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Archive for the ‘France’ Category

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Our rental house in Soriano nel Cimino circled in white

You’ve probably realized by now how much we loved renting apartments in Europe. I’m going to write a post soon on why and how to find a good one, but this post of our favorites is mostly for us so that we can remember the great times we had in these apartments.

If you click on the city names, you’ll be taken to the current listings with more pictures and information in case you’re interested in staying there too. The prices I list are what we paid at the time, including any service charges and cleaning fees. The prices for some of them, especially the ridiculously cheap ones, have since gone up as they become more established and build up positive reviews, but there are always great deals to be had almost anywhere with some digging and luck. And most offer significant discounts for longer stays, whether a week or a month. These rentals are in no particular order since I found it too hard to rank them.

 

Flinders Chase National Park, Kangaroo Island ($62 USD a night, sleeps 4)

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I’ll start with the Postman’s Cottage, which is where the postman used to stay when he came to the western side of Kangaroo Island to deliver mail. Now it’s part of Flinders Chase National Park and rented out to visitors. I already gushed about the fun old-fashioned wood stove and other appliances here.

Favorite part: the koala we found sleeping in a neighboring tree

 

Budapest, Hungary ($47 a night for 6 nights, sleeps up to 4)

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I had to drag myself outside to go sightseeing because I loved this apartment so much. It was beautifully decorated and the friendly, helpful owner obviously put a lot of thought into making the experience as comfortable as possible for us. She also gave us a free bottle of Hungarian wine. The location right next to St. Stephen’s Cathedral was amazing.

Favorite part: high ceilings and huge old-fashioned European windows provided tons of light

 

Vienna, Austria (well, we booked that studio but the landlord gave us this bigger one for the same price of $63 a night for 2 nights)

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This apartment was spotlessly clean and full of gadgets, like the fancy TV and stereo system and the espresso machine (unfortunately without any espresso included).

Favorite part: The best gadget of all was the shower. Scott and I still talk about that shower. It had a built-in radio that you could tune while taking your shower and all sorts of features with different sprays and even a steam sauna function. Did I mention we loved that shower?

 

Bruges, Belgium ($29 a night for 4 nights, sleeps 2)

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The price we got on this cottage was pretty ridiculous for the area. Technically it was a little outside Bruges and required a car to get to, but even with having to rent a car it was cheaper than it would have been to stay inside Bruges without a car. It felt like our own little cottage out in the countryside with a pretty patio and garden, chickens out back who we fed all our leftover pasta to, friendly neighbors down the road, and big corn fields all around us. The owners even gave us Belgian chocolate, two beers, and a bag of cuberdons (a cone-shaped Belgian candy).

Favorite part: the idyllic setting

 

Paris, France ($53 a night for a week-long stay, sleeps 2)

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This was the first apartment rental of our trip so it holds a special place for us. It was a tiny studio but used its space very efficiently so it felt cozy instead of crowded. It felt like our own Parisian pied-à-terre.

Favorite part: its location in the heart of Latin Quarter on a street surrounded by open-air markets, bakeries, crepe stands, and restaurants

 

Autrans, France near the French Alps ($39 a night for 3 nights, sleeps 4)

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Autrans is a picturesque little village that comes alive during the ski season. We were way too early for snow, but we enjoyed the wooden paneling and rustic ski chalet feel of our cottage (on the far corner with the white car in the picture above). The people there were incredibly friendly, and the owner introduced us to all of his family and eagerly showed us around. He was so excited to give us six fresh eggs from his own chickens that he dropped the egg carton and broke all of them while trying to put them in the fridge. He gave us more, but what a waste of delicious eggs! You can read more about our stay in Autrans and Burgundy here.

Favorite part: proximity to the hikes in Vercors Regional Natural Park

 

St. Boil, France in Burgundy ($63 a night for 4 nights, sleeps 3)

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We rented a cottage in the Burgundy wine region that had been fully renovated but also incorporated details like stonework from the area that was thousands of years old. The owners were a chatty Belgian couple who gave us a couple of Belgian beers when we asked them for recommendations on where to go in Belgium later. They even made a polished YouTube video of their cottage that I’ve included below.

Favorite part: the amazing view of the vineyards for miles around

 

Florence, Italy ($36 a night for a bedroom and breakfast in a shared apartment with the owner)

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We mostly rented private apartments for ourselves, but I wish we had done more shared apartments after meeting our Italian host Daniele. He was incredibly nice and friendly, providing us a giant breakfast every morning (including vegetarian “cold cuts” for us) and making a fantastic dinner one night while we chatted with him and his girlfriend. He normally had free bikes to rent as well, but they had been stolen right before we arrived, so he even gave us a good bottle of wine and a box of Italian cookies as an apology.

Favorite part: getting to know Daniele

 

Soriano nel Cimino, Italy ($100 a night 2 bed/bath for 1 week, sleeps up to 6)

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This was definitely the fanciest place we stayed in as we had planned to share it with Scott’s mother and stepfather, but unfortunately their plans fell through and we ended up there by ourselves. It was beautifully designed by an architect with giant windows and a rooftop terrace. I’ve already talked about it quite a bit here.

Favorite part: the views of the medieval hill town

 

Naples, Italy ($52 a night for one week, sleeps 2)

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Our large apartment on the top floor had a terrace with olives, grapes, sage, and tumbling purple flowers and provided a great view of one of our favorite cities. The terrace was even connected to a cave (although they told us not to go inside because it was dangerous). Our neighbor was a dog we nicknamed “The Scruff” and down the street we could buy the best pizza we’ve ever had for $5. You can read more about our love of Naples here.

Favorite part: everything except the mosquitoes

 

So those were our ten favorite vacation rentals. We enjoyed a lot of others as well, but they didn’t quite make the top ten. Next up: a post on why we chose to rent places so often and how to find a good one.

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One Day in Marseille

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Unfortunately, we only had 24 hours in Marseille, but we tried to make the best of it. We took a train from Nice with beautiful scenery along the coast and arrived at Marseille by mid-morning. After walking to our hotel and dropping off our bags, we checked out the nearby Noailles quarter to grab some lunch. The colorful, bustling market and shops filled with immigrants selling Egyptian, Tunisian, Algerian, and Moroccan food and wares was a striking change from staid Nice. I bought some spicy potato balls and thin pancakes (I’m sure there are more accurate names for these, but I don’t know much about North African food), and Scott bought a giant round loaf of Moroccan bread that must have weighed several pounds.

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I was glad we had stopped by the information center at the Marseille train station and picked up their free detailed guide to Les Calanques, a 20-km stretch of gorgeous steep-walled inlets along the coast between Marseille and Cassis. Of course we couldn’t hike the whole thing with the limited time we had, but after only a couple stops on the metro from our hotel and a 20-minute bus ride, we were at the start of one of its beautiful hiking trails.

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We spent several hours hiking in the area until the sun started to set and cast a pink glow over the rocks.

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We headed back to our hotel as it got more chilly, first stopping by Noailles market again to pick up some hot takeaway pizza, and tried to go to bed at a decent hour so we could wake up early for some sightseeing in the morning before we had to leave for Istanbul.

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After stopping by a café for coffee and a croissant (which, by the way, I only recently realized was named for its crescent shape…I was a little slow there), we walked up to the church of Notre-Dame de la Garde, which sat on the highest spot in Marseille and provided great views of the city below.

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The interior of the basilica was beautiful as well and had old model sailboats suspended from the ceiling. Perhaps this had something to do with the fact that Notre-Dame de la Garde (Our Lady of the Guard) was thought to protect the sailors who left the city’s harbor.

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Afterwards we walked down to Vieux-Port (Old Port) and wandered around the city center, exploring an old fort, Marseille cathedral, and le Panier, the old part of town with narrow streets lined by colorful, weathered houses.

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As much as we liked Nice, we loved the diversity and vitality of Marseille even more, and we wished we’d had longer than just a day there (the trains hadn’t been running for the four days before we’d gotten there). But we tried to make the most of our limited time there and enjoyed it thoroughly.

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After finding a great deal on an apartment and flight to Nice (a city in the south of France pronounced “niece”), we decided to visit for a week. We were apprehensive about what our expenses there would be, considering how many well-heeled tourists visit Nice, but we were pleasantly surprised by how many free and low-cost options there were. In fact, we ended up spending the least money there than any other part of France, about $30 per person per day including food and accommodation. This post is to encourage anyone thinking about visiting the beautiful French Riviera even if you’re on a budget.

 

Rent an apartment

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Nina’s face peeking out from a skylight

I admit Scott has a special knack for finding great apartments. I think some people may have disliked the slanted roof of our attic apartment, but we thought it was cozy and cute, and we loved sticking our heads out of the two skylights (which happened to match our respective heights perfectly) to enjoy the view. Plus it was hard to beat the price of 200 euros a week.

 

Avoid restaurants

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Farmer’s market in Nice

This was our third time in France this year, so we were comfortable knowing that what we liked best about French food was the baguettes, cheese, and wine, none of which we needed to go inside a restaurant for. The restaurants in Nice had noticeably higher prices than even Paris, but we were fine with just getting fresh produce from the farmer’s market just a few blocks from our apartment every morning and warm baguettes from our favorite bakery to make some lovely picnics and meals. Nice is close to the Italian border and used to be part of Italy, so we also enjoyed buying fresh pasta from the supermarkets and pasta shops. Not only is an apartment often cheaper than a hotel, having your own kitchen and being able to cook saves quite a bit of money.

 

Take the 1 euro bus (or bike)

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Harbor in Monaco

There were a number of buses that went to neighboring towns like Cannes or Antibes for just 1 euro ($1.29). The buses did get crowded, though, so it probably wouldn’t have been a bad idea to spend a few extra euros on a faster train ride instead. We took a 1 euro bus to Monaco, the second smallest country in the world (0.76 square miles), and one of the richest, thanks to the tax breaks it provides to the millionaires and billionaires who live there.

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Scott in front of the Monte Carlo casino pretending to get into his car

Scott was proud of winning a few euros at the famous Monte Carlo casino and kept humming the James Bond theme song for the rest of the day. There were a lot of fancy cars in the area that I didn’t know much about so I’d ask Scott about them and he would say, “Oh no, that’s a cheap Porsche. That Bentley or Lamborghini is more impressive.”

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We had a nice picnic on a bench near the casino, even though we saw a sign that appeared to prohibit such scandalous activities. However, in our defense, we were not fancy enough to have an actual picnic basket.

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We also took the 1 euro bus over to the picturesque town of Antibes and wandered around enjoying the buildings and scenery.

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In addition to economical transportation out of the city, Nice also had a large bicycle rental system (which unfortunately we didn’t get to try out), with stations set up throughout the city and a great value at 1 euro a day.

 

Enjoy the free sights

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We were surprised to find out that most of the museums in Nice were free. Our favorite was the modern and contemporary art museum pictured above. Its rooftop terrace was scattered with cool artwork and provided great views of the city. We also enjoyed the Matisse museum (Henri Matisse lived in Nice) and the archeological museum surrounded by Roman ruins.

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In addition to museums, there were a lot of pretty hiking trails in Nice and the neighboring towns. In Nice we hiked up to an old fort and then along a coastal trail with beautiful views over the city.

We really enjoyed exploring the French Riviera and were surprised by how affordable it was!

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Returning to France

It’s a little silly. We’ve visited France twice this year already, and we’re planning another trip there next month. We had a pleasant time in Central Europe, but our first day back in France we walked around giddily with huge grins on our faces even before we cracked open our first bottle of wine. Perhaps with visits only a week or two in length, we were too inclined to romanticize everything we saw, but it was so beautiful and charming and delicious we couldn’t help it. We spent the first three days in the picturesque little village of Autrans near the French Alps.

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We stayed in the house on the left with the cars parked in front of it. It was the kind of village where a big, friendly dog greeted us the moment we arrived (perhaps eyeing the cheese we were unloading from the trunk of our rental car) and strangers in the street said, “Good evening” to us in French as we walked past.

One of the best parts was that we were right by Vercors Regional Natural Park, which offered great hikes with amazing views. Our first day we went on a short hike where we enjoyed the surprisingly loud music of cowbells (click on the video above to listen for yourself – is it weird that I immediately thought of the SNL skit about cowbells?).

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Our second day we went on a much longer hike, the kind where your husband tells you to be prepared for a long hike of 9-12 miles and then you end up hiking for 7.5 hours and at least 15 miles. Despite my grumbling, I have to admit it was pretty awesome (see the ibex above and the marmot family below).

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The area was packed with jagged limestone cliffs, caves, and sinkholes.

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Mont Aiguille in the Vercors Plateau, first ascended in 1492 and said to mark the beginning of mountaineering

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On our drive home we ran into these guys. The dog behind them sure seemed to enjoy his job.

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After relaxing in the village of Autrans, we drove up north to stay in another small village in the Burgundy region. Trying to avoid toll roads meant several extra hours of driving and getting lost, but we got to go through some lovely villages along the way. No matter how small some of them were, they all seemed to have a church or a castle or a mill that was hundreds of years old, and it was surprising how rare it was to see a building that looked modern. Even the completely renovated house we stayed in on the outskirts of town used the area’s old stone and tiles for part of its construction.

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We also loved being surrounded by miles of vineyards.

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We stayed in the south edge of the Burgundy area, but generally the further north we drove the more expensive the wine got, until we were in areas where the wine was selling for thousands of dollars a bottle.

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How much is a cluster of grapes worth?

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We also visited a fancy 17th century French chateau in Cormatin with carefully manicured gardens (check out the bushes in the shape of animals!).

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And a maze.

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We went on a guided tour of the interior (the guide is in the picture above).

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The cabinet of curiosities

It was interesting to hear about some of the customs, like separate apartments for a married couple, rooms meant just for showing off to other people (e.g. the cabinet of curiosities above), rooms to make people wait in to show that you’re better than them, etc. It sure seemed like a lot of stuff was just for a nobleman to indicate his status, which in the end didn’t sound all that different from the way modern Americans try to show off their status.

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Finally, we headed up to Paris for a few days, where we met up with Diana, one of my friends from high school who had just finished a consulting job in Germany. It had been way too many years since I’d seen her, so we had a great time catching up and seeing some of the classic Paris sights while eating way too many crepes.

Our last night in Paris we had a little picnic by the Eiffel tower. Click on the video above to see it twinkling (which it does every hour).

We were reluctant to leave, but we’re looking forward to visiting southern France next month!

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Enjoying Paris On a Budget

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Notre Dame Cathedral at night

Since we’re actually in Paris now, let me take a break from the India posts to talk about Paris for a bit.  I was inspired (or riled up) by my guidebook, which claims that in order to spend less than 50 euros (about 65 dollars at the current exchange rate) per person a day I must stay in a hostel dorm and only eat from the supermarket.  That’s simply not true.  Scott and I have to be on a budget to make a trip like this last longer than a couple of months, but we wouldn’t want to go to somewhere like Paris and just eat canned corn* all day.  You just have to be smart about how you spend your money.  It also helps to come during low season when prices are lower.  Let’s go through some numbers, starting with the biggest costs first.

 

Flights

Flights are probably going to be your biggest expense.  Visiting during low season (i.e. winter) will probably help you out quite a bit here compared to visiting during the summer.  But even better is using airline miles.  I know a lot of people hate trying to use miles, and they can be a pain, especially if you need to go to a particular place at a specific time.  But Scott and I have managed to use miles for most of our international travel for the past few years, some built up from previous travel, and a lot from signing up for credit card bonuses with no annual fee for the first year (check out Flyertalk for the latest deals).  Yes, it’s a hassle, but it’s also saved us thousands of dollars.  Miles are especially handy to use if you have some flexibility regarding where you want to go and if you have time to plan in advance.  We went to the American Airlines website, played around with different destinations, and found that we could take a direct flight from Chicago to Paris for 20,000 miles one way during low season with availability for almost every day in January even though we were looking just a couple weeks ahead.  We booked online and were charged $5 in fees per ticket.

Cost: $5 per person

 

Accommodation

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Our tiny (but awesome!) apartment in Paris

We have nothing against staying in hostels, but we do feel it’s worth paying extra to get a private room and private bathroom within a hostel.  While this level of luxury can be very cheap in places like India (about $10 a night seemed standard), in Europe even a hostel dorm room stuffed with six bunk beds and a bathroom down the hall shared by dozens of people can easily run $30 a night per person.  Instead, we rented a cozy studio apartment in the heart of Paris for a week for 290 euros, or about $26 a night per person.  Having our own kitchen and fridge also meant it was a lot easier to cut down on food costs.

Cost: ~20 euros per person per night

 

Food

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Close your eyes and imagine what you would want to eat in Paris.  What pops into mind?  I think of baguettes, delicious pastries like chocolate croissants, crepes, yogurt, cheese, paté, and wine.  Fortunately, all of these things can easily be found for cheap.  A fresh-baked large baguette from the tantalizing bakery on the corner?  1 euro.  Go to the supermarket and you can find surprisingly good hunks of cheese, big tubs of yogurt, and bottles of wine for less than 2 euros each.  Melt-in-your-mouth nutella crepe from a street stand made right in front of you?  2 euros.  For breakfast, we brewed coffee we found in the apartment’s kitchen cupboard with the apartment’s coffeemaker and made tea I brought from home.  Add in some yogurt and eggs from the grocery store, some croissants or baguettes from the bakery, and breakfast was still less than 2 euros total.

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Maybe for lunch we might do something fancier: a savory crepe or toasted panini with salami, feta cheese, and tomatoes from a street stand for about 3 or 4 euros or a meal at home with bread, paté, cheese, cornichons (little pickles), and a glass of wine for under 3 euros.  And if you want to enjoy the ambiance of a restaurant for dinner, you can pop into one of the many restaurants offering 3-course menus (e.g. a heap of mussels, salmon tagliatelle, and apple tart) for 9 or 10 euros with tax and tip already included.  We easily averaged under 15 euros a day for food, even including splurges like the beautiful little fruit tart in the bakery or the cappuccino in the café or the outrageously priced ice cream from Berthillon (verdict: good, but not that good).

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Beautiful chocolate objects galore…the 52 euro chocolate clock was out of our budget though

We generally avoided drinks in restaurants since they came with lots of surcharges and taxes, but I still got my Orangina fix from cheap giant bottles from the supermarket.

Cost: 15 euros per person per day

 

Sightseeing

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Nina looking out onto Paris from inside Musee d’Orsay (reminiscent of the movie Hugo)

First of all, there are many free things to do in Paris: wander around neighborhoods, sit in one of the many parks or gardens, have a picnic in front of the Eiffel Tower (when it’s not winter), and visit free museums and monuments (Notre Dame Cathedral, Le Petit Palais, Basilique du Sacre-Coeur, Victor Hugo’s house, etc.).  You can also spend hours reading and people-watching in a café for the price of a cup of coffee.

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However, there are also a lot of places that charge hefty entrance fees.  Over the course of a week, Scott and I averaged about 5 euros a day on tickets to places like the Louvre and Versailles, but in retrospect it would have been worth getting a 4 or 6-day museum pass with unlimited access to most museums and monuments, averaging more like 8-10 euros a day spread over a week.  We couldn’t stomach a lot of the entrance fees, but the pass is a good value compared to some of the crazy individual fees and would have been liberating for cheapbutts like us.

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Silly jump shot in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles

Cost: We spent less, but a Paris museum pass is good value and probably worth it for 10 euros per person per day.

 

Miscellaneous

Add up accommodation (20 euros), food (15 euros), and sightseeing (10 euros), and we’re at 45 euros per day.  Even with a couple metro rides (1,27 euros one way if you buy 10 at a time) and an extra nutella crepe, we’re still under 50 euros a day.

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So yes, you can visit Paris comfortably without spending thousands of dollars, and maybe not even spending as much as you would visiting some American cities.  We’re not eating out every meal nor ordering multiple drinks with every meal like we would in India, but we’re still having a great time and enjoying ourselves while on a budget.

 

*Nina cannot confirm nor deny whether she did this when she visited Rome in college.  Don’t worry, she also ate a ton of gelato!

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