“Sugar Plum” is such a cool word. How many children have gone to sleep on Christmas eve with “visions of sugar-plums” dancing in their heads, dreaming of stockings filled with candy? Every year the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier twirl their way across Nutcracker stages, inspiring countless little girls and boys to google how to pronounce pas de deux. It’s also a sweet term of endearment, as in, “Sugarplum, you are so cute!”
But for us, a “Sugar Plum” is also a great travel destination that has a village feel. We were on the road extensively this year, and took particular delight in finding these 9 new treasures. You’ll hear more about them in the new year, but for now, here are some tasty tidbits.
1. Sighisoara, Romania
Tongue-twisting Sighisoara probably won’t be a city name that most travelers recognize, but there are a couple of excellent reasons to visit this central Romanian standout. First, its delightful Medieval citadel, narrow cobblestone streets, and distinctive eyebrow windows will equal or surpass any others in Europe. And if that alone isn’t enough justification, horror fans will want to take note: it sits squarely in the blood-curdling bastion of Transylvania and is the birthplace of none other than Vlad Tepes, aka Vlad the Impaler, aka Count Dracula. You’ll have to dig to find the true vampire history, but you’ll only have to scratch the surface to score all the Dracula T-shirts, fridge magnets, and coffee mugs you can carry.
2. Sintra, Portugal
One of Lisbon’s best and easiest day trips, Sintra is located only 15 miles northwest of the Portuguese capital – just a 45 minute train ride. The lush, green valley and hills surrounding the old town are home to fantasy castles and palaces. Its centrally located National Palace is Portugal’s oldest and most accessible landmark in the historic center. This sight-rich town is very popular with bus tourists, so plan accordingly. But even with the crowds, it’s still definitely worth a visit.
3. Colmar, France
Europeans are experts at preservation and restoration, so there are impressive examples of Medieval villages all over the continent. However, few can come close to the crème de la crème: Colmar, France. Picturesque, quaint, enchanting … all storybook adjectives apply. The city escaped the ravages of WWII and its architectural heritage has been closely guarded, so it’s a textbook of buildings from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance. It’s also criss-crossed by canals and home to the legendary Storks of Alsace, boasting nests perched precariously on rooftops around town. Naturally, you won’t be the first traveler to discover its appeal, so wear your tolerance hat and enjoy.
4. Hoorn, Netherlands
If we told you that the tiny Dutch village of Hoorn, sitting quietly on a protected bay in the west-central Netherlands, was the headquarters of one of the largest, richest, most influential corporations in the world, you probably wouldn’t believe us. But if it were the early 1600s, there would be no doubt. For it was here that the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, (VOC), aka The Dutch East India Company, began and controlled its global trading empire. The VOC is long gone, but what remains today is a pleasant village with real-life charm and the Westfries Museum with its intriguing exhibits highlighting Netherland’s Golden Age. If you want a break from Amsterdam’s frenetic pace, a scenic 45-minute train journey will make it so.
5. Dalkey, Ireland
We wanted to spend some time on the coast in Ireland, so we chose a long weekend in Dun Laoghaire (inexplicably pronounced Dun-Leery), one of Dublin’s east coast burbs. While waiting out an Irish downpour we read about the tiny, affluent, star-studded village of Dalkey, just down the beach. We don’t normally go for this sort of thing, and we didn’t really expect to see any celebrities, but the thought of having a pint in Bono’s local was too good to pass up. As you might expect on a gray, chilly day, the VIPs skipped the pub, but the consolation prize was a nice, long walk along the coast road for a world-class vista over the Bay of Dublin and Dalkey Island in the distance.
6. Basel, Switzerland
Basel, of course, isn’t a village, but it once was. As a metropolitan crossroads of Switzerland, France, and Germany it has a rich history and all the normal museums and other big-city attractions. But as always, we seek out the historic parts of town to get a feel for what the city looked like in its earliest days. Basel is a big, sprawling place, but it only takes a short walk from the bustling train station to discover the raucously red, fresco-covered rathaus on the old market square, and the grandiose red-brick cathedral with its tranquil courtyard overlooking the Rhine. For many travelers it’s a transport hub, so if you transit the area, stop for a look.
7. Bruges, Belgium
Most tourist hot spots are popular for good reason, and Bruges is one of them. Forget about what you’ve read about it being overrun with tourists and “not being the same.” We fell in love with Bruges years ago, and no, it isn’t the same. But don’t let yourself be deprived by falling for the anti-tourist hype and snobbery. Get a hotel in the center of the historic area, take an early morning walk in any direction, and be enthralled. Its jumbled Medieval streets, swan-crowded canals, and Gothic architecture make it well worth tolerating the swarm of fellow travelers.
8. Lewes, England
On a short stopover in the UK we decided to base ourselves at a Gatwick Airport hotel instead of in central London. You’d be surprised at the number of charming villages easily accessible by train from Gatwick. One of these is Lewes (pronounced Loo-is). You can explore its quintessential English high street, an 11th-Century castle, and the Anne of Cleves House. This half-timbered residence was part of a divorce settlement from King Henry VIII, and today it’s a small museum. Interestingly, Anne never lived here but kept it as a rental property. The creaky, 600 year-old house is a fascinating look at village life at the time.
9. Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, USA
In the rolling bluegrass hills near our home in Lexington is the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, Kentucky. The Shakers were a 19th Century religious group which established communal farms centered around extreme devotion, simple living, and equality among the sexes and races. They were known for their state-of-the-art farming methods, and were skilled craftsmen who excelled in simple, yet ingenious designs. This working farm and open-air museum preserves the Shaker traditions, and proves that not everything old is outdated. The BBC (and we) say it’s “A top hidden travel destination,” and if you’re in the area you won’t find a better way to enjoy the countryside.
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We hope that these towns and cities inspire your future travel planning. It’s always fun to search out places that are quirky and unique – both abroad and close to home. If you’re still looking for more village ideas for your peregrinations, we highly recommend 6 of our past faves:
10. Luang Prabang, Laos where a unique rhythm guides daily life.
11. Kotor, Montenegro for a chance to step back in time and discover a medieval town.
12. Rothenburg, Germany, the fairy-tale village at the end of the line.
13. Tarpon Springs, Florida USA to experience a true taste of Greece right here in America.
14. Dubrovnik, Croatia for a look inside a walled city that Disney would love.
15. Santorini, Greece where a donkey may become your new BFF.
We wish you all a Very Merry Christmas! May your days be filled with endless Christmas cookies, and your nights replete with visions of sugar plums. Thanks so much for all the joy you’ve brought us this year. We’ll leave you with our favorite sign, spotted at a bakery in Hoorn, Netherlands. It’s perfect for the holidays … or any time, really.
Peace and Joy,
James & Terri