Book of Feasts

January 17th 2009
Published: January 17th 2009
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If there is one thing that the budget traveler knows the least about a place it is often the food. Whereas traveling cheaply often opens up many more doors in terms of meeting people and seeing more, the first thing cut most budgets is the food. In a sense this makes the occasional feast all the more memorable, for the regular traveler it is not as irregular of an occurrence, for the budget traveler it happens so infrequently that it becomes a highlight. The following is my account of the most memorable feasts I had on my first journey backpacking through Europe, not food alone, but a grand meal:

Chocolate Mania - For about three weeks I had been budget traveling through Italy, starting in the far reaches of Sicily (after arriving from Tunisia) and steadily working my way up to the north. While there were cultural differences between the south and the north, there was a constant throughout - hostels and hotels, when they offered breakfast, offered something so insignificant as to be barely noticeable. It seems that the entire country liked to subsist on the previous night’s supper before hunger struck again. Although I managed to survive on this meagre morning diet, I strove for something more filling. After it wasn’t like I was headed out to sit in a library all morning, generally I would walk anywhere between four and eight hours a day. When I had been in Padua I had met a group of people, one of whom, attached himself to me and seemed keen to follow me to the ends of the earth. Me not wanting to be so rude as to tell him to leave, decided that we would part ways in Milan, whichever way he was headed I was determined to go the opposite way. He eventually told me he was heading onward to Genoa, so I decided that I would head north, into southern Switzerland. Although I got to see my first snowfall since leaving Canada, it was well worth it. I had been experiencing traveler’s fatigue recently, I had gone to Verona to relax for a couple of days, but starting there I had met so many people who dragged me along with their plans that I was still feeling a little tired a week later. As it would happen, this most memorable meal also occurred in one of the most memorable places which I have stayed. The hostel overlooked the Swiss Alps, and at night there was virtually no noise, and looking out the window at my feet, I could make out the silhouette of the nearby mountains. The next morning I had plans to make my way by train through the St. Gotthard Pass. Still being in the mentality of the Italian hostels, I stumbled into the breakfast room, almost too late for breakfast not realizing what I might have missed. The immediate impression I had was that everything was chocolate, although this was not in fact the case. Still my meal bore a heavy imprint of the brown delicacy. There was chocolate by itself, chocolate cereal, chocolate spread, chocolate milk. Restricting myself to a modest intake I, for the first time in a month, had a large breakfast, mostly comprising of chocolate.

Pizza Party - Similar to my Italian experience, my time in Germany was also challenging from a nutritional standpoint. While the breakfasts in the German hostels were generally of a higher caliber, the higher costs involved with traveling in Germany made eating for the rest of the day a more difficult proposition. For two weeks I had been consisting almost solely on street food, which while tasty was not very nutritional of nourishing. When I had reached Berlin as well I had decided that I would buy a bus pass on the international bus service, something which had been denied to me earlier on in the trip. my plan for the journey thus far had been fairly dynamic, I had planned little more than seven days ahead, but now that I had this pass I knew where I would be headed for the next month. The next stop would be Copenhagen, which provided with the already cold temperatures in Germany, were bound to be colder. Indeed my entire Copenhagen experience was based on the chilly weather which I faced, but every day, around the same time, usually between the time when someone would have lunch and supper, I gorged myself at an all-you-can-eat pizzeria near the train station. The pizza was nothing special, after having been through Italy and having had some great pizzas there, this stuff tasted much more like the North American fare which I was accustomed to. Furthermore the ingredients were often unconventional. This place was concerned with quantity, not quality, and so for the only time in my life I had corn on a pizza. Still it is one of the few times on my first European journey when I remember feeling full. Over the course of the three days which I ate there (the other day I had frikadelles) I consumed 39 pieces of pizza, roughly equal to three and a quarter large pizzas.

Death by Schnitzel - My next feast didn’t come that much later, and so my relative food related suffering in the meantime had been slight. It had only been three days since I had left Copenhagen, but I was already flung halfway across the continent to Vienna. Reading in my guidebook, I found a restaurant not necessarily known for its culinary arts rather the size of its portions. Although it had been only been matter of days since my pizza laden meals, I was hungry enough. I had spent the better part of two days traveling on the bus, and my bus meals were not even as substantitive as my walking meals. I had mostly been subsisting of things that I could find in rest stops or self catering. When I got to this restaurant, a small place buried off Mariahilferstrasse, one of the main shopping streets, I was for the first time in the succession of feasts forced to decide for myself what I though I could and could not eat. The previous two places had been self service, I ate only what I felt like continuing to eat, but this place had regular service and I was forced to choose up front what I thought I could do. I ordered what I thought would be a sufficient schnitzel with french fries, but when the fries and then the schnitzel arrived, I discovered that I had bitten off more than I could chew. Working through the Schnitzel, I actually had to take a break until I could finish the rest of it. I hadn’t figured on such large portions and even though it was about a half hour ride, I headed back to the hostel to rest.

Breakfast of Champions - The days of traveling by bus were starting to catch up with me. Sleeping overnight on a bus doesn’t have to be an unpleasant experience, but often is, and for me the past two weeks had been a long stretch of bad bus trips and not as great hostel experiences. In Amsterdam I had arrived at six in the morning, in Hamburg I had arrived at a reasonable hour, around eight, but I had been crammed into one of the few back seats. I had gotten to Brussels at quarter after five, and as I needed a ticket for the next day I had to wait around until nine in the morning when the ticket officer opened. I had been so tired in Hamburg at one point that instead of going out exploring I had walked to a nearby park and slept, with my guidebook as a makeshift pillow. So when I had arrived to London I was not in the mood for much adventure. Red flagged by my travel book as a place where I could expect to not find a deal on anything, I decided to spend the day with practically no costs, as I was nearing the end of both my journey and the end of my savings. I had managed to spend only four pounds and sixty eight cents throughout the day, in part by my decision to eat almost nothing. In fact one of the largest expenses was a tuna sandwich. Accommodation was not a concern, I had arrived by bus, and I was leaving the same day by bus, but my general level of antipathy throughout the day meant that I didn’t experience London to the fullest. I remember specifically the words of the bus driver as we pulled away from London, ‘It’s a long ride and there’s only seven of you on the bus, so stretch out.’ Indeed this seventeen hour bus ride was in large part a blur. Stretched across four seats (thereby blocking the aisle) I slept almost straight for the whole time. when I arrived the next morning for the first time in weeks I felt rested if not sufficiently well fed, but this too was about to solve itself. Stepping off the bus, one of the fellow travelers, an Aussie by the name of Christian, asked me if I knew where any hostels were. I didn’t but I told him we could track one down together in my book. Forming the kind of quick friendship which budget travel required, we soon found a hostel and decided to head off and explore the city together. First up though was breakfast. We stopped into a small hole-in-the-wall and grabbed ourselves some breakfast, that being a fairly typical egg, sausage, toast, hash browns and coffee. Leaving the place we both felt somewhat unsatisfied and the next breakfast joint, a more famous one by the name of Bewley’s also got our patronage, this time with the same meal plus bacon. Finally rested and well fed, I set off to explore yet another European city.


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