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“Better Zamosc than Warsaw,” says our Polish friend, as she advises first-time visitors to her home country where they might profitably spend their first day or two. And it’s a perspective that we much applaud. “Better Bruges than Brussels. Better Roskilde than Copenhagen.”
Capital cities have their charms, but also their limitations. Does America really reveal its soul in Washington or might one more properly feel the pulse of the nation in a smaller city? So, too, in Europe.
Rock around Roskilde
Of course Copenhagen is a very fine city, but nearby Roskilde, which is merely twenty-five minutes from the capital by fast train, somehow reveals more about Denmark. The name Roskilde should ring a bell, for every year the fjord-side city hosts one of Europe’s premier open air rock festivals. Yet, Roskilde deserves a visit for more than its festival.
The town’s stunning brick cathedral is a twelfth-century gem, recognized by UNESCO as deserving inclusion on its World Heritage List. Throw in a beautiful baroque palace, a fabulous museum of Viking boats salvaged from the muddy waters of Roskilde Fjord, and a rural hinterland of sleepy villages that ooze history and you have a place that could well cut a dash in the tourism premier league.
But the canny Danish know a good thing, and Roskilde remains (apart from during the festival week) a city that, while feted by the locals, is no big puller on the tourist circuit.
Spring flowers, fjord-side walks and bike rides, and a galaxy of good cafés (with a micro-brewery or two for good measure) combine to make Roskilde seem like the most relaxed place on earth. The 2009 festival runs from July 2-5, but the all-inclusive festival ticket gives access to the campground from Sunday June 28– a chance to catch the musical warm-up but also to see something of Roskilde and its region.
Avoiding capital cities makes sound economic sense, but also gives a better insight into what a country is really like. And to catch the feel of trends in European art and culture, capital cities are sometimes not the best place to start.
Hip Glasgow knocks spots off staid Edinburgh. And take, for example, historical movements like art nouveau. As so often with new departures, it was a movement fostered in the periphery rather than in great capital cities. Towns like Nancy, Weimar, and Glasgow boast some of the finest art nouveau around.
And what of Zamosc? Well no art nouveau, but simply Poland at its best. Just as Roskilde is Denmark, pure and simple.