If you want to avoid designer tourists in '98, it's cool to be dull

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The Independent Travel
People are always asking me what the hip European cities of 1998 are going to be. In fact I have great difficulty in thinking of cities that are not being described as hip.

It is the same wherever you look. The cities that you had always thought were introspective and bourgeois turn out to be cosmopolitan melting pots. The cities that were supposed to be industrial wastelands are in fact brimming with stylish converted warehouses.

Last year it was Bilbao that suddenly leapt to the top of the hipness league after the opening of the Guggenheim museum, probably the funkiest building in Europe. The year before that it was Reykjavik, a city where "cool" used to refer to the summer weather. This year a whole range of overgrown towns is set to win the accolade "hippest cities in Europe" and the ranks of the totally boring and nondescript will be impoverished yet again.

In order to pre-empt this development, I have been trying to identify the few remaining places that we can safely assume are not going to be overrun by designer tourists in the coming summer. The message for these places is: be dull, and get there first.

Starting in Britain, I would have to pick on Birmingham. Trapped between the refined South and the gritty North, "Brum" stands as much chance of winning European style awards as Birmingham City FC does of winning the FA Cup. None.

Across the channel, we have the ostensibly cool-free zones of Brussels and Luxembourg, though I would be cautious in pronouncing on these too soon. Brussels, after all, does have its Art Nouveau architecture and small countries always appeal to the youth.

Germany is a much more promising area. In fact, apart from Berlin and possibly Munich, I can't think of any German town that is not entirely stuffy and bourgeois. Visit Hanover, Bonn and Frankfurt in 1998, I say, and leave your wardrobe behind.

By contrast to this the Latin world offers decidedly mean pickings. In all honesty, is there a single Italian city that cannot be described as totally hip? Where we have Ventnor and Rochdale, the Italians have Verona and Rimini.

Spain at least offers the consolation of a few overdeveloped beach resorts, though even Torremolinos and Benidorm have a certain retro cachet these days. The one sure bet in the Mediterranean area is Andorra, that deadly dive of a country whose very raison d'etre - duty free - is on the verge of being phased out by the EU.

As for the French, they always have Strasbourg and Annecy to fall back on - but unfortunately France cannot be included in this discussion because it is holding the World Cup in 1998 (which will render all other considerations irrelevant).

Eastern Europe, by the way, which used to contain the nicest worst-dressed people anywhere, is now awesomely cool right across the board. From Warsaw to Moscow, from Prague to Sofia, there is not a single city that has not been identified by someone as a Style Capital in the last few years. From this whole area I can only suggest Tirane as definitively style-free, unless you count boys with kalashnikovs. Minsk might be worth a look, except that the old Soviet uniforms are too easily mistaken for fashion statements.

IF for some reason you were unable to take full advantage of the Christmas and New Year celebrations this year, do not despair. You still have a chance of celebrating both, provided you are willing to travel for it.

On 7 January Russia and the Ukraine will be celebrating their own Russian Orthodox Christmas, which still falls on what would have been 25 December according to the Julian calender.

As for the New Year, you still have plenty of time until the Ethiopians ring in their 1998. For various reasons the calender of this Christian country in the horn of Africa has got out of sync with those of us who swing to the tune of Pope Gregory. If you want to relive the festivities, visit Addis Ababa in September when the country will usher in...1991.

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