Activities

Beautiful beaches, tempting seas, mountains, lakes and rivers – Mediterranean Europe is a magnificent outdoor playground. Activities run the gamut from gentle strolls to tough mountain hikes, and from windsurfing and scuba diving to mountain biking, paragliding and white-water rafting.

Cycling

Cycling opportunities abound across the region – tourist offices can usually provide maps and local information.

  • The best time for cycling is generally spring when the weather is sunny but not too hot and the countryside is at its most colourful. In summer, resorts in the Alps, Dolomites and Pyrenees offer excellent mountain biking.
  • Never underestimate the effects of the heat. Always cover your head (helmets are mandatory in some countries) and make sure you drink plenty of fluids. Sunburn can be highly unpleasant and heatstroke very serious.

Diving

The Med's warm waters, with their abundant marine life, underwater caves and sunken shipwrecks, are ideal for diving. Throughout the region there are hundreds of diving centres offering everything from beginners courses to trips exploring wrecks. Most dive schools hire out equipment.

Extreme Sports

Hang-gliding, paragliding, caving, canyoning and hydrospeed (boogie boarding down a river) are among the adventure sports available across the region.

  • Adventure sports are popular in Slovenia and the Balkan countries with a growing number of ecotourism groups offering tailor-made activity packages.
  • Climbing is also popular, particularly in the Alps, where the icy slopes attract mountaineers, rock climbers and ice climbers.

Hiking

Keen hikers could spend a lifetime exploring Mediterranean Europe's many trails.

  • As a rule spring and autumn are the best periods.
  • Between June and September, the region's mountain chains offer stunning hiking with mountain refuges providing accommodation on many of the longer, high-altitude routes.
  • While most high-level mountain paths are only open in the summer, there are possibilities for hiking in the winter snow.
  • Contact tourist offices for information on routes and local guides.

Kayaking & Rafting

The region's lakes, rivers and reservoirs offer ample opportunities for water-sport lovers. In mountainous areas, kayaking and white-water rafting provide thrills (and possibly the odd spill). Bosnia & Hercegovina, Montenegro and Slovenia are popular destinations.

Skiing & Snowboarding

Winter sports are big business in southern Europe, and each year thousands take to the pistes to ski (downhill or cross-country), snowboard and snowshoe.

  • For a ski holiday you'll need to budget for ski lifts, accommodation and the inevitable après-ski entertainment. You'll save a bit by bringing your own equipment, but often not enough to compensate for the hassle of lugging it around with you. As a general rule, cross-country skiing costs less than downhill.
  • The ski season traditionally lasts from early December to late March, though at higher altitudes in the French and Italian Alps it may extend an extra month either way. Snow conditions vary greatly from one year to the next and from region to region, but January and February tend to be the best, busiest and most expensive months.

Surfing, Windsurfing & Kitesurfing

  • Windsurfing is one of the most popular of the region's water sports. It's easy to rent sailboards in many tourist centres, and courses are usually available for beginners.
  • Surfers can strut their stuff too, with excellent waves on the western seaboard off the coast of France, Spain and Portugal.
  • Kitesurfing is also readily available across the region.

Guided Tours

Tours exist for all ages, interests and budgets. Specialist operators offer everything from tours of the region's gardens to island-hopping cruises, walking holidays and adventure-sports packages.

Many national tourist offices organise trips ranging from one-hour city tours to excursions taking several days. While they often work out more expensive than a self-organised tour, they are sometimes worth it if you're pressed for time. A short city tour will give you a quick overview of the place and can be a good way to begin your visit.

Established tour operators include the following:

Austin-Lehman Adventures A US tour operator specialising in adventure sports, walking and cycling holidays. Has packages in Croatia, France, Greece, Italy, Slovenia, Spain and Turkey.

Busabout Best known for its pan-European bus tours, London-based Busabout also offers tours to Italy, Turkey, Spain and Portugal, and the Balkans, island-hopping trips to Greece and Croatia, and packages to big European festivals such as Las Fallas in Valencia, Spain, and Sanfermines in Pamplona, Spain.

Contiki (www.contiki.com) Contiki runs a range of European tours for 18- to 35-year-olds, including city breaks, camping trips, foodie itineraries and island-hopping journeys.

Ramblers Holidays A British-based outfit that offers hiking holidays, ski packages, cooking trips and much more.

Saga Holidays Serving people aged over 50, Saga sells everything from travel insurance to bus tours, river cruises and special-interest holidays.

Top Deck This London-based outfit offers young travellers everything from Croatian coastal cruises to festival weekends and ski breaks.

Sleeping

There's a vast choice of accommodation in Mediterranean Europe, ranging from world-famous five-star hotels to modest family rooms.

The cheapest places to stay are camping grounds, followed by hostels and student dormitories. Guest houses, pensions and private rooms often offer good value, as do rooms in religious institutes. Self-catering flats and cottages are also worth considering for group stays, especially for longer sojourns. You can also bunk down in a B&B, stay on a farm or crash on a couch.

Unless otherwise stated, prices in this book are high-season rates for rooms with a private bathroom. All listings are ordered according to preference with the author's favourite place listed first.

Rates High season rates apply at Easter, from June to August, and over Christmas and New Year. Prices are also high in April and May in many of the region's big cities. Conversely, many city hoteliers drop rates in August to lure punters away from the coast.

Reservations Book ahead for peak holiday periods, and year-round in big destinations such as Paris, Rome, Venice, Madrid and Barcelona – at least for the first night or two. Most places can be booked online, and many require credit-card details in lieu of a deposit.

Reservation services Most airports and many large train stations have accommodation-booking desks, although they rarely cover budget hotels. Tourist offices can generally supply accommodation lists and some will even help you find a hotel. There's usually a small fee for this service, but if accommodation is tight it can save you hassle. Agencies offering private rooms are also worth considering.

Bargaining It's often worth bargaining in the low season as, although they may not advertise the fact, many places reduce their rates.

Seasonal closures Many coastal hotels close over winter, typically between November and March.

Touts In some destinations locals wait at train stations or ferry terminals, touting rented rooms. Don't necessarily reject these out of hand, as in some places they're genuine offers. Before accepting though, make sure the accommodation isn't in a far-flung suburb or an outlying village that requires a difficult journey, and don't forget to confirm the price.

Website deals It's always worth checking hotel websites for last-minute deals and discounts.

Alternative Accommodation

In addition to typical accommodation in the region, there are various other options available.

Convents & monasteries Particularly widespread in Italy, these are a good bet for cheap, modest lodging, often in historic buildings. You'll usually need your own transport to get to convents and monasteries in country locations outside of towns and cities.

Mountain refuges A favourite with hikers, refuges offer high-altitude mountain accommodation between July and September. Don't expect frills, but breakfast is generally included in the price and dinner is sometimes available. Bookings are usually required.

Pousadas These are former castles, monasteries or palaces providing simple accommodation in Portugal.

Tree Houses Olympos on Turkey's Mediterranean coast is the place to go to stay in a tree house. Accommodation is pretty basic but the forest setting and nearby beaches are a major plus.

B&Bs

B&B accommodation is widely available across the region and usually provides excellent value. There's a huge selection of places, ranging from traditional B&B set-ups (private homes with a guest room or two) to smart boutique-style outfits offering quality accommodation at midrange and top-end prices. As a general rule, a B&B room will be cheaper than a hotel room of corresponding comfort.

  • Most B&Bs will give you a key, allowing you to come and go as you like, although some places might insist that you're back by a certain time.
  • Most smarter B&Bs will have private bathrooms; in some you might have to share with other guests or the host family.
  • When booking, make sure you're happy with the location. City B&Bs are often not central, so check local transport connections. If it's in a remote rural spot, work out in advance how it fits in with your plans.
  • Contact tourist offices for lists of local B&Bs.
  • Useful resources are:

Bed and Breakfast Europe (www.bed-and-breakfast-europe.com)

Bed and Breakfast in Europe (www.bedandbreakfastineurope.com)

Europe and Relax (www.europeandrelax.com)

Camping

Camping is very popular in Mediterranean Europe, and there are thousands of camping grounds dotted around the region. These range from large, resort-style operations with swimming pools and supermarkets to more simple affairs in isolated countryside locations. National tourist offices and local camping organisations can provide lists.

  • If you're intent on camping around the region, consider the Camping Card International (www.campingcardinternational.com), an ID-style card that provides third-party insurance and entitles you to discounts of up to 25% at more than 1600 camping grounds across Europe. Note that in some cases discounts are not available if you pay by credit card. CCIs are issued by automobile associations, camping federations and, sometimes, on the spot at camping grounds.
  • At designated grounds, there are often charges per tent or site, per person and per vehicle.
  • Many places have bungalows or cottages accommodating two to eight people.
  • Free camping is often illegal without permission from the local authorities (the police or local council) or from the owner of the land. In some countries (eg France and Spain) it is illegal on all but private land, and in Greece, Croatia and Slovenia it's illegal altogether. This doesn't prevent hikers from occasionally pitching their tent for the night, and you'll usually get away with it if you have a small tent, stay only one or two nights, take the tent down during the day and don't light a campfire or leave rubbish. At worst, you'll be woken up by the police and asked to move on.
  • Many camping grounds close over winter, typically between October and April.
  • Carting your kit around with you is fine if you've got a car, but a real pain if you haven't.
  • Most city camping grounds are some distance from the city centre, so the money you save on accommodation can quickly be eaten up in bus and train fares.
  • For upmarket and quirky camping grounds check out listings on Go Glamping (www.goglamping.net).

Couchsurfing & House Swapping

The cheapest way of staying in the region is sleeping on a local's couch – a practice known as couchsurfing.

  • Through online agencies such as Couch Surfing (www.couchsurfing.org), GlobalFreeloaders (www.globalfreeloaders.com) or Hospitality Club (www.hospitalityclub.org), you can contact members across the world who'll let you sleep on their sofa or in their spare room for next to nothing.
  • Another cheap alternative is house swapping, whereby you sign up to an online agency such as Home Exchange (www.ihen.com) or Global Home Exchange (www.4homex.com) and arrange to swap houses with a fellow member for an agreed period of time.

Farmstays

Farmstays are an excellent way of escaping the crowds and experiencing the local countryside.

They are particularly popular in Italy, where an agriturismo can be anything from a working farm to a luxurious rural resort in a converted castle. Italian tourist offices can provide lists for specific areas. Online information is available at Agriturist (www.agriturist.it).

Farmstays are also popular in Slovenia – the Slovenia Tourist Board (www.slovenia.info) lists tourist farms – and Portugal, where many farmhouses and country homes are affiliated to the Turismo de Habitação (www.turihab.pt) network.

In general:

  • Room rates are usually much less than in hotels of comparable comfort.
  • Many farmstays offer activities such as horse riding, hiking and cycling, and serve delicious food.
  • Country locations mean that most have plenty of space for kids to run around in, making them a good choice for families.
  • You'll almost certainly need a car to get to them.
  • Always book ahead, as in high season places fill quickly, while in low season many open only on request.

Guest Houses & Pensions

  • The distinction between a guest house and a hotel is fairly blurred. Most guest houses are simple family affairs offering basic rooms and shared bathrooms but more expensive guest houses can have rooms of hotel standard.
  • Pensions, which are widespread throughout the region, are basically small, modest hotels. In cities, they are often housed in converted flats that occupy one or two floors of a large apartment block. Rooms tend to be simple, often with just a basin and bidet.

Homestays & Private Rooms

  • Renting a room in a local home is generally a good, cheap option, especially for longer stays.
  • It's not so good for solo travellers (most rooms are set up as doubles or triples) or for quick stopovers (many places levy hefty surcharges, typically 30% to 40%, for stays of under three or four days).
  • Room quality and price vary considerably – some rooms come with private bathrooms, some have cooking facilities, some might even have both.
  • When you book, make sure you check if the price is per room or per person, and whether or not breakfast is included. Also make sure you're happy with the location.
  • You can book rooms either privately or through an agency (to whom you'll have to pay a fee). Once you've booked a room, it's always worth phoning ahead to say when you're arriving as, in many cases, the owners will pick you up at the station or port.
  • Room rentals are particularly widespread in Albania, Bosnia & Hercegovina, Croatia, Greece and Montenegro.

Hostels

Hostels are widespread across the region and provide a cheap roof over your head. Hostels referred to as 'official' are affiliated with Hostelling International (www.hihostels.com), while private hostels are just that and operate independently of HI.

Membership requirements To stay at an official hostel you'll need to be a HI member, although in practice you can usually stay by buying a 'welcome stamp' (generally about €3; buy six and you qualify for full HI membership) directly at the hostel. HI membership is available at affiliated hostels or through your national hostelling association – there's a full list on the HI website. Private hostels don't require membership.

Beds & Facilities Alongside dorms of varying sizes – small ones typically for four or five people, larger ones for up to 12 people – many hostels offer hotel-standard private rooms with en suite bathrooms. Dorms may or may not be single sex. Typical facilities include a communal kitchen, a TV room, a laundry, wi-fi and internet access.

Rules Generally speaking, independent hostels are a lot less rule bound than HI hostels, some of which impose a maximum length of stay, a daytime lockout and a curfew. But with the rules come standards, and affiliated hostels have to comply with HI safety and cleanliness standards.

Age limits These days few hostels impose age limits, with many now catering to families as well as backpackers and young travellers. Some hostels may give priority to younger, student-age travellers in peak periods.

Meals Many hostels offer a complimentary breakfast and some serve an evening meal (typically about €10).

Reservations It's a good idea to book ahead whenever possible, especially in summer, when popular hostels are packed to the gills. The easiest way to book is online, either through individual hostel websites or the HI website. Many hostels also accept reservations over the phone or by fax (but during peak periods you will probably have to call to bag a bed). If you are heading on to another hostel, most places will book the next place for you for a small fee.

Resources Useful websites include Hostel World (www.hostelworld.com), Hostel Bookers (www.hostelbookers.com), Hostels.com (www.hostels.com) and Hostelz (www.hostelz.com).

Hotels

Hotels in the region range from dodgy fleapits with rooms to rent by the hour to some of the world's grandest five-star palaces.

Classification Each country operates its own hotel-classification system, so a three-star hotel in İstanbul might not correspond to a three-star hotel in Barcelona. Stars are awarded according to facilities only and give no indication of value, comfort, atmosphere or friendliness. As a rule, the hotels we recommend range from one to three stars.

Location Inexpensive hotels are often clustered around bus and train stations. These can be useful for late-night/early-morning arrivals or departures, but are rarely the best options around. Generally, you'll do better looking elsewhere in town.

Rates Rates fluctuate enormously from high to low season, sometimes by up to 40% or 50%. Always make sure you know exactly what your room rate covers (eg air-con, breakfast, internet access). If breakfast is extra, bear in mind that you'll often be able to get a better, and cheaper, breakfast in a regular cafe.

Discounts Particularly in the slower winter months, discounts are often available for groups or longer stays. In slack periods, hoteliers may even be open to a little bargaining – it's worth trying. It's also worth checking hotel websites for last-minute deals and weekend discounts, as many business hotels (usually three stars and upwards) slash their rates by up to 40% on Friday and Saturday nights.

Reservations Well-known hotels in major destinations fill quickly in high season, so always book ahead. If you're not booking online, many hotels will insist on an email or faxed confirmation. Most will also require credit card details in place of a deposit. If you don't have a credit card you might be asked to send a money order to cover the first night's stay.

Payment To avoid embarrassing scenes at reception, always check that your hotel accepts credit cards. Most do, but it's dangerous to assume that a request for a credit card number with your booking means that the hotel accepts payment by plastic.

Resources Check out Booking.com (www.booking.com), Venere (www.venere.com), DHR (www.dhr.com), i-escape (www.i-escape.com).

Rental Accommodation

Ranging from luxurious country villas to small studio flats, rental accommodation is good for families or groups travelling together, and for longer stays. All should come with kitchens - or at the very least cooking facilities - which will help save on the food bill.

For leads, try Air BnB (www.airbnb.com) and Vacations-Abroad (www.vacations-abroad.com).

University Accommodation

  • Student accommodation is sometimes opened to travellers in the holidays and provides an alternative to sleeping in a hostel.
  • Beds are available in single rooms but more commonly in doubles or triples. There might also be cooking facilities available.
  • Enquire at the university, at student information services or at local tourist offices.

Eating

Eating out is a way of life on the Med, and with everything from Michelin-starred restaurants, beachside tavernas, designer bistros, cafes and bars, there's no shortage of choices. If you're on a budget, look out for self-service canteens or roadside kiosks serving local snacks (think takeaway pizza in Italy or souvlaki in Greece) and shop at local markets.

  • Lunch is the main meal of the day in most Mediterranean countries.
  • Meals are eaten later in southern Europe than in more northerly climes – dinner is typically served from about 8pm.
  • Children are usually welcome in all but the very smartest establishments. Kids menus are uncommon but you can often ask for half portions.
  • Vegetarianism is not widespread in the region and vegetarians might have a hard time in Portugal and some of the Eastern European countries.
  • Eat better and save money by choosing seasonal dishes and local wines/beers/spirits.