IN THE SEASON OF THE MISTS

As the leaves turn russet and shadows lengthen, it's a good time of year for a short break. Free of summer crowds, cities such as Paris or Florence can be rediscovered and the countryside seen afresh. Jill Crawshaw trawls through the bargains on offer
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The Independent Culture
CAPITAL IDEAS

Eurostar's fast and convenient routes to the Continent have opened up a whole new range of winter weekend breaks. Brussels, often by-passed in favour of medieval Bruges and Ghent, is one of the destinations available through the city specialist Time Off. A Saturday night and Sunday morning package there offers a chance to visit the splendid Grand Place and the maze of colourful streets around it. One night in the centrally located luxury Radisson Hotel, with breakfast, a glass of Champagne and a huge brunch, costs pounds 189 including fares.

Also travelling by Eurostar from Waterloo Station, a brasserie lunch in Paris - three courses with wine at either Terminus Nord, or my favourite, that cavernous, classless canteen, La Coupole - costs pounds 125, returning the same day. A one-day Metro pass is included, great for stocking up at the weekend street markets (Rue Mouffetard and Rue Lepic are liveliest on Saturday, while the Marche Beauvau at Place d'Aligre becomes a North African souk on Sundays). Museums and galleries stay open all weekend, often with Sunday discounts. The French Govern-ment Tourist Office (0891 244 123: 49p per minute, 39p cheap rate) can provide information.

Time Off 0171-235 8070

PARIS OF THE NORTH

Daily direct flights from Gatwick and the abolition of visa requirements have meant that Riga, the capital of Latvia, can now compete with other European cities on both cost and ease of access. Regent Holidays has several winter breaks on offer. Riga's narrow streets, riverside boulevards, turn- of-the-century architecture - which escaped severe bombing during the Second World War - and weekend flea market (in an old aircraft hangar) justify its claim to be the "Paris of the North". A more recent attraction is the Motor Museum, exhibiting cars owned by Stalin and crashed by Brezhnev, while Armenian and Ukrainian restaurants provide culinary variety. A three- night stay with breakfast, flying from Gatwick, costs pounds 299-pounds 329 during November and December. There are also departures from Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Regent Holidays 0117 9211711

STAGE-DOOR JOLLIES

Theatregoers can enjoy the best available seats at a West End play or musical, plus two nights at the Grafton Hotel, on a budget break with Superbreak. Staying Sunday and Monday nights, a package based on two sharing costs pounds 99 per person, with discounts on pre-theatre dinners in Covent Garden. Among the shows to choose from are Indian Ink, Tom Stoppard's play at the Aldwych; Woman in Black at the Fortune Theatre; Oliver! at the London Pallad-ium; Dead Guilty at the Apollo; and of course Les Miserables, Cats or even The Mousetrap. Superbreak also offers autumn and winter breaks by car or rail all over the UK; on many of them, children under 16 get free accommodation if they share their parents' room, as well as free rail travel. Other themed breaks include murder mystery weekends and mini holidays based on sporting events or pop concerts.

Superbreak 01904 679999

RUSTIC FOLLIES

If three-night winter breaks in unusual properties appeal, Country Holidays offers everything from railway stations to cricket pavilions. A remote shooting lodge in the Lake District, built by the Earl of Lonsdale in 1912 and accommodating 10 people, costs from pounds 138. The facilities are basic - water is still supplied from a mountain stream, and there is no electricity - yet this is one of the company's most popular retreats. A somewhat grander Scottish baronial castle in Morayshire (with turrets, alcoves, four-poster beds and large open fireplaces, and with golf and salmon fishing nearby) costs pounds 544 and can sleep 12. Cricket enthusiasts can stay in a converted cricket pavilion in West Meon, near Winchester, which still retains the first-floor balcony overlooking the pitch (pounds 160 for six people). For rail buffs there's a converted station in Bedford, built in 1847 and opened by Queen Victoria. The dining room of the house was originally the station waiting room, and the ticket booth and old platform have been retained (prices start at pounds 108 for four people).

Country Holidays 01282 445955

GITES EXPECTATIONS

Rural breaks at modest prices are being offered by Brittany Ferries, using its services from Portsmouth to Caen or St Malo, Poole to Cherbourg or St Malo, and Plymouth to Roscoff. Breaks in the Gites d'Interludes programme feature traditional rustic cottages chosen both for their proximity to the ports and for their warmth in winter (logs and firewood are often provided). Prices start at pounds 53 per person (based on four adults sharing for two nights), rising to pounds 73 per person (four nights for four adults), and the gites are situated throughout Brittany, Normandy and the Loire valley.

Brittany Ferries also offers Chambre d'Hotes breaks, staying en famille in the French equivalent of our b&bs. Accommodation ranges from manor houses and watermills to working farms, even a chateau in Poitou Charentes. From now until 31 December, b&b prices for two sharing are: two nights pounds 142 per person, three nights pounds 174, one week pounds 302. Ferry fares for passengers and car are included.

Brittany Ferries 0990 360 360

MAGICAL HISTORY TOURS

Autumn and winter reveal even the most tourist-trodden cities in a new light. The early Renaissance history of Florence, the Gonzaga court at Mantua and "Secret Itineraries" in Venice are the themes of the Italian city breaks offered by Martin Randall Travel. Archaeologists, art historians and other experts accompany small groups of holidaymakers - usually around 16 per tour. Admission charges to galleries and museums are included in the price, as are travel, accommodation (mainly in four-star hotels) and most meals. The four-night trip to Florence takes place in November and costs pounds 595. The five-night trip to Mantua also visits Ferrara - the city state ruled by the Este dynasty, home to one of the most lavish courts in Renaissance Italy - and the vast Farnese Palace at Parma, as well as tiny court towns such as Sabbioneta and Fontanellato. The cost is pounds 685. The "Secret Itineraries" tour to Venice, which takes place in February, visits parts of the city that are off the beaten track and open by special arrangement only - the baptistry and chapels of the Doge's Palace, the Seminario Patricale, and the baroque votive temple of Santa Maria della Salute. The six-night tour costs pounds 780.

Martin Randall Travel 0181-742 3356

DEALS ON WINGS

Some astonishingly cheap flights are available during the November and early December period through STA Travel. You can fly to Paris for pounds 59 return; Prague for pounds 150; Athens for pounds 120; Lisbon for pounds 126 (or pounds 99 for students and under-26s). Even New York, the Christmas shoppers' mecca, is included at just pounds 190 (or pounds 150 for students and under-26-year-olds). Good deals for students and under-26s only are also available from Campus Travel. A return flight to Dublin costs pounds 49; Madrid pounds 116; Amsterdam pounds 70; Nice pounds 95; Milan pounds 136; and Berlin pounds 145. In early December, Skybargains, the flights-only division of Sunworld, is offering flights for four- and five-night breaks in a choice of eight Spanish cities - including Madrid, Barcelona, Santiago de Compostela, Oviedo, Valencia and Palma. Prices range from pounds 49 to pounds 69 return.

STA (Europe) 0171-361 6161, (Worldwide) 0171-361 6262; Campus Travel 0171-730 3402; Skybargains 0181-313 7919

FERRY GOOD VALUE

Fierce competition for cross-Channel business has produced bargains galore, both in ferry fares and package deals. For families, Stena Sealink organises autumn breaks at Disneyland Paris from pounds 99 each for adults, pounds 31 for children, for a one-night break. Two-night breaks cost pounds 143 and pounds 40 respectively, including ferry crossing for car and passengers, hotel accommodation and entrance tickets to Disneyland. Family holidays at Center Parcs, with their sub-tropical indoor swimming centres, are available on Stena Sealink's itinerary for Normandy and the Loire. A four-night midweek break costs from pounds 279 for a villa sleeping four (pounds 3l9 for eight), including return ferry crossing. In Holland, the Gan Dorado Parcs, similar to Center Parcs, start at pounds 299 (four people for four nights).

Le Shopping Breaks to Dieppe - the most interesting channel port, with probably the best Saturday food and clothing street market in northern France - offer a choice of six hotels; a two-night b&b break costs from pounds 81, including the ferry crossing with car.

Stena Sealink also caters for foodies. A two-night break at the three- star Hotel aux Armes de Champagne, in the tiny village of l'Epine, costs pounds 169 each for two nights including dinner, b&b and the Dover/Calais return crossing. At Hostellerie La Briqueterie in Epernay, in the Champagne region, two nights b&b including crossing costs pounds 165 each for two people sharing.

Stena Sealink 01233 647033

PAR FOR THE COURSE

British successes in the Ryder and Walker cups have sparked renewed interest in golf, and a wider than ever range of breaks is available this winter. Cresta Holidays offers 30 courses throughout Ireland, and 57 in France. A two-night stay at Ireland's five-star Kildare Hotel and Country Club, home of the recent Euro-pean Tournament, costs pounds 199 in November and December (prices are for b&b plus car ferry fare from Holyhead to Dublin or Dn Laoghaire). The same break by air, flying to Dublin from Manchester or Luton, costs pounds 333 and pounds 262 respectively. The hotel, which is 40 minutes drive from Dublin and right beside the River Liffey, has a health and leisure club with pool, sports centre and gym; trout and salmon fishing are available for non-golfing guests. The players can reserve tee times, book golf clinics or individual tuition, and enjoy the privilege of reduced green fees of IRpounds 55 (about pounds 52).

Cresta Holidays 0161 929 1311

POOH BEAR REVISITED

If you are still deeply attached to your teddy bear, head for the luxury Horsted Place in Uckfield, East Sussex. There, AA Milne addicts can indulge in a weekend of childhood nostalgia on special "Pooh Breaks". As well as a two-night stay with dinner, bed and breakfast, swimming and tennis, guests can follow closely in Pooh's pawsteps on walks in the 100-acre wood in Ashdown Forest, ride on the Bluebell Railway through bear country, or taste the local honey - taking away a Winnie the Pooh bear as a souvenir. For the less sentimental, there are other attractions in the area - Lewes Castle and museum, Glynde Place, an Elizabethan flint manor, the Barkham Manor vineyard (which offers tours and tastings), and Sheffield Park Gardens, comprising 100 landscaped acres and five lakes. The week costs pounds 197.50 each based on two people sharing.

Horsted Place 01825 750581 !

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