Every summer, millions of Americans trot off to Europe in search of that elusive mix of Old World ambiance, tangible history and stimulating foreign atmosphere.
Every summer, millions of Americans trot off to Europe in search of that elusive mix of Old World ambiance, tangible history and stimulating foreign atmosphere. And every September, many come back complaining about crowds, heat and inflated prices — not to mention the irritation of traveling 3,000 miles to be surrounded by fellow Americans, all of them looking for that great European escape.
A good number go to Paris; another sizable contingent packs for Siena or Santorini. These destinations are popular for a reason — but they are also the places that generate, in the experience of this longtime traveler, the most complaints of the sort mentioned above. It’s ironic: So many contemporary travelers profess a desire for authentic cultural engagement, yet the distilled essence of French or Greek society can be elusive in Paris or Mykonos. There are numerous alternatives that most Americans never explore — mostly because they are either off the beaten train path, unvetted by friends, or simply under the radar for a nation with precious few vacation days.
The very best way to avoid crowds, high prices and fellow Americans is to get hold of a car and drive. Why? Because driving takes you off the plane-and-train circuit that funnels hordes of tourists to the Cinque Terre and Versailles. For every lovely village mobbed with the guidebook-toting masses, there are dozens more nearby where the old men playing cards in a sleepy café will look up with a start at the sight of an outsider. That café probably doesn’t have a menu in English, either.
These towns are sleepy for a reason: Most people wouldn’t stop there if they weren’t tooling along in a vehicle. An aimless drive through nearly any region of Europe will take you through myriad historic towns, crumbling castles and places where the cooking is scrumptiously traditional. All that is required is a good map and a nose for adventure, along with spare time and decent brakes.
Not everyone is up for a European road trip. Fortunately, this sojourner has done the research for you — so if you’re contemplating a trans-Atlantic jaunt this summer and are eager to escape the crowds, why not consider the following alternatives?
If you like Paris… Try Madrid. Paris has plenty of less-clichéd, but equally cosmopolitan, rivals for the combination of great art, urbane boulevards and stellar gastronomy. Meanwhile, most Americans hurry through Madrid’s de rigueur gauntlet of Prado, Puerto del Sol and Plaza Mayor, drink some sangría and escape to Spain’s more intimate, user-friendly corners.
But if you know how to enjoy Madrid, it can be much more fun than Paris. Madrid’s institutional trifecta — the Prado, the Reína Sofía and the Thyssen-Bornemisza — host far more thoughtfully curated collections than the Louvre, and the works on display — the finest of Goya, Picasso and Bosch — tend to be more engaging than those at the Orsay or the Centre Pompidou. Give yourself plenty of time to enjoy the art, pausing for café con leche at the outdoor museum cafés or a picnic in nearby Retiro Park. Then toss the guidebook and venture north of the Gran Vía to the hipster enclaves of Chueca (the gay district), La Latina and Malasaña, where affordable, distinctive boutiques and stylish restaurants cater to a local crowd. Or stroll the Salamanca district, where Goya and Serrano Streets are as elegant as any address in Paris, for a peek at the formal lifestyle of wealthy Madrileños. In Madrid, every drink comes with a generous tapa — so bar-crawl your way up the Calle de la Victoria, just off the Puerto del Sol yet full of the kind of old-school Castilian watering holes that define this city. And yes, Madrid’s summer heat can be overwhelming. But on the plus side, you have the city more or less to yourself all August long — something that can’t be said for Paris.
Instead of the Amalfi Coast… Try northern Greece. The tiny, picturesque fishing villages clinging to vertiginous cliffs south of Naples are overwhelmed most of the year with Anglophone tourism, to the point where shuffling through the narrow lanes becomes claustrophobic rather than romantic. But the less-touristed coastlines of northern Greece — both on the Aegean side, in the old Ottoman town of Kavala and especially along the Ionian Sea — sport similar scenery, without either the crowds or the high prices.
Parga, a resort town opposite Corfu near the Albanian border, is a dead ringer for Positano; like its Italian counterpart, Parga has cliffs that spike at 90 degrees out of a limpid turquoise sea, with colorful villas on a sloping green hillside. But since Greece has literally thousands of miles of beaches and the vast majority of its tourists head to the southern islands, Parga retains a tranquility reserved for the few savvy British, Dutch and Italians who visit. And a glass of wine at a beachfront café still only costs $2.50.
Headed for Provence? In Aix-en-Provence, Nice or Villefranche-sur-Mer, you’ll have plenty of company, and in St. Tropez, you’ll fight for parking — possibly literally — near the sea. But the relaxed circuit of villages in the Var region of Provence is just enough off the beaten tourist path that at any point in the summer, you can easily stash the Peugeot and slide into an outdoor café, soaking up French history and savoring its countryside.
Start with lunch in the picturesque village of Cotignac, known for its excellent cuisine and crumbling medieval towers. Then drive on to Entrecasteaux, whose claim to fame is a grand 17th-century château. Nearby Carces, perched on a series of hills, invites wandering amid its stone arches, traditional patisseries and views from the upper town over the valley beyond. Frolic down by the river in Cabasse, whose ancient stone buildings and green meadows look like an Impressionist painting. Wind up in Le Val, a sleepy walled town that epitomizes the charm of small-town France.
If the Pyrenées or the Alps beckon… Consider the mountains of Bulgaria, longtime favorites of European climbers, hikers, mushroom-hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts. Bulgaria, a little-known country wedged between Greece, Romania and Turkey in southeastern Europe, is both spectacularly beautiful and spectacularly cheap. The same cannot be said for Switzerland, where the francs you’d spend on a single meal could feed you for days in Bulgarian levs. Nestled at the foot of Mount Vitosha, Sofia is that rare capital with ski slopes just miles from the city center; in summertime, mountain enthusiasts flock to Vitosha for its network of trails, chalets and glorious city views that extend to the Balkan Range. Within a few hours’ drive are the highest peaks on the Balkan Peninsula, the Rila Mountains; the jagged, snow-covered Pirins; and the mystical Rhodopes, where remote villages are tucked between crystalline mountain lakes.
A comfortable home base is Bansko, Bulgaria’s premier mountain resort, popular with climbers and skiers from across the Continent. Crowned by Rila’s forested, snowy peaks, Bansko exudes rustic charm with cobblestoned streets and wood-frame 19th-century buildings. Vacationers who prefer not to sweat have plenty of options, too — from casinos and folklore museums to shops selling hand-painted ceramics and colorfully embroidered linens. Throughout the mountains, spa towns like Devin (in the Rhodopes) and Bania (near Bansko) are fabled for their bubbling mineral springs.
Seeking Jewish heritage in Krakow? Try Girona, Spain. Krakow is one of Europe’s great Jewish heritage centers, and Poland justifiably attracts legions of Jewish history-seekers to its cemeteries, museums and memorials. But in Girona, you can trace the steps of Sefarad culture amid the silence of history; exploring the city’s ancient call (Catalan for Jewish ghetto) within fortified Roman walls, you’ll see European-Jewish heritage through a Sephardic lens.
Girona, a medieval city about an hour north of Barcelona, is often referred to as the Florence of Catalonia for the way the River Ter flows through its city center. The city is also the heart of a recently launched Spanish initiative to recover Iberia’s Sephardic heritage — the Red de Juderías — Caminos de Sefarad (Jewish Network of Places — Sephardic Routes). Caminos de Sefarad is a kind of Jewish alternative to the Camino de Santiago, the Catholic pilgrimage route that winds through northern Spain. A comprehensive Jewish heritage itinerary now links cities and pueblos across Spanish Iberia, showcasing the restored vestiges of Jewish life: mikvot, ghetto districts, ruins of ancient synagogues.
The truth is that Spain’s tangible Jewish history is minimal next to that of Eastern Europe; 500 years have passed since Iberia expelled its Jews, while Polish-Jewish life flourished less than a century ago. But interest in Sephardic heritage is undergoing a revival throughout Spain, and it’s evident in the winding alleyways of Barcelona’s call, where a new Jewish museum is flanked by Hebrew etchings still visible on the medieval walls. The Camino is also a terrific way to discover incredibly lovely but less-known villages throughout Spain; if they’re historic enough to be on the route, they’re likely to offer precisely the kind of Old World atmosphere travelers are hunting for. And chances are, those travelers won’t find crowds.
Hilary Danailova is the chief travel correspondent for Special Sections.
Right: Old Town Girona, Spain