If you dislike crowds, avoid must-see sights, and search for alternatives as soon as a place goes on the trending list, then I’m with you! Here are some easy-to-reach places in Europe that I discovered by accident and adore. Destinations in themselves, they’re also perfect for a weekend – or longer – away from the main tourist centres.
Beyond Paris: Senlis
50km north of Paris, Senlis has a medieval heart where more than twenty films have been made. In 987, King Louis V died while hunting in the Foret d’Halatte, and the local leader, Hugh Capet, was elected King. This began the Capetian dynasty, which ruled France for 800 years, and the chateau complex includes ruins from Gallo-Roman times right up to the Revolution.
Three walking routes take in the most important sites. My favourite was the Roman rampart from the Abbaye Saint Vincent founded in 1065 by Queen Anne of Kiev leading to the stone footbridge used by Carmelite nuns in the 13th century.
Just 10km west is the Domaine de Chantilly, which houses France’s second-largest collection of Old Masters paintings after the Louvre, arranged as Henri d’Orléans left them when he gifted the Domaine to the Institut de France in 1884. Magnificent!
In 1918, Senlis was the base for Marechal Ferdinand Foch, Supreme Allied Commander, who lead the offensive that ended WWI and drafted the Armistice document there. The War Cemetery contains 1146 French graves and 100 Commonwealth graves from WWII.
Beyond Amsterdam: Utrecht
50km south of Amsterdam, Utrecht is threaded with canals, cobbled streets and bikepaths filled with girls in short skirts and high heels, men in suits, old ladies with shopping – it's just how they get around. The bike parking station near the railway station accommodates 12,500 bicycles!
As a major transport hub and university city, Utrecht’s music and film festivals are renowned, and the city is lively in summer with music and picnics. I even found a community fair where the council was seeking ideas for the disused railway corridor.
A unique feature of Utrecht is the range of churches, many of which are open in summer with very helpful guides to explain their architecture, history and art treasures. They range from ornately painted and carved Catholic churches to simple timber and whitewash Lutheran and Mennonite ones.
There are also unique, family-friendly museums, such as Speelklok, full of self-playing musical instruments (music boxes to street organs), and the Nijntje museum of Miffy children’s books.
Beyond Venice: Treviso
Served by low-cost airlines, Treviso, 40km north of Venice, is worth stopping at. It’s the headquarters of Benetton clothing and rugby teams, a major production area for Prosecco and radicchio, and the birthplace of tiramisu. You could take classes in Italian language and opera singing while enjoying the shopping, eating and sports in your spare time.
Despite heavy bombing damage to the medieval centre of town in WWII, Treviso’s massive 14th century brick ramparts with gatehouses and a moat still surround cobbled and arcaded streets, canals lapping against houses and a large fish market. One unique feature is the frescoed mansions and churches, the older ones with faded fragments. Many outside the walls from the 18th and 19th centuries also have a strip of fresco just below the eaves. Another is an old baptistery floor with rings of fourth-century mosaic designs unearthed in a street behind the Duomo in the 1960s – a beautiful surprise.
Troyes in France, Nijmegen in the Netherlands are also gorgeous … why not head off the beaten track and see what you can find?