Underrated European Travel Destinations
My friend Jazzy recently wrote this post about her top 10 travel destinations. Jazzy is fabulously and diversely travelled as I realised when I started to write my own version; many of her choices might not normally crop up on lists of top places to go on your hols, whereas most of my favourite cities are locations that hardly need advertisement - Amsterdam, Berlin, Havana etc. So to compromise I've decided to write a few instalments of some of my favourite underrated European travel destinations, and why they're definitely worth a visit. Here's three to begin.
This one also appears on Jazzy's list, as it was our first stop in our travels around Montenegro with two other friends last summer. Montenegro itself is a tourist destination clawing its way into international view and is definitely worth a visit before it follows in the Czech Republic's footsteps of becoming extortionately expensive and full of western Europeans trying to get a tan. It's an incredibly beautiful country, and small enough that travelling its whole length and breadth by car or coach can be relatively cheap and easy, and offers some great views in the process. Kotor is perhaps the most scenic location of all, with its beautiful old town of churches and cobbled squares nestled into a mountainous bay of staggering beauty. We travelled there straight from Dubrovnik which boasts its fair share of sapphire-blue seas and delicious architecture, but Kotor still took my breath away.
We only made it halfway up the old city walls, but the view was absolutely stunning and the next day we kayaked and swam through the wonderfully warm waters of the bay itself. Our first night also happened to coincide with the annual festival of "Bokoljska Night", where the whole town turns into a party and we all danced the night away on our hostel's balcony overlooking packed squares and drinking Rakia (a most hideous spirit that the country adores). Montenegrans are incredibly friendly and keen for visitors to enjoy their country and tell everyone at home how great Montenegro is, so every person we met was most hospitable; despite a town-wide power cut on our last night we still managed to feast on some of the best mussels I've ever had in a lovely little candle-lit restaurant. Really really recommend, along with the rest of the country.
This is cheating a bit as I did not travel to Burghausen but was instead based in a village outside the city for five months last year. Having lived in the general area I can attest that its charms (although not to be sniffed at) are finite, and can be fully enjoyed in a visit of a couple of days - definitely in the summer. Perched on deepest Bavaria's border with Austria (you can literally walk across a bridge into another country), Burghausen is home to an enormous chemical factory that employs most if its 20, 000 residents, and (rather more interestingly) the longest castle in the world. It's also got a great little youth hostel, a scenic old town, and is surrounded by miles of beautiful countryside. There are loads of fantastic cycle routes to villages and particularly spectacular churches in the region, or if you prefer into the nearby monastery town of Raitenhaslach that is not only beautiful but serves up a great ice-cream sundae. If you're culturally inclined and own a pair of lederhosen, then the annual drunken Mayweis'n shindig and erection of the traditional Bavarian may pole in the spring are events not to be missed.
However, in my view the best part of Burghausen is without a doubt its summer lake. It lies right beneath the castle flanked by castle walls, trees and a gunpowder tower, and makes for the perfect spot to laze a warm day away amid occasional dips into the water - or even a lap around the whole thing in a pedalo or a kayak. It's a real hotspot in the summer months because it's just such a delighful place to be. There are ping pong tables and volleyball courts and a cafe for you to sample a standard terrible German sandwich (or play it safe with chips and a beer), but the lake is long enough that if you want some alone time you can swim right out to one of its rafts or interesting sculptures and sunbathe undisturbed. My favourite thing to do is to while away an entire afternoon there until dusk, then climb back up to the castle and watch the sun set over the city. Fantastic.
I went to Budapest on an orchestral tour a couple of summers ago, and loved it. Its virtues do not need to be extolled as it is well-known to Europeans as super fantastic and great in every way, but I had never even heard of Esztergom before I visited Hungary, and probably never would have done if our lead second violinist hadn't dragged us all off on the train to this city 30 miles outside of the capital. It's quite a sight. The Estergezom Basilica is the largest church in Hungary, and is extremely spectacular - we spent most of our time there, exploring the outside and the inside and marvelling at views of the structure from every possible angle. The church and city have a rich history featuring siege and conquest and intrigue and enormous amounts of religious wealth that is still palpable.
Although I'm a sucker for a good view, perhaps my favourite part of my visit of Esztergom was strolling across the Maria Valeria bridge into Slovakia. I love to walk over borders - isn't that the joy of a united Europe? - and the view offered from another country was even more spectacular. I didn't explore very much of the rest of the city and this was probably a good thing... a railway strike and an unexpectedly long walk meant only just catching the last on bus towards Budapest . The joys of central European public transport.
Coming up next: Grenoble, Utrecht, and many more...