By Joel Widzer Travel columnist
updated 8/29/2006 4:55:11 PM ET 2006-08-29T20:55:11

Europe has not been on my list of top travel destinations this year, mainly because of the unfavorable exchange rate. My theory of “contrarian travel” generally takes me to places offering better value but, like many travelers, I sometimes yearn for Europe’s beautiful cathedrals, quaint towns, charming cafes and culinary delights.

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So I went back to Europe this summer, and I managed to find some good values by following some of my own advice, strategies that I first outlined in my book “The Penny Pincher’s Passport to Luxury Travel”.

Contrarian Strategy #1: Look for out-of-the-way destinations that are not overrun with seasonal tourists. Often these are the very places offering low airfares. This was the case for my first stop: Barcelona. I choose Barcelona because the flights from Orange County were reasonably priced, and I had plenty of upgrades (Contrarian Strategy #2: Use your frequent-flier miles and loyalty points). Upon arriving in Spain, I rented a BMW 3 series for 92 euros — not the cheapest rate but it was a new car and Hertz has a reputation for quality. Moreover, the car came equipped with Hertz’s “NeverLost” GPS system, which would allow me to travel to many out-of-the-way places in confidence.

I headed out immediately, intending to enjoy Barcelona on the return trip. A six-hour drive took me to Geneva and my wonderful hotel, the Four Seasons Hotel des Bergues Geneva. The hotel, which sits on the southwestern shore of Lake Geneva, has views of Mont Blanc and offers special bed-and-breakfast packages along with a fourth-night-free promotion. (Contrarian Strategy #3: By combining frequent-guest points with a special promotion, you can get a better deal. I enjoyed a luxurious room overlooking the lake.)

Slideshow: A European tour Geneva has the flair of Paris without the expense. The city played a pivotal role in shaping Europe for centuries, especially during the Reformation; it was Rousseau’s birthplace and Voltaire’s refuge. Today Geneva is an important banking and watch-making center and serves as the European headquarters of the United Nations. It is also a pretty city, with enchanting quays, lakeside promenades, leafy parks and a lively Old Town. There are many fashionable stores and art galleries, more than 30 museums, several theaters and an opera house, gourmet restaurants and a dynamic nightlife.

My favorite museum in Geneva was the Patek Philippe Museum. I collect Patek Philippe watches, and it was a thrill for me to see the history of this brand unfold before my eyes. (Contrarian Strategy #4: Skip the “must-see” sights that you couldn’t care less about, and do something you really like.)

From Geneva, I took a marathon drive to Bilbao, Spain: 1,100 kilometers in roughly nine hours. I drove nonstop because I was short on time, but if you are traveling at a more leisurely pace, I recommend spending a day or two in either Toulouse or Bordeaux, both beautiful regions in the interior of France offering charming settings, wine and good dining.

I went to Bilbao to experience the ultramodern Guggenheim Museum. Happily, the prices weren’t bad. I stayed at the five-star Gran Hotel Domine Bilbao, a Silken hotel. My room overlooking the museum included breakfast for only 120 euros a night. The service was superb, and the hotel’s teakwood-paved terrace offered outstanding views of the museum and surrounding hills. It was also the “in place” to have breakfast. I happened to be in Bilbao during its inaugural Bilbao Music Festival, so I ate breakfast with band members from Cheap Trick and Guns N’ Roses, who were also staying at the hotel.

Architect Frank O. Gehry’s design for the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is sheer genius. Interconnecting blocks of limestone run down on one side to the banks of the Nervión River, which lies 16 meters below the city of Bilbao. Many of the building’s astonishing sweeps and curves are encased in titanium, but glass curtain walls allow light to shimmer through to the inside. The 19 exhibition galleries occupy three levels arranged around a central atrium; they are connected by a system of curving walkways suspended from the roof. The interior space has been described as a “metaphorical city” and as “a city within a city,” where architectural design is taken to its most extreme limits. As I wandered through the museum enjoying the artwork, I was amazed by the curvy sometimes-passive, sometimes-interactive nature of the building’s architectural design.

From Bilbao I headed back to Barcelona by way of Pamplona, the Spanish city notorious for its annual “Running of the Bulls.” I arrived two days after the official event but found the city to be a worthwhile stop nonetheless. Meandering among the small streets without the threat of a bull horning down at me is more to my tastes anyway (see Contrarian Strategy #4). The half-mile route winding through town from a corral on Santo Domingo Street to the city’s bullring is filled with charming restaurants, cafes and residences above the ground-level businesses.

The drive from Pamplona to Barcelona took me through northern Spain along an excellent autopista, or highway, traversing a landscape that ranges from highlands to desert to mountains. The BMW was a dream machine, and I was in heaven the whole way. (Contrarian Strategy #5: Spend your money on experiences that matter to you.)

In four hours I was back in Barcelona, the third city on my must-see list. If you have not already visited this young, alive, multicultural, European city with a Catalan flair, you’re missing a true delight. If you have been there before, as I have, there are many new adventures, restaurants, cafes, shopping and beaches to explore.

I stayed at the Hotel Palace, Barcelona, an early 20th-century building with the grace and charm of that era. It’s ideally located along a tree-lined street close to the popular Ramblas area of the city, which is full of restaurants, shops and cafes. The hotel is currently undergoing renovations, so the rates are below market for a property of this quality. (Contrarian Strategy #6: Look for luxury hotel properties under new ownership or renovation, but avoid booking during reopening festivities, when prices go up.)

If Europe is calling you, try to think past the pricey cites of Rome, Paris and London. Explore some less-traveled places and apply some contrarian strategies. You’ll not only be happy with the money you save, you’ll also find welcoming hoteliers and budget-friendly prices. You might even have breakfast with someone famous.

Joel Widzer is an expert on loyalty and frequent flier programs. He is the author of "The Penny Pincher's Passport to Luxury Travel," a guidebook on traveling in high style at budget-friendly prices. E-mail him or visit his Web site.

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