Sunday, April 24, 2011

Europe on $85 a Day* - Good Eats for Cheap

David and I are planning a five-week trip to Italy, Spain, and (maybe) Morocco for $85 a day per person based on shared accommodations. This is the fifth in a series of articles telling you how to travel as cheaply--and comfortably--as we do.

This is my 12 euro Coke. After walking at least 18 miles one day in Paris, David still wanted to see the Arc de Triomphe, a half mile further up the Champs d'Elysee. Since my feet refused to take another step, I decided to wait for him at one of those charming sidewalk cafes, ordering the cheapest thing on the menu--a $17 Coke! Since it was the most expensive Coke I ever plan to drink, I had to take its picture.

Ordering $17 Cokes is not part of our budget strategy, but if you follow our approach to food costs while traveling, you won't miss expensive drinks and you'll whittle your travel budget down to the bone.

And, believe me, you will not suffer. In fact, I think you'll enjoy more authentic food, learn more about the country, and interact more with the people than you would if you ate in restaurants every day of your vacation.

To do this, you must rent accommodations with full kitchens, but, since apartments are cheaper than most hotel rooms, you're already ahead of the game. (See Luxurious Lodging at Hostel Prices.)Then, by shopping the local markets and stores, you will enjoy all the benefits of being a native! David and I are not foodies, but we do believe in eating well, and this is particularly true when we're on vacation.

Restaurants that cater to travelers in many tourist areas often serve "Americanized" dishes, but markets are the real deal. You don't have to worry about their authenticity as the owners clearly do not depend on tourists to make a living. Because they exist to serve the townspeople, you become one of the "locals" by shopping there and talking to the proprietors. In addition to finding regional food offerings, you can practice your language skills, enjoy interacting with clerks who will often kindly correct your mispronunciations, and learn a lot about a country's eating habits.

For example, when you see a dozen different types of prosciutto in Italy, you know that ham is an important commodity in this country. In the bakery section, fresh bread is available in huge twenty pound rounds or in half-pound portions; the clerk slices the amount you desire. In France, it is difficult to find cream but there are at least fifteen different brands of butter.

By noting the management practices, you will also learn more about European values. They are certainly ahead of America in recycling. By charging for plastic bags, they encourage customers to bring their own bags to pack groceries. You won't see shopping carts littering poor neighborhoods either; when you have to pay a euro to obtain a shopping cart, you're more likely to return it for the reimbursement. I think clerks in grocery stores also have an easier job than their American counterparts because they sit while tallying your bill and wait for you to pack your own groceries.
While David and I have enjoyed the grocery stores, we also love the specialty shops, too, where we revel in the plenitude of our favorite indulgences. Even if I buy nothing, simply standing in a confectioner's in Paris is a pleasure, and, in a patisserie, where every pastry is a work of art, it is sheer joy to look at the displays. Truly, shopping in Europe is a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach!

Maybe because the visual treats are so satisfying, we seem to eat less and more simply in Europe. We almost always have fried or scrambled eggs with warm, fresh bread spread with butter and strawberry jam for breakfast. Lunch is either a picnic lunch of home-made sandwiches and fruit, or we find a take-out counter where we can get a slice of pizza, quiche, or a sandwich. For dinner, we'll often get carry-out from one of the markets that specialize in food-to-go, or we'll buy salad greens and toss that with almonds, cheese, and whatever other delectables we've gleaned from the day's market trip. A spectacular salad, warm fresh bread, and a glass of wine is a good way to end the day.

We also prepare our own drinks and save huge amounts of money for a small investment of time. I make my own tea, carrying my own plastic pitcher filled with tea bags and artificial sweetener (On the way home, the empty pitcher will protect any fragile souvenirs.), and David takes along coffee and a little cup/drip filter arrangement to make his favorite drink. We carry water bottles during the day, re-filling them, if needed, at museum water fountains, so buying drinks is unnecessary.

Occasionally, of course, we do indulge in a restaurant lunch or dinner, but choosing a place often takes longer than if we had simply prepared our own food! Once we've agreed on a place, though, we find that because our market-food-budget ($12 a day per person) is so much lower than most people's restaurant-food-budget, we can completely enjoy those splurges without feeling guilty.

In just a few days we'll be heading to Italy, where there will be no $17 Cokes for us. Instead, we'll be enjoying the artistry found in the food markets, dining on just-picked vegetables and fresh bread, and practicing our Italian while pretending to be--if only for a few weeks--one of the lucky ones who live like this all the time.

*These calculations are based on this exchange rate: 1.0 Eur = 1.42 USD

Sarlat, France, on Market Day

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