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Tourism has been a part of my professional life for almost 20 years. I’ve seen and done most of the major things that people do in Europe, and I’ve loved it all. But something has changed. Maybe it’s me, but everywhere I go seems more…crowded. More chaotic. The rise of mass tourism and tourism from developing nations has made every famous place congested. So what’s a traveler to do? I say we go off the rails.

As I wrote about in the summer, everyone thinks they need to see certain things, like the Mona Lisa. And I get that. On the other hand, I can guarantee you that the hordes of sweaty people scrambling for their Instagram moment with that painting are not having as much fun as I am right now. That’s because I’m going places nobody has heard of, or at least fewer people.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been wandering around Northern Italy and Slovenia with my own tour group, on the Veneto to Slovenia tour and I’ve been having a blast. We’ve visited not just little villages, but also cities that seem to be invisible to the mainstream tourist, like Vicenza. How is it possible that a few miles from overpacked Venice you can visit fascinating but empty museums and see architectural masterpieces?

Join us on an adventure in Veneto & Slovenia!

Join us to for this easy-going exploration of the northeast corner of Italy into central Slovenia. You’ll sample sparkling and orange wines in the up-and-coming Brda region, nosh on truffles, olives and goat cheeses in the Istria region, visit a Slovenian castle with legends of a Slovenian Robin Hood. Chill out, shop and people watch in coastal villages, the uber-cool capital of Ljubljana, and a slew of charming northern Italian towns. Savor regional specialty foods during long, chatty meals and do a deep dive into wines.

Small villages litter the countryside all over Italy, with charming town centers and no English spoken. There are whole regions of Italy—Le Marche, Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, Calabria, to name just a few, where you’d be hard pressed to find another tourist, much less an American.

If there is one thing that is coming into focus for me, it’s that it isn’t just a good idea to think more broadly about where to go, in some cases it’s really a wonderfully symbiotic idea. Southern Italy has so many economic woes, what if more people went there for tourism and assisted in creating a better economy? Tourism activities can be beneficial to small farmers, for example, who can’t quite make it on olive oil alone.

It’s not just Italy. Everywhere in Europe (and the world, for that matter) there are overlooked places that are mysteriously empty. It’s comically simple to find them, it just takes a little more effort and a bigger sense of what an adventure should be. And what if thinking creatively about where to spend tourism dollars could create not only work for communities that could use it, but travelers could have a better experience—no crowds, real connections to local culture?

This is what has been on my mind for a while, and that’s what I’m exploring these days. I’d love to push your boundaries, open other travelers up to the possibilities that don’t include long lines of aggravated visitors.

It’s with this in mind that I find myself in Romania. I know what you’re thinking. Dracula, gymnastics and Communist housing. Why on earth would I go there? Well, I’m here because I have this idea about being blind to great things right under our noses. And as it turns out, it is absolutely true of Romania. Tucked away on the edges of Europe, you don’t come here by mistake, or just passing through. The fact that it isn’t on the well trodden path is what makes it a special slice of time-warp Europe. It’s not easy to get here or get around, which is why I’m running a tour of the country, but that challenge is what has preserved it.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be exploring cities, castles, and countryside that few will ever take the time to see, and that’s a pity. It’s gorgeous here.

While Romania may be a bit of a reach for the average traveler, there are plenty of ways to go “off the rails” even on a trip you already have planned. A few strategies:

    • If you’re staying in a big city like Paris or Rome, check out what is within reach using public transportation. Almost every big city has some sleepy gem a short train ride away.
    • Don’t be afraid to go to places spontaneously. If you see something from the autostrada and you’ve got a car, get off and check it out. Or hop off the train, go for a stroll through a random town and catch the next one.

    • Ask locals what their favorite weekend getaway spot is. I’ve found numerous gems by asking local guides and hotel owners this question.

    • Avoid anything heavily Instagrammed. Even tiny hamlets can be swarmed by those girls with the flowy dresses and rattan purses.

    • Don’t be scared off by language differences. In this day and age, anyone under 35 speaks some English just about everywhere (thank you, internet) so be bold about talking to younger people.

    • University towns in general are always good places to explore, and will have a happening vibe no matter where they are.

These are just a few ideas, but the concept is always the same. We can have better experiences. We can get to know a culture for real, it just takes some courage and a little more effort. If you have the chutzpah to go outside of touristic boundaries, I promise you you’ll be rewarded. Even if it’s a disaster, eventually it will be a great story.

 

Sarah Murdoch

This post was written by Sarah Murdoch, founder and director of Adventures of Sarah. Sarah has been guiding around the world for 20+ years, after catching the travel bug while studying in Italy in 1995. Between guiding she is also a journalist, travel guidebook writer, occasional architect, and full-time mom to Nicola and Lucca. Click here to find out more about Sarah.

9 Comments

  • Kristine says:

    Absolutely brilliant. And after two weeks on tour with you in the Veneto and Slovenia, I just can’t see the allure of big, crowded cities and sites. There are so many hidden treasures out there and it makes the adventure more fun and more relaxing. I’m with you!

  • Joyce says:

    I so agree Sarah!! Looking forward to more unknown subtle adventures

  • Iris Voorhees says:

    This is exactly how I have traveled since 1987. Fortunately, I had a friend that could be ready in a second and off we would go to any European destination a bargain airline ticket could take us. From there we usually rented a car and just got on the backroads. We traveled cheaply by staying in 3 star hotels where we made no reservations and haggled over the nightly rate. Small towns were so beautiful and parking was rarely an issue. The food was authentic and reasonably priced. The people were always friendly and helpful. Gypsy markets, covered markets and just buying from roadside vendors was always fun and interesting. May picnics were purchased at markets and we found places to lay out our parau wraps and dine on wine, cheese, bread and meats. We experienced lunches in the French countryside where a bottle of wine was placed on the table and charged for what we drank from the bottle. I have had the time of my life going to places so far off the beaten path. It is my belief that traveling in this way is the only way to experience the people, foods, wines and sights that one never gets to see if they only go where others have gone before. Be a trail breaker! I went to Bulgaria on my own 2 years ago and loved it. I went on the Workaway program and worked for my room and board for a month. The Bulgarian language was tough but I managed to buy train tickets and to get off at the right station. Sofia, Bulgaria was a beautiful walkable city. My next trip will be to Romania. I am thrilled to see you there!

  • Richard says:

    Travel that truly immerses a person into another culture is always the best.

  • Cheri White says:

    Agree completely. I took my first trip to Europe 3 years ago and took a day hiking trip in Ireland. The trail exposed me to beautiful scenery up close and small villages. Staying in B&Bs made the trip more personal and home like rather than touristy. I met amazing people Who were kind and generous and had a wonderful time.

  • Jill says:

    Spring 2018 in a sleepy little French town. My aunt, uncle & I randomly select the stop, the town, the restaurant. We enjoyed an affordable, leisurely, top-notch dinner. We were the only customers the whole time we were there. I was so glad we stopped. It made all the difference to the small family-run business that night! Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Sarah!

  • P T says:

    Great photo of the Basilica.

  • P S Walrath says:

    Yes—so true. And travel to small towns isn’t limited to people with cars. Trains are practical and comfortable, and don’t require the driver to keep his/her eyes on the road—so they can see the scenery, too.

  • Tina says:

    Love your advice… we actually traveled all over friuli and did a day trip to Slovenia. It was an amazing vaca — we met real people, ate their food and shared in their culture. Well worth the extra effort. This year’s trip was northern spain — including the Camino. Many fun stories and of course great memories

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