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When I spent a year and a half living and working in the UK just over 10 years ago, I made it a point to veer off the beaten path now and then because I figured it would be easy for me to visit the more popular tourist spots from Australia once I returned to reality. How I wish I had had the foresight to publicise my blog then! My big mistakes were to use Blogspot as a platform instead of WordPress, keeping my blog private amongst close friends and family only, not posting regularly or frequently, and not writing about my trips to places like Serbia, Romania and Iceland before every other blogger hopped onto the bandwagon. It’s a good thing I actually love my day job and that it brings with it opportunities to travel, or I’d definitely be kicking myself now!
Pondering the “what if” scenario did get me thinking, however, about some of the smaller towns I’ve been lucky enough to visit over the years that I would recommend you tag onto your next European adventure. If you’re stuck for ideas about where to go on holiday this year, why not consider one of the following regions in Europe?
1. Basel, Switzerland
Why you should visit? Basel surprised and delighted me with its cheerful shopfronts and colourful trams from the minute I stepped into the town centre and nearly killed myself getting the above shot of an oncoming tram. No kidding – a local pulled me back onto the kerb and admonished me sternly as though I was a small child. From these inauspicious beginnings, I grew to love the town more and more with each day of discovery. The love grew even deeper when I discovered the Laderach chocolate store in the town centre – only THE BEST chocolate in the world! View some of my photos of Basel here.
Best time to visit in 2017: The days were long and sunny yet balmy when I visited during the summer months, making it a perfect time for exploration. However, if you enjoy festivals, street parades and colourful masks, consider timing your visit for Basel’s Fasnacht, a 3 day carnival held the week after Ash Wednesday from 4am Monday until 4am Thursday. The festivities run from 6-8 March this year.
Complete your trip: Bern
I strongly urge you to hop onto a train to the capital of Switzerland, even if just for a day trip. Built on split levels and surrounded on 3 sides by the magnificently blue-green River Aare, this town will delight at every turn. Read more here about the must-dos in Bern.
2. Sinaia, Romania
Why you should visit? In Sinaia, you will find 2 of the most beautiful castles I have ever visited, Peles Castle with its Lego-like colourful roof tiles, and Pelisor Castle with its elaborate wall murals. If you’re up for it, you can also go hiking in an attempt to spot bears. You can even try bear meat while in this neck of the woods. I found it a little too gamey for my taste.
Best time to visit in 2017: The general recommendation is to visit Romania during the shoulder months of May-June and September-October, but I went in March and had a fantastic time in the snow. As you’ll soon see as you read further, I do have a slight obsession with the fluffy white stuff though!
Complete your trip: Bran Castle
To be honest, the interior of this castle is not the most attractive nor exciting, but if you’re in the vicinity, you should make the trip to Dracula’s Castle, which really is quite imposing and spooky from the outside, at least if you can ignore all the market stalls dotted around the footpath leading up to the castle grounds. Aah, tourism – gotta love it!
3. Matera, Italy
Why you should visit? This little town quite literally took my breath away at every turn, whether I was viewing it from a distance or walking through the winding streets and alleyways. Come nightfall when the lights come on, the scene becomes even more surreal, as though you’ve been transported into a giant Nativity scene. It is little wonder that this town has been the principle filming location for several Biblical movies, including The Nativity Story and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Being situated in the south, you can also expect significantly fewer crowds, and the most amazing and authentic Italian food I have tasted anywhere throughout the entire country.
Best time to visit in 2017: The best time to visit any part of Italy is during the shoulder seasons, ie April-May or September. It gets very hot, humid and crowded with tourists during the summer months from June-August. Additionally, some shops and eateries may be closed in August as this is when many Italians take their holidays. Whether you choose spring or autumn, I recommend you make your way to Matera in the next 2 years as it has been named the European Capital of Culture for 2019, and is sure to become more crowded thereafter as more people discover its primeval charm.
Complete your trip: Pietrapertosa and Castelmezzano
Situated just over an hour’s drive from Matera are the cliffside towns of Pietrapertosa and Castelmezzano. The layers and rows of pastel coloured dwellings set amongst the stark rockface backdrop create a pretty picture, but what you’re really here for is the zipline that connects the 2 towns. With both solo and tandem flights available, do you dare embark upon the Flight of Angels? And if you want more, read here about other must-see small towns in Italy’s south.
4. Rouen, France
Why you should visit? Rouen has it all – rows of delightly well preserved medieval buildings, the dubious honour of being the place where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, making it an important historical site and a pilgrimage destination for some, a peaceful but rather macabre square known for being the former graveyard for plague victims, and to top it all off, its very own Notre Dame Cathedral. Situated just 1.5 hours from Paris by rail, Rouen is a perfect day trip from a city stay in the capital, or you could hire a car and explore more of the Normandy, Brittany and maybe even the Loire regions of France.Read here for more information about how to visit Rouen by rail from Paris.
Best time to visit in 2017: If you enjoy the work of artists like Monet and Renoir, the Normandy Impressionist Festival runs from April to September each year, with events mainly based at Rouen and Caen. One of the most popular of these events is the Festival of Lights, a light show projected onto Rouen’s Cathedral from June to September.
Complete your trip: Gerberoy and Mont St Michel
France’s World Heritage listed fortress on an island needs no introduction. As impressive as it is from afar (alas for the gray gloomy skies the day I went!), climbing up the narrow windy streets to the church at the very top will wow you even more.
If you’re driving to the Mont St Michel from Paris, don’t forget to call in at the charming little village of Gerberoy. You’ll feel like you’ve stepped back into medieval times! If you don’t have your own set of wheels, read here about a fun day tour you can take from Paris.
5. Honningsvag, Norway
Why you should visit? This pretty little coastal town is just a hop, skip and a step away from Nordkapp, the northernmost point in Norway and therefore an ideal viewing location for the Midnight Sun, referring to the phenomenon where at least part of the sun’s disk is visible above the horizon for 24 hours a day. In other words, if you make your way to Nordkapp at midnight, you will experience the pleasure of watching the sun descend below the horizon and then immediately rise again. If you like sunrises and sunsets…and let’s face it, who doesn’t?…this is every bit as spectacular as it sounds!
Best time to visit in 2017: The effect of the Midnight Sun is most dramatic the closer you visit to the Summer Solstice, which is the longest day of the year in locations north of the Equator. This day will fall this year on Wednesday 21 June. This time of year is perfect for visiting the Scandinavian countries as the weather is balmy, there’s plenty of daylight to pack in as much sightseeing as you can physically manage, and there are plenty of festivals around to celebrate the Summer Solstice.
Complete your trip: Alta
At the Alta Outdoor Museum, you will find a vast array of fascinating ancient rock carvings and paintings. The drive between Honningsvag and Alta, like the rest of Norway as a whole, is graced by stunning scenery, making this one of the most picturesque road trips in the world.
6. Segovia, Spain
Why you should visit? With a majestic cathedral, an imposing aqueduct and a fairy tale castle to explore, there’s plenty to see and do in this little town not far from Madrid. The Alcazar de Segovia (castle) is said to have been the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle, and it’s not hard to see why with its many graceful spires. Don’t forget to try cochinillo (roast suckling pig), the local delicacy.
Best time to visit in 2017: Summer in Spain is hot, hot, HOT! I should know because that’s exactly when we went, and my recommendation is to avoid this time of year at all costs. We survived, just, with daily doses of super sweet and juicy sandia (watermelon) and helados (ice-cream). For a more comfortable visit, the shoulder months are best. April-May are good, but September-October are even better as Segovia plays host to a number of cultural festivals during this time.
Complete your trip: Avila and Toledo
Avila is just a short distance from Segovia and therefore can be visited on the same day if you’re pressed for time. This little town is surrounded by one of the best preserved city walls you’ll find anywhere in the world. Take your time strolling along the ramparts, but don’t forget to find a vantage point outside of town so that you can admire it from afar.
Toledo is slightly further away, being closer to Madrid (and hence a perfect day trip from there) than it is to Segovia. Still, it’s close enough that it deserves a mention. Toledo is famous for its steel and swords, as well as being a cultural melting pot with beautiful synagogues, mosques and cathedrals within closer proximity to each other. Add to that the commanding Alcazar (fortress) and the town’s dramatic location atop a gorge, and I guarantee that, like many others before you, you will fall in love with this town.
7. Baden Baden, Germany
Why you should visit? One of the most wondrous travel experiences that I will never forget is relaxing outdoors in a thermal bath while admiring the Christmas lights in the distance, snowflakes gently landing on my face. So magical was this experience, that this was one of the first destinations to be confirmed when I was planning a return visit to the German Christmas markets with 3 of my best friends. The town itself is very picturesque, with lovely views from Merkur Mountain and the Neues Schloss (New Castle). If you love chocolate, this is one of the German towns with a Laderach store. And if you’re here around Christmas town, many of the market souvenirs are more well priced than elsewhere in the country.
Best time to visit in 2017: I’m sure Baden Baden would make a beautiful base from which to explore the Black Forest region of Germany in the summer months, but my vote is still for the Christmas markets, which generally run from end November right up until Christmas Eve in most German towns. If you like chocolate, perhaps time your visit so that you can attend ChocolArt in Tubingen (see below), which runs from 5-10 December this year. Once in Tubingen, you’re just a short train ride away from another must-see, the Narnia-esque Hohenzellern Castle. If you’re lucky enough to visit when the castle and surrounding landscape are blanketed in snow, you’ll feel as though you’ve just stepped through a wardrobe!
Complete your trip: Tubingen and Heidelberg
If the words “chocolate” and “festival” aren’t enough to get your heart racing, what about a light show projected onto the facades of Tubingen’s buildings, converting them into even more enchanting gingerbread houses?
If you do find yourself in Tubingen, don’t forget to make the short journey to one of my favourite castles that I have ever visited, the as yet relatively undiscovered Hohenzellern Castle.
Another town well worth adding to your itinerary is Heidelberg. Although it’s now significantly busier than when I first visited over 10 years ago, the views overlooking the town centre from the castle complex, and of the castle complex from across the bridge at Philosopher’s Way are still amongst the most breathtaking in all of Europe. Don’t forget to visit the fun and informative Pharmacy Museum at the castle complex.
Where have you ventured off the beaten path that has charmed and delighted you? Please share any suggestions that you may have of small towns I should visit!
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