GO EURO WAY

There’s much to love, and laugh about, off the tourist trail

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Escape - - TRAVEL WISDOM EUROPE - MIKAELLA CLE­MENT

The non-touristy Euro­pean town is the holy grail for some trav­ellers. It’s one of the friendly cliches of trav­el­ling, as some­one de­clares, “Oh, Paris was won­der­ful,” only to roll their eyes and add, “but so touristy”.

Some of us de­light in the idea of a for­eign coun­try where lots of peo­ple speak Eng­lish and there’s a good post­card selec­tion, but for oth­ers a lot of hol­i­day­ing en­ergy is spent on try­ing to get off the map. It’s easy when it comes to hik­ing or camp­ing, but harder for cities. How do you find a non-touristy town to visit?

Another ques­tion, I’d sug­gest, is: and what do you do when you get there? Be­cause for all the au­then­tic, lo­cal charms of a town that’s show­ing you its real sur­face, not the glitzy one for tourists, vis­it­ing a Euro­pean town un­used to vis­i­tors comes with its own set of dif­fi­cul­ties. In my wan­der­ing across the con­ti­nent, I’ve stum­bled across towns in Italy, Ger­many, Poland and Eng­land that were po­litely baf­fled about why any­one would visit them.

There’s much to love, and laugh about, in a non-touristy Euro­pean town. But here’s a cou­ple of tricks to get the best out of them.

BE PO­LITE (AND APOLO­GETIC)

If you’re one of those mul­ti­lin­gual ge­niuses, con­grat­u­la­tions and I hate you. For the rest of us who have to stum­ble along in our 1½ lan­guages, the lan­guage bar­rier is prob­a­bly the big­gest vex­a­tion when trav­el­ling in Europe. While in the cap­i­tal cities you’ll get by on Eng­lish with barely a qualm, in smaller towns switch­ing into Eng­lish is of­ten just not an op­tion. Some­times you’ll get by with another Euro­pean lan­guage – in a lit­tle vil­lage in south­ern Italy, I made do with my bro­ken Ger­man – but mostly you’d bet­ter bring out your best lo­cal phrases and some good mim­ing skills.

Use the Duolingo app or a good hand­book with key sen­tences be­fore you head off to have some idea of how to preface your help­less point­ing at the menu. And most im­por­tantly, be po­lite and semi-apolo­getic about it. Most peo­ple won’t mind help­ing you painfully make your­self un­der­stood, but you should be ready to look fool­ish and be laughed at – get­ting an­gry won’t help. Be aware you’re the English­s­peak­ing chump whose rolled up in their town; they’re just try­ing to go about their lives. Be po­lite to the point of em­bar­rass­ment.

And if noth­ing else, make sure you’re com­fort­able with three key phrases in the lo­cal lan­guage: please, thank you, and I’m so sorry.

GET READY FOR THINGS TO GET WEIRD

Every coun­try has its own laws and cus­toms, but you’re less likely to en­counter them in ma­jor cities. For ex­am­ple, in Rome my wife and I hap­pily played cards at every bar, as was our habit, for a week, and all we got was a waiter teach­ing us strange ex­tra rules for Gin Rummy.

But when we vis­ited Crema, up in the northern Ital­ian re­gion of Lom­bardy, we’d barely bro­ken out the cards be­fore the pro­pri­etress hur­ried over, wav­ing her fin­ger and shout­ing un­til we put them away, laugh­ing ner­vously. “Not joke-a,” she warned. It turned out it wasn’t: card play­ing is closely as­so­ci­ated with gam­bling and the Mob in Italy, and many bars and cafes won’t let you play in them.

It’s im­pos­si­ble to pre­dict when a re­gion’s pe­cu­liar­ity is go­ing to pop up and bite you. Once I was camp­ing out­side a small town in the south­west of Eng­land and searched the town in vain for an ATM. I did find my bank which had to call its Lon­don head of­fice to check I had enough money for a with­drawal. Don’t you have a com­puter? I asked, baf­fled, only to be told they didn’t hold with such things there.

The point is, small towns have their own habits and rules that seem bizarre to us, and they’re not in­ter­ested in smooth­ing it over to make things eas­ier for tourists. Let it go, or try to en­joy it: they make great anec­dotes.

DO YOUR OWN RE­SEARCH

Just be­cause a Euro­pean town isn’t par­tic­u­larly touristy doesn’t mean it won’t have a lot to of­fer; on the con­trary, non-touristy towns are where I’ve of­ten eaten the best food, seen the best sights, and had the most lovely hol­i­days. The dif­fer­ence is the lack of tourist in­fra­struc­ture means you have to do a lot more work to find them. In Paris you can wan­der around and find his­tory and a great restau­rant sit­ting side by side. In smaller towns, you have to work for them.

The key here is com­ing pre­pared. Get ready to do a deep dive on­line, mov­ing be­yond your stan­dard top 10 on TripAd­vi­sor. Ask your friends and col­leagues – I found an amaz­ing cock­tail bar in Szczecin, Poland, based on an off­hand com­ment my class­mate made. Keep your ear to the ground – a pas­sen­ger on a train, one of the rare other tourists in Crema, told us about tortelli cre­maschi, a sweet pasta spe­cialty of the re­gion that you couldn’t get any­where else in Italy and prob­a­bly the best thing I’ve ever eaten. It wasn’t ad­ver­tised any­where, be­cause lo­cals ac­cepted it as such an or­di­nary part of life they didn’t even think to tell us about it.

Re­search, get ready to smile, and the non­touristy tourist ex­pe­ri­ence can truly be yours.

And here’s one last se­cret: plan a day trip if you can, to the clos­est bustling cen­tre. You’ve no idea what a re­lief a post­card stand can be.

PIC­TURES: ISTOCK

Be­hind the walls, me­dieval Per­ouges could yield some se­crets; and an amaz­ing cock­tail bar awaits in Szczecin.

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