Hidden Corners of Europe

Leave Paris and Vienna to the first-timers. Instead, escape to one of these five storybook retreats, where bell tolls replace alarm clocks and the big city feels far, far away.

By Nicholas DeRenzo, with additional reporting by Andrew Ferren, Tuesday, Jun 22, 2010, 10:39 AM

The medieval town of Piódão, in Portugal's Serra da Estrela region (Amanda Marsalis)

PORTUGAL
Serra da Estrela

Thirty minutes west of the Spanish border, the Serra da Estrela has long been known as Portugal's answer to the Pyrenees for its ragged peaks, fortified towns, and medieval schist villages. Lately, however, the 600-square-mile region has received a makeover from Lisbon and Porto natives who have begun weekending here in place of the more popular coast. Minimalist hotels and high-toned spas sit just up the road from terraced vineyards and olive groves, making for that perfect marriage between old and new.

Where to Stay
The Casa das Penhas Douradas is a 21st-century take on a traditional Portuguese mountain house.

Done in a clean-lined Scandinavian style, the 17-room hotel has timber-paneled walls, an indoor pool, and floor-to-ceiling windows with views of the surrounding peaks. In the evenings, guests gather by the fire for local Dão wine or assemble at a communal dinner table, where owner João Tomás is known to hold court (casadaspenhasdouradas.pt, rooms from $128, includes breakfast).

Local Flavor
At the Pousada Convento de Belmonte, a refurbished 13th-century convent, Brazilian chef Valdir Lubave blends New World and Old World cuisines in creations like fragrant pea soup with basil ice cream or guava soufflé (conventodebelmonte.pt, entrées from $14).

MACEDONIA
Ohrid

Like Prague and Dubrovnik before it, this lakeside town just north of Greece has all the makings of Europe's next affordable hotspot. Built at the edge of Lake Ohrid, in Macedonia's southwest corner, the city pairs the charm of the Dalmatian Coast (terra-cotta-roofed homes tumble down hillsides to boat slips on the water) with reminders of its Ottoman past. In the Old Bazaar, a warren of labyrinthine streets, merchants hawk silver jewelry and "pearls" made from fish scales. Around town, Byzantine churches sit silently in narrow alleys and on limestone cliffs. During the day, visitors row boats to secluded pebble beaches, while at night, they gather at the waterfront promenade to sip coffee and watch partygoers stream into the dance clubs lining the shore.

Where to Stay
Opened in 2008, the Grebnos Stone-House Apartments are just two blocks from the shore, and each room comes with a sun-drenched terrace. For the true (if slightly primitive) Lake Ohrid experience, guests can also stay in owner Pavel Pop Stefanija's tiny cabin on a private beach in the nearby village of Trpejca (grebnos.com, rooms from $45, cabin-stay included).

Local Flavor
Within the Old Bazaar, vendors set up daily to peddle Macedonian street food like leblebija (roasted chickpeas), shopska salata (veggies and sirenje cheese), and greena rakija (spiced brandy).

AUSTRIA
Dürnstein

On the banks of the Danube, in the shadow of a castle from the Middle Ages, Dürnstein is one of those impossibly quaint towns where everything, from the baroque clock tower to the cobblestoned alleys, seems lifted straight from the Brothers Grimm. Just an hour downriver from Vienna, Dürnstein is an under-explored retreat and a gateway to the surrounding Wachau valley, a grape region prized for crisp Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners. To experience the area like a local, take a seat inside a Heuriger, a cozy tavern that sells only indigenous wines, namely those from the most recent harvest. Authentic establishments hang fir branches above their doorways to welcome the thirsty, while Schrammelmusik (traditional fiddle-and-accordion folk music) plays from within.

Where to Stay
Open from March to November, the 16-room Hotel Restaurant Sänger Blondel, which is named after Richard the Lionheart's legendary minstrel, is located squarely under Dürnstein's clock tower. The Schendl family has owned the house since 1729 and hosts Thursday-evening zither concerts, often under the shade of the chestnut trees out back (saengerblondel.at, from $61).

Local Flavor
Although the Wachau is known for its grapes, it is the Marille (apricot) that sets the region apart. In early April, the valley erupts in pale-pink blossoms, and the fruit begins showing up in strudels, pork dishes, and Marillenknödel (apricot dumplings rolled in butter-toasted bread crumbs). Wieser Wachau Shop & Café, with locations throughout the valley, sells apricot soap, schnapps, and marmalade (wieser-wachau.at).

SWITZERLAND
Binn

Life moves slowly in the village of Binn—and that's by design. Years ago, the residents of this tiny Alpine town (pop. 150, two and a half hours from Bern) decided to stave off development by preserving the surrounding valley as a park. Today, Binn remains a time capsule of village life. Gravel lanes wind between neat pine chalets. Flower boxes filled with geraniums hang from every window. Up the Binna River, visitors will find even smaller hamlets and picture-perfect meadows, where they can spread out a picnic of local wine and raclette cheese and listen to the cowbells ring down from the high pastures.

Where to Stay
Built in 1883, the 35-room Hotel Ofenhorn embraces its history. Its four Nostalgic Rooms have original hardwood floors, antique furniture, and art nouveau wallpaper, all of which recall the days when a young Winston Churchill stopped through while on a painting tour of the Alps (ofenhorn.ch, from $108, includes breakfast).

Local Flavor
About a mile from Binn, the riverside Restaurant Imfeld is a thoroughly traditional establishment with a menu that includes fresh trout and Valais air-dried beef—prepared by rubbing salt, herbs, and spices into raw beef and leaving it to dry in a wooden barn for at least six weeks (011-41/27-971-4596, entrées from $9).

FRANCE
Pèrigord Noir

While provence is justifiably famous for its rosé and rustic gîtes (holiday rental homes), that celebrity comes at a high price. Nearly a straight shot across the country, close to Bordeaux, the cluster of market towns known as Périgord Noir offers weekly cottage rentals at nearly half the cost—and the small-town experience is no less picturesque. Cut through by the sweeping arc of the Dordogne River, the area is best known for its dark oak forests, hillside vineyards, medieval châteaux, truffle-infused cuisine, and, of course, the prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux.

Where to Stay
A 20-minute walk from the town of Trémolat (pop. 600), Les Volets Bleus is a restored 300-year-old farmhouse and converted barn with exposed-wood beams, a stone fireplace, and room enough for 12. Guests are free to explore with rental bikes (delivered to your doorstep), paddle a canoe along the Dordogne, dine on duck and crepes at the night market in nearby Cadouin, and stroll the surrounding acres of peach, fig, and walnut trees—the latter used throughout the region to make vin de noix, or walnut wine (myfrenchfarmhouse.com, from $1,596 per week).

Local flavor
At Les Truffières, a farm-to-table restaurant in Trémolat, Yanick Le Goff serves everything from barbecued duck and lavender-tinged aperitifs to a house-made foie gras (011-33/5-53-27-30-44, six-course family-style meal with wine $34, reservations required).

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