the activity) and even wine tours are available in the region, as are haloumi cheese-making and Greek cooking lessons. There are beautiful frescoed churches to discover nearby, among them Agios Nikolaos tis Stegis and Panagia tis Podithou. But all those activities would have to wait for another day. For us, like many of the locals who own summer properties here (35 miles southwest of the capital Nicosia), we were making the most of an escape from the stiflingly hot sun. Kakopetria is easily reached on a self-drive itinerary and makes a great weekend escape, allowing you to explore the greener side of the island. We were just in time for lunch, and at least this time we’d been invited.

How to do it: Sunvil Holidays offers four-nights’ B&B at the Linos Inn in Kakopetria from £536 per person, departing in September. The price includes return flights from Gatwick and car hire.  www.sunvil.co.uk
10 EUROPEAN ESCAPES

01 A Hiker’s Hideaway in Greece
Between May and mid-October, One Foot On The Mountain, a rustic B&B in the Greek village of Exochori, promises a relatively cheap, but very cheerful holiday. Lying on the Greek Peloponnese’s Mani peninsula, it’s ideal for mixing traditional village life with hikes that start right from the door. One highlight is a descent of the Viros Gorge. Though bathrooms are shared here, there’s plenty of hot water thanks to solar power and rainwater harvesting, and the coast is only five miles away if you want to take a longer dip.

How to do it: Double rooms cost from €45 (£38) for B&B. The nearest airport is Kalamata, 21 miles away. Charter airlines fly from the UK in summer, including Thomas Cook from Gatwick and Manchester, from around £130 return. Alternatively, fly to Athens and take a bus to Kalamata (three hours-plus). From Kalamata, buses to Kardamili take an hour.
www.flythomascook.com  www.one-foot-on-the-mountain.eu
Alternative: Base yourself at the Hotel Biescas in the Valle de Tena and head out into the Spanish Pyrenees on a different walk every day. www.hikepyrenees.co.uk

02 Alpine Adventure in Slovenia
If you’re looking for high-altitude adventure, but the Alps are too crowded and you’ve trekked the Pyrenees already, turn to Slovenia’s Julian Alps instead. The area around Lake Bled, a giant glacial pool set amid spectacular forests and picturesque waterfalls at the eastern entrance to Triglav National Park, is fast becoming a place of pilgrimage for the outdoors enthusiast in search of new territory. Check into one of Camping Bled’s wooden wigwams and see the local sights in style, from the dramatic island church at the centre of the lake to the medieval castle at its edge, before setting out on a personal hiking, biking or wildlife watching expedition in the national park.

How to do it: Wooden wigwams start from €30 (£25) per night, self-catering, for two people (www.camping-bled.com). Getting there by train from the UK takes less than 24 hours by Eurostar to Paris, sleeper to Munich and a connecting train to Bled (for details, see www.seat61.com). Or fly to Ljubljana, 40 miles away, with EasyJet from Stansted from around £40 return (www.easyjet.com).
Alternative: Explore the World Heritage landscape of Norway’s Geirangerfjord, staying at a hotel designed to minimise the boundary between man and nature and spending your days walking, climbing, fishing or rafting. www.magneticnorthtravel.com

03 Howling with Wolves in Sweden
For anyone feeling a need to escape the modern world for a while, Kolarbyn, in Sweden, is an ideal place to head to. This cluster of 12 off-grid forest huts outside Skinnskatteberg is only two hours’ drive northwest of Stockholm. Kayak on a lake, learn bushcraft skills, track moose or, between June and September, track wolves on a two-day wolf adventure while sleeping under canvas.

How to do it: Two-day tours from £221 per person, including accommodation and some meals, with additional nights in Kolarbyn’s forest huts from £54 per person on B&B. www.naturetravels.co.uk
Alternative: Walk in bear territory in Slovakia’s High Tatras mountains, with local conservation group Projekt Medved. www.walksworldwide.com

04 Rustic Chic in Croatia
The quintessential cute cottage, Kuchica (it means ‘small house’ in Croatian) couldn’t be more Hansel and Gretel-like unless it was actually made of gingerbread. Decorated with colourful flea market finds, with antique twin beds downstairs and eight dorm beds tucked in the attic, it’s the epitome of rustic chic. With its organic garden, this carefully restored 100-year-old building is an ideal location for budding gourmets to try out their skills. And when you’re stuffed to bursting, you can work it all off with walks in the surrounding hills.

How to do it: Rental starts at €60 (£51) per night for two people, with extra guests charged at €7 (£6). www.kuchica.com
Alternative: Enjoy rustic chic at the family-owned Taxhof guesthouse, set on a working organic farm on the edge of Austria’s Hohe Tauern National Park. www.aufberg.at

05 A Cultural Excursion in Italy
If World of Interiors magazine were to commission its own Alpine retreat, it would probably look something like Pension Briol. Set high in the Italian Dolomites, an hour’s walk from the village of Barbiano (there’s no car access, though you can arrange for a pick-up truck to run you there), it was designed in 1928 by the artist Hubert Lanzinger in Bauhaus style and operates from May to September as a 13-room guesthouse. Briol’s deceptively simple stone, wood and white linen textures — not to mention a cool, circular outdoor swimming pool — make a unique base camp for both mountain and architecture lovers, but one of the main attractions of staying here is a chance to set out on foot into the surrounding pastures and villages.

How to do it: Doubles from €82.50 (£71) per person on half-board. The closest train station to Barbiano is Chiusa. Return fares from London from around £189. There are buses from Chiusa to Barbian.  www.briol.it  www.raileurope.co.uk  www.barbian.it
Alternative: Staying in an old but very luxurious stone cottage in the village of Mascognaz, in Italy’s Aosta Valley, with hiking, yoga, history tours and wine and food tasting excursions on tap. Walk in, or arrange a 4WD transfer.  www.hotelleriedemascognaz.com

06 Pampering in the Czech Republic
They take indulgence seriously in Marianske Lazne, a traditional spa town in the far west of the Czech Republic. The local springs have been drawing travellers in search of healing since the 13th century, though the town really grew in popularity in the early 20th century, when every aristocrat worth their salt would come to take the mineral rich waters or bathe in them – Edward VII apparently visited nine times.

How to do it: One-week half-board packages from around £650 per person, including flights from London to Prague, transfers, use of the spa facilities and a programme of spa treatments and therapies. www.thermaliaspas.co.uk
Alternative: Closer to home, hop on a ferry to Brittany and make the most of the New England-style surroundings and spa facilities of Locquirec’s Grand Hotel des Bains. www.i-escape.com

07 Treehouse Holidays in France
Whether you have children in tow or not, sleeping in a treehouse is a sure-fire way to add an air of playfulness to your holiday – and an obvious way to get closer to nature. The simplest way to make like Tarzan this summer is to hop across the Channel. France now boasts all manner of trees to camp out in, from the stylish and secluded Perche dans le Perche in Normandy to the more Swiss Family Robinson rustic charm of Treehouse France in the Gers.

How to do it: Perche dans le Perche costs from €150 (£129) per night for two people. Treehouse France costs from €100 (£86) per night for up to six. Top Tree Houses lists 30 treehouse sites across France from around €90 (£77) per night for two.
www.perchedansleperche.com  www.treehousefrance.com  www.top-tree houses.co.uk
Alternative: Seventh Heaven is a new treehouse suite opening this summer at Hotel Andrum in west Sweden. www.islanna.com

08 Trekking Turkey’s Lycian Way
As an early or late summer long-distance hiking trail, a one-week section of the Lycian Way is highly recommended (it’s too challenging for most in the midsummer heat). It’s less busy than easier-to-reach treks such as the Camino de Santiago in Spain — you’ll pass lofty pine trees, the cobalt sea and dramatic archaeological ruins en route as you skirt Turkey’s ‘turquoise coast’.

How to do it: Lycian Way packages with Exclusive Escapes start at £790 per person with flights, a private guide, luggage transfer and seven nights’ full-board. www.exclusiveescapes.co.uk
For details of how to do it independently, see www.trekkinginturkey.com
Alternative: Hike from village to village along the Costa Vicentina, on Portugal’s southwest Atlantic coast, enjoying superb wildlife, dramatic beaches and surf-fresh seafood en route. www.inntravel.co.uk

09 A Creative Retreat in Andalucia
From orange trees, Moorish architecture and wild gypsy melodies to the package hotels and golf resorts of the Costa del Sol, the best and worst of Spanish culture is to be found in Andalucia. If you want to navigate straight towards the former, book in at Cortijada Los Gázquez, a gorgeous family-run farmhouse hideaway in the region’s rolling backcountry. You can either book in just for B&B or join one of the owners’ creative courses. The latest addition to the schedule is ‘The Food of Art’, a food illustration course, mixing visits to local markets with instruction on design and drawing back at the farmstead.

How to do it: Double rooms cost from €85 (£73) for B&B. The Food of Art course costs from €710 (£614) per person for five days’ full-board. To get there, the owners recommend taking the train to Granada via Paris and Madrid. Airlines flying to Almeria, two hours’ drive away, include EasyJet, from around £60 return. www.losgazquez.com  www.seat61.com  www.easyjet.com
Alternative: Capture your surroundings with artistic confidence while enjoying Italy’s Abruzzo region on Frui’s ‘Painting for the Petrified’ breaks. www.frui.co.uk

10 Natural Swimming in Austria
Those who like to soak up their summer holiday scenery from the cool comfort of a pool can do so in more carefree and eco-friendly fashion if they book a stay close to Banana Lake, in the Austrian village of Schwoich. Since it reopened as a natural pool in 1998, the water here has been naturally filtered through plants rather than being pumped full of chemicals and there’s some wooden decking and a pebble beach where people can relax on between dips.

How to do it: Double rooms at the Pension Perle in Schwoich start at €50 (£43) for B&B. It’s an easy journey to the intercity train stop of Kufstein, three miles from Schwoich by bus. If you’d rather fly, Easyjet flies from Gatwick, Liverpool and Bristol to Innsbruck, an hour’s drive away.  www.perle-tirol.com  www.seat61.com  www.kufstein.com  www.easyjet.com
Alternative: Make the most of the light summer nights and go hiking, lake swimming and hopping in and out of saunas in the west of Finland’s Loppi region. www.swimtrek.com