Sunday, February 19, 2012

Europe on a Kiwi shoestring

Dominion Post, Fairfax Media

January 20, 2012

From swimming in the crystal-clear Mediterranean Sea to eating macaroons next to the Sacre-Coeur, expat Stacey Knott hits two of Europe's most famous cities without much cash, but with a lot of creativity

It's late summer, just past peak tourist season, when I leave my grimy East London home to soak up the last of summer in Rome and Paris. With my younger sister in tow, we wine, dine, sightsee and shop but all on a shoestring budget of €50 (about NZ$80) a day.

However, we switch flea-ridden hostels, two-minute noodles and the bad beers usually associated with super-cheap travel for a bit of class and sparkle. We do everything on our list, and remain in budget.

We start in Rome in a private hostel room that has its own bathroom and kitchen and is central to all the historic sites, which we visit over three days. Entry to the Colosseum also gets us into the Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum, all of which are worth seeing.

We also go to Vatican City, with wide eyes and craned necks, and gasp at the Sistine Chapel. The Pantheon, Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps also wow us.

We even do a bus tour through the city - great for getting your bearings among the winding, confusing roads. And we visit the sprawling Porta Portese flea market on a Sunday where people peddle clothes, art electronics and everything in between.

We stammer and embarrass ourselves with our limited Italian, and despite Italians speaking slowly to us and using gestures to point to various knock-off art pieces at the market, we still draw blanks, smile sweetly and withdraw.

Italy is known for its flirtatious and forward men. We get followed home a few times, but shoo away the men, or glare at them till they get the message.

With the historic sites checked off and the Mediterranean only an hour away on a €10 train, we go to a quaint seaside village called Sperlonga. The beach is mostly private, which means hiring chairs and umbrellas, but ever the penny-pincher, I find the free spots (after being told to leave the paid ones). The water is clear and refreshing and the beach sits below a picturesque village of white stone houses built into and along the cliff tops.

To compensate for all our walking we do plenty of eating. My sister and I have a list of Italian food to check off: calzone, risotto, pizza, cannoli, linguine and gelato to name a few.

We succeed in demolishing them all over the four days.

One of my favourite meals is a three-course dinner - €15 each - which includes a cheese board, carafe of wine, creamy risotto, pizzas and dessert. The streets of Rome are bustling with al fresco dining and the menus, more often than not, are in English.

A three-course meal with "vino da tavola" house wine will set you back only about €10 at lunch and €15-20 for dinner. If you want to go cheaper than this, make a picnic. We dined picnic- style on a river bank at Vatican City, but drew frowns from passing Romans. I suggest playing the naive foreigner card.

Find a bakery, a few beers or a nice bottle, some cheese and you're good to go. The scenery, wherever you happen to sit, will inspire you.

With our heads about to explode with new-found knowledge of Roman history, we escape for Paris.

Paris sprawls, and in my four days there I don't feel like I have scratched the surface, despite cramming as much as possible into my limited time.

It is best to do Paris area by area. On our first day we do the Eiffel Tower, stroll the Champs-Elysees and visit the Arc de Triomphe .

At dusk the Eiffel Tower queue is long, and it's dark when we reach the top, which is a little underwhelming. At €15 for the Eiffel Tower, if you are counting the centimes, skip this. There are two other free views in Paris that are just as good: the view from Sacre-Coeur in Montmartre and from the top of Galeries Lafayette department store.

We traipse around the Montparnasse cemetery, then walk to Rue Mouffetard, an old shopping district, quintessentially Parisian. We stop for the perfect meal - three courses for €12, including onion soup and creme brulee, and there is even an elderly man playing the accordion for us.

At Luxembourg Park a folk-pop band is playing in a gazebo. Attentive senior citizens are wrapped in shawls, and groups of old men play chess.

We are sitting contemplating this lovely city when three well-dressed male fashion students approach us and start ranting.

"Je ne comprends pas," I stammer. The leader of the well-dressed trio switches to English and points at my ripped stocking. "You cannot wear those here! French women would never do that!" he fumes. He introduces himself as "the fashion police" and tells me if I ever make such a faux pas again, I'll be arrested. In East London rips, holes and nonchalant looks are in vogue, so I'm horrified.

We finish our sightseeing for the day and I console my unrefined self with cheese, wine, bread and chocolate.

Better dressed for our third day, we're up for an action-packed time, beginning with a visit to the Sacre- Coeur, free and beautiful. We then head down to Montmartre and see the Moulin Rouge - going inside is not an option for the cheap traveller; the cost of dinner and a show begins at €100.

We then hit the seven-storey department store Galeries Lafayette, gasp at the exquisite designer wear and eat strawberry tarts looking out over Paris from the top floor.

Our final day in Paris is at the Louvre. Whether you are an art fan or not, a visit is essential.

We ended up back on the hill next to Sacre-Coeur, with French staples macaroons, chocolate, wine, camembert and baguette, watching the sun set over a beautiful city and a memorable holiday.

TOP TIPS

Soft drinks are super-expensive in Rome - from cafes/restaurants we paid €3 for a Coke, so stick with tap water, or wine. If it's summer, bring plenty of water for daily excursions, or you'll be tricked into paying €3 for a bottle of chilled water.

Research the sites you want to go to; in Rome you can go to the Colosseum, the Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum for €15.50 for two days.

Use hostel comparison websites when booking where you want to stay, and try to get somewhere that includes free breakfast - hostelworld.com or hostelbooker.com are good sources.

Learn a few phrases, and smile sweetly. This will always help with language barriers.

Dress well in Paris, or risk being yelled at by fashionistas.

- © Fairfax NZ News