Saturday, March 2, 2013

10 Coolest Small Towns in Europe

Paris, London, Rome…the big cities require no introductions. But have you heard of the foodie haven of Tremolat, France or the pristine Alpine hamlet of Binn, Switzerland? In our travels, we've discovered that some of Europe's most divine towns are also some of its smallest.

CESKY KRUMLOV, CZECH REPUBLIC

One of the oldest villages in the Czech Republic, Cesky Krumlov is set in a valley in Bohemia south of the Blansko Forest and circled by the Vltava River. The village grew up around the 13th-century Gothic castle of the Lords of Krumlov, which has 40 buildings and palaces, gardens, and turrets and today is a major performing arts location. The cobblestone streets of Cesky Krumlov's Old Town are lined with Gothic, Baroque, and Renaissance buildings housing art galleries, cafes, and quaint B&Bs. One of the best ways to experience the town is to take a ride down the Vltava on a wooden raft ($24, en.ceskykrumlov-info.cz).

PALMANOVA, ITALY

Founded in 1593 as a stronghold of the Venetian Republic, this UNESCO World Heritage town was built in a unique, 18-sided octadecagon shape. When viewed from above, the fortress community looks like a delicately made paper snowflake, with streets radiating out of the structure like sunbeams. Tucked into a valley with a lagoon running into the Adriatic Sea, the land surrounding Palmanova yields high-quality Chardonnay, while the local waters are stocked with mullet, sea bass, and other delicious fish. In town, look out for the symbol of a leafy bough, or a frasca, hanging outside of restaurants to pinpoint ones serving regionally sourced food, such as the classic Venetian dish baccalà, made with dry-salted cod. At night, the city's earth-and-stone defensive works are lit up like a movie set.

ROTHENBURG OB DER TAUBER, GERMANY

Germany's so-called Romantic Road—which slices north to south through the southern German state of Bavaria—earned its name for its string of stunning castles. But most of the region's bastions are stand-alone tourist attractions, not thriving municipalities. A charming exception is Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a red-walled town set up on a hill above the Tauber River. It has all the pastoral views and scenery of the Romantic Road's other castle stops yet has a strong civic pulse, too. Walt Disney was so taken by the town, in fact, that he used it as inspiration for the village in the movie Pinocchio. An earthquake destroyed the castle's main tower in 1356, but the town's red-roofed medieval and Renaissance houses have endured for centuries and were fully restored after World War II. Visitors can tour the castle's stone towers—protected beneath covered walkways—and stop by its base, where crafts shops sell everything from antique clocks to handmade garden gnomes. Cuisine is celebrated here in a way it isn't in larger German cities like Frankfurt or Berlin, let alone in castle canteens elsewhere. You may come here for the shining armor—but you'll return for the delicious renditions of Bavarian comfort foods (more spätzle, anyone?).

BIBURY, ENGLAND

Located on the River Coln in hilly west-central England, Bibury was described by 19th-century artist-writer William Morris as "the most beautiful village in England"—which is saying something in a country known for its watercolor views. Honey-colored 17th-century stone cottages, the Saxon Church of St. Mary, and a still-working 1902 trout farm are some of the ancient village's must-sees. The most photographed spot is Arlington Row, a collection of 14th-century stone buildings that were converted into weavers' cottages in the 1600s.

DÜRNSTEIN, AUSTRIA

On the banks of the Danube, in the shadow of a castle from the Middle Ages, Dürnstein is one of those impossibly quaint towns where everything, from the red-tiled roofs to the baroque clock tower to the winding cobblestoned alleys, seems lifted straight from the Brothers Grimm. Just an hour downriver from Vienna, Dürnstein is an under-explored retreat and a gateway to the surrounding Wachau valley, a grape region prized for crisp, dry Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners. To experience the area like a local, take a seat inside a Heuriger, a cozy tavern that sells only indigenous wines, namely those from the most recent harvest. Authentic establishments hang fir branches above their doorways to welcome the thirsty, while Schrammelmusik (traditional fiddle-and-accordion folk music) plays from within. Although the Wachau is known for its grapes, it is the Marille (apricot) that sets the region apart. In early April, the valley erupts in pale-pink blossoms, and the fruit begins showing up in strudels, pork dishes, and Marillenknödel (apricot dumplings rolled in butter-toasted bread crumbs). Wieser Wachau Shop & Café, with locations throughout the valley, sells apricot soap, schnapps, and marmalade (wieser-wachau.at).

BINN, SWITZERLAND

Life moves slowly in the village of Binn—and that's by design. Years ago, the residents of this tiny Alpine town (pop. 150, two and a half hours from Bern) decided to stave off development by preserving the surrounding valley as a park. Today, instead of the posh ski resorts and multilane highways in much of southwestern Switzerland, Binn remains a time capsule of village life. Gravel lanes wind between neat pine chalets. Flower boxes filled with geraniums hang from every window. The town's 16th-century bridge is traversed by hikers and goats instead of cars. Up the Binna River, visitors will find even smaller hamlets and picture-perfect meadows, where they can spread out a picnic of local wine and raclette cheese and listen to the cowbells ring down from the high pastures. About a mile from Binn along mountain trails, the riverside Restaurant Imfeld is a timber chalet at 4,983 feet with a terrace overlooking the Alps. Hikers can stop in for fresh trout and Valais air-dried beef—prepared by rubbing salt, herbs, and spices into raw beef and leaving it to dry in a wooden barn for at least six weeks (011-41/27-971-4596, entrées from $9).

TRÉMOLAT, FRANCE

While Provence is justifiably famous for its rosé and rustic gîtes (holiday rental homes), that celebrity comes at a high price. Nearly a straight shot across the country, close to Bordeaux, the cluster of market towns known as Périgord Noir offers weekly cottage rentals at nearly half the cost—and the small-town experience is no less picturesque. One of the quaintest towns in the area, Trémolat sits on a horseshoe-shaped bend in the Dordogne River and is dominated by a fortresslike Romanesque church that dates back to the 11th century. But the highlight of the town is farm-to-table restaurant Les Truffières. Yanick Le Goff oversees a classic ferme auberge—a working farm that serves the food it grows (011-33/5-53-27-30-44, six-course family-style meal with wine $34, reservations required). Plates like barbecued duck, garlic-and-goose-fat soup, and house made foie gras are paired with local wines like a lavender-tinged aperitif or a rosé. The surrounding area is best known for its dark oak forests, hillside vineyards, medieval châteaux, Stonehenge-like megaliths, and, of course, the prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux with haunting images of bison, horses, and traced human hands estimated to be an astounding 17,000 years old.

TENBY, WALES

The city walls of the seaside resort town of Tenby might have kept attackers out during the Middle Ages, but today they can't quite contain the pastel Georgian buildings spilling right out onto the sand. The view from the harbor is rightfully renowned, but you can get an even better taste of Tenby's medieval past by taking a ramble down one of its narrow, winding alleys—like the quirkily named Lower Frog Street, a canyon of color. (No amphibian greens, though—Tenby's hues skew lighter.) The town is always popular with holidaymakers, but it's getting an extra boost this year with the recent opening of the Wales Coast Path, an 870-mile meander along the country's edge that includes Tenby on its route. Trekkers can enjoy shades as sweet as the seaside treats sold by candymaker Lollies.

ERICEIRA, PORTUGAL

With its cobblestoned streets and tiled buildings, Ericeira looks like a quintessential Portuguese fishing village. But north and south of the village center, scalloped cliffs give way to white-sand beaches and—much to surfers' delight—consistent right-hand reef breaks. Thanks to its seaside location, Ericeira is also well-known for its seafood. Though the town's name is said to come from the Portuguese word for sea urchins, the regional specialty here is lobster, which are bred in nurseries along the rocky coast. 

VESTMANNAEYJAR, ICELAND

From their base in the capital city of Reykjavik, most visitors to Iceland will follow the usual tourist circuit of the Blue Lagoon, Gullfoss (Golden Falls) waterfall, and thermodynamic geysers. The Westman Islands, a wild volcanic archipelago off Iceland's southern coast, feel a world away. The 15 islands are named not for the Norse settlers that conquered these parts but for the Irish they enslaved; the Norse referred to the Irish as Vestmenn, or Westmen. The inhabitants on Heimaey—the only inhabited island in the bunch—and the main port town of Vestmannaeyjar are still mostly a mix of Norse and Celtic descendants. The principal industry is commercial fishing, and the wharf is lined with unassuming seafood restaurants. The just-caught fish—cold-water species like cod and halibut—are usually prepared in a traditional European style, sautéed in brown butter. Adventurous travelers can explore the islands by hitching rides with local fishermen. If a professional operation is more your speed, go with Viking Tours (boattours.is, 90-minute island circle tour $40). The 90-minute ride circles Heimaey, yielding picture-perfect vistas of rugged sheer cliffs, with killer whales splashing offshore, plus a healthy population of puffins. Venture inside Klettshellur, a sea cave formed by crashing waves; a crew member will likely play a tune or two on a saxophone to demonstrate the dramatic acoustics.

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