Top 10 countries for 2011: Europe's got the goods

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Lonely Planet's Best in Travel 2011 has just come out, and Albania has claimed the number one spot in the top 10 countries for 2011. But Europe has three reasons to celebrate as two more of its countries, Bulgaria and Italy, have also made the grade, making Europe the most awarded continent this year. Well done Europe.

Want to know why these countries made the list? Read on.

No.1: Albania

Picture a place where rulers have names like King Zog, Enver Hoxha and Bamir Topi. Set the scene with coastal cliffs, snow-capped mountains and jungle-wrapped ruins. Cast some female 'sworn virgins' to fill the roles of men who have been lost in ancient blood feuds. Let the spoken dialects be known as Tosk and Gheg. Make it that daily life is governed by a code of conduct with 1262 instructions including 38 on hospitality towards guests.

It may seem like you've just conjured a medieval fantasy novel rather than an up-and-coming travel destination, but this is Albania in all its epic, eclectic glory.

The defining Albanian experience

If you are a journey-over-destination kind of traveller, take the road (and a sick bag) from Korça to Gjirokastra. The road climbs along the Greek border to the highlands, slices through pine forests along the edge of the Gramoz mountains before crossing the Barmash Pass (1759m) and descending dramatically into the narrow valley of the Vjosa River and up the Drinos valley. Recover down south on the beach at Dhërmi or take the ferry from Saranda across the Ionian sea to the Greek Islands - just because you can.

No.5: Bulgaria

Now proudly part of the 21st-century EU, Bulgaria is enjoying more attention. Its ski slopes are de facto destinations for Europeans looking for cheaper alternatives, empty patches of lovely Black Sea beaches can still be found, and its quietly brilliant wine industry is flourishing. Even remote Belogradchik's unreal fortress made it on a short list for the 2011 New Wonders of the World.

The defining Bulgarian experience

Eat a hot banitsa (cheese-filled pastry) for breakfast while studying the Cyrillic alphabet (that's right: it's a Bulgarian creation, not a Russian one), then pop into a folksy 19th-century revival-era kâshta (traditional home; Plovdiv's Old Town or Koprivshtitsahave loads of them). Finish the day with great Bulgarian wines (like the hangover-free reds in Melnik) – it's only fitting here in the birthplace of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine.

No. 7: Italy

Italy is a beguiling, beautiful, charismatic mess. The press might be largely owned by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, stories of corruption, bribery and sex scandals might be everyday news, and the economy might be in the doldrums, but this is still one of the world's most magnificent places to be. The food is delicious, sunshine is plentiful, scenery and towns are sublime, and there is millennia-worth of art to look at. There are 44 Unesco World Heritage Sites here, more than in any other country.

The defining Italian experience

Start with an early-morning dip in the powder-blue seas off a blinding-white Pugliese beach. Drive in a convertible along the rollercoaster Maratea coast, then negotiate the madness of Naples traffic and encounter the power of Pompeii. Down an espresso in Rome, and get lost in the capital's incredible splendours: ancient, medieval and baroque. Meander around Renaissance Florence and stay in a hilltop Tuscan villa. Dine in Bologna, capital of the state that brought us parmesan, parma ham and unparalleled ragù (meat sauce). Float through Venice and shop for killer threads in Milan.