What’s your approach?
While I check the guidebooks and plan ahead of arrival for major cities, smaller towns often aren’t well covered (or even anticipated along the way). So where do you start?
I usually begin with the town square. It’s the hub of landmark buildings and civic activity and makes the iconic statement about the town. Often, the local VVV (Tourist Office) is somewhere nearby. providing a one-page map and some local advice.
Then I find the big church. Every European town has one, often dating back to the era when the city was establishing itself as a political or commercial hub. Each is unique in its architectural trim, paintings, statuary, and ceilings. There’s usually a good description of local history, and its always a marvel to imagine how they were built hundreds of years ago.
Then I climb the Tower. Most city halls have one and admission is never more than a few euros. About half have elevators, but I usually walk up if there’s time. From the top, its easy to appreciate the colour and texture of the town, it’s situation among nearby hills and rivers, and the character of its neighborhoods. Often, it gives me the best insight as to how the town became a trade or cultural center, and to what it is becoming today.
Time to eat some local food! Every region has its specialty, and every town puts it’s best local treats into its shop and restaurant windows. I avoid fast food chains religiously, and the tourist boards along the square hold little attraction. It’s better to get down the main way, off a block into a side street, where the locals fill a place with laughter and stories amidst old chairs and scarred tables. And don’t miss the local drink.
See the art. There always seem to be unique bits tucked into the corners of public buildings and galleries. This inlaid wood scenes of forests and legends, (left), turned up along a church altar. I like figurative and modern art if I go to museums, but along the streets I’m watching for ornamental trim and courtyard sculptures .
Finally, I keep track of the ebb and flow of the locals. Where do they go and what do they do, and when? Early morning gossip in an outdoor cafe, sunset breaks along the waterfront? Crowding a bakery for fresh bread in the morning, or closing a shop for a break in the afternoon? The people carry the rhythms of the town, and it’s essential to get and share a sense of life’s rhythm.
Finally, I go home and read the book. Armed with some context and place names, the histories and novels come to life.