Leaving a big city to enjoy a slower pace of life is often seen as displaying a lack of ambition. But with great transport links, business-friendly city halls and sky-high quality of life all round, these third-tier cities are anything but third-class.
Visitors driving to Yilan emerge from the Hsuehshan Tunnel and are immediately struck by a stunning vista: the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean and the variegated greens of the plains of Yilan stretching all the way to a distant mountain ridge. No wonder the city has a reputation for being the backyard of Taipei.
Before 2006, Yilan was mostly thought of as a pleasant place for a summer weekend sojourn from Taipei. But then the 13km-long Hsuehshan Tunnel halved the travel time to the country’s capital and transformed this east-coast city into a viable place to live and work, not requiring a newcomer to sever ties with the outside world.
“We were quite isolated before,” says Huang Sheng-yuan, the country’s renowned architect and fond resident of Yilan. Born and bred in Taipei, he studied and worked in the US for four years before he moved back for a slower pace of life and more space. Fewer than 500,000 people live in this city, which covers almost the same surface area as Taipei (which has more than two million), so city-dwellers searching for some room to breathe often end up here. Huang describes a typical Yilan resident as sun-kissed, affable and genuine; he might as well be describing himself. This morning – on a day he is due to meet one of the country’s top film directors and a city minister – he is dressed in shorts, a vest and flip-flops.
An hour after sunrise Huang makes the short walk from his home to his three-storey studio, which affords a view of rice paddies and the Xueshan mountain range. About half of his 30 staff here reside either in the studio or the on-site digs. “It’s the way of things here,” he says. “The Yilanese don’t feel the need to live up to all those clichés of city living.”
Huang has been here since the 1990s and it was while he was studying at Yale University that a fellow inspired him to move back and rediscover his own country. He decided to return to Taiwan and set up a studio in this small city – 50km from the capital – that back then was known for rice and shallots. “Creative edge in my work often comes from the fact that I’m at the edge of the mainstream,” he says.
As the first Taiwanese architect exhibiting at the prestigious Gallery Ma in Tokyo, Huang also travels to Europe and Japan a dozen times a year for seminars and exhibitions of his work. “Coming to work in Yilan doesn’t imply giving up on your dreams,” he says. “It’s more about changing your location so that you can work with a bit more passion.”
On balmy days, Huang and his colleagues will take a dip in a nearby pond or drive 15 minutes to a swimming pool in Aland for a few proper laps in mountain-spring water. There are also beautiful spots for keen surfers, lakes for kayaking and hiking trails not far from the city centre.
Being outdoors is all part of the routine for the residents of Yilan. As Huang puts it, “r&r doesn’t have to be on our to-do list because it’s part of our daily lives.”
Reasons to move here
Most people move to Yilan because they’re tired of living in cramped Taipei apartments. A four-storey house with a small garden and parking costs about €285,000 to buy or €560 per month to rent.
Links to Taipei (and nature)
It’s 80 minutes to Taoyuan Airport, 20 minutes to get to hiking trails in the nearest national park and 25 minutes to popular surfing spot Wai’ao Beach.
Thanks to farming and fishing traditions, sharing food is common among tight-knit communities here.
Huang Sheng-yuan’s day
07.00 Surfs at Wai’ao Beach.
09.00 Grabs a coffee at Eno Café to kick off the morning.
12.00 Gets bread and the in-house speciality matcha custard buns fresh out of the oven at Casan.
15.30 Buys the latest Taiwanese and Japanese magazines at Stay Traveler Bookstore.
16.00 Gets a sharp trim and groom at Engrave Barber.
18.00 Enjoys a drip-filtered coffee from The New Days café and takes a bike through the bustling fish market to the seaside for sunset at Nan Fang Ao.
20.30 Eats seafood risotto at Small House +18.
At 09.00 in the morning Girona is just starting to wake up. The narrow, winding alleyways of its historic centre gradually fill up with people and warm sunshine. Inside coffee shop La Fabrica on Carrer de la Llebre, beans are ground and cups filled as punters pop in for their morning caffeine fix.
Native Canadian Christian Meier owns and runs the café along with his wife Amber; before opening two years ago he was a professional cyclist. He’s been calling this small Catalan city home for a decade – and he’s not the only cyclist who has discovered a powerful sense of belonging here. “Everyone does sport in this city, the weather is great, the streets are safe and no one is ever really in a hurry,” he says as he settles down for his morning café con leche. Surrounded by breathtaking routes that snake through the Pyrenees, Girona is a perfect pedalling ground for enthusiastic cyclists. Non-bikers can also get out to the mountains or the Mediterranean in a mere 30 minutes.
After completing his last Tour de France, Meier decided to stay in Girona. Part of the appeal was the friendliness of this city’s some 100,000 inhabitants. “It makes a difference to feel welcome,” he says. The fact that the city gets an average of seven hours of sunshine a day throughout the year doesn’t hurt either.
As it’s tucked away far from the busy ramblas, La Fabrica takes advantage of the city’s affordable rent and a quieter environment. According to Meier, Girona’s residents were at first dubious of a flat white that cost double their usual espresso – but they soon got on board. “Girona is one of the most affluent cities in Spain,” he says. “People will pay the money if they can see a product’s quality.” Nowadays neighbours happily flock to both La Fabrica and Meier’s other coffee outlet, Espresso Mafia, which is also where his beans are roasted.
From La Fabrica, Meier heads to his third and newest venture, The Service Course, to check in with his staff. A vast cycling shop close to the city’s pretty Onyar River, it sells everything from top-range bikes for professionals to simpler affairs for amateurs. There’s a space on-site to take a post-ride shower and have a massage; it’s even possible to have your specialist cycling gear laundered.
After a light lunch at Brots de Vi, while the city winds down for its afternoon siesta Meier braves the scorching sun for some light exercise, taking a stroll along the imposing historic city walls. At one time Girona was a medieval bastion and it remains a stronghold of Catalan pride. But it is far from isolated. There are three ports nearby, it is in a province with 175km of high-speed railway lines and there is a small airport that connects it directly to 43 international destinations, including Amsterdam and Paris. The high-speed train that started running four years ago can whizz passengers to Barcelona in under an hour too.
Many Barcelonés end up making the 100km journey in the other direction too, enticed by Girona’s tranquillity. While tourism does change the feel of the place in the summer months, a far-sighted city hall has made huge efforts to safeguard a healthy community life for residents. But it’s the peaceful pace of proceedings that keeps people here. “Everything is within walking distance,” says Meier, crossing the river as he does so by way of proof.
Later in the evening he will walk the dogs up to a jazz festival not far from the cathedral and take a leisurely stroll home. As the sun sets over the slow-moving water below, he smiles. “That’s why I feel like I do about this city.”
Reasons to move here
The Girona region is home to nearly 14,000 students, meaning smart staff are easy to come by.
Girona is close to where the artist Salvador Dalí spent much of his life.
Famed Catalan goat’s cheese Garrutxa is made near Girona.
Christian Meier’s day
08.30 Breakfast at La Fabrica.
09.00 Heads over to Espresso Mafia to roast some beans.
11.00 Checks out new bike titles at magazine shop La Imprevista and runs errands across town.
12.30 Lunch at Brots de Vi.
14.00 Has meetings with potential clients and also ensures that everything is running smoothly at The Service Course.
17.00 Enjoys a staff bike ride.
19.00 Walks the dogs and stops by Tempo jazz festival.
21.00 Finishes the day with a glass of wine and some tapas.
Sigurlaug Sverrisdóttir is the kind of hotelier who can’t enter a room without straightening a picture frame or plumping a few cushions. As she approaches the wide window pane of the aptly named Panorama Suite inside her newest opening, Ion City, she attends to a barely visible smudge. On the other side of the glass, Reykjavík shimmers. “I love Iceland in the summer,” she says, her light floral-pattern jacket more Riviera than fjord. “I need the ocean, I need seasons and I need winter too. I couldn’t live in Los Angeles.”
In a country that’s home to a total of 330,000 people, this city of 120,000 feels like a metropolis. But by European standards it’s little more than a provincial town, where bumping into acquaintances is a daily occurrence. Traffic is virtually non-existent and half an hour is enough time to flee the city and find yourself deep in the wilderness of the lunar terrain.
Having grown up next to the ocean just outside the city, Sverrisdóttir flew the nest early to become a cabin crew assistant. She had finally settled among the Swiss mountains when, looking for a summer home in her native country, she had the idea to open a hotel. Ion Adventure, an atmospheric structure on stilts, was the first of a bunch of boutique venues that have sprung up in the country’s valleys.
The smaller Ion City in central Reykjavík is Sverrisdóttir’s second. Two competitors have just opened in the surrounding area and cranes are moving in to build a handful more. “It’s a very Icelandic thing: as soon as something new comes around, everybody jumps on it,” she says. It’s easy to see why: tourist numbers in the country have increased by almost 300 per cent since 2009.
The hospitality industry’s boom has pulled other sectors along in its wake: fashion retailers, cafés and design studios have launched in their dozens in the city, many of them in the revitalised neighbourhood of Grandi in a row of boxy former fishing-boat sheds. “Until a few years ago this place used to just be flooded with the smell of fish,” says Sverrisdóttir on her lunch-break stop-off to pick up new cycling shoes from specialist shop Kría Hjól.
Fishing was long the country’s main industry before banking took off only to be crippled by the financial crisis. Thankfully the tourists came knocking soon after, aided by an increase in flights that helped transform the island into a convenient stop-off between the US and Europe. “The flight connections changed our business completely,” says Sverrisdóttir, driving down the scenic road that leads to Ion Adventure. “With New York five hours away you can fly in for the weekend.” Keflavík Airport’s packed schedule also comes in handy when Sverrisdóttir has to head to trade fairs in Miami and Lisbon – and will be vital for her next project, a hotel in the Swiss village of Engelberg.
After a catch-up with reception staff, Sverrisdóttir’s commitments are finished due to the balmy weather (Iceland is in the middle of a three-day heatwave when we visit – the mercury has hit 20c). “Given this was a nation of fishermen, if the weather was good you’d go out,” says Sverrisdóttir, as she prepares for her daily cycle along the coast. This evening she’s having dinner with her salmon-fishing club, a motley crew including bankers and TV producers. “As a country we are so influenced by water,” she says. “You’ve just got to let it flow.”
Starting a business here
There aren’t many bureaucratic hurdles to starting up in Iceland: investors don’t need to be residents, red tape is minimal and the process can usually be carried out in a matter of days. Issues are more likely to arise when it comes to finances: bank loans come with prohibitive interest rates and the tax on income is high, starting at about 40 per cent. Business rates, however, are low at 20 per cent.
Sigurlaug Sverrisdóttir’s day
07.00 Gym session followed by a swim in naturally heated outdoor pool Laugardalslaug.
08.30 Coffee and breakfast at vegetarian restaurant Gló.
09.00 At her desk to catch up on emails.
10.00 Heads to Ion City for a catch-up with staff and other meetings.
12.30 Lunch at Snaps, a light-filled bistro.
13.30 Shops for bike supplies at Kría Hjól and clothes at Icelandic design shop Akkúrat.
15.00 Meetings at the Ion Adventure hotel.
17.00 Bike ride in the seafront neighbourhood of Seltjarnarnes, ending up at a natural hot tub by the coast.
20.00 Dinner with friends at brand new restaurant Sumac, inside Ion City hotel.
23.00 Drinks espresso martinis beneath the evening sun.