Situated between Europe and Africa, Malta, like other Mediterranean islands, has been governed by just about every major civilization in European history, most recently the British. This explains the English fluency of the Maltese and the enormous number of English tourists that populate the island's shores each summer. As a result, these days Malta looks like Monte Carlo, with enormous all-inclusive hotels that overshadow the island's historic architecture.
But Malta is thriving. With virtually no natural resources of its own, it has marketed itself well as an open-air museum of sand and sun. Unfortunately, it doesn't have a lot more than that.
In the past few years, Malta has diversified into the film business -- large parts of Gladiator and Troy were filmed here -- which has attracted an entirely new wave of cinema tourism.
It is rarely a good sign when a country's most famous tourist attraction is named Auschwitz or that its capital city, Warsaw, suffered horrendous wounds during the Second World War. Nonetheless, Warsaw's 1.6 million inhabitants make it Poland's most dynamic hub, and the city has gone through great pains to beautify itself in recent years, with much success.
But for culture, and the medieval architecture that goes with it, you must head to Krakow. Not only is it one of Poland's most beautiful town, but also its most entertaining. It has a vibrant student community to go with it.
Poland's distance from Western Europe has deterred the continent's many campers from making the venture so far east; most prefer to pitch their tents in the much closer Czech Republic. As a result, Poland's Baltic beaches, the Mazurian Lake District, its enormous forests and the Carpathians and the Sudeten Mountains remain uncrowded throughout the summer.
What holds true for the Czech Republic's still relatively untapped nature is even truer for Slovakia. When the Czech Republic and Slovakia -- formerly Czechoslovakia -- went their separate ways in 1993, Slovakia inherited most of the Soviet-era factories but also the peaks of the High Tatras with their Alps allure.
Serious wilderness scouts have taken advantage of Slovakia's low profile, and bankers have capitalized on Bratislava's low taxes and cheap prices to gradually turn the capital city into a dynamic little hub. Cheap alcohol and cigarettes have also made Bratislava a perennial favourite among Austrian youth.
Bratislava is not nearly as beautiful as Prague, but it is well on its way to becoming the Luxembourg of Central Europe.
Slovenia is a small country with an extremely sportive population. This is because Slovenia, the only new EU country from the former Yugoslavia, has just enough of the Adriatic Sea and the Alps to function as an outdoor nation.
Bordering Italy, Slovenia is the perfect launching pad into the Balkans. Its picturesque capital, Ljubljana, has the Middle Ages integrity of a city that belonged to both the Romans and the Austro-Hungarians.
Slovenia is a wealthy country and it shows. Its mainly historic buildings have been renovated and its hospitality sector has moved up market, so much so that it has become the type of town where world leaders like to mix.
Together with the increasingly popular Croatia, which won't be joining the EU in May, Slovenia will continue to be the Balkans tourist engine for the coming decades.
EU15 MEMBER STATES:
EU25 MEMBER STATES AS OF MAY 1, 2004:
THE NEW EUROPE, NEXT SATURDAY: IS TALLINN THE NEXT PRAGUE?
EU visas: Travellers no longer need tourist visas to travel to any country in the expanded European Union. As of May 1, the Czech Republic and Poland dropped visa requirements for Canadian travellers visiting the countries for up to three months. Incorrect information, based on the position of both countries at our deadline, was published in the Travel section on May 1.