Europe offers a treasure trove of history and culture. Here we take a look at what awaits those who venture off the beaten track and at five of my personal favorites.
1. Trieste and its hinterland, Italy and Slovenia
Pushed to nominate my favorite city getaway in Europe, I would opt for Trieste. This least Italian of all Italian cities is perched on a narrow finger of flattish land at the very head of the Adriatic. Behind the city, the hills rise up to a dry limestone plateau that extends over the border into nearby Slovenia.
I love Trieste for what it is today but also for its remarkable history. For decades, it was the principal trading port of the Habsburg Empire. Trieste thus acquired a special status as an Adriatic outpost of Viennese mercantile ingenuity with a vibrant intellectual and cultural life. For writers, artists, and poets, Trieste was an extension of the salons of Viennese society and was really a Vienna by the sea.
On an ideal Trieste day, I just drift from café to café, sitting at the very tables where James Joyce and Italo Sveto once chatted with friends. There are bookshops galore. For out-of-town excursions, I take the ferry over to Muggia and then hike up to the Slovenian border. Or I join the boat along the coast to Sistiana and then follow the cliff-top trail to Duino, a stroll which much inspired the poet Rainer Maria Rilke.
2. The Jura region, Switzerland and France
Of course, you know the Alps, but have you ever considered the Jura region? This great arc of hills offers green landscapes, magnificent gorges, and some of Europe’s finest hiking and fishing. Like many of Europe’s most fascinating areas, it straddles a frontier and comes with a big dose of history. I tend to favor the Swiss side of the Jura merely because the public transport connections are rather better than in the French Jura, but every good Jura stay should include cross-border excursions into France by train, bicycle, or on foot.
The Jura packs a few surprises. In the 18th century, the Jura region developed as a major hub of European watchmaking. For farmers in the hills, horology was initially a winter activity to complement summer agricultural work. But they quickly discovered there was money to be made in watches. The Swiss Jura emerged as a vibrant hub of political awareness, with Swiss watchmakers contributing to debates on European anarchism and socialism. Don’t miss the International Watch Museum in La Chaux-de-Fonds. There’s a treat in store for wine lovers who venture over into the French Jura. Try the local vin jaune, a pale yellowish wine that takes decades to mature.
3. Carpathian borderlands, Poland and Slovakia
The area where the far south-east corner of Poland spills over the border into north-east Slovakia rates as one of my favorite regions of central Europe for walking in the hills. It is a cultural landscape with wonderful wooden churches and villages that attest to the wood’s beauty. For the entire Carpathian region, wood is more than merely a building material. It carries values and traditions, connecting communities to their local landscapes.
The rich and varied cultural fabric of Carpathian life is rooted in a regional history that reflects Jewish and Christian traditions. Many wooden churches are Orthodox, others are Roman Catholic, while others are used by adherents of the Greek Catholic or Uniate tradition. I have wandered for days through this region and up on the summit trails you’ll rarely meet another soul. But head down into the valleys, whether on the Polish or the Slovak side of the hills, to discover villages with simple hotels offering decent accommodation and good, wholesome food. When better times come, bolder travelers may want to venture east into the Ukrainian Carpathians.
4. Alsace, France
So close to the Rhine Valley and yet another world! Pressed to nominate my favorite areas of France, I would be tempted to suggest Alsace. But this is France with a twist. You’ll find timber and textiles and a legacy of silver mining in the Vosges Mountains, with some of France’s finest vineyards in the land away to the east of the hills. A galaxy of celebrated restaurants builds upon a rich culinary tradition.
But Alsace also offers fuel for the mind. Alsace has always been big on ideas. Debates about religion and democracy are part of the Alsace spirit. The Amish found refuge in a remote valley in the Alsace hill country before moving on to the New World. Humanist thinking, a strong tradition of philanthropy and an early interest in the printed word all helped shape Alsace. The world’s first printed newspaper was published in Strasbourg in 1605. Four centuries on, Strasbourg hosts the European Parliament, spearheading Alsace’s role in affirming the European spirit of freedom and democracy. These are matters to ponder over a glass of Alsace Riesling or Gewürztraminer as you explore an area that blends fine landscapes with strong historical tradition.
5. Bohemian spa culture, Czechia
Bohemia’s famous spa triangle is Europe’s best manifestation of a long-standing health tradition that has shaped patterns of European travel and tourism for centuries. The three key centers are Františkovy Lázně, Mariánské Lázně and Karlovy Vary. These are very different, and if you have the time, I recommend visiting them in the order cited above.
Whether in pursuit of health, money, or partners, affluent Europeans made their way to the spas of Bohemia or their counterparts elsewhere (such as Baden-Baden). I love these towns. They are dislocated places, each with its own genius loci. In Bohemia, hints of past grandeur are draped with a soft veneer of Soviet-style central planning and the sharp edge of modern capitalism. These are communities where history and the present are never quite reconciled, places where the atmosphere seems a little denser than elsewhere in Europe. When I grow old, I plan to wander from one spa to the next, taking time to soak up the atmosphere of each. Later, when I’ve had my fill of Bohemian spa towns, I shall make for Trieste.