I remember the exact moment: after a morning of winding our way uphill through the medieval Albayzín neighborhood of Granada in Southern Spain, we reached the San Nicholas Viewpoint. We picnicked while taking in the enchanting view of the Alhambra and surrounding mountains and I mentioned to HOB that, according to our guide book, this view is Bill Clinton’s favorite sight in Europe. And somehow our idle chit-chat crystallized it for me–I have everything I want. I spent the entire day yesterday exploring the Alhambra. There’s nothing about this experience that would be better if I were rich, famous or a former American president.
Ever since having this rather obvious, but nonetheless life-changing illumination, I’ve become convinced that not only are we not missing out by traveling on a modest budget, but we are far better off. A great example is the last day from our trip this spring to Sicily:
Our 8 1/2 hour train ride from Siracuse to Naples cost €9 each. We left our seaside hotel in Syracuse in a sleepy morning light with a few other passengers. The dramatic landscape of sea and orange rocks and wildflowers out our window was spectacular and with each stop the train was becoming more and more full. We had assigned seats at table and soon a young couple sat across from us. It was a tight fit and we had to constantly maneuver to keep our knees from rubbing up against our companions. The couple didn’t seem to mind, since they were occupied with making out, in my estimate, for about seven hours straight. (And by making out, I mean they were really going at it….further details omitted in the interest of discretion). The passing landscape grew even more fabulous until, OMG, there was Mt. Etna belching cold smoke on our left! By the time we left Sicily through Straight of Messina, every seat was full (we counted 80 people in our car, plus a beagle and a surprisingly mellow calico cat.) As if choreographed, the passengers simultaneously pulled out foil-wrapped ham sandwiches and, after finishing them, went to sleep. (As soon as the entire car was asleep, we realized our grave error of packing canned tuna fish for lunch–we couldn’t have eaten at our seats in that stuffy car without sinking up the place something fierce. So, stealthily, we took turns devouring our tuna hidden at the end of the car behind the bathroom. Picnic level: Ninja.) We arrived in the ever-crazy Naples train station and walked a few blocks to our €50 a night b&b where we were greeted like old friends by the innkeeper Eugenio. Eugenio teased HOB, made fun of my Italian, entertained us with hair-raising stories of commuting with his wife and three children all on one motorcycle, and earnestly consulted with us on where to go for pizza. We ended the day devouring the most perfect pizza of our lives (€3 ) while reviewing all the marvelous art and architecture we’d visited in the past 11 days, the tasty street food we’d sampled and the interesting people we’d met.
We left Sicily and Naples not only with our eyeballs jammed full of UNESCO World Heritage sights, but a feeling of endearment for the friendliness and patience of the Sicilian people, and appreciation of the dichotomy that is Naples (wild outside, personable and winning inside). An 8 1/2 train ride in cheap seats is not exactly comfortable, Eugenio’s bed was not the very best we’ve ever slept in, but we were safe, we were fine, we were right in the middle of things soaking up the culture, just where we wanted to be. Rich tourists do everything to avoid being in the middle of things: they travel in a bubble called “luxury” that isolates them from local culture with it’s exclusive access, first class and five star everything and the inevitable, endless sycophancy that accompanies the “luxury” infrastructure. To me, this is missing the point. Why travel to isolate yourself from the culture of the place you’ve come so far to visit?
I am not here to romanticize poverty. Poverty sucks. And don’t worry, I’m not going to foist some Marxist travel theory on you. My point is that there’s a sweet spot in between minimum wage-earning hell and gratuitous wealth, and if you’re in that sweet spot, revel in it. Don’t live beyond your means or be envious of rich travelers. Realize you are better off in a cheap b&b with the advice of a gregarious innkeeper than you are in a five star hotel. (We once spent the night in a five star hotel, courtesy of British Airways and our missed flight in London. The hotel had a stellar view, a huge staff we were probably supposed to tip, cool mini-toiletries, lots and lots of throw pillows. Otherwise, it was just a hotel. And I’ve always hated throw pillows anyway).
Strike up conversation with a stranger on public transportation. Ask a museum security guard where he likes to buy cheese. Watch an opera in standing room. Be curious about how the locals live. And of course, when you’re visiting a breathtaking sight, take your time looking, eat your picnic with a view, and feel grateful: not even Bill Clinton can do better.
Best margherita pizza in Naples: € 3
Me and Bill Clinton dig this view.