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.
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!
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.
If you read our desultory food interview, Chewing the Fat, Italy is by far the most popular answer when we ask people to name their favorite food country from their travels. It’s a carb-lovers paradise—the home of pizza and pasta!—and we intended to eat very well during our two weeks in the country; I probably gained five pounds just planning our eating itinerary, and it’s safe to say that from a culinary perspective, there was no country during our jaunt through Europe that we were more eagerly anticipating. Our expectations were sky high.
Well. You know what they say about expectations…
Writing this as I sit in the public library in Rochester, Minnesota, it’s hard to imagine that one year ago we were perched on tiny plastic chairs in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. It’s still harder to fathom that almost two and a half years ago we landed in Japan, wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to begin our adventure. The shift seems almost too big to comprehend, and looking over the photos from the last year I almost feel like I’m looking at some other couple’s journey, except I have all the memories and look an awful lot like the guy in those photos.
Now that the last calendar page of 2014 has fallen, we can collectively look back and think about the year that has passed. The changes, the choices, the journeys, and how they will shape the year (and years) to come. For us, 2014 was a year of transition. We shifted from constant motion – border crossings and plane tickets – to a more slow-paced, longer-term outlook. We know with certainly that we’re still deep in the grip of wanderlust, but that we need, and want, to make our travels more sustainable for the years to come. To that end, we came back to North America for the first time in two years, and spent six months in Toronto building our business, making contacts, and planning how to shape our lives in the next five years. We’re slowing down, talking about months in one place instead of days or weeks. We have our dogs back, and they’re set to become our constant companions for the foreseeable future. We have a car and the beginnings of a plan.
But, for right now, we’re looking back. We’re looking at the last year and how it will shape the next year to come. We’re looking at the nine countries we visited (11 if you count the US and Canada) and sifting through the nearly 14,000 photos we took while traveling (plus the random shots we’ve taken in the last six months of our time at home). 2014 was a big year for us, which is saying something considering 2013 was one for the record books as well, so we hope that you can share in some of that grand adventure with us through the photos and memories in this post. So, after too much ado (and without any further), here are our favorite photos of 2014!
(If you want to see our photos from 2013, visit that post here.)