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Europe's Hidden Treasures By Air

November 21, 2003 -- London, Paris, Barcelona, Rome -- they're great cities to visit. But during the past few years, the boom in budget airlines has awakened interest in dozens of smaller cities across Europe, from Jerez (in Spain) to Klagenfurt (in Austria.) Why? Thanks to airlines like Easyjet (www.easyjet.com), Ryanair (www.ryanair.com), the EuropeByAir Flight Pass (www.europebyair.com) and too many others for us to list here,(for a comprehensive guide to the budget airlines, check out www.flybudget.com) you can now hop across the continent for $40 or so, saving hours of train travel and landing in fascinating towns, ever so slightly off the beaten path.

For US-based tourists, the best way to take advantage of European budget airlines is to fly out to a destination and take the train back, or to buy an "open jaw" ticket arriving and returning from two different cities. Open jaws usually aren't much more expensive than round trips, if both cities are served by the same airline. For instance, to combine Spain with England, fly into London, take a budget airline to Girona or Malaga, explore Catalonia or Andalusia, and then take the train to Madrid and fly back from there. For those who preffer "roads less traveled" in Europe, fly into Vienna, take EuropeByAir to Zagreb, stop in Ljubljana and fly back from Venice.

Here are five of our picks for great destinations you might not fly into if it weren't for budget airlines.

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Girona

Price: As little as ?23.25 ($39.06) including tax from London on Ryanair (www.ryanair.com). Also served from Birmingham, Bournemouth, Hahn (Germany), Charleroi (Belgium), Milan, Dublin and Prestwick (Scotland).

Ideal itinerary: Fly into the UK. Take a one-way flight to Girona. Explore Catalonia. Then either take an overnight train to Paris and Eurostar back to London, or fly home from Barcelona.

This Catalonian gem is often overlooked for nearby Barcelona (about an hour and 15 minutes away) or Costa Brava beach resorts. Don't make that mistake yourself. Girona is a beautifully preserved medieval city with mostly-intact Arab and Jewish quarters, a gorgeous cathedral, 12th-century Arab baths and a museum dedicated to Spain's now-vanished Jewish community. The stone buildings, winding streets and elegant bridges are even beautiful in the rain. From the airport, take the public bus to Girona, stash your bags at the train station and spend at least a few hours walking around before heading to Barcelona or the coast. For a full guide to Girona, see www.frommers.com/destinations/girona.

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Malaga

Price: As little as ?27.99 ($47.03) including tax from London on Easyjet (www.easyjet.com).

Ideal itinerary: Cheap flights to Malaga leave from the UK, Brussels and Scandinavia, so there are plenty of choices.

Served by more budget airlines than you can count, this is a gateway to the historical treasures of Andalusia, Moorish southern Spain. (It's also a gateway to the hideously overbuilt resorts of the Costa Del Sol, which is why so many airlines serve this airport.) Cordoba and Seville are both two hours away by train; Granada is three hours away. Much of what we consider beautiful in Spain is the legacy of the country's Muslim era, from 711 to 1492. Romantic Andalusian architecture abounds in Granada. Cordoba's intact ancient neighborhoods have made it a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And Seville is one of the great metropolises of Spain, combining great Moorish buildings with a love of opera and flamenco. For our full guide to Andalusia, see www.frommers.com/destinations/andalusia.
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Zagreb

Price: $99 from London, Paris, Rome or Vienna on EuropeByAir (www.europebyair.com).

Ideal intinerary: Buy a round-trip ticket to Vienna or Rome. Fly from there to Zagreb, then take the train to Ljubljana and finally to your city of origin ($99 from London, Paris, Rome by EuropeByAir).

For an alternative Eastern Europe that's not as touristy as Prague, try the capital of Croatia. Croats are famous for their cafe society and fashion-consciousness, and Zagreb is full of sleek blondes in black. The city has a beautiful Old Town and some notable art museums. The best reason to fly to Zagreb, though, is its proximity to other excellent locations. You're two and a half hours from Ljubljana, the picture-perfect capital of Slovenia (think of a smaller, less crowded Prague) and then it's another six hours or so to either Venice or Vienna.

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Groningen

Price: As little as ?15 ($25.20) including tax from London on Ryanair.

Ideal itinerary: Fly into London, then to Groningen. Take the train to Amsterdam, to Brussels, and back to London to fly home.

The Netherlands aren't just Holland. By flying into Groningen, you not only save a chunk of cash, you see a country far different from the tourist circus of Amsterdam and the crowded belt that stretches down to Rotterdam. The northern provinces of the Netherlands are quieter, ancient and picturesque; Groningen is also a lively university town. You're unlikely to run into hordes of tourists as you explore the nearby Iron Age dwelling mounds and the 15th-century town square. Amsterdam is three hours south by train. For more on Groningen, see our guide at www.frommers.com/destinations/groningen.

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Carcassonne

Price: As little as ?14.26 ($23.96) including tax from London on Ryanair.

Ideal itinerary: Fly into London. Fly from there to Carcassonne, take the train to Montpellier and then to Barcelona. From there, either fly back to London or fly home.

It's tacky and over touristed, and we'll probably get bashed on the message boards for this, but there's still an undeniable magic to Carcassonne. This city in southwest France may be the best preserved medieval fortress city anywhere; it's like going to a Medieval Times theme park, but it's real. This is the place the theme parks are imitating. Kids will love it. For our guide, see www.frommers.com/destinations/carcassonne. From Carcassonne you can take the train two hours south to the lively university city of Montpellier, and then you're four and a half hours from Barcelona.

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