Inside Track

It’s Europe, but not as you know it. Consider these destinations for your 2016 travel itinerary - complete with avant-garde architecture and wild ponies.

Aarhus, Denmark

Denmark’s second city is taking some bold steps to reinvent itself from its industrial past. Chief among Aarhus’s newer attractions - and very hard to miss - is Your Rainbow Panorama by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. Opened in 2011, it’s a brightly coloured enclosed circular walkway perched jauntily on top of the Aros Aarhus Art Museum. Walking around it gives you 360-degree views of the rapidly evolving skyline through multi-coloured glass, lending a playful edge to what has always been a wealthy, yet austere city.

Aarhus is located on the east coast of the Jutland peninsula, less than 200 kilometres north-west of Copenhagen, and boasts a number of world-firsts, albeit unusual ones. The Moesgaard Museum (MOMU), in the outer suburb of Højbjerg, is a sleek new home for Grauballe Man, one of the world’s best-preserved bog bodies that dates back to the third century BCE. Then there’s Scandinavia’s largest library, the brand new Dokk1, designed by Danish architectural firm Schmidt Hammer Lassen. Its centrepiece is the world’s longest tubular bell, which rings every time a baby is born in the city. Making a library the focal point of a city’s regeneration is a brave move - but one that seems to be paying off, if visitor numbers are anything to go by. It’s all part of Aarhus 2030 - a scheme to make the city more liveable for the 75,000 new residents it expects in the next 14 years.

As you’d expect of such a creative and rapidly growing city, the food and drink scene is starting to cause a stir. Aarhus has three Michelin-starred restaurants, but the coolest food right now is smørrebrød - traditional Danish open sandwiches on rye bread with almost limitless toppings. Give the city’s gourmet offerings a try at foodie haven Nordisk Spisehus.

Wales, UK

It may be a small country, but Wales packs a big punch in Lonely Planet’s newly published Ultimate Travelist. In the run-down of the world’s all-time best places to visit, seven were in Wales - and seeing as you can get from the top of the country to the bottom in about half a day’s drive, it’s easy to tick them all off on even a short trip.

First up is the timelessly beautiful Snowdonia National Park in the country’s north. If you want to avoid the hordes atop Wales’s tallest mountain, Snowdon, try climbing the crags of Tryfan or Cadair Idris instead - both walks can be done in a day by most people. For something (very) different, there’s also Bounce Below - an attraction that sounds like it was conceived after a few too many  Welsh ciders, yet has somehow brilliantly come to fruition. It’s a huge underground playground in an abandoned slate mine, filled with giant trampolines, suspended walkways, tunnels and slides made from netting, all illuminated with spooky lighting.

Just a short drive away is the seaside town of Portmeirion - number 207 on Lonely Planet’s list. Famous for its pastel-coloured Italianate houses, which were the quirky backdrop for cult TV show The Prisoner, it’s now a tourist hotspot. Best time to come? September 1–4, when it plays host to Festival No 6, which takes the British art of boutique hipster festivals to a new high, with floating dance floors, paddleboarding and theatre alongside top music acts.

Other Welsh must-sees include the Brecon Beacons National Park, Tintern Abbey, Caernarfon Castle and the atmospheric ruins of the Bishops Palace, located in the grounds of the beautiful pink-stoned St David’s Cathedral in Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. Finally, there’s St Fagans National History Museum in Cardiff, a free journey through Wales’s rich history from Celtic times to the miners strikes of the 1980s.

It’s housed in more than 40 historic buildings that have been re-erected stone by stone in a large park. Awesome stuff.

The Carpathians, Romania

You might not associate Europe with a Where the Wild Things Are-style safari, but this untamed region is wilder than you might expect. The Romanian section of the Carpathian Mountains rises up through the middle of the country in a backwards C-shape, and in its thick forests and steep, flower-strewn hills are wolves, lynx, bears - and now bison. For the past two years, Rewilding Europe and WWF Romania have been working on an ambitious project to make Europe a little ‘wilder’ by returning creatures such as bison to their place in nature. Bison were reintroduced to the Tarcu Mountains, located on the south-western edge of the Carpathians, and you can take a five-day tour in the European spring or autumn.

If walking is your thing, head to the Făgăraş Mountains, where you can explore glacial lakes and hike three of Romania’s highest peaks (Moldoveanu, Negoiu and Viştea Mare) and one of Europe’s longest ridge trails. Then, of course, there’s Romania’s other great draw - Transylvania and its famous son Vlad the Impaler’s Bran Castle. A 12-day walking tour takes in the beauty of the snow-capped mountains, the castle and pretty medieval villages. Don’t forget to pack garlic.

Matera, Italy

It’s the must-see Italian destination you’ve never heard of. Matera, in the region of Basilicata in the country’s south, has kept a ridiculously low profile considering its unique and breathtaking central feature — the sassi. Literally meaning ‘stones’, these cave dwellings were dug out of the city’s cliffs in tiers. They’re evidence of Matera being one of the oldest continually inhabited settlements in human history (along with Petra in Jordan), as the maze of caverns, tombs and pathways date back to the Paleolithic period and had people living in them, albeit in abject squalor, right up until the 1950s.

The two sassi neighbourhoods have now been cleaned up, granted UNESCO World Heritage status and are gradually being repopulated, so now’s an ideal time to go, before word gets out. You can get into the sassi district from various points around town — some signposted, others not, and there’s fun to be had exploring the warren. The 8th century Chiesa di Santa Lucia alle Malve, which has stunning Byzantine frescoes, is a treat, as are the other chiese rupestri (cave churches) of which there are more than 150. There are also large courtyards and sudden, dramatic views to stumble upon.

It’s not all ancient history in Matera though — new businesses are starting to move in, too. Il Quarto Storto is a great place to eat simple food and drink the local red wine Aglianico del Vulture. But to make sure you don’t  miss anything that the city has to offer, either in the labyrinth or top-side, explore with an expert from Matera Tour Guide.

Wroclaw, Poland

Start perfecting the pronunciation now (it’s vrots-wahv), because you’ll likely be hearing more about Poland’s fourth largest city. It ticks all kinds of tourism boxes - architectural, cultural, natural and social - and in 2016 it will be the European Capital of Culture and World Book Capital City.

Start in Rynek, the stunning main square where you can stroll around the city’s blend of Bohemian, Prussian and German architecture. The Gothic Town Hall is a particular stand-out thanks to its astronomical clock, 66-metre tower and famed beer cellar Piwnica Świdnicka, dating back to 1273. But it’s the city’s counter-culture that makes it so special. Try the BWA Wrocław art gallery, or take a tram to Browar Mieszczański and find a buzzing creative hub, with artists’ studios and filmmakers, exhibitions and markets on Sundays.

While here, don’t miss Konspira, a restaurant that recreates the city’s days as the ‘Fortress of Solidarity’, a time when the city was the centre of the resistance movement during communist rule in the 1980s. The walls are decorated with satirical cartoons, newspaper cuttings and riot shields, and the menu includes cheap beers and a ‘workman’s dinner’ of pork with potatoes and salad for about $7. All profits go to local social projects.

Catalonia, Spain

This fiercely proud region of Spain has a lot going for it already - Barcelona is considered one of the best cities in the world, the spectacular Pyrenees are located to the north, the beautiful Mediterranean is to the east and there’s a rich cultural heritage (think Dali, Gaudi and Picasso, plus the incredible cliff-top monastery at Montserrat and Roman ruins of Tarragona). Now, Catalonia is preparing for a year-long celebration of its excellent food and drink as European Region of Gastronomy 2016. This is all about the lesser-known local offerings, so think beyond Girona’s El Celler de Can Roca and get exploring. The Pyrenean region is quietly celebrated for its cheesemaking, such as Tupi (a fermented spreadable variety), Montsec (a delicate goat’s cheese rolled in ash) and Formatge de l’Alt Urgell i la Cerdanya, the area’s most famous (it has small holes and a delicious mild flavour).

In October, the Catalonian town of La Seu d’Urgell focuses on all things cheesy with its Fira de Sant Ermengol festival, showcasing about 40 regional cheesemakers. In the coastal town of Palamós, sample Catalonia’s best prawns, which are sourced solely from the cape of Begur to the Ridaura river, about 30 kilometres away. Better yet, take part in the town’s burgeoning ‘pescaturisme’ (fishing tourism) and catch them yourself on a boat trip. You can also book a seafood cuisine workshop at L’Espai del Peix - which serves up delicious Catalan seafood dishes, too.

Then there’s xató, a Catalan sauce of nuts, garlic, oil, peppers and breadcrumbs, served with a endive and salted cod salad. Each town has its own version, but the one at Sitges’ harbourside restaurant, La Taberna del Puerto, merits a special mention.  

Words by Emma Anderson - Published in Voyeur Published in Voyeur January 2016
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