lost and found in Europe
Travelling Europe on SA rand
Travelling light is easy — skip the galleries and just do as the locals do
Contrary to what fear-mongers would have us believe, the sound of Europe is not the sound of Syrian refugees wading ashore. Neither is it the whine of remorse that wheedles out of post-Brexit Britain. No, the sound of Europe in autumn is the clack of the ubiquitous wheeled suitcase being hauled down airport corridors, up escalators and down walkways.
Sometimes they clatter down station concourses, sometimes down cobbled streets, accompanied by little gasps of frustration that Google Maps isn’t functioning as it should. "It says here that there’s an Airbnb in the backstreets of Lisbon’s Alfama somewhere close, but for the life of me I can’t work out if this is an alleyway or a cul-de-sac."
As the riot of Europe in August gives way to something more sedate in October, the Japanese tour parties aren’t quite so thick on the ground.
The smaller, intimate destinations — Venice, Dubrovnik — have suffered from anti-tourist graffiti and a closing of ranks, and even bigger destinations like Barcelona have been swamped now that the Mediterranean cruise liners lie deep on the quays.
Indeed, there seems to be a strange fight for equilibrium taking place in the European holiday market, with tourists flooding in and locals pushing back. As a South African travelling with rands (or, like us, with antiquated rucksacks that made us look like Bulgarians) it’s difficult not to feel slightly intimidated by the hordes and the strength of their currencies, though there is always a plan to be made or an off-the-beaten track to be taken.
If you aren’t on honeymoon or compelled by "I-must-see-this" dizziness, it often makes more sense to seek out smaller cities or hill towns away from obvious tourist or holiday destinations. If you insist on going to major destinations, many European cities still have old towns or Jewish quarters. These are often quaint, relatively unspoilt and — comparatively speaking — cheap because they serve locals and haven’t inflated their prices for tourists.
While in Granada in southern Spain, site of the Reconquista, where the armies of Ferdinand and Isabella finally pushed the Moors out of what became Spain, we stayed in the Albaicín, the Moorish quarter. Most visitors to Granada are there for the Alhambra, the Moorish palace and summer palace up on the hill, and rightly so. But we didn’t feel like the schlepp of Internet booking, so wandered round the Albaicín instead. To satisfy the town’s water needs the Moors brought snow and meltwater off the Sierra Nevada, and the old town is full of bricked-up wells and closets and the bubbling of hidden canals, all vaguely reminiscent of the famous underground Basilica Cistern in Istanbul.
In most of Europe water is the stuff of civic largesse, ample and freely available: we visited communal washing pens in Italy’s Abruzzo, drank from fountains pretty much everywhere and often refilled our plastic water bottles, gulped our fill and refilled them for the sheer pleasure of hearing the water cascading over the brim.
Being the currency of everyday life, wells, spigots and fountains are often found in squares or communal areas, close to park benches and shade. On one of the islands off Venice we noticed that someone had placed a bowl beneath a communal tap. It acted as a bath for the local pigeons, which were hopping in and out with abandon. Soon we found another shaded square in which we ate salami and cheese rolls; nearby was one of those all-purpose Italian delicatessens in which you could buy a variety of local wines relatively cheaply and by the plastic bottleful. All you needed to do was to take your empty bottle, indicate what wine you wanted, and it would be filled for you.
The secret to travelling light and inexpensively in Europe is to cleave as close as possible to what the locals do and how they behave. In Italy look for pistachios and fresh figs; in Spain look for delicious fresh gazpacho in 1l cartons; in Portugal keep an eye out for those delicious custard tartlets called pastel de nata and fat tins of olive oil. Buy the cork sandals and travel on Lisbon’s famous yellow trams, joining the long queues outside Rossio station for a morning wobbling up and down the narrow cobbled streets of the Alfama.
If you can’t afford to eat out, seek out the local Lidl (or Aldi) supermarkets, found everywhere in southern Europe. In Venice we stumbled upon a Spar in the old Jewish quarter, housed in a baroque former theatre. You could choose your salami and fresh rolls while being watched by curious cherubs.
Once you get there, travelling in Europe is easy. A variety of cut-price airlines — Vueling, easyJet, Ryanair — fly between major and minor destinations and rail transport is reliable and quick, with fares varying depending on the speed of the train and the time of the journey. Ferries, though, don’t represent value for money, with dysfunctional websites and hidden terms and conditions. We tried to amend our ferry booking from Ancona to Venice and suffered for it, sacrificing our original booking and being subject to quixotic scheduling changes we didn’t fancy.
Someone had placed a bowl beneath a communal tap. It acted as a bath for the local pigeons, which were hopping in and out with abandon
Once you arrive, most cities offer all-in-one transport cards, which allow you to travel on a variety of transport. London has its Oyster card, which needs to be charged but which allows you to travel on the underground, buses and British rail overground lines. Best, though, by far, is to walk, with or without a map. If you are the kind of fearless traveller who enjoys idling your way through the backstreets as a prelude to getting lost, so be it; if you’re the kind of person, however, who wants to know where you are and how to get there, then a map is for you. It’s the best of both worlds because you can take in the prescribed sites, while wandering off the beaten track at the same time, safe in the knowledge that with a map in your hand you’ll always be able to find your way back to your hotel or Airbnb like the flâneur made famous by the French Symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire.
My general advice would be to not be gripped by "must-do" frenzy, which can make holidaying a little too much like work. Some of our finest days in Europe were spent wandering, lazily walking down the track once used by a tram which brought granite, slate and ice from the foothills of the Sierras into Granada proper, or meandering through Lisbon’s Alfama.
Constantly visiting galleries, monuments and cathedrals can make you feel rather like cattle. You’re prodded, corralled and led through the space with little room to turn around or take your own route. Invariably you end up in the bookshop before being led to the restaurant. It can all begin to feel a little tiresome.
Another day was spent exploring the dormitory towns of San Jose and San Juan on the outskirts of San Sebastián in northern Spain, close to the French border. Around a bend and down a walkway in Pasaia, next door to San Juan, the Basques are painstakingly reconstructing a 16th-century commercial whaler using original materials. The Basques know their ships managed to reach Newfoundland in Canada (often sailing via Greenland) because in 1978 one such ship was found buried in the harbour at Red Bay in Labrador. It was excavated and laboriously reconstructed and now the Basques — who believe they and not Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas — are using that design to guide the building of the current ship.
Watching the carpenters at work and walking around the ship’s hull in the Pasaia museum, trying to work out how it all fitted together (the whaler, apparently, uses the "plane-first" rather than the "plank-first" design), was great fun. The whaler isn’t ready to sail quite yet but soon it will be, leaving the Basques to rediscover Newfoundland all over again.