Medieval churches, cobblestoned streets, and endless olive groves: head to these small European towns to discover a country’s soul.
A few winters ago, my family and I checked into a restored 17th-century estate in the tiny town of Lower Monferrato, in Piedmont, Italy. Our bay window looked out onto rolling hills covered in grapevines and, far, far in the landscape, the snow-topped Alps. No cars passed the cypress-dotted landscape; each morning we sat down in total tranquility to a breakfast of fresh-baked bread, soft cheeses, and blood orange juice. The experience was one that many modern travelers are searching for: a few nights hidden away in a European village, experiencing the traditional culture and soul of a destination.
What is the allure of these small towns with their meandering streets, lunch-only cafés, and intimate shops? “Perhaps it is the scaled-down size, the greater ease of catching a shopkeeper’s eye, the colorful flowers hanging in a window,” says Travel + Leisure A-List travel agent Marjorie Shaw of Insiders Italy, a Rome-based agency. Writer David Farley agrees: “In a time of creeping globalization, villages offer a look into the past as well as a clearer sense of the country or region, including its food.”
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So for your next European getaway, take a detour to a tiny town. Ullastret, in Spain’s Baix Empordà, is a notable Slow Food mecca: at the four-room Hotel El Fort, owner Lola Puig serves locally grown vegetables, homemade bread, and organic goat's cheese on a lantern-lit terrace that overlooks a field of mulberry trees.
Further off the beaten path, in Arild, Sweden, the artist Lars Vilks built Nimis, a public art installation with a maze of 300-foot aboveground tunnels and a 45-foot-high climbing tower. The fishing village itself is just a two-hour drive and ferry ride from Copenhagen.
This type of experience can fulfill many expectations. According to writer Sylvie Bigar, who researched these secret places to come up with the best ones, “A tiny town offers adventure, novelty, beauty, as well as a sense of history. Knowing that some of these gems have been there for so long and have not been ‘discovered’ yet calms the spirit and brings a sense of peace.”
A plugged-in agent can help to coordinate this type of getaway. Or just put the guidebook aside, head into the countryside, and explore on your own. The return on your investment? A rewarding and unique experience and, once you return home, priceless memories and bragging rights. —Sarah Spagnolo