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Finding Our Own Back Doors of the "Home Base" kind...

Rick's recent blog post on Finding Back Doors and another on Gimmelwald present truths that we personally experienced over the last few weeks in Austria and Switzerland. It would be great to collect ideas from this community about other examples in which travelers found off-the-path alternatives to dodging the busloads and busy sidewalks of hot European cities!

But I want to make a distinction here about "home base" type places, ones that have quiet and remoteness, but also ready access to the big cities they are near. I will cite an example where we found a "back door place of the 'home base' kind."

We were just in Interlaken, Switzerland, area. Rick recommends places like Gimmelwald as a "back door" alternative. Yet we also wanted easy access to our rental car for excursions away from our "home base," which is not as easy from Gimmelwald. (Truly, that sweet town is best for staying put and soaking up the wonders it provides!)

Our solution? We found Beatenberg. Our lodging had amazing views, and the streets were quiet. Beatenberg is a 10-minute drive up the hillside to the north of crazy-busy Interlaken, and the town mostly faces south with commanding views over the valley in which Interlaken sits, and of the Jungfrau region beyond. We would drive in to see Lauterbrunnen to ride up the Shilthorn, visit Gimmelwald for a couple hours. But each of the three evenings, after adventures out in the region, we retired to our quiet views in Beatenberg.

I wish we had done the same in other cities like Vienna, Salzburg, and Munich! We were in the thick of busy-ness, crowds, and the heat wave of late June, 2019. We were determined to have a good time, and we did, so our memories are positive (Vienna's opera, palaces; Salzburg's fortress; Munich's history). But if we had done in those cities what we did in Interlaken, I think we'd have enjoyed Europe more by the "back door." (You might ask: why didn't we use Hallstatt for our Salzburg visit, as Rick recommends? -- for the same reason we did not use Gimmelwald for the Interlaken region, that Hallstatt is a bit too far to be a "home base" for venturing back-and-forth to see Salzburg).

What are your stories of "home base" type "back door" locations, that allow relative ease-of-access (i.e. far enough away to be out of the crowds, but easy enough to get in to the big city when you want it)? You can write, for example, "we stay in when we want to see ." It will be great to collect the wisdom of the community this way!

What about Paris? (That's where we go next). What's a good "home base?" A Paris suburb? An outskirts town with access to Paris by rail?

Posted by
4594 posts

What a great post. I don't have any useful response, but I'll be monitoring the thread. We have our occasional "back door" moments, but they are fleeting and serendipitous.

Posted by
6566 posts

We just returned from Madrid, Barcelona and Paris. I'm with you about finding towns close by to stay in that are more authentic representations of normal lifestyles.
I told my wife that we're just about through staying in large, expensive cities. The hotel bill in Paris was by far the largest I've ever experienced.
With Google Maps and/or the internet maps, you can easily figure out cities/towns within your desired distance to stay in. Magnify the map with "+++" and the hotel/room icons will pop up.

Posted by
1941 posts

We stayed in Lucca to visit Florence, Pisa, Carrara, CT and some days in Tuscany. It's not quite the "back door" that you're describing, or that you found in Beatenberg, but gave us a relatively quiet retreat from our sightseeing days.

Of course, there was a train strike on the day we'd planned to go into Florence. So we didn't make it, but fortunately had all been there before.

Posted by
342 posts

We had 5 nights at the JW Marriott Resort in Venice. We used points and we chose this hotel as it was on its own island with a water shuttle. I would not call it a back door experience, but the resort was on its own island. There was a lovely garden that restaurant used, and many acres to walk around. After the crowds of Venice, it was nice to come back to this quiet island and admire Venice from afar. We travel with a guide dog, so the opportunity to walk around the quiet island with the dog gave us all a chance to wind down from a day of sightseeing. I truly enjoyed Venice more than I expected and I think it is because we could escape the crowds to this peaceful respite.

Posted by
2493 posts

I love visiting smaller towns, either as day trips or staying for longer and exploring the countryside nearby. However, I don't like the "home base" approach when applied to big cities. So much of the fun for me in the big cities is in the evenings or first thing in the AM. Going to concerts, 3 hour dinners starting at 10PM (Spain!), walking around in floodlit streets after dark, sunrise photo walks and coffee with only the street cleaners and cafe workers around. These are the exact things you miss with a home base approach to a city. Instead what you get is the city during prime tourist hours, busses and busyness.

In a big city, I like to maybe get up at sunrise and do my photo walk or get up at a normal morning time, get to a museum or sight at opening (usually 9 or 10AM), then have lunch and...be done for several hours, take a siesta in the room or just sit in a cafe or wander the back streets avoiding the crowds in the popular sights. Eventually it's later, time for an evening walk and some sort of nighttime activity like a concert, food tour, or dinner. This is my way to make cities easier to travel in.

But if you're looking for home base suggestions...Sorrento for Naples, Toledo for Madrid, the Alpujarras villages for Granada, Cefalu for Palermo (I prefer Scopello but it's hard to get to Palermo from there due to traffic, Cefalu has a train). Nafplio, Greece is a great base town, but not for a big city (it's 2-3 hours from Athens). Instead, it's a great base for ancient ruin sights and beaches/nature.

Posted by
373 posts

We enjoyed a home exchange, staying in a small village outside of Angers. Truly "lived like a local,' as Rick likes to say, and got to see all kinds of chateaux, local markets, and much more. Highly recommend, especially for extended stays. We're looking at doing again next year somewhere in Spain, Paris and/or Italy.

Posted by
3789 posts

I will admit, I prefer being in the city of interest, but in the event of a congested area like Interlaken, or with a car, I would be looking for the alternatives of which you speak.

My solution for Back Door is not the location but the type of accommodation....which for me makes a real 'home base'. I rent short let apartments. These tend to get you out of the tourist areas into areas where you can just live and breath differently. Even if in big cities, they are in neighbourhoods. I have had tiny apartments in old town Granada with a view of the Alhambra, or a penthouse in Sevilla old town with its own terrace and views of the Cathedral and roof tops. They are also considerably cheaper than many hotels (not the 2 star local pensions, etc, however) which allows me to travel longer, and enjoy hunkering down for the evening, if I choose. Alternatively, they are still in proximity to eateries, theatre or areas for my own personal passagietta for the night....just like the locals.
For Paris, I stayed in an apartment in the 4th. It was still busier than I would like, but that was due to high density. It still had a homey atmosphere and one could just relax more than in the main town area. It was handy to subways and a friend came into the city with a car and as it was August, street parking was free so we were set. It also was well situated to drive out of the city to Normandy where her home is. To be honest, after hours of sightseeing, however, I found the subway home a little onerous. It was most likely more due to my timing which was generally the home commute for locals. Hot, smelly and congested. I use public transport at home, but this tested my patience and reserves. Though it was walkable from downtown (a block from the Marche des Enfants Rouge), it did not encourage going back for siestas and then heading out again for the evening. So it depends on how you spend your days.

Temporary living out of the cities means either a car or local transport. A car may give you comfort and a guaranteed seat home, but public transport makes you reliant on getting seating, more costs, the possibility of strikes, more exposure to weather. For smaller towns, I would certainly consider the next town or two along a train line, but for major cities that are expansive, not so much. I live in the burbs at home. I experience commutes every day. They are not enjoyable and wouldn't want to purposely chose the same while on vacation.

Posted by
2493 posts

Maria, you are so right - a good apartment makes all the difference. Going back and relaxing in a cheap hotel room is not all that fun. So you spend all your time out, which in a big city is tiring. But in an apartment, going back, drinking local wine and eating the cheese from yesterday’s market (cheese that you stored in the fridge) in a nice private terrace is part of the trip experience. Doing this in a hotel is way beyond my budget (that would be some sort of luxury hotel) but in an apartment it’s similar cost to the basic hotel.

Posted by
19 posts

What helpful responses! Thank you! Different nuances and variations are coming out of each response, and in one post even the very concept of a "home base" type setting is challenged because sometimes you want to be in the busy city. The discussion helps with the initial question of what kind of experiences you want, and then with the variety of ways to achieve this. Great points so far, and I'm eager to see what others post. Thanks again to you all for taking time to write a post.

Posted by
12479 posts

However, I don't like the "home base" approach when applied to big
cities. So much of the fun for me in the big cities is in the evenings
or first thing in the AM. Going to concerts, 3 hour dinners starting
at 10PM (Spain!), walking around in floodlit streets after dark,
sunrise photo walks and coffee with only the street cleaners and cafe
workers around. These are the exact things you miss with a home base
approach to a city. Instead what you get is the city during prime
tourist hours, busses and busyness.

Mira nailed it where we approach big-city stays. Staying in or very near the historic centers allows us to enjoy the early-morning/later evening hours most tourists are snoozing, eating, haven't arrived on their tour buses yet or otherwise are not around. Also, we don't travel by car in Europe and wouldn't want to mess with a vehicle in the cities anyway. Staying close-in saves us both time and $$ on public transit usage.

Paris? There is a reason it's called the "City of Light": be around for that. :O)

It doesn't mean you have to stay ON a busy street or tourist-magnet neighborhood, however. There are always corners which are more residential than others, even closer in.

Posted by
2493 posts

Thinking about my earlier post - it’s quite possible that the base approach makes city travel HARDER than staying in a quiet street in the city. At least for me. If you travel into the city from a base you are getting there at peak time, running around in crowds squeezing sights in with everyone else doing the same thing, not having a room to return to for freshening up, then leaving just as it gets calmer and prettier. Meanwhile if you stay in the city you can see the sights early and late, and spend peak hours...not in the mess.

So it’s not that I WANT the busyness, it’s that staying in town minimizes the busyness! Having a nice place in town to return to at 2PM for a siesta is priceless.

Posted by
656 posts

I didn't see a post on the RS blog about this, but I found the article https://www.ricksteves.com/watch-read-listen/read/articles/finding-back-doors-in-todays-europe Is this what you are referring to?

In the article Rick mentions avoiding peak times and this is a tip that has worked well for us. We visited Mont St Michel by arriving in late afternoon, staying the nite just off the island, and going back the following morning. It wasn't crowded at all. In Tuscany/Umbria we've found that staying in smaller hill towns provides a great experience. Spello was virtually empty in the evening, walking around felt like being back in the Middle Ages (except for the electric lights). Also by reading you may come across mention of alternatives. One we found in the NYT a few years back mentioned Lerici, about 10 miles from the Cinque Terre. While not a sleepy fishing village, it didn't have the crowds that the CT attracts.

Posted by
19 posts

John said:

I didn't see a post on the RS blog about this, but I found the article https://www.ricksteves.com/watch-read-listen/read/articles/finding-back-doors-in-todays-europe Is this what you are referring to?

I should have said "article" -- yes the article you referred to is the one I meant. Also this one:
https://www.ricksteves.com/watch-read-listen/read/travel-news/july-2019/hi-from-rick

In it, Rick comments on Gimmelwald as the back door type alternative to a big city like Interlaken. That was the inspiration for the original post I made about finding "home base" type back doors.

Posted by
122 posts

In Croatia I stayed a short about 10 bus ride from Dubrovnick and enjoyed the airbnb there near a great grocery/ movie complex and a short walk to a less crowded beach and cafe area.
In Greece I stayed in Perissa in a budget room near many nice cafes and took a bus 20 minutes to the chaotic Santorini tourist areas.
Since I travel solo for 6-8 weeks this approach works for me budget wise and seems more relaxed than in the hub of a tourist area. Of course if your vacay is short being IN the city is best option to get to see/do more.

Posted by
336 posts

You are asking about bases near large cities, so this may be a little off-topic, but I think might still be of interest. When we took our early teen daughters and mother-in-law to Scotland for a week, we rented a cottage on a small farm just outside of Stirling rather than moving around. We used that base for trips to Edinburgh, St. Andrews, Loch Lomond, the Fort William to Mallaig railroad, etc. as well as well-known and lesser-known sites near Stirling. While there was more driving that way, it was so scenic that nobody complained, which seemed amazing at the time.

Edited to add that, for large cities, I agree with posters who find an apartment in a residential neighborhood or even just a side street near the tourist area. This worked well for us in Barcelona, Rome, London.

Posted by
302 posts

We found a lovely hotel in a residential area of Milan last month. It meant we traveled by tram to get to the Duomo, the train station, and the Navigli canals areas, but the trams were an interesting way to see the city. Our hotel street was so quiet, and near the Park Sempione-a real respite after the busyness and heat and crowds of the day.

We also have found that getting an early start in the big cities (Paris, Barcelona, Milan, Florence, Torino, Lucerne...) made a big difference in our enjoyment of wandering around. This was especially true during the heat waves we experienced. I agree with the other poster about the value of a nice hotel nearby to retreat to in the heat of the day for a siesta!

Laurie

Posted by
4594 posts

Laurie, we also stayed in a residential area in Milan, and loved it. Our hotel was, I think, the only commercial establishment on our block. There were several parks nearby, and we found some lovely restaurants within several blocks. We only took the trams once, and the bus once. The rest of the time we walked, but it was a lot of walking!

Posted by
13 posts

Laurie and Jane - for you recall the names of the hotels in Milan. Planning to v iij sit soon.

Posted by
4594 posts

travel4two, we stayed at the Hotel Lancaster in 2017. We were there in July, and paid €99 for a double room, breakfast included. The park is just past Parco Semlione, a bit north and west. Straight east of the Arco della Pace. Great staff. Our first room had a tiny little balcony, but the HVAC system was way too loud, so we asked to change. There was no problem, no questions asked. Our replacement room was bigger, but no balcony. And much quieter. Good breakfast, too.

Lots of restaurants east of the hotel, nearer the park. I'll look up our favorite if you like. We stopped there one evening on a walk, and liked it so much we booked it for our last night in Italy that year.

Posted by
14323 posts

My solution is to travel in off-season. Fewer crowds, low prices. Most of my trips to Spain and Italy have been in February, March. I spent 10 nights on the French Riviera in late March this year, nearly everything was open, no crowds anywhere and low season prices.

I'm with Mira. I want to be in a central place in Paris, Venice, and Rome, etc., to enjoy the early mornings and late evenings.

Posted by
302 posts

Travel4two and Jane, we also stayed at the Hotel Lancaster in Milan! Our room rate was about €125 in 2019. The staff were very cordial and helpful, and we really enjoyed the breakfast. We just stayed one night but it was a good place to stay. It was the hottest day in 200 years the day we were there, and we appreciated the air conditioning, the ice water that was offered when we staggered in, and their general warm hospitality. That’s so funny that we each found the exact same hotel!

With such a short time for our stay in Milan, they did a great job of helping us plan how to maximize our time and minimize our walking in the extreme heat. We opted for an air-conditioned a taxi ride to the train station for our departure and it was the best decision!

Laurie

Posted by
4594 posts

Laurie, that is funny! I don't remember what it was about the Lancaster that led me to choose it, but I was glad I did. I think the other hotels that were recommended to us were either beyond our budget, or seemed too big and impersonal.

The staff was so helpful. I remember I needed to send an email, and there was no place locally that was open. ( We didn't have our devices with us.) The clerk at the registration desk let me use his cell phone, and spent a fair amount of time helping me figure it out. At the time I had been studying Spanish, and my email account would mark as misspelled everything that was not a valid Spanish word. That's not normally a problem for me, but his cell had autocorrect! So the Italian phone was "correcting" my English text to what it thought was proper Spanish. Too funny, but very frustrating!

In addition, the morning we left Milan our taxi was ordered for before breakfast was served, and the desk clerk himself made us coffee while we waited for the taxi. He also found some rolls and cakes for us.

I suspect if we're ever fortunate enough to return to Milan, we'll stay at the Lancaster.