Gozo’s beach and basilica, Malta
After some gentle winter sunshine to warm your skin and soothe your soul? Take a trip to Gozo, an island with wonderful coastal scenery a short ferry ride from Malta. Walk along the coast to admire the Azure Window; swim in untouched waters on secluded beaches and admire the neo-Romanesque architecture of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Ta’ Pinu. Spend the evenings eating freshly caught fish with a glass of Maltese wine, which rivals its Mediterranean neighbours in quality.
Oviedo and wild Asturias, Spain
Asturias, in northern Spain, is chilly and wet in December, which was perfect for us. We stayed in an affordable apartment in the old town of Oviedo, which is beautiful. The Museo de Bellas Artes and Museo Arqueológico de Asturias were excellent, free, and almost empty. Armed with umbrellas, we wandered the tangle of pedestrianised streets, alleys and plazas, stopping at sidrerías to sample local cider. We browsed the Christmas market and followed inflatable giant horses to see the Christmas lights switch on. The city is surrounded by vivid green hills and snow-topped mountains. We also visited the wild beaches of the rugged Costa Verde.
Lake Vouliagmeni, Athens
About 10 miles south of Athens is Vouliagmeni, an affluent suburb brushing the coast. Its lake, warmer than the sea at this time of year because of hot springs underneath, is said to contain healing properties. Perhaps more importantly, there are fewer people there in winter than in summer – giving the experience a private, almost mystical feel. Early mornings or late afternoons are best at this time of year. Nearby is Rumors, which serves maybe the best coffee in town.
Pizzas and piazzas in Naples
The relative warmth of Naples makes it an accommodating city for winter travellers who want to explore. The city takes on a gothic feel, so pull on your boots and traipse the cobbled streets of piazzerias and winding alleys. Already atmospheric, the history of Pompeii comes to life even more on a grey winter’s day. In summer the sweltering heat of a pizzeria can feel suffocating; in winter the relief of entering one with a wood-fired oven, and tucking into world-renowned pizza, makes for one of the cosiest European experiences.
Mallorca serves up mountain and Med views
Yes, the resorts are like ghost towns, but the beaches are still there, the mountains are still there (walk the Ruta de Pedra en Sec, the Dry Stone Route), the Kodak-moment villages are still there. Stroll some of the eight miles of beach in Alcúdia. The mountain-fringed views of the Med are the same as in July, without waiting for someone in an ill-fitting swimsuit to get out of shot. There are great train connections, too. The town of Sóller and its port glimmer in the sun. Take the train that “serves” Manacor for all things Rafa Nadal. You can also take a train to Sa Pobla and enjoy the Sant Antoni celebrations. Not to be missed in early January (usually the 5th) are the Three Kings festivities all over the island. It’s probably the day to be there.
Ski and sightsee, Sofia, Bulgaria
To me, Sofia is southern Europe’s unsung gem, with a vibrant food scene and mountains a stone’s through from its centre. We took a day trip by bus to Borovets ski resort (from the south bus station, changing at Samokov), which has fantastic pistes and views to Serbia, for £50 including ski pass and equipment hire. Back in town we refuelled on kebapche and Bulgarian wine at Skara bar. Don’t miss Made in Blue, a cafe with creative small plates in a higgledy-piggledy house, or the Constantinoff RestoBar on the grand Vitosha Boulevard for more of a blowout.
River adventures in Bosnia and Herzegovina
The rivers of Bosnia and Herzegovina in winter: first, Mostar – winding empty cobbled streets, cosy restaurants with grills and fresh breads, winter markets with mulled wine, and the wonderful cascading Neretva river. We strolled with umbrellas in the December drizzle, learning the painful recent history from our local tour guide. We then travelled to Trebinje, staying at Hotel Studenac on the Trebišnjica river, a trout farm with spa, incredible restaurant and rooms upstairs.
The quiet beauty of Venice
Entering Venice as night fell, the vaporetto wound its way down the emerald Grand Canal. January in Venice is – having been a frequent visitor to the city – absolutely the best time to see why it’s called La Serenissima. No crowds, no queues, little noise. The sunsets and the fog make the city even more magical. Wrap up warm, wander the quiet streets and see how long it takes you to realise you haven’t heard a car for days. We stayed at Locanda Ca’ le Vele.
Second-city serenade, Porto
Late-afternoon sun bathes the terracotta roofs as we settle in for lunch – a francesinha, Porto’s doorstep sandwich. It’s December, we’ve escaped Christmas preparations for a weekend in Portugal’s second city. The sky’s as blue as São Bento station’s azulejo tiles as we explore, stopping frequently for coffee and pastéis de nata. Evening is spent sampling the local tipple at the port houses. A short metro ride takes us to Matosinhos, where after watching hardy surfers tackle Atlantic waves, we follow the scent of barbecue to an alfresco lunch: grilled fresh fish washed down with crisp white wine. We stayed at Hotel NH Collection Porto Batalha.
Winning tip: Trekking out Cyprus
Walking in Cyprus in winter is wonderful. Explore the Aphrodite and Adonis trails, among others, through the remote and beautiful Akamas peninsula. We enjoyed the smell of the pine forests in seclusion while trekking the vast Troodos mountains. The coastal paths from Pissouri are magical, don’t miss a visit to the wonderful Kourion archaeological site – a bargain at €5 – the views from the cliffside have to be seen to be believed. Finish with a trip to the superb Chris blue beach restaurant on Episkopi beach.