Beyond Europe’s big cities

On the Amalfi Coast of Italy, buildings climb up the hillsides from the sea.
On the Amalfi Coast of Italy, buildings climb up the hillsides from the sea. Italian National Tourist Board NA

Europe is so blessed with fascinating points of interest for visitors that it’s difficult to pick and choose among them. Certainly the major European capitals rank first on most visitors’ lists.

Away from the capitals, however, visitors can find many rewarding sights. Secondary cities and regions offer different aspects of a country and its culture, with natural sites, unusual histories, peoples and customs that you may not find in the big cities.

Here, then, are a selection of European regions beyond the capitals that have much appeal to visitors. All are well worth exploring.

▪ The Rhine, Germany: Overlooking the narrowest section of the Rhine River is the Lorelei Rock, a 620-foot mount from which legend says the beautiful but melancholy siren Lorelei lured sailors and their ships to founder on submerged rocks with her singing. Lorelei Rock is on a deep and narrow channel between Koblenz and Bingen that has long been considered the river’s most dangerous stretch.

Many castles and fortresses lie along the river, 27 of them between Koblenz and Rudesheim. Many can be visited. A number of picturesque small towns also nestle on the river banks as well as some major cities, among them Cologne, with its historic Gothic cathedral that for a brief period in the 1880s was the tallest building in the world; Bonn, birthplace of Beethoven; and Koblenz, founded more than 2,000 years ago at the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle rivers.

Many companies offer cruises on the river, as do ferries. Lorelei can been seen from day cruises out of several cities. Most sites also are accessible on land tours. Attractions: General information: or any river cruise line.

▪ The Amalfi Coast, Italy: Driving along parts of this rugged coast just south of Naples is not for the faint of heart. Sometimes rising as high as 600 feet above the sea, the narrow road twists around rocky cliffs with blind curves and no guard rails. But the scenery is magnificent.

Along the way are fascinating towns like Positano, whose buildings and pathways rise from a small beach to cover a hillside with a jumble of civilization.

Some 1,200 feet above the town of Amalfi is the town of Ravello, which was a favorite hangout for creative stars including composers Richard Wagner and Edvard Grieg and writers D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Wolff.

▪ The White Towns, Spain: Homes and other buildings in dozens of villages in the province of Andalusia in the south of Spain have whitewashed exteriors, hence the name. The towns of Olvera and Arcos de la Frontera, for example, blanket a hill with a sea of white.

Biggest of the white towns is Ronda, which is the home of Spain’s first bullring and is noted also for the 400-foot-deep gorge that splits the city in two.

Except for Ronda, which can be reached by train, you need a car to visit the white towns. Some can be viewed on a day trip from the Costa del Sol.

▪ The fjords, Norway: A number of these deep inlets flow inward from the Atlantic Ocean coast, and ferries and tour boats explore the large ones. On board such a ship, visitors can spot waterfalls sprouting from the steep sides of the fjords, which may rise above 1,000 feet. Small farms and settlements dot the shore.

An easy way to visit fjord country is by a tour called Norway in a Nutshell, which combines travel by train, ferry and bus in a 12-hour roundtrip journey from Bergen. One of the highlights is the spectacular 2,700-foot descent by train from Myrdal to Flam, where participants board a ferry that tours two fjords.

Cruises also operate on the 100-mile-long Sognefjord, Norway’s longest.

▪ Cornwall, Great Britain: From the rim of a onetime china-clay quarry, you look down on an improbable sight — several enormous transparent domes that are one of this province’s signal attractions. Called the Eden Project, the domes look like they belong on another planet. They house a remarkable botanical garden showcasing plants from other climates — even a garden of cannabis.

Another Cornwall site that draws many visitors is Land’s End. Famed as England’s westernmost point, it also is the site of the ruins of Tintagel Castle, believed to be the birthplace of King Arthur.

Elsewhere of interest in Cornwall are the Lost Gardens of Haligan, a 200-acre Victorian showplace; the port of Falmouth, which houses the National Maritime Museum and occasionally hosts large cruise ships; and a smaller museum that I found fascinating, the shipwreck museum located in Charleston, near St. Austell.

▪ Dalmatian Coast, Croatia: Croatia’s Adriatic coast is a trove of historical treasures as well as a sunny resort area that rivals the Riviera, only much less expensive.

Still standing in the city of Split is the much of the Palace of the Roman emperor Diocletian, built in 295-305 A.D. There, visitors can admire the Temple of Jupiter and the Peristyle. Great religious treasures as well as a Roman forum are found in Zadar. Trogir boasts the best-preserved Romanesque-Gothic complex in Central Europe.

Dubrovnik is the pearl of the coast, a walled city with marble streets and Baroque and Renaissance architecture. It’s also a major port of call for cruise ships.

Dozens of islands lie off the Dalmatian coast, many with lovely beaches. Some can be reached on day cruises and offer activities such as wine-tasting, sun-bathing and hiking.

▪ French Alps, France: At this time of year, thoughts turn to skiing. The French Alps are not only one of Europe’s best sites for winter activities but also the home of breathtaking scenery and historic towns.

Dozens of ski resorts dot the region, which has been host to three Winter Olympic Games — Albertville in 1992, Grenoble in 1968 and Chamonix in 1924. Among the best-known ski resorts are Courchevel, Meribel and Val d’Isere. but there many others.

Dominating views of the region is Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest peak at 15,782 feet. A remarkable seven-mile tunnel through that mountain connects Chamonix in France with Courmayeur on the Italian side.

One of the Europe’s most romantic towns is found in this region. Annecy, sometimes called the “Venice of Savoie,” is known for its azure lake as well as its canals, scenic old city and chateau.