Marrakesh. Economical flights and captivating souks. / FOTOLIA

It's time to take five and grab a get-away

Five unbeatable destinations to spend a few days enjoying the freedom of travel again

Andrew Forbes
ANDREW FORBES

Spring city-break inspiration, with five destinations easily reached by direct short-haul flights.

As we emerge from winter, it's time to spread our wings and enjoy some travel freedom and escapism. We're lucky, as our local airport is a mini-hub for Europe, with direct flights to a world of culture and adventure.

Delicious Marrakesh

The city with a European feel

Morocco is seductively enigmatic, and worlds away from the familiarity of our daily lives. Yet now it is more accessible than ever, easily reached by a short, direct flight from Malaga. If you do a quick search online, the chances are you'll find a choice of return flights for less than 40 euro. The once modest airport at Marrakesh is now a sparkling new gateway to the world, with low-cost air-bridges connecting this bohemian, cultural, and historic city with Europe and beyond.

Marrakesh. Economical flights and captivating souks. / FOTOLIA

Admittedly you still have to take a Covid test but travel here is pretty straightforward. The city has lost some of its rawness and feels fairly European, although it's impossible not to be captivated by the souks. It makes for an entertaining and cultural experience, even in this era of globalisation.

My weakness is food, so on my last trip, despite trying hard not to be distracted by the persuasive shopkeepers, it wasn't long before I was captivated by a tempting display of Moroccan sweetmeats and cakes, piled up on trays, each higher than the one below, creating a cascade of colour and texture that looked delicious.

Like a child, I approached the vendor with eyes as broad as saucers, and within a moment I was accepting the 'free' offer of a plump almond-filled cake, sticky with syrup. Little did I know though, that the minimum order was in fact a 'mélange' assortment of cakes, with a European price, but it was too late, I had engaged in friendly banter with the shopkeeper.

Shopping in the Marrakesh medina is like getting engrossed in a Las Vegas casino; before long all sense of time and perspective is lost, and you are cajoled to part with your money.

For an even more intense food experience, end your day with a visit to Djemaa el Fna. From afternoon till very late, the square is filled with a hundred or more food stalls selling everything from dates to kebabs and lots of unrecognisable things in between!

But away from the cliches of Marrakesh, there is a thoroughly modern city with surprising hotels and chic eateries for those wanting an excuse to have a more extravagant break.

Nobu Hotel Marrakesh is opening this autumn - and if you can't wait till then, well there is always the classic La Mamounia. Despite its rather glitzy make-over it still retains some of its legendary mystique and more importantly, its status as a great place to people-watch. The iconic hotel's restaurants and its pool pavilion are the place to feel part of the bohemian glitterati.

Romantic Venice

Embracing city-break visitors

This touristy city is of course a favourite. Before the pandemic, the tranquil charm of 'La Serenissima' was increasingly hard to find, so if you were in search of the magic of this city as captured in books and films one typically had to explore very early morning, as the fishmongers and grocers were setting up their market stalls. This is when the light is extraordinarily beautiful. Looking out across the lagoon, you'll see the spires and domes silhouetted against the sky; this is when you can discover Serenissima.

Venice and its gondolas. / SUR

I returned last year, during the pandemic. A magical time with far fewer visitors. Yet even now there are fewer cruises and tourists, so go and enjoy! The city is rising above the tide of mass tourism with initiatives to discourage day-trippers and instead embrace city-break visitors.

Venice is developing its credentials as a destination for slow tourism, and authentic experiences. For example, the city's unique lagoon cuisine is a good enough reason to go and devour humble cicchetti snacks of fresh seafood or treat yourself to fine-dining. If not, then the romance of 1,200 years of Venice history, epitomised by the renaissance art and architecture is of course breath-taking.

Friendly Bordeaux

Beyond its traditional image

France is one of the most popular destinations on the planet, yet remains a fairly maligned country, mainly for the perceived wisdom that the French are unfriendly hosts.

Well, put all those misconceptions to one side and take that flight to Bordeaux. You will love it. I mean, really, with such great food and even more impressive wine what's not to love. Oh, and the locals are very welcoming.

Yes, you feel great being a tourist in the City of Wine. So, it's perfectly understandable that Bordeaux has emerged as one of the most desirable short break destinations in France.

Bordeaux and its architecture. / SUR

Since Unesco recognised the region for its remarkable architecture and culture, a testament to centuries of trade, Bordeaux has taken a renewed pride in its built environment. The restored historic sandstone buildings glow in the autumn sunshine, while once forgotten neighbourhoods are now alive with contemporary arts.

As such, Bordeaux has successfully moved beyond its traditional image; it's fair to say that this city is more than bistros and patisseries, old world wine, and bourgeois architecture. A few years ago saw the opening of the 'Cité du Vin', a new generation digital, interactive museum that celebrates the city's unprecedented history of wine, and its future too. A bold architectural statement, the museum is surely set to become one of the new iconic buildings of Bordeaux.

A little south of the 'Cité du Vin', the vintage warehouses on the banks of the river have also embraced change. This district of Chartrons, once the hub of the wine industry, is now the heart of creative Bordeaux. Where once wine barrels were stacked, one now finds galleries, art studios, performance spaces, bars, clubs, and restaurants – a vibrant arts and social scene powered by creatives and the many thousands of students that live in the city.

Copenhagen Cool

A trend-setting city

Ok, I understand, we're just coming out of winter, so why would you want to fly north to Denmark? Well, spring is a delight here. What's more, for the last decade the city has maintained its unofficial moniker, as the 'capital of cool', so really you should find out what all the fuss is about.

Copenhagen, Denmark's most fashionable city. / SUR

The truth is that Denmark's most fashionable city is a lot more than a cosy, comforting dose of Scandinavian 'hygge.'

Recent years have seen impressive changes in the city's hospitality scene, with new hotel and restaurant openings, meeting the continuing surge in international interest. A new favourite is Coco, a unique boutique hotel, created with the belief 'that great hospitality can be beautiful, affordable and sustainable'.

You'll find the Coco Hotel, Café & Bar in the Vesterbro neighbourhood, named 'One of the 10 World's Coolest Neighbourhoods in the World' by Lonely Planet, a vibrant district that epitomises how creative, trend-setting yet understated modern life is in Copenhagen - it's a compelling destination.

Authentic Athens

A city with a unique ambiance

Starting in May we can fly direct from Malaga to Athens, a capital like no other. If you've already been, you'll know what I mean. Athens does not fit the typical notion of an EU capital. It has a rawness, a unique ambiance that conveys its authenticity, which is the antithesis to the tourist pastiches of Paris or Rome.

Athens and its skyline. / SUR

Athens may appear like a sprawling metropolis from the air, but on the ground it's more like visiting a cluster of small towns.

Taking the airport bus to the city centre is not a glamorous way to travel, but it somehow prepares you as a visitor for the Athens experience. The traffic, the noise, and the mish-mash of poorly maintained buildings you pass on the way all combine into a colourful, chaotic picture of Greek urban life.

Despite the immediate temptation to visit the Acropolis, resist and instead get immersed into city life without the throngs of fellow tourists, by heading out to one of the local neighbourhoods.

The neighbourhoods in the shadow of the Acropolis are of course among the most popular, thanks to their touristy markets, historical heritage, quintessential Greek charm, and predominantly traffic free pedestrianised streets.

Yet one of the easiest districts to get to, though, and the most rewarding to explore, is the market district of Athens. Unlike many other capitals, where city centres are often only home to corporate offices or upscale apartment buildings, the heart of Athens is still where local people live and work, creating a rich culture.

All around the central Varvakeio Market are small shops and trading stalls, arranged like an exotic souk, which are there to serve the local community. It's a colourful area to find artisan products and fresh food and inexpensive wine - perfect for an impromptu picnic!

So, bag an airline bargain and take that city break you've been putting off!