On Not Writing

A back road in Utah

It’s been a while, hasn’t it?

In my mind, I’ve written this post a hundred times. In reality, I’ve written it four times, trying to figure out where to begin, what to say to fill the space that has elapsed since I last wrote. It was never my intention to let the blog float silently for as long as it has, but the irony of writing a travel blog is that they’re nearly impossible to maintain and keep timely when one is actually traveling, and I found that being stationary posed its own set of challenges. In my first draft of this post, my enumeration of all the reasons I haven’t updated the site these past six weeks spanned well over a page and it all felt a bit “the lady doth protest too much.”

I took a good hard look at what I had written and—loathe though I am to admit this—immediately the following quote from Elizabeth Gilbert (groan!) popped into my head and I knew what I had to do:

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Guided by our Guts in Madrid

Stuffed Spanish Olives in Madrid

Metaphorically speaking, it was our guts that lead us to Madrid instead of Barcelona. That worked out pretty well for us, so it is only fitting that once there, we continued to let our stomachs guide us, and in doing so, did our level best to eat our way through the city.

We knew next to nothing about Spanish food (other than a few buzz words like “tortilla” and “paella”) prior to our visit, but came with open minds (and growling stomachs!), ready for some hands-on learning. Our intention on this visit to Madrid was to take advantage of tapas and small portions as much as possible so that we could try little bits of lots of things. Having had our fill of overpriced meals elsewhere, we were really looking forward to seeing how well (and how much) we could stretch our food budget… and our stomachs.

Here are the highlights (& a few lowlights) of what (& where) we ate during our five days in Madrid:

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Buenos Días in Madrid

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Upon announcing that we would be visiting Madrid instead of Barcelona when heading to Spain, we were warned many times over that we were making a huge mistake: It had no sights or attractions of any real interest and was boring; the people were unfriendly; the food wasn’t great; it was more of a “living” city rather than a “visiting” one; and—perhaps most ironically—the capital city was the least Spanish city in Spain. If there are any certainties in this life, it seemed the absolute inferiority of Madrid to the cultural capital, Barcelona, was one of them, and we were utter fools for heading to the one place in Spain that apparently no one seemed to like.

But we had to be pragmatic—with our time winding down in Europe and our exit flights back to Canada already purchased out of Lisbon, we needed to limit our time in Spain to a part of the country that would allow us to easily (and affordably) make our way to our final stop on this phase of our trip. As appealing as Barcelona sounded, from a practical standpoint, Madrid just made more sense. In a perfect world, we would have visited both, but with the high speed train between the two cities costing what it does (hint: high speeds come at high prices) and the bus journey still costing a fair amount and eating up the good portion of a day, a choice had to be made and so we chose to ignore group wisdom and booked five nights in Madrid. After all, we reasoned, if we hated it, it was close enough to cities like Toledo and Segovia that we could easily eat up our time with day trips elsewhere.

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How Much It Costs to Travel in Italy* (& Other Handy Advice)

Staircase at Vatican

The staircase is a metaphor for how your budget spirals out of control in Italy…

*Caveat: Italy is a very large country and costs can fluctuate dramatically based on where you go. Thus, although we saw more than just its capital city, it feels a bit disingenuous to claim that this is a comprehensive budget guide to all of Italy. Really, it’s more an overview of traveling in Tuscany, Rome, and a tiny bit of Emilia-Romagna (read: some of the more expensive parts of the country). If you’re traveling to lesser-known parts of the country outside of high season, you can probably stretch your budget further than we did.

For some reason, I had always thought that, being one of Western Europe’s more economically disastrous countries, Italy would be relatively friendly to budget travelers. I’m not completely naïve—I knew it would be more expensive than pretty much anywhere in Asia, but I thought that once we made it out of England and France, our budget worries would be a thing of the past.

But, I guess if Italy can rely on anything to bring in money, it is the many tourists that flood it every year. Whether your interests are art museums, touring the remains and delving into the history of the country that birthed an empire, eating your weight in pasta, pizza or gelato, or simply kicking back and enjoying la dolce vita, Italy sings a siren song that travelers can’t seem to resist… and it intends to make you pay for the privilege of enjoying its many charms.

In a perfect example of divine irony, we actually spent more on average while touring Italy than we did in either London or Paris. While I can’t say that we found Italy to be excellent value for money, with some creative thinking, we did manage the miraculous and managed to come in under budget…. barely.

To see how we did it, and how much we recommend budgeting when visiting Italy, read on!

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Back to Basics in Bologna

Bologna as viewed from one of its porticos

Looking back, Tony & I did an embarrassing number of things wrong with regards to the European portion of our trip. For the most part, we moved too fast, were too tightly scheduled, and pinched our pennies too hard—we managed to stay under budget in a lot of places, but often at the expense of living it up and enjoying ourselves. What’s more, our whirlwind tour through Europe was really little more than a grand tour of its western capital cities, which maybe wasn’t our smartest move either. I have great love for big, bustling cities, but I’ve often found that it’s the places that are tucked out of the way of the stampeding crowds that not only best capture the spirit of a country, but tend to most effectively snag my affections to boot. Despite this, whenever we sat down to plan out an itinerary, we kept fixating on each country’s brightest stars, finding ourselves saying, “Oh, but we can’t go to France and not visit Paris, and we can’t visit Italy and not visit Rome, etc.,”

I very much doubt anyone has ever said you can’t visit Italy without visiting Bologna but what a shame that is, because wouldn’t you know, it wound up being the clear highlight of our time in the country and handily ran away with our hearts. Tucked away in the Emilia-Romagna region, Bologna tends to fly under the radar of most visitors as they skip over it en route between Tuscany’s heavy hitters and the bustling hive of tourism that is Venice. Truthfully, if not for Bologna acting as the cheapest departure point to our next destination on our whirlwind western European tour, we likely wouldn’t have stopped by for a visit either. Sure I had heard the city was an epicure’s delight, but I assumed all of Italy would be a feasting free-for-all and wouldn’t require a dedicated destination on that front. As it turns out, I was wrong about the food situation in Italy, and had we skipped Bologna, that would have been a terrible error as well.

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