Thursday, August 25, 2016

Five European Side Trips to Get off the Tourist-Beaten Path

Tarragona, Spain
Even the most neophyte traveler knows to put the main attraction cities at the top of a list. Paris, Venice, London, and even Barcelona are full of them. But the adept traveler knows that just as much, if not more, wonderment can be had in the cities that aren't trampled by tourist Birkenstocks.

As a family of 6, we've put a lot of kms (and even more miles) into road tripping around Europe--more than 30,000 kms actually.  As much as we've enjoyed the Louvre, St. Mark's Square, Buckingham Palace, and the Sagrada Familia, we've found even more enjoyment in the side trips where local culture trumps consumerism.

1. Etretat, France - 2.5 hours from Paris
Let's be honest, you could pick any of the shanty towns on the northern coast of France and get a similar experience, but we picked Etretat because of its majestic cliffs. It has all the charm of a beach side village, the rustic shops, and laid-back lifestyle of fisherfolk and locals. It's also historically significant as a town where Van Gogh painted. And yet, it's relatively untouched as a tourist destination. When we visited in the Summer time (mid-June), the only "tourists" we could see were school kids on an outing.

2. Bassano del Grappa, Italy - 1 hour 15 min. from Venice
There are at least a dozen towns within an hour or two from Venice that are worth seeing, including Padua, Treviso, Cittadella, and even Romeo & Juliet's Verona. But we choose the smaller, but historically significant town that's equally as charming. As a historical visit, Bassano is where Ernest Hemingway served his tour of duty as an ambulance driver during World War I, and which served as an inspiration and backdrop for his classic A Farewell to Arms. Bassano also boasts some seriously beautiful views and a quirky but expansive weekend market that makes the visit even more worth it. It also has my kids' favorite place for Kebabs - Indiana (just down from the bridge).

3. Vicenza, Italy - 1 hour from Venice
So, it was impossible to pick just one side trip from Venice. If Bassano is the small town with the Italian local charm, Vicenza is the hidden gem with architectural splendor. Vicenza is the home of Venetian Architect Andrea Palladio, widely considered the most influential individual in the history of architecture. If Venice is the town Palladio built, then Vicenza was Palladio's playground. The town's center (which prohibits any tourist driving) features a plethora of picturesque places. Our favorite is the Teatro Olimpico, but the plaza and several other buildings are worth a visit, including Santa Corona, a Gothic Church that was built to house a thorn from Christ's Crown of Thorns given to the Bishop of Vicenza by Louis IX of France. 

Palladio's Teatro Olimpico
4. Tarragona, Spain - 1 hour from Barcelona
This Catalan city may not be the non-touristy hideaway that other places on this list are--it's the home to one of Spain's big theme parks, Port Aventura. But it certainly doesn't feel like a tourist-trodden town. Tarragona has the perfect mix of old Spanish town, ancient Roman stronghold, and beautiful beach. We liked Tarragona so much that no only are we doing an Expat Snippet video on it (stay tuned), but we're making it a regular visit on our Study Abroad trips to Barcelona each Summer. There's enough to see to spend a weekend in Tarragona, and what's more, it's extremely budget friendly. Tarragona boasts a set of intricately preserved Roman structures, including a forum, circus, and Roman walls. A family ticket to see all of them cost us 17 euro (!!).  Incredible views and easy on the pocketbook? Yes, please.

5. Oxford, England - 1 hour 20 minutes from London
Ok, so Oxford isn't exactly undiscovered country, but that doesn't make it any less worth a visit to get away from the maddening crowds of tourist-heavy London. Oxford is college-town, level-up--with superior architecture speckled all over the city, and nice access to the Thames. It's best to park outside the city at the Park n' Ride off the exit toward Oxford and take a Bus in, since parking is extremely limited. Christchurch is a good place to start, as it features the inspiration for Hogwarts' Great Hall, as well as the setting and inspiration for Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland (as Carroll, born Charles Dodgson, was a student there and based Alice on the Dean of Christ Church's Daughter, Alice Lidell). 


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