Every once in a while, my husband has an idea so brilliant it’s breathtaking. “Let’s move to Spain for a year,” was one; and 14 years later we’re still here in Seville. “Why not try travel without any luggage at all?” was another, and although it took him 20 years to convince me to give it a go, he was right, it was amazing. And last April, he did it again.
We were sitting in a café, floating possibilities for our next multi-month railway journey. Our short list included Greece, the Balkans, and various regions along the Adriatic coast we had yet to explore.
Out of nowhere Rich said, “Have you noticed that every time you write about food, your readers love it? What if we made that the theme of the trip? Everybody likes Mediterranean food, right?”
And just like that, the trip took shape in my mind. “We’ll call it the Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour,” I said. “Travel by train and ferry around the Mediterranean rim, sampling some of the world’s best cooking in its native habitat.”
“We’ll explore local culture through the cuisine,” I went on. “Food always has an interesting backstory, one that tells you a lot about the people who eat it.”
“You had me at comfort food,” said Rich.
As you can imagine, just about everyone we know has suggestions about the itinerary. “You’ll be going to Istria, of course,” a friend said to me. “Where?” She looked at me pityingly. “Northern Croatia’s truffle country.” Did I even know they had truffles in Croatia? She went on, “There’s a little restaurant, it’s not easy to get to, but the food ….” She trailed off, rolling her eyes heavenward in blissful memory. Rich said, “Make a note of that one!”
Lots of people ask what we mean by comfort food. To me — and to Miriam-Webster’s dictionary — it’s “food prepared in a traditional style having a usually nostalgic or sentimental appeal.” It’s the stuff that makes you feel warm and cozy, well-fed and nurtured: your mom’s chicken soup, the homemade cookies grandpa always brought to holiday dinners, your favorite take-out for stay-home movie nights.
The warm, fuzzy, feel-good sensation is universal, but the specifics vary wildly. For instance, in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, marmite (a sticky, dark brown, salty food paste) is happily smeared on toast in millions of homes, a fact that’s incomprehensible to those of us not raised on the stuff. Elvis Presley lived on grilled peanut butter and banana sandwiches. Sofia Loren attributed her famous figure to spaghetti, noting it “can be eaten most successfully if you inhale it like a vacuum cleaner.”
Some take a darker view of comfort food, defining it as harmful substances we binge on when life becomes so unbearable the only way we can cope is to abuse our bodies. As one Huffington Post article put it, in what I consider the most revolting metaphor of the year, “it’s a dietary bandage we’ve all used.” Yuck, no! The author goes on to say, “In the U.S. we understand that when someone is stuffing their face with French fries and doughnuts it’s a signifier for, ‘I’m overwhelmed, please avoid eye contact.’” And this, I think, underscores the difference between American and European attitudes toward food. Just last night I was with European friends, and we all dived happily into a plate of perfectly prepared fried potatoes, commenting with pleasure on the delightful flavor and texture. Living in Spain, I have learned to regard food as a friend, not an enemy, a science experiment, or a test of my willpower.
“I assume all the clothes you’re packing will have elastic waistbands,” a friend commented.
Rich said cheerfully, “We expect to double our body weight.”
“And we’ll be so contented we won’t care,” I added. But the fact is, I don’t really expect I’ll gain much weight. Our plan is not to eat more food than usual, just to choose different kinds based on their meaning in the local culture.
And of course, not all traditional comfort food is fattening. We recently had lunch with a friend who hails from Crete, not far from the remains of Knossos, “Europe’s oldest city,” which we'd decided was the logical jumping-off place for our trip. As he spread a map of Crete on the table, I asked him, “What comfort foods are popular around there?”
A smile lit up his face. “Hohli bourbouristi.” Huh? “Snails cooked in rosemary,” he explained. “Look, there is a recipe on the back of the map.” He flipped it over to show a photo of glistening snails, three recipes, and general culinary advice for visitors.
“Great map,” I commented. “Where did you get it?”
He grinned. “At McDonald’s.”
I like a plate of snails now and then, and while I can safely say that I won’t eat enough of them to double my body weight, I am happy to have the recipe. In fact, one of my goals for the trip is to post recipes for as many comfort foods as possible. I’ve been making lists of local specialties I'll seek out: Greek yogurt with honey and walnuts, Kalamata olives, feta cheese, those Croatian truffles, tiramisu, prosciutto, Prosecco, croissants…
And while I would love to promise I’ll be sharing closely guarded culinary secrets learned directly from master chefs and ancient grandmothers, I suspect many recipes I post will be from online resources. I’ve set up a page on this website called “Comfort Recipes” where I’ll post recipes of foods we try on the journey, plus Comfort Food to Cook on the Road, dishes whose preparation requires few ingredients and the kind of basic utensils you'd find in a rental apartment kitchen. If there's an oven in our Airbnb, I'll likely be making Three-Ingredient Brownies. Can you guess what’s in them? Nope, that’s not it. Not that, either. OK, I’ll spill: bananas, crunchy almond butter (I use crunchy peanut butter instead), and unsweetened cocoa. It's the perfect finish to a meal of Smoked Salmon Pasta Cooked in a Skillet, especially on nights we want to kick back in our home away from home.
Rich and I keep rearranging the itinerary as we discover intriguing new fare: North Macedonia’s tavče gravče, Croatia’s crni rizot, and Slovenia’s potatoes, said to be so good that locals indicate you’re lucky by commenting, “Well, you really have some potatoes!”
One restaurant that Rich has been talking about for years is Albania’s Ali Kali, where the owner brings your grilled fish to the table riding on the back of a trick horse.
Yes, presentation really is everything! I’ve mentioned Ali Kali to many people, and not all of them share Rich’s enthusiasm. Some consider it dubious on many levels, starting with taste, hygiene, and whether it’s OK to teach animals to perform tricks. But I have learned to trust Rich’s “sniffer,” his nose for special experiences, especially those involving food. So while we expect our route to change many times as our whimsy takes us through Europe, the Ali Kali is a fixed star on our horizon.
We leave April 20 and expect to be back in Spain somewhere around August-ish.
Don't miss a single comfort food adventure!
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“I’m trying Airbnb for the first time,” a friend confided recently. “But I’m just not sure what it’ll be like staying in someone’s home, sharing their space — let’s be honest, sharing their bathroom with them.”
“You do know you can rent whole apartments,” I said. “Have the entire place to yourself. That’s what we always do.”
Newcomers to the Airbnb world sometimes arrive thinking the whole point is to bond with super-cool hosts. That’s wonderful when it happens (yes, I’m thinking of you, Erge and Martin), but to me, the major draw is the accommodations themselves. You can rent whole houses, boats, even (I've heard) castles. We don't aim that high, but the places we stay have character and creature comforts — sometimes delivered in unexpected ways.
Take our stay in Braşov, Transylvania.
The online photos looked inviting. Walking into it, I said to Rich, “Yikes! We’ve rented Harry Potter’s bedroom under the stairs.” Aside from a tiny lavatory, there were two rooms: one entirely filled by a double bed, the other a minuscule kitchen with a small table and two straight-backed chairs. However, it didn’t take long to appreciate the compact kitchen’s enormous advantages.
“Look at this,” I said to Rich. “I can sit right here and do everything — write blog posts, watch movies on the computer, get a glass of water from the tap, pull something from the fridge, even do dishes — all without leaving this chair. Cozy and efficient. Ya gotta love it.”
Over the years, we've stayed in 31 Airbnb apartments and have learned a lot about navigating the options. But we are total rookies compared to retirees Debbie and Michael Campbell, aka the Senior Nomads, who have been on the road since 2013 and are currently in their 212th Airbnb home. What was it like to be a nomad? I wondered. What had they learned? I decided to ask them.
Why did you become nomads?
Michael: Debbie had said for some time, “We have one more adventure in us!” And that is saying something, since we have been fortunate to have had a life full of interesting endeavors.
Debbie: Then our daughter Mary, who lives in Paris with her young family, asked us if we’d ever heard of Airbnb. We had not. She suggested it might be possible for us to travel full-time as a way of retired living. We were convinced she thought we had way more money than we did. But in fact, after doing some initial budgets based on selling absolutely everything we owned, we realized that yes, for about the same amount we’d spend if we’d retired in Seattle, we could live our daily lives in other people’s homes around the world! Within six months of Mary’s visit, we had sold our worldly goods (and eventually sold our home) and were heading to Paris.
How long have you been traveling?
Debbie: We’ve been on the road as Senior Nomads (as we call ourselves) for almost six years! Since we left in July of 2013, we’ve visited 6 continents, 82 countries and 275 cities, and we don’t see ourselves stopping any time soon.
Michael: In fact, when we are asked how long we will continue this lifestyle, our answer is “As long as we are learning every day, having fun, close to our budget, healthy, and still in love, we’ll keep going.” So far, so good!
How many Airbnbs have you stayed in?
Michael: We are currently in Santiago, Chile in our 212th Airbnb. When we are not in an Airbnb we stay with friends or family, and have found a reliable house-sitting situation we use when we return “home” to Seattle each year for the holidays.
What are the biggest challenges of the lifestyle?
Debbie: Travel fatigue. Sometimes we spend an entire day, and I am talking 20 hours, getting from one place to another on multiple forms of transportation. That means managing our luggage on-and-off and in-and-out of various vehicles, and once we arrive either hauling it up more stairs than we anticipated, or taking two trips in tiny elevators. But once we are settled in, it all becomes worth it. And, since we are not on vacation, we have the luxury of not being in a hurry the next day.
How much luggage do you take?
Michael: Our mantra is “If you can’t eat it, drink it, get somewhere on it, or attend it, don’t spend money on it.”
Debbie: We lug two large rolling-duffle suitcases and we fill them to the brim at 23 kilos each — which is usually the weight limit on the airlines we use. I am sure we overpack, but since we are on the road for almost a year at a time we include some creature comforts including our personal bed pillows. We try to never be over the weight limit — so if we buy new shoes, an old pair has to go! Besides our two workhorse suitcases, we each carry a day pack, and I have a “Mary Poppins” style purse that expands to hold whatever still needs tucking away.
Do you miss family and friends?
Debbie: Of course, but we are constantly making new friends as we go. That’s why, for us it is important to meet our Airbnb hosts. We consider them our “friend in the next city”. We count on them to help us live as locally as possible — and we usually end up socializing with them as well.
Michael: We have four grown children and five grandchildren, and we are frequently in touch via Facetime or Skype. We also visit Mary and her family in France often and see the others when we are in the US.
What are some tips for traveling with your spouse?
Debbie: First of all, don’t try this with anyone but your best friend! After that, patience, flexibility and a willingness to “let the little things go” become the keys to success. That, and some alone time that might include being apart for a day.
Michael: We have been married for 40 years, so we know each other pretty well. But as it is for most married couples, we were busy with careers and raising kids and didn’t spend every minute together, and sometimes we were at cross purposes. But since we began this journey, I think we are “rowing the boat in the same direction— like an Olympic crew team, we are in sync with a common goal in mind.
What life lessons have you learned from being on the road so long?
Michael: We’ve exchanged things for experiences. So as long as we are safe and sheltered, we can say we are “home” wherever we are. That allows us to live in the moment and become more tolerant, open-minded, curious and — maybe best of all — empathic. By that I mean we acknowledge there are many ways of approaching life, and especially as Americans, we don’t have all the answers to what is the right way.
Debbie: I have learned the freedom that comes with owning next to nothing, and the joy of slowing down.
Do you enjoy traveling with next to nothing? Have you stayed in a memorable Airbnb — or other rental? Tell me about your experiences. Any tips to pass along?
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“This place has the worst food in all of Seville,” I told a new acquaintance, as we sat down at a small outdoor table. “And the staff is downright hostile. We eat here every week.”
The restaurant (which shall remain nameless) is strictly old school with dark wood, tile floors, a long bar, and a giant espresso machine. It happens to be the only eatery within shouting distance of the yoga studio I go to on Saturday mornings, and as everyone’s weekends are busy, we opt for the convenience. Over the years, the quality of the ham (a mainstay of breakfast in Seville) has deteriorated from passable to leathery to ghastly. And don’t even think about asking for any newfangled nonsense like whole wheat bread or avocado because it’s simply not happening.
But it’s the hostility that’s truly astonishing. Maybe it’s because we arrive just before noon, the traditional cut-off for serving breakfast, forcing them to toast bread and make coffee for an extra fifteen minutes. “But isn’t that what they’re in business to do?” newcomers always ask in bewilderment. One would think. Maybe it’s because our yoga class is taught by an Englishwoman and attracts foreign students; they might feel we’re lowering the tone of the establishment. Who knows?
Whatever sparked the conflict, they’ve taken the battle to the bathrooms. The Ladies’ lost its toilet seat ages ago, and a rag is now duct-taped in the opening that once held the doorknob. The automatic light shuts off so rapidly that even the most efficient user finds herself plunged into darkness at various awkward moments during the proceedings, requiring her to leap up and flap her hands in the air to restore illumination. Each week as we arrive, the tile floor around the rest rooms is mopped, creating a slippery hazard. Just this Saturday they upped the ante by pouring eye-watering caustic chemicals — I’m guessing bleach mixed with radioactive waste — into the toilet; the bartender walked out of the Ladies’, holding the bucket and grinning, as I headed in.
Yet all week I look forward to spending time in that restaurant. Because much as I dislike the food, the attitude, and the lavatory, I love hanging out with my yoga friends. In Seville, choosing a place to eat is as much about tribal identity as it is about the particulars. As I sipped my coffee there last Saturday, I got to thinking about the three main food tribes in this city.
The Traditional Tribe
When I first arrived in Seville, just about every eatery served the same classic tapas, such as carrillada (pork cheeks), tortilla de España (Spanish omelet), and solomillo al whisky (braised pork with whisky sauce). Traditional bars tend to have gorgeous old tiles, ham legs hanging from the ceiling, and somebody’s abuela (grandmother) in the kitchen, making food the way her abuela taught her back in the days of Franco and food shortages. These dishes are simple, practical, and thrifty. Innovation and spices have no place on the menu.
The Foodie Tribe
The city’s recent foodie revolution couldn’t have been more shocking to local sensibilities if it had arrived in the city by flying saucer. Seemingly overnight we had Thai food, Peruvian-Japanese restaurants, Mexican taquerias, and impossible-to-define fusion places with amusing light fixtures and bewildering menus. If you’re heading to Seville, here are some you might want to check out.
Bar Castizo, Calle Zaragoza, 6. They define their cuisine as old-school, and many dishes are, but they’re produced with artistic flourishes that demonstrate cutting-edge foodie sensibilities. The setting is charmingly hip. Don’t miss the rest rooms walls covered with domino tiles.
Contenedor, San Luis, 50. Here you’ll find eclectic decor and some of the best eats in the city. On your way out, you’ll want to use the self-operated antique printing machine to print up a card so you can find your way back.
Eslava, Eslava, 3. This one's so popular you'll have to come early to have any chance of elbowing your way into the crowded bar and back room; avoid the more formal restaurant area, as it's not worth the extra cost.
Mamarracha Tapas y Brasas, Hernando Colon, 1 - 3. It describes itself as having urbanite conceptual character. Whatever that is. There’s a lovely vertical garden and offerings such as Thai salmon with seaweed; the food never disappoints.
Zalata, Doña Maria Coronel, 17. A cozy place with international dishes arranged so artistically they’re almost too gorgeous to dig into. And yet we do. Rich maintains their arroz negro (black rice) is the best in the city.
The Organic Tribe
With the profusion of Airbnb apartments in the city, eating in has become more popular with vacationers, especially foreigners used to organic produce and products. This is a boon to the city’s up-and-coming health food industry. Some friends and I recently attended the third annual BioCultura, “an ecological products and responsible consumerism fair.” We spent several happy hours nibbling and sipping our way through the free samples, chatting with cheerfully eccentric vendors who were delighted when we purchased their olive oil, wine, and chorizo. (How is chorizo a health food? Made from pigs raised on granola and tofu, perhaps? I never did learn for sure.)
I was delighted to run across some oatmeal, which is sold only in health food shops and not always easy to find. When I carried two large bags of rolled oats to the counter, the clerk shook her head. “We won’t sell you that.”
It took me some time to grasp what she was telling me: all the food in this, the largest booth in the entire fair, was for display purposes only.
“If we sold it to you,” she explained in a “well, duh!” tone of voice, “we wouldn’t have any to display!”
Ah, now I was on familiar ground. This store, like the restaurant I go to after yoga, exists for the convenience of the staff, not the customers. Perhaps the tribes aren’t that far apart after all.
Many of us are lucky enough to move back and forth from one tribe to another. I make my own granola, Rich cooks traditional paella, and we often go out with friends to trendy new hotspots and old-style café-bars where abuelas rule the kitchen. And despite all the recent changes, it’s clear that the Sevillanos have not lost their traditional attitude towards eating. They have taught me that food is one of the great pleasures of life, and even the simplest meal should be embraced as if it were a gift. Because it is.
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“Wait, don’t eat that yet, let me get a shot of it.”
When seriously gorgeous food hits the table, my husband knows there will be a short delay while I try to capture an image that does it justice. I’ve learned to work fast so our food doesn’t get too cold and Rich's hunger doesn’t get too acute. For most of us, a few quick clicks are enough and we’re ready to dive into the meal. But every once in a while I stumble across someone who takes food photography to a much higher level, crafting each shot like a classic painting. When I discovered the mouthwatering images shot by Croatian photographer Lili Basic on her Traveling Oven website, I kept saying to myself, “How does she do that?”
I decided to find out. So I wrote to Lili at her home in Zagreb and asked if she would share a few of her food photography secrets with us.
What is your earliest memory of photography?
My interest in photography started when I was about 14 or 15 years old and I got my first camera as a gift from my parents (no smartphones at that time!). It was nothing fancy but it was pink and it was a camera so I was the happiest girl. At that time I wasn’t interested in learning anything technical about photography; I simply enjoyed taking pictures.
You were born in Dubrovnik and lived in Scotland, Kazakhstan, Turkey, and Switzerland before returning to Croatia and settling in Zagreb. Do you find that photographing an unknown city is a good way to get to know its character?
Oh definitely! I enjoy discovering new places with a camera in my hands. Because of it, I pay more attention to details and especially those areas that are not very touristy — the hidden alleys, narrow streets, and corners where you discover the true charm and character of the city. Having said that, sometimes it’s also nice to just walk around the new place without a camera, taking in the moment and not carrying heavy gear all the time.
What do you hope your photos say to others?
The most important thing for me is that my photos evoke emotions in viewers and that they tell a story. When somebody writes to me to say that my photo touched them in some way or made them remember a special moment — a smell or taste from their childhood or something like that — it makes me emotional every single time. And that is the main reason why I love photography so much.
When did you start doing professional photography?
In my mid 30s. All the time before that, I felt like something was missing in my life. Photography is so much more than a job to me, it’s the way I express myself and how I process a lot of my emotions and life challenges; it’s how I see and experience the world around me. I am forever grateful that I managed to get the courage I needed to start learning photography, building my business, and pursuing my dreams.
What drew you to food photography?
In 2014 I started taking my photography more seriously, learning and practicing every single day. I lived in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. It was winter at the time, and the winters there are very harsh and very, very cold — like -45 Celsius cold! So obviously, during the winter months you spend a lot of time inside. That meant that my usual subjects like travel, architecture, nature, etc. were all impossible to shoot; I had to come up with something interesting I could shoot at home. And that’s how I discovered the world of food photography and fell in love straight away!
You use only natural light. Why?
Light is what makes the photo beautiful and sometimes exceptional, and it helps in storytelling, too. I adore natural light, the play of light and shadows, the contrast it creates. For those learning to shoot food in natural light, I advise you to study the light in the area where you shoot — how it changes during the day, when it gets warmer and colder, when you get direct sunlight and when it’s softer light. The best light for food photography is the soft, diffused light we get on an overcast day; the worst is direct harsh sunlight. It’s best to have only one light source, such as a window, and to place your subject so that the light comes from the side ('sidelight') or from behind ('backlight'). Avoid placing the subject with light coming from the front, as that will result in a flat image with no contrast, and that is not visually pleasing.
You took your photography to the next level with the online Photography Institute. What are some of the lessons you learned there?
The Photography Institute gave me a great starting point in my photography journey. They taught me the technical side and some basic principles. For instance there’s the 'rule of thirds.' Imagine breaking an image down into thirds (both horizontally and vertically) so that there are 9 parts. If we place our subject in the intersections or along the lines, the photo becomes more balanced without becoming static, enabling the viewer to interact with it more naturally. I also learned about negative space, the area around the main subject in a photo. Negative space defines and emphasizes the main subject, drawing our eyes to it. It gives our eyes somewhere to rest and prevents an image from appearing too cluttered.
Are there bad photography habits that people should let go of?
For one thing, over-editing a photo (it’s good to know when to stop!).
How do you know when you’ve taken a truly outstanding shot?
Well, that definitely doesn’t happen on every shoot, especially for a perfectionist like myself. But honestly, you just feel it. I get really excited like a little kid when I feel that everything is working so well together: light, subject, colors, textures, shapes, composition — and that’s when I know I’m getting ‘the shot’!
I’ll probably never produce masterpiece food photos like Lili’s, but she’s given me a lot to think about and play around with in my own work. To enjoy more of her mouthwatering images visit Lili's Instagram page and her Traveling Oven website.
And for those of my readers who enjoy photographing food, I’d love to hear your best tips and secrets of success. Of course, your disaster stories are always welcome as well!
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During one of our early visits to Spain, long before we’d ever imagined moving here, Rich rented a car to drive some American friends to a mountain village we’d heard was particularly quaint. It proved to be as adorable as I’d hoped, with slightly crumbling whitewashed houses, potted geraniums, and a small central plaza where grizzled old men sat taking their ease on a weathered park bench. As we zipped by, one of the men waved and shouted, “Estrecho! Estrecho!”
Hmmm. The word sounded familiar from my Spanish classes. A greeting, perhaps? I couldn’t quite put my finger on the meaning … It wasn’t until our rental car was wedged firmly between two stone walls at a bend in the ever-skinnier back lanes that it came to me. “Narrow!” I exclaimed. But of course by then it was too late to avoid disaster.
“What are we going to do?” asked one of our friends from the back seat. “Climb out the sunroof and abandon the vehicle? Call for a helicopter to airlift us out?”
But Rich is made of sterner stuff. He kept inching forward and back, under the amused gaze of every able-bodied resident of the village, until eventually, with considerable shrieking of metal and loss of paint, he worked the car free. We took another route gingerly back to the plaza, and there, beside the men’s bench, we noticed a very large sign advising everyone to park there and walk.
We now take such signs very seriously. In fact, we’ve made it one of our goals in life never to drive in Europe again if we can help it.
This is not a commentary on the difficulty of negotiating European roads and traffic. Oh sure, they can be a bit daunting, but hey, Rich and I are both hardened veterans of Boston’s back streets, New York City at rush hour, and those desolate Arizona highways where UFOs are so frequently spotted. I grew up in California’s car culture, in an area with very limited public transit, and cars really were the only practical way to get around. I bought into the belief that driving long distances is a uniquely American style of independence; it’s practically patriotic (as our gas companies and car manufacturers will be the first to tell you).
But now that I live in Spain, with excellent rail service to all of Europe and beyond, I’m delighted to abandon the “freedom of the road” in favor of the luxury of stress-free travel. I no longer wrestle with maps, panic when the GPS cuts out, or engage in heated discussions about why we missed our turn. I don’t need to try to figure out the meaning of road signs, comply with Byzantine parking restrictions, or fret about dings and scratches. Instead, I sit in civilized comfort with my coffee, Kindle, and relaxed travel companion, enjoying the scenery and chatting with fellow passengers.
Rich likes to pass the time playing with his food. Try doing this while driving a car — or come to think of it, don't!
Incredibly, many of my fellow Americans do not share my sentiments on the subject of trains, and 27 million of them will be renting cars this year during visits to Europe. Even our closest friends and relatives seem surprised we don’t think this is a sound idea. We often have to work very hard to dissuade them from renting a car at the Seville airport, driving it into our neighborhood in the center of town (a nightmare of Biblical proportions), seeking a parking place for upwards of a couple of hours, and finally giving up and driving to the city outskirts to deposit the car at a large parking garage, where it will remain for the duration of their stay.
“It just feels wrong not to have a car,” they tell us, after Rich and I have spent half an hour traversing the city on foot to collect them from the car park. “We don’t want to be an imposition.”
Another firmly embedded belief is that cars are somehow faster and more efficient than trains. In fact, if you’re traveling between European cities —from London to Paris, say, or Amsterdam to Brussels — you’ll find railways are not only quicker than driving, they’re often quicker than flying. Last September, when Rich and I took the high-speed Eurostar from London to Paris via the Chunnel, we shaved nine minutes off the time it would have taken by plane; not much, I’ll admit, but still, that was nine more minutes in Paris — and nine minutes we didn't have to spend in a dreary airport lounge.
Average Time Saved Traveling by Train Instead of Plane
Another great thing about trains is that they connect to other forms of public transit such as ferries and buses, meaning there’s virtually no part of Europe you can’t reach. So how do you figure out what is the fastest way to get from Point A to Point B in unfamiliar countries? Rich starts his transportation research with an app called Rome2rio. You type in the city of origin and your destination, and it lets you know the time and cost of various transit configurations involving trains, buses, ferries, cars, and planes. Rich then consults the DB Navigator app for fuller details about stations, timetables, and where the train stops along the way, in case we want to consider an interesting detour or link up with a ferry port.
Don’t get me wrong; sometimes a car is the best option for getting where you need to go in Europe or anywhere else. But next time you’re sorting out transportation, before you automatically Google car rental agencies, take a moment to look at trains — and the ferries and other forms of transit they connect with. Railways make the journey far more interesting, offer a different kind of freedom, and remind us that travel is, at its best, a way to transcend our ordinary lives, experience the world more vividly, and recapture the rapture of being alive we may have felt in our younger years. As author Dave Matthes put it, “I've always felt that distant train whistles heard in the dead of night are the universe's way of letting us know the best days are neither ahead nor behind us...they're happening right now, cradled in the palms of our hands.” Let’s not allow them to slip through our fingers.
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“You wouldn’t believe the weird stuff people recommend taking along on trips,” Rich commented over breakfast this morning. He’d just spent half an hour perusing travel blogs and was still shaking his head in wonderment. “Bed sheets, dryer sheets, a steam iron.” His eyes strayed to the screen again. “Condoms; well, somebody thinks they’re getting lucky! Here’s one: a headlamp. Where are they traveling, down a mineshaft?”
“I suspect those are younger travelers,” I said. “But yes, I’ll never understand other people’s packing styles. I read a post by one woman who says she never goes anywhere without a wine glass, and not a plastic one either. I always assume the first time her bag gets manhandled by a taxi driver, she then has to discard half its contents because they’re full of shattered glass.”
When it comes to packing, I’m convinced that less is more. Just taking essential clothing, shoes, and electronics pretty much fills my little roll-aboard bag, leaving scant room for bulky extras like headlamps and bed sheets. However, I will admit that Rich and I always tuck in a few small items that might not be strictly mandatory but add a little extra comfort, hominess, and ease to our lives.
Dragging around tons of excess baggage isn't much fun. This photo was taken at the end of a six-day luggage-free journey to France, when we brought nothing but a few essentials tucked in our pockets. On most trips, I travel with more creature comforts.
For instance, we always carry our silliest wedding photos in a small folding cloth frame. Over the years this precious object has become festooned with good luck charms and religious medals from every corner of the world and serves as a reminder never to take ourselves too seriously.
In my younger years, travel slippers were on my “optional” list, but I’ve now reclassified them as a must for overnight plane rides and downtime on the road. After a long day of hiking about, I appreciate a warm, cozy place to rest and so do my feet.
Rich originally packed gloves only for arctic destinations, but now he’s discovered wearing them makes it far easier to lug heavy bags, including groceries, so they’ve become staples.
And at this point, Rich insists I add duct tape to the list. We often have trips without emergencies (yes we do!) but now that it’s sold in handy, pocket-sized packets, it’s easy to take duct tape with us everywhere. Beware of cheap knock-offs! Last Thanksgiving in Seville, we staged a wind-up chicken race in our apartment’s hallway, marking the goal lines with ultra-cheap pseudo-duct tape. When the thrilling event was over and all the victory dances were done, we expected to simply peel off the tape and move on with our lives. Not so! The tape shredded and stuck, leaving gooey red stains on the marble floor, requiring hours of scraping and scrubbing. Lesson learned!
Like many people these days, Rich and I are attempting to avoid wasteful, single-use plastics whenever possible, so I always slip one or two ultra-light cloth tote bags in a zip compartment of my shoulder bag. That way I don’t have to choose between feeling guilty about getting a plastic bag at the store or juggling groceries in my arms all the way back to the Airbnb. To avoid the need for disposable plastic cutlery, we acquired some lovely lightweight wooden forks and spoons last time we ate at Wagamama in Gatwick Airport.
Of course, there are times when plastics are the only sensible solution. For instance, we always pack a handful of zip-lock bags for everything from food storage to transporting socks that somehow didn’t dry in time for our departure from the hotel. And to waterproof our suitcases on rainy days, Rich carries a couple of large garbage bags, which can be secured over our bags with (you guessed it) duct tape.
While we rely on Google maps for local navigation, we always carry an old-fashioned paper map showing railway lines and ferry service in the region we’re visiting. Without it, I could easily overlook interesting detours and connections (“Hey, there’s a ferry to Albania from here!”) that give our journeys that extra bit of zing. And I always carry old-school paper business cards with my email and web address. These days most people we meet simply photograph the card, but we occasionally find ourselves in areas so remote that (gasp!) not everyone carries a smartphone.
I'm fairly sure this brandy-maker we hung out with in rural Romania doesn't have a smartphone. But he really knows his way around a still.
Your list of underrated extras is probably quite different from ours, and we’d love to hear what you find essential to happiness on the road. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not looking for excess stuff to clutter my travel life; as the Spanish proverb says, “On a long journey, even a straw weighs heavy.” But I am always willing to give a warm welcome to small objects that, as Marie Kondo so famously put it, “spark joy.” Because isn’t that what travel is really all about?
You never really appreciate the little things — food, air, freedom from octopus invasions — until you lose them. Not that I’ve ever lost those things, gracias a Dios, but last week I had the rare opportunity to visit a place where back in 1991 eight people – visionaries? Lunatics? Cult members? — suffered all that and more. Why? Because they voluntarily sealed themselves inside a giant glass-and-steel structure for two years in an outlandish experiment known as Biosphere 2. (What’s Biosphere 1? That would be the planet Earth.)
You may remember the early rapturous announcements about the project: this human laboratory in Oracle, Arizona was going to teach us to save our own planet, show us how we could live on Mars, and provide new benchmarks for human endurance and scientific knowledge. The gorgeously designed 3.14-acre enclosure recreated various Earth habitats— savannah, ocean, rainforest, etc. — and the four men and four women living inside it would conduct studies and experiments that were impossible to carry out in Biosphere 1.
Discover magazine called it "the most exciting scientific project to be undertaken in the U.S. since President John F. Kennedy launched us toward the moon." Talk-show host Phil Donahue, broadcasting live from the site, called Biosphere 2 "one of the most ambitious man-made projects ever."
What could possibly go wrong?
Plenty, as it turned out.
For start, Mother Nature had her own ideas. The morning glory vines grew so vigorously they blocked sunlight urgently needed by edible plants. UV light entering through special glass delighted the lizards but also attracted and killed the bees, so the humans had to pollinate the plants by hand. Baby octopi, accidentally carried in on the coral, began happily eating the oysters, crabs, and fish meant for human meals. Small monkey-like prosimian galagos, intended as companion animals, ran amok, raiding supplies and wrecking instruments and experiments. The little scamps soon disappeared from the official record, and I couldn’t bring myself to inquire more deeply into their fate.
As it happens, Rich and I had visited Biosphere 2 during the late 1990s, after the experiment was shut down. Having read various “had-we-but-known” articles about the project, we were unsurprised to see nothing but a glass-and-steel dome overrun with plants. But at its peak, the project was a heady mix of science experiments, public vindication for the holistic vision of the swashbuckling leader, John Allen, and performance art. Hundreds, often thousands of spectators and members of the media gathered outside daily, peering into the glass dome, shouting questions and encouragement. Celebrity visitors included sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke, Jay Leno, a Tibetan lama, a Mexican sorceress, Disney CEO Michael Eisner, the cast of Cheers, members of NASA, and leaders of the Smithsonian.
Between farming, science, and media interviews, you’d think the eight biospherians wouldn’t have much spare time to get into trouble. But you would be wrong.
Yes, romantic liaisons formed. Then things got tense as food supplies ran low, cockroaches overran the dome, and oxygen levels dropped dangerously. To make matters worse, the biospherians could only grow enough coffee for one cup every few weeks. The group split into two factions of four, with one side loyal to Allen’s holistic vision, the other staunchly defending scientific method. Outside the dome, conflict raged between Allen and Ed Bass, who’d put up $150 million and expected to have more influence over the project. (Go figure.) Heads began to roll, staff members ran for the hills, and the press started referring to Biosphere 2 as “New Age drivel masquerading as science."
Incredibly, the eight biospherians soldiered on, accomplishing some solid research and sticking it out for the full two years. It was actually two years and twenty minutes, thanks to Jane Goodall’s long keynote speech. As the eight biospherians waited impatiently for the airlock doors to open, one recalls thinking, “Jane, let us apes out of the cage!” When they were finally released, they rushed outside into arms of their loved ones — only to recoil at the stench of the perfumes and chemicals they wore, which seemed strange and repellant after two years using nothing but natural, unscented soaps and shampoos.
The saga continues with a second crew entering Biosphere 2 for a stay that would be abruptly cut short. Outside, senior management were in open warfare. Meanwhile, two bisospherians from the original crew came back in the middle of the night and opened all the doors to “free” the team inside — who had no interest in leaving. Then, just when you’d think the story couldn’t get any more bizarre, it seems Bass called upon — of all people — Steve Bannon, who arrived with a restraining order and armed guards to take over and sort things out. Eventually the project was shut down and much later the property was purchased by the University of Arizona for scientific research.
Best of all (from my point of view, at least) it’s now open to the general public.
I hadn’t heard about its renaissance as a roadside attraction until last week, when I was visiting friends in Tuscon and glimpsed a highway sign. “Hey, did that say Biosphere 2?”
“Yes,” said my friend. “We were thinking of going there tomorrow. Taking the tour.”
“You mean we don’t have to stand outside with our noses pressed against the glass this time? I’m in.”
We spent hours climbing around the habitats, threading our way through the labyrinth of maintenance tunnels underneath, and imagining what it would have been like to be sealed inside for two years.
When the tour was over, I asked our guide to recommend a book about the project. “If you want to read about the fights and all that,” she said, “get Jane Poynter’s The Human Experiment: Two Years and Twenty Minutes in Biosphere 2. If you want to know about CO2 levels there are several scientific works…” I think you can guess which book I immediately downloaded onto my Kindle.
“Later,” wrote Poynter, “people would ask me why I wanted to give up two years of my life to go inside Biosphere 2. I could never understand this question. I did not view it as giving up two years, but gaining them. I wanted to be part of something bigger than me. It was historic. It would make my career. It would be the closest thing to living on Mars. I would find out for myself whether man-made biospheres work. I would experience being enclosed for two years, isolated from the world, so I could impart my knowledge and experience to those who followed, hopefully on their way to Mars.”
Biosphere 2 may not have achieved all its loftier goals, but as a roadside attraction it is second to none. The backstory is astonishing. The visuals are spectacular. And it all makes you appreciate just how delicately our planet’s ecosystem is balanced on the knife edge of survival.
Would I ever have been tempted to become a biospherian? Oh, hell no. They lost me at “one cup of coffee every few weeks.”
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When friends offered to take me to a dive bar in San Francisco, I was a trifle worried it would turn out to be hopelessly trendy, serving $25 cocktails and gluten-free vegan cuisine garnished with three kinds of Himalayan pink salt. But last night I was delighted to discover that Glen Park Station was the real deal: friendly and unpretentious, with a sticky wood floor, quirky signage, and a juke box belting out Frank Sinatra tunes. Rumored to be a speakeasy in the 1920s, it still keeps things anonymous with dim lighting and a cash-only policy.
The slightly seedy, mildly eccentric atmosphere was the perfect backdrop to our Asparagus Day celebration. Never heard of it? Me neither. But I’d recently stumbled across a strange factoid: on that very date in 1891, the first shipment of asparagus arrived in SF from Sacramento. Why was this important enough to be listed on a world history site? I have no idea. But in honor of the anniversary, I wore my new asparagus-green raincoat and brought fresh spears of asparagus for the five of us to use as swizzle sticks. We’re still working on the lyrics to our theme song, “Age of Asparagus.”
Later we strolled down the street for pizza, prosecco, and tiramisu — because hey, Italian food is always a good idea. Afterwards, replete and content, I reflected on how much the world owes to the countless generations of Mediterranean cooks who have defined the very concept of comfort food. Would life be worth living without pasta, olive oil, or gelato? Possibly, but the world would certainly be a lesser place without them.
Mediterranean food: it reminds us that it’s fun to be alive.
The idea that food should be eaten for pleasure did not loom large in my family. Like many Americans of my generation, I was taught to regard cooking as a scientific enterprise, a carefully calculated sum of fat, protein, and calories ingested for fuel and conveniently delivered via foods raised, prepared, packaged, and sold by a corporation. Every bite was a trade-off. “No more casserole for me or I’ll have to do an extra half hour on the Stairmaster tomorrow!” If you play word association games with Americans, you’ll find that the most common response to “chocolate cake” is “guilt.” Not so the Europeans. The French say “celebration.” In Spain, when dessert arrives on the table, everyone leans forward murmuring, “Que rico!” How rich! And nobody turns down a slice.
In much of Europe, there’s a common understanding that feeling guilty about food isn’t sensible; au contraire, food is welcomed as a friend. Older Sevillanos still remember the desperate shortages following the Civil War, when no one got enough fat, calories, or protein, and all too many were forced to eat pigeons or pets to survive. Today’s Sevillanos take enormous delight in sitting down to dine on such classics as solomillo al whiskey (pork loin in whiskey sauce, smothered in garlic) and rising from the table with a pleasantly full belly.
Most of the foods we consider Mediterranean classics were born out of such shortages, created by poor families struggling to put meals on the table in a region with notoriously rocky, sandy soil and searing summer heat. Cooks worked with what they could raise: olives for oil, seeds, beans, cereals, fruits, and vegetables, with a little fish, some cheese and yogurt, and practically no meat. People on this diet tend to live longer, healthier lives, so naturally this has spawned an entire industry of Americans busily analyzing its success. Just last month the Mediterranean diet was declared 2019’s best overall diet by US News & World Report, scoring top marks in the categories of best diet for healthy eating, best plant-based diet, best diet for diabetes, and easiest diet to follow.
But for the millions who live the lifestyle, it’s simple. Nutrition guru Michael Pollen summed it up neatly in just seven words: eat food, not too much, mostly plants. The key, he explains, is to eat fresh, authentic, unadulterated food, not products loaded with chemicals, additives, and excessive sugar — all of which can leave you unsatisfied, and craving more. When you must buy packaged food, read the label. If it contains ingredients you can’t pronounce, or if sugar’s among the first three ingredients, you’re better off choosing something else.
Another key element is enjoying your food slowly and, when possible, in good company. We’ve all watched movie scenes in which three or four generations gather in a garden at a long table loaded with gorgeous food and bottles of wine, with kids and puppies playing underfoot. If you’re thinking that’s life the way it should be lived, you’d be right. Eating a leisurely, communal meal usually means you’re eating a more varied mix of better, fresher foods, and by taking your time, you digest them better, feel fuller on less, and enjoy yourself more.
The bottom line is this: Mediterranean food is great for your heart, both medically and metaphorically. The good news is, you don’t have to travel to Europe to experience it. In fact, the best Mediterranean fare is made right in your own kitchen and shared with the people you love. To help you get started, here are a few recipes to play with. Bon appetit!
Check out my food videos to learn how to prepare some of my favorite Mediterranean dishes.
“Does our township have an emergency plan?” I asked officials a few days after 9/11. I was living in semi-rural Ohio, just two hours from the Pennsylvania field where United Flight 93 crashed down. My neighbors and I were all keenly aware that plane had passed through our airspace and could, if events had unfolded on a slightly different timeline, have come down in one of our fields. Or on any one of us.
“Of course we have an emergency plan,” I was told. When somebody finally managed to dig up the one-page document, it basically said, “Call the county.” When I spoke with county officials, I was told that in a major emergency we’d be on our own for at least 72 hours, and after that the plan was “Call FEMA.” What could possibly go wrong?
New Orleans, 2005; victims of Hurricane Katrina beg FEMA for help.
I stopped by our Ohio township’s volunteer fire department. “We’re just 20 miles from a nuclear power plant,” I said to the chief. “What happens if there’s a disaster there? I’ve read that we’re supposed to shelter in place, but how?”
“Shelter in place? Are you kidding?” he replied. “If there’s a disaster at the nuclear power plant, everybody in this town will get in their car and drive to Florida.” And who could blame them?
Today, that “hey, what can you do?” attitude has been replaced by a sense of urgency and purpose. Arriving back in the US two weeks ago, I was immediately struck by the bustle of activity surrounding the push for emergency preparedness. Here in California, everyone seems to be assembling a grab-n-go “bug-out” bag, signing up to get emergency alerts on their phone, and taking CPR and CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) training. Last year’s record-breaking wildfires galvanized the residents of the Golden State. Whatever happens, we are determined not to be sitting ducks. When I spoke with county Emergency Services Manager Chris Reilly, he quoted the local mantra about impending disaster: “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”
Rescue workers help a woman trapped by mudslides in Carpinteria, California, January 2018. Photo by Kenneth Song / Reuters
As you can imagine, enterprising survivalists are coming out of the woodwork. In their view, civilization is one wildfire away from total collapse, and our survival will soon depend on whether we can chip stones into spearheads and trap small animals using twigs and vines. If that turns out to be the case, I am totally screwed. Obviously I should have paid more attention during the Outdoor Skills class in Girl Scouts.
For serious doomsday enthusiasts, the internet is rife with courses like Hammer Stryke’s Small Unit Survival Tactics. “We will overnight in the forest. Bring: Ruck, backpack or daypack, canteen, and what you would expect to have on a bugging out the back door because the Zombies are coming in the front door situation. Firearms are optional if you have them and are trained.” Yikes! (Note to self: check course date, avoid the woods that night!)
Amateurs running around in the woods at night with guns. Yes, that doesn't sound at all worrying... Photo by Wolfgang Kumm / picture-alliance / dpa
When it comes to being prepared I am all in, but I’m opting for a less physically demanding approach that includes talking with government officials, community organizers, friends, neighbors, and savvy bartenders. I’m trying to get a realistic idea of what’s likely to happen (I’ve already eliminated zombies from the short list) and figure out how I might be useful during the run-up.
Here’s what I’ve learned: The science is clear. We are definitely looking at more frequent and severe natural disasters, followed by increasing social turmoil. Things will get messy. But I’m guessing we’re a long way from having to bivouac in the woods with a backpack and optional firearms. In fact, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic.
For a start, people a lot smarter than I am are pouring enormous amounts of time, money, and creativity into finding solutions.
NASA scientist Amaya Davis gives a talk organized by my group, ClimateRecovery.org, in Seville, Spain, January 2019.
Just before departing Seville, I organized a public talk there featuring NASA scientist Amaya Davis. She mentioned projects currently on the drawing board, including solar radiation management, involving giant reflectors in space deflecting the sun’s heat; aerosol injections in the stratosphere, which would reduce warming but has the pesky side effect of creating acid rain; and techniques to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.
“Giant reflectors in outer space?” I said to Amaya afterwards. “Aerosol injections? Sounds like science fiction!”
“Oh, the ideas get a lot wilder than that,” she said. Unfortunately we were interrupted before we could continue this fascinating conversation, but articles such as Crazy Ideas for Plan B: Seven Ways to Engineer the Climate describe proposals such as mass fertilization of the oceans with microscopic plants called phytoplankton that “gobble up CO2 and drag it to the bottom of the ocean when they die.” Sound loony? So did Aristotle’s insistence that the Earth is round, Galileo’s belief the Earth revolves around the sun, and Pasteur’s theory that germs spread disease. Think twice before scoffing at “mad” scientists!
Many of these projects are being funded privately; it seems the smart money isn’t waiting around for the federal government to step up and take charge. Local community groups and officials are working to reduce waste, control carbon emissions, and beef up emergency-response infrastructure. But as I learned in Ohio, during a major disaster, citizens can’t count on the cavalry to ride to the rescue, especially during the first 72 hours. Clearly my neighbors know that, too. They are reaching out to one another, meeting in church basements, community centers, and living rooms, figuring out ways that we can help each other if — when — we need it most.
I grew up on stories about World War II and often wondered how it felt to be filled with the sense of common purpose that drove the war effort. One of the original “Rosie the Riveters,” Betty Soskin, told me about workers in the Richmond, California shipyards, divided by racial friction. “Because they’re all living under the threat of fascist world domination, there’s no time to take on a broken social system,” she said. “No time to do anything except take on the mission of their leader, which is pure and simple: build ships faster than the enemy can sink ‘em. And together they completed 747 ships in three years and eight months. They helped to turn the course of the war around by out-producing the enemy. And in the process, they accelerated the rate of social change, so that to this day it still radiates out of the Bay Area into the rest of the nation.”
Betty Soskin, California's oldest park ranger, talks about how global threats can accelerate the pace of social change.
Today, the Bay Area finds itself on the front lines in the struggle to cope with our changing environment. Our vast forests are going up in flames, scientists predict the mother of all earthquakes within 30 years, and rising sea levels are deeply worrying for everyone near the coast, especially my flood-prone little town. Can we, like those shipbuilders, pull off another miracle of unity and strength, one that radiates out to the rest of the nation, maybe the world? As a die-hard optimist, I say we can. And I’m counting on all of you to help prove I’m right.
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Nowadays, everybody’s writing glowing articles about Seville, and unfortunately it’s pretty clear some haven’t even researched the city, much less visited it. Here’s a gem from Vogue:
“Nicknamed ‘The Frying Pan of Europe,’ this Andalusian hotspot (literal hotspot) is drenched with baking heat for 3,000 hours on an annual basis... However, if you look beyond Seville’s near-idyllic vacation weather…”
Near-idyllic? This makes it sound like an absolute hellhole! Who wants to spend their vacation in a frying pan, which (I looked it up) is typically 480 degrees Fahrenheit? And is the author implying this intolerable temperature lasts for 3000 straight hours a year? He goes on to mix metaphors in the phrase “drenched with baking heat,” implying the city is as hot as an oven (350 degrees) while somehow being both wet and dry. And for the record, nobody calls Seville “The Frying Pan of Europe.” The author is confusing it with the town of Écija 85 km away, nicknamed la sartén de Andalucía (the frying pan of Andalucía) for its sizzling hot summers.
Andalucían journalist Johathan Gómez wonders if it's really possible to cook an egg on the main plaza of Écija, nicknamed the frying pan of Andalucía. Result? Two nicely fried eggs. For fun, watch the video even if you don't speak Spanish.
My point is: choosing a destination based on Internet intel is always a risky proposition. Articles all too often contain dubious, second-hand information or are skewed by personal bias. In fact, some read as if they were dashed off on a cell phone during the first sun-drenched, wine-soaked hours with a new local love interest — circumstances that can be difficult for the rest of us to replicate. And as you may have noticed, if everybody in the blogosphere praises a city as ideal for #travelin2019, chances are it’s already overrun with tourists and is busy becoming a Disneyland version of its former self. Then again, sometimes we stumble into a town that’s just plan appalling by any standard.
How can we make the best of a disappointing destination? For me, the first step is letting go of my expectations and initial impressions. Take my first visit to the Romanian capital:
Rich and I spent a week in Bucharest, and it was love at fourth sight. Having spent three weeks enjoying the storybook beauty of Romania’s smaller cities and rural villages, it took us a little while to look past the brutal apartment blocks, massive tangles of electrical wires, decaying old buildings, and graffiti to see the charm. But we now know Bucharest as a city that has survived just about everything, cherishes the best of its old traditions, and knows how to take life as it comes, with a joke, a swig of homemade plum brandy, and an arm around your shoulder. This is one of the friendliest cities we’ve ever encountered. We were welcomed everywhere, are leaving many new friends behind, and hope to return again soon.
It’s only natural to arrive at any unknown destination hoping the city will instantly show us its richest and most beguiling treasures. But to truly love a place requires slowing down enough to engage with it on its own terms, letting the relationship unfold naturally. As travel author Pico Iyer put it:
"Visiting a new town is like having a conversation. Places ask questions of you just as searchingly as you question them. And, as in any conversation, it helps to listen with an open mind, so you can be led somewhere unexpected. The more you leave assumptions at home, I’ve found, the better you can hear whatever it is that a destination is trying to say to you.”
Visitors sometimes assume that Seville is best enjoyed as a vacation playground, but to focus exclusively on the cheap wine, warm weather, and vibrant bar culture means selling the city — and your vacation — very short indeed. Seville makes every effort to tell you about its more interesting features, like the stubbornly maintained ancient traditions, a lifestyle based on the demands of climate rather than commerce, and deep-seated devotion to family, friends, and social lives. Philosopher Alain de Botton wrote:
“One rarely falls in love without being as much attracted to what is interestingly wrong with someone as what is objectively healthy.”
So how can we find out what’s “interestingly wrong” about a city, especially if we find ourselves in one that appears deadly dull or seriously off-putting? A good first step in popular destinations is leaving the congested tourist area behind and striking out in a new direction. Rich and I like to pick a Point of Interest (POI) a half hour’s walk from the center and make our way there, allowing plenty of time for spontaneous detours, digressions, and coffee stops. How do we find these POIs? Some of my favorite resources are Atlas Obscura, Like a Local, and Triposo, all of which describe wondrous things to see and do in places you’ve never heard of. And before giving up on any city, it pays to check with the tourist office, as we did a few years ago upon arriving in the seemingly dull Šiauliai , Lithuania.
“I think we’ve finally found it,” I said to Rich. “A town where there is literally nothing to do.”
We were dragging our suitcases from the train station toward our hotel, walking past endless bland apartment blocks, unrelieved by a single shop, café, or even newsstand. After the dizzying mix of zingy modernity and storybook charm we’d encountered in other Baltic towns, Lithuania’s Šiauliai (it’s pronounced Show-lay and means “sun”) seemed desperately drab.
Two hours later we were sitting at a sidewalk café table on the main pedestrian street, flipping through folders from the tourist information office and trying to juggle our schedule to fit in everything we wanted to do. “Let’s go to the traditional Lithuanian kosher dinner at Chaim Frenkel’s Villa this evening,” I said. “Then we can catch the music at Juone Pastuoge tomorrow. I just hope we’re not too tired after visiting the Hill of Crosses and the Battlefield of the Sun. Do you think we’ll be back in time to catch the fado concert?” The Cat Museum had long since been jettisoned from the agenda, but Rich was still standing firm on the need to visit the Chocolate Factory.
I guess it comes down to this: You may not fall in love with every place you visit, but if you walk into it with an open mind and generous heart, chances are you and this city can get past being strangers, find common ground on which to meet, and share a few good moments, maybe even some great ones. And isn’t that enough to ask of any journey?
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Our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour
I'm an American writer living in Seville, Spain and traveling the world with my husband, Rich. Right now we're on our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour, exploring the world's favorite cuisine to discover more about European culture.
Get updates on the journey.
See comfort food recipes and videos.
OUR CURRENT LOCATION:
Dihovo, North Macedonia