A Hidden Gem

Every travel writer longs to “discover” some wonderful place off the beaten path to introduce to the folks back home. Travel-guide guru Rick Steves has made a career of it. (Unfortunately, he has so many disciples now that any place he discovers quickly becomes overrun by Americans.)

My entry for the best place you’ve never seen on a travel show is the small city of Trento (population 106,000) in northeastern Italy. Its fame peaked in the mid-1500s, when it hosted the Council of Trent, a periodic gathering in which leaders of the Catholic Church tried to figure out how to counter the Protestant Reformation that was sweeping northern Europe.

The gateway to the Dolomite region is the picturesque old town of Trento, which boasts this wonderful 13th-15th century castle

Trento has everything that North Americans come to Europe for. A fabulous old castle, complete with towers and ramparts. A dim and ancient cathedral. Interesting museums. Picturesque town squares lined with shops and cafes. Old houses with colorfully painted facades. A backdrop of craggy mountains. Even some (very minor) Roman ruins (the city was founded in the 1st century BC).

Trento’s best-preserved painted houses, on the main square

Trento also has a small, walkable historic area, which is still a vibrant downtown where people live and work. It’s on major train lines (good for trips to the mountains or other historic towns in the area), has a handy city bus system, and even has a youth hostel for budget travelers. What Trento doesn’t have is shops full of kitsch, postcard racks on every sidewalk, and herds of shuffling tour groups.

I fell in love with this town even though I saw it in the pouring rain, with gray clouds covering the mountains half the time. I’m not sure why it’s not more visited by Americans. Melissa’s theory is that, since it sits on the edge of the Alps, Trento doesn’t feel “Italian” enough to fulfill tourists’ stereotypes. Fair enough, but even for a Swiss or Austrian city, it’s beautiful, uncrowded, historic, and authentic. All that, and great gelato, too. Europe doesn’t get any better than that in my book.

Judging from the ones we met, Trento is also blessed with friendly people. We had a wonderful Servas host there named Guilia. Despite working all day and studying for an upcoming exam at night, she opened her apartment to us, gave us bus tickets, helped her boyfriend cook us a terrific pasta dinner, and drove us far into the countryside one night to attend a party by her local folk-dancing group.

The folk-dancing group was one of those experiences that tourists never have. Picture a school gymnasium with chairs and benches around the sides, potluck food and drinks laid out on them, kids playing in the corners, while a handful of musicians played fiddles and recorders and a couple dozen Italians (mainly in their 30s to 50s) taught and practiced various dances from around the globe. We were welcomed eagerly into the group and had lots of hot, sweaty, clumsy fun trying to keep up with the dancing. It felt so much like the contra dances in my little college town or at Glen Echo ballroom in Washington, DC, that if people hadn’t been speaking Italian, I wouldn’t have known what country I was in. At times like that, the world feels very small indeed.

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