Where to find the real Spaniards – and other cultural detours you can actually fit in as alternatives to Europe’s tourist-infested cities
By SarahBelle Selig
Busy planning your post-pandemic European trip? If you’re anything like me, you’re looking for a place with a lot less people than you’d find in the typical hotspots.
Check out these three refreshing alternatives to Europe’s tourist-infested cities, that are just off the beaten path and offer the culture – and the social distancing – you’re looking for, without costing you too much extra travel time or money. And because these towns aren’t everyone’s favorite vacation spots where tourism operators jack up prices like it’s their job, you might even save money on food, wine, and experiences, which of course you can then spend on more food, wine, and experiences. You’re also supporting local economies that need it, and you’ll be surrounded by locals that actually want you there, people who are interested in hearing your stories and can’t wait to share their town with you.
So whether you’re on a two-week holiday with a tight timeline and booked round trip flights, a “second-timer” in Europe who has already hit the mainstream track and is looking for something a bit more local, or you’re on a three month backpacking extravaganza with a pocket of dwindling cash and a general plan to hit the major cities, don’t miss these cultural hotspots that will add more value to your trip than their more eminent counterparts.
Ischia is a volcanic island thirty kilometers off Naples (or Napoli, if you’re one of those tourists that comes back from Italy saying things like buonasera and Salve!) and thirty kilometers from its more popular little sister, Capri. Both islands are accessible via ferries that leave from multiple destinations along the Amalfi Coast. Ischia is the largest of the three inhabited islands in the Gulf of Naples, including the third, slightly dodgier sister Prochida.
Ischia is known for its natural hot springs, and – if you ask any female under the age of 25 who has visited the island – a certain hostel owner named Shaun and his too-tight, too-short swim trunks. But unlike Capri, with its upscale resorts and famous Blue Grotto, Ischia is not swamped by designer-clad tourists, day chalets that cost more than your car, and you won’t have to pay half of your savings for a bowl of cioppino and a glass of Chianti. On Ischia, you’ll get a healthy dose of local flavor while still relishing in the luxury of an Amalfi getaway.
Your day in Ischia:
You wake up and open the terrace doors of your room to the sunrise. Stroll to the pool, which overlooks the vineyard and the ocean beyond. You greet Lupo, the resident dog at Paradise Beach hostel, where you’ve just had a comatic, caipirinha-induced night’s sleep. You brush off an oncoming hangover with a quick dip and a chapter of Midnight in Sicily, which you hate but are determined to finish by the time you arrive in Catania. You overhear that a group of hostel-goers are renting Vespas to tour the island, hurry over, imbed yourself in the conversation, and quickly get invited.
The group walks to the Vespa rental shop just down the road. You rent a double seater with one of the other backpackers and bond quickly, because your arms are going to be around him for the next four to six hours. You question the suitability of the helmet they gave you, which feels like something out of the Space Race. You wear it anyways. The fleet takes to the streets in the direction of Cava Isola Bella beach, a recommendation from Shaun, the hostel owner (seriously, have you seen that guy’s shorts?). You’re wearing a bikini on a motorbike and a Guatemalan man you don’t know is driving. You question your senses, then remind yourself that you’re in Italy. You throw your cares to the wind and hold on tight.
The beach is drenched in sun and people. Guatemala secures your group a spot between two massive tan boulders. You run to the ocean (it’s July and your bikini is soaked with your own sweat and your co-pilot’s). The water is freezing and feels incredible. You left Midnight in Sicily at home and opt for a salty beach nap.
You return the Vespas by five and make sure to make it back to Paradise in time for happy hour, where you get a pitcher of wine at a discount.
As the other Paradise patrons gather, you join in as they hassle the young bartender for the secret to the caipirinhas. You resolve to steer clear of those tonight after too many the evening before. At this point, the Italian grandmas that run the place have set the table with spaghetti, garlic bread, and meatballs. You eat it all. The clouds behind you are salmon pink. After dinner, you take your book to the small garden, but in ten minutes you cave, order a caipirinha, and pull up a plastic chair to the card game just beginning at the round patio table.
Just before midnight, you put on your walking shoes and join the rest of the crew for a night venture to the Sangello hot springs. You’re gratefully drunk for this; it’s a 45-minute walk. When you arrive, your feet are sore, and you peer down the cliff side – we’re going there? You descend the stairs, which feels like you’re descending towards Hades, and follow the sound of the old boombox playing horrible Italian rap music. You look around. The cliffs meet the ocean in a set of massive boulders, between which pools of water have gathered and are freckled with lanky Italian teenagers in bright swimsuits. The water is steaming – the water is… steaming? Yep, you’re in an oceanic hot spring. At midnight. Off the coast of Italy. You don’t remember the name of the island at this point but believe it sounds something like Isabella.
You and your gang are the only non-Italians there. You watch the local teenagers chain smoke cigarettes, slug birras, and take turns making out in the hot pools. It’s a scene straight out of Call Me by Your Name and you’re loving it. You sink down into the warm water and watch the moonlight reflect on the surface. You’re in the ocean and it feels like a jacuzzi. It’s confusing. You’re sweating rum and meatballs and it’s perfect.
An hour or so (who can tell?) later, you slink from the water and follow your crew back to base camp. Your arms feel like they don’t work. You arrive back at the hostel at god-knows what hour. Your feet and fingers are pruned, and your body feels like a heavy anchor pulling you to the depths of the sea. You bid the group goodnight, close the terrace doors, kick off your sneakers, throw Midnight in Sicily beneath the bed, and proceed into comatose to the smell of tobacco, Lupo’s wet fur, and sweet wine.
THE WIND KEEPS THE CITY in motion. The pine trees grow sideways away from the peaks, bowed seaward by the southeasterly. It snaps you to attention, pushes you onward, opens your mind. If it’s not the wind, it’s the brandy or good Shiraz. Perched on barstools, the people seem to vibrate. The clouds pour over the mountains thick as cream and then shyly roll into themselves, the city a stovetop too hot to touch. The whole place has a sense of sway.
On pleasant afternoons, the twentysomethings run trails; in the evening they drink sundowners on Clifton Beach or in Church Street’s art galleries; by midnight they flock to Long Street bars and smoke in alleyways with dilated pupils. The port is restless, too, boats ushered in and departing like visiting bees. It’s not uncommon to have three friends emigrate in a month, and three others return. The European swallows and vaalie tourists from Johannesburg gather in summer, gone again before the end of lychee season. Protest, queer, and coffee cultures keep the city buzzed, change its aesthetics overnight.
The literary world is solid ground, a way to orient oneself in the din. After less than eighteen months, I know most publishers, writers, and critics by name and count many of them as friends. I can tell you how they prefer their tea, the marathons they’ve run, the names of their ex-husbands and children. They greet me barefoot at the door. Many of us mourned Elsa Joubert and Achmat Dangor as fans, yes, but as family, too. Clarke’s Bookshop is a testament to that intimacy, an indie that exclusively sells local authors—and yet, somehow, thrives.
NOD A TEMPORARY ADIEU to Table Mountain in the distance as you pass beneath the shop’s wooden portico. Wait for the buzz of the gate, the mourn of its hinges as you step inside, the quiet click behind you. “Hello” to Mervyn arranging shelves and Carmen at the till. Walk along the long window, a brief pause at the fiction table when you see that book your mother mentioned. Pick it up, carry it with you down the worn wooden stairs. Order a rooibos tea, settle into your favorite green chair, slide your hand across the book’s cover—breathe, begin. You’re in the Lounge.
For thirteen years, The Book Lounge has offered refuge amidst the bedlam of kombis, car horns, and crime of Cape Town’s downtown streets. The city’s beloved indie opened its doors in December 2007, renovated from an old gallery space and a basement that was nothing more than a “hole in the ground,” as Mervyn Sloman, the store’s owner, likes to say. The Book Lounge hosts more events in a week than most stores host in a month, from book launches to socials and Saturday Storytime for young readers. It is a store that fulfills its charge to provide readers and writers access to one another tenfold, a rendezvous point not just for Capetonians but for travelers, extraterrestrials, and the like.
A good bookstore is a space for the sharing and investigation of truths. As a curator of that space, a bookstore owner has both the privilege and responsibility of shaping its soul, a pairing that Mervyn assumes with great solemnity. In a dozen years and counting, the Book Lounge, whether wittingly or not, has become a hub for Cape Town’s young activist culture, a mengelmoes of black, white, LGBTQ+, and everyone else; a microcosm of a city and country in the midst of great change.
“By the smallest of one’s actions, one can restore some sense of order to the world.”—Amor Towles
Under lockdown with her four roommates in Cape Town, South Africa, SarahBelle Selig recalls all that a beloved novel taught her about living in isolation.
What do I read? How do I keep sane and prevent my life from becoming The Shining? And please, someone tell me--Do I pair the bottle of Rioja or the Mukuzani with my Latvian stew? If you’re like me, you’ve got a lot of questions about how to entertain yourself during the Covid-19 shutdown. But before you double down on another series and that second bowl of pasta, let me tell you a few things I learned from my pal Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, the master of how not to feel isolated when you’re isolated.
Amor Towles’s 2016 novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, follows Count Rostov, an aristocrat under the Tsarist regime who in 1922 (in lieu of being shot—a cause for celebration, no doubt) is sentenced by his new Bolshevik comrades to spend the rest of his life under house arrest in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel. In the years that follow, Count Rostov learns a lot about living a big life in a small space, aided by a bizarre crew of maître d’s, chefs, tailors, and a clever nine-year-old hotel guest, Nina Kulikova, who is hell-bent on learning the secrets of the Metropol.