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Continental thrift

Europe has something for everyone: bargains, attractions, room to move

By Paul French
Globe Correspondent / May 23, 2010

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The continent has no World’s Fair, no World Cup, no Olympic Games this year.

With the Fair in Shanghai, the Cup in South Africa, the Games two years away, the Old World will be easier to navigate. Add to this a lagging economic recovery and the Europe-bound traveler can expect to find bargains on airfare, hotels, and getting around.

Choosing an itinerary, one faces an embarrassment of riches: stimulating cities, historic castles and villas, and things to see and do from time-honored traditional to cutting-edge contemporary. Here are tips on 10 countries’ destinations and attractions that will take you out of your world.

GERMANY: The arts and a party

The rust belt cities of the Ruhr Valley have transformed themselves into a heady scene of art and culture for this year’s designation as a European Capital of Culture. Coal shafts, gasworks, and decommissioned steel plants form the backdrop for galleries, installations, and concerts all year long (www.ruhr2010.de). The cities of Essen and Duisburg plan to keep the vibe alive beyond 2010 to rival Berlin as a new hub for contemporary art.

The longest-running theatrical show in history has nothing to do with Andrew Lloyd Webber. What began in 1634 as a vow to stage the story of Christ in gratitude for being spared from war and plague continues to this day. Every 10 years the villagers of Oberammergau in Bavaria take to the stage for an extravagant outdoor performance of the Passion Play. This year it is staged over 102 days from last Saturday through Oct. 3. For the first time ever, the eight-hour show (including meal break) starts in the afternoon instead of morning, and ends at 10:30 p.m.

Finding accommodations ahead of time is essential as the town has few hotels. A two-hour drive away is Munich,where the world’s biggest beer bash raises a stein for the 200th anniversary of Oktoberfest (Sept. 18-Oct. 3). What began in 1810 as a wedding party for Prince Ludwig of Bavaria is now an autumn ritual that attracts 6 million people.

DENMARK: Rhymes with green

The summit on the environment held in Copenhagen in December was a showcase for one of Europe’s “greenest’’ nations. Eco-friendly tourism is as much a part of the Danish lifestyle as its savvy design sense. For a carbon-neutral city break, check into the Crown Plaza Copenhagen Towers, which opened in November and joins Brochner Hotels and Hotel Alexandra in meeting European Union green building standards.

The Copenhagen City Museum celebrates the bicycle, from the world’s first to today’s designer models, through June 27. Joggers mark 10 years of the Øresund Bridge between Denmark and Malmo, Sweden, in a run across the 13-mile span on June 12. And don’t forget the country’s green colony: The ice-capped enticement of Greenland is proving to be a new frontier for ecotourism in the mid-Atlantic.

TURKEY: Capital investments

Istanbul is another of the three European Capitals of Culture (the third is Pécs, Hungary). A yearlong festival atmosphere includes newly commissioned performances, whirling dervishes, and contemporary exhibits, some of which aim to dispel misconceptions about Turkish culture. One such attraction takes as its inspiration (and name) the title of the latest novel by Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk: The Museum of Innocence opens this summer and presents a vivid narrative of Istanbul from the 1950s to present day. A complete lineup of activities is at www.en.istanbul2010.org.

FRANCE: Second impressions

The landscape of Normandy may seem more like a painting than usual this year when the region hosts an ambitious new festival that celebrates Impressionism and its roots in the Norman countryside. From June to September, exhibits, concerts, photo displays, readings, picnics, and cruises explore the movement made famous by Monet, Pissarro, and Gauguin, among others, as well as how the art form is interpreted in other media (www.normandieimpressionniste.fr).

POLAND: Listen up

Make a Chopin list for all the events surrounding the bicentennial of the beloved composer’s birth. Walking tours, audio guides, concerts, and seminars explore his life (1810-49) and influence on the Romantic era. Highlights include the 62d International Chopin Festival in Duszniki Zdrój (Aug. 6-14) and in October, the International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition held every five years (konkurs.chopin.pl) in Warsaw. For a complete lineup, see chopin2010.pl/en/calendar/events.

Warsaw flaunts its pride after years of government suppression of the LGBT community by hosting EuroPride 2010 (July 9-18). It’s the first time this festival will be hosted by an Eastern European country (www.europride.com).

BRITAIN: Fares and foursomes

Lonely Planet lists London as the third best value destination this year, while The Daily Telegraph rates it the least expensive of 20 top city destinations in the world. Pound for pound, a low currency means the traditionally pricey United Kingdom is a bargain. Getting around London will be even cheaper this summer when 6,000 bicycles become available for rent in key tourist areas. If you are feeling flush, splurge at the newly revamped Savoy or Four Seasons hotels.

Meanwhile, Wales grabs the golf spotlight when it hosts the Ryder Cup (Sept. 28-Oct. 3) at the Celtic Manor Resort. The Twenty Ten Course has been specially designed for the event and can be played now, before the pros arrive (www.celtic-manor.com). The British Open will be played on the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland (July 15-18), marking 150 years of this tournament (www.opengolf.com).

NETHERLANDS: Cycles and sails

Rotterdam hosts the “Grand Départ’’ of the Tour de France July 3 with a celebration of everything on two wheels. It marks the fifth time the Netherlands has launched the famed bicycle race that ends in Paris on July 25 (www.letour.fr).

Every five years, Amsterdam hosts one of the world’s largest maritime festivals. Sail Amsterdam (Aug. 19-23) welcomes the Tall Ships with a festive program of nautical attractions (www.sail2010.nl).

NORWAY: Chills and thrills

Oil-rich and suddenly über-trendy, Norway is getting noticed as an outdoor adventure destination. Named “Europe’s next adrenaline capital for all things action’’ by Adventure magazine, Norway hosts the daredevil Ekstremsportveko competition (June 27-July 4, www.ekstremsportveko.com). The Holmenkollen Ski Jump and museum is reopened with the heart-stopping thrill of a ski jump simulator (www.skiforeningen.no).

But you don’t have to bungee-jump over a fiord to enjoy the Nordic scenery. Cruise the 1,250-mile coastline into the Arctic Circle to the region of enchanting northern lights, reindeer races, and Sami culture. Oslo entertains with culture and cuisine, a capital city where adventure can be had walking the steep incline of the new opera house roof that descends to water’s edge (www.oslooperahouse.com).

BELGIUM: Blooms and battles

Every two years (Aug. 13-15 this year), the Grand Place in Brussels is transformed into a giant flower carpet made from 700,000 begonias. The elaborate flower display is best admired from the balcony of City Hall, which is open to the public for the occasion (www.flowercarpet.be). On June 29 and July 1 in the same central square, Ommegang reenacts the 1549 procession of Charles V with 1,400 costumed performers, catapults, and combating knights (www.ommegang.be).

Military buffs gather in Waterloo June 18-20 for the 195th anniversary of the battle that ended Napoleon’s career. Demonstrations and drills take place in the same orchard where the battle was waged.

PORTUGAL: Feasts and sardines

A bit off the beaten path, Portugal has been riding high for a few years as a trend-setting European destination. A cultural rebirth and a rash of new hotels and restaurants add to its appeal, as well as its reputation as an affordable alternative to other Western European nations.

Lisbon’s new Design and Fashion Museum (MUDE) opens this year in the Baixa district with permanent and rotating exhibits from a vast collection of 20th-century design.

Nearly every town has a festival during June’s Feast Days. Porto’s Festa de São João is one of Europe’s biggest popular festivals, and the festival for Santo António is Lisbon’s most animated. On June 13, the capital goes sardine crazy and the winding streets of its oldest quarter, Alfama, fill with the smell of sardines being grilled outside. The party continues long into the night.

Paul French can be reached at paul.french@sympatico.ca.