Last year about this time, we noted the regime of Recip Tayyip Erdogan was turning Turkey into a dictatorship.
Since a failed July 2016 coup attempt, Erdogan has jailed hundreds of thousands of people including American tourists, who were essentially held as hostages.
Things got so bad American officials announced they were suspending most visa services at its diplomatic facilities across Turkey. Until those services were restored late last month, Americans literally couldn’t go to Turkey.
In a few short years, Turkey went from our favorite destination for every travel category from adventure to luxury to a country we can’t in good conscience recommend that expats visit.
Erdogan’s extremism caused big problems in the travel industry. Mass travel companies such as Thomas Cook were forced to divert package tours to other locations … and Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus and Portugal reaped the benefits.
Which makes us incredibly sad. Turkey, where we lived for years, has arguably the greatest range of attractions, from Topkapı Palace in Istanbul to the sybaritic sands of Bodrum.
Here’s the rub: Turkey was the perfect affordable destination. When you take it out of the mix, choices for Europe-based expats get a lot less interesting.
Or as a French official asked recently, when was the last time you took your spouse/partner for a romantic weekend in Frankfurt?
So, last year, we came up a list of alternative destinations that are (almost) as beautiful, unspoiled, welcoming and affordable as Turkey. And actually, the research surprised us. On a continent that’s more visited than any other, we actually found under-appreciated travel destinations.
So our 2018 list has a few surprises.
We also dropped from the list a few destinations overwhelmed with tourists such as Portugal and Croatia. And yeah, we listen when our fellow expats make recommendations.
All are seriously viable destinations:
Last year, our friends Melahat Ozsimsek, who’s Turkish, and Tamar Pharadashvili, a Georgia native working in Eindhoven, clued us in on Georgia. What they describe made us long to visit.
All the things we miss about Turkey: Ancient villages, mountains, deserts, the sea, wide-open spaces, great food and lots and lots of spirits. All for maybe 50 percent of what we’d pay in Paris … and very, very few tourists compared to, say, Venice.
That said, the infrastructure is in place for visitors, which hit 6 million last year. (See the video above.)
After multiple visits since 2015, Mel’s favorite place to stay is the town of Mestia. Mestia is the Real Georgia … more than 200 kilometers northwest of the largest city/capital of Tbilisi, and just south of the Russian border. “Mestia is geared up for travelers,” she said. “It has many homestay hostels as well as hotels that are a bit upgraded.”
Georgia is one of the few places in Europe where you can experience the truly exotic in architecture and languages. The food also is a departure from Western Europe, Tamara told us … spicy and aromatic, with walnuts a staple. Georgian pizza, khachapuri, is divine. (Editor’s note: The New York Times has a current post, “Humble Magic in Georgian Capital’s Restaurant Renaissance,” about Tbilisi’s emerging food scene.)
All in all, a must-visit on the Dispatches list for 2018.
Pluses: Unlike Portugal, Croatia and other hot spots, Georgia is mostly undiscovered, at least for Europeans and Americans.
Minuses: Georgia is not Switzerland with a fair amount of political instability and a brewing conflict with South Ossetia. Not the easiest country in Europe to get to. That said, Novo Alexeyevka Airport in Tblisi has nonstop flights to 39 cities. It appears you can fly to George from major airports such as Schiphol in Amsterdam and Frankfurt Airport.
Slovenia got a big 2017 bump in tourism as the birthplace of U.S. First Lady Melania Trump.
This tiny country in south-central Europe already gets 4 million foreign tourists each year, twice its total population. We’ve never been, but we only hear good things about both its cities such as Ljubljana and its countryside.
Lake Bled has everything from its own castle to serious trekking. Slovenia’s wild rivers including the Soča River offer white-water opportunities. The Soča Valley is but one of a dozen alpine valleys, many of which are part of national parks.
There are multiple must-visit castles including Ljubljana Castle.
Slovenia’s currency is the euro, which cuts both ways. No conversion worries, but prices are higher than, say, Bulgaria.
Note to self: Make Slovenia your new favorite.
Pluses: It’s fairly undiscovered. Lonely Planet calls it “an unexpected revelation” of mountain valleys and unspoiled castles and Medieval cities. A great destination for more sophisticated, well-heeled travelers. A wide range of accommodations from 5-star hotels in Ljubljana to tourist farms and “glamping.”
Minuses: Location. No, the location is great. Unfortunately, it’s next to Trieste, Venice and the Croatian coast, so visitors tend to wander off. It could be because of the official tourism slogan, “I feel Slovenia.” What does that even mean?
Last year, we featured Madeira in a post by expat Beth Hoke, and what she wrote really resonated with us.
Yes, it’s a cruise-ship destination. But it’s relatively isolated out in the Atlantic off the coast of Morocco.
Two-thirds of Madeira, which is technically Portugal, is UNESCO-protected laurel forest. So there’s less development than on party islands such as Ibiza.
Bottom line: This is a sun-and-fun destination not unlike Turkey. The difference between just another place to sit by the sea and a real adventure is all the cultural experiences a great destination offers along with trekking and sailing.
There’s plenty to do and buy for tourists. But this is also a place for artists (including Winston Churchill in the day) and adventurers.
Madeira is one of those places you could go on a summer vacay, then never leave.
Pluses: Part of Portugal, so the gourmet experience awaits including fine wines and ports. Also, the hotel offerings can be posh including the Belmond Reid’s Palace, a century-old historic hotel frequented by famous guests Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Roger Moore, Gregory Peck, and Rainer Maria Rilke.
Minuses: You MUST book early for Christmas and New Year’s Eve as the sun-seeking crowds pour in.
You’re thinking, “Gunug with the all the Dispatches posts about Bulgaria.”
Well, Bulgaria just keeps getting hotter because it remains insanely affordable while offering something for everyone from culture to beach fun.
Bulgaria is unlike some destinations in the Balkans in that it’s prepared for an expansion in tourism whether you’re talking about skiing, spas or beaches.
So much of what Bulgaria has to offer visitors is overlooked, such as the regions with numerous wine cellars producing top-quality Bulgarian wines.
Wineries in the region around Svilengrad and on the Romanian border to the north, Preslav on the Black Sea hinterland in the east and Sliven on the Balkan foothills are all starting to get noticed for very drinkable wines.
Pluses: Modern cities such as Sofia have really inviting parks and museums. There are also high-end hotels flying the flags of Hilton and Radisson Blu, as well as spas.
Minuses: If you’re comparing Bulgaria to Turkey, it’s seriously apples to oranges. Turkey is a vast country with a land mass almost eight times as large as Bulgaria. That said, Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman empire. Trouble is, it was also part of the Soviet Bloc, and it’s been a long climb out of Communism. Finally, English isn’t as widespread here as in other parts of Europe.
Through the ages, Greece has been Turkey’s great rival, so it’s sort of ironic that Greece will likely pick up a lot of tourist dollars that would have gone to the other side of the Aegean.
But it still has some of the most beautiful real estate on earth, not to mention the most historic. A gigantic collection of destinations from poster-perfect Santorini to exotic Crete that have little in common, but lots to offer.
Kos is a party island choked with Germans.
Chios is the real Greece that hasn’t changed that much since World War II.
Lesbos has great food and a level of sophistication above, say, Chios. Samos is unspoiled.
My sister Marjorie returns to Corfu for the summer every year. She could go anywhere, so this is quite an endorsement.
This is probably the country most like Turkey whether the Greeks want to admit it or not.
Pluses: Even though Greece is a euro country, prices are crazy low as the migrant crisis has cut into tourism.
Minuses: Our personal experience is, you have to be pretty diligent about checking out the hotels in Greece. We had one of the worst experiences ever in Chios. You’re far better off to go with boutique hotels. Also, we had some crazy experiences with unpleasant Greek customs officials back in the day.
Final word: If you’re already in love with Greece and – like everyone we know – dream of living there, check out the ITV series “The Durrells in Corfu.”
This may be a last-chance opportunity. Romania is rapidly catching Greece as the richest country in the Balkans. In 2016 Romania turned in the highest rate of GDP growth in the European Union.
So we suspect Romania won’t remain a bargain for long.
So why visit?
Just as we hear more good things about Bulgaria and Georgia, the expat adventurers we know who favor under-the-radar destinations are talking about Romania. A lot.
About the Carpathian Mountains, which include some of the wildest terrain – not to mention wildest animals – in Europe.
About Bucharest, which has the largest percentage increase growth in overnight hotel stays in Europe, topping Lisbon, Berlin or Amsterdam, according to the Mastercard Global Index of Urban Destinations. Of course, percentage increase is a bit misleading when you’re starting from zero. And Bucharest is no Budapest – the former with a heavy percentage of Ceausescu-era concrete buildings.
But the truth is, Bucharest is experiencing a renaissance not so different from Sofia, with more and better restaurants and big infrastructure upgrades.
The real reason to visit is mountains – lots of them – and wilderness in a country three times the size of the Netherlands with the same population (about 20 million).
In those mountains and wilderness areas are wolves, bears, lynxes and Dracula’s castle.
The Transfagarasan Road takes you to all kinds of crazy tourist destinations in the heart of the country including Bran Castle, home to Dracula. As a special bonus, the Transfagarasan is one of the most dramatic roads to drive in the world. Check out this video of a road trip in, of all things, a 5.0 liter Mustang.
Finally, there’s the Danube Delta, one of the world’s third most biologically diverse areas.
The tourism website for Romania is terrific. Don’t check it out if you’re just browsing casually because you’ll end up booking a trip. We’ll drive, by the way.
Pluses: A whole country full of sites and destinations you’ve never even heard of.
Minuses: The communists tried to turn Romania, like so much of the Balkans, into a gray proletarian paradise full of slab concrete apartment buildings and giant factories. A lot of the Brutalist Architecture ruins what used to be beautiful cities. Also, they’re still not on the euro even though Romania is an EU country.
This is Europe, yet it’s not Europe. The Maltese language is – get this – Afro-Asiatic. A Semitic offshoot of Arabic, it also has Italian and English influences, reflective of its location at the crossroads of history and culture.
The architecture is unlike any other place in Europe, which is why “Game of Thrones” shoots on location in Malta. Prehistoric Maltese Temple structures way predate the Pyramids of Egypt.
Maltese Baroque architecture is basically a variation on architecture from Spain and Italy, but with its own local twist.
In short, Malta looks like no other place.
Though in a way, it’s Turkey lite. Three hundred days of sun. Sea views. Ancient cities. Great food at alfresco restaurants. More expensive, but also a bit glossier.
Unlike other beach destinations in Europe, Malta also offers diving in crystal clear seas.
Pluses: Despite increasing popularity, Malta is still not a cliché destination.
Minuses: Malta’s great location down south of Sicily in the Med, which gives it great weather, is also its curse in that it’s a bit difficult to reach. It’s about a three-hour flight from northern Europe including London, Amsterdam and Berlin. That doesn’t stop it from being a top sun-and-sea destination for Brits. Also, Malta increasingly is in the news because of political corruption including the murder of a journalist. Not a good thing.
Like Malta and Georgia, this is Europe … yet it isn’t.
Many years ago, I crossed the border into Armenia from Azerbaijan. I was busy playing Army, so I didn’t get to see much of the country. But I was struck by going from Muslim-majority Azerbaijan and its oil wealth to middle-of-nowhere Armenia, which aside from being Christian, seemed very Central Asian in its vastness and emptiness.
Not to mention stuck in the 16th century. At the time I was living in Turkey, and I dazzled by how much that part of Armenia looked like eastern Turkey.
Again, Armenia has everything Turkey has except the sea and the sophisticated resorts of Bodrum, Kalkan and Alaçati.
Lots of fortresses and temples. Lots of mountains and volcanos going all the way to more than 13,000 feet. Lots of monasteries in remote areas including three UNESCO World Heritage Sites. And don’t forget:
• Rock Climbing
Again, the main travel website is well-done and super informative.
Pluses: Everyone we know who visited loved it.
Minuses: You REALLY leave behind your linguistic comfort zone. In most of Europe, there’s always someone who speaks English. Here, not so much. Learn Russian before you go. And good roads are non-existent in remote areas.
And remember, the premise is, “Where can you go that – like Turkey – is fabulous and affordable?”
Nina recommends Montenegro, which translates to “Black Mountain.” And this is a unique destination because Montenegro is the best place to experience Albania. What do we mean?
Well, Montenegro enjoys one of Europe’s most interesting locations … south of Croatia, but north of Albania.
Albania … sheesh, where to start. It has one of the most amazing coasts in the world. BUT, you don’t want to go there because it’s just not ready for tourism. And it’s not safe. Like, at all.
I had a Kosovar Albanian friend who went to Albania fishing and got robbed 10 minutes after he crossed the border.
One of the newest nations in the world (Montenegrans voted themselves out of Serbia in 2006), Montenegro is ready for the spotlight, though at the moment is on few travelers’ radars. And that’s a shame because it has a lot to offer including:
• Boka Bay, a great place to base your visit. It’s referred to as the southern-most fjord in Europe because it’s a super-deep river canyon that empties into the Adriatic. Boka Bay apparently has its own micro-climes.
• wilderness, with half the country still covered in forests. Montenegro has the greatest bio-diversity in all of Europe. The human population is only about 700,000.
• some of the highest, most rugged mountains in Europe, averaging more than 2,100 meters (7,000 feet.)
Montenegro has almost too much to list. It’s like if you took Slovenia and all its scenery and plopped it down in southern Balkans, then added brick and stucco buildings with those red clay roofing tiles so popular in the Adriatic.
It’s more than just a sun-and-fun destination. Montenegro has high mountain ranges, and the Tara River canyon is the deepest and longest in Europe.
Pluses: A euro country that’s still undiscovered. Still affordable. And still not overrun with tourists. (Well, Russians, yes, but Europeans no.) Better hurry ….
Minuses: This is still the Balkans, not Switzerland. It can get a bit dicey, and coups are still a thing. Also, this isn’t Malta, so the post-Soviet architecture, along with new buildings, can be underwhelming. And those Russian tourists ….
Yes, Turkey wrested control of the north side of this Mediterranean island back in 1973, with the Republic of Cyprus independent, but supported by Greece. Laswt year, talks that could’ve reunified the island didn’t.
Pity … it would’ve meant a dramatic change in its tourism fortunes.
Not that it really needs it, eh?
Cyprus has always been an English outpost and the Daily Mail Online just dubbed it the least expensive destination for Brits, with a week’s holiday in Paphos for four costing 1,130 pounds. I recommend the north side simply because it’s far less developed and far more authentic than the mass-tourism south.
When I visited back in the early 2000s, I heard as much English as Turkish. I watched in awe at restaurants as families dined together, with kids effortlessly switching back and forth between the two languages.
I came to Cyprus as a romantic under the spell of Lawrence Durrell’s classic “Bitter Lemons,” about Greeks and Turks living in the odd little village of Bellapais.
I was not disappointed.
The Abbey and even the Tree of Idleness Durrell memorialized are still there, and as a matter of fact, there are several nice boutique hotels and B&Bs.
Northern Cyprus has all the seascapes and mountain vistas of nearby Turkey, and even better beaches. Of the two major cities – Gazimağusa (Famagusta) and Girne (Kyrenia) – I recommend Girne simply because it’s not been overrun with 20-story concrete hotels.
Pluses: A big island with lots of different experiences including casinos.
Minuses: Every town has two names … a Turkish name, and a Greek name. Which I could never keep straight. Girne is the Turkish name for the port, and Kyrenia is the Greek name for the place, for example.