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European treasures exist outside Paris, London, Berlin

France

La Napoule

If you like the French Riviera but not its hypertourism, this is the place for you. Situated just west of Cannes, this small town exhibits little of the frenzy and gaudiness of Cannes, Nice and Monaco, yet those are within easy reach. Cafes and shops cluster around La Napoule's town square, where townspeople gather for cafe au lait and conversation.

The town has a small beach, a golf course and several small hotels and rentable condos, but it is most known for the Chateau de La Napoule, built in the 14th century. Henry Clews, an American millionaire sculptor, bought and restored the castle in the first half of the 20th century. In the process, he ornamented it with some of his own rather bizarre sculptures — stone figures of monkeys, toads and mythical creatures. The castle, a landmark on the Bay of Cannes, is open to the public.

From La Napoule's harbor one can take a boat to the island of Ile Ste.-Marguerite (Santa Margarita), where in Fort Royal the famous Man in the Iron Mask was imprisoned in the 17th century. Lodging in the La Napoule area is less expensive than in the major cities of the Riviera.

Getting there: The nearest major airport is at Nice, about 30 miles to the northeast. As La Napoule lies on the main track between the Riviera and Paris, it has frequent train service to Cannes, Nice and Monte Carlo. It also has an exit off the A8 expressway.

Information: franceguide.com

Denmark

Aeroskobing

If you didn't pinch yourself, you might think you've suddenly been transported inside a fairy tale. Lovely small, half-timbered homes that have sloping roofs and are painted in bright colors line its cobbled streets, looking all the world like gingerbread homes. The town maintains its Middle Ages ambience by requiring strict maintenance of the homes, many of which are several hundred years old, and with a ban on building new homes.

Aeroskobing boasts Denmark's oldest post office and is the home of the Bottle Museum, where you can see more than 500 model boats encased in bottles. For a taste treat, try an Aeroskobing specialty, a cone of walnut ice cream topped with maple syrup and whipped cream.

Getting there: Copenhagen International is the closest major airport. You need a car to visit Aeroskobing, which is on the island of Aero. It is reached from either of two ferry locations, Svendborg or Faaborg. Both of these are about an hour south of the city of Odense.

Information: (212) 885-9700 or visitdenmark.com (search Aero for information)

Britain

Stoke-on-Trent

Wedgwood, Royal Doulton, Spode, Portmeirion, Aynsley, Moorcraft and other makers of fine china all have factories here in the world's most famous ceramics-producing city, and most have visitor centers where one can buy bone china at discount prices.

Of special interest is a display at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery of gold and silver items from the Staffordshire Hoard — the largest and most valuable find of Anglo-Saxon treasure ever, discovered in 2009. In addition to exhibiting such items as Stoke-made ceramic tiles used to protect the space shuttle on re-entry, the museum also created a "royal trail" in connection with Queen Elizabeth's Jubilee.

Another facility, the Gladstone Pottery Museum, also has interesting exhibits, including an amusing one on the evolution of the toilet, called Flushed With Pride.

Getting there: Manchester International is the closest major airport. Trains run frequently from Manchester to Stoke (fastest train 34 minutes), which also can be reached by rail from London (fastest 95 minutes). By car, Stoke is about 45 minutes from Manchester or Birmingham.

Information: (212) 986-2266 or visitbritain.com

Germany

Fairy-Tale Road

This is not a true road, but a picturesque 370-mile route through many of the sites in western Germany that inspired the Grimm brothers to write their famous fairy tales. The twin-turreted Sababurg Castle, for instance, is said to have inspired the tale of Sleeping Beauty. Snow White could have hidden in the wooded hills above the Weser River, and Hansel and Gretel could have lived there as well.

During Schwalmstadt's summer fetes, girls wear traditional red caps just as Red Riding Hood did, and you can visit a Little Red Riding Hood Museum. The famous Pied Piper marches again on Sundays in Hameln.

Hannoversch-Munden is one of the most beautiful towns in Germany, with street after street lined with lovely medieval half-timbered houses. And in Neustadt, we came upon the "witchiest" looking structure in all of this fairy-tale country — the Junker-Hanbsen Tower, topped with pointy black spires.

Getting there: We started our journey in Bremen, which has the route's closest major airport. You'll need a car to traverse the route, which runs to Hanau.

Information: German National Tourist Office, toll-free 1-800-651-7010 or cometogermany.com

Spain

Ronda

This is one of a series of towns in the province of Andalusia between the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean that are called "white towns" because most of the buildings are whitewashed.

Ronda's main attraction is a spectacular 400-foot-deep gorge in the middle of town that splits Ronda into two sectors. The gorge is spanned by the Puente Nuevo, an 18th century arched bridge from which you can spot houses clinging to the chasm's precipitous sides.

Ronda is also the home of Spain's first bullring (now a museum), of restored Roman and Arab baths and of the Casa de Mondragon, the 14th century palace of the Moorish kings. Its old town retains much of the character of its Moorish heritage, not to mention really delicious gazpacho soup. Both Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles spent considerable time in Ronda.

Getting there: I drove to Ronda on a day trip from Marbella, a major resort on the Costa del Sol that is not far from Malaga, which has the closest major airport. Ronda is also accessible by train from Cordoba or Algeciras.

Information: Spanish Tourist Office, (305) 358-1992 or spain.info

Greece

Thessaloniki

Also known as Saloniki, this capital and biggest city in Greek Macedonia has rich history. It was from here that Alexander the Great ruled an empire that extended all the way to present-day India. During the Byzantine Empire, the city was more important than Athens.

Today Thessaloniki is a major port, industrial center and university city. While much of the city is a hodgepodge of forgettable buildings, it has a graceful quality with many avenues lined with trees opening up onto small squares that are popular gathering places for both young and old. A must is to stroll along the seafront promendade, the Paralia, which not only provides a view of the busy harbor but also leads to the bustling sidewalk cafes of Nikis Street and Aristotelous Square. Relics from the tomb of King Philip, father of Alexander the Great, are found in the Archeological Museum; the Byzantine Museum includes a collection of Macedonian burial chambers.

Two nearby historic sites are worth visiting: In Pella are the ruins of the ancient capital of Macedonia, where Alexander the Great was born and tutored by Aristotle. Some extraordinary mosaics can be seen here. In Vergina, visitors can descend into the royal tombs of Macedonia, uncovered here only a few decades ago.

Getting there: Many nonstop flights operate from Athens to Thessaloniki, as well as from most major European cities.

Information: Greek National Tourist Organization, (212) 421-5777 or visitgreece.gr

Jay Clarke, the former longtime travel editor of the Miami Herald, is a freelance writer based in Coral Gables.

London. Rome. Paris.

All tourists have the great cities of Europe on their itineraries. But there's another side to every nation beyond its capitals and major cities: less frenetic locales whose appeal is more focused.

You find these in some of the smaller towns, where life is narrower and often more defined. Call them "off the beaten path'' — an overworked phrase but quite descriptive of the genre. These smaller locales sometimes tell more about a nation than larger cities do.

In my years of travel, I've visited a number of these less-known, less-visited towns in Europe, and rarely have I been disappointed. Their attraction may center on a certain phase of history, a unique location or a way of life. They may be home to distinctive foods, monuments or historical structures and relics not found elsewhere. Many exhibit a slower pace of life amid the charm of an existence only partly touched by modern ways.

From a couple dozen such European locales that I have visited and enjoyed, I've chosen a half dozen — one from each of six European nations — that I found particularly fascinating. Most of them are best reached by car from the closest major airport.

European treasures exist outside Paris, London, Berlin 10/25/12 [Last modified: Thursday, October 25, 2012 7:30pm]

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