by Chris Leadbeater, The Telegraph, February 21, 2018
John Keats was not a man given to effusive bursts of happiness. Witness his brooding “Ode to a Nightingale”, written in the growing warmth of May 1819, but lost to an opening line of: “My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense/ As though of hemlock I had drunk”.
And yet even this most melancholy of poets detected a joy of sorts in spring. In “The Human Seasons” (1818) – a short musing on a man’s emotional development over the course of a lifetime – the most positive quarter of the calendar is a metaphor for youthful exuberance: “his lusty Spring – when fancy clear/ Takes in all beauty with an easy span”.
Such rare moments of elation were not enough to keep Keats from tragedy – he was dead at 25. But you cannot say he didn’t have a point. The coming of spring is a reason to be cheerful – to shrug off winter’s drab touch, with all its insistence on Dry January and self-denial; to embrace the northern hemisphere’s return from hibernation with its flowers, its balmy bouquets, its perfumed petals, its hint of something better around the corner.
It is also, most certainly, a time for travel. The following 20 escapes limit the rapture to a weekend (or a long weekend, anyway) – and, with a handful of exceptions, to the European land mass and some of its most intriguing major cities. You don’t need to go far to collide with spring’s flirtatiousness. But they should all deliver, to some extent, a dose of renewal, a surge in spirit – and, on a less ethereal basis, a night or three in an inviting hotel, with its fluffy pillows and decadent breakfasts. No more odes to nightingales. Not for now.
The French capital (en.parisinfo.com) was designed for spring – that huge patch of public space and promenading at its heart, the Jardin des Tuileries, swelling with birdsong and arboreal swaying; the gardens that frame the Musée Rodin (musee-rodin.fr; €10/£8.88) rushing into life, the great sculptor’s masterpiece The Thinker resplendent amid floral colour.
A three-night break at the five-star Hotel Regina Louvre, perfectly placed on the Place Vendome, costs from £530 per person (room only), including return trains (leaving from St Pancras International on March 22) – through Eurostar (0343 218 6186; eurostar.com).
Photo by AndreyKrav/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images
Eurostar begins its direct rail service between London and the fabulously scenic Dutch city (iamsterdam.com) on April 4 (trains will take just under four hours; returns from £70) – just in time for spring to be in full swing at the celebrated Keukenhof garden, a 20-mile skip south-west of the city in Lisse (keukenhof.nl; €16). Here, arguably, is the season of revival at its most picturesque on the European continent, some seven million bulbs pushing up through the soil in what is a banquet of petals.
Double rooms at the chichi Hoxton Amsterdam (telegraph.co.uk/tt-hoxtonamsterdam) cost from £111 per night.
The Czech Republic’s urban kingpin (prague.eu) tussles with the Keukenhof for Europe’s spring crown – by not looking very urban at all where Petrin Hill rears above the Mala Strana district. The noise of the city fades as you ascend this 427ft bluff in a haze of cherry blossom. At the top, the Eiffel-esque Petrin Lookout Tower (petrinska-rozhledna.cz; 120 koruna/£4.20) offers sublime views.
Kirker Holidays (020 7593 1899; kirkerholidays.com) offers three-night stays at the Alchymist Grand Hotel (in Mala Strana) from £749 a head, with flights.
The Scottish capital (edinburgh.org) is also no stranger to the misty outline of a majestic hill. Arthur’s Seat probably cannot match Petrin Hill for pink March-April prettiness, but with its additional height of 822ft, it arguably shows off a broader swathe of the city at its feet. A walk up its flanks on a spring afternoon is one of Britain’s loveliest urban experiences.
The Balmoral (telegraph.co.uk/tt-balmoraledinburgh) has double rooms in March for £280 a night.
If a date with the Norwegian capital (visitoslo.com) in March may still require gloves, it also makes for high beauty in the Ekebergparken (ekebergparken.com) – a quiet space on the slopes above the east side of the port and the fjord where wildflowers break out amid striking sculptures of the female form – from Rodin’s classic nude Eva (1881) to the ghostly face of Konkavt Ansikt (2006) by Oslo artist Hilde Maehlum.
A three-night break at the Grand Hotel Oslo, flying on March 23 from Manchester, is £385 per person via Norwegian (0330 828 0854; norwegian.com).
Photo by danefromspain/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images
Denmark’s capital (visitcopenhagen.com) has its own take on green space in an urban setting. The Tivoli Gardens (tivoli.dk; 110 kroner/£13) have been operating as a haven of theme-park thrills and ornamental whimsy since 1843. As such, their appeal stretches from roller coasters like the 48mph Demon to a 1943 Ferris wheel, the playful Nimb Water Fountains and the Hanging Gardens – a hub of flower bed fragrance in spring. The park’s own hotel (0045 4487 0000; tivolihotel.com), offers doubles from DK 1,094 (£130), and suites for a family of four from DK 1,428 (£170).
Italy’s northern powerhouse (turismo.milano.it) puts the “spring collection” into spring – there are fashionable designs galore to be perused and purchased in the boutiques of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle II. But Milan also offers spring in the conventional sense, in the grassy grandeur of the vast Parco Sempione – and in the hidden corners and private gardens glimpsed in the “Milan’s Secret Courtyards” tour run by the Baglioni Hotel Carlton (00 39 0277 077; baglionihotels.com). This three-hour guided affair costs from €44 a head (up to eight people) – while double rooms at this fine five-star start at €300 a night.
Not to be outdone by its Italian companion, the Tuscan capital (www.firenzeturismo.it) serves up spring in the Boboli Gardens – the former strolling grounds of the ruthless Medicis, which still offsets their ancestral Pitti Palace on the south side of the Arno river. Here is a place for family adventures via the Portrait Firenze hotel (0039 055 2726 4000; lungarnocollection.com). This fabulous retreat offers two-hour guided treasure hunts, using code words and covert skills, amid the park’s scattered sculptures and Roman antiquities (€260 per family). Family suites, sleeping up to four, cost from €675 per night.
Malta rarely comes into focus before summer, but its capital (maltauk.com/valletta-city-break) is worthy of spring inspection this year thanks to its status as a European Capital of Culture (valletta2018.org). Every weekend afternoon in March (2-8pm) will see the Oca Dome Mandala – an art installation designed “to make the perfect encounter between ancient indigenous rituals and the modern world” – take over the Pjazza Kastilja.
A three-night break at the Intercontinental Malta in nearby St Julian’s, flying from Newcastle on March 17, costs from £284 a head with easyJet Holidays (020 3499 5232; easyjet.com/holidays).
Las Fallas, the wild festival that enthralls Spain’s third biggest city (visitvalencia.com) every March 15-19, is often confused with Mardi Gras, but is very much a rite of spring – tied to the tradition of carpenters clearing out their workshops after winter. This equates to a flamboyant and flammable spectacle – five days of fireworks and fun that concludes with giant papier-mâché sculptures, strewn around the Ciutat Vella, being set ablaze on a manic last night.
A five-night stay at the four-star Vincci Mercat hotel, flying direct from Stansted on March 15, starts at £723 a head, via Expedia (0330 123 1235; expedia.co.uk).
11. St Petersburg
Photo by yulenochekk/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images
Russia’s second city (visit-petersburg.ru) is not quite as sumptuous in spring as during its feted “White Nights” of June and July. But this is a close-run comparison, with this place of pomp and palaces blooming along the river Neva as March progresses. The advantage of visiting in spring this year is that, come high summer, the football World Cup will be in full swing – and St Petersburg is due to host seven fixtures (including one of the semi-finals).
Cox & Kings (020 3918 4772; coxandkings.co.uk) sells three-night escapes to the city from £565 per person, including flights, transfers and accommodation with breakfast.
St Petersburg is internationally renowned. Ohrid, it is perhaps fair to say, is not. But the eighth largest city in Macedonia (ohrid.com.mk) is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful fragments of the European realm, pitched on the shore of Lake Ohrid with such pretty persuasion that it features on both the Unesco Cultural and Natural World Heritage lists (only 28 places have achieved this double). Inevitably, it is at its most elegant in spring. It can be reached directly from Luton with Wizz Air (0330 977 0444; wizzair.com) – via whom a three-night break at the four-star Granit Hotel, flying on April 22, is £189 a head.
Morocco’s swirling souk of a city (visitmarrakech.com) is often deemed to be a dust bowl of medina madness and cavorting cobras on Djemaa el-Fna. But this opinion overlooks the leafiness of Jardin Majorelle (jardinmajorelle.com; 70 dirham/£5.45), the landscaped garden founded by French artist Jacques Majorelle in 1923, and nurtured by Yves Saint Laurent in the Eighties. A museum to the designer’s genius opened alongside it last October (museeyslmarrakech.com; 100 dirhams/£7.80).
Riad Farnatchi (00 212 5 2438 4910; www.riadfarnatchi.com), a nearby nine-room oasis, offers suites from DH 3,400 (£265) in March.
Israel’s most famous city (itraveljerusalem.com) is just under five hours’ flying time from the UK. A visit at this time of year may intrigue active travellers, with the increasingly popular Jerusalem Marathon taking centre stage on March 9 (jerusalem-marathon.com; places available for US$63/£45) – 26 miles along a route that pierces those epic walls to cut through the Old City.
A three-night stay at the Prima Royale, departing Heathrow on March 8, is £1,082 per person with British Airways Holidays (0344 493 0787; ba.com/holidays).
There are few more literal signs of the Earth rediscovering its fertility after the winter shutdown than bees at work – and nowhere where the buzz is more clearly heard than in Slovenia, where the humble bearer of pollen has an almost religious status.
Specialist tour operator Api Routes (00386 2229 8360; authentic-routes.com) offers a four-day “Slovenia Eco Tour” (from €660 – flights extra) which views the country from an “apicultural” angle, dropping in on beekeepers, observing their methods, sampling their honey – and spending time in the photogenic capital, Ljubljana (visitljubljana.com).
Photo by ventdusud/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images
The idea of spring in the glitziest of the United Arab Emirates (visitdubai.com) requires a dash of imagination – there is little of the changing of the seasons in a hotspot where the thermometer leaps from 82F (28C) in March to 91F (33C) in April. But if you want certain sunshine and don’t mind seven hours in the air, Dubai delivers.
A three-night half-board stay at the five-star Jumeirah Beach Hotel, flying from Heathrow on March 15, costs from £1,751 a head via Destinology (01204 821285; destinology.co.uk).
17. Palma de Mallorca
If Dubai is too far to go for a beach, then the big city of the Balearic Islands (visitpalma.com) is a lot nearer at hand – and will be warm enough (63F/17C) in March and April to stir the soul. It is also set to revel in that swaggering indication that winter’s waves are being replaced by spring’s sea-breeze positivity – billowing sails. The annual Princesa Sofia regatta will fill the Bay of Palma with boats in competition from March 30 to April 7 (trofeoprincesasofia.org ).
A three-night break at the five-star Gran Melia Victoria – on the port – flying from Gatwick on March 30, costs from £437 a head with Last Minute (0800 083 4000; lastminute.com).
Portugal’s main event (visitlisboa.com) serenades spring’s approach from its fabled seven hilltops, and is always a joy to explore in the new season – the panorama visible from the ramparts of the Castelo de Sao Jorge showcases the Tagus estuary in all its glory. Follow the river west for 20 miles and you encounter another reason to visit Lisbon as the days lengthen – the seaside town of Cascais (a one-hour hop from Cais do Sodre train station; €4.40 return), where Praiha da Rainha provides splendid suburban sands.
Doubles at the Olissippo Lapa Palace, in Lisbon, start at£225 (telegraph.co.uk/olissippolisbon).
19. Santa Cruz de Tenerife
The capital of the biggest Canary Island (hellocanaryislands.com/tenerife) is a best of all worlds as spring dawns – up to 68F (20C) on the temperature gauge in March, but also blessed with an unsung cultural aspect which makes weekends away more than a matter of sun-worship. The Auditorio de Tenerife (auditoriodetenerife.com), the opera house built to resemble a breaking wave by celebrated Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, is a case in point. That said, there is soft sand too, with Playa de la Teresitas holding court just north of the city.
Doubles at the Occidental Santa Cruz Contemporaneo (telegraph.co.uk/tt-contemptenerife) start at £59.
20. New York
Making the leap across the Atlantic in search of spring might sound extreme, but the Big Apple (nycgo.com) sheds its winter coat with such willingness that it is impossible not to be seduced by the spectacle. Central Park is, of course, an ocean of green. But there is colour, too, at the Museum of Modern Art (moma.org; $25) – where the bright cartoons and surrealist visions of Brazilian modernist Tarsila do Amaral are an inspiration for the eye until June 3.
A three-night break at Midtown five-star hotel the Viceroy New York, leaving Heathrow on April 5, starts at £855 a head, via Virgin Holidays (0344 739 7578; virginholidays.co.uk).