Ten top towns in Europe you’ve never heard of August 3, 2010Posted by Yilan in Macedonia.
Tags: Europe, Macedonia, Ohrid
Top 10 towns you’ve never heard of
Lake Heviz, near Keszthely in Hungary, is the largest thermal lake in Europe. Photo: Martin Moos/Lonely Planet
Done Venice, Paris and London? Ticked off Prague, Budapest, Berlin and Dubrovnik? It may be time to delve a little deeper on your next European adventure. Here are some of the best under-the-radar towns and cities you should know about, writes David Whitley.
// Lake Ohrid is sandwiched between Macedonia and Albania, almost forming a bowl in the middle of surrounding mountains. The lake is surrounded by pretty holiday villages and monasteries (noticeably more so on the Macedonian side than the Albanian) but the major town of Ohrid itself is the real treat.
It has always been a popular resort among eastern Europeans but the rest of the world is just cottoning on. It’d be easy enough to just enjoy the boat trips and beaches but head up into the forests and along the cliff tops and you find numerous photogenic forts and churches.
Ohrid is also fairly lively in the evening, as twilight promenades morph into a cafe-terrace eating and drinking culture where the volume inevitably ramps up.
Oh yes, and it is dirt cheap as well – don’t expect to pay much more than $2 for a beer.
Local secret The beaches closest to Ohrid can get crowded – many locals prefer to head to those outside the Sveti Naum monastery on the south-western side of the lake, just across the Albanian border. It’s quieter and has fabulous views of the town across the lake.
More information ohrid.com.mk.
2. Kutna Hora
Where? Czech Republic.
Often done as a day trip from Prague (it’s only an hour away), Kutna Hora is worth a bit more time. It’s a lot more laid-back than the Czech capital – and delightful to stroll around when the sun comes out.
You could happily spend a couple of days ambling by the river and through the squares, stopping every few hours for a hearty meal and a giant beer in a pub garden.
But it’s the quirky attractions that give Kutna Hora an appeal beyond being pretty and having a cool gothic cathedral. The most famous of these is the Sedlec Ossuary – a chapel made almost entirely from the bones and skulls of monks.
There’s also the Alchemy Museum inside the visitor information centre and an old silver mine. Both are odd but fascinating.
Top tip The train station is near the Sedlec Ossuary – four kilometres out of town – while the bus station is central. If visiting Kutna Hora as a day trip from Prague, you’re better off taking the train in and the bus back or vice versa.
More information www.kutnahora.cz.
Estonia’s Baltic Sea islands have long since been discovered by the Finns and Swedes, who pile over on the ferries, but the rest of the world is yet to catch on.
The biggest island – Saaremaa – mostly feels as though it is stuck in a time warp. It’s an island with an independent character, where forests and windmills predominate.
Kuressaare, the main town on Saaremaa, is livelier and with good reason. It’s a gloriously picturesque town dominated by a large, well-preserved castle dating from the 13th century. It’s possible to hire a row boat and go splashing about in the moat around the castle.
Kuressaare is also a big spa town in which sleek, modern resorts are replacing the grim Eastern bloc sanatoriums.
Don’t miss Turn up in July for the Castle Days festival. It’s full of mediaeval pageantry, jousting tournaments and old-style feasting.
More information www.saaremaa.ee
Montenegro’s capital Podgorica doesn’t match up to the beauty of the rest of the country. Most visitors stay on the coast but a day trip from there to Montenegro’s former capital makes for a fabulous alternative to sunbathing.
Cetinje can be found high in the mountains and the views on the drive through them on the way from coastal Kotor are spellbinding at almost every turn.
Once there, you’ve got a small town crammed with palaces and mansions. Most of these have been turned into houses, embassies or schools but one particularly grand building houses the National Museum of Montenegro plus an art gallery.
The Cetinje Monastery is also popular, even if its True Cross and John the Baptist relics are of dubious origin.
Top tip Cetinje is a bit of a ghost town at night – accommodation and eating-out options are scarce. It’s much better to base yourself at Kotor and make the drive through the mountains as a day trip.
More information www.montenegro.com.
Outside of the Nordic countries, Lake Balaton is Europe’s biggest lake. It has always been a popular holiday spot for central European tourists and is known colloquially as the Hungarian Sea.
Balaton is one of Europe’s great bargain holiday spots – bed and breakfast accommodation for a family can cost a pittance outside the absolute peak of mid-August – and Keszthely is the best base.
It’s the only town around the lake sizeable enough to have a life of its own outside the tourism sector and thus has most life to it. Highlights include the vast Festetics Palace and the Marzipan Museum, depending on your tastes.
It’s a good spot for a family holiday because the water is fairly shallow for swimming and all manner of playgrounds and pedal boat-hire outfits surround the shoreline.
Don’t miss Lake Heviz. Balaton isn’t the only lake in the area and Heviz is unique – it’s the largest thermal lake in Europe and an odd natural spa. It’s only seven kilometres away – a flat cycle along a protected track if you hire a bike.
More information www.itthon.hu.
Perhaps most famous as the birthplace of astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, Torun has had a tourism boost in recent years, with budget airline flights arriving in nearby Bydgoszcz.
The locals in this handsome port on the Vistula River like to play the Copernicus links to the hilt but it’s the World Heritage-listed Old Town that really holds the appeal.
Unlike much of the rest of Poland, Torun survived World War II unscathed – and that means plenty of red-brick churches and gothic buildings to admire. The Old Town Market Square is one of the finest focal points in central Europe.
There are also plenty of quirky museums inside grandly decorated former merchant houses.
Don’t miss The reason there’s a Gingerbread Museum is that Torun is famous for making the stuff. There is no shortage of shops and cafes wanting to sell you some and it makes for a handy – and tasty – souvenir.
More information www.torun.pl.
Less than an hour away from Paris by bus or train is the historic city of Compiegne. Joan of Arc was captured here in 1430 – two statues and a monument are devoted to her.
The forest to the north-east of the town centre is home to a railway clearing that, in 1918, became the top-secret site for the signing of the armistice ending World War I.
In June 1940, Adolf Hitler decided he wanted payback and made France surrender in exactly the same spot. The armistice carriage was dragged out of a museum and set up in the same way – albeit with the Germans in the victors’ seats.
The carriage was later burnt in Germany but a replica sits in the clearing, along with a fascinating museum and war memorial. The town also has one of France’s most lavish palaces – the Chateau de Compiegne. It was one of three royal seats (along with the better known Versailles and Fontainebleau). Its heyday was in the 19th century under Napoleon III, who used to host lavish parties there.
The opulently decorated chateau is open to the public, while the enormous park next to it is a great spot for walks, picnics and even horse trials.
Local secret There are no official tours of the Haras National – the National Stud – but it’s often possible to just stroll in through the gates on Rue de la Procession and watch thoroughbreds being put through their paces.
More information www.compiegne-tourisme.fr.
Cluj-Napoca (or just Cluj to its friends) is another city that has reaped the benefits of budget airline flights.
It’s as good a base as any for exploring the surrounding Transylvanian countryside, although Cluj is best known as a party town. It has a large student population and one that doesn’t place much stock on sleeping, by all accounts.
Once you’ve emerged bleary-eyed from one of the city’s many underground nightclubs, there are plenty of museums in which to get a cultural fix.
The Ethnographic Museum and National History Museum of Transylvania are among the most worthy, while the Pharmaceutical Museum and the Emil Racovita Institute of Speleology are arguably the most intriguing.
The latter gives a clue to the key attraction for those who want more activity than dancing to blaring Europop all night – the nearby Apuseni mountains are riddled with caves. Caving trips of varying degrees of difficulty are thus hugely popular – as is good old-fashioned walking for adventurers who prefer to stay above the ground.
Top tip Turn up in May for the Festivinum Wine Festival and the whole party atmosphere ramps up a notch. And, of course, you get to taste many of Romania’s somewhat underrated wines.
More information www.romaniatourism.com.
This former industrial town has undergone a makeover in recent years. A textbook example of this is the Finlayson Centre, formerly a giant cotton-mill complex and now an engaging home to cafes, bars and arts organisations.
The Finlayson Centre has always been ahead of its time – in the 19th century it was the first building in northern Europe to get electric lighting – and now it’s a poster child for urban regeneration.
In its basement is the highlight – this is where the Spy Museum can be found. Visitors are presented with enormous dossiers on the history of spying and then let loose to fire laser guns at enemies, look for secret passageways behind maps and indulge in a bit of electronic espionage.
Tampere has a bit of a thing for odd museums. Other attractions are devoted to Finnish ice hockey players and characters from the Moomins children’s books.
Don’t miss The Lenin Museum borders on the obsessive but gives a great overview of the Soviet revolutionary’s life and the time he spent in Tampere working up support. You can even see the couch he slept on.
More information www.gotampere.fi.
Slovenia’s second city is a lovely old town, packed with galleries, churches, cathedrals and engaging squares. But the real reason to pay a visit is that it is at the heart of Slovenia’s wine industry.
Nearby wineries can be visited (expect an emphasis on whites – particularly rieslings – rather than reds) although the most staggering attraction for wine tourists can be found in the town itself.
The Vinag cellar under Svobode Square is known as the Wine Tabernacle. It covers two hectares and can hold up to 5.5 million litres of wine. Visits must be organised in advance but it sure beats the rack in your living room.
The wine industry also gives Maribor its oddest event. Every spring the Old Vine, which is recognised as the oldest on the planet by Guinness World Records, is ceremonially pruned by the town’s official vine dresser.
There’s plenty of pomp when this takes place in March but it can be visited at other times as part of the viticulture tour at Old Vine House.
Local secret Fontana Terme Maribor is an impressive spa complex, just two kilometres from the city. The thermal pools are popular with locals, although a sauna, solarium and massage centre are all on site.
More information www.maribor-pohorje.si.