It must be difficult, if you’re a city in the shadow of a world-famous neighbour, to attract the attention you deserve. But often, these smaller cities harbour surprises and sights every bit as captivating as their spotlight-stealing cousins. Sometimes, it pays to escape the crowds, the tourist traps and the snaking queues, and discover an altogether more authentic slice of city life. And fortunately, we have parcs in the ideal location to take a closer look.
Vilanova i la Geltru
Locals say that Vilanovins “always have a leg in the air” because they’re often to be found dancing in the streets, such is the city’s fondness for a festival (early August is when you’ll enjoy the main one). But, even when the carnival is over, this spirited Catalan city is well worth a visit. It’s a handsome place, especially in the old town (Geltru), whose streets are lined with ornate 18th and 19th century villas, tree-lined squares and public buildings. Start your wanderings at the Placa de la Vila, and you’ll see why this city is proud of its illustrious past, and its Catalan culture. Today, it’s a city that loves to shop, with over 200 retail opportunities, from fine arts and crafts to tempting Catalan delis. Like Barcelona, the main drag is the 1km stretch known as La Rambla, where you’ll find big name stores (Spanish fashions from the lies of Zara, Massimo Dutti and Oysho), and a great market, far less rammed with tourists than Barcelona (Pl. de Soler i Carbonell). There’s a great museum too, Biblioteca Museu Víctor Balaguer, full of Egyptian and Roman artifacts and – hurrah – a terrific beach lined with seafood restaurants too. Who needs more?
Nearest parc: Vilanova Park
Monfalcone is a busy, hard-working sort of place. An industrious port town, it nonetheless finds time to let its hair down, and has plenty of attractions to warrant a day’s exploration. The Great War Museum (Via del Carso) commemorates the fact that the area saw some of the bloodiest battles on the Italian front during WW1. It’s an excellent open-air museum that even kids will find fascinating. The town’s castle, Rocca de Monfalcone, affords terrific views from its ramparts (Salita alla Rocca). The Monfalcone shipbuilding Museum sits inside the renovated village of Panzano, built to service the shipyards. The town’s heyday is vividly brought back to life. Need more nature? Wander around the peaceful Valle Cavanata Nature Reserve, out towards the resort of Grado. It’s a 327-hectare protected area, and part of the internationally important Grado Lagoon system: home to hundreds of species of birds. Or cycle along the coast –there’s a fantastic cycling path that leads 47km across the most beautiful parts of Monfalcone, on a flat, mostly coastal route all the way to pretty Grado.
Nearest parc: Marina Julia
The ancient, walled city of Girona (main pic) offers a richly atmospheric alternative to the sea and sand of the Costa Brava. This medieval city has been conquered by Romans and Moors over the years and wears those influences in its architecture and cuisine. Islamic for two centuries, the city has boasted a large Jewish population too. The old town is a warren of narrow lanes, which is complemented by the slim river which clefts it in two. Add excellent museums and a large, ornate cathedral and you’ve a compact little city that’s ideal for a diverting weekend break away from the modern resorts of the coast. The Barri Vell, on the east bank of the Onyar river, is partially enclosed by medieval walls and contains the majority of the city’s most interesting sights. The entirety of the medieval city is walkable in 20 minutes and has plenty of high-end boutiques, galleries and restaurants. Make sure you take in the thriving, shop-lined Rambla and head upwards through the Jewish quarter – the tightly packed streets of El Call – towards the cathedral, which dominates old Girona. El Call has a Jewish museum and cultural centre, the Centre Bonastruc Ça Porta, and plenty of bars offering tapas and beer enough to make you linger.
Nearest parc: Cala Gogo
Reims is a delight. Just a three hour drive from Calais, this northern French gem is situated in the heart of Champagne country, and a far more relaxing prospect than heading a little further, into the bustle and frenzy of Paris. The town’s Notre Dame de Reims cathedral is a Gothic masterpiece – a huge one at that. You could fit a rugby field into the Gothic nave. Climb the towers for a terrific view of the city. Next door’s Palais du Tau, the cathedral museum, tells the story of the 33 kings crowned here. The city can trace its roots back to Roman days. The Cryptoporticus, at the Place du Forum, dates back 2,000 years while the Mars Gate, built at the same time, is one of the four gateways to the ancient city. But the city isn’t all ancient history. Much of it was flattened in the war. So today, the town centre mixes medieval with Art Deco, renovated warehouses and covered markets, especially in the trendy Boulingrin quartier. Of course, a Champagne tasting tour at Moët & Chandon and Taittinger is a not-to-be-missed experience for connoisseurs of vintage French bubbly. More shopping? The gorgeous Galeries Lafayette. Should be your first port of call.
Nearest parc: La Croix du Vieux
The home of the mighty Philips electronics firm, Eindhoven is an old city with a modern heart where you can visit the factory where the first electric light was made! A human-sized city, eminently walkable, with lots of green spaces and a pleasing hotch-potch of ancient and modern, Eindhoven is a strong cultural centre too. Visit its strikingly designed Contemporary Arts Museum, with its particularly strong collection of works from the likes of Picasso, Mondrian and Flemish and American artists (Van Abbemuseum, Bilderdijklaan 10). The MU Artspace, Emmasingel 20, offers exhibitions, talks and explorations of the space between art, design and pop culture. For fresh air, head to the park and grass fields around Lake Karpendonck. Shoppers should head to Piazza Center on the 18 Septemberplein, home to de Bijenkorf, one the largest and most exclusive department stores in the Netherlands. Your kids like trucks? The DAF museum will have them grinning from ear to ear (Tongelresestraat 27,).
Nearest parc: Beekse Bergen
Belgium’s second city is such a confident, wealthy and important-looking metropolis you can understand why residents believe their city to be the heart of the county – a title which, politically at least, should go to Brussels. But Antwerpians have never been the shy and retiring type. Flashy, sassy and stylish, Antwerp is the diamond centre of the world – cutting, polishing and setting millions of stones a year. You can window shop, or buy, in the diamond quarter, which is in the city’s historic Jewish district. Day trips to Antwerp offer a lot of shopping opportunities – and not just for the wealthy. The city’s fashions are first rate – and, with tonnes of independent designers offering ‘off the peg’ pieces, you can snap up a new look at a fraction of the cost you’d pay in London or Paris. The city’s an architectural beauty too, with many 16th and 17th century baroque facades lining its atmospheric streets – reaching its harmonious highpoint in the glorious town square, or Grote Markt, and Our Lady’s Cathedral. By far the best new addition to the city is MASS – the Museum of the city’s history at the waterfront (its themes are metropolis, power, life and death – go figure!). For a reviving blast of cheeky Belgian culture, it’s just an hour away from the Netherlands coast.
Nearest parc: Roompot Beach