Top Ten European hideaways
Have you seen one too many Eiffel Tower paperweights? Is sunny Italy a little too warm while waiting in line outside a museum? How about finding fish ‘n chips shops on the beach in Spain?
If Europe’s beaten paths lead you to frustration, boredom, and claustrophobia, don’t swap that Eurail pass for coupons to Disneyland. Europe still has unabashed, unspoiled pockets of culture to absorb. I’ve been traveling to Europe for 32 years and lived in Rome for a year and a half. Through research, word of mouth, and blind luck, I’ve found spots where you can still see places that haven’t changed since the creation of frequent-flyer miles. Here, my ten favorite.
10. Troyes, France
You don’t have to look at a map to see Troyes is the capital of France’s Champagne region. Stroll the cobblestone old town and see couples at outdoor cafes sipping champagne from bottles in tall buckets. This town of 60,000, a 90-minute train ride southeast from Paris, gets overlooked among France’s kaleidoscope of destinations. Yet one of the country’s best collections of Gothic churches, millennium-old civic buildings, and quiet narrow streets radiates an air of the French Renaissance. Check out the 375-foot-long Cathedrale St. Pierre et St. Paul. Better yet, see where the champagne you drank the night before came from by renting a bike and cruising the vineyards of the glorious Champagne region.
9. Wroclaw, Poland
Name a Polish city besides Warsaw and Krakow and you’re on the next episode of “Jeopardy.” Pronounce Wroclaw correctly and you’re hosting the show (it’s VROT-slaf). Probably fewer know that this 1,000-year-old city has one of the largest squares in Europe. Rynek Square stretches the length of two football fields and the width of another field and a half. The square is lined with Renaissance-style buildings in yellows, reds, golds, and greens. It surrounds the Rynek Ratusz (Town Hall), a magnificent yellow palace sporting its own brew pub. In 1989, about when Poland’s communist regime fell to Lech Walesa’s Solidarity, Rynek Square had two bars and two restaurants. Today there are 120. During the twilight hours in summer, the square fills with Polish salsa bands and musicians playing Bach.
8. Regensburg, Germany
You want Bavaria without the waiters in lederhosen? Regensburg is Bavaria’s original capital and remains one of Europe’s best preserved medieval towns. Splitting the town is the pretty Danube River, which you can view from the romantic Steinerne Brucke (Stone Bridge), the river’s first fortified crossing. Regensburg, once home to Oskar Schindler of “Schindler’s List” fame, is home to 130,000 people but still has a sleepy small-town feel to it. The tourists flock to Munich 60 miles to the south, leaving the beer gardens to the locals and a festive summer atmosphere void of stein-filled souvenir stands. In 2006, UNESCO recognized Regensburg for its architecture, including Dom St. Peter, Bavaria’s best Gothic cathedral.
7. Ebensee, Austria
Location. Location. Location. This is what makes Ebensee shine in the shadows of the Salzburg-Vienna trail. Located about 20 miles east of Salzburg, this town of 8,700 sits on the south shore of Lake Traunsee and next to lakes Offensee and Langbathsee, all at the foot of the snow-capped Salzkammergut Mountains. A cable car takes you to 5,250-foot Fauerkogel, where you can walk along green plateaus and look down at the lakes. Swimming, fishing, windsurfing, boating, and even scuba diving are available on lakes that rarely get crowded. The Langbathsee features an 18th-century hunting lodge started by Emperor Franz Joseph I.
6. Isola della Maddalena, Italy
When in Sardinia, go ahead and drive up smarmy Costa Smeralda, gaze at the yachts and Italy’s beautiful people sipping Campari on deck. Then continue to the port town of Palau for a 20-minute ferry ride to Maddalena. It’s without question the most gorgeous island I’ve seen in Southern Europe outside Santorini. Each turn of the road has a car park where you can pull over and take pictures of tiny bays, individually carved by wind-washed rock. The water is so clear you can see the ocean floor 50 feet down and four shades of blue: cobalt, royal, turquoise, and blue-green. Walk down a couple of sandy trails and feel the fine, grainy sand of perfect granules as you settle onto beaches no more than 70 yards long. However, as you get closer on the ferry, a blanket of orange-roofed houses gives way to a 30-foot anchor greeting you at the harbor. Maddalena is also home to a U.S. Naval base. Don’t worry. The sailors are at peace here, too.
5. Dingle, Ireland
The westernmost point in Europe, this town has 1,800 people and 50 pubs. Around the 18th century, local businessmen could get a liquor license for a couple of shillings and ran two businesses at the same time. Thus, you’ll find yourself drinking a pint of Guinness at Murphy’s Pub & Bed & Breakfast. It has developed some commercialism. You can see its Oceanworld aquarium, but at its heart, Dingle carries the soul of Irish spirit…in more ways than one. After a few pints of Guinness, don’t be surprised if a local puts his arm around you and makes you join in for a round of Irish folksongs, topped with the Irish national anthem. To work off the beer, cycle around some of the 100-mile road tracing the Dingle Peninsula, where green hills abut hard against gold, sandy beaches. And nothing tops a bike ride better than a plate of apple crisp in cream in an Irish country diner.
Getting off the beaten path in Provence is like finding a cheap steak in Japan. But even Peter Mayle hasn’t been to Grimaud, a town so cute it belongs on a cat calendar. Located an hour north of the maddening mobs on the French Riviera, it consists of three narrow roads, two of which are barely big enough for one car at a time. The roads are lined with little boutiques selling straw hats and pottery and fresh Provencal dishes. Locals drink wine in the tiny sidewalk cafes and play petanque, France’s version of lawn bowling. Hike up the steep alleys adorned with hanging vines and purple and pink flowers until you reach the top of the village. Stare down at the Roman castle, the red-tile roofs, and the green forest stretching to the distant Mediterranean. And enjoy the cool breeze from the 1,000-foot elevation. The next morning, go to the public market and gather fresh tangerines, almond biscuits, flaky baguettes, and a fugasna, a large croissant filled with anything from spinach to ham and cheese.
If you want to meet an accountant from L.A., visit Florence. If you want to meet an artist from Italy, visit Urbino. It’s in Le Marche, the poor man’s Tuscany. Urbino may be the most beautiful hill town in Italy and much nicer than Cortona, the town Frances Mayes’s book Under the Tuscan Sun turned into a Tuscan people zoo in the ’90s. Urbino is a walled city centered around the ridiculously romantic Piazza della Repubblica, where you sit surrounded by cafes and gelaterrias a stone’s throw from the home of Renaissance artist Raphael. The windy, steep cobblestone roads are nearly void of cars and lead to such treasures as the Palazzo Ducale, a sprawling Renaissance palace built in the 15th century for Urbino’s ruling dynasty. Urbino has pizza with a view: a volcano pizza (spicy salami, gorgonzola, onion, mozzarella, tomato) at Tre Piante, a cliff-side pizzeria overlooking the red-tiled roofs and rolling green farmland of the Marche countryside below.
2. Kvarner Islands,Croatia
These islands hang off Croatia’s northwest corner like leaves falling peacefully from a tree. They were once part of the Roman Empire and haven’t changed much since. Walk the narrow, windy alleyways that snake off medieval harbors where locals sip coffee and watch fishermen darn their nets. On the isle of Losinj, hike the mile-long, tree-lined walkway along the Adriatic seaboard from Mali Losinj to Veli Losinj, a stretch where the Adriatic is as turquoise as the South Pacific. The isle of Krk produces its own olive oil, and the reasonably priced restaurants serve grilled meats and fresh fish from centuries-old recipes. The Kvarner (pronounced var-NAIR) Islands are only a four-hour bus ride from the capital of Zagreb, and bus tickets around the islands usually include the short ferry crossings. In July and August you can swim in one of the cleanest bodies of water in Europe.
1. Lipsi, Greece
If you’ve been to Greece, visit Lipsi to see what the country was like in the 1950s before Jackie Onassis made it trendy. Lipsi is a tiny speck of rolling farmland lined with isolated beaches peppered by the snow-white buildings and turquoise roofs of the 45 Greek Orthodox churches. It has 650 people, twice as many goats, and no airport. The leading mode of transportation is the donkey. Days consist of walking to a local bakery for some fresh tiropita and deciding on which of the 12 near-empty beaches you’ll soak up the sun. A cobblestone path leads to a tiny town square surrounded by open-air restaurants serving cheap, traditional Greek dishes. Located 40 miles from Turkey in the Dodecanese island chain, Lipsi is reachable by boat from Samos via Patmos.