Looking for lesser-known gems of art, architecture and history in Europe for an ADVENTURE
January 20, 2010 7:28 AM   Subscribe

Planning a Midlife Crisis Adventure Tour! I want to know your favorite off-the-beaten-track archaeology and art locales. I don't have unlimited time or money, and would like to be traveling to two or all of the following countries: Italy, Greece, France, England, Scotland.

In a nutshell: I've never gone anywhere. I'm coming up to a Significant Birthday and have decided to save up for a two-week adventure in Europe. It's not nearly long enough, but it's about what I think I can afford both for money and taking time off work. This would happen in early autumn this year.

I'm not interested in beaches. I don't drink wine. I want ruins and art and history that I can touch. I'm thinking Pompeii, Roman roads, ancient grottoes; I'm thinking those works of art that have to be seen in person to be fully experienced (Like Van Gogh, who I hated until I stood nose-to-nose with "A Wheatfield with Cypresses" and felt it in my bones).

Everyone know the big attractions: the Louvre, Stonehenge, the Parthenon. But what lesser-known places and pieces have you encountered that went straight to your marrow?

Countries on my list (I'll go to two or more in the time I have):
Italy: (Pompeii, the Sistine Chapel, and so much sculpture!)
Greece: (well of course)
England: (at least a bit of the National Gallery)
Scotland: (Roman ruins!)
France: (A bit of the Louvre of course)

What did you see in those countries that wasn't on the brochures but that was absolutely amazing? Artworks of any form, beautiful architecture or ruins, dig sites and history that is still mostly in the ground are also very appealing.

I will be trying to travel cheaply (hostels etc.) but that topic is well covered elsewhere. Still, if you stayed anywhere cheapish that was also amazing for historical or cultural or other WOW reasons, I'd love to know about it.

On why this is anonymous: yes, this is pretty straightforward and shouldn't need to be anonymous. If it doesn't get published I won't cry. But I'm feeling very private about this trip. I don't want to have conversations about it with my RL people, feel obliged to take the right kind of pictures to share, hear "aren't you EXCITED?!" for a month beforehand... it's my private gem and I'm feeling very, very selfish and want every drop of it for me and me alone. My SO will know where I've gone (and they are very happy about me doing it), but for everyone else I'll just be away for two weeks and that's that.
posted by anonymous to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
The one item that might cross both my experience and what you're asking for is the Grotte de Niaux.

Pros: one of the few places where you can actually see Magdalenian cave paintings, the real original ones, onsite. A one of a kind experience. Some other more famous sites like Lascaux are closed to the public, and/or offer 'replica' experiences.

Cons: Way off the beaten track, pretty much requires a rental car, distance might put it out of your plans. More of an investment in time (getting there) than in money, although you can see other things in the area on the same day. Spots on the tours are limited, note that only one a day is in English (I took a French tour, understood about 1/4 of it, the tourguide was very apologetic to me, it was still fantastic).

From the linked page:

The road from the village of Niaux to the cave is narrow and winding

Yeah, no shit. Trying to get my car up that clingy trail while some Dutch family was barrelling down the other way in a monster camper van was more terrifying than anything Cro-Magnon man ever faced.

posted by gimonca at 7:55 AM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just FYI, the Picasso Museum in Paris is closed until 2011, with the collection touring to various places until the structural renovations are complete.
posted by djgh at 8:10 AM on January 20, 2010

If you choose Scotland, I'd recommend Mary King's Close in Edinburgh and Rosslyn Chapel.
posted by rocket88 at 8:13 AM on January 20, 2010

Fishbourne Roman Palace, Secret London, The V&A.

Avebury's a better bet than Stonehenge. Wish I knew how far from London you're willing to travel.
posted by Leon at 8:18 AM on January 20, 2010

As far as Scotland goes, there is an amazing variety of ruins in the Orkney Islands, from the 5000 year old settlement of Skara Brea through 1st century BC fortresses, viking grafitti on the walls of ancient tombs, and even the remains of the WWII naval port of Scapa Flow. Absolutely tons of history and simply amazing ruins.

The only problem is that it's a bit of a hike to get up to the Orkneys. You have to drive up and take a ferry or fly. I think there are ferries from the south of Scotland, or at least from Aberdeen, which you can reach by train, but once you're on the island a car is handy for getting around. There's not too many options as far as accommodation either, though I don't think it would be too pricey.

Hope that helps a bit. Edinburgh and Sterling both have nice castles of more modern providence and are certainly easier to reach. Edinburgh is a lovely city, too, but I understand Glasgow is more of a fun town. I didn't get to visit there much, though.
posted by dellsolace at 8:20 AM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

England: I really loved Cornwall. As a kid, I got swept up in Tintagel, the putative castle/home of Artos, and the nearby "Merlin's Cave", where the tide rose to hide it. But I loved the cliffs and the sea, the people and the landscape. I felt energized being there, without being hyperactive. I loved a lot of places in England, but really regretted never getting to York, whee you can see the Viking and Medieval heritage of the town in museums and the local sites. I have friends who have raved about them.

If you are going to be in London for an extended period, I'd recommend going to see the remains of Londinium in London. I remember going as a kid to look at the walls and see the preserved mosaics, and taking the tube out into greater London to see the remains of a Roman Villa - the Crofton Villa. While in London, I'd go see the British Museum (they have some significant ancient pieces) and the Museum of London, which has a London before it was London exhibit. The Tower of London was an interesting tour; seeing the crown jewels, the tight clamminess of what was once a royal palace-turned-prison-turned-vault, the execution area. As an aside, I found Stonehenge to be vastly overrated, and - when I visited - full of people loudly pontificating on the mystical nature of the site and in the process bending, folding, and mutilating historical fact. Even though there was nothing to see at Sherwood Forest, I still recommend that over Stonehenge.

Italy: I still haven't been to Italy, but Pompeii is really high on my list. There's so much to see that will really give you a sense of Roman towns - from the brothels to the gardens of the elite; from the streetside bars to the grafitti telling you that the Fullers all support Marcus and seeing how homeowners viewed themselves and their world. I'm also a big fan of the Etruscans, so I would like to go to the Villa Giulia and to Tarquinia, which is one of the best concentrated areas to see things Etruscan.

France: I loved the Musee Picasso; I'm sorry it won't be open for you. In the Louvre, the Nike of Samothrace had a much bigger impact on me than the Mona Lisa; in person (with the distortive lens and other security measures) it didn't capture my imagination at all, and the detail of the technique is not obvious. I fell in love with Cezanne at the Musee de la Orangerie, but standing in front of Monet's Les Nympheas was also awesome.
posted by julen at 8:50 AM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

You mention van Gogh; if you want to visit the biggest and second biggest collection of van Gogh in the world you can go to Amsterdam and visit both the van Gogh museum and the Kröller-Müller Museum that's 1.5 hour travel from A'dam.
posted by joost de vries at 9:49 AM on January 20, 2010

I think you would be best to narrow down your choices first. All of those countries have plenty to see, and you really need to resist the urge to do too much. I could easily spend two weeks seeing just the basics in each country you listed (and have in several of them).

Places/cities I really loved that I hadn't particularly heard of before I visited:

Italy: Lucca (great little city with great bicycling)
Greece: Meteora (amazing monasteries built on rock outcroppings) and Delfi (greek ruins on a mountainside)
England: Bath (great architecture and the Roman baths)
France: Carcassone and Aigues Mortes (proper castles)
posted by smackfu at 9:57 AM on January 20, 2010

My wife and I took just such a trip in the fall of 2007 and the cultural highlights that stuck me most deeply were a visit to the National Archeological Museum of Greece and the Musée d'Orsay. I don't want to sound flakey but the first was like food and the second was like water. As a bonus, there are almost no paintings or sculptures of the bleeding, tortured Jesus.
posted by bonobothegreat at 10:00 AM on January 20, 2010

The megalithic ruins in Malta are a quick hop south from Italy, and well worth it in my opinion.

Sicily's Valley of the Temples, also. Not so many tourists head south into Sicily, but it's a beautiful place.
posted by Paragon at 12:09 PM on January 20, 2010

I took a 6 day trip through Scotland as an add-on to a business trip. I drove up to the Orkney Islands and spent 2 days there. One of the places that blew me away was Maeshowe -- a huge cairn of rocks that was built in Stone age times and broken into by Vikings in the 12th century. I also found Skara Brae fascinating although I have to admit that I wondered how much "touching up" the local tourist bureau had done :). If you do go to the Orkney's, you'll probably be in Edinburgh and I recommend taking time to tour Edinburgh Castle which has been used as a fort since around 600 AD. At the time I visited, they had an audio guide that was quite interesting -- it lets you wander around the castle looking at whatever strikes your fancy. I'm sure it is as good as it was then (late 90's) if not better :).

I've also been to Pompeii which is another mind-blowing place -- a whole city frozen in time. The plaster casts of the people caught in the eruption are incredibly moving. I only spent half a day here (tagged onto another business trip) -- I wish I had spent more time. If you go to Pompeii, you can also visit Herculaneum which is a lesser-known town that was destroyed by the same eruption. The other benefit (or perhaps drawback) of going to southern Italy versus Scotland is that the food is much better in Italy :). On the other hand, if you're into Scotch, you'll find a lot of distilleries in Scotland :).
posted by elmay at 2:25 PM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

I hope you're not planning to skip Rome :)

I spent 24 hours there this summer and it was a highlight of my 3 month trip through Europe. For a trick to escape the crowds you could try wandering around the city at night. My trick? Just as I walked out of the Coliseum metro station, a massive thunderstorm began. As everyone else hid in the station, I bought two ponchos from a sidewalk vendor and enjoyed the unobstructed view, then walked over to the Forum. As I bought my ticket, dozens of families were clamoring for refunds due to the rain. 20 minutes later, I was enjoying a gorgeous and dry sunset with like 5 other people. So: take advantage of rain, and night, and times of day with beautiful light. Dunno if it was allowed, but I touched SO MANY THINGS.

What really blew my mind afterward was the Largo di Torre Argentina, which in any other city would be a remarkable block of ruins but in Rome merely serves as an open-air cat sanctuary. I must have spent an hour looking down at it, eating some gelato and watching happy cats explore. Rome is also glorious because while it's full of tourists, they're mostly found in a few specific places in the city. But on any block in Rome you'll find a staggeringly beautiful fountain, or statue, or some other experience to call your own.

Try to stay in a miniscule village or two, the kind on a hill with a lovely church steeple and maybe 500 residents max. My miniscule village experience is limited to Spain, so I can't help you out there.
posted by acidic at 3:17 PM on January 20, 2010

Crete is kind of a schlep, but there are some really amazing things to see in southern Crete. It's fun to just rent a car and sound out the road signs and turn wherever there's a sign that sounds important.
posted by crinklebat at 6:58 PM on January 20, 2010

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