Sunday, 18 September 2016

Off the Beaten Track in Europe's Back of Beyond: Traditional Places that Time Forgot

Enjoy a more traditional and untouched Europe in these quaint and interesting towns and areas dotted around the continent...

Mostar - Bosnia & Herzegovina

A place now recovered from the conflict of the past, Mostar is a fascinating place with a strong Islamic and Ottoman history, where Muslims, Christians and Jews now live happily alongside one another. Mostar is a place seemingly untouched by mass package tourism and general mainstream Western culture. 

Local music plays in bars, and the streets of the old town buzz with a flurry of activity and colour in the bazaars. Visitors are mainly independent and the town has a traditional and atmospheric feel. 

The old Bridge is the focal point and I just loved the way it reflected magically in the clear green-blue river. Unlike many tourist landmarks, we liked that it is extremely popular with locals. They take dips in the river in summer, jump off the bridge, and even kayak the waters with stray dogs on board! 

Accommodation in Mostar is very cheap ranging from 2 stars for €15 a night to 4 stars for €60 a night. To arrive in Mostar it is possible to fly direct from Sarajevo or Rome for example (but no direct UK flights). Another option is to fly to Split in Croatia then take a bus, train, or hire a car. This takes around 2 hours,  however it is necessary to get the right papers from the hire car company to cross the border. Watch that reckless Bosnian driving though. 

Komiza, Vis - Croatian Island

This tiny town and its dusty little port is geared up for independent visitors, with a couple of restaurants and an exciting boat trip to the beautiful 'blue cave' on Bisevo, but in terms of tourism that's about it. This is such an organic and genuine village, and for its perfect little Mediterranean island setting, there is very surprisingly not one high-rise or large hotel in sight, it's only the hills and stone church with any height...

We stayed in a traditional 'sobe' with a view directly onto the turquoise sea by the harbour. Sobe are local people's homes in which rooms are rented (ensuite is usually an option). The owner was lovely and friendly and we ended up drinking at his local bar with him in the evening. He loved to hear all about British comedy and lifestyle!

Get to Komiza on Vis by taking the 3 hour ferry over to Vis from Split in Croatia, and get a bus to Komiza on the other side of the island from Vis Town.

Abisko National Park, Swedish Lapland

Up in the Arctic circle in the total wilderness, the Abisko National Park and its vast lakes and mountains really are off any beaten track, in fact, it's off the edge of civilisation apart from tiny Bjorkliden which has a ski area and a fantastic Aurora Borealis viewing station and chairlift, but really nothing else, just truly wild Arctic nature and an open road.

We stumbled across Bjorkliden and the Aurora Skystation when we were wandering around driving through the Abisko National Park at midnight in midwinter, looking for the Northern lights. We saw a sign for the Aurora Skystation and were lucky enough to join a trip up the mountain that normally requires advance booking. We didn't see the lights that evening, but waiting for them on the mountainside, the blue-tinted sparkles in the snow cast by the full moon, is something I will never forget.

To get to Bjorkliden fly to Tromso, Kiruna or Bardufoss (often connecting in Oslo or Stockholm), and get a bus or drive to Bjorkliden in Sweden near the Norwegian border. In midsummer the midnight sun is a major highlight, and in winter, the Aurora, or Northern lights - particularly likely due to extremely low light pollution and the rain shadow the park lies in.

Nordkjosbotn & Northern Norwegian Fjords

This Northern Norwegian fjord town nestles right at the start of the Balsfjord. A quiet and unassuming place, it is simply dwarfed by the surrounding scenery. It makes a stunning stop on route between Tromso and the Swedish border; where Abisko National Park is a fantastic place to see the Northern Lights!

I didn't expect such stunning views from the Northern fjords, and I was very taken with the half-frozen fjord in Nordkjosbotn; its shiny, flat surface reflecting the low and soft Arctic sun. We stopped to admire the view and to have a snoop in a gift shop which was decked out in truly tasteful Scandinavian style Christmas bits and bobs (it was mid-winter).

As above, to get here, fly to Tromso and take a bus or drive.

Corte, Corsica

What little mass tourism reaches Corsica usually remains by the coasts and major ports. Corte in the middle of the island, up high, is a very Corsican town without a mass tourism appeal. French style cafes cling to the streets, but a decisively Corsican flare remains, manifesting as anti-French graffiti in some places. The colourful buildings rise sharply on rocky surroundings with a tangible pride.

Corte made a good morning stop for us as we were travelling inland to cross the island from the port to where we were staying, near Les Calanques in the West. We took the night ferry, so we wanted breakfast once we had arrived in Corte after sunrise. There is a good choice of cafes and shops, and we enjoyed a croissant or two, al fresco. The rugged scenery on the way in either direction was breathtaking, especially the pink morning mist clinging to the red-tinged mountains as the sun rose.

Corsica doesn't have a good infrastructure so the best way to arrive in Corte is by car, although there are bus services. 

Visegrad, Hungary

There is an ancient medieval castle at Visegrad with stunning views of the bend in the Danube river. A ferry also crosses to Nagymaros on the other side of the river. Both Visegrad and Nagymaros have a feeling of being most definitely 'in Hungary,' it is a very real place to visit, without it feeling well-trodden, despite its proximity to Budapest.

We visted this area for the day, on our trip to Budapest. We took a walk in Nagymaros to get higher up and see the river, and ended up passing through a residential area and locals were playing music we would have (rather juvenilely) expected to hear in 'Borat' the film! We had a really cheap and tasty sausage and chips in Nagymaros by the riverside, needless to say that was the bit Richard remembered above any other details of the day.  

To get to Visegrad, fly to Budapest and take a 45 minute train from Nyugati station to Visegrad on the Danube river - just North of Budapest.

Rasnov, Romania

This ancient fortress near the famous Bran Castle and well-kept, picturesque Brasov, is set in a very rural location which remains extremely unspoiled. The fortress itself has market stalls, a few traditional shops and a trailer ride up to the fortress from the bottom, however the surrounding forested countryside and the quiet nature of this ancient place leaves visitors feeling extremely lucky, with a sense of having 'discovered' something.

We had a wander around and took in the natural surroundings of this ancient place. My favourite thing was the crumbling stone buildings and the stunning rural location with uninterrupted views of the Carpathian mountains. 

To visit Rasnov, fly to Bucharest and get a train to Brasov, which only costs around £5 each way. Hire a cheap taxi or drive to nearby Rasnov.

Boscoreale, Italy 

Just inland from the hubbub and trinkets of the polished Amalfi Coast, is this off-the-beaten-track town with its scruffy buildings and all the rest. It's hard to believe the glamourous towns of Positano and Sorrento are just around the other side of Vesuvius from gritty little Boscoreale. Surprisingly there's a lesser-known archaeological Roman site here also, alongside nearby Pompeii and Herculaneum. In this small town, local life can be apprecited in much the same stripped-bare way as it can in Naples. A good old-fashioned takeaway might just surprise you, as well as a bargain of a hotel. Little independent 3 star Hotel La Fenice is a great choice; clean, quiet and friendly with an outdoor pool that visitors may just get to themselves...

When we first arrived in Boscoreale it was late and we had been lost for ages, which I will confidently blame on Italian road signs! We ate at this local little takeaway place - there weren't any restaurants open, but it was great - really stripped-down tasty food, and a mini bottle of great red table wine which was €1.80! We were just so pleased when we set our hungry eyes on the giant pan with sizzling chicken and sliced potato chips, and it did not disappoint...

Richard still calls Boscoreale 'the chicken town.' The locals marvelled at our British right-hand drive car and gibbered away in Italian about it, and we even got given a whole load of free food to take away!

The nearest airport is Naples. Boscoreale is served by bus services like most towns in the vicinity. Driving allows more exploring but watch out, the haphazard driving down South is very different to the more structured North of Italy. 

Gimmelwald, Switzerland 

Tiny Gimmelwald is dwarfed by its stunning alpine views of the lush green Lauterbrunnen valley below with its many graceful waterfalls. It is hemmed-in on all other sides by the Jungfrau and Valais alps. This is a place to really see Swiss Alpine life, tucked out of the way above Murren on a steep mountainside. From laiteries with cow-bells strung up in rows, to the tiny village 'Honesty Shop,' and the wooden chalets dotted on the hillsides, this is one of the cutest, quaintest little Swiss villages, and there are many.

We stumbled upon this village in search for a view of the sun on the mountainsides turning them salmon-pink at sunset, and boy did we find it! We took the cablecar from Murren (with the pram), and let ourselves loose in the fresh air to admire the views. The teeny village shop has no staff and works via a simple honesty policy. It sells a little collection of items from keyrings and magnets (yes, some level of tourism has reached the village, it is in the Alps afterall), to sweets.

To get to Gimmelwald take a cable car from Murren in the Lauterbrunnen Valley. Murren can be reached by bus or train, and is not far from tourist hub Interlaken.