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Local Favourites - Where the Locals Holiday

Where do Athenians head to for a seaside break, and what's the go-to bolthole for Madrileños craving a change of cuisine? Neil Davey seeks out the hotspots that lure the locals year after year, from ancient architecture and Blue Flag beaches to labyrinthine alleys, all accessibale from major cites


Less than a two-hour drive from Athens is the remarkable town of Nafplio. Its charms are obvious on arrival and the rewards just get greater the more you explore, which explains why it’s so well loved by weekenders escaping the city. Historically – and mythologically speaking – Nafplio is a marvel. It was the first capital of Greece (from 1823 until 1834) but the town predates this by millennia: legend has it soldiers from the town participated in the Trojan War, and in mythology it was said to be founded by, and named for, Nafplios, the son of god Poseidon. Over the centuries, various empires shaped the culture, architecture and traditions of the town, helping to make it the fascinating place it is today, from the Acronauplia, the oldest part of the city, to the Palamidi Castle the Venetian fortress that towers over the town. The views from the latter are, happily, a spectacular reward for the 999-step climb required to reach it. Also worth seeing is the Bourtzi, the famous fortress on a rock in the middle of the bay, and the marble-paved Syntagma Square at the heart of the Old Town. Historic buildings and monuments here include the Archaeological Museum as well as two Turkish mosques, one of which now houses an art space – the other was home to the first Greek Parliament.

On the whole, though, this is a town to wander, a place dotted with architectural gems from many eras, churches and assorted sculptures, statues and fountains. Then there are the more natural pleasures of the sea and surrounding countryside – not to mention Ellas Taverna, which claims to be the first taverna in Greece. As you’d expect from a town that is popular all year round, there are myriad accommodation options – we like the boutique luxury
of the seven-room Impero with its views across the
Aegean, or the spacious, comfortable Perivoli Country Hotel &
Retreat in the hilly village of Pyrgiotika nearby.

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South of Milan, the crescent shaped coastal region known as The Italian Riviera – aka Liguria – stretches from Tuscany on one side to the French border on the other. Effectively enclosed between the mountains and the sea, it’s an area of quite outstanding natural beauty. No need to take our word for it, though: with 32 Blue Flag beaches, according to the United Nations Environment Programme’s 2022 awards, it’s officially Italy’s most pristine coastal stretch. It also boasts one of the country’s more interesting food cultures, from trofie pasta and farinata de ceci – a simple flatbread made with chickpea flour, to frittelle di baccalà (salt cod fritters) and, most famously, pesto.

The region’s main urban hub is Genoa, a city with a solid maritime tradition – it’s the birthplace of Columbus and its port is perhaps the most important commercial one in Italy. Rich in history and art, the city is dotted with examples of medieval, renaissance, baroque and gothic architecture, as well as the palaces of Via Garibaldi, buildings so stunning they inspired Rubens to publish drawings and propose them as the model for aristocratic residences in the whole of Europe.

To the south-east lie the five colourful fishing villages of the
Cinque Terre, perched on cliffs overlooking the water, as well as vast national parks and woodlands. To say there’s something for everyone is, frankly, something of an understatement. The same applies, almost inevitably, to accommodation, which ranges from the extreme luxury of the likes of Hotel Bristol Palace with its art deco stylings, antiques and marble floors, and 16th-century palazzos like Palazzo Grillo both in Genoa, to boutique offerings such as Portofino’s Hotel Nazionale – family run for over a century – set right on the town’s square, with views of the port.

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There are many scenic spots within a couple of hours of Istanbul, but one of the most interesting, favoured by locals, is Kiyiköy, a fishing village on the Black Sea coast around 160km from Istanbul’s European side. Our contact in Istanbul describes Kiyiköy as ‘an ideal location for little getaways, with its forests, glamping facilities, sea and natural beauty’. Appropriately, fishing, forestry and tourism have been the town’s principal sources of income historically.

Fans of mythology – or indeed special effects master Ray Harryhausen of Jason and the Argonauts fame – may wish to know that Kiyiköy is identified with Salmydessus, the place where the Argonauts rescued Phineus from the harpies. The more obvious visitor attractions are the pristine forests and beaches of the nearby Kasatura Bay Nature Reserve and the town’s St Nicholas Monastery and Kiyiköy Fortress. The monastery is a genuinely dramatic example of ancient Byzantine architecture, cut into the rock, and dating back to around 527-565. The fortification of Kiyiköy Fortress, surrounding most of the old town, is around a century or so more recent.

Kiyiköy has much appeal for those seeking more natural pleasures too, whether swimming, boating or fishing in the two local rivers, Kazandere and Pabuçdere, hiking the coastline – the region has several excellent beaches – or the forests, which boast the only naturally growing grove of black pine. Besides the many glamping options, hotels tend to be at the smaller, boutique end, such as the aptly named Panorama Hotel & Restaurant Hotel with rooms overlooking the bay. Local gastronomy is based, naturally, on fish – the likes of turbot, mullet and horse mackerel – with abundant mushrooms from the forests, alongside Turkish favourites such as grilled kebabs.

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Locals seeking a change of pace from Croatian capital Zagreb head to the Island of Krk. It’s a simple motorway drive to Rijeka and from there on to the bridge that takes you to Krk – a total journey of just over two hours. And, frankly, what Krk lacks in vowels it makes up for in scenery, history, Blue Flag beaches (15 of them), wellness opportunities, including the ‘healing mud’ of Klimno Bay, activities and thriving gastronomical scene. Long nicknamed ‘The Golden Island’, Krk originally picked up that tag because of its climate and geographical position – it’s the most northerly island in the Mediterranean and gets around 2,500 hours of sun per year – and its myriad natural and cultural appeals, from the 1,400 or so different plant species and the many bays, caves and grottos, to the museums and historical landmarks.

The island is divided into the city of Krk and six municipalities, with the city roughly at the island’s centre. Landmarks there include the 12th-century St Mary’s Cathedral, and the Frankopan Castle, from the same era, which was built as a fortress to protect Krk from attacks from the sea. For younger visitors, the 2km Zipline Edison may, of course, be more appealing.

Dining here is local and Krk has much to recommend it, with specialities such as Kvarner shrimps, šurlice (pasta handmade in long tubes) and the excellent white Vrbnička žlahtina from the village of Vrbnik. Regional produce – particularly olive oil – is said to be the reason Krk’s life expectancy exceeds Croatia’s average.

Accommodation options range from hotels to hostels, private houses to campsites. One of the finest hotels is Heritage Hotel Forzahotel, in the historic part of Baška, at the south-east point of the island. Occupying the upper floor of a 19th-century house, with original stone walls and beams, it overlooks the impressive – and popular – beach.

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Located some 180km from Cairo, there are several ways to reach Alexandria, from a short flight to a roughly three-hour drive. Perhaps the best option, though, is the train, where a first-class, air-conditioned seat is a very affordable taste of old-school glamour. But no matter which way you go, the important thing is to go: Egypt’s second-largest city is a remarkable place. Originally founded by Alexander the Great, its part in modern history is unrivalled. Even the ancient destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria – once home to all the world’s knowledge – or the loss of the Lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, to a series of earthquakes haven’t diminished the city’s allure.

Keen divers can see some of the remains of the Lighthouse in the harbour but will require an official dive tour to do so. Nondivers may have to be satisfied with the Citadel of Qaitbay – the 15th-century defensive fortress at the harbour entrance – as stones from the lighthouse were repurposed to build it.

With 32km of Mediterranean coastline, this once powerful city remains a thriving port, boasting pleasures both ancient and more modern. There’s much to see, from the Anfushi Tombs, dating back to around 250BC, and the impressive 19th-century Montazah Palace to the fascinating, labyrinthine alleys of Souk El Attarine. For those wishing to get an overview of the area’s history, perhaps the best starting point is the Alexandria National Museum. Or
simply savour the sea air, take a lovely stroll along the Alexandria Corniche, enjoy the beach and explore the Royal Gardens.

Being known as the ‘food capital of Egypt’, gastronomic travellers are well catered for, with myriad cafés. Must-try dishes include kebda eskandarani – fried beef liver seasoned with cumin, cardamom and chilli, often served in a sandwich; or ful (also foul or fuul), stewed fava beans with onions, tomatoes, cumin and lemon juice; and syrup-soaked basbousa semolina cake. Restaurants and street-food carts abound, as do classic cafés, such as Sofiano Poulo coffeehouse, or the elegant Trianon, which has been feeding and watering celebrities and locals since 1905.

Hotels are also plentiful, from the five-star pleasures of the Four Seasons Hotel Alexandria – with private beach and Mediterranean or city views from your balcony – to the arguably more romantic, boutique joys of the Le Metropole or the historical pleasures of The Steinberger Cecil Hotel Alexandria which can boast both Winston Churchill and Omar Sharif as previous guests.

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The high-speed train ride from Madrid takes less than two hours (at 400km, it’s more like four hours by car), making it a surprisingly easy journey to the Moorish delights of the ancient Andalusian city of Córdoba. The scenery here is impressive but also serves as a stark contrast to the stunning architectural sights: at its heart stands the Great Mosque, once the most important building when Córdoba was the capital of Islamic Spain, and now the decidedly Roman Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of The Assumption.

It’s perhaps apt since the city was founded by the Romans but, as a key port on the River Guadalquivir, Córdoba has been controlled by many different factions – and been home to a vast mix of religions and cultures over the ages. This rich history is evident as you wander throughout the city, with other impressive landmarks to explore here including the Synagogue, the Roman Bridge and the Calahorra Tower, the fortified gate on its southern side, as well as Caballerizas Reales, the royal stables, which housed and bred the best Andalusian horses and where you can still witness horse shows.

But there’s far more to this destination than such recognised tourist sights, which is perhaps why it’s so highly rated with locals. The Old Town has been officially declared a World Heritage site and it’s very much a city to get lost in, particularly in spring when the smell of jasmine fills the air. The narrow streets that snake outwards from the Mosque-Cathedral once housed Córdoba’s Jewish and Islamic populations, but are now dotted with intimate tapas venues and lively bars, where visitors can enjoy local cheeses, hams and wines plus specialities like flamenquín (pork fried in breadcrumbs), salmorejo – a cold, thick, tomato-based soup akin to gazpacho – and another refreshing option, mazamorra, a cooling soup made with blanched almonds, bread and garlic.

Córdoba is home to a number of local festivals and fiestas, and May is the time for perhaps the most famous of these, the Patio – or Courtyard – Festival. In the Moorish tradition, building exteriors can be plain, while inner, private spaces can be spectacular: during the Patio Festival, locals open their courtyards to public view, in a riot of colourful flowers, fountains and trees.

Accommodation options around the city are plentiful, from the historical, boutique charms of Hospes Palacio del Bailío – think 16th-century architecture, marble corridors and orange trees – to the more contemporary appeals of Marriott’s AC Hotel Córdoba which is conveniently located close to the railway station.

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To the people of Porto – Tripeiros, as they’re informally known – Viana do Castelo is a gem of a town; semi-literally, in fact, as it’s often referred to as ‘the jewel of the Costa Verde’. To the average visitor, however, it’s a relatively unknown destination, although at just 75km north of Porto, quite why most international travellers have bypassed it is a mystery – and there is much to recommend a visit. For one, it’s in an area of outstanding beauty, nestled in the rugged hills of the Minho region at the mouth of the River Lima, and with a coastline of golden sandy beaches. For another, It’s an ornate city steeped in history.

At the centre lies the magnificent Santuário de Santa Luzia, which offers spectacular views from its rooftop, and Praça da República, where seven narrow, cobbled streets meet, dotted with historic buildings and places of interest, such as the Santa Casa da Misericórdia church and the 16th-century Chafariz fountain. For modern, quirkier, entertainment, visit the Gil Eannes, a Fifties hospital ship, built to support the Atlantic fishing fleet and now an intriguing combination of medical and maritime museum. After, take a stroll along the seafront or take a five-minute ferry ride across the river to the 1km golden sand and dunes of Praia do Cabadelo, one of the best beaches in the region.

As you’d expect, fish is plentiful and good here, with cod as the star – try bacalhau à margarida da praça (cod grilled over coals with potatoes). For dessert, the town is home to torta de Viana, sponge coated in a doce de ovos custard, rolled and dusted with sugar or cinnamon. Accommodation is varied too, from the luxury of the Pousada Viana do Castelo which overlooks the entire city, to the lower-key, practical Hotel Jardim Viana do Castelo bang in the centre

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