Padua is full of fascinating sights. St. Anthony’s Basilica easily rivals St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, with a magnificent silver sarcophagus housing the saint’s body. The nearby botanical garden full of plants and flowers is a wonderful way to while away a few hours. In the morning, visit Piazza della Frutta and Piazza delle Erbe, where lively markets sell everything from strawberries to sneakers, or visit the Palazzo della Ragione with its impressive frescoes. At night, both squares turn into open-air bars and restaurants where you can taste 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 hourlight that makes its rust-red walls glow. But what lies beneath the surface is just as enchanting. Anyone who explores the small and idiosyncratic museums of the university will discover old backyards. Delving into hidden doors and arches leads to secrets – or sustenance. Music and discussion evenings in the main square. And there is the greeting. On my last trip, I watched locals having passionate discussions, taking turns on stools in Piazza Maggiore. Not trusting my Italian, I declined an invitation to contribute, but happily accepted the cherries that were shared among the crowd.
Lucca, in Tuscany, has deep roots and many surprises: a Roman amphitheater turned piazza with cafes and shops; City walls were never breached in war, so you can now cycle around every 4 km. The city fascinates with every visit – from holm oaks on the Guinigi Tower to cartoon exhibitions. The music is varied – daily Puccini concerts in churches or international rock stars play on the squares or walls of the city. Its maze of medieval streets is reminiscent of the past, but it has the ability to change face, perhaps as a result of outwitting competing Italian medieval city-states to remain independent.
Melilla, Spain/North Africa
Melilla, the Spanish enclave on the north coast of Morocco, is a relic of Spain’s colonial past with a geographical character. Facing the Mediterranean Sea on one side and the Rif Mountains on the other, and surrounded by a formidable border fence, it is definitely multicultural, with Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Hindu communities living side by side with a large force of Spanish legionnaires. The cityscape is just as diverse: streets lined with small Moroccan houses give way to broad avenues lined with Art Deco wonders; It’s even home to Africa’s only true Gothic church. Strange really doesn’t come close.
We have just returned from Belgrade – unlike any other European capital and an unexpected treat, from the flaking but charming Old Town between the Sava and Danube rivers to the New Town with an astounding array of futuristic modern architecture, including stunning examples of Concrete Brutalism. Wherever we went, people were always polite, uncomplicated and helpful. Public transport is ubiquitous and easy to use (who doesn’t love an hour and a half unlimited travel for 50p?), making it easy to explore the city and its funky attractions. Easily accessible by plane or train and a great base for exploring the Balkans if you have the time and energy.
Plovdiv is adorable. The beautiful Roman amphitheater has the backdrop of the snow-capped Rhodopes – we enjoyed an afternoon there, some friendly wedding photography that added to the romance. The manager of the Episcopal Basilica gave us a private tour of the 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 placed a pair on our wrists. Martenitsa brings luck, and Plovdiv certainly did that for us.
Visit Cadiz – Andalusia centers on a densely built, highly photogenic old town, reputedly one of the oldest settlements in Europe. It’s full of history, flamenco, gardens and bastions, towers and squares. Food quality is consistently high, from a plate in the Mercado to modern high-end restaurants, all with an emphasis on local produce. Outside the land gate lies the modern town with miles of Playa de la Victoria and a wide range of chiringuitos, tapas bars and seafood restaurants. Or catch a ferry across the bay to El Puerto de Santa Maria, the closest of the three Sherry Triangle cities, for wine tasting or a visit to the three-star Hotel Aponiente or its humbler sister restaurant.
England’s smallest town, Wells, with its Gothic cathedral, lies at the heart of this tiny metropolis whose clock is famous for its 24-hour astronomical dial, originally set for quarter hour jousting tournaments. Visit Vicars’ Close, said to be the oldest purely residential street in Europe, and admire the Deanery’s ancient herb garden. Walk through the historic destitute porch gates into Wells’ marketplace. And tour filming locations – the city has featured in many productions, including Hot Fuzz.
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
The most memorable city I visited was Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina and an incredibly beautiful, welcoming and culturally rich place that has so much more to offer than its tragic recent history. From the historic and fascinating bazaar – Baščaršija – that runs through the heart of the city to the beautiful mountains that surround it, there is so much to see and explore. In the street cafes we met many nice people who were happy to help us learn more about the hearty local cuisine and traditional Bosnian coffee. It’s not a city that seems to get much talked about, but it’s not like anywhere else I’ve been.
Tarragona is an hour’s drive or train south of Barcelona. As Barcelona’s poor cousin in reputation and wealth, you could be forgiven for thinking it doesn’t deserve our attention. But you would be wrong. Everything is on your doorstep and most of it within walking distance: beaches for those who need to get their tan on; an old quarter to spend the afternoon wandering amidst the amazing Roman ruins (arguably the best in Spain); and some 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 balcony for £60 a night in July.
Please use the comments to share details of fascinating cities you have visited