The final match! It’s all down to this: the final World Cup game this weekend pits the Netherlands against Spain. How do they stack up on the tourism field for budget travelers?
Representing Spain is Beebe Bahrami, author of The Spiritual Traveler Spain—A Guide to Sacred Sites and Pilgrim Routes and Historic Walking Guides: Madrid.
We featured the Netherlands last week against Brazil, so we’ve got a repeat appearance from Zora O’Neill, a guidebook author who has covered many locations, including Holland as the author of Lonely Planet’s Amsterdam Encounter book.
Why should I visit the Netherlands…or Spain?
Zora O’Neill for Netherlands – Like Spain, the Netherlands is on the euro, and has typical western Europe prices for food and hotels, but its huge advantage is that it’s tremendously compact and has a highly efficient, reasonably priced train network. After a few days in Amsterdam, for instance, you can hop on the new Fyra high-speed train and in 40 minutes, you’re in Rotterdam—completely different scene, architecture, everything, and it costs less than the price of lunch. Or you can go to the Hoge Veluwe—the big national park and fantastic art museum—really easily. Or head up north to the North Sea islands. Nothing’s more than a couple of hours away, so your travel budget winds up quite low, and you can see more in a set time.
Beebe Bahrami for Spain – Spain is a remarkably diverse country so almost anywhere you go is going to be fascinating and will very likely challenge your media-reinforced stereotype of it as a place of just sun, flamenco, sangria, bulls, and guitars.
If cooler, green places with bagpipes, dolmens, prehistoric caves, and Celtic remains entice you, the north is the place to go. If it is the hot sun and white villages with a strong Muslim and Jewish overlay, then it ought to be Toledo and further south to Andalucia and Murcia. If it is the classical world, then head east along the Mediterranean coast, or west, near the Portuguese border. If you want to gain an insight into the interconnections between France and Spain while enjoying sea and mountains, Basque Country and Catalonia, together will challenge your ideas of national borders and stereotypes of the French and the Spanish. And if classic, Castilian culture, with its chivalry, hidalgos, and sturdy wine and cuisine call Don Quixote! to you, then the center of the country will fulfill your desires. All Spain’s regions, with only Barcelona being the most challenging, offer inexpensive travel for the independent and adventurous traveler.
What’s there to do for free or cheap?
Netherlands – The best cheap fun you can have in Amsterdam is to rent a bike. It usually costs about 10 euros a day, and suddenly you have access to a whole, complex city—not just the historic center. You can take the ferry across to the north side of the city (the ferry is free), and then bike way out into the country in less than half an hour. Or you can bike around the fringes of the city, where there’s all kinds of new and interesting architecture. Plus, it’s just fun to be on a bicycle. In the rest of the Netherlands, a bike gives you the same kind of freedom—there’s a network of bike paths across the whole country.
Or if you’re feeling extremely cheap, you can entertain yourself just by walking around Amsterdam and people-watching. Every other block seems to have some scenic view or quirky art display or something odd. And there are some great free public spaces—the public library, for instance, in the harbor. It’s an amazing building, and a hangout spot for so many people, and there’s a great view from the roof. Or Vondelpark, when the weather’s nice. And if you feel like you need to do something concrete, the Concertgebouw has free noontime concerts once a week in season.
Spain – Do you like to walk? Then one of the most famous pilgrimage roads of Europe is at the tip of your staff. Not only is there the French Road that snakes along the north of Spain to the pilgrimage city of Santiago de Compostela, but other roads also lead to Santiago, such as the Silver Road, from Seville, or the Portuguese Road from Oporto (in northern Portugal). All offer albergues and refugios—dormitory-like accommodations—some for as little as 8 Euros a night if you are walking the pilgrimage.
If you want to take in a big city on the cheap, Spain’s beautiful cosmopolitan centers can be done on a tight budget. Inquire at the city’s tourist office about admission entrance deals, multiple entry tickets, multiple ride tickets, etc. Spain remains relatively inexpensive for food and lodging compared to other European countries.
A rich, off-the-beaten path, and practically free experience to consider is to apply to volunteer at Pueblo Ingles. If selected, you are offered room and board in exchange for being an English language instructor to professional Spaniards from all over Spain. Seven destinations around Spain have been selected for their beauty, location, and history and are set in a retreat-like atmosphere for the week-long language training.
What’s to eat for cheap at lunch?
Netherlands – Frites, frites and more frites. Sure, french fries do not make a well-balanced meal, but I practically live on them when I’m in the Netherlands, and they don’t seem to do any permanent damage (the biking helps a lot!).
Also, the totally misunderstood treat of the Netherlands: herring. For some reason, people recoil when they hear this word, but raw herring is one of the most deliciously fatty fish I’ve ever tasted. And it’s not expensive: herring stalls all over the city will sell you one, chopped up and covered in onions and sweet pickles if you like, for about 3 euros. I usually get a sandwich, even though it’s considered a little wimpy. The bread helps you hold the pickles and onions on, and keeps the fish oil off your fingers.
In Amsterdam, you can graze at the Albert Cuypmarkt, a street market in De Pijp. There you can get fresh-made stroopwafels (those crispy cookies with a smear of caramel in the middle), herring, frites and loempias (Indonesian fried spring rolls). The Dappermarkt, out in the Oost, has tons of tasty stuff too. You might wind up spending more than a few euros, but you’ll be glad you got to taste so many different things.
Spain – At the heart of Spanish culture, no matter what region you visit, there is the fundamental belief that everyone, no matter who they are, has the right to eat and drink well without spending a lot. This belief, I feel, has kept prices from over inflation as Spain’s economy has grown throughout the past three decades.
The Spanish have honored a longtime tradition of the menu del dia, a worker’s lunch at a fixed price that includes three courses (two main dishes and dessert), bread, and a drink of choice (wine, beer, mineral water, juice, or soda). It is a bargain that can’t be beat; if you were to order a la carte, the dishes would all cost more and you would also be charged for the bread set on your table. Just look for hand-written signs at the entrances of restaurants advertising that day’s menu del dia. Currently, a menu del dia can run anywhere from 8.50 to 15 Euros, depending on how near or far off the tourist circuit you go. It is often the freshest and best food of the house and of the season.
What’s to drink there and what’s it going to cost me?
Netherlands – You’ve heard of Heineken, right? It’s everywhere (along with other Dutch brands, such as Amstel–not the light stuff–and Gulpener), and it costs between 2 and 3 euros a glass. If you want to pay your respects, you can tour the former Heineken brewery in Amsterdam, which includes a few beers with the tour price — but it’s much cheaper just to park yourself at some nice old-fashioned wood-paneled bar and soak up the cozy atmosphere there.
When I’m guzzling a beer at noon, along with everyone else at the café, I just tell myself I’m honoring the history of Amsterdam, which was founded on beer-making — this was back when there was no clean drinking water. In fact, I do find myself drinking beer just like it’s water there.
And if you want a more substantial beer, you’re in luck — Belgium is just next door, and you can get all their excellent trappist beers easily at many bars. In Amsterdam, there are heaps of excellent beer-centric bars: Gollem, De Zotte and, for Dutch microbrews only, ‘t Arendsnest.
If you’re not sold on beer for lunch (or ever), go for the standard Dutch “koffie verkeerd” — strong coffee with tons of hot milk. People drink it all day long, for about 2 euros a cup — and it always comes with a nice cookie on the side.
Another café staple is fresh-squeezed orange juice — so no need to go to Spain just for that!
Spain – Compared to France, wine is a bargain and nearly always of the same quality (more so, if you like bold, earthy, full-bodied wines). Expect to pay 1.50 to 2.50 Euros for a glass for of good vintage. If you ask for the house wine, you are going to get a good glass of wine at the least expensive cost. Beer is around 1.50-3 Euros, depending on where you imbibe it. On a hot day, Spanish beer is refreshing. It has a bit more body and flavor than French beer but like the French, the Spanish prefer blonds so a hefty dark beer will be hard to find.
Coffee in Spain is superb if you like espresso-strength coffee. A café con leche, the equivalent of a café latte, is the perfect balance of espresso and steamed milk. It will cost 1.10 – 3 Euros, depending on where you order it. Non-alcoholic beverages are also reasonably priced and in the 1.50-3 euro category. Don’t pass up on the fresh squeezed orange juice. It might cost a tad bit more than bottled OJ but the taste and nutritional trade off is insurmountable. That the oranges usually come from Valencia makes this juice taste especially vibrant and fresh.
Finally, Spain has the wonderful tradition of serving little bites with an alcoholic beverage, a law set into play by Alfonso X, the 13th century king of Castile and Leon. He passed the law out of concern for public inebriation in wine houses as well as for people’s general health. The practice has persisted over the centuries and today, a pincho, a really small tapa, is often given for free with an order of wine or beer.
What are the best bets for finding cheap places to sleep?
Netherlands – This is a rough topic. Amsterdam in particular is short on hotel rooms to start with, and a disproportionately high number of them are really sub-par. So the good places usually know it and are priced accordingly. Summer high season, it’s near impossible to find a room under 100 euros, and even hostel beds are close to 40 euros. I typically tell people to head to Stayokay Hostel in the east side of the city—great facilities, half the price of the city center, and you’re right on a tram line.
And because Amsterdam is small, it’s not a problem if you’re not dead center, so look farther out in the fringes. (In fact, the hotels dead center—along the Damrak—are particularly horrible value!) I also hear great things about the campground on the east edge of the city. The rest of the Netherlands isn’t quite so cutthroat when it comes to accommodations. There are plenty of youth hostels (where you don’t have to be a youth to stay) and well-maintained campgrounds. You just need to book ahead if you’re traveling in the summer.
In the low season, fortunately you can really snag a deal. In deep winter, Amsterdam hardly gets any tourists—February, for instance. But this is a time when the city is really at its coziest and most picturesque, and you can really enjoy the museums and things all by yourself.
Spain – Stick to the wonderful, family run hostals and pensions, places that are simple, clean, often have no means of Internet reservations, and usually only take cash. Not only can you save a lot of money by staying in such local establishments, but you will also meet locals who practice genuine Spanish hospitality, not sterile chain hotel hospitality. The only disadvantage is that not many hostal and pension owners speak English. But that never has stopped them from doing good business and people always find a way to communicate.
Beebe Bahrami is a writer and cultural anthropologist specializing in food and wine, travel, adventure, and cross-cultural writing of the western Mediterranean world. Her work appears in many publications, including Michelin Green Guides, Perceptive Travel, National Geographic books, The Pennsylvania Gazette, Bark, Expedition, and Archaeology. Two of her books were recently released, The Spiritual Traveler Spain—A Guide to Sacred Sites and Pilgrim Routes (Paulist Press, 2009) and Historic Walking Guides: Madrid (DestinWorld Publishing, 2009). Her present research roots her in northern Spain and southwestern France where she is working on an historical mystery and a travel narrative. (See her most recent Perceptive Travel story on Segovia.)
A New Yorker by way of New Mexico, Zora O’Neill is a food and travel writer who has lived abroad in Cairo and Amsterdam. She is the author of several guidebooks for Rough Guides and Moon Handbooks, including The Rough Guide to the Yucatán as well as Cancun & Cozumel Directions. She maintains the blog Roving Gastronome about her travels, and what she eats while she’s at it. (See her most recent Perceptive Travel story here: Eating a Personal Pig)