Hidden Gems of Europe

5 great spots your guidebook might miss

October 27, 2012 

Second of three parts

Toss out your guidebook and consider these great reasons to look beyond the obvious destinations when you visit Europe.

Lisbon, Portugal

It’s Not Just Fado

For generations, Lisbon’s reputation has been wrapped up in fado, the centuries-old folk music that drifts like teary, windblown tissue from the city’s timeworn fado houses, which are de rigueur stops for travelers. Anyone who has spent an evening listening to those softly plucked guitars, lovelorn lyrics and wailing female vocalists will probably think the Portuguese capital is a haven of heartbroken fishwives pining for distant sailors.

Banish those notions. Lisbon has a diverse live playlist that features everything from jazz to African music – if you know where to look.

“Right now there are some really cool things happening in Lisbon,” said Luis Filipe Rodriuges, music editor of Time Out Lisbon. “We also have an amazing free jazz scene.”

For instance, the venerable, well-respected Clube de Portugal has a densely packed program of Portuguese jazz bands, touring acts, jam sessions and performances by the house orchestra. For a lively night of percussive beats and dancing, there is the newly reopened B. Leza, an African club in a warehouse near the Tagus River. Live music from the Cape Verde islands is a particular specialty, along with singers and bands from Angola, Mozambique and Brazil. The spirited soundtrack is the perfect antidote to fado-induced melancholy. Seth Sherwood

Ravenna, Italy

Basilica of San Vitale

For all of the magnificence on the exterior of Florence’s Duomo – Brunelleschi’s dome, Giotto’s campanile, the ornate marble facade, the grand bronze doors – its interior is comparatively dull. So why not seek out a church with an interior as impressive as the Duomo’s exterior?

Ravenna, on the country’s eastern coast – just a two-hour drive from Florence – was the seat of Byzantine power in Italy until the eighth century. Today, this handsome city attracts a relative trickle of tourists. Yet hidden within Ravenna’s ancient structures are breathtaking mosaics, the most impressive of which can be found in the Basilica of San Vitale.

Built in the sixth century, the Basilica of San Vitale ( ravennamosaici.it; admission, about $12) is one of the finest examples of early Byzantine architecture. Although its small dome and unadorned facade are sober in comparison to Florence’s showy Duomo, its interior is awash in exquisite mosaics. In fact, the dazzling mosaics inside the church are regarded as among the most important Byzantine artworks outside present-day Istanbul.

Gaze upon the bold hues enlivening the early Christian iconography, which incorporates styles from both ancient Rome and medieval Europe (see depictions of Christ both bearded and beardless). Admire the glittering tiles of green and gold that depict the Byzantine emperor Justinian; his wife, Theodora; and their considerable entourage. And above all, savor the delicious calm over which these figures now rule.

Ingrid K. Williams


Rochelle Canteen

Redchurch Street, a hub for the gentrification that has swept London’s East End in recent years, is usually filled with people who are browsing boutiques and enjoying flutes of vintage Champagne or gourmet coffee. But just off the main thoroughfare, on a peaceful circular plaza amid red-brick Victorian apartment blocks, is a restaurant that offers a brief glimpse at the unvarnished character of the area’s renaissance.

The Rochelle Canteen is part of a former school that now houses a gallery, studio and event spaces ( arnoldandhenderson.com). A locked green gate and a confusing panel of buzzers greet visitors intrepid enough to track it down.

Beyond the gate is a schoolyard and a modern European kitchen installed, along with a handful of tables, in a former bicycle shed. At 2 o’clock on a recent afternoon, a pair of dandies in full evening dress, down to bow ties and white scarves, devoured plaice with tomatoes and a green sauce, and roast partridge with pearl barley and artichokes, with every sign of enjoyment. At another table, a professorial-looking lady in black-framed glasses delivered a treatise on the history of flat-pack furniture.

The menu, as much hearty as it is arty, changes regularly. On that afternoon it featured a perfectly spiced North African lamb stew, a delicate rabbit terrine and a rich honeycomb ice cream. All were priced at a maximum of about $10 for appetizers and desserts, and about $26 for entrees. Ravi Somaiya


The All-Russian Exhibition Center

The hectic, honky-tonk Soviet fairground now called the All-Russian Exhibition Center – north of the city center and originally known as V.D.N.Kh., or the Exhibit of the Achievements of the National Economy – is peppered with monumental sculptures that brag of the glory of the Soviets.

Look for gorgeous details from the Stalin era, like rows of streetlights built in the shape of stalks of wheat and the gilded dazzle of the Friendship of Nations Fountain. A fat stack of grain gleams in the middle of it, ringed by maidens in native dress, holding their products aloft and celebrating their luck at being born Soviet.

But what I especially like about the center ( vvcentre.ru/eng) is how it has been reborn – reinvented, again and again, as Russia struggled for survival after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the 1990s, small merchants moved into the cavernous spaces built as showcases for shipbuilding or electrification and set up stands selling homeopathic honey, sugar-frosted deep-fried doughnuts, televisions and gem-encrusted silver jewelry from the Caucasus.

Many of my favorite afternoons in Moscow have been spent in the pavilion built to celebrate Armenia, where the light slants through windows onto inlaid tables. Couples drink thick, sweet coffee while a single violinist plays, and you pause and pause, and pause again, before venturing back outside. Ellen Barry


Pouic Pouic

Paris at daybreak has little to offer creatures of the night. But starting at 5 on Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings, Pouic Pouic, a sliver of a bistroin the St.-Germain-des-Pres neighborhood, serves serious food to post-party-goers with big appetites. Diners craving breakfast may go for ham-and-cheese omelets or maybe spaghetti carbonara (which is, after all, eggs and bacon with pasta instead of toast); meat lovers can opt for veal chops, cheeseburgers, steak tartare and entrecotes.

Pouic Pouic – 9, rue Lobineau; (33-1) 43-26-71-95 – offers a larger selection at lunch and dinner, including starters like chicken and foie gras terrine, and main courses like squid ink pasta with mussels and wild chanterelle mushrooms, and pig cheek with creamy pureed potatoes.

The decor is simple, with dark wood walls and bright posters, and the atmosphere just noisy enough.

From the round table near the kitchen you can watch the 25-year-old Romanian-born chef, Michael Pascale, make magic from his open kitchen. Jacques Damitio, the owner (and an ex-notary public and ex-winemaker) or Anne-Sophie, his English-speaking daughter, may join you for a chat. Expect to pay about $45 to $58 for a three-course meal (a deal for Paris); the wine list is small but creative and reasonably priced.

A welcome alternative to familiar bistros overrun with tourists. Elaine Sciolino

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