Picnic at the cathedral: how to picnic in Europe

If you’ve traveled across the ocean to see a great work of architecture, a wonderful way to enhance your visit is to picnic in front of it.  Beautiful view?  Check.  Chance to observe and interact with locals?  Check.  Cheap? Check, check check.

While picnicking is fun for it’s own sake, it’s also practical.  You have to picnic if you’re committed to budget travel and you should always plan on having food available.   What I’m telling you is so important that I’m going to whip out the all-caps: ALWAYS CARRY FOOD WITH YOU.  ALWAYS BE READY TO PICNIC.  Okay, I’ll stop shouting now.  But seriously, when your realize that quaint village you’re staying in doesn’t have a grocery store, or you discover all shops and bakeries are closed Sundays, or when, just at that point when you’re most famished, the markets and groceries close down for a three hour siesta, then you will happy you planned ahead.  And don’t forget about the holidays closures.  This past Easter, HOB and I were in Germany and found all grocery stores closed for three days–fortunately we had purchased extra provisions.  Train delay?  No problem if you’re packing a picnic.

Here’s how to picnic like a pro: first buy some unsexy grocery store food.  We usually buy pre-washed salad greens, cans of beans with pull tops, tuna fish, nuts, bananas and yogurt.  Now head to the market for fun local specialties plus fruits and veggies that don’t need to be cooked.   You can get regional breads and cheeses at the market, or visit a bakery/cheese shop.  Do some research in advance, or ask locals about their specialty products.  I’m an olive oil fiend, so I will buy a jar of local oil at the first town on our itinerary, and HOB and I will use it to dress our salads for the rest of the trip.

I have a “picnic kit” that stays in my daypack at all times.  It’s a gallon-sized ziplock bag filled with two plastic bowls and a set of plastic utensils in a container.  The dirty dishes go back into the bag when we’re finished, and we wash the whole business when we return to our hotel with a small bottle of dish soap carried for this purpose.

Your actual picnic will depend on the your circumstances, with weather playing a big role.  I find that most picnics fall into the following four categories:

Picnic at the Cathedral

This is the Platonic Form of picnics.  The weather is pleasant and you settle down on an open bench in front a gorgeous attraction.  Your eyes feast on architecture while your stomach feasts on locally produced yummies.  And maybe a passing monk wishes you Bon Appétit.

The Hotel Picnic

It’s not picnic weather, but fortunately you were clever enough to book a centrally located room.  Time for a hotel picnic, which actually has it’s advantages, most notably a place to wash things.  HOB enjoys local wines and uses a lightweight wine flask to store and carry wine, and he’ll savor this along with his dinner. (Many of the cheap rooms we stay in don’t have more than one chair, or even a table, but hey, we make it work).

The Public Transportation Picnic

This picnic is better than it sounds.  Most European trains are decently clean, and have a fold-down table.  Look around at the other passengers eating and feel solidarity.  And this picnic is a great time-saver: you arrive at your destination ready for sightseeing since you don’t have to stop to fill your belly.

The Desperation Picnic

The weather sucks and you’re nowhere close to your hotel.  Enter the desperation picnic.  Among our most memorable include a secret picnic behind a wall of lockers at a museum in Berlin and inside a bus shelter during a rain storm in Paris.  And did you know that picnicking is illegal in Rome and Venice?  On our most recent trip to Rome we resorted to eating stealthily from a hidden bag behind a bush.

picnicWOB

Enjoying a salad in front of the Augustins Museum, Toulouse.

beans

Cassoulet from a can in front of Valentré bridge in Cahors: classy!

picnicmatera

Pane di Matera, radish, tomato and smoked cheese from the Matera market.

mustard

Cassis mustard and arugula sandwich in Dijon (well duh!–we had to eat mustard in Dijon.)

cheese

Epoisses (the divine, the stinky) cheese in Beaune.

Magret de canard, bread, walnut oil and salad in Poitiers.

fg

[Vegetarian friends cover your eyes and hum] Fruit stuffed with foie gras from the Périgueux winter market.

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6 comments

  1. I love the idea of picnicking. 🙂 this is usually what I do when I travel.

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    1. What do you like to eat on your picnics?

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      1. apples, bread, cheese and water. 🙂 I prefer to eat cheaply for lunch or breakfast, and I save my money for a good dinner.

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  2. Sounds perfect to me!

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  3. Love this! Can’t wait to do this someday when I venture abroad again 🙂

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