It's fine to visit the European capitals. They're all big enough to sop up a glut of tourists. But smaller places that are both uniquely interesting and lightly traveled are getting more difficult to find and often seem amazingly ethereal: travel is so easy today that Rick Steves' back doors stop becoming back doors the minute he mentions them.
So my favorite places aren't undiscovered--they're just a bit too far off the beaten track for the mega-tourism companies to worry about.
Meteora - Greece
Monastic history starts in Meteora in the 11th century when the first hermits sought peace and solitude in the rifts and caves in the isolated pinnacles that rise above the valley of the Pineios (Pinios) river. By the 14th century the Byzantine Empire was coming apart at the seams and the monastic communities of the Athos peninsula were always in danger of Turkish pirate raids and other persecution. After one such encounter, three monks went searching for a rather inaccessible home to avoid it all. They eventually settled on top of a rock called Stylos. Endowments and people followed, and an amazing community of 24 monasteries built pinnacles on was born. Everything got hoisted up (and down) by nets, even people. And the toilets? Off the cliffs went the waste--all of it.
Today, a paved road winds between the largest monasteries. The most spectacular vistas in all of Europe are just around the bend. Bring plenty of film. Meteora means "suspended in air" and they mean it.
You can find a hotel in Kalambaka and walk to the monasteries from there if you're reasonably fit--Kalambaka is 9kms from the monasteries. There are busses, tours, and taxis as well.
Close by: Metsovo, a small community of excellent woodcarvers is just to the northwest of Kalambaka. Much of the really fine carving you'll see in the monasteries comes from the carvers of Metsovo, but if you go to Metsovo (easy by bus) you can buy carvings made for tourists as well.
When to go: Spring or Fall to avoid crowds. Yes, this is a place that's "discovered" but remote. Late fall works well, although it'll be cold in the morning, and downright freezing in Metsovo, higher up in the mountains. Still, this allows you to taste Greece's "other" cooking, the hearty and warming stews you don't get in summer.
Cathar Country - France
I was at a party just before embarking on my first European vacation in the 70's when I asked a French guy I'd just met what his favorite city in Europe was. He answered "Carcassonne," a walled city smack in the heart of Cathar country. By golly, he was right, Carcassonne is definitely worth a day or two in itself. But I've since made a recent trip back to the area and discovered many other interesting things to see in the Aude region--except for tourists--and it was the middle of the season.
What's here? Castles perched high on hilltops, the mysteries of Rennes le Chateau, great sparkling wine called Blanquette de Limoux, and great walking trails. Plus, Cathar country is easy on your wallet; the Aude is one of France's poorest areas and lodging is relatively cheap and plentiful.
What's nearby: Provence isn't far, and if you're driving it's a great "next stop."
Asturias - Spain
Northern Spain is ignored by many American tourists, yet it's one of the places I'd go back again and again. Some of the attractions are righfully famous, including the prehistoric painted cave called Altamira--the "Sistine Chapel of Prehistoric Art". The country around the Picos de Europa range is some of the most beautiful in Europe. Lodging options include nice historic country inns called Posadas, as well as Casa Rurales--rural houses that will allow you to slow down your vacation and see the countryside at a leisurely pace.
This is a rural area that preserves its history and way of life in a way that can be attractive to tourists looking to discover a beautiful solitude. Have a cider, some of the local blue cheese called Cabrales, and contemplate a trip to one of the regions prehistoric caves--or a walk along the pilgrimage route passing through the pretty port town of Ribadesella.
When to Go: Tempered by the cool Bay of Biscay to the north, Northern Spain doesn't sweltering in the summer, usually. Don't be afraid of going in the high season, although we did witness some incredible thunder storms in July. Did it stop us? Nope--we just dragged a chair out under the covered patio of our casa rurale, got out a camera and some cheese and bread, and watched nature's finest display of natural fireworks. Incredible.
Close by: Basque Country
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