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Lessons From the Frugal Grand Tour

By Matt Gross
September 5, 2008
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(Photo: Illustration by Ingo Fast<strong> <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2008/09/07/travel/0907-FRUGAL_index.html">Slide Show: Highlights »</strong></a>)
Three hundred years ago, wealthy young Englishmen began taking a post-Oxbridge trek through France and Italy in search of art, culture and the roots of Western civilization. With nearly unlimited funds, aristocratic connections and months (or years) to roam, they commissioned paintings, perfected their language skills and mingled with the upper crust of the Continent. No one knows who came up with it, but their adventures soon had a perfectly appropriate name: the Grand Tour.

This summer, I embarked on a Grand Tour of my own, reinventing the classic European journey as a budget-minded, modern-day jaunt. Where the original Grand Tourists carried letters of credit granting them access to riches, and letters of introduction to society figures, I had just 100 euros a day (about $160 when I began, but more like $150 today) and the e-mail addresses of several friends of friends. As I faced 13 weeks of travel, I was feeling somewhat less than grand.


Nightmarish visions of doner kebabs and seamy hostels flashed through my head. Would I dine solely on supermarket bread and cheese? Do midnight battle with mosquitoes in un-air-conditioned attics? Would my only companions be 22-year-olds obsessed with cheap booze and Dutch "cafes"?

(Photo: The Gay Pride Parade in Amsterdam.<strong> <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2008/09/07/travel/0907-FRUGAL_index.html">Slide Show: Highlights »</strong></a>)
But as readers of my blog learned this summer, I didn't have to hold back. In Calais, I slept in the artistic luxury of the Cercle de Malines bed-and-breakfast. In Malta, I plucked capers from the roadside, feasted on braised rabbit and dove into crystalline Mediterranean waters. I watched "Giselle" in Edinburgh, "The Tin Drum" in Gdansk, and the Gay Pride Parade in Amsterdam. I courted composers in Rome and flâneurs in Bucharest, and tracked down my ancestors in Lithuania. I even gambled the night away at the 007-worthy Monte Carlo Casino in Monaco.

Along the way, as I journeyed across a final tally of 16 countries, I discovered that the high life was easily within the Frugal Traveler's reach — as long as I followed a few simple guidelines:
<strong>
Think like a local</strong>

Everyone wants to shop like a Parisian, eat like a Roman and party like a Berliner. The trick, I learned over a summer spent trying to absorb European culture, is to ignore the guidebooks and magazine articles, and to simply adopt the persona of a local.

For starters, locals don't stay in hotels with other tourists; they rent full-fledged apartments through local real-estate Web sites like PAP.fr (France), Kamernet.nl (the Netherlands) and VivaStreet.it (Italy).

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That's how I found my cute studio in Paris. (If you don't read French, Dutch or Italian, there's always Craigslist.) Not only did it help me pretend that I was a local, but it was larger and cheaper than any hotel I found online. My pad cost 350 euros a week, and lay in a corner of the 10th Arrondissement that was nameless but filled with character. One block away was a bustling immigrant enclave where halal butchers hacked lamb shanks, folk music warbled from Turkish cafes and low-key bars catered to the late-night hipster crowd.

In the other direction was the Canal St.-Martin, a broad waterway connecting the Seine to the countryside. A decade ago, friends told me, this was a no-go drug zone. Today, its banks are home to spontaneous Ping-Pong and pétanque matches, arthouse cinemas and cozy waterside bars. This is also where amateur artists sketch scenes atop bridges and where firefighters run drills in "Battlestar Galactica"-style helmets. One thing you won't see is a tourist. Still, the Louvre was just a 15-minute walk away (five minutes if you take advantage of the Vélib free-bicycle program; www.velib.paris.fr).

(Photo: A frugal house-warming party in Paris.<strong> <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2008/09/07/travel/0907-FRUGAL_index.html">Slide Show: Highlights »</strong></a>)
Having your own pad has another benefit. Yes, you can save money by cooking some of your own meals, but you can also throw a lavish but frugal dinner party, as I did chez moi on the final Sunday of my weeklong sublet. Shopping at the Marché d'Aligre and Franprix, a supermarket known for its low prices, I whipped up a well-received zucchini soup, Charentais melon with prosciutto, rotisserie chicken and even duck confit for an ad-hoc group of 20 friends and friends of friends — all for about 50 euros. Needless to say, it was B.Y.O.B.

At the end of my Parisian "stay-cation," I felt like a true (if temporary) denizen of the 10th. But I also wondered: which neighborhood to conquer next? The far edge of the 20th, where all the artists were moving? The industrial areas along the Seine in the 13th? The seedy but gentrifying Faubourg St.-Denis? The great thing about being tourists rather than actual locals, I realized, is that on every visit, we can pick a neighborhood to suit our mood, and for a short time become whoever we want to be.
<strong>
Make yourself useful</strong>

As much as I love city life — restaurants, galleries, bars, shopping — it can also feel dull and consumerist, not to mention hard on the wallet. As an antidote this summer, I turned to Wwoof-ing — that is, participating in World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (www.wwoof.org), an international program that places volunteers on farms everywhere from Australia to Arkansas to the Alps. For a small membership fee (15 euros in France, for example), you can tend goats in the Jura, fix stone walls in Provence or, as I did, grow vegetables south of Toulouse — with lodging and meals completely free.

The farm I worked on for five days was owned by Dominique and Cyril Sarthe, who'd run a pizzeria near Toulouse for 13 years before opting for the rural life. They lived in a big, quirky, crusty old farmhouse with a library of French comic books, a friendly black dog named Loute and a Lamborghini (a Lamborghini tractor, that is).

(Photo: Fresh vegetables from the farm.
<strong> <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2008/09/07/travel/0907-FRUGAL_index.html">Slide Show: Highlights »</strong></a>)
Every day, I would get up early to help them in the garden: pulling weeds, transplanting lettuces, carrying buckets of grain to feed the rabbits. Sure, it was manual labor, but it wasn't too strenuous, and besides, I was out in the French countryside, with the snowy peaks of the Pyrenees visible in the distance, sky-spanning crimson sunsets every evening and fine, huge lunches every afternoon (oh, I miss that chicken-and-chickpea tagine with homemade harissa!). Some people pay thousands of dollars for this kind of experience, but I got it for next to nothing — and improved my French to boot.

Wwoof-ing, I also learned, is not the only way to enjoy a "working vacation." At the marina in Monaco, I met Ryan, a young Algerian, who told me it was easy to get jobs on the dozens of megayachts that dock in the principality. No experience necessary. Simply approach the captain and ask for work; if he likes your face, Ryan said, you might land a berth on the high seas — and 100 euros a day. Talk about frugal travel! When was the last time you took a vacation and actually turned a profit?

<strong>Go beyond the Eurail Pass</strong>

For many travelers planning long-term excursions in Europe, the Eurail Pass is the obvious solution to the problem of getting around. There's just one other problem: it's expensive. A pass covering France and Italy, where I spent the first five weeks of my trip, would have cost 327 euros — more than I spent buying separate tickets. I'm not saying the Eurail Pass is a bad deal. For the particularly itinerant, it may save a lot of money. But there are many other options. For starters, airlines — and not just the low-cost carriers that link virtually every town in Europe. In spite of high oil prices, competition has driven prices down on many routes. Air Malta, which I flew from Rome to Malta, and then from Malta to Cyprus, offered fairly low rates (62 euros for the first leg), and that second leg (157 euros) was a code-share operated by Emirates, an airline not exactly known as a budget traveler's favorite.

Less visible, but possibly the best deal in Europe, was the Eurolines network of buses, which claims to serve 500 destinations daily, from Madrid to Tallinn to Istanbul. I took the overnight bus from Vilnius, Lithuania, to Gdansk, Poland, a route that's served by no direct trains. The trip cost 135 Lithuanian lita (about $62 at the time) and was utterly uneventful — exactly how you want it to be when you're trying to sleep in a standard bus seat.

Of course, there is one way of getting around that's even cheaper. It's ...
<strong>
Rely on the kindness of strangers</strong>

Picture a sweaty young American, dressed in shorts, T-shirt and white newsboy cap, standing at the side of a dusty highway in the implacable Mediterranean sun, arm in the air, thumb outstretched. That was me in July, as I attempted to hitchhike from Nicosia, the divided capital of the island of Cyprus, to the tip of the Karpaz Peninsula, 100 miles away across the Turkish-ruled north. Low on money but high on the thrill of the open road, I put myself at the mercy of the island's population, crossing my fingers they would pause to help a wanderer in need.

Luck, however, was unnecessary. Over four days, I snagged 14 rides, from a pair of artists drinking coffee in a Nicosia bookstore to a harpoon fisherman who delivered me right to the entrance of the Oasis Hotel, a small, stunning, isolated resort on the northern side of the peninsula. Only once did I have to wait more than 10 minutes for a ride, and then only because I was standing on a particularly small side road.

(Photo: The restaurant at the Oasis in Cyprus.<strong> <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2008/09/07/travel/0907-FRUGAL_index.html">Slide Show: Highlights »</strong></a>)
Perhaps surprisingly, hitchhiking in northern Cyprus was extremely safe. I really only needed my Leatherman knife and multitool to tighten the battery leads on a car that wouldn't start. Still, I often wondered (as did my readers) if this would be safe for women as well, so I asked all I ran into about their own experiences. Giulia and Catherine, two musicians who were staying at the Oasis, said absolutely no hitching in Cyprus or Turkey — they'd already been dealing with stares and come-ons. But at least four other women, Cypriots and American college students, said they hitchhiked all the time with virtually no problems. Prospective thumbers should consult sites like Digihitch.com for advice on safety and cultural issues.

What stunned me about thumbing it in Cyprus was the abundant kindness — a ride was never just a ride. Nicky Zero, a Turkish guy dressed head to toe in camouflage, bought me an iced coffee. The harpoonist gave me a sack of the sweetest plums I've ever tasted. And Rifat, a civil engineer visiting Karpaz with his wife, sisters and friends, invited me to a beachside cookout. As we grilled beef and liver kebabs and drank cold beers (which we opened with that Leatherman multitool), I wondered what could have inspired such generosity on everyone's part.

"It's just our hospitality," Rifat said.

<strong>Generosity Trumps Frugality</strong>

The Dutch are famous for their frugality. So are the Catalans. Does that mean you should visit Amsterdam or Barcelona and expect to find a budget traveler's paradise? Not exactly. Frugal people make frugal businesspeople. Barcelona tapas bars, for instance, will calculate your bill by counting every single toothpick you used to stab your bacon-wrapped dates. You get what you pay for, no more, no less.

(Photo: A bowl of gnocchi at a restaurant in Rome.<strong> <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2008/09/07/travel/0907-FRUGAL_index.html">Slide Show: Highlights »</strong></a>)
In Rome, and throughout much of the Mediterranean, meals are an opportunity for hosts to demonstrate how much they love their customers. At one restaurant, when my friend Robin asked for a little antipasti to start, the waiter piled his plate so high with thin-sliced prosciutto and marinated vegetables that Robin couldn't finish. And at the end of the multicourse meal, the waiter simply left a frosty bottle of limoncello on the table. It was up to us to drink as much as we wanted.

In Menton, on the French Riviera near the Italian border, I also uncovered a stunning example of hospitality at the restaurant l'O à la Bouche. After one great meal there — an aioli of cod and fresh vegetables —I asked the owner, José, if I could return to videotape his kitchen. Not knowing I was from The Times, he responded with an offer: if I promised to send him the footage, he'd give me a meal on the house. That dinner — sweet baby clams, linguine with zucchini flowers, mineral-tinged white wine — was one of the best of the summer. It was then that I learned that José was, in fact, from Catalonia. But it was clear from his generosity that he really belonged on the Riviera.

<strong>Redefine "Europe"</strong>

What is Europe anyway? These days, nobody really knows. Is it the traditional destinations of England, France, Germany and Italy? Is it the ever-expanding European Union? Does it include Turkey? Russia? North Africa?

For frugal travelers, Europe's flexible identity is a boon. Everything you can find in the traditional — and often expensive — lands of the Grand Tour is also available somewhere else on the Continent for much less.

(Photo: An exhibition at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Bucharest.
<strong> <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2008/09/07/travel/0907-FRUGAL_index.html">Slide Show: Highlights »</strong></a>)
Interested in art and architecture? Head, as I did, to Bucharest, Romania, where Modernist and Art Nouveau buildings hide under sheaths of ivy at the ends of quiet streets, and where the 115 Digital Art Gallery and the Rosalb de Mura fashion boutiques are pushing creative culture toward the avant-garde. With lots of hotel rooms under 60 euros a night, you might not mind that Romanian cuisine isn't quite Roman cuisine.

Craving Old Towns and Hanseatic history? Try Gdansk, the 1,011-year-old city on Poland's Baltic Sea coast, where — following the advice of you, my readers — I discovered not only a lovingly recreated 16th-century Old Town but also a hip, cosmopolitan region of street-theater festivals, quirky bars and beachside nightclubs.

(Photo: The shipyards in Gdansk.
<strong> <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2008/09/07/travel/0907-FRUGAL_index.html">Slide Show: Highlights »</strong></a>)
Cities like Gdansk and Bucharest also offer something you won't find in France or Italy: the opportunity to observe formerly Communist countries dealing with the legacy of the past and the promise of the future. In Gdansk, the shipyards that birthed the Solidarity movement are inching toward bankruptcy and closure, even as Poland's overall economy grows stronger every day, and the "milk bars" that once fed the workers now survive as nostalgic tourist destinations.

In other words, get to the New Europe — whatever that may mean to you — soon, before it gets old, well known and far, far from frugal.

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