GO EURO WAY
There’s much to love, and laugh about, off the tourist trail
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.
Behind the walls, medieval Perouges could yield some secrets; and an amazing cocktail bar awaits in Szczecin.