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So long Paris, hello Bratislava Add to ...

Beyond Prague, the country's undulating landscape, picturesque castles and Bohemian breweries in Pizen and Ceske Budejovice are only half as crowded in the summer as southern European staples such as Italy and Spain. And, in the winter, its ski regions are becoming popular, not for the quality of skiing, but for its cheap lift tickets and bargain alcohol.


What makes Estonia so attractive is that it is at once both familiar and remote, as much Western European and as it is Eastern European. Estonia's capital, Tallinn, is just 80 kilometres south of Helsinki, and a helicopter shuttle flies regularly between the two cities.

Tallinn, an exquisitely medieval town and UNESCO World Heritage Site, has stepped up to fill the Bohemian outpost void left behind by Prague, which no matter how you look at it has gone mainstream. Swedish cash and curious Europeans, always in search of new frontiers, have turned Tallinn into a chic urban resort with all the amenities to keep them busy for a long weekend.

Still undiscovered, however, are Estonia's forests, lakes and Baltic beaches.


After the Westerners colonized Prague, they moved south to Budapest, the capital of Hungary.

Budapest has long established itself as a "city of spas," named for its numerous thermal and curative springs. No trip to Budapest is complete without a Hungarian-style dip at the Gellert spa.

The city is divided by the wide, yawning Danube River. On the Buda side, atop the 235-metre high Gellert Hill, stands the Royal Castle, the Hungarian National Gallery and the picturesque Castle District.

On the Pest side you've got the neo-Gothic architecture, the bars, restaurants and cultural venues.

The two sides complement each other seamlessly and have turned Budapest into an exciting destination. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Budapest is that while it resembles Vienna -- like Vienna, Budapest is a product of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and its ornate architecture stretches well beyond the city centre -- it does so without the Austrian capital's hautiness or high prices. The eventual introduction of the euro could bring an end to that.


Just south of Estonia, Latvia hardly enjoys its northern neighbour's popularity. Whereas Estonia is Scandi, Latvia is Slavic.

Larger than Belgium and the Netherlands combined, Latvia offers a characteristic Baltic mix of pristine forests, well-stocked lakes and long stretches of empty Baltic coastline.

About a third of Latvia's population lives in Riga, the capital, which, admittedly, is more adorable than it is thriving. Like its Baltic neighbours, Riga took shape under the Hanseatic League in the 13th century and its medieval roots still shine today. Despite having the misfortune to be in the path of the 20th century's most pervasive warmongers -- i.e. Stalin and Hitler -- Riga's worst scars derive from bad Soviet urban planning. Fortunately, the Soviets left most of the old town alone, ensuring visitors a few days worth of meandering the narrow cobblestone streets between the art nouveau buildings.


Even though Lithuania is the largest Baltic State, it is also the most remote. Situated between two of Eastern Europe's least appealing destinations -- Belarus and Kaliningrad -- Lithuania has the same forestry and flatland appeal as Latvia and Estonia, but its natural trump card is the Curonian spit, a 50 kilometre-long peninsula that serves as a resting spot for about 15 million birds during the migration season. It is a remarkable experience that immediately qualifies as one of Europe's uncharted gems.

Like the other two Baltic States, Lithuania's lifeline is its capital city, Vilnius, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It goes without saying that countries such as Lithuania will benefit greatly from EU membership, if only from a marketing perspective. Few travellers know that Lithuania exists much less where it is. The coverage in the next few months will do this country, and its Baltic neighbours, wonders.


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