Sunday, June 12, 2011

How to spend 9 weeks in Europe without losing your shirt

When I completed my contract in Mexico in December without having another one lined up, Cindy came up with the idea of taking two or three months to travel around Europe. We might never again have the free time to do it, she reasoned. 

We originally considered an involved itinerary that inlcuded several places we always wanted to see -- the Greek Islands, Sicily, the Cinque Terre in Italy -- but found the logistics were too complicated. We decided to focus on one country, Spain, with a visit to our daughter in Germany at the end. 

We bought plane tickets and rail passes and Cindy began the process of building a budget-minded itinerary. In the end, the all-in cost for nine weeks in Europe was a little more than twice what we spent for two weeks in Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.

It´s great if you have the privilege of traveling with someone like Cindy. She loves to solve puzzles, and the itinerary was a giant one with lots of different variables: how many days we might spend in each place, what we would visit, which attractions were free and their schedules,  when the trains would get us there, where to find a reasonably priced room in the heart of the historic center of town with a private bath and free wi-fi. 

The bull ring in Malaga was all by itself 50 years ago. Now it is surrounded by apartments and hotels. I saw a corrida there.
Solving the big puzzle

She consulted lots of sources. The books by Rick Steves are very good for traveling in this style, which means being a tourist without being gouged in tourist traps. Cindy also consulted guides by Fodor’s, Let’s Go and Lonely Planet, among others. The Austrian railway system has the best online guide for train schedules. She also used and

(If you´re looking for information about history, culture and sights to see, I talk about that in earlier entries on this blog.)

Hotels and pensions

We started out going for the cheapest -- requirements at the beginning were a double with private bath. We got very small rooms with windows sometimes on air shafts, for around $60 a night. For a little more -- $75-$80 -- you get bigger, nicer rooms with wi-fi, a desk and exterior windows (I was doing a fair amount of work on the Internet). We found that to get a good price you have to give up at least one of three things -- location, ensuite bath or free wi-fi.  

In Madrid we paid $65 a night to be in the historic center but had no wi-fi, which I desperately needed to finalize arrangements for some lectures I was giving. Fortunately, Starbucks and McDonald’s offered access for an hour at a time. 

Sometimes free wi-fi meant access only in the lobby of the hotel, and a private bath meant you still had to cross the hall to get to it. In Granada we stayed in a low-priced pension where we had to share the bathroom with another guestroom. There was only one time when the other guests wanted to use it at the same time. 

Most of the places took reservations online, but in some cases I had to call.  Since I speak Spanish, I don´t know how much hassle it would be to attempt reservations in English. You might be able to say what you want, but when the person on the other end goes into explanations of things, it could be a problem understanding what´s being said. And sometimes those explanations are about the wi-fi being available only across the street.

Spain in five parts

Cindy had general plans for each of the five stages of our trip -- Madrid, Valencia, the Moorish South, the Northwest (Santiago), Basque Country -- and had day-trip options for each place. But the plan was very flexible. We changed the plan several times, improvised and made hotel and train reservations a day or two before moving on to the next place.  

One of the things we learned as we went: visit less, hang out more. We shortened the list of must-sees and became experts at sitting in cafés or simply wandering about. 

We like train travel. We decided to get Eurail passes and go by train rather than renting a car. In European cities, the convenience of a car is more than offset by the daily hassle and expense involved in finding a place to park within their narrow streets. Unleaded regular gasoline was selling for $7.20 to $7.40 a gallon while we were in Spain. 

Plaza de España, Seville, built in 1929 for the Iberoamerican Exposition

Spanish train stations and trains were generally clean and modern. Ticketing was computerized, fast and easy to navigate. We changed reservations several times without a problem. The customer service centers were very good. Many of the trains had electrical connections at every seat so you could plug in your computer. Spain has high-speed rail lines between many cities (150 to 180mph), and almost every town of any size is on the rail grid.

On the hassle side of train travel...even with a Eurail pass, the Spanish rail system requires a seat reservation for almost every train, and we could get them only in train stations or rail system offices (U.S. credit cards were accepted in stations but not online, for some reason). These reservation "supplements" are not covered by the Eurail pass -- in essence, the pass gets you about a 90% discount on the long routes and about a 50% discount on the short routes.

Design for pedestrians

Unlike airports, train stations are in the center of whatever town you visit. We could often walk from the station to our hotel. Every city and town had large areas open only to pedestrians and great for wandering around and gawking. 

Cindy studied maps and hotel offerings to find rooms that were conventiently located.  It was not always obvious how to use the local bus system, but when we were in a town for more than a day, we would get a transit map and use the bus or, in Madrid, the subway. 

Train travel itself is much more relaxing than trying to navigate an unfamiliar road system with signage that may not be as informative as one would like. I like sitting and reading or just looking out the window rather than being behind the wheel. 

Public markets

A fish market in San Sebastian.
We quickly figured out that we could eat one main meal a day in a restaurant and eat quite well buying bread, cheese, fruit, juice and nuts in public markets, which are fun to visit anyway. The public markets have great stuff, and cheap.

I became quite fond of the long loaves (barras or flautas) of bread. So, a typical breakfast might be some bread and cheese, an orange, some almonds or peanuts and then to a cafe for a hot chocolate or coffee with milk.  We ate our big meal of the day on European time, between 2 and 4. Then a nap. If we got hungry before that, we had some nuts or fruit or bread.

Cindy´s favorite meal was tapas -- small servings of a whole variety of different foods depending on the restaurant or cafe. A tapa might be a few greens with some egg, a Spanish tortilla (potatoes cooked with egg and cheese), some fish in oil and vinegar, some fried squid, a couple of meatballs, some sausage and cheese on bread, some olives and bread -- almost any little snack imaginable. We typically ordered four of these and shared. With drinks included, you´re talking about $20. 

San Sebastian, in Basque country near the border with France, had the best tapas (or pinchos). There were a half-dozen tapas bars on the street where we stayed. The pension we stayed in was tiny, but it was modern with a private shower and excellent free wi-fi for about $45 a night. 

In restaurants we often ordered the menu of the day, which might run from $10 to $15 and include beer or wine, bread, two courses -- one typical day I had white asparagus for the first course and grilled swordfish with a salad garnish for the second -- with choice of coffee or dessert (usually fruit, ice cream, yogurt, flan or something else simple). Depending on the restaurant, these can be great or ordinary. 

In Malaga, along the seaside boardwalk known as the Pedregalejo, a specialty is anchovies (boquerones) cooked on sticks over an open fire. I had them fried in Sevilla. 

Everyone asks about the food and it´s hard to give specifics because the same food might be prepared slightly differently and have a different name everywhere you go. As with menus in English, the language often waxes poetic to the point of being impenetrable. 

In Heidelberg, Germany, commuters ride their bikes to the train station and leave their cars behind.
Back home

Now that we are home, people ask me what I missed the most. The truth is, other than family and friends, not much. We have many things to be grateful for in our country -- greater social mobility than Europe, more job opportunities and more meritocracy. Everything is cheaper here in the States. 

At the same time, I never missed the American lifestyle, which takes place completely indoors or in automobiles. Here in suburban Atlanta, it is practically impossible to walk anywhere. You see benches and picnic tables planted at the edge of sun-baked parking lots, without an umbrella, and of course no one is seated at them. 

The major roads are five and six lanes wide in all directions, and pedestrians are taking their lives into their hands at crosswalks.

A Wednesday afternoon in Luxembourg Gardens, Paris. France has a 32-hour work week, a great lifestyle, and a huge social safety net. It also has high taxes and inflexible labor laws that stifle entrepreneurs. 
In Europe, we saw scenes reminiscent of the U.S. in the 1950s: children, unsupervised, at play in parks or along the street; children out riding their bicycles, on their own; old folks out walking, even with canes. 

Here in the U.S. everyone is running around all day in the car. The volume of traffic at all hours, and the size of the vehicles, continually astonish me. There is too much stuff, too much air conditioning, too much consumption...too much everything, and it’s all way too big. 


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