Rick Steves: Exploring Europe’s hidden gems

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In my early days as a guidebook writer, Europe’s undiscovered nooks and undeveloped crannies held the most appeal for me – and they still do. But with ever more sophisticated travelers armed with enough time and money to see the Europe of their dreams, places I “discovered” a few decades ago are now suffering from “Back Door” congestion.

Given that, I’ve come to treasure even more those destinations that still have the feeling of being a world apart from everyday life. Away from the tourist fray, these special spots are backwaters in the best sense of the word, each with its own genuine charm.

It typically takes a little extra effort to reach such places, but the reward is considerable. Gimmelwald, a remote and impossibly idyllic village high in the Swiss Alps, is a classic example. Parking your car in the valley floor and riding the cable car up is like going through a looking glass.

Your car shrinks, your stomach flip-flops, and you look over the valley as though suspended from a hang glider. Then, suddenly, the cable-car doors slide open and you’re deposited – as if from a magical glass bubble – into another world. It’s a place where the air is clean and sharp, where the only noises are bees, bugs and birds pursuing alpine flowers, and where gnome-like men sucking gnome-like pipes are busy chopping firewood.

Or take the island of Ærø. Few visitors to Scandinavia even notice this tiny island on Denmark’s southern edge (it’s four hours by train from Copenhagen). In the main town, Ærøskøbing, you can amble down cobbled lanes right out of the 1680s, when the town was the wealthy home port of commercial sailing ships.

What is there to do in this time-passed place? Not much. Wander the town on a photo safari or pedal a rented bike beyond the cobbled town streets into the essence of seaside Denmark. Enjoy a picnic dinner out on the island’s spit as the late summer sun sets, and dig your toes into the still-warm sand. It’s a perfect Danish scene that takes “cozy” to enjoyable extremes.

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