Exploring the less travelled roads of Europe

Stardom can be a terrible fate. Saint-Tropez was once a small and innocent fishing village, Mykonos was a sleepy island, and what's happened to most of coastal Spain just doesn't bear thinking about. Problem is, we love these places to death for good reason. They have what it takes – good looks, warmth, vivacity, natural charm – to make them irresistible. So where do you go in Europe when you want Spain without selfie sticks, France minus the flock?

UMBRIA, A PLACE FOR ALL SEASONS

Tuscany might still be the numero uno choice for first-time visitors in search of classic Italy, but those who have had enough of the hordes are turning to Tuscany's southern neighbour, Umbria. It's a place of seasonal pleasures, ruled by the cycles of the vineyard and the olive tree. May is the month of poppies, followed by fireflies and sunflowers in June, heralding the mid-year Spoleto Festival and mid-July's Umbria Jazz festival. 

Throughout August, local communes sponsor cultural festivals and exhibitions in the piazze, culminating in giant open-air feasts. Come September, the markets are ablaze with the rich palette of the harvest and attention focuses on that most Umbrian of organs, the stomach. September also marks the sagre: small, local celebrations of food and wine, and a chance to taste local specialties.

October is a month of clear, bright skies that melt gently into the November truffle season – another seminal moment in the Umbrian calendar. One of the classic dishes of the Umbrian kitchen is pasta with grated truffles moistened with local olive oil, a dish so simple and yet so sublime it can never be forgotten. 

AUVERGNE, A DEEPER FRANCE

While Paris, Provence, the Côte d'Azur and the Dordogne are perpetually packed in the warmer months, in the drowsy villages of the Auvergne you can sit down with the locals in the village cafes. Deep in southern France, Auvergne might have been created especially for Francophiles with a taste for fresh air. 

Stretched across the slow-rolling hills of the Massif Central, the province incorporates France's two largest national parks, lakes, gorges and snowy mountain peaks where chamois and wild sheep graze on the slopes and where some of the most famous rivers of France are born. The Auvergne Volcanoes Regional Park is riddled with hiking trails, and the region's catalogue of splendours includes such teasing possibilities as the 12th-century Le Puy-en-Velay, gateway to the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage trail, the Truyère River gorge and Tronçais, the most wonderful oak forest in Europe.

Auvergne is also home to Europe's largest volcanic system, and thanks to its seething sea of molten lava, the province is spectacularly endowed with thermal wonders that also give it a thriving spa industry. 

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Forget the kilojoule counter. Regional specialities include truffade (a thick potato pancake cooked in goose fat), pâté bourbonnais (a potato pie served with thick cream), followed by recette pompe aux pommes (apple pie – also with cream, of course). 

The Auvergne has more than 50 chateaux, some of which offer accommodation. A standout is Les Deux Abbesses, a quirky luxury "hotel" in the lovely village of Saint-Arconsd'Allier created from abandoned local houses and filled with antiques.

FOLEGANDROS, THE FORGOTTEN GREEK ISLAND

The Cyclades are the Greek islands you see on travel agents' walls. Sugar-cube houses curled around a gloss-blue sea, olive groves mounting the dry hills behind, whiskery old men and a sun hot enough to melt your inhibitions. But Santorini is packed while Mykonos is the Cinderella of the Cyclades, and everyone comes calling. A one-hour ferry ride from Santorini, Folegandros is small, beautiful, rugged and relaxed.

There are just three small villages, the largest of which, Chora, perches dramatically on the edge of a 200-metre cliff, partially enclosed by its medieval castle. The food served in the local tavernas is totally original. There's matsata, tagliatelle with rabbit or chicken in a tomato sauce, and rakomelo, grappa with honey. 

The beaches are lovely, the sea warm, there are fine walks and the sunsets turn the Mediterranean to liquid gold. Best seen from the pretty church of Panagia, it's every bit as good as the legendary sunsets from the cliffs of Santorini, but this one you'll have almost to yourself. 

ASTURIAS, A HAVEN ON THE ATLANTIC COAST

Campiecho Gavieira cave
on Spain’s Asturias coast.

Campiecho Gavieira cave on Spain’s Asturias coast. Photo: Getty Images

This is Spain? On the country's Atlantic coast, to the west of Bilbao, the province of Asturias is richly greened, cool, mountainous and unmolested. They still fish for a living in the coastal villages, you'll find only locals in the tapas bars and the rugged interior rewards wilderness lovers with sublime moments. Bears and wolves still roam Asturias' quiet upland valleys, while the village of Covadonga is the gateway to Picos de Europa National Park, dissected by racing, mountain-born streams and glacial lakes.

The capital is Oviedo, a handsome, pocket-sized city with a lively cultural calendar. It's studded with preRomanesque monuments and a bronze statue of director Woody Allen, a regular visitor who shot some of his film Vicky Cristina Barcelona here.

Food lovers won't be disappointed, either. The classic local dish is fabada asturiana, a casserole of fava beans with pork, sausage, saffron and spices. Asturias is also the dairy capital of Spain, famous for cheeses matured in caves and made with milk from cows fed on high-altitude summer pastures. Caldereta, a stew of lobster, crab, parsley, fresh tomato, white wine and a dash of cognac, is another highlight. Serve it up with a dip at one of the beaches that line the 350 kilometres of coastline under the collective name of Costa Verde and you'll nail a Spanish experience with bragging rights. 

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale September 9.

This article Exploring the less travelled roads of Europe was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.

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