It’s a paradox: I’m a big city gal, but I love small towns. I’ve lived in Chicago since I graduated from college 15 years ago, and have spent 13 of those years at the ACIS Chicago office, where I’m currently the Regional Director. I love the hustle and bustle of Chicago, but when I travel, I always find myself seeking out small towns to discover. Don’t get me wrong: I love Paris (and its pastries). I love the architecture in Barcelona. I love Madrid, and the way that even toddlers there seem to eat dinner at a time that I would normally be in bed. BUT. Give me an out-of-the-way hamlet to explore, and I’ll be happy as a clam.
I think part of the magic of small towns for me is that everyone has ideas of what a big city is going to be like, but small towns are more of a mystery.
You don’t know what you’re going to find, and when you do, you sort feel like YOU discovered it. Even if you’ve never been to London or New York, you’ve seen it in movies or read about it in books…but when you visit somewhere like Uzés, France, or Antiparos, Greece, you really have no idea what to expect, and everything you stumble across can be an unanticipated delight. Also, the world is so globalized that cities – even in different countries – can have a similar feel, or at least tend to all come with the creature comforts of Starbucks, Hiltons, and Uber.
Out of the way places tend to retain a little more of the traditional way of life that might be a little more foreign, and in my opinion, experiencing that “foreign-ness” and being forced a little outside of your comfort zone is half the fun of travel. Lastly, I’ve found that you’re more likely to find friendly locals in small towns. No knock on urban dwellers (I am one myself, remember) but denizens of big cities can sometimes be more brusque and less likely to take the time to interact with you than, say, the owner of a small town café, who may talk with you for awhile and then recommend five other places you HAVE to go while you’re in the area.
I think my love for small towns may have been born when I studied abroad in Toledo, Spain.
I know Toledo is not exactly off the beaten path, but it tends to often be a day trip destination from Madrid. Especially in the off-season in the winter and spring, there really aren’t many people around save the locals in the evenings. When I was studying there, I got to know the people and the town pretty well: I knew first names of waiters at my local cafés, I waved to people that I passed every morning on my jogging route, and I talked a local taberna into giving me their sangria recipe (their secret was Lemon Fanta. Surprisingly refreshing! They also put Lemon Fanta in beer, but that’s something you see more, it’s kind of like a Spanish Shandy).
Anyway, it really felt like it was “mine”. And I don’t think you need a semester there to feel that way; another beautiful thing about small towns is that they’re small! They’re easy to walk around and feel like you pretty much saw it all in just a few days. Even now at ACIS, whenever I’m talking with a Spanish teacher who is trying to decide between the “La Fiesta” itinerary and the “Andalucian Fiesta” itinerary, I always recommend going with the Andalucian Fiesta because it overnights in Toledo instead of just doing a day trip; you appreciate Toledo in a whole different way when you spend a little more time there.
One of my all-time FAVORITE small town adventures that I’ve ever had was a two week trip with my husband to the South of France.
We stayed exclusively in smaller towns (mostly in B&Bs, for added local color), and the goal of the trip was simply to have long, delicious meals that lasted several hours, drink great wine, and….explore. It was incredibly relaxing and SO FUN to just wander around and find ourselves renting a boat in the Calanques National Park in Cassis, or buying fruit at the weekly market in Uzés, or weirdly, in someone’s backyard outside of Montaren-et-Saint-Médiers (we had rented bikes and took a wrong turn – to be fair, the route was not well marked, nor do either of us speak French…) We didn’t step foot in a museum the entire two weeks, and yet somehow I think we soaked up the “feel” of the South of France even more than if we were trying to tick off boxes on sights to see.
Just this week, I got out my photo album from our trip to France, poured myself a nice glass of French red wine, and relived the memories of that trip. While of course it is hard for those of us who love travel to be grounded for a while, it made me so happy to remember the fun of that trip, and it gave me hope that I will be out somewhere exploring my next small town sometime soon.
And if this has inspired you to plan your own adventure to the beautiful small towns in the south of France (including Cassis and the Calanques!) definitely check out Libby Chandler’s signature trip to Nice, Provence and Lyon. I’ve had the opportunity to travel with Libby on a few occasions and she is the absolute master at finding out of the way places and hidden gems. It’s open to individuals and small groups, so for any of you looking for your own small town to love: look no further!