Travellers can enjoy a myriad of wonderful experiences when visiting Europe's
most popular cities – a veritable cornucopia of historic, cultural and
gastronomic delights. But for those with the time and inclination to take the
road less travelled, here are three lesser-known gems just a short distance
Spain: From Barcelona to Vilanova i la Geltrú
Situated just 40km southwest of Barcelona, the peaceful seaside town of Vilanova i la Geltrú is one of Catalonia’s major fishing ports. Yet, despite a wealth of seasonal attractions on par with its more famous neighbour, it has managed to remain comfortably under the international visitor radar.
Its mild Mediterranean climate makes it pleasant to visit year-round, but particularly from June to early September, locals flock to a choice of five beaches along a scenic 6km stretch in the city’s south. Unlike the bustling, often overcrowded beaches in Barcelona, the sand here is golden and the water is clean and clear. Ribes Roges beach is one of the liveliest, with banana boating and volleyball on offer, while sun-worshippers opt for the smaller, more secluded St Gervasi beach.
Fresh seafood is a regional staple, with prawns, mussels, squid, clams and lobster routinely served at restaurants. Head to beachside El Rossegall for an inexpensive selection of seafood and paella in a cosy setting – an excellent way to sample local fare without the tourist prices that often plague larger cities.
When the weather cools, indoor options include the Catalonia Railway Museum, with its interactive journey through the evolution of trains and the largest collection of steam engines in Europe. Alternately, the Victor Balaguer Library-Museum houses an eclectic collection of art, both contemporary and from 17th to 19th Centuries, including pieces by European masters El Greco, Ribera and Rubens. The edifice itself – purpose built as a museum – retains much of its original 1884 detailing.
Vilanova i la Geltrú’s main pedestrian avenue, La Rambla Vilanova i la Geltrú, takes you on a peaceful 1km stroll from the city centre to the lovely maritime port boardwalk, Passeig Maritim. Plenty of boutiques and cafes offer respite along the way – stop at El Fornet for artisan pastries in an early 20th-century setting – while the many public benches reward visitors with something rarely found in the frenzied Catalan capital: a moment to stop and take it all in.
Italy: From Milan to Brescia
Known primarily for industrial manufacturing, the historic city of Brescia does not often entice visitors seeking northern Italy’s wealth of cultural, architectural and gastronomic offerings. Yet, just 97km east of Milan, it shares the Lombardy capital’s rich history and has a compact medieval city centre worth exploring.
The city has enough interesting landmarks to be a museum in its own right. Rare among European cities, Brescia has two cathedrals, the Duomo Vecchio (Old Cathedral) and Duomo Nuovo (New Cathedral), built next to one another. Although the newer cathedral dwarfs its predecessor, the former’s long history captivates travellers. It was built in the 11th Century on a unique circular plan on top of an old church whose earliest foundations were Roman structures. Upon entering, visitors are immediately struck by its serene beauty – highlights include 16th-century Italian artwork depicting important Catholic events, and the elaborate crypt of 4th-century bishop San Filastrio that was constructed using materials found in the Roman and Byzantine ruins of the original church.
A short distance away, the Venetian-inspired 15th-century Piazza della Loggia (Gallery Square) presents more architectural marvels: the Palazzo della Loggia (the Gallery Palace, currently serving as the town hall) dominates the square with a two-level white marble facade featuring both classic Roman and Renaissance decor. Two figurines on the exquisite 16th-century Torre dell'Orologio (clock tower) make an appearance to strike the clock’s bell every hour. Even the square’s tourist office has ancient Roman tombstones and carvings on its walls.
The impressive 16th-century Castello di Brescia (Brescia Castle), nestled atop Cidneo Hill, is a worthy climb from the city’s historic centre. At the summit, visitors are rewarded with stunning panoramic views of the city and its surroundings, while inside a world of secret rooms, museums and unexpected passages awaits. Do not miss the Arms Museum, located in the 14th-century keep. Complete with period arches and frescos, it features an important collection of 13th- to 19th-century armour and weapons.
Unlike the rest of Italy, Lombard cuisine consists primarily of beef, pork and butter, most likely due to its proximity to Central Europe. Since few tourists visit, a lack of authenticity – so prevalent in popular destination eateries – is seldom a concern in Brescia; head to the north side of the historic centre to find traditional Italian restaurants (osterias or trattorias), pizzerias and cafes. Order casoncelli, a typical dish of tortellini stuffed with meat, breadcrumbs and cheese served with melted butter and sage, at the family-run Osteria al Bianchi, while excellent pizzas are available at the tiny Pizzeria Manuno.
Menus are always in Italian and few servers speak English. Yet somehow, the lack of lines at the landmarks and the indulgent regional cuisine makes it all part of the adventure.
France: From Paris to Chantilly
The grand Chateau de Versailles is the popular choice for visitors wishing to experience 17th century regal living near Paris. But just 38km north of the French capital, the tiny town of Chantilly offers a comparatively stunning chateau, plus museums, horse training facilities and a vast forest for outdoor activities.
Chantilly is known locally for the Hippodrome Princes de Conde, the most prestigious thoroughbred horseracing track in France. The two main horse races; Prix du Jockey Club and Prix Diane Longines are held annually in June, attracting hundreds of aristocratic spectators from around the world. The rest of the year, though, the town is quiet and well-suited for travellers wishing to enjoy a peaceful day away from noisy city life.
See more of the equestrian influence at the Living Museum of the Horse, dedicated to equine artwork, textiles, sculptures and spectacular monthly shows featuring the expertly-trained resident horses. The museum is located in the Grandes Écuries (Great Stables) of the 14th century Château de Chantilly (Chantilly Castle)—the residence of French nobility from medieval times until 1897.
The castle itself houses the Musée Conde, its superb collection of European masterpieces surpassed only by the Louvre; look for pieces by celebrated artists Anthony van Dyck, Sandro Botticelli, Eugène Delacroix and Raphael. Due to a noble bequest the artworks are not allowed to leave the premises, presenting a unique opportunity to see priceless art without the crowds.
Do not miss the lavishly furnished period rooms of the once resident monarchs. Amongst the most intriguing are the striking purple (a mourning colour) 19th century boudoir of the Duchess of Aumale and the Prince of Condé’s Corner Cabinet Room with its military wall drawings and 18th century furnishings.
From April until early September, the chateau’s lushly gardens (by Versailles garden designer, André Le Nôtre) and adjacent forest offer a bucolic celebration of flora and fauna as well as leisure boat rides, hiking trails, picnic areas and horseback riding.
Chantilly is also the name of the famous local whipped cream, that made its first official appearance in the 18th century journal entry of a distinguished guest, the Baroness of Oberkirch. Try the sweet treat with fresh seasonal fruit or local pastries in the chateau’s Restaurant du Hameau – the perfect way to cap your day of opulent living.