Footing It From Vienna to Budapest

When you walk long distances, you see places that no one else has seen.
  • Transcript


Question: Why do you think traveling on a small budget is valuable? 

Matt Gross: More and more now, I feel that your budget should just not matter. You should give up the idea that spending money is the key to having a great and successful trip or adventure. Once you put aside that idea that travel and money are related, that the more you spend, the better you travel, then you suddenly... everything becomes open to you. When you say, "I don’t need to spend the money to have a good meal, I don’t need to spend a lot of money to have a nice place to stay, I don’t need to spend a lot of money to get from point A to point B," then you have to be more creative. You find other ways to travel, you find other kinds of places to stay. 

I just got back from a trip walking from Vienna, Austria, through Slovakia, and down to Budapest, Hungary. It’s about 300 kilometers, and I was in these little towns that didn’t have hotels or restaurants or much of anything, and people were constantly offering me meals, offering me places to stay. These were things that happened not because I said, “I only have a limited amount of money to spend,” but because spending money was sort of beside the point. I could’ve spent a lot of money in these towns and it wouldn’t have gotten me anything. If I had spent a lot of money, first of all, I wouldn’t have wound up in these towns in the first place. And if I had 100 euros a night to spend on a hotel, in a town that doesn’t have a hotel, it doesn’t get you anything. Whether you’ve got 5 euros or 100 euros or 1,000 euros to spend a night in an interesting place, the place that you get free or the place that you get that’s run by someone small and creative and clever is going to be much better than the place that you get simply because you have money.

Question: What was it like walking from Vienna to Budapest? 

Matt Gross: I learned something about walking. When you have 300 kilometers to walk, which is about 160 miles, I think, you learn a couple things about walking pretty quickly. One is that there’s a difference between walking a lot on your own in a city and walking 15 miles a day with 40 or 45 pounds of gear on your back. My legs are very strong, except for my ankles, it turns out. So there were times when I realized I wasn’t going to make it unless I took a train for 20 kilometers and then started walking from there. 

So, I probably walked well over half the distance, I think it’s 290 kilometers total and I walked probably about 150 or 160 of that. So, it was tough. It was tough. My ankle, this ankle, is still a little swollen and I shouldn’t run, so I’m going to get fat for the next few days. 

Question: What’s the benefit of a long journey on foot? 

Matt Gross: You see places that no one else has seen at all. No other tourist goes to [...] No one walks into Estragon, you know, these are strange places that they won’t impress anyone when you tell people you went there, but the kind of experiences that you’re going to have there are just amazing. People were giving me places to sleep for the night, they were inviting me in for dinner. They were showing me around, offering me rides, helping me in my investigations. It was, the people that you meet, for me, are definitely the most important part of the journey. You make friends, you exchange email addresses, you stay in touch with these people. Every once in a while, they come to New York or you’re traveling somewhere and you meet them in a third country, and those kind of connections are, those are the most important souvenirs, those are the most important on-the-ground experiences you have when you’re traveling. And you don’t necessarily get those if you’re speeding through from city to city on a train or a bus. If you’re walking, you know, you wind up walking next to someone who’s walking their dog and they turn out to be an English teacher, and they invite you home for backyard wine and sweets and give you a nice bed to sleep in. There’s nothing better than that. 

Question: Would you have had the same experience walking across the U.S.? 

Matt Gross: Absolutely. This is a really large country and it’s not necessarily a small town value, but it’s, people in America are very friendly and they often actually want to meet outsiders and new people. I’ve had that happen. In 2007, I drove from New York to Seattle, sort of zigzagging across the country, staying off the interstates entirely and in Decorah, Iowa, I stopped in this little town in northeast Iowa one evening and found a bed and breakfast, arranged to stay there for the night, walked down a hill and found this cute, little bistro, La Rana Bistro, The Frog. And walked in and got a glass of wine and some bread and cheese at the counter and started talking to the owners and about five minutes after they met me, they said, “Hey, you need a place to stay?” You know, they had a lovely house, they had a whole wing of the house with its own bedroom and bathroom all to itself that they just offered to me for three or four days, just because they liked me. I was an interesting traveler who was passing through, let’s give him a place to stay. 

So, yeah, whether you’re driving or walking, that’s, you know, that’s going to happen.

Recorded on April 15, 2010