On the horizon, there is light. The sun hasn’t risen yet, but it’s coming. Although it has never been more important (or harder) to continue staying home, limiting contact with others, wearing masks, and so on, it’s beginning to feel like 2021 may bring the “return to normal” — and the return to travel — that we all crave. It’s too early to begin planning trips, but it’s never too early to dream. So…where to?
The last several years, my New Year tradition has been to assemble a list of 10 European Discoveries. As we reach the end of a year of hardship, and face a new year of further uncertainty, I almost bailed on this idea. But we will return to Europe. It’s just a question of when. So I’ll keep with tradition — but with a new spin.
I believe that in the post-pandemic world, travelers will look for something different. Before COVID-19, we had gotten so busy, and so stressed by the crowds, that we forgot to slow down and hear the church bells — to savor those beautiful everyday moments of European life. (If I have a post-pandemic resolution, it’s to not make this mistake again.) Having renewed our appreciation for the incredible privilege of being able to go anywhere we want, we’ll seek opportunities to settle in, slow down, and be fully present in Europe. We’ll choose places just outside the mainstream, ones that reward patience and contemplation.
And that’s the theme of my 2021 European Discoveries: 10 places where you might want to settle in for a week, or a few, and really get to know a fascinating corner of our planet. I haven’t set foot in Europe in well over a year — with, I assume, several more months yet to go. It has afforded me ample opportunity to reflect on my 20-plus years of exploring Europe. And looking back on all of it, these are the places the burn brightest in my mind.
Where are you hoping to slow down and savor our world in 2021?
Soča Valley, Slovenia
I can think of few places I’ve missed more in 2020 than Slovenia. And for me, the most beautiful place in this incredibly beautiful country is the Soča Valley, where a turquoise river cuts a gorge deep into soaring alpine cliffs, just a few miles from the borders with Austria and Italy. Historians know the Soča Valley for its fierce mountaintop battles during World War I (this is where Ernest Hemingway was wounded while driving an ambulance). And contemporary travelers know it as an adventure-sports capital (whitewater rafting, canyoning, paragliding) and home to the restaurant of Ana Roš, the world’s best female chef. You can get a taste of the Soča Valley on a very busy one-day side-trip from Lake Bled or Ljubljana. But why not settle in for several days? Sleep at a tourist farm on a high-mountain pasture, wake up each day to the sun peeking over snowcapped mountains, and spend your breakfast (of farm-fresh eggs) deciding which breathtaking hike or scenic drive to do today.
In September of 2019, my wife and I had a full week to unwind anywhere in Europe. Already exhausted from a packed and fast-paced year of travel, we opted for a quiet weeklong break in the South of France. Why? We wanted to savor the delightful market days (jours de marché) that hop from place to place around the bucolic Provençal countryside. In one week, we sampled seven different markets, each with its own personality. Yes, Provence is packed with other attractions: great sights and wine-tastings and gourmet meals and scenic hikes and hot-air balloon rides. But the markets are precisely the type of sensory super-experience we’re all desperate for after a 2020 spent very close to home. After living through a time when going to the corner grocery store feels like high adventure, imagine the thrill of strolling a lively town square, generously shaded by plane trees, as you choose a little wheel of cheese for your picnic from a mound of fragrant options, browse for just the right produce for a home-cooked Provençal feast, and bite into a strawberry that truly, intensely tastes like strawberry.
I wrote the book on Budapest…literally. And yet, even after 20-some visits, I still can’t get enough of this grand city on the Danube. With each weeklong visit to update my guidebook, the list of things I’d still like to see and do gets longer, not shorter. The melting pot and de facto capital of Central Europe, Budapest’s unique urban culture mixes a respect for tradition with a cosmopolitan openness to creativity and innovation. It wins my vote for the hands-down best restaurant and nightlife scene in Europe. And yet it also has a stately elegance, with ornate turn-of-the-century buildings, inviting tree-lined plazas, and wooded hills ideal for nature hikes. (And don’t get me started on the thermal baths.) Last March, I had already booked my tickets for yet another visit to Budapest, and I couldn’t wait. That trip, of course, never happened. And by the time I finally get back there, the anticipation will be unbearable. I never know precisely what I’ll see, do, and learn in Budapest. But I know it’ll create lasting memories.
When we produced our Rick Steves Iceland guidebook, we included a “how to” chapter on Europe’s ultimate road trip: driving 800 miles on Highway 1 around the perimeter of Iceland, connecting astonishing scenery, geothermal hotspots, glaciers and icebergs, charming fjordside settlements, and warm and wonderful Icelanders. We covered the Ring Road generously in our book, even though we figured very few people would devote the full week required to do this trip justice. But maybe we were wrong. The pandemic has made National Lampoon’s Vacation-style road trips all the rage again. There’s never been a better time to rack up some serious miles through cinematic landscapes and have an honest-to-goodness adventure. And Iceland is made to order for “social distancing” as we tiptoe into the post-pandemic future. My Ring Road post covers the basics; if the photos and places intrigue you, forget about that “48-hour Icelandic layover” you’ve been contemplating…go all-in on the full Ring Road.
Recently I had the joyful experience of driving around North Wales (roughly the triangle formed by Conwy, Caernarfon, and Ruthin) for several days to update our Rick Steves Great Britain guidebook. I adore Europe’s plucky, off-the-beaten-path cultural eddies, and North Wales tops the list. Along with offering a fascinating crash course in Welsh culture and language, this region is studded with towering stone castles that make you feel like a kid again, a rugged landscape of craggy mountains and slate rooftops, and cheery red dragons laughing down from every flagpole. And it’s compact, making it easy to see a lot from any one of a number of charming home bases. While less known than the Scottish Highlands or Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula, North Wales is every bit as fun, scenic, and culturally rich.
Years ago, my Dad and I went on a road trip through Romania, seeking traditional culture. When we came to Maramureș — ten long, potholed hours of driving north of Bucharest — we felt like anthropologists stumbling upon a place that time forgot. The rolling green hillsides are dotted with giant, tipsy haystacks. Rustic villages with mud roads — and more horse carts than cars — are lined with elaborate wooden churches and ceremonial gateways. Shepherds living in split-wood shacks make cheese like medieval peasants. And riverside settlements bustle with industry dating back to biblical times, from carpet-washers to fulling mills to to weaving looms to moonshine stills. This is not an “open-air folk museum” — it’s the real deal, Europe’s Amish Country. As our world changes at a dizzying pace — which only accelerated in 2020 — there’s no guarantee that Maramureș traditions will survive for much longer. (Teo Ivanciuc, an excellent local guide who helped us film our TV segment in Maramures, would love to show you around.)
Camino de Santiago, Spain
In the Middle Ages, pilgrims walked from all over Europe to venerate the bones of St. James in Santiago de Compostela, at the northwest corner of Iberia. This route — the Camino de Santiago — was largely forgotten over the centuries, only to be rediscovered in our own lifetime by travelers seeking an escape from modern life. After a year of deep soul-searching, there’s nothing like a four-week hike to clear the mind, synthesize all we’ve learned, and contemplate where to go from here. Begin in the green Pyrenees foothills of Basque Country, then walk across the arid plains of northern Spain, through villages and cities and across stone bridges from Roman times, before finally passing trough the wilds of lush, green, and rocky Galícia — all along the way, sleeping in rustic pilgrims’ hostels and following scallop shells through the wilderness. I’ve hiked bits of the Camino here and there (and I drove the entire route, end to end, to write a “how to” chapter in our Rick Steves Spain guidebook). But I’ve never been so tempted to do the full Camino the old-fashioned way.
Lofoten Islands, Norway
All my life, I’d seen this magical place in postcards and coffee-table books: soulful fjords with cut-glass mountains rising high above serene, deep waters, speckled with red cottages and almost no people. My wife and I decided we simply had to see this scene for ourselves. And when we finally made it to the Lofoten Islands — above the Arctic Circle and chilly even in August — we found it even more stunning than the photos. Getting to the Lofoten requires some effort (from Oslo, fly due north for an hour and a half), so you might as well settle in. The rugged Norwegians who’ve carved out a hardy life up here, hanging cod to dry on rickety wooden frames, are adept at introducing visitors to traditional lifestyles. Rent a rorbu (cheery cottage perched on stilts over the fjord) and spend a few days just tooling around, from the “capital city” village of Svolvær to the end-of-the-road cod-fishing settlement called Å. We home-based in Reine, perched on a flat rock in the middle of a fjord with the most stunning views in all of the Lofoten, and from there we ventured out to see everything the archipelago has to offer.
Sure, it’s not “European” in geographical terms. But for anyone who loves Europe, New Zealand feels strikingly familiar…yet excitingly different. (One afternoon, you’re punting the River Avon in Christchurch, as if you were in an English country garden; the next day, you’re swimming with dolphins at Kaikoura.) After years of hearing from our well-traveled friends about this seemingly too-good-to-be-true land, my wife and I finally spent a few weeks here in early 2019. And we fell instantly, hopelessly in love. Yes, the scenery is gobsmacking, and Lord of the Rings fans are in heaven. But New Zealand is so much more: a melding of Europe and Polynesia set amidst an entertaining landscape, where majestic glaciers rise high above steamy groves of ferns and palm trees. We loved sampling the local wine, craft beer, and third-wave coffee culture; learning about the indigenous Māori culture; and getting to know the wonderful Kiwis, who somehow manage to be well-organized and ceaselessly competent while remaining low-key and easygoing. Even before we came home, we’d already started Googling “How do I emigrate to New Zealand?” Now that the Kiwis (under the steady and compassionate leadership of Jacinda Ardern) have managed the pandemic better than anyone, this little island nation is sure to be flooded soon with more than its share of tourists…and transplants. Why not finally get down there soon, ahead of the crowds? As soon as they open up to outsiders, New Zealand is at the top of our list of post-pandemic dreams.
Agriturismo Cretaiole, Tuscany
For years I’ve been singing the praises of a very special place to stay in the most beautiful corner of Tuscany. On a wooded ridge just outside Pienza, city mouse Isabella married country mouse Carlo and, together, they converted a traditional Tuscan farm into the best possible expression of an agriturismo — where visitors experience rural Italian culture and cuisine with modern comforts. With each visit, this place impresses me even more — and especially the vivid, perfectly orchestrated Tuscan experiences that Isabella creates for her guests: truffle hunts, pasta-rolling parties, olive oil appreciation classes, wine tastings, deeply meaningful nature hikes, and on and on. When I close my eyes and picture the one place I’d love to get back to as soon as I can, it’s spending a week — or more — at Cretaiole.
On my most recent visit to Tuscany, a few months before COVID-19 hit, Isabella showed me around her gorgeous new boutique hotel (La Moscadella), offering a similar Tuscan cultural experience with more luxury. But now that fine hotel, and the original farmhouse, sit mostly empty — one more tragedy in this year full of them. Whether it’s Cretaiole or some other perfect place you’ve discovered in your travels, small businesses are hurting right now. If you have the means to travel, as soon as it’s safe, consider booking a return visit. Helping to jump-start these businesses is the least we can do, considering all of the joy people like Isabella and Carlo have brought to our lives over the years.
I’m hoping that 2021 brings good fortune and a return to what we love, both for us travelers and for the people we meet on the road. Like all things, this too shall pass. And a year from now, if all goes well, we’ll be comparing notes about a whole new slew of discoveries for a new age of travel.