Padua is full of fascinating places to see. St. Anthony’s Basilica, with a magnificent silver sarcophagus housing the saint’s body, easily rivals St. Peter’s in Rome. The nearby botanical gardens, filled with plants and flowers, are a delightful way to spend a few hours. In the morning, head to Piazza della Frutta and Piazza delle Erbe, for bustling markets selling everything from strawberries to sneakers, or step into the Palazzo della Ragione with its impressive frescoes. At night, the two squares become open-air bars and restaurants to sample the local cuisine. If you have time for a day trip, Verona and Venice are less than an hour away by train.
When I picture Bologna, it’s always bathed in golden light that makes its rust-red walls glow. But what lies beneath the surface is just as captivating. Exploring the university’s idiosyncratic little museums reveals ancient courtyards. Diving through hidden doors and arches leads to secrets – or food. Music and debates enliven the evenings on the main square. And there is reception. On my last trip, I watched locals chat passionately, taking turns on stools in Piazza Maggiore. Not trusting my Italian, I declined an invitation to contribute, but gladly accepted the cherries shared among the crowd.
Lucca in Tuscany has deep roots and many surprises: a Roman amphitheater transformed into a square of cafes and shops; the city walls were never breached during the war, so you can now cycle the 4 km. The city fascinates with every visit – from the holm oaks atop the Guinigi Tower to the cartoon exhibits. The music is eclectic – from daily Puccini recitals in churches to international rock stars playing in squares or city walls. Its maze of medieval streets hark back to the past, but it has the ability to change its face, perhaps because it outwitted competing Italian medieval cities to remain independent.
Melilla, Spain/North Africa
Melilla, the Spanish enclave on the northern coast of Morocco, is a relic of Spain‘s colonial past with a character determined by its geography. Facing the Mediterranean on one side and the Rif mountains on the other, and encircled by a terrifying border fence, it is definitely multicultural, with Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Hindu communities living alongside a large force of Spanish legionnaires . The urban landscape is equally varied: streets of small Moroccan houses give way to wide avenues lined with art deco marvels; it even houses the only true Gothic church in Africa. Weird really doesn’t come close.
We have just returned from Belgrade – unlike any other European capital and an unexpected delight, from the chipped but charming Old Town perched between the Sava and the Danube, to the New Town with a stunning array of futuristic modern architecture including breathtaking examples of concrete brutality. Everywhere we went people were always polite, direct and helpful. Public transport is ubiquitous and easy to use (who doesn’t love an hour and a half of unlimited travel for 50p?), making the city and its unconventional attractions easy to explore. Easy to get to by plane or train, and a great base for exploring the Balkans if you have the time and energy.
Plovdiv is charming. The magnificent Roman amphitheater provides a backdrop of the snow-capped Rhodope Mountains – we spent an afternoon there, a friendly wedding photography session adding to the romance. The caretaker of the Episcopal Basilica gave us a private tour of his acres of fabulous mosaics, and everywhere the welcome was spontaneous and warm. We kept seeing trees and bushes adorned with red and white bracelets called “martenitsa” – we learned why when another guard put a couple on our wrists. Martenitsa brings happiness, and Plovdiv certainly did that for us.
Visit Cadiz – Andalusia concentrated in a densely developed and very photogenic old town, reputedly one of the oldest settlements in Europe. It is full of history, flamenco, gardens and bastions, towers and squares. The quality of the food is consistently high, from a plate at Mercado to modern high-end cuisine, all with an emphasis on local produce. Outside the land gate is the modern town with the mile-long La Victoria beach and a great selection of chiringuitos, tapas bars and fish restaurants. Or take a ferry across the bay to El Puerto de Santa Maria, the closest of the three sherry triangle towns, for wine tasting or a visit to the three-star Aponiente or its more modest sister restaurant.
England’s smallest city, Wells, with its Gothic cathedral, is at the heart of this tiny metropolis, with its clock famous for its astronomical 24-hour dial originally set for knights to joust every quarter hour . Enter Vicars’ Close, purportedly the oldest purely residential street in Europe, and admire the former Dean’s Herb Garden. Walk through the historic Penniless Porch Gates to Wells Market Square. And go on a walking tour of filming locations – the city has featured in many productions, including Hot Fuzz.
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
The most memorable city I visited was Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina and an incredibly beautiful, welcoming and culturally rich place with much more than its tragic recent history. From the historic and fascinating bazaar – Baščaršija – that runs through the heart of the city, to the beautiful mountains surrounding it, there is so much to see and explore. We met many kind people in the terrace cafes, eager to help us better understand hearty local food and traditional Bosnian coffee. It’s not a much talked about town, but it’s not like anywhere else I’ve been.
Tarragona is one hour south of Barcelona by car or train. As Barcelona’s poor cousin, in terms of reputation and wealth, you could be forgiven for thinking this isn’t worth our attention. But you would be seriously mistaken. Everything is on your doorstep and most within walking distance: beaches for those in need of their tan fix; an old quarter to spend the afternoon drinking vermut among incredible Roman ruins (arguably the best in Spain); and a few cheap but exquisite bars and restaurants along the rambla. We stayed at the beautiful Hotel Pigal, in the heart of the city, in a double room with a balcony for £60 a night in July.
Please use the comments to share details of the fascinating cities you have visited