This posting is dedicated to small(er) towns within the orbit (a 2- to 6-hour drive or train ride) of larger centres. Often travelers, especially when arriving by airplane, end up in major metropolitan areas because these are the easiest / cheapest to get to. And who wouldn’t want to spend time in many of them. I mean –why fly into San Francisco and not see it?
Except… that’s just what we did on one trip to Northern California.
Both my husband and I have visited San Fran many times and have loved each encounter. But lately it’s become so much less affordable- and a lot (although not all) of the things that have made it feel authentic have been eroding. So we chose to invest our vacation dollars- and time- in the nearby town of Mendocino and its more working-class twin, Fort Bragg (see below). Not only did we enjoy the beauty of these two small towns, we picked up on a really strong sense of community there -and art. It was as if quietly, one by one, a lot of the cool kids had been slipping out of the big city (after being priced out) and quietly setting up camp there.
In Part 1 of my small but mighty towns series, I cover the following towns (all worthy of the authentic traveler’s notice): Mendocino/ Fort Bragg (California, USA); Framingham (Suffolk, UK); and České Budějovice (Czech Republic).
1 Mendocino / Fort Bragg
Headquarter building for the Mendocino Film Festival. Author photo, 2016.
If you fly into either the San Francisco or the Oakland airports, rent a car and then head north on Highway 101. (You can often find a better airfare into the smaller Oakland airport.) The twisty, narrow road takes you past some spectacular coastal scenery as well as into some other adorable beachside towns. Allow three hours if you don’t stop a lot to get to Mendocino. But chances are, you will want to stop, so give yourself plenty of time.
Mendocino gave us enough distance from San Francisco, seemed adorable, small (fewer than 1,000 people), and had its annual film festival happening right in the middle of our trip (for more info click here). There are some lovely Cape Cod style buildings there (apparently authentic because the town was first settled by many folks from New England). Fascinating fact: the town got a new lease on life given to it in the late 1950s/ early 60s, when an artist helped revive it by bringing art and other artists to it –a historic example of the cool kids coming to town and settling in. It was painter Bill Zacha who first appreciated Mendocino’s “good bones” as a creative hub, and created its local art center (to learn more click here ). The Mendocino Art Center is still going strong: to learn more click here.
Mendocino Art Center. Author photo, 2016.
Fort Bragg is the larger nearby centre, and a place where we stayed (thanks AirBnB!) with a local photographer, his wife, and their Australian shepherds, in the ground floor of a converted barn that doubles as a photography studio when guests aren’t staying there. We particularly loved the country feel (just a 2 minute drive from the city centre), and the friendly, down-to-earth people that we met in town. One of its attractions, Glass Beach, sounds like something different than you might expect –it’s famous for shards of sea glass washing up on its shores, but these fragments are small and sometimes inconsistently present. Still, the setting is gorgeous and it is worth a trip.
The Park at Glass Beach. Author photo, 2016.
If you go, another hidden gem in the area is the Anderson Valley. Many small wineries have set up shop since the 1980s, but the area is far less known than the Sonoma and Napa Valleys.
Anderson Valley. Photo by Author, 2016.
You will find a mellower atmosphere there –and the bonus is that you get to drive through Redwood forests en route. For more information on the wineries, click here. And if you think you will be there in May 2017, consider booking for the Pinot Noir Festival.
2 Framingham, Suffolk, United Kingdom
And for something completely different – a small town across the Atlantic. If livability is a factor in making a town attractive for the authentic traveler, then Framingham is definitely worth your notice.
In 2006 it was voted the top place to live in the UK by Country Life magazine. More recently, it appeared in a Telegraph news feature on the top ten small towns in the UK (to see this article, and read about other delightful small towns in the UK, click here ). Beautifully preserved Victorian and Georgian buildings grace the centre of town, and it also boasts a medieval castle built roughly 900 years ago. The local council, or municipality has produced a wonderful on-line guidebook that sums up all the things to do once you’re there. Click here to access directly.
The downside of a trip here is access- you will either have to rent a car, or take a train to Norwich and then walk to a bus station and board the Anglian bus headed towards Bungay, Bardolph Road (you will disembark at the Poringland stop.
3 České Budějovice, Czech Republic
View of Ceske Budejovice from the Black Tower. Author photo, 2016
If you’re visiting either Prague or Vienna, do visit the lovely small town of České Budějovice. It is both a university town and a river town. It is a short two hour direct train ride (in theory) from Prague. When we went, we started our journey in a reasonably priced, first-class train car. The scenery en route was quite lovely. And then we were diverted to a town 20 minutes from our destination due to “track maintenance”, finally arriving by bus to České Budějovice. Still, it was pretty easy getting there, and car rental not needed.
Six things impressed me about the town. First, its attractively-designed 21st century mid-rise apartment buildings along the riverfront at the edge of town (here again we stayed at someone’s home, thanks to AirBnB –in one of these apartments, which was extremely comfortable). We could walk into the historic centre all along the riverbank, which was quite pleasant, even in the heat. Second, the historic centre is quaint and lovely. Third, for my motorbike-enthusiast husband, there was a terrific motorcycle museum, albeit mostly in Czech (he says it was still worthwhile).
Jihoceske Motocyklove Museum. Author photo 2015.
Fourth, the local synagogue is a humbling and sober reminder of the legacy of the WW II on this part of the world. Filled today with the art of Czech children, its emptiness and the loss of every family who once worshipped there was extremely moving. Fifth, who doesn’t love climbing a tower to get a bird’s eye view of the city? The Black Tower will give you a great vantage point. Sixth, and finally – pencil crayons! This town is the home of well-known pencil crayon manufacturer Koh-i-noor stationary. The company was founded in 18th c. Vienna, but its pencil crayon business moved to České Budějovice in the mid-19th c. and remains in production. As a child in the 1970s (still during the Cold War), I remember colouring with Koh-i-noor pencil crayons. Must have been one of the few things that made its way out of the country as an export in those days.
While you are in the region, take another train, bus, or rent a car and visit the town’s even prettier and more popular sister, Cesky Krumlov, a UNESCO world heritage site, also built around the Vltava river (for more detail and tourist info, click here. ).
Day view of Cesky Krumlov. Author photo 2015
You will love having your lunch or evening meal in a riverfront cafe where you can watch inner tubes and rafts filled with people of all ages who shriek with delight as they roll past you on the gently rushing river. If you’re an art afficionado, there is a connection to well-known artist Gustav Klimt, who was a contemporary and friend of local painter Egon Schiele. (In fact, Schiele looked after Klimt’s artistic estate after he died, ensuring that his art was catalogued appropriately.) Schiele’s paintings are darker than Klimt’s, but they are still worth viewing (click here for more information).
From California, to Suffolk, to the meandering Vltava river, small but mighty towns across the globe make a great addition to your travel itinerary. I’ll take a break from this theme in my next blog, but watch for more small and mighty towns in future postings. And any suggestions readers have for more of these towns would be more than welcome.