Travel Story Europe, far from the madding crowd

With ‘overtourism’ a growing issue in many major cities, we visit some less-trampled towns, from Portugal and Spain to Italy and Croatia. 

Sintra, Portugal

This fantasyland of palaces was much loved by 19th century English aristos doing the Grand Tour of the Continent. One of their superstars, the poet, rake and revolutionary Lord Byron mused that Sintra was a “glorious Eden ... perhaps the most delightful spot in Europe”, so it’s no surprise to find his poetic name and likeness on prosaic eateries and sleeperies across the town. 

World Heritage-listed Sintra is a half-hour train trip north of Lisbon. The place is a beautiful silliness of palaces and castles. The white marzipan pile of Sintra National Palace dominates its skyline with two enormous, enigmatic, conical spires. (Their explanation is disappointingly mundane: they are just oversized chimneys from the palace kitchen.) Church bells toll the hour and the Angelus. Everywhere are shops selling pastel de nata egg tarts, port and postcards. Exploring Sintra means plenty of walking. As elsewhere in Portugal’s kingdom of cobblestones, for those who wear them this is no country for high heels.

Collioure, France 

With its keyhole harbour, watchtower and a palace of the queens of Aragon, Collioure is so signature “Mediterranean” that tourism PRs might well have invented the place. In a sense they did but the PRs were named Matisse, Derain, Picasso and Dali — painters who, a century ago, were drawn to Collioure’s medieval stonework, absinthe-tinted waters and crystal summer light. “In France there is no sky as blue as the one in Collioure,” wrote Henri Matisse. The town still entrances the visitors who wander its alleys, ducking into ateliers and generally revisiting an older, less frenetic era. No Maccas or Starbucks here. Art galleries, plus balconies that bloom geraniums and the washing are the colours of Collioure today. Actress Brigitte Bardot once tried to buy Fort Sainte-Elme castle that floats on a hill above the town but was knocked back by the locals. Hike up to it. In one long glance you can see the view from snowy Pyrenees peaks above down to teal-green waters below.

Lucerne, Switzerland

The best way to greet Lucerne for the first time is by water. Chug up the lake from Uri (and the brilliant Gotthard Base Tunnel train) aboard one of its fleet of elegant, 1890s, side-wheel paddle-boat ferries. Lucerne, framed by mountains, has a wide horseshoe bay that’s lined with buildings of similar age, elegance and pristine nick to your stately ship. Even though Lucerne (aka Luzern) is the most populous city in central Switzerland with about 90,000 people, it never makes you feel you’re competing for oxygen with crowds who, like yourself, might be crossing the town’s landmark wooden Chapel Bridge. The River Reuss divides the city, with the Old Town north of it being the most photogenic area thanks to its half-timber houses and numerous fountain squares. One unmissable local excursion is the cable-car climb up to nearby Mt Pilatus. From 2132m take in the grand, gobsmacking panorama of snowy peaks and alpine lakes, and then head back to town via the historic cogwheel train line whose 48-degree incline is the steepest in the world.

Erfurt, Germany

You reach Erfurt by rolling through a brilliant landscape of crops and pasture that surround islands of traditional villages, while on the horizon giant, three-bladed wind turbines rotate like subliminal Mercedes adverts. Erfurt, the capital of Erfurt’s old town is the 500-year old Kramerbrucke — Merchants Bridge — which, lined with houses and shops, is the longest inhabited bridge in Europe. Centuries ago its merchants grew prosperous trading in indigo, a precious dye that generated such a stench during production that its traders were accorded a newly minted honorific “stinking rich”. 

Hvar, Croatia 

For good reasons the island of Hvar (pictured at top) is one of the most popular spots in the Adriatic. For starters, the tang of lavender, coffee and salt tells you that there is no motor traffic in its old town. At the heart of the latter is a large piazza, the most beautiful in Dalmatia, where the lofty bell tower of St Stjepan Cathedral overlooks our various follies and faux pieties. It all resembles a miniature Venice, complete with boats and bedazzled tourists. The light, in fact, is almost blinding, reflecting from the limestone walls of the historic armoury, monasteries and palaces. Offshore amid a jumble of islands and cobalt-blue waters sits pine-clad St Klement Island. Head out there on a ferry for a swim and then tuck into a scrumptious mess of grilled fish, squid ink risotto and vin ordinaire.

Cagliari, Sardinia, Italy

Sardinia’s emerald shores were once best known for wild boar and banditry, and more recently for the Costa Smeralda haven of super-yachts and their super-rich. Far more interesting is the island’s capital, Cagliari, founded by Phoenicians in 814 BC and crowned by the historic, ridge-top Castello. Siege-proof palaces, Pisan towers and cathedrals elbow each other for room, living side-by-side with satellite dishes perched on 14th century Juliet balconies. Down the hill the National Archaeological Museum reveals the island’s timeline as an epic round of invaders playing musical chairs: Vandals, Romans, Arabs, Ottomans, Aragonese and many more have all had their turn here at veni, vidi, vici. Out of town at Nora is a Roman archaelogical dig, complete with faded mosaic floors, while the west coast beach town of Buggerru is more inviting than its inelegant name might suggest. 

Cadaques, Spain

Huckster or genius? Take a pinch of both, plus a grain of salt, and you get surrealist painter and poseur, Salvador Dali. The Mediterranean port of Cadaques was his ground zero for early inspiration and later for his long-term residence. The whitewashed town wraps around a sunny bay where, naturally, the beachfront promenade boasts a statue of their man, complete with his trademark moustache and walking cane. “Time does not pass in Cadaques,” declared Dali. Well, yes and no. The place is actually alive with restaurants, waffle shops and contemporary bars, and by night awash with sangria and cocktails. A short walk brings you to little Portlligat where Dali and wife Gala lived from 1930 almost until he died in 1989. “I am not at home, except in this place,” he said. He lives on. Today the village has one principal industry, Salvador Dali Inc. His original home, a fisherman’s hut has morphed into a white empire of linked buildings known as Studio Museum Salvador Dali — real, unreal and surreal all at once. Book a tour.

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