Southern Europe: Ten Must See Cities Off the Beaten Path
1. San Gimignano, Italy. No more populated that a dying community on the Great Plains, San Gimignano’s small population of just over seven thousand defies this town’s illustrious past which is punctuated in a physical sense by its multiple towers and city wall that date to the Middle Ages. Although the Tuscan town has Etruscan roots from the 3rd century BC, San Gimignano prospered as an independent city from 1199 until 1348 when it submitted to Florence’s hegemony because of the effects of the Black Death. Today there are fourteen extant towers for which it is internationally recognized; the tallest is Torre Grossa at 54 meters. The center of the town is marked by the four squares of the Piazza della Cisterna.
2. Taormina, Italy. At the foot of Mount Etna this Sicilian town is famous for its Greek architecture and sweeping views of Europe’s highest. Between Messina and Catania easy access allows tourists to flock to its beaches along the Ionian Sea. It has been an established resort since the 19th century. The Greeks founded a town here in 832 BC called Naxos but it was likely established atop an older Siculi settlement. Taormina saw its share of history because of its central location. Not to miss here is the teatro greco among the best Greek ruins in Italy, and the 13th century Duomo, which has Norman influences.
3. Siena, Italy. Located in Tuscany not far from Florence, Siena is a quaint, hilltop city often eclipsed by its larger and more famous neighbor, Florence. Originally established by the Etruscans, the Romans succeeded the settlement in 30 AD. The Lombards came in the 6th century followed by the Franks. The city is characteristically Italian in this respect. By the 11th century Siena had established itself as a city independent of the Church and the rivalry with Florence as a trade and commercial center defined Siena during the Middle Ages. The city’s greatest architecture originated during this period: the Duomo (Cathedral), Palazzo Publico, and Torre del Mangia. The city’s center is marked by the Piazza del Campo, well known for its bareback horserace held in the summer, a tradition that dates back 500 years.
4. Amalfi, Italy. Amalfi clings to the hillside like an act of defiance against gravity. Its white-washed buildings are best viewed from the waterside where you can look up at the entire town which grows out of the mountainside underneath Monte Cerreto (1,315 meters, 4,314’). Walking through the steep streets is an act of physical endurance but it takes you past remarkable buildings that have their origins from the 7th century. The city, located near Salerno in southern Italy, prospered as an independent trading colony from the 7th century until 1075, defying Byzantine vassalage and rivaling Pisa and Genoa in commercial power. Its most famous building is the Byzantine St. Andrew’s Cathedral which dates to the 11th century. It contains relics of St. Andrew which were brought here following the sack of Constantinople.
5. San Marino, San Marino. Curiously located in Italy this small and ancient republic is an independent enclave founded in 301 and one of six European microstates. It was founded by St. Marinus and soon became a haven for Christian refugees. San Marino is said to be the oldest surviving sovereign state and republic in the world – its constitution dates to 1600 making it the world’s oldest effectual constitution. Covering only 24 square miles its capital city of the same name, San Marino, sits precariously on the slopes of the country’s highpoint, Mount Titano (749 meters), a limestone escarpment which forms an impressive backdrop from any angle. San Marino (city) is well known for its three towers, Guaita (11th century), Cesta (13th century), and Montale (14th century). The Palazzo Pubblico and the town hall provide a great place start your tour of the small city which is best done on foot.
6. Hydra, Greece. Hydra is close to Athens, located in the SaronicIslands, just off the Peloponnese, but there is a strong sense of geographical isolation. This island could easily be part of the far-flung Dodecanese. Its beautiful harbor it is what it is most famous for including the town hall tower along the wharf. The remains of classical antiquity for which Greece is best known are marginal on the island. Instead, Hydra’s history has closer ties with early modern Europe. It was a possession of Venice between 1204 and 1566 and part of the Ottoman Empire from 1566 until 1821. Hydra’s glory came later starting in the 17th century when it established a school for mariners and a shipbuilding center. By the 19th century Hydra housed 125 vessels and up to 10,000 mariners. What you see today on this relaxed island are the fine mansions that were built by the merchant elite, mostly 18th and 19th century dwellings that overlook the harbor. Climbing through the steep streets is another adventure as is visiting some of the small villages on the island.
7. Segovia, Spain. Segovia is almost in Spain’s dead center but its proximity to Madrid about 50 miles to southeast make it easy to miss.Segovia’s architecture is some of the most appreciated in the country and its center is a designated a UNESCO World Heritage site for that reason. The combination of Roman, Moorish, and Gothic elements are all on display. Best known are the Alcazar, a fairy-tale castle dating to the 12th century, and the Gothic Segovia Cathedral completed in 1577. There is also the Roman aqueduct which towers almost 100 feet above street level. Located on a hilltop Segovia’s history recorded various peoples settling on the site starting with the Celts. It was later taken by the Romans and is thought to have been abandoned during the Islamic conquest. In 1474 Isabella was proclaimed queen of Castile in Segovia.
8. Cordoba, Spain. The crown jewel of this city is the Mezquita. Today it’s a Roman Catholic cathedral but it was originally built as a mosque in 784. The arched halls of marble and stone columns coupled with the terracotta and white striped arches of this building are remarkable and unique to any region. Cordoba traces its roots to the Romans, was taken by the Arabs, before the Reconquista of Spain. It reached its zenith in the 10th century when it was known to be the largest city in Western Europe. Its multicultural history colors the city with an eclectic mix of buildings and culture. It also had a flourishing Jewish community and today the Jewish quarter remains as a statement to the strength of this pre-Inquisition community. Along with the Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos, the second century Roman mosaics in the InquisitionTower should not be missed. Cordoba’s location in southern Spain makes the weather mild year-round.
9. Avignon, France. Avignon’s contribution to the historical record is dubious. It was in this city that the infamous Babylonian Captivity of the Church occurred, or the schism that led to two popes. It was the papal seat from 1305 until 1377. The Popes built a remarkable set of buildings that still stand. In all seven popes resided here, all French, and the conflict arose when the newly elected French Pope Clement V refused to move to Rome. It’s no surprise that the French monarchs played a heavy hand in the conflict. Today Avignon, located in southern France along the Rhone, is left with a more favorable legacy as the small city of papal buildings including palaces and cathedrals, is mostly preserved as UNESCO World Heritage Site.
10. Nimes, France. Outside of Europe, Nimes, France is just another city in southern France – not well known. Yet the city has some of the best preserved Roman architecture outside of Italy. It was established by the Romans around 28 BC although there is considerably evidence that a Gaul settlement dates to 600 BC. The list of architecture in or near this city is distinguished by the Pont du Gard, a beautifully preserved Roman aqueduct, probably the best preserved in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Within the city the best known Roman sites are the Arena of Nimes, built in 70 AD, and of course the Maison Carre, one of the best preserved Roman temples in the world. Thomas Jefferson was so inspired by this building during his journey to Nimes, while he was ambassador to France, that he designed the state capitol in Richmond after this building. The resemblance is obvious. Other well-preserved Roman architecture in the city includes Porta Augusta and the Temple of Diane.
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