Meet Martin. Martin is 38 and lives near Stuttgart. He owns a computer repair company that isn’t very profitable. In Poland are his wife and son, neither who are willing to move to Germany and to whom he sends $225 per month to help them meet expenses. He has a car but it hasn’t been started in six months. Martin travels 6 months out of every year though and speaks three languages fluently (German, Polish and English) and can travel using most others throughout Europe. We found Martin through Hospitality Club, an online organization linking travelers around the world and after meeting him I just had to tell a bit of his story so that you could understand what we were in for. We agreed to travel with Martin by flying into Stuttgart and driving through Germany, Austria and Switzerland to Lake Como in Northern Italy. From there we’d be going to the Cinque Terre and Venice before flying out of Milan on the 16th of September to Morocco.
Martin is a strange bird, extremely eccentric, on the far end of the spectrum and frankly, not the easiest person to get along with. But I have to give him credit, he is doing what he loves and is genuinely a sweet, caring guy who just so happens to be preparing for his own homelessness. So let’s examine even further. How does Martin travel 6 months out of every year on only $11,000 in annual income?
Watches Every Penny (or every half-penny to be more precise)
Let’s get down to the basics: food, shelter, and clothing. Absolutely meticulous about everything he spends, he shops at Aldi, quite possibly the cheapest supermarket in the world and only buys the bare minimum for his survival. He would rather eat dumplings every day than miss one day of travel for lack of funds and as for alcohol, he’ll drink it but he definitely isn’t buying it. He lives with his parents. Doing this saves him on rent and probably most food bills. His clothes are all second-hand and he doesn’t have many of them. If they should wear down or tear, he’d be first to have them sewn or patched rather than replace. Martin would probably be the first to scoff at anyone owning more than one pair of anything and often questions the definition of what most would consider “necessary.” That’s how simple he makes it and it’s a big reason why he does what he does.
Martin prefers to travel by car because he sleeps in it while traveling. That saves him on lodging. He also needs to store the food that he buys at Aldi before leaving, all of it dry goods that won’t spoil and go to waste. The car, as mentioned, is a 1982 VW Passat, truly a piece of junk in most people’s eyes. But he loves it because it runs well, it’s fairly good on gas (he would love to convert it to propane), and if anything goes wrong he can get his hands under the hood without messing with any expensive electronics. While on the road, he rarely, if ever, travels alone in order to cut down on all costs, especially gas (a gallon of gas in Europe is around $9 due to high government taxes.) Plus, he gets to have the company of other travelers. He avoids cities and toll roads like the plague, preferring the friendliness of the countryside, its people and beautiful backroads. After arriving at or near his destination he usually will ask people with land if he can park his car and spend the night. Since he speaks their language and makes sure to add “no fires, no noise, no problem,” he gets an overwhelming 70% success rate. If he finds a really hospitable person, sometimes they’ll bring him food or even invite him in for dinner.
In one year, Martin travels more than his friends do in five. Granted, they make 10-20 times more than he does, drive nice cars, have nice big homes, flat screen tv’s with 200+ channels and all the expenses that go with them. Martin is questioning the very essence of what we consider wealthy. Who is better off? I’ll leave it to you to decide.
Jason and Erin meet Martin
After gathering our bags and going through customs we walked through the tunnel to the waiting area where Martin was waiting with a sign. His attire was out-of-style and rather unkept and he wore a bucket hat. We all shook hands and he instructed us to put our bags on the cart, a nice gesture. To avoid paying a parking fee, we had to be out of the lot within an hour of parking so we hurried off. We showed up to an Audi and Martin popped the trunk and we thought, “boy, were we wrong.” It was his dad’s car and he drove us back to his parents’ house where we saw his car, named the “Vampire,” sitting in the driveway. While packing our bags into the Vampire, his parents invited us in for leftover pizza from the night before and some soft drinks before we shoved off to the open road. First, an Aldi pit stop was in order. We stocked up on dehydrated milk, dried oats, cereal, soup, canned veggies and tuna. After paying for the food, Martin let us know that he had already filled the tank and it cost 60 euro so 40 was to come from us. Also, he reminded us “since I picked you up from the Stuttgart airport which is a 80km roundtrip from my house at an average of 7km per liter at an average price of 1.40 euro per liter, you owe me an extra 10 euro.” No problem, let’s just get on the road.
Our first stop was near Fussen, a touristy area in Bavaria. We stopped at a small lake and began walking around looking for a suitable spot. Following Martin’s lead, we finally came to a nice home and coincidentally, the owners were just pulling into the driveway. We approached them and Martin proceeded to ask them if we could stay on their lawn, him in his car and Erin and I in a tent. They smiled and said, “no problem.” Whew, one down and if it’s this easy all of the time, we’re in for a nice trip. After setting up camp, the owner, Bernd, came out to check on us and struck up a conversation. Since Erin is fluent in German, they immediately had a lot to talk about, especially our relationship with Martin. I played soccer with his grandson, Benedict, and his daughter Simone and her husband Xavier came out to chat as well. Xavier is from Catalan in Spain so I spoke what Spanish I could to him. After we had some soup and a small salad, what would normally have been dinner, Bernd came back outside and invited us to his house for some wine. Wow! Talk about hospitable. We never expected anything like this and were blown away by this generosity and gladly accepted. We sat out back and Bernd kept pouring and opening new bottles. Xavi and I talked in Spanish and within seconds of hearing our travel plans he invited us to stay with him and Simone in their home near Barcelona! Then, they invited us in for dinner and more wine and we all talked the night away. It was a great time and Erin and I are both looking forward to our reunion with Xavi and Simone in Spain. A big thanks goes out to Bernd and the entire Friedrich family for their hospitality. Since Bernd is also blacklisted from visiting the USA again, we agreed to meet him in Canada next year. See you then! 🙂
Back on the road the next morning, we drove to nearby Neuschwanstein (prounounced Noysh-vahn-shtine) where Erin and I hiked an hour uphill for the spectacular view. Martin didn’t sleep well the night prior and stayed in the car. The castle is said to have inspired Walt Disney when designing the Magic Kingdom, and upon seeing it you immediately see the resemblance. Built by King Ludwig, an eccentric and unliked king, he lived in the castle for only a few months before mysteriously being found drowned in the nearby lake with his psychiatrist. The castle still stands and is a major tourist attraction in Bavaria. We hiked back down to Martin and began the climb by car through the German Alps and crossed the border into neighboring Austria. By this time we were surrounded by huge, majestic mountains and I was reminded of my previous amazing trip six years ago to Switzerland with Piro and Denny Shifrin, two of my greatest friends to this day. We climbed and dipped, careened and curved through the valleys past chalets with smoking chimneys tucked perfectly on the hillside. Perfect green grass and grazing cows with the faint sound of cowbells ringing pushed us upward until we stopped for lunch in order to avoid traffic. Martin hates traffic as it wastes gas. Amidst the perfect setting we cooked up a lunch fit for dinner and killed a couple hours of time waiting for the traffic to clear. After another few hours of driving we decided it was time to camp and picked a nice village to pull off into. In standard fashion, we parked the car and began walking around to find a place to camp. The first home we saw, Erin, wanting to practice her German some more, went to the front door to see if it was okay for us to tent. The old woman said it was no problem but showed us to a flat piece of land right outside her fence, not wanting to put us near the garden since she hadn’t inquired with her husband. Showing us the watershed and instructing us that if we needed anything to just ask, she let us be for the night. Martin parked his car at the bottom of the hill that led to our tent spot and used a jack to level out the car so he could sleep and after dinner we took a long walk up the hill until dark set in.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner were all cooked using Martin’s camping set-up and a propane stove. He also packed a fold out table and two chairs for us to use while preparing and eating. We crossed over into Switzerland and headed straight for St. Moritz for lunch and a walk. Set on a very small lake, the city is straight out of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” Magnificent hotels adorn the mountainside and luxury boutiques and designer brands are the norm. After our walk around the lake, we hiked up to the main strip and saw the glitz and glam that makes St. Moritz a favorite amongst celebs. Maybachs, Ferrari’s, Mercedes and Porsches. We weren’t even sure if they’d let the tires of Martin’s car touch the pavement. Our driving pace is slow since that’s more fuel-efficient and the car is so packed that anytime Martin gets nervous in tight spaces and needs to back up, Erin and I are required to assist by shouting out commands. Moving on, we drive down an amazing stretch of highway, descending what I’m guessing to be 1000 meters in just over 2 km. Quick and tight turns on the switchbacks descended us down to the lowest part of the Alps into Northern Italy. Within a few more hours, we reached the shore of Lago di Como and began our search for another campsite.
Lake Como is shaped like an upside down “Y” and is surrounded by steep, rugged mountains making for absolutely beautiful scenery. Around Lake Como, the homes are tightly packed and built on steep slopes. Given this fact, plus all of us unable to communicate effectively in Italian, we ended up being turned down for camping in locals’ gardens a few times. So much for the pleasantries of the country. Sunset was approaching fast so we fortunately found a free parking lot connected to a small park and waited until dark to set up our tent. Crossing our fingers, we retired only to be woken suddenly, not by police as expected, but by thunder and lightning. Martin had forwarned us that the tent would leak like a civ in heavy rain so we stormed the Vampire for a long night of semi-sleep while the rain poured down.
A bit soggy and cranky, the first full day at Lake Como was beautiful. On the beach for the entire day, we read and took turns swimming and taking naps. A picnic breakfast and lunch kept us going as we marveled at the scenery around us, something we had taken for granted the day prior. Tiny villages are propped against the cliffs that plunge down into the waters below. The waters were calm and the outside temperature perfect at a nice 25 C/77 F with the gentlest of gentle winds blowing across the surface of the lake. A soft light from the west glowed on the faces of the mountains in the late afternoon and the boatless waters lulled us to keep looking on the horizon. This perfect moment couldn’t last forever we thought. Fortunately, we were wrong because I still think about it to this day and will remember it for the rest of my life.
Continuing our clockwise journey around the lake, we drove to the center of the lake, a mountainous tip at the “Y” called Bellagio. A ritzy town with multi-million dollar homes and $400 a night hotels (and famous celebrity homeowner such as George Clooney) we walked around hoping to find the perfect camp spot. Thirty minutes later we realized the search was futile as gates were closed and flat land was sparse. Looking at the map we zeroed in on our next locale and climbed upwards until getting within hiking distance to the highest peak, Mount San Primo. Driving down a dead-end dirt road we found the best camping spot overlooking the western shore below and retired early hoping there wouldn’t be a repeat of the prior night.
Parking the car the next morning we began our hike towards the peak hoping for the 360-degree panoramic view. Erin and I stormed ahead, partially for exercise and partially to get a break from Martin. He was unhappy being without us on the hike and asked us to go slower which we quickly responded “no.” As raindrops began to fall, he turned around for fear of slipping on the way down but we continued onward, reaching the cloud-covered summit. The sun broke through for a few seconds giving us a private, albeit foggy, viewing of the surroundings. That afternoon we spent walking around the city of Como, located on the southwestern shore of the lake. The buildings are your classical 3-4 story pastel-colored Italian villas with patches of exposed brick after decades of erosion on the stucco facades. Iron 2-person verandas jut out from green shuttered windows and bright red, yellow and pink flowers make for the final touches. You can’t walk more than a block without seeing the words pasta, vino, pizza, caffe and Gelato and extra wide sidewalks are all packed with tables and sunbrellas, with visitors sipping away the afternoon, people-watching and enjoying La Dulce Vita, the sweet life.
For one final highlight before leaving, in the pouring rain the following day I took the base of Martin’s windsurf board and kayaked around a point on the western shore, viewing an enormous and extaordinary villa perched on its edge. Once I returned I met 3 American travelers from Seattle, Oliver, Rachel and Shane who were also waiting out the rain. Rachel was a huge Star Wars fan and said the villa I saw was the filming site of Darth Vader’s wedding in Star Wars II. Since she was such a fan and was dying to see it, I convinced Martin to let her take the kayak. Before letting her go he said “any injury to yourself is not my responsibility,” as if she was going to sue him for the Vampire. It makes sense now though since this is the same person that is deathly afraid of nuclear holocaust (of course it would be America’s fault), all diseases in Africa and Asia, and driving down narrow streets. Not to mention his belief that “every person in America has a gun” and “the perfect society for me to live under would be Communist.”
The Cinque Terre
Carrying on, we made our way west toward La Cinque Terre (luh chin-kwa tara), a coastal national park consisting of five interconnected villages (Cinque means 5 and Terre means Village.) It was here that Erin and I had a short 4-day escape from Martin since we had planned to hike from village to village, starting at village five and working our way towards one. Starting in Monterosso, the northernmost village, we had the best of intentions to find campsites a la Martin, but after the nine days we just had, our motivation levels for camping were extremely low and we decided to get back to haggling for cheap rooms. It was nice to have beds and a shower and we wrapped up the evening by getting a pizza con funghi a cotte, with mushrooms and ham. After ordering we could see the pizza chef run to the back and cut chunks of ham off a leg. Then he put it through a deli slicer before returning to the kitchen. Placed in front of us, the aroma lifted up and brought tears of joy to my eyes. I had been waiting for this moment for a very long time. My first real Italian pizza. The crust was thin but not too thin, with slightly burnt edges. The ham was slowly being cooked by the hot cheese below. A perfect level of saltiness hit my mouth with each bite. Our waitress must have thought we were crazy because we split a pie. Real Italians eat their own.
After a few hours on the beach the following day, we hucked our sacks on our backs and began the hellish hike towards Vernazza. Passersby would just stare at us in disbelief or flat out tell us we were crazy to be carrying our backpacks. Believe it or not, we’ve gotten quite used to being called crazy by this point in the trip. Two and a half hours of strenuous up and down on the trail and we arrived at picturesque Vernazza. This is the Cinque Terre I had always seen in photos. Pastel colored square homes, aged well, sitting assuredly near the cliffs that plunge into the Adriatic. Lounging on the rocks and swimming for the remainder of the day, we ordered another pizza, this time with local creation, pesto. Taking it to the end of the barricading wall which protects the tiny village of 500 inhabitants from large ocean swells, we cracked open a bottle of red and enjoyed the moonrise. We couldn’t help thinking “when the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie…that’s amore.” ‘Ol blue eyes was here.
Unexpectedly, we hiked all the way to the final destination, village one Riomaggiore the next day. Our plan was to spend a day in each village but once arriving at Corniglia, we quickly left. Corniglia is pretty boring and isn’t on the sea but I did have my first Italian Gelato here. I capitalize the G in Gelato because it’s Godly. This started an obsession that would last for the remainder of our time in Italy and also keep us on the lookout for the ever-elusive “noir chocolate” flavor. This day I would go for coffee and chocolate, a decadent and heavenly mix. Every lick and you want more but you don’t want to go too fast because then it will be gone. Though at roughly one euro a scoop, you can always find room in the budget to get more.
Manarola was next and is another picturesque gem. Unfortunately the entire town didn’t have one room available so we carried onto Riomaggiore, which ultimately ended up being my favorite. Our room was at the top of the town which means you can eat as much Italian food as you want because you’ll burn it all off going up and down the 400 stairs to get home. As the sun set we had a glass of white wine, famous in this region, while overlooking the sea before going out to a restaurant where we feasted on penne pasta with mussels and salads and washed it down with red wine, Italian of course.
Word to the wise, if you’re going to Cinque Terre and are not an avid hiker, save yourself the time, trouble and money and take the train. The train is $2 for the day and hiking in the natural preserve is $8. We had this epiphany while taking the train all the way up to Levanto where we had hoped to reunite with Martin. He didn’t get our text message in time so we found a campsite and met some Belgians who let us use their campstove. As Erin was on her way to the phone to try and call Martin the next day to let him know our location, she could hear a familiar monotone robotic voice saying “and i was with these two American travelers but they were not at the train station last night so they must have left me.” Strangely enough, Martin had met some Polish travelers who were staying in our same campsite. Since he was off hiking with them for the day, Erin and I were able to relax on the beach. That night we left the area and found a remote spot in the Alpi (prounounced appee) Mountains, which stretch from the Alps in the north all the way to the toe of the “boot.” To the east we could see the lights of Parma, home of parmesan cheese, as we used Martin’s 25 year old Russian telescope to look at the craters on the moon. The next day we bid farewell to Martin from Venice as he carried onto Croatia. The rest of our trip in Italy felt like it was done the local way and in part two I’ll cover why we felt that way.