Prior to the European leg of our round-the-world trip, we had been warned the Euro would kill our travel budget. But, like many of the folks I see on travel boards today, we thought there was at least a chance that the warnings were exaggerated.
They were, of course, spot on.
We arrived in Madrid at the beginning of September after an incredible (and affordable) six months in South America. Leaving South America was difficult, but we looked forward to the new leg of our trip. Walking through the streets of Madrid, we noticed how similar the architecture was to some parts of Buenos Aires. The sun was shining, business people streamed past us on their way to work, and we delighted in the sounds of Spanish everywhere. But it was during our walkabout in search of food and a place to stay that we first experienced Euro sticker shock.
Later that night (tucked away into a room that cost as much as our entire daily budget in South America) we started looking closely at our budget. We had three weeks in Spain remaining. A few weeks earlier we had booked a flight from Seville to London at the end of September (one of the few times we had booked plane tickets in advance), so we needed to make our backpacker budget and Spain mesh during the remaining time. But if Madrid was any indication for what the rest of Spain would be like – and if Spain was supposed to be one of the more affordable European countries on our trip – we were going to have to change something drastically.
Room rates were something we had little control over, aside from opting for the cheapest options. But food, we quickly realized, was one place we could take control. We had often taken advantage of grocery stores in South America so we could cook in our hostels. Because we love cooking, it was a fun way to make our budget stretch and enjoy ourselves too. But in Spain, none of our pensions or hotels had kitchens available.
While we were in Madrid, we got by with the cheapest meals we could find. Amusingly enough that often meant Chinese take out from a little place near our pension. But General Tso's chicken can only be consumed so many days in a row. So by the time we reached Malaga, we knew some creativity was in order.
Malaga was a delightful city, situated perfectly on the Mediterranean, and we quickly became enamored with it. We heard afterward from our UK friends that it's a popular destination for Brits during the summer. (More than a few of our English friends turned their nose up at the mention of Malaga, reminding me a bit of how I feel when I hear the words "Jersey shore.") But our visit in September meant we had nearly the whole city – or at the very least the gorgeous beaches – to ourselves.
Malaga was so deserted that we managed to score a perfect little room complete with a balcony overlooking the harbor. But although our beautiful room was one of the cheapest we could find, like the room in Madrid, it still used up nearly our entire daily budget. We had very few Euros remaining to spend on the expensive tapas we saw on menus.
(It was around this time that Tim and I realized we'd have to axe Italy from our trip. It was one thing to be in Spain and not be able to eat the food – we had, after all, experienced much of the same numminess in South America. But we couldn't bring ourselves to visit Italy, spend all our money on a hostel, and then have to eat nothing but cheese and baguettes.)
All of this, of course, brings me back to the need for creativity.
I won't mention how we attempted to cook spaghetti pasta in a plastic tupperware bowl in our room's sink filled with hot water. (It doesn't work by a long shot.) And we'll skip over the part where we tried to score some free packets of mayonnaise from McDonald's to use in sandwiches we made in our room, only to discover they charged 1 Euro for each tiny packet. (We opted against them.)
But I will mention how we spent some incredibly enjoyable time wandering up and down the aisles of a grocery store in Malaga. Our goal was to create entire meals without a kitchen or even a hot plate. (It might sound easy, but it can be harder than you think when you don't have basic staples in your pantry to pull from.)
It took a bit of time, but eventually we left the store feeling rather pleased with ourselves. On the walk home, our bags were weighed down by a variety of fresh vegetables like cucumbers and tomatoes, canned pineapples and peaches, nibbly meats like pepperoni and salami, a wheel of cheese and some crackers, a few spices and butter, olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette, a small container of mayo, the ever important peanut butter, the always necessary warm beer, and the freshest baguette we had ever come across. We also scored a few plastic plates, some cutlery of questionable quality (including a knife that could barely slice butter), and that tupperware bowl I skipped over above. Arriving back at our hotel room, we carefully arranged our food in a pantry (ahem, dresser drawer) and we set about making the most of our bounty.
We spent the next week in Malaga delighting in the simple meals we would make with one another. Most mornings we'd carefully pack our creations in the tupperware bowl and some plastic bags and put everything in one of our little black bags before heading down to the water. Sometimes we had peanut butter sandwiches on the beach with our toes buried in the sand and the warm breeze blowing over us. Other times we enjoyed lunch on our room's balcony, watching the world go by and hearing the street musicians perform below, as we nibbled on cucumber, tomato, and red onion salads topped with balsamic vinaigrette. There were more than a few evenings spent watching the sunset over the Mediterranean, the half moon rising in the purple sky, as we enjoyed a few warm beers and our choice of pepperoni or sliced chicken on baguettes topped with chunks of cheese and drizzled with olive oil.
During our time in Spain, there were only a handful of restaurants we could afford to eat in. I suppose some might point out how much enjoyment we missed, sampling tapas and sangria in the country that has perfected them both. And I'm willing to bet there were a few affordable options that might have been just around the corner from us without our knowledge.
But I wouldn't trade away any of our picnics by the sea. To me, they are some of our most quintessential memories as backpackers. And there's nothing quite like buying a fresh baguette and cheese to make your own tapas on the beach with your backpack tucked safely next to you. True, our bank account balance might have been too poor for Spain. But our hearts were certainly made richer for having been there.
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