Tech Doesn’t Have to Be Your Travel Master

Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

In the summer of 1998 my girlfriend and I loaded our little Nissan and left Krakow for a road trip to Spain with a dog-eared Lonely Planet in Polish and a map, which we first consulted on the side of a silent Carpathian road in Slovakia. Just an hour from home and already lost. On the other side of our turnout there was a baby blue Skoda, an elderly couple inside. The woman with a kerchief over a pink beehive stayed in the passenger seat while her husband in a pancake cap got out of his jalopy, shuffled up to us and leaned deeply into my open window. The waft of onions, garlic, and sweat filled the car.

“Where are you from?” he asked in Slovakian.

“Krakow.”

“Krakow,” he repeated, scratching his gray whiskers. “Tell me, how much is one kilogram of cucumbers in Krakow?”

“Excuse me?” my girlfriend asked, not sure if something had been lost in translation.

“Krakow. Cucumbers. Kilo. How much?”

With a nearly straight face she said, “Three zloty?”

“Three zloty?”

He extracted himself from the window, took his cap off his head and scratched. “Three zloty,” he mumbled, and waddled back to his wife.

We folded the map like last week’s newspaper, stuffed it in the glovebox and drove off laughing through Austria and a wrong turn to Slovenia where we stayed at a rustic roadside inn, then zigzagged to Italy where hunger took us off course to a little mom and pop grocery where we bought two of the most delicious sandwiches – ever – and ate them on the curb, under a highway overpass.

We had the whole summer, or at least until our money ran out, and we bee-lined around Spain, following nothing more than our impulses and curiosity. The guidebook helped us locate lodging and our karma lead us into the best and worst of dives, all with legs of jamon hanging from ceilings, marinating in a steady haze of cigarette smoke. Some dripped grease into handy little yellow plastic catchers, others onto the bar, our heads, our drinks. One bar in Estella was adorned in Elvis pictures and had the first jukebox I had ever seen in Europe, mostly loaded with Elvis and Screaming Jay Hawkins songs. The owner had Elvis sideburns and a humble pompadour and he invited us on a motorcycle excursion to picnic in France with his friends the next day. It was an epic holiday, our first together and totally unplanned.

My partner and I have always been wired for impulsive travel. Before we met in Krakow, which I visited on a whim in 1991 and later moved to, she had already hitchhiked to Spain and would do so again. In 2001, impulse lead us to Tbilisi, a raw, extemporary city that functioned entirely off the cuff back then, and one we found impossible to leave. We inevitably became journalists, a gig that has allowed us to experience the world for a living, even though work is never a holiday. But we still travel in many formats: to visit friends, family, working holidays; however, we rarely have the luxury of time to wing legendary adventures like we used to.

While our style of traveling has changed (no more dropping acid on the night bus from La Paz to Tijuana), the information age has come along to help make our travel experience better. Those tattered Lonely Planets that managed to survive on our shelves have become dusty relics of a lost era, souvenirs. Today, we open the computer and do half our traveling before we leave home. On a family trip to Rome several years ago, we booked our flight, rented a car, found a room, and bought tickets for a Coliseum tour all online. I was so deep into the expedience of the world wide web I dove straight down the rabbit hole of Tripadvisor and Google reviews to consult the collective feedback of other tourists like TJMule and TravelBunny to find a good restaurant in the Eternal City. Without realizing it, I had clicked all the spontaneity out of our trip and guaranteed a terrible gastronomic experience, to boot.

This June, we returned to Spain after a 25 year hiatus for a wedding in Andalusia with no guidebook, nor road map. Technology would be our friend, not our master. We rented a car online and used GPS, which for better or worse kept us off the side of the road and away from inquisitive cucumber farmers. Like old times, we closed our eyes and stuck our finger on the map, except it was on the screen. “Let’s go to Ronda!” Using the web to book an Airbnb, we rolled out of Málaga and “discovered” an ancient Celtic city on the edge of the breathtaking El Tajo canyon.

Two and a half decades is a long time away from a tapas bar and I wanted our daughter’s first to be unforgettable, so I checked out a couple local blogs. Both recommended Bodega San Francisco, a lively and hospitable neighborhood utopia full of gusto a mere two-minutes away from our digs. Had a western tourist reviewed it, they would have unquestionably had issues with the two plasma screens showing obscenely graphic low-budget zombie flicks and likely ignored the garlicky succulence of the Gambas al Pil Pil. Our 12 year old didn’t want to eat anywhere else.

“But honey, there are so many places to try!”

Ronda is not an easy city to pull yourself away from, but we had a glorious three-day wedding to get to in Jerez de la Frontera. The binge took us to the bodegas of Castillo de Machamudo and Tio Pepe and the beachside SAAM Club de Mar. After the bash we ignored the web and wandered the lethargic late-afternoon streets around the 11th century Alcázar de Jerez. Stomachs a growling, we sat down at a restaurant along Plaza del Arenal, the city’s main square. 500 years ago, they fought duels and bulls at this plaza. Today there is an enormous monument of the 1920’s dictator, Miguel Primo de Rivera y Orbaneja. A disheveled waiter dropped greasy menus with generic pictures of what they serve. We looked at them, at each other, and left. A nearby alley off the square lead us into a cozy, colorful courtyard occupied by Mulai Jerez, an artistic oasis of Spanish fusion and lots of wine. Their oxtail wontons are what dumpling dreams are made of, while the tuna tartare melted over every taste bud to end up in that special spot of excellent culinary memories.

We spent our final days in Sanlúcar de Barremeda, where conquistadors once set off to pillage the New World. Author Matt Goulding, who has thoroughly eaten Spain inside and out, hipped us to the legendary Casa Balbino where the tortillitas de camarones were every bit as spectacular as he said they’d be. For the remainder of our sojourn we relied on the advice of locals, followed our inclinations and Google maps, which helped me locate the Sanlucar fish market, a sensory supercharge that compelled me to buy handfuls of fresh shrimp and cuttlefish for a sauté on our Airbnb’s ratty cookware.

One afternoon while the girls took a late siesta, I rambled the barrio into chummy bodegas, less sociable dives and Taberna der Guerrita, a local’s hideaway that has been filling wine glasses for 40 years. The next day, I shared my favorite discoveries with my wife and stopped in Guerrita where we moaned over each toe-curling bite of the chorizo stuffed mushrooms. We returned the next day for our last dinner in Spain.

Had I not been so web-shy, I would have learnt that Taberna der Guerrita has an extensive collection of Spanish wines, a special tasting room in the back, and is a destination for some of the country’s major wine aficionados. Knowing that in advance, however, would have only disturbed an otherwise blissful, if brief, family holiday. “No! Not again!” they would have said repeating a familiar refrain. “There are so many places for us to try!”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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