Europe, perhaps more than any other continent, is known for its picturesque old villages. There are so many, in fact, that we could easily do a travel column on the Top 10 villages in each country!
But, for now, here are my Top 10 European village picks for 2015...
#10 - INNSBRUCK, AUSTRIA - Here, it's still the Middle Ages...a delightful, fantasy-filled Middle Ages, with onion domes and green roofs and pastel buildings and gables and spires and that distinctive MittelEuropa architecture and ambience. It doesn't hurt, either, that this magical village is in the middle of the Alps, surrounded by enormous peaks with snow-capped tops (and in winter, bottoms, too!). The town is a joy in which to walk around, and to sample Austrian favorites such as strudel, of course, and weiner schnitzel. And when it comes to winter sports, Innsbruck takes a back seat to no one; in fact, the town hosted both the 1964 and the 1976 Winter Olympics.
#9 - KINSALE, COUNTY CORK, IRELAND - Irish cooking, for ages known for dry potatoes and greasy bacon, has become a heavyweight in the foodie scene over the past decade. And nowhere is this truer than in the town of Kinsale, on Ireland's craggy Atlantic Coast. In fact, Kinsale is known in some quarters as the "Gourmet Capital of Ireland." Steeped in legend and lore, it's also one of Ireland's prettiest towns. But food (and drink) is king here! Local produce and meat and dairy are the rule rather than the exception. This is also the home of Murphy's Brewery, second only to Guinness in the eyes of many Irishmen, as well as the Jameson Heritage Centre. Try Clonakilty black pudding, local cheeses like Ardagh Castle, and the fresh fish at Fishy Fishy Restaurant, caught just an hour or two earlier. And top it all off at Auntie Nelly's Sweet Shop!
#8 - AMBLESIDE, ENGLAND - This little village is appropriately-named...because it's a great place to "amble" around. Sitting inside England's beautiful Lake District, it's also near one of the nation's historic landmarks - Hadrian's Wall, a leftover from Roman times that meanders through hill and dale and meadow and mountain. The town sits, as well, on Lake Windermere, largest natural lake in England. It's a market town, a history buff's town, a walking town, and a shopper's town. The Bridge House, built in the 17th Century, is one of the smallest houses in Britain. And the Ambleside Museum is home to many of Beatrix Potter's (author of Peter Rabbit) possessions. And from Ambleside, it's just a short "amble" into the mountains.
#7 - CESKY KRUMLOV, CZECH REPUBLIC - Český Krumlov boasts one of the most famous Old Towns in Europe, with a castle - second largest in the country - and over 300 Medieval buildings. Here, cobblestone streets wind past narrow alleys where an ever-changing panorama of Czech life has unfolded for time immemorial. The castle has been around since the mid-1200's, and the town eventually began to grow up around it. Cesky Krumlov may be a small town, but it has a vibrant cultural life, with museums, galleries, gardens, and the landmark Castle Baroque Theatre, more than 400 years old. One of my favorite places to visit here, though, is somewhat less "cultural" - the Eggenberg Brewery , which has been producing great beers for four centuries. The surrounding hills are full of recreation and sightseeing options, as is the Vltava River. And if you make the climb up the tower in the castle, you'll be rewarded with spectacular views.
#6 - DOBBIACO, ITALY - I love mountains. Which is one of the reasons I'm always attracted to the steep, spikey, spectacular Dolomites in Italy. Especially in winter, when they're tinged with an other-worldly color that I still can't describe. Dobbiaco is known as "The Door to the Dolomites." It's also a door to great winter sports (and summer ones such as hiking and mountain-biking)...and if there's one you can't do here, I haven't found it yet. The village is surrounded by some of the most stunning panoramas in Europe - any time of year - and the sweet silence afforded by walking in them. In the Dolomites, the sound you may hear most is the clanging of cow bells in the verdant fields.
#5 - STEIN AM RHEIN, SWITZERLAND - Where Lake Constance again becomes the Rhine River, you'll find the charming Swiss village of Stein am Rhein. Keeping watch on this village from its lofty heights - as it has since 1225 - is Hohenklingen Castle. Stein am Rhein is famous for its Old Town, with brightly-painted facades and half-timbered houses. It's famous, too, for the Monastery of St. Georgen, one of the best-preserved of the Medieval period; the Lindwurm Museum, which takes you on a trip through time; and the nearby scenic island group of Werd. Nearby is the Rhine Falls, largest plane waterfall in Europe. And, of course, since you're on perhaps Europe's greatest river, boat cruises are a wonderful way to see both the village and the surrounding countryside. After all the roaming around, I like to feast at the restaurant in the Hotel Adler, serving Swiss specialties like rosti, a popular potato dish; a delicious meat dish called Zürcher Geschnetzeltes (easier to eat than it is to pronounce!); or landjager, a semi-dried sausage.
#4 - INVERNESS, SCOTLAND - In truth, Inverness is now actually more of a small city/big town than it is a village. But I don't care. When you stand in the middle of town and look around at the surrounding mountains (some of them darkened by shadows from clouds), the sounds of bagpipes reverberating from them, Inverness still feels very much like the little village it once was. And how many towns - big or little - can say they actually have a monster? Sitting astride the River Ness, its profile topped by its stately castle, Inverness has an Old Town (which has been around since at least the 5th Century) section filled with historic buildings. The riverside is lined with cafes and restaurants. Just outside of town is Culloden, site of the most famous battle in Scottish history. And don't forget the Loch Ness monster...you can look for him on one of the "Monster Cruises" given by local lake-cruising companies.
#3 - ALESUND, NORWAY - If you're looking for a gingerbread town with gabled houses and multi-colored roofs - set against a magnificent Nordic backdrop - you've come to the right place. Alesund is on the ice-blue Norwegian Sea, surrounded by dense-green fjords and glassy mountains protruding from the ocean around it. As you might guess, it's a natural wonderland, and the locals spend a lot of their time skiing, sledding, skating, climbing, kayaking, hiking, and biking in it. For a close-up view of this Art Nouveau town, take a ride on the "Town Train." For a panoramic view of it, as well as the surrounding Sunnmore Alps, go up to the Aksla Viewpoint. But Alesund, for all its natural beauty, is best sampled by just walking around the shops and plaza, and sampling the culinary wares as you go.
#2 - GUARDA, SWITZERLAND - Situated in the Engadine Valley, Guarda is as beautiful a village as there is in Europe. The houses here are a scenic wonder in themselves, with beautifully-painted facades from the early-17th Century. Local residents still honor the traditional ways, too, with customs such as chasing away winter by ringing large cowbells. (You can also hear the ubiquitous cowbells as you wander the lush pastures around the town.) You don't have to go far to find great outdoor recreation. The town is located at an altitude of 5,400 feet, and well-groomed hiking paths lead from the village into the scenic countryside. In addition, the huge mountains of the Swiss National Park are nearby. As for winter sports...hey, this is Switzerland! There's plenty of good skiing (both downhill and cross-country), ice skating, curling, and horse-drawn carriage rides. And, as for cuisine...again, this is Switzerland! Try the Restaurant Romantica Val Tuoi for good food and intimate ambience.
And now, my choice for my top village in Europe. Do you agree...?
#1 - SEMUR-EN-AUXOIS, FRANCE - As you get closer, and see this ancient city sitting on a hill, you know you're in for something special. Semur-En-Auxois is a Medieval fantasy come alive, amidst the lush farmlands and vineyards of Burgundy. As you approach, it feels like you're hurtling back in a time-machine toward a long-ago century. Spires and turrets and towers and castle ramparts and flying banners with the fleur de lis and huge stone gates with watchtowers envelop you. And so do smells...of chocolate (the movie "Chocolat" was filmed around here) and freshly baked breads and croissants, of a dozen sidewalk cafes and patisseries, and of scores of open windows in front of the houses. Soon you find yourself walking on cobblestone sidewalks, and venturing down narrow, winding alleys with wonderful surprises (and more aromas). This ancient town was built on granite hills...and each hill brings new surprises. And it's a wonderful place to sample the wines of Burgundy Province.
That's my Top 10 in European villages. Do you have any? We'd love to hear from you!