It’s a curious thing that for some wanderlust-driven nomads, the destinations we travel to are never quite enough. There’s always something else to see, at the top of the hill in the horizon or at the end of the local train line. On many a holiday, extended journey or quickfire weekend getaway I’ve found myself, having located my latest city and checked into my accommodation, making short-term excursions to lesser-known but no less worthy places nearby. Through the use of various means of transport, a stay in one city will often consist of a day or a few hours somewhere else. For anyone else who likes to stray off the beaten track, here are some unique trip-within-a-trip experiences I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy.
Have you heard of Madrid? Indeed, I thought you probably had. Are you aware that it is the capital of a European country named Spain, and that its many attractions include a vibrant city centre adorned with an impressive Royal Palace and one of the world’s best football teams? Again, all of this tends to come as old news to most people. However, once Aranjuez is mentioned puzzled looks are suddenly likely to ensue.
This particular adventure-seeker has known about the Aranjuez since childhood, my fascination with the classical guitar repertoire leading me to hear a concerto inspired by the palace by Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo. Despite this, it wasn’t until a three-day stint in the Spanish capital at the age of 22 that I finally got to cast my own eyes on the spectacular Palacio de Aranjuez in all its glory. Only a short ride out from the centre on the C3 train line (from both the Atocha and Chamartín stations), the palace and the village with which it shares its name lie beyond the green leafy surroundings of the suburbs, thus giving one the impression of having gone beyond the boundaries of the city for a while.
Those impressed by the Royal Palace which so many frequent whilst in Madrid will be blown away by what they see here. A summertime residence for the incredibly indulgent royals of yesteryear, the Aranjuez palace takes the word ‘spectacular’ to stratospheric levels. With bright, striking colours, and a contrastingly diffferent colour scheme in each of its many rooms, the visual senses are taken on an unforgettable tour through its stupendous interior, while the gardens are as scenic as they are expansive.
When the grandeur and majesty of Madrid’s centre are taken into account, it truly says a lot that its star attraction is located at the end of the commuter line. You will never run out of things to see and do in this city, but nothing you see there or anywhere else in the world will compare with the Aranjuez Palace, so if you have a few days to spend in the former it’s strongly recommendable to spend a large part of one of them exploring the latter.
Alicante – Tabarca
Alicante, on the eastern coast of Spain, has its appeal with its long string of bars and its lofty castle overlooking the city and the sea. However, a level of gaudiness and artificiality means that neither its centre nor its seafront will ever rival those of nearby Valencia in terms of authentic, unpolluted beauty. But if anyone wants a swim in clear waters or a sunbathe on a relaxed beach without feeling like one of my customers in a manufactured tourist resort, they need not despair; they need simply board a ferry.
The tiny island of Tabarca can be reached in about an hour by a boat leaving from Alicante’s port, and can be rounded on foot in about half that time. Unsurprisingly for a place in which the sea is never much more than 200 metres away, its main attraction is for swimmers, who will scarcely believe their luck at having found such dazzlingly clear waters to bathe in.
With the appetite nicely whetted, Tabarca makes for a stunning setting in which to enjoy a lazy ice-cream or a more substantial meal, with the island surprisingly well served by restaurants and cafés for somewhere so small. What’s on offer might not be the cheapest, but nor are the prices unreasonable when the location and the lack of alternatives are taken into account.
On one small section of the island some ruins can be explored, while the opposite end is taken up by the houses of the few who actually live there. If truth be told, Tabarca probably doesn’t offer enough to merit an overnight stay, but a few hours there will be unforgettable. With ferries leaving Alicante in the morning and returning in the evening, they could just about be bringing their passengers to and from the most memorable beach experience they will ever have.
Genoa – Casella
Another train journey, but of a far more old-fashioned nature than the C-3 line out of Madrid. Genoa, despite some admirable statues and museums, isn’t the prettiest of cities, attempts at aesthetically reinvigorating its industrial port leaving a seafront that looks as if it is trying to please tourists but lacks the character to do so.
Despite this, a wilderness adventure lies in wait for anyone brave enough to board a train that seems as if it lingers from a bygone era. Huffing and puffing its way out of the suburbs, it gives its passengers the impression of travelling upwards in altitude and backwards in time. The views from the window become increasingly picturesque until the railway line reaches its summit in the sleepy village of Casella where, much to my dismay, there turned out to be nowhere renting bikes.
Eschewing my ambition to take on the rolling hills by mountain bike, I gladly discovered that the best way to explore the mountainous area was most likely through the stomping of feet anyway. Going higher and higher and deeper and deeper into the forestry, feeling the wind buffeting against my body as I gazed out on a view that extended for miles around made me feel on top of the world. Christopher Columbus may have been born in the city below, but if you make your way to the uppermost point of these peaks it’s hard not to feel like you are the explorer to be reckoned with in these parts.
The only danger is not to let the sense of having lost oneself in the wild result in missing the last return train downhill to modernity, this trip-within-a-trip leaving the adventurer satisfied and hungry – both for food and for more travel thrills – at the same time.
Pisa – Lucca
Once you’ve tired of taking hilarious and highly original (if a typed sentence could drip with sarcasm, this one would certainly do so) photos of yourself heroically struggling to hold up a tower that so amusingly fails to stand in a vertical position, you might like to know that another fascinating destination lies in close proximity to the charming town of Pisa. So close, in fact, that the exercise junkies among us might consider undertaking the journey on two pedal-powered wheels.
With the extremely well-equipped Hostel Pisa (which, for the record, has spacious rooms, an outdoor eating area, does regular barbeque nights, and is located just on the edge of the city centre and only a 10-minute walk from the airport) offering all-day bike rental for a mere €5, I availed of the opportunity to cycle to Lucca, a walled town about 20km from Pisa. And to anyone considering venturing on the same path, I have this word of warning: don’t underestimate the hills! Having left the suburbs of Pisa without much in the way of inclines, the climb becomes steeper and steeper as you wind your way up through several tunnels, before the road evens out and Lucca comes into sight.
The modern outskirts don’t exactly meet postcard picture standards, my first impressions being that I had pushed my way up those hills to see a rather ugly array of factories. However, beyond this lies the still-intact town walls, and stepping through the gateway truly feels like stepping into another world. With cobbled streets, walkways along the tops of the walls and bustling squares offering plenty of food-purchasing opportunities, every bit of pain my calf muscles went through during the ascending slog seemed worth it for the vibrancy and cheer of Lucca’s excellently-preserved centre. A highlight of my short visit was exploring the museum showcasing the life and work of Italian opera great Giacomo Puccini, located in the local hero’s childhood home.
Wherever your wanderlust takes you, it’s always worth remembering that the best things to see aren’t always in the centre. Away from the thick of the action there are some worthy adventures to be had, with only a train ride, a ferry crossing, a cycle or some other means of short-distance transport separating you from something unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before. Life is too short to stay still, and holidays are even shorter, so trips within a trip are perfect for those who like to live their lives on the move!