Not long ago, I dedicated one issue of my authentic travel blog to small but mighty towns within a two to six hour radius of larger Metropolitan centres (click hereto see this earlier post). I resume this theme with three more small but mighty towns worthy of the authentic traveller’s attention: Port Townsend (Washington, USA); Orvieto in Italy; and Ganges on Saltspring Island (British Columbia, Canada).
1. Port Townsend
If you like towns with well-restored 100+ year old homes filled with B & B’s, then Port Townsend is your kind of place. It’s a two-hour drive from Seattle, 3.5 hour drive from Vancouver (not including border traffic), or a 3.5 hour trip involving a ferry from Victoria.
Port Townsend began as an Indigenous village millennia ago; but not long after first European contact, its Native American population came close to decimation by illness, including smallpox. Descendants today include the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe (to learn more about this Tribe, click here) and Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe (for more info click here). European settlers soon earned their living from the town’s new seaport. Tacoma eventually stole its thunder, though; and Port Townsend declined until the 1920s when logging and sawmill activity revived the economy. Then, starting with the early 1970s, Port Townsend became popular as a counter-culture haven with less expensive housing and a mix of old and newer homes, with the older ones dating back over a century.
Port Townsend today is one of those funky small towns many people would love to live in (especially if they’re retired). There is also a lot going on in Spring, Summer, and Fall ( http://enjoypt.com/play/events-and-festivals/). So is it authentic? Its dependence on tourism might increase the risk of Disneyesque qualities. But the strong counterculture tradition, small town kindness, and genuine love for the heritage of their city gives Port Townsend and its people a real warmth. I also just have a soft spot for small West Coast towns (on either side of the border), because their inhabitants (even strangers) seem familiar to me.
2. Orvieto, Italy
In comparison, the buildings in Orvieto are much older. Orvieto is a hill town in a wine region of Italy, with roots in the ancient Etruscan civilization. You can take a 1.5-hour train ride from there to Rome, or drive. Either way, your arrival point will be in the newer part of town (not attractive) where you will take either an elevator or an older funicular (which I love) to get up to the stunning older town. Many of its buildings date back to the Middle Ages, including its stunning cathedral.
We visited Orvieto one Autumn, just at the end of tourist season. We had wanted an alternative to the overpriced and over- touristed region of Tuscany. Even in October, we could stroll around during the day without jackets, under gorgeous blue skies.
While there, we also took a bus trip to nearby Civita di Bagnoreggio, reached only by climbing stairs and a rather long pedestrian bridge.
With only four permanent households (at that time) still living there year round, Civita has become a vacation spot (an alternative cottage country) for city dwellers from Rome and elsewhere. Still, there is something humbling and impressive about being around this quasi-ghost town that continues to have some amazing Italian cuisine (at least during the tourist season).
3. Ganges, Saltspring Island BC
The third town, Ganges, is within reach of both Vancouver or Victoria through a combination of car and ferry travel (as little as an hour if traffic is light and you time things right, or up to 4 if you haven’t). Harbour Air and Saltspring Air now fly small float planes between both cities and Saltspring, making access a lot faster (a 25-minute flight from downtown to Saltspring) but not cheaper. For more than one of you, renting a car and going by ferry is definitely the better price, but will take longer. An insider trick for those accessing Ganges from the Victoria side: you can also go via the Crofton ferry which runs as frequently but with far less traffic. It is a longer drive this way -1.5 hours north of Victoria to the Crofton ferry- but the route along the Malahat is breathtaking. You can also combine your journey with other scenic stops.
Why go? The entire island is beautifully green and gives you a lovely mix of forested /coastal /agrarian landscapes. You can visit beaches and working farms that produce wine, cheese, fresh herbs and apples. In summers you can take in the Saturday market, where there are some truly wonderful craft products and produce items sold.
And, you can also get a dose of counterculture. While Saltspring has its share of part-time recreational residents with cottages, it also has many full-time residents, some retired, others commuting to jobs in Victoria, and yet more folks earning their living locally through farming, commerce, or art. These folks all love a good protest. On one trip long ago, we noticed a march to demonstrate against the Iraq war. We joined in -because it was Saltspring, and that felt like fitting in. Since Ganges is the heart of the island (but still so small), the marchers all had to do multiple rounds of what was basically a one-block radius).
This edition of the Small but Mighty Towns theme has focused on two towns with more of a countercultural vibe, along with a very different classical Italian hill town. What they all have in common is their relaxed pace, and a strong sense of almost a dialogue with their local landscapes, whether set on the coast or a landlocked hillside. Even if your time in the nearby metropolitan area is limited, each of these three is worthy of a detour. Stay tuned for yet another edition of the Small and Mighty Towns feature in a few weeks!