Okay! So we've all done it! That short trip away is finally booked. Flights, airport parking and hotel are all confirmed. The cat is ushered to the neighbours, we dash to the airport, check-in, take off, and only then, for the first time, do we open the guidebook. We all too often become minutely enslaved to the very volume which we have hitherto ignored and our days and nights in some foreign city, whether it be Vilnius or Valencia, become an amiable hike round the sights, interspersed of course by the regular resuscitating espresso. And in fairness it is a sound formula that works well for millions of us every year.
But often it is worth escaping the straitjacket of the guidebook and taking a look beyond the boundaries of the city. Just as Paris does not capture all that is French, and cosmopolitan London represents little that is quintessentially English, so many capitals are among the least typical places in their country. Big cities, fine places though they often are, spurn their hinterlands and instead seek to make their mark in the global competition for the tourist's wallet. But there really is more to Catalonia than colourful Barcelona. Underrated Bratislava, nestling gently at the spot where the Little Carpathians nudge the Danube valley, is a fine place, but arguably the least representative of all Slovak towns. And Bucharest, for all its appeal, is a world apart from the rest of rural Romania. Sometimes it is worth that day trip or longer excursion beyond the city limits just to see something of the real countryside and the lesser towns and villages that often do more than any big metropolis to define the texture and detail of a country's experience, its identity and its aspirations. And oftentimes it is in that trip outside the city where we just might for the first time touch the essence of the country we are trying to get to know.
Take Prague, where the number of short stay visitors leapt yet again in 2004, attesting to the enduring popularity of the Czech capital in the city break stakes. A dozen years and more of discount flights to Prague have sealed the city's popularity, and although prices have soared and the vibrancy of the Velvet Revolution years has waned, Prague justifiably remains a firm favourite. Two or three nights in Prague has become a rite of passage for young Inter Railers in search of cheap beer. And Prague's appeal is no less potent for their parents seeking luscious gothic churches, perfect baroque domes and a shot of slivovice on the banks of the Vltava as it winds in those seductively languid meanders through the heart of central Europe's most instantly appealing city. Prague takes some beating, and yet there really are places within easy reach of the capital, which ooze the spirit of a Bohemia that cannot be captured quite so readily in Prague itself.