Older is better in Europe

RONAN O’CONNELL is charmed by some beautiful “Old Towns”

While European cities are modernising at a swift rate, there remain within these metropolises a number of beautiful “Old Town" areas which have been largely untouched for centuries. From the Gothic town inside Barcelona, to the history-drench ancient precinct of Bologna, and the delightful cobblestone streets of Dusseldorf's "Altstadt", these are three of Europe’s finest Old Towns.

Bologna (Italy)

There are so many incredible destinations in Italy that it is inevitable some will be overlooked by tourists. As travellers try to squeeze Rome, Milan, Venice, Florence and the Amalfi Coast into their itinerary, it leaves no room for the likes of Bologna. The plus side of this situation is that, even in peak summer season when many parts of Italy are choked by tourists, Bologna is comparatively empty.

This northern Italian city of about 400,000 people is a terrific stopover between Milan and Venice. I hopped off the train roughly halfway between those two tourist magnets and wandered straight into Bologna’s Old Town, which abuts the city’s central railway station.

Within a few minutes I was adrift in the narrow stone streets of Bologna, a history-drenched city that dates back more than 2,500 years. Soon enough I spotted an unusual sight looming above the city’s red terracotta roofs. At 97m tall, the Two Towers of Bologna are the symbols of this city. By climbing nearly 500 steps inside the taller, and better-preserved of the two towers, I earned striking views across Bologna and beyond.

I looked down upon a host of the city’s magnificent landmarks like the 13 century Podesta Palace, the 14 century Comunale Town Hall and the unique Basilica San Petronio, with its dark-brown and cream two-tone façade. If you want to experience ancient Italy minus the swarming crowds, Bologna is your place.

Barcelona (Spain)

Unlike Bologna, Barcelona is cloaked in tourists at all times of year. One of the key reasons so many travellers are drawn to the Catalan capital is the splendour of its Gothic Quarter. Flanking the city’s oceanfront, this is the oldest neighbourhood in Barcelona.

It was once protected by the thick, lofty city walls that the Romans erected more than 1,700 years ago to protect Barcelona from invaders. Sections of these walls remain intact within the Gothic Quarter, including several towers and gates.

One of the most prominent sections is located just a few hundred metres from the most famous building in this neighbourhood and one which helps explain its name. The Cathedral of Barcelona is a monumental structure which boasts a dramatic Gothic Revival design.

Although it dates back more than 700 years, its current appearance is largely due to a major renovation in the early 1900s. Its decorative gables, pointed arches, intricate stonework and soaring spires are classic elements of Gothic Revival architecture. This style was hugely popular across Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s when Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter was given a grand makeover. The results were spectacular. Just wander its streets and appreciate.

Dusseldorf (Germany)

In the same way that Bologna gets bypassed by most tourists, so too does Dusseldorf. Travellers tend to favour the higher-profile German cities of Berlin, Munich and Frankfurt. Yet there is much to recommend about this small city on the Western edge of Germany.

It has a sequence of beautiful parks, and one of Europe’s most unique palaces, Schloss Benrath. But the highlight is Dusseldorf’s Old Town, called the Aldstadt. There are many significant tourist attractions in this historic area. From the modern and fine art of the Museum Kunstpalast, to the 800-year-old St Lambertus Basilica and the wonderfully-peaceful green space that is the Hofgarten.

Yet my most lasting memory of the Aldstadt is its buzzing atmosphere. This area bulges with lively cafes, restaurants and pubs. It is home to the so-called “longest bar in the world” – a stretch of more than 200 pubs that pierces the heart of the Aldstadt. Pick any bar, order some pork knuckle and a giant stein of beer. Then wander for a while and admire the timeless beauty of the Aldstadt before choosing another cosy pub and doing it all over again.