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4 Small Towns in Western Europe You Probably Haven’t Heard About.

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Since my first Euro trip last summer, I haven’t stopped thinking about the dreamy countryside towns & villages I bumped the cities for. While there isn’t a better way to see the European countryside than to hop on the Euro Rail and get off on a whim, After Sunset style, it may not work for travellers constrained by time, money or well, the comfort zone of a plan. Unearthed by traversing the depths of Google and through conversations with the local people & regional tourism boards, here is my choicest list of 4 small towns & villages across Italy, France & Germany, that I fell deliriously in love with.

1. GARGNANO, ITALY.

On the shores of Lake Garda in northern Italy, overlooking the snow-capped Dolomite mountains, and dotted with dark green needle pine trees, Gargnano is a typically Italian village with its postcard views, warm hearted residents, and delicious pastas. In under 3 days, I went from being an outsider to the girl who loved vegetarian aperitivo, a regular at the lakeside restaurant, and the proud owner of a loyalty card at the local DVD rental, on which I still have a balance of 3 Euros as a promise for my next visit!

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Lake Garda & the Dolomites in the backdrop.

How to reach: Train to Brescia, followed by a bus to Gargnano.

Stay at: Borgo dei Limoni, an affordable apartment rental overlooking the lake.

Travel tips: Learn a few phrases of the language, grab a gelato, stroll along the boardwalk by the lake, indulge in the pastas, feed the ducks, watch big passenger boats pass by, soak in the country life of Italy.

Also read: Gargnano; life or something like it in Italy.

2. ANNECY, FRANCE.

You’ve probably read how I was disappointed by Paris, perhaps because of my romantic notions of it, perhaps because I found myself in the wrong touristy part of the city, perhaps because summer is when the whole world descends upon it. The small lake town of Annecy salvaged France for me, and on the shores of its pretty canals I found the romance I had come looking for. As much as I like sleeping late, Annecy had me up & about early each day, strolling to my favorite boulangerie, salivating at the whiff of freshly-baked bread, stuffing my bag with the best croissants, and sitting on a bench by the gorgeous Annecy lake, devouring them.

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The Annecy prison. Who wouldn’t want to commit a crime, right? Photo by Sergio.

How to reach: Train to Annecy from Paris.

Stay at: Alexandra Hotel, an affordable budget hotel quietly tucked away in the old town of Annecy.

Travel tips: Do it like the locals. Grab your breakfast at a boulangerie, people-watch at the quaint little cafes of Annecy’s old town, stroll along the Thursday groceries market along the canals, bike by the Annecy lake.

Also read: Annecy, a beautiful lake town in France.

3. KURORT RATHEN, GERMANY.

On the shores of River Elbe in eastern Germany, I was enchanted with what might be the best kept secret of Germany, dubbed Saxon Switzerland. Surreal sandstone mountains arise out of nowhere amid small picturesque countryside villages, as the curvaceous river cuts them off from the mainland. I remember climbing to the top of these mountains, littered with German war history, feeling on top of the world & belittled by their magnificence at the same time, and later refreshing myself with home-grown Spezi along the only riverside cafe in Kurort Rathen.

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River Elbe as seen from the Bastei bridge.

How to reach: Inter-city train to Dresden, local train to Kurort Rathen.

Stay at: Sophia boutique hotel, an artsy budget hotel in the village.

Travel tips: Hike up the Elbe mountains to the Bastei Bridge, for stunning views of the Elbe valley below. Slip into the pace of life of the locals. Know that it’s never too early to grab a beer at a riverside cafe. While away in the neighboring villages of Stadt Wehlen & Konigstein.

Also read: Germany’s best-kept travel secret = Switzerland?

4. CHAMONIX, FRANCE.

Chamonix is where I started my intimate love affair with the Alps, riding a gondola up the Alpine countryside, watching the mist kiss their snowy-white peaks, and basking in the winter sun in their lap. Small as the world is, a conversation with a local introduced me to a native of Chamonix who runs an orphanage in Bodhgaya! Making me nostalgic of my mountain upbringing, the grandiose of Mt Brevent and its frozen lakes left me in awe. I became convinced to chart a trail through the Alpine towns of Italy & Austria, though none quite as breathtaking as the higher reaches or the postcard countryside of Chamonix.

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In Chamonix’s old town, this river flows vigorously in summer & freezes in winter.

How to reach: Train to Chamonix station, shuttle bus to old town.

Stay at: Le Vert Hotel, a 15 minute walk from old town, but in a quiet location & good value for money.

Travel tips: Take the gondola up to Mt Brevent. Travel post mid-June to take the cable car up to Mt Blanc and cross to the other side of the peak to descend into Italy. Relish delicious food in cafes overlooking the snow-capped peaks in the old town.

Also read: Chamonix: of French Alps & summer snow.

Have you been to any of these towns? Which other small towns / villages will you add to the list?

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39 Comments Post a comment
  1. what a beautiful post…..my experience was similar to yours. the larger cities of europe like paris are so vast and indifferent, its the smaller places that really let you in. Owning a loyalty card in three days flat, now that’s an accomplishment :)

    May 14, 2012
    • Thanks Sapna :) Yeah, I was quite disappointed with Paris where I landed, so only did the smaller towns & villages from there on & loved it. Haha, I didn’t borrow more than 2 DVDs but got quite pally with the owner, hence the loyalty card!

      May 14, 2012
  2. The serene beauty of small towns…so enchanting!

    Every travel let you learn,unlearn,relearn……’cause travelling is a distillation process that purifies us…
    Nice work!

    May 14, 2012
    • Thanks Chinmay. It is indeed purifying for the mind & body to rejuvenate in the serene beauty of small towns :)

      May 14, 2012
  3. This is absolutely lovely! I am in love just with the picture that you’ve painted, I know that when I do visit them, it would be an experience beyond words.

    I have read so much about your Europe trip! Would love it if you could tell us how this trip came about, how you managed the financials, the nitty-gritty etc. That would be so helpful!!

    May 14, 2012
    • Thank you :) And you’re right, when you visit these places in person, it’s an experience hard to voice with words or pictures.

      I have been meaning to write about how I managed to afford my Euro trip and things I learnt while planning & on the go. Will do a post on the same soon!

      May 14, 2012
  4. Vrunda #

    May b someday..we will visit these places..:)loved reading it..!

    May 15, 2012
    • I’m glad you did, Vrunda, and I’m sure someday you’ll visit them in person :)

      May 15, 2012
  5. We loved Annecy!!! We went twice. Chamonix is great too. I would love to see the others.

    May 15, 2012
    • Annecy was my favorite of the lot too. Something about it just made me at home. I’m sure you’ll love Gargnano, go there next time you’re in Italy!

      May 15, 2012
  6. I clicked on this post thinking that I might know at least one of the small towns, but…nope, not one. Now I want to go see them all :)

    May 15, 2012
    • And I’m sure you’ll love them all :)

      May 15, 2012
  7. Love your post . Had a virtual tour.
    You are lucky..Shivya.

    May 15, 2012
    • Thanks Chitra, I really did get lucky for this Euro trip – won the flight tickets in a contest!

      May 16, 2012
  8. I had not heard only of the German one :) Come back to Europe and visit more ;)

    May 16, 2012
    • Haha, obviously not applicable to someone from Italy! I’m going to ask you for ideas the next time I’m there, which I really hope is soon :)

      May 16, 2012
  9. Absolutely loved this post! Especially the prison picture- incredible!

    I would add a couple of small towns to your list… do try and check them out on your next visit!

    Iserlohn in Germany, was close to Cologne, which itself is a charming city. I went there on a b-school contest and found the little town full of flowers and rustic charm.

    Mechelen in Belgium, a tiny village sandwiched between Brussels and Antwerp. This one is full of old churches and parks, and you can discover the whole place on foot. The village center has water canals and lovely cafes and restaurants around it, and a Sunday market on wheels arrives with all provisions. There are some good hotels around, but I have to mention Martin’s Patershof, an old church converted into a hotel. By far the quaintest place I have stayed in :)

    Thanks for bringing back these wonderful memories :)

    May 16, 2012
    • Thanks Varsha :) Mechelen sounds so beautiful, just the kind of town I’d love to spend a couple of days in, and especially in the converted church. On this trip, I only got a few hours stopover at the Brussels train station – just enough time to have the best chocolate waffles in the world. Craving to go back there now :)

      May 16, 2012
  10. What a lovely post Shivya! Reeeally makes me wanna pack up my bags and head to these quaint little towns! :) Did you visit any such places in Spain as well?

    May 17, 2012
    • Thanks Anu, I’m glad it does :) It’s so worth a trip, especially in the summer when most places are either too hot or too rainy. I didn’t make it to Spain on that trip unfortunately, but it’s on my list for the next time!

      May 17, 2012
  11. hey I have seen two of the 4, Isn’t that gr8! Annecy and chamonix!

    May 21, 2012
    • That is great indeed :) How did you like each of them?

      May 22, 2012
      • Oh! I loved them. I am total fan of small, neat, rich and cosiness of Europe. I love the way Europeans have learned to retain their traditional roots while embracing and inventing most advanced technologies.

        May 30, 2012
  12. samareshbiswal #

    wow someday for sure will visit

    May 23, 2012
  13. You may want to explore Tegernsee and Bad Tolz near Munich

    May 24, 2012
    • Thanks Aditya, will look them up when I plan my next trip, which I sure hope is soon :)

      May 24, 2012
  14. Sayan #

    Loved your post on the small towns – have been staying in Germany for last 4 years and had the opportunity of traveling all over Europe. It is so true that the small towns have the mystic which the famous cities have lost to commercialism. The best part of traveling in Europe is the organised tourism offices which are ever ready to help.

    June 23, 2012
  15. Absolutely loved your blog! Travelling to lesser known places is way better than getting caught up in a tourist mob at bigger places. That way you don’t come across in-your-face commercialisation…

    September 16, 2012
    • Thanks Ilakshee, and welcome to The Shooting Star! Hope to see you around here often :)

      September 16, 2012
  16. wow…amazing cities !!!

    December 9, 2013
  17. Mark G #

    Another vote for Mechelen here, can be combined with Antwerp. A charming (and cheaper)alternative to Brugge or Ghent.
    I would also offer Bernkastel-Kues as an unknown Germany travel destination. Can be combined with Trier or a Rhine river tour. As you can see, I like to combine two or three places to see as much of an area or country as possible.

    Love the blog, the words complement the excellent pictures.

    December 23, 2013

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