The big cities of Europe as travel destinations, for a while now, have earned their reputation for trading in clichés. The hardsell behind Paris’ Eiffel Tower, Rome’s Colosseum and Barcelona’s Sagrada Família is now apparent with ever rising crowds at these cultural monoliths. When planning a European escape, avoiding touristy touch-and-go clichés helps. It pays to concentrate on the yet undiscovered or little-known nugget of culture that maybe sitting quietly just across the street from the serpentine queues before a famous church or centuries-old graveyard. That nugget might be more revelatory about the place and its people.
But how does one avoid the clichés when travelling in an unknown country? What does it take to give that overpriced touristy flamenco show in Barcelona a miss? How does one instead opt for an affordable and authentic experience at a neighbourhood bar frequented by locals? When does it become essential to recognise the slip that separates real customs and cheesy performances? When one thinks of Europe’s tourist traps, the men dressed in gladiator costumes and extorting as much as eight euros for taking a picture with you, on your camera, at the Colosseum come to mind. There are plenty others. But irrespective of these touristy rabbit-holes, Europe continues to thrill in living traditions and it remains one of those places where clichés are rooted in local practices, old and new—Munich’s Oktoberfest, Venice’s Carnival, or Buñol’s La Tomatina are only a few instances that have gained currency over several years of tourist traffic and rightly so. Some of these are worth the effort and the experience. But to make it worth your while, you need to dig deeper, and sniff out the local gem amidst all the readily available curated packages. Yes, sometimes, travel needs alertness and hard work. It could involve poring over newspapers, pamphlets and posters on train station walls to get closer to that ultimate local experience.
Despite the continent’s popularity, thanks to technology and modern tourism, Europe retains its constant charms and its living stories. For where else would you walk in the shadows of Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century stone house but in Florence? Where else could you tuck into a burger by Lac Léman in Geneva across from where Mary Shelley thought of writing Frankenstein during a cold summer cooped up in a house in Cologny with her literary friends? And where else would you find the architecture of ancient splendour that has survived wars, migration, and social upheavals that precede our existence and holds sway over our world to this day? The grand old cities of history and culture, the sunlit cafés along cobbled alleys, the sunset over the Danube, the grandiose fjords of Scandinavia all come together in one great muddle to create this European magic show that we all wait to experience, be it as a whole or in parts.
For Europe is not just one destination, it’s the unpacking of a new world every couple of hours, depending upon which flight you’re on. Between the Urals and Alps, the Baltic and the Mediterranean, it packs within its borders numerous countries, their history, culture and the consistent ebb and flow of ethnic and geographical complexities. Together, they bring to the traveller a world whose origins can still be witnessed in the regal Roman ruins, the scatter of Renaissance art, the opulent palaces of bygone empires and to the present-day practicalities of a cohesive whole brought forth by the coexistence of age-old traditions and modern politics.
And then beyond the cities, there is the splendour of cuisine, beverages and the great green outdoors. What can be clichéd about hiking in the Alps? Taking a quick dip in the crystal clear lakes of Iceland? Or lunching on pizza in Naples? And picking up bits about viticulture while quaffing on chardonnay in sunny Bordeaux?
The thrill of Europe is as inexhaustible as it is richly varied, old and new, quirky, and elegant all at once. Its swagger is hard to emulate and its charms impossible to escape, despite them being well, for want of a better word, slightly clichéd. Each journey to the centre or the edge of Europe brings along experiences and learnings that elevate our understanding of a part of a world we don’t otherwise frequent.
At the end of the day, though, your travel experiences are made of what you bring back home tucked in your head, cherished in your heart and sometimes bubble-wrapped in your handbag.
For a list of eight cities you must visit this year, go here; for essential experiences you must-have in the continent head here; read about places to pamper your taste buds here; and raise your glasses to Europe’s finest brew here.
Debashree Majumdar is a failed skier and enthusiastic hiker. When travelling, she seeks out the hum of old neighbourhoods and the noise of bazaars. She is a freelance writer-editor and currently lives in Geneva.