Recently a good friend of mine was planning a two month trip to Europe and she came to me for some advice. Where should I go? Was the first question on her mind.
I didn’t immediately know how to answer that. Of course the large, famous cities like Paris, London and Rome sprang to mind. But then I thought back to my own backpacking trip through Europe two years prior, and I realized that I always had the most fun in the places I least expected to. It was the smaller, local towns that I had the best experiences in. It surprised me greatly. How could I have had a better time in Abergavenny, a small town of 14,000 in Monmouthshire, Wales, than in the hugely iconic city of Paris?
Well, I guess it was a number of reasons. Perhaps my expectations of Paris were too high and of Abergavenny too low? Paris certainly had more breathtaking architecture and monumental buildings and cityscapes. But then Abergavenny had cute little small-town shops and gorgeous countryside landscapes that Paris simply could not.
I think largely it was due to the people I encountered.
Every person I met in Abergavenny was incredibly friendly, welcoming and kind. On my first night there, I met a local gentleman in a pub who took great pleasure in telling me all about the best restaurants to eat at, the best shops to go to, and where I could get the best views of the Welsh countryside from (up a local mountain, of course). On my second night in Abergavenny, I ran into the same gentleman at the pub again with some of his friends, and he invited me (and my friend Emma, who I was travelling with), along with him to a few more pubs. By the end of the night I had met loads of people and made lots of new friends. The gentleman even offered to take Emma and I to the nearby national park the next day so we could take some pictures of the Welsh landscape. Emma and I spent our whole third day in Abergavenny with him and his friends, hiking up mountains and having drinks and dinner in the local pubs. Our experience was throughly enhanced by his kindness and generosity, and two years later, we still keep in touch.
Don’t be afraid to go off the beaten path to smaller, perhaps somewhat unknown cities when you travel. And talk to the locals when you get there. Who else better knows the area than its own inhabitants? As long as you trust your instincts and use common sense, you will likely never find yourself in danger. And you will almost certainly have a great time.