Hidden Gems of Europe

Great places in 5 nations

October 20, 2012 

First of three parts

Any guidebook can show you how to see Europe’s high points, but you run the risk of experiencing the same cliched vacation as countless previous travelers. Here are some great reasons to look beyond the obvious.

Athens, Greece

Kalamiotou Street, at night

It’s been three years since Greece became the epicenter of Europe’s debt crisis, but you’d hardly know it strolling the center of Athens at night. Eclectic restaurants and crackling night life animate a maze of streets steps from the Acropolis and the Greek Parliament.

Instead of tucking into a heavy taverna dinner, head to Melilotos – 19 Kalamiotou St., (30-210) 32-22-458 – hidden in the fabric district off Ermou Street. Its family-run kitchen specializes in fusion cuisine, using produce from the Greek islands. Here, Athenians in the know linger over fried Creten feta laced with ouzo and watermelon; a tangerine-infused pasta from Chios Island; and squid-ink tagliatelle flecked with smoked trout.

Around 10:30, the area morphs into a booming bar scene, starting when the Dude bar across the street, a paean to “The Big Lebowski,” opens its nondescript doors. Around the corner, facing St. Eirini church, throngs of young Greeks crowd the outdoor tables at Tailor Made – Plateia Agias Eirinis 2, (30-213) 004-9645 – a micro-coffee roaster by day, drinking spot by night, with drinks like the Porn Star Martini, made with passion fruit.

Many Greeks are not spending money on vacation or even gas, but they will pay to nurse a drink for 8 euros (about $10) in a lively setting rather than sitting home and moping. If you’re in town, you may as well join them. Liz Alderman

Barcelona, Spain

Amato Sole

In Barcelona, it’s all too easy to simply shop the multistory outposts of Zara or Mango. Or to weave through racks of psychedelic-print tunics from the label Custo Barcelona. Or to wander around the sprawling home-design emporium Vincon.

But those who value craftsmanship over mass-produced goods should make the effort instead to explore the narrow streets in the southern part of the Raval neighborhood. “It’s a new part of the Raval that’s growing with new shops,” said Ramon Sole, a Barcelona native and co-owner of Amato Sole, ( amatosole.com), a housewares and furniture shop in the area .

At Amato Sole, many of the items for sale, from mirrors fitted within old window frames to wooden chairs inlaid with iron, are handmade in the second-floor studio by Sole, an industrial designer, and his partner, Annamaria Amato, an architect from Sicily. They take a modern, conscientious approach to sourcing their materials, scouring local markets for tattered, broken furniture that they restore or repurpose to create cool, imaginative pieces with a back story.

Every few months local artists are invited to exhibit works in the shop – a melding of creative genres that transpires as, Sole said, “the art combines with our furniture.”

The couple plans to open a second shop and studio in the Gracia neighborhood (at Carrer del Perill 39) later this year. During the expansion, they’ll open by appointment only, so check the website. Then snake through Raval and ring their bell to discover this charming (and well-hidden) gem. Ingrid K. Williams

Berlin

Soviet War Memorial/Street Art

From the paint-slathered remnants of the Berlin Wall to Daniel Libeskind’s Holocaust memorial, Berlin is awash in historical testament. But one of the city’s most fascinating monuments is well off the tourist trail, in the middle of Treptower Park, along the Spree River in the former East Berlin.

Built after World War II to commemorate the thousands of Soviet soldiers who died in the Battle of Berlin, the huge Soviet War Memorial is at once a moving work of midcentury political art and a ludicrous piece of Stalinist pomp. The central axis leads from a statue of a grieving Mother Russia across a long, landscaped plaza to a 70-ton bronze statue of a soldier brandishing a rescued German child and standing triumphantly atop a crushed swastika. Lining the plaza, a burial plot for some 7,000 Red Army soldiers, are 16 raised stone sarcophagi, each bearing a quote by Stalin and a frieze depicting some act of Soviet heroism. The compositions – machine gun-toting soldiers stacked like sardines, children throwing grenades – are vaguely classical, like social realist tableaus as conceived by a Hellenistic artisan.

To lighten the impact, venture down the street to the former Western district Kreuzberg, where you’ll find several murals by the Italian street artist Blu, whose work here dates from 2006 to 2009. In one, a giant pink figure made of hundreds of tiny, writhing men looks out with hollow white eyes. In a city where public art can feel like history having an argument with itself, the murals act as an oversize color-blocked rejoinder to the monumental Soviet severity you just left behind. Charly Wilder

Copenhagen, Denmark

Bakken amusement park

Be careful as you step from Central Station and plan your big outing in the Danish capital. Across the street, the Tivoli Gardens are like a verdant vortex that sucks in all passing travelers, luring them with flashing lights, old-time rides and open-air concerts. A folksier, cheaper, larger and more historical alternative is tucked away to the north of the city.

Dyrehavsbakken, known as Bakken, bills itself as the world’s oldest amusement park. True or not, Bakken ( bakken.dk) certainly has more Old World bona fides than its inner-city cousin, to say nothing of a more bucolic setting: some 2,700 acres of woodland filled with hiking paths, green fields and free-ranging deer. Better still, admission is free for all ages.

Once inside, you’ll find everything from Bakkens Hvile, said to be the oldest remaining music hall in Denmark, to Scandinavia’s only “5-D” cinema, where moving seats and special effects like wind, water and mist create a full sensory experience. The marquee attraction is the 80-year-old wooden roller coaster, one of the 30-plus rides spread across the grounds.

The solidly middle-class park also draws some unusual characters each year. To celebrate Bakken’s opening day, generally in March, and the last day of its season, typically around the end of August, motorcyclists converge for a mass rally. Bakken also has hosted the World Santa Claus Congress every summer since 1957. So, when the high-price, high-gloss, highly crowded Tivoli seems like too much, Bakken is indeed a gift. Seth Sherwood

Istanbul

Rumeli Castle

Rumeli Castle’s spires aren’t as heavily touted of the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, but this 560-year-old Ottoman fortress – across town from Galata, where tourists flock to buy spices at the Grand Bazaar – is no less spectacular. Nestled in Sariyer, a neighborhood on the European side of the city, the majestic, well-preserved fort, which is now a museum (entrance, 5 Turkish lira, or about $2.70), was built at the narrowest point of the Bosporus by Sultan Mehmed II, who originally positioned hundreds of soldiers at its gates and used it to control river traffic.

Today, its location away from the city’s tourist centers usually keeps crowds at a minimum. Which is one of the reasons – in addition to the winding, woodsy paths inside and the unparalleled views of Istanbul – to go there. Rumeli’s canonical, tiered Halil Pasha Tower and its satellite watchtowers stand guard over a bench-lined maze of trees, steep staircases and crumbling steel doors. Catch a glimpse of the gloomy dungeon, then hike to the highest points and enjoy the spectacular view. The Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge sparkles to the left, while the green hills of Asia frame the sailboats, ferries and tanker ships chugging the Bosporus. Giant Turkish flags flutter proudly across the water, a beautiful sight at sunset. End the day with a 15-minute stroll down the water to Bebek, Istanbul’s chicest neighborhood, for a Turkish coffee or a raki, the cloudy liquor whose local popularity, much like Rumeli’s, has survived the ages. Karen Leigh

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service