20 great holidays in Central Europe
Friendly farm stay
The hamlet of Kupljenik is only an hour’s drive from Slovenia’s Ljubljana airport but it feels a world away. Surrounded by meadows, Dolinar farmhouse offers simple double rooms with rustic wooden furnishings as well as larger apartments. Outside, crickets chirp at sunset, the Sava river is full of trout and guests can help milk the goats should they wish (they make the farm’s organic goat’s cheese and curd), or even join in with haymaking. On Lake Bled, a 10-minute drive away, anglers can try their luck for pike, carp and lake trout.
• Double rooms from £44 B&B, apartment for four £70 a night, dolinar-krainer.com. Flights as previous
Ride the Julian Alps
One of the joys of cycling around Slovenia’s north-west is having the craggy limestone backdrop of the Julian Alps. Inntravel has a new self-guided cycling tour here this summer, staying in three- and four-star hotels (one with a spa) and taking in Lake Bled and Vintgar gorge and finishing up in Radovljica, which has a beekeeping museum. Local beekeeping traditions are a focus, tying in with the recent UN declaration, on Slovenia’s initiative, of an annual World Bee Day (20 May).
• From £798pp including six nights’ B&B, four dinners, bicycle hire, maps, notes and luggage transfers but not flights, inntravel.co.uk. EasyJet and WizzAir fly to Ljubljana from Gatwick, Luton and Stansted
In Slovenia’s rural areas nearly everything that comes out of the kitchen is “local”. At Urška Eco Farm, a 40-minute drive from Maribor, the focus is on slow food. In the kitchen, Vilma, the cook, turns out strudels and pies, dairy products decorated with edible flowers and homemade cottage cheese. Vegetarians and vegans are particularly well catered for. Wellness is also a focus here, with Turkish baths, a Jacuzzi and a hay bath. The bedrooms are simply decorated with solid wooden furniture and little touches like felt slippers.
• £47 per person half-board, metija-urska.si. Flights as previous
Kayak, hike, bike
Sea kayaking in the Elaphiti archipelago, cycling in Krka River national park and hiking in the Plitvice Lakes national park all go into making Croatia one of Europe’s best outdoor destinations. Huck Finn Adventures, a local outfit who abide by their motto “see them as they are, leave them as they were,” has a summery Best of Croatia multisport trip, packing in all of the above, and more, over eight days.
• From £1,090pp including accommodation, most meals, equipment, park entrance fees and transfers, but not flights, huckfinncroatia.com. Several airlines fly to Dubrovnik from UK airports
The Istria peninsula’s coast lures crowds of sunseekers, but travel inland and it’s more about hilltop villages and cobbled streets. It is also a culinary paradise – with resh seafood, white truffles and premium olive oils are the norm. Inntravel has a new self-guided hotel-to-hotel cycling trip this summer, taking in the coast and villages such as Brtonigla, and medieval Buje, before ending up at Rovinj, with its baroque palaces, and Pula, famous for its Roman heritage.
• From £895pp for seven-nights’ B&B, three dinners, cycle hire, maps and notes and luggage transfers, but not flights, inntravel.co.uk. Jet2, easyJet, Ryanair and TUI fly to Pula from several UK airports
Camping Glavotok, on the island of Krk, is an easy 30-minute drive from Rijeka airport, courtesy of a road bridge. The site is known for its rustic setting, and the pitches with the best sea views (263-280 and 327-334) are booked up to a year in advance. This summer, there’s still plenty of availability for shady woodland pitches. A typical day at Camp Glavotok might involve exploring a rocky beach in the morning, strolling through a forest reserve in the afternoon and hanging out at a low-key beach bar at night.
• From £16 a night for two adults with their own tent, coolcamping.com. Ryanair flies to Rijeka from Stansted
Cottage for two
Kameni Dvori is a dinky stone house sleeping two amid green meadows in the Konavle Valley, near Dubrovnik. Owned by brothers Duro and Ivo, the cottage has lots of green-minded touches: electricity is sun-powered, geo-thermal energy powers the aircon, and guests are invited to help themselves from the vegetable garden. From here, there are views of 1,200-metre Mount Sniježnica and the nearby vineyards that the southernmost tip of Croatia is known for. It’s also perfectly placed for cycling and walking routes.
• From £52 a night, responsibletravel.com. Several airlines fly to Dubrovnik from UK airports
Families who want to mix some urban exploration into a rural getaway might like Families Worldwide’s eight-day Prague and Tatras Adventure (for children aged 8 and over). It starts in the Czech capital before heading on an overnight train to the Carpathian mountains of Slovakia, then on to the castle of Spis, a cycle ride to historic Kezmarok and rafting through Dunajec gorge. Crossing the Polish border, it takes in Niedzica castle and rafting in the Dunajec gorge.
• From £1,099 (£999 children) including B&B and activities, but not flights, familiesworldwide.co.uk. Fly to Prague and back from Kraków
Mountains in summer
In the winter, skiers descend on the northern Czech town of Harrachov, near the Polish border, but in the summer it’s all about walking and biking. From the town there are dozens of trails and the deafening Mumlava waterfall – one of the country’s largest – is a good spot to cool off. Given the wintertime skiing scene, there are plenty of mountain hotels to stay in and the small 15-bedroom chalet-style Harrachovská Hacienda has direct access to cross-country and cycling trails, a Finnish sauna and plenty of availability this summer.
• Doubles £54 B&B, harrachovskahacienda.cz. Fly to Prague or Wrocław, Poland, both a two-hour drive from Harrachov
Across Europe by train
Sometimes it’s more fun to take the train. From London St Pancras, it’s easy to travel to central Europe, with a train to Brussels and then onwards to Prague or Budapest (see seat61.com for step-by-step instructions). Or get someone else to do the organising: Vacations By Rail’s new 11-day tour stays in hotels and travels partly on the Hungaria, one of Europe’s longest-running express services, from Berlin to Budapest. The tour goes through the Swiss mountains and across the Hungarian plains.
• £1,795pp. Departs 11 October, price includes all train travel, including Eurostar, and half-board accommodation, holidaysbyrail.com
The spa town of Karlovy Vary in western Bohemia, full of hot springs and grand colonnades, has lured luminaries such as Beethoven and Goethe over the years. There has been a building boom in recent years, but there are good hiking trails in surrounding pine forests, and the promise of revitalising spring waters on your return. Be sure to stop at the Soviet-era Hot Spring Colonnade, once named after cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, to see the impressive spurting geyser in its lobby.
• Stay just steps from the Colonnade in the centre of town at Egerlander Hof (doubles £50 B&B). Trains from Prague take just over three hours
High Tatra trek
Between Poland and Slovakia, the High Tatras has some of the finest wilderness in Europe and is home to wolves, brown bears and golden eagles. It also offers alpine-style adventuring at a fraction of the cost of Scandinavia or the Alps. KE Adventure has an eight-day cross-border hut-to-hut trekking trip taking in Poland’s highest peak, Mount Rysy – which Lenin is said to have climbed – before dropping into Slovakia and travelling by train to the mountain resort of Starý Smokovec.
• £685pp including transfers, accommodation and meals but not flights, departures June to September, keadventure.com. Jet2, easyJet, BA and Ryanair fly to Kraków from several UK airports
Byways and bison
Once a royal hunting ground and now a Unesco biosphere, Białowieża national park, north-east Poland, is best known for its bison. Europe’s largest land mammal has been successfully reintroduced, having died out here in 1919, and lives alongside elk, lynx and wolf. Tours are easily arranged, including to the oldest section of the park (which is strictly protected). Book via the local Polish Tourist and Sightseeing Society office. Guides are £45 for up to three hours.
• Stay at Unikat Guest House (doubles £30pn B&B), a five-minute walk from the park. Several airlines fly from the UK to Warsaw, 220km away
Poland has hundreds of kayakable rivers and thousands of paddle-friendly lakes. Augustów, an outdoorsy town by Lake Necko in the north-east, is an alluring base for good-value kayaking excursions; there is also an old yacht club that has been restored and converted into a resort. It’s popular with Warsaw citybreakers in the summer – and August sees a bizarre festival of homemade boats on the Netta river – so it pays to book accommodation well ahead.
• Szot rents kayaks from £6 a day. Doubles at Hotel Szuflada from £35B&B, with free bike hire. Fly to Warsaw
The small town of Tokaj, in the foothills of the Carpathian mountains in north-east Hungary, is famous for tokaji, one of the world’s finest sweet wines, rich with nectar-like marmalade, fig and cinnamon flavours. Naturally, Tokaj is awash with vineyards, farms and villages. Underneath it all is a fascinating and historic network of deep, cool wine cellars.
• The 13-room Torkolat guesthouse (doubles €42 room-only) in the historical centre of Tokaj has its own 200-year-old wine cellar, and can advise on local vineyards to visit. Wizz Air flies from Luton to Košice, Slovakia, a 1½-hour drive from Tokaj
Where eagles dare
Hungary has excellent wilderness regions, from the great eastern steppe to the woodlands of the Buda Hills. In late summer, birdwatchers gather in the national parks, particularly the northern karst-rich Bükk and Hortobágy in the east, as Hungary’s breeding birds are joined by returning passage birds from northern Europe. Naturetrek has an eight-day birdwatching tour that visits three of the country’s national parks, where you should spot the great bustard, imperial eagle and bee-eater.
• £1,695pp including accommodation, flights, meals and expert guide, departs 7 August, naturetrek.co.uk
As a base for seeing Hungary’s plentiful wildlife, Kondor Eco Lodge, 50 miles south of Budapest airport, has much to offer. Run by a professional naturalist couple, who lead tours focusing on subjects such as macro photography and wildflowers, the lodge has en suite rooms in thatched houses and a restaurant serving Hungarian specialities. In the surrounding forests and gardens are birdfeeders and wildlife-rich ponds.
• £95pp a day including full-board accommodation, professional guiding and transfers, but not flights, kondorecolodge.hu. Seven airlines fly to Budapest from various UK airports
Walkers in Slovakia’s Paradise national park are in for a few adrenaline rushes. Along 185 miles of marked trails, there are metal ladders, ledges, catwalk bridges, creepers and chains across ravines and canyons, and below it all hundreds of caves. Much Better Adventures has a three-day walking holiday in the park, mixing hiking in gorges and thermal pools with lunch stops at mountain huts. Hikers bed down at the family-run Hotel U Leva, in a restored medieval building in the Unesco-listed town of Levoča.
• Three days from £309 including breakfast, accommodation, local guide and airport transfers but not flights, muchbetteradventures.com. Several airlines fly from the UK to Kraków, the trip’s meeting point
Go on a bear hunt
Despite casualties from hunting, there are several hundred wild brown bears roaming the Carpathian mountains, and these animals are the focus of Tatra Photography’s four-day trip to Slovakia. Accompanied by a professional wildlife photographer, the group will gather in new custom-built hides in the early morning, when bears might be feeding, and again late in the evening, observing and photographing them.
• £1,199pp, departing on 8 or 11 October, the price includes flights from London to Kraków, transfers, half-board, photography tuition and workshops, tatraphotographyworkshop.com
Northern Slovakia’s Liptov area is famous for its folk traditions, geothermal parks, caves … and cheese. Salaš Krajinka, in Ružomberok in the lower Liptov, is a popular family-run farm and chalet restaurant with pastoral views of shepherds and sheep grazing and milking. No preservatives go into the hand-formed cheese and the bakery sells fresh cakes and potato bread. Lunch for two in the restaurant costs around £25.
• Hotel Kultura (doubles £63 B&B) in Ružomberok, a 10-minute drive away. Wizz Air flies from Luton to Košice (two hours’ drive) and to Bratislava (three hours’ drive); Ryanair flies to Bratislava from several UK airports