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Most Surprising Towns & Cities
February 22nd, 2011

Part of the lure of traveling is the unexpected, the unknown factor. That can, of course, come in many forms some of which may not be so pleasant. Often, though, I find this in the form of destinations that take me by surprise – those which you don’t expect to love, or don’t know what to expect at all, that end up making you wish you had more time. Weather it’s the culture, the attractions, the food or the people, these destinations sneak up on you in the best possible way.

Ljubljana, Slovenia

About 5 years ago, I drove (or rather was a passenger as others drove) from Bologna, Italy through Trieste to Ljubljana, down the Slovenian and Croatian coasts. In some respects, this central European city was everything I’d pictured, from its architecture to the man selling roasted chestnuts from a cart on a blustery day in November.  On the other hand, the liveliness of the city, even in the cold and wind of the late fall, took me by surprise. Restaurant patrons sat outside, heat lamps overhead, not giving a thought to the steadily decreasing temperature. Boats (albeit mostly covered) ran up and down the Ljublijanica River offering historic tours to visitors.  Markets opened up on Saturday morning to a flood of locals looking for a good deal. The prevalence of English also surprised me along with the fact that vegetarian food options weren’t quite as much of an endangered species there it could have been. It wasn’t that I had low expectations for either of these, but rather that I had no idea what to expect. I think those are the times you tend to most surprised, either pleasantly or otherwise, and this city definitely left a positive impression.

Split, Croatia

Moving right along on my tour of the Slovenian and Croatian coasts, Split was also delivered more than anticipated. Most of the talk I’d heard regarding Croatia surrounded Dubrovnik. Split, also a port city, has since gotten more attention, but at the time it wasn’t the topic of much conversation. It’s original main selling points for my group were the history of Diocletian’s Palace and the fact that it was one of the larger cities/towns we would encounter heading down the coast. The city’s convoluted streets, open-air seafood and produce markets, marinas and the residents themselves were enchanting.   The contrast of old and new, busy day-to-day life happening within the historical streets and buildings fascinated me. This contrast certainly isn’t unique in European cities, but something about the atmosphere of Split, perhaps the way it crept up on us, made it more intriguing. I liked Dubrovnik but I could have easily spent an extra day or so in Split just enjoying ambiance.

Lyon, France

Known as the gastronomic center of France, Lyon is approximately two hours by train from Paris. I can honestly say almost every aspect of Lyon surprised me (including it’s food, as I regret to say French cuisine is not my personal favorite). First, the mere size of Lyon impressed me. Not just the number of people, but the actual size of the city itself. It’s split by the Rhone and Saone Rivers, whose banks are used avidly by the locals for walking, jogging, biking and simply gathering. From the Lycee du Parc – one of Europe’s largest urban parks, to the bustling shopping and dining district to the city’s own Basilica of Notre-Dame-de-Fouviere perched high on a hill overlooking the city, Lyon offered surprises literally at every corner. As for the food, simply ask the locals where to head and try as much as you can!

Cobh (Cove), Ireland

As the port from which so many Irish left for America during the famine, the embarkation for the fated Lusitania (which sunk in 1915), and the last boarding point of the Titanic before it took off  to cross the ocean, one might expect Cobh to be filled with dismal memories and proverbial dark clouds. While the town pays its respects to history – both the high and low points – with several memorials statues and the Cobh Heritage Museum, its brightly-colored buildings, quaint B&Bs, pubs and restaurants lift the mood, making it a worthwhile stop in county Cork, especially for those interested in their Irish heritage. This wasn’t a planned stop on our tour of Ireland, but I was glad we did. In fact, if you’re heading to county Cork, I would highly staying here instead of Cork itself.

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