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Sunny autumn beach breaks in southern Europe

Polignano a Mare, Italy

‘Cannier tourists wait for late summer and autumn’

“Don’t come in August.” That was the advice of a local when I discussed a return visit to Puglia, the heel of Italy. He has a point. In August – when Italians tend to take their summer holiday – the beaches and streets are heaving. Cannier tourists wait for late summer and autumn, when the sun still warms the skin, but there is far less skin about. However, there are enough visitors to ensure that everything’s open. The seas are still toasty, too, for those who like a dip. (And if Puglia fails to tempt you, the same holds true of Basilicata and Calabria, the other regions that make up the foot of Italy.)

For a city-based holiday, Lecce is a good choice, with its baroque architecture and Roman ruins, as is Foggia, if palaces and churches are your thing. Lecce’s historic Palazzo Gorgoni (doubles from €90 B&B) is right in the centre. The famous medieval città bianche (white towns) of Ostuni, Locorotondo, Cisternino, Martina Franca and Ceglie Messapica offer a refreshing slice of Italy: they get busy, but mostly with Italian visitors. (Do drop into the cave-like bar/restaurant Evó Sapori di Vite if you’re in Ostuni.)

Postcard sellers do a much brisker trade in the Unesco-listed town of Alberobello, which boasts around 1,400 trulli, the idiosyncratic conical houses for which Puglia is famous.

However, my first choice would be the little seaside town of Polignano a Mare, a prepossessing place just made for quiet ambling and much-loved by Pugliesi themselves. I fell for it even before I’d seen the view for which it is best known: its beach in a narrow cove, with limestone cliffs topped by a jumble of ancient buildings. Searching for shade, I strolled the quiet stone-flagged back streets, where quotations from the great and the good have been daubed on sun-bleached doors.

Grab an ice-cream or a crepe at Joya Canti di Stagione on the corner of Via Gelso and Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, or have a healthy blow-out at Mint , where seasonal ingredients come from local farmers and fishermen. Afterwards, hit the sack at Malù (doubles from €70, or a little way out of town at the glorious pile that is San Tommaso (doubles from €75 B&B).

Healthy food at Mint Cucina Fresca

Polignano has a railway station, so day trips to the coastal cities of Trani or newly spruced-up Brindisi are simple and inexpensive, with sea views practically all the way. Indeed, the most glorious way to arrive in Polignano is by train via Paris and Milan (see
Most visitors fly to either Bari (20 miles away) or Brindisi (60 miles)
Dixe Wills

Symi, Greece

‘The sea is so warm you can swim until Christmas’

On my last autumn visit to Symi, a 90-minute ferry ride from Rhodes Town, the only other British visitors on the island were Rick Stein and his television crew, shooting a cookery programme.

Symi’s amphitheatre-like harbour is a sun-trap, with its own microclimate. The sea is so warm you can swim until Christmas. Guaranteed sunshine isn’t the only reason this quietly glamorous Dodecanese island enjoys an unusually long season: the Archangel Michael Festival on 8 November each years attracts Orthodox Christian pilgrims from all over Greece to Panormitis monastery, in the uninhabited south-west of the island, which is such an important religious site that the ferry also stops there.

Symi is famous for its seafood, especially the tiny local shrimps, flash-fried and eaten whole. The best place to try them is Tholos (about €30 a head, +30 22460 72033) at the tip of the horseshoe harbour. Do like Stein and tuck into unctuous octopus and fabulous taramasalata with a panorama of the prettiest port in Greece.

Neoclassical houses in shades of peach and apricot cling to the quay and climb up into the surrounding hills. Smack on the waterfront is Hotel Aliki (doubles from €70 B&B), built in 1895. Its 15 rooms (request a sea view) are furnished with family heirlooms.

For an uplifting experience, it’s interesting to hike to one (or several) of the 100-odd monasteries in the hinterland, which is thick with cypress and pine forests. From Sotiris Megalos, perched on crags in the south-east, with an old winery and presses, to Agios Emilianos, on a rocky outcrop overlooking a limpid cove in the far west, their locations all inspire awe.

Most of Symi’s beaches are equally spectacular, and tantalisingly hard to reach, at least by car. Craggy footpaths and chugging water taxis take you to Nanou, a pebble beach with a tamarisk-shaded shack serving grilled just-caught fish, and Marathounta, where plucky goats will steal your leftovers at the excellent farm-to-table Taverna Marathounta (about €25 a head). Cliff-backed Agios Georgios Disalonas on the east coast is accessible only by boat, and is best for a morning swim; the beach is in deep shade by mid-afternoon. It’s a shorter, gentler walk from the harbour to the waterfront hamlets of Nimborio to the west, and Pedi to the east.

As summer draws to a close, the scene moves up from the yacht-lined harbour, Yialos, to the upper town, Chorio. A little rougher around the edges, this jumble of crumbling houses is also home to the island’s oldest taverna, Georgio and Maria (+30 22460 71984; about €20 a head), where classic Greek dishes are served on a vine-covered terrace, often accompanied by live music.

To feel part of the local community, try a rented holiday home in Chorio through Symi Visitor. Options include a cosy medieval one-bedroom cottage, 2 Fishes (from €115 plus tax), and, for the same price, two-bedroom Plesner House, an elegant neoclassical house closer to the harbour, with many original features.
Fly to Rhodes then take the ferry from Kolona harbour in Rhodes Town
Rachel Howard

Tarifa, Spain

‘A funky party town with stylish accommodation and great eating’

Kitesurfing off Playa de los Lances, Tarifa.
Kitesurfing off Playa de los Lances, Tarifa. Photograph: Alamy

Southern Spain’s city beaches are year-round urban playgrounds, but despite 300 days of sun and daytime temperatures around 20C into December, vast swathes of the coast are deserted out of summer. Mainly this is a joy: hiking cliff paths is a wild and free business, and coastal forts are better without coach parties blocking the ramparts. But, irritatingly, several of the loveliest spots close down their beach shacks, seafood restaurants, some hotels and campsites, kayak rental stands and ice-cream parlours until Easter.

Tarifa, however – continental Europe’s most southerly town – is always lively because it’s windy: kitesurfers and windsurfers blow in all year round. The hotels and restaurants that remain open to accommodate them attract less active off-season beach-lovers too. In recent years, Tarifa has morphed from a funky party town to a funky party town with stylish accommodation and great eating, too. Most of the good stuff flanks the narrow cobbled streets and tiny plazas crammed inside the town’s thick (somewhat wind-proof) walls. There’s a real medina feel here, not surprising given the town was the first Arab foothold on the Iberian peninsula. It is still dominated by a solid Arab fort and Morocco is just 12 miles away across the Strait of Gibraltar (the ferry takes under an hour).

Cafe Azul, Tarifa, Spain
Cafe Azul, for a late, great breakfast

West from the ancient gates lies a stretch of fabulous beaches. Los Lances and Valdequeros are good for seeing kitesurfers in action. If you’re inspired, a couple of dozen companies offer half-day tasters or all-inclusive packages, plus equipment to hire or buy (start by googling Tantrum, Rebels and Free Your Mind). If that’s not your bag, continue west to Bolonia, and explore its seaside Roman ruin, Baelo Claudia. These waters are packed with dolphins and whales and, until the end of October, there’s a fairly good chance of spotting them on a two-hour boat trip (adult €30,

Tarifa’s modus operandi is sleep late and eat late. Breakfast serves as lunch, and several cafes offer good ones. Try the batidos (smoothies) and fruit, yoghurt and muesli combos at Cafe Azul. While some restaurants close in October, there is still plenty of choice, such as Vaca Loca for massive marinated barbecued steaks, and Chilimosa for vegetarian food.

The pool at Hotel Hurricane
Hotel Hurricane

For something more formal and fishy, there’s La Pescadería (about €25 a head), while Restaurante Mandrágora (about €25 a head) provides a taste of Morocco – lamb with plums and almonds, pastries stuffed with anchovies and aubergine, tabuli – without having to sail to Tangier.

The all-night club action simmers down in autumn, but there’s live music at veggie restaurant and social hub Ecocenter on Sundays and at the Almedina flamenco cafe on Thursdays.

In contrast to all that cheery bustle, the best accommodation in town is calm and airy, with rooms painted white, cream and grey. Pretty Riad Lolita (doubles from €45, is a practical self-catering choice for families or groups of friends, to let as individual rooms or as a whole, with a central patio, shared kitchen, sitting room and roof terrace. If that’s full, try coolly arty Hotel Misiana (doubles from €75 B&B). Up the coast, Hotel Hurricane (doubles from €87 B&B), is a perennial favourite, with lush gardens, palm trees and pool.

The nearest airports to Tarifa are Gibraltar (30 miles), Jerez and Malaga (both around 95 miles). There are bus links from Malaga via Algeciras
Sorrel Downer

Formentera, Spain

‘It’s reminiscent of the White Isle of the 1970s’

White sand and clear, warm water at Illetes beach, Formentera.
White sand and clear, warm water at Illetes beach, Formentera. Photograph: Jan Greune/Getty Images

Less than an hour by ferry from her larger sibling, Ibiza, Formentera’s 32 protected square miles are reminiscent of the White Isle of the 1970s. No branded nightclubs, no crowds of young Brits and no super-yachts moored in the harbour – just turquoise sea and pristine beaches. In September and October, things get even better – with the average temperature still around 24C the crowds dissipate and prices drop dramatically.

For example, a two-bedroom stone cottage (pictured) in the countryside near Cap de Barbaria costs €330 a night in July and August but just €130 in October.

Cottage in Formentera Countryside.

For value and a beautiful location, check out Hostal Casbah (doubles from €60 a night B&B). Its whitewashed sugar-cube dwellings, typical of Formentera’s rural architecture, are set in a lush, well-tended garden only five minutes’ walk from the quiet end of Playa Migjorn, the island’s biggest beach.

It’s not just quiet; it’s also nudist. In testament to how very chilled Formentera can make even uptight Brits, my partner and I soon followed suit – but then, Migjorn’s 6km of white sand allows for personal space of scandalously decadent proportions.

Hotel Casbah, near Migjorn beach
Hotel Casbah, near Migjorn beach

When we tired of Migjorn’s clear waters, we walked east to Kiosko 62 , a beach shack run by a delightful hippy who serves an addictive in-house gin-based cocktail, the Pomada.

To watch the sunset, a Balearic tradition, try drinks or dinner at Beso Beach on the other side of the island. Rustic tables, sand underfoot and a woven straw roof cannot disguise the fact that Beso is more chic than shabby. There’s a sophisticated à la carte Mediterranean/Basque menu, or tuck into a llonganissa hot dog, a street food snack dreamed up by ex-El Bulli chef Carles Abellan and served on the beach after 6pm.

By day, it’s possible to explore the island by bike, cycling across a flat, austerely beautiful landscape of olive groves and fields. Don’t, however, make the mistake of biking to Pilar de la Mola, which turned out to be located at the top of Formentera’s only hill – its craft market (Wednesday and Saturday) and chi-chi boutiques selling floaty, bohemian dresses and kaftans are best approached by car.

Beso Beach is more chic than shabby
Beso Beach is more chic than shabby

For nightlife, head to Es Pujols, were the teenage children of the well-heeled Italians we’d seen at Beso Beach eat, drink and enjoy their passeggiata between the resort’s many bars.

Inland, Sant Francesc Xavier, the island’s biggest town, is set around a pretty church and a square with palm trees, where children play till late as their parents eat, drink and chat. It’s somehow typical of Formentera that all this unspoiled charm is combined with seriously stylish boutiques and restaurants such as Ca Na Pepa (mains from €21), with its extensive, eclectic menu.
Fly to Ibiza then take the ferry from Ibiza Town
Laura Tennant

Gozo, Malta

‘The Calypso Caves, immortalised in Homer’s Odyssey, are adjacent to Ramla Bay, one of the finest beaches in the world’

View from Calypso’s Cave, Gozo.
View from Calypso’s Cave, Gozo, where she is believed to have kept Odysseus prisoner for many years. Photograph: Violette Nlandu Ngoy/Getty Images

Weary of commuting by ferry to more prosperous Malta, a vocal minority of young Gozitans are lobbying the government for a road tunnel connecting the two islands. But Gozo, very much Malta’s relaxed little sister, would surely change beyond all recognition should the plans go through.

For visitors, though, with temperatures in the 20s into October, the leisurely half-hour sea crossing from Cirkewwa (€4.65) is actually a pleasure. The ferry arrives in Mgarr harbour, overlooked by the sandy neo-gothic Our Lady of Lourdes Chapel. Waterside restaurants such as Porto Vecchio (mains €20) offer great seafood platters. Gleneagles Bar (on Facebook) on the far side of the marina is the place to go for pint of Cisk, Malta’s crisp, citrussy signature brew (pronounced “chisk”).

Bedroom at the Quaint Hotel, Xewkija, Gozo
Bedroom at the Quaint Hotel, Xewkija, Gozo. Photograph: Matt Hush

Gozo’s arresting greenery – relative to Malta’s dustier palette – is best surveyed from the lofty citadel in Victoria, its dinky capital. It’s easily reached by taxi (a sedate experience by Mediterranean standards, most rides around €10). Inside the ancient walls, restaurant Ta’ Rikardu (mains €18) offers a bounty of cheese, Gozitan sausage and wine made from grapes grown by the proprietor himself. Even the salt is harvested from traditional coastal saltpans.

Of the island’s 46 mostly baroque chapels, the Church of Saint John the Baptist in the village of Xewkija is one of highlights. In its shadow sits the boutique Quaint Hotel (doubles from €71 B&B), a contemporary 12-room haven with restaurant.

For seaside lovers, Marsalforn on the north coast packs a lot in, with excellent restaurants – notably Il-Kartell (mains €15). On its eastern edge, the beach at Ghar Qawqla is perfect for swimming into October. A good bet for accommodation is Murella Living (doubles from €70 B&B), an artsy new joint with colourful rooms themed around the sights and culture of the island.

scuba diver with shipwreck underwater in Gozo Malta
Gozo has fantastic year-round diving. Photograph: Alamy

Gozo is rightly famed for its year-round diving: the Inland Sea is a crystal-clear lagoon on the west coast, connected to the sea by a narrow, divable crevasse and teeming with marine life. To the south, divers can inspect the roomy MV Karwela, which was deliberately scuttled in 2006 to create a reef.

For Neolithic spectacle the Ggantika Temple is unbeatable: it’s 1,000 years older than Stonehenge and every bit as breathtaking. On the north coast, the Calypso Caves, immortalised in Homer’s Odyssey, are handily adjacent to Ramla Bay, consistently rated one of the finest beaches in the world. The Azure Window on its western fringe is an incredible 30-metre high limestone arch that featured in Game of Thrones and is, geologists reckon, on the verge of collapsing into the sea. Another reason to go now.
Fly to Malta airport, then take a bus or taxi to Cirkewwa for ferries to Gozo
Andy Hill

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