With some basic internet skills, you can set up your own driving tours of the most beautiful out-of-the-way towns and villages in Europe.
Visiting the major cities is of course where one starts in Europe. But after a few trips, you might want to get off that beaten path and discover some of the lesser known towns and villages. After countless trips throughout the continent, that’s what I really enjoy — find a little time-worn town, stroll to the piazza (in some there’s only one) and stop at some joint for wine or an espresso. The walk on the way gives me a feel for the town’s overall ambiance, and there are usually some shops to browse along the way.
Most travelers are familiar with the hill towns of Tuscany or the Romantic Road in Germany. But there are hundreds of these little gems all over Europe. The trick is finding them. I’ve come up with a process that’s pretty effective, and it involves using Google Maps and Images.
Let’s say I plan to stay in Rome and want to explore the surrounding area. I will first search on the internet for the “most beautiful towns in Lazio” — Rome’s Region — and from the websites that pop up I create a list of towns that are possibly worth visiting. The emphasis here is on “possibly” because not all are. Sometimes there are only the tourist websites of the province, and they will play up their little towns, even if there really isn’t much to see. On the other hand, towns that are listed on multiple websites have to be given serious consideration. But still, you have to be selective.
From my initial hunt I might end up with 20 towns. To pick the ones I would consider, I plug in my location in Rome on Google Maps, and then hit the “Directions” icon and plug in each town. As I go through this process, I continually re-order them so that I can create the most efficient circular route back to my starting point (I insert my starting point as the first and last location). Because they can be spread out all over Lazio, I usually end up with 2-3 driving tours that are of reasonable distance — less than 250 miles round-trip is typically my one day limit.
Still, visiting 20 towns in 3 driving tours is crazy, so I have to eliminate. My first cut is to drop those that are farther away than I want to drive. Then I review the towns that are left one more time to make sure they’re worth visiting. For me, I like to see lots of restaurants and shops or some quirkiness about it that draws me in. Here’s where Google Images helps. I plug in each town and check out the photos that come up. If I like what I see, the town makes the cut.
Once you settled on the towns and plotted your final itinerary, the next step is to copy the Google map onto your travel document, if you like hard copies of things. To do this, center the itinerary on your computer screen and hit the “Print Screen” button on your computer, then go to your document and right click to “Paste”.
As your final step, you then plug each town into your GPS — did I forget to mention the GPS? Well, you can’t do this without one. You can try working from the written directions that Google provides, but more often than not the roads are so badly marked that you will find yourself lost in no time. That in itself is fun, but you could’ve gotten lost without having gone through the itinerary building task.
Now, as I mentioned, not every town you visit will be a gem, and for these you just drive through and continue onto the next one on the route. But then once in a while you find a real beauty — like Calcata, located about 35 miles north of Rome and quirky to the max. It’s situated on an outcropping of land and feels cut off from the rest of the world, both in time and geography. It’s primarily an artist’s community now, and it’s lively and dramatic, with cobblestone streets, lots of artsy shops, interesting by-ways and winding alleys, and incredible views, and can be easily incorporated into a tour that includes other towns in the area. (By the way, if you decide to visit Calcata, make sure it’s a weekend. It’s a virtual ghost town during the week.)
So, if you’re into really exploring a country and have a passion for travel, the best way is on your own, and seeking out the lesser known towns will be worth the effort. They won’t all be spectacular, but some will have that nice piazza and a glass of wine, or whatever else turns you on.
Sounds like too much work? I get that. What the hell, you’re supposed to be on vacation. If you can’t be bothered going through the process, don’t worry. We’ll feature driving tours through various European countries as a regular series.
If there’s a specific area in Europe you’d like us to cover, send a note to email@example.com and we’ll get on it as soon as we can.