From the romantic whirlwind of Lisbon, I moved on to the much smaller, stiller, slower paced town of Sintra, set in the scintillating (Sintrallating) Serra de Sintra (Sintra Mountains to you and me). Though lesser in size, the charm of this little fairytale suburb knocks that of its adjacent capital sister right out of the park (literally (it’s housed in its own Natural Park)). The sights in store are second to none, but first I must introduce you to the interesting individuals (read: whacky-fucking-weirdos) I encountered at my hostel.

First up was the resident AAA (Annoying-American-Accented) ‘life coach’. No, he wasn’t employed by the hostel to improve the mindset and wellbeing of its guests; he was clearly a bit lost, a bit of a loner, and his business model was clearly not earning him the big bucks with which to avoid sharing a bedroom with up to sixteen total strangers. However this did not detract from his dazzling good looks, which made him even more of a confusion to me. (Kind of a cleaner-version-of-Russell-Brand vibe; excellent diet (slices of fresh apple with a dollop of nut (I am going to guess almond) butter were a regular favourite); enviable posture.) How can one be so much of an interesting individual (as above) when one is so ruddy handsome and healthy? It’s beyond me.

On asking him about his business model (obviously (I am unapologetically nosey)) he explained that he currently works with clients from all over the world via the telephone, taking to them about their lives, goals and how to improve on both. Feasible, yes. (But all my sceptical mind could envisage when spotting him on a ‘business call’ in the garden was his boring (but lovely) old mum – or a phone sex operator – at the other end of the line. But I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt; he must have been earning something to afford the organic, palm oil free, 100% nuts almond butter he was slathering all over his nuts (I mean apples).

The second interesting individual put the nut butter maestro firmly into the categorically of totally normal human being. II2 (Interesting Individual 2) was, unfortunately, in my dorm room. And this was especially unfortunate because his interesting behaviour happened (mostly) when he was in his bunk bed (thankfully not the one above me). He was trying his hand at being a YouTuber, I believe. (Or at least that was the impression he gave when filming himself talking to camera for lengthy periods, saying not much anything of use, interest or comedic effect.) (I am aware that the very same could be said for me, just via a different creative medium (but you are choosing to read this and you are on the fourth paragraph free willingly).) The first of his videos was about Harry Potter. Yes. Harry Potter. Late to the party in so many ways (he was at least in his early-twenties). And this first video lasted for at least twenty-five minutes (at which point I opted for a change of scenery and moved to the living room to escape his monotonous tones which were really, truly bleeding me of my soul (and any fondness I may have had towards the Philosopher’s Stone). I do not believe he had any concept of space-sharing, consideration of others, or the publication years (and target audience age) of the Harry Potter book series.

My second interesting interaction with II2 was in the kitchen, and an event during which my behaviour was thoroughly unkind and for which I am still regretful (though which does not retract from the fact that it was a FUCKING STUPID THING FOR HIM TO DO). It was the morning and therefore it was time for breakfast (yay). I entered the kitchen and who was there to greet me but my wizard-wannabe roomie who was talking (a lot) to no one in particular (definitely not to me (maybe my leaving during his Harry Po Po monologue the evening before had hurt his feelings)). I moved towards the fridge to retrieve something (let’s say it was milk – it’s the most probable candidate at this time of day (no matter how much one is partial to a swig-from-the-bottle of chilled sauvy-b at a quarter past nine)). (That last bracketed clause was purely for comic effect, before you get in touch with the AAA man about my worrying habits.) I pulled on the handle, opened the fridge door, and to my utter fright and surprise (it was a quarter past nine so one should be able to sympathise with my delicate reflexes at this early hour) something fell from the top of the door and onto the floor with a bit of a splat. (Don’t worry – we didn’t have an almond butter emergency.) It was II2’s GoPro, with which he was filming a ‘breakfast special’ for his YouTube subscribers (that explains all the senseless talking). He ran to the device and huffed EXAGGERATEDLY. He held it in both hands and stroked it as if it was a beautiful robin who had injured its wing and needed some TLC. He grunted and retreated from the fridge. My reaction: I looked at him strangely and then got back to finding my milk.

I FEEL SO HEARTLESS!!! I didn’t even say sorry. I may have just ruined his chances at a multi-million pound vlogging empire. But: why the EFF would you leave your GoPro balancing PRECARIOUSLY on top of the DOOR to the COMMUNAL FRIDGE at BREAKFAST TIME? I couldn’t help but huff exaggeratedly and continue to assemble my bowl of granola. II2 – if you’re reading this – I’m sorry for opening the fridge door at an inopportune moment, leading to the cutting short of your ‘breakfast vlog’, and the potential cutting short of your journalistic career. I am sorry for not saying sorry (although I don’t believe that I was in the wrong, sometimes it is good just to say sorry, even when you do not believe you ought to be sorry). And I am sorry for reacting to your STUPIDITY with a strange look and an exaggerated huff. But, dear lord, am I sorry that I had to endure your tedious, time-consuming and, frankly, terrible attempts at capturing an audience’s attention with the most un-topical topics known to man, woman and child. (You are now on paragraph six and a good 1,000 words deep so do not even think about projecting this belligerent observation onto me and my (captivating and incredible) writing (please).)

With all this talk of interesting individuals (and I haven’t even mentioned you yet, Dad!) there’s barely time to give you a run down of the Sintracular (a nod to its spectacle as opposed to its abundance of vampires) Portuguese town. So (without boring you too much more) I will just make a list of adjectives I have assigned to the resort, and leave the rest up to you: alluring, beautiful, charming, decorative, enchanting, fascinating, grand, happy, interesting, jubilant, kaleidoscopic, luscious, majestic, natural , ornamental, peaceful, quirky, ravishing, sublime, topnotch, unspoilt(ish), vibrant, wonderful, xtremely wonderful, zig-a-zig-ah.

Palàcio de Pena


First Dates

Good, bad, sometimes too cringe worthy to recount to others (let alone publish on the world wide web). We’ve all been on our fair share of first dates and, most probably, a lot of yours have left you singing along solo to U2 (I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (obviously)). So interesting, in fact, they have their own TV show (one of my favourites I have to admit). Needless to say, I was as eager as you no doubt are to see how this one turned out…

Coffee? No. Dinner? Nein. Picnic in the park? Mais non! This first date was in fact a weekend away in Lisbon – yes – with someone I had spent approximately two hours with two months prior – ja – and of whom I could not properly pronounce their name – oui madame. (Still can’t to be honest.) Said Dutchman will go by the name of Gigi* (a name which he has since grown to despise exponentially, and the best part is I’ve got my dad calling him that now too).

Gigi and I met during Caren’s** stint with me in Italy. (Brownie points for those of you who spotted his subtle reference in the post about Bologna.) First problem was: Caren and I both fancied him. Second problem was: he didn’t fancy either of us. It wasn’t looking good. On suggesting we keep in touch while saying our goodbyes I was politely informed that he was “rather busy at the moment”. It really wasn’t looking good. Oh well. You’ve got to love a trier!

Through some miraculous, well, miracle (clearly my casual Facebook Messengering is second to none (who knew?)), I found myself, two months later, sitting in a little Airbnb in the Pena district of Lisbon, waiting for my date to arrive. (And then, all being well – no domestic violence / sexual assault / unknown drug problem – he would remain for… the next three nights. 😳.) (My mother was a little nervous, to say the least. I was quite optimistic but, you know, you never really know…)

First task was sourcing the ingredients for dinner. (He was arriving in the evening and I wanted to fully take advantage of the situation and wow him with my culinary talents.) I was hoping for an oven but no such luck. This was going to have to be a two-ring hob kinda dish. (Was not going to let it phase me.) He told me the only thing he did not like was gorgonzola cheese. Great. Nice and easy and not a fussy eater (though obviously I judged him for his aversion to blue cheese). I had planned olives and nuts for nibbles (always got to be nibbles), with a fillet of sea bass on an aubergine / butterbean / basil bonanza of some description as the show-stopper. Turned out he does not like olives or aubergine, either. (Those closest to me know how I feel about aubergine and know that this could have been a deal breaker. But I was turning over a new leaf, and wasn’t going to let this potentially catastrophic revelation get in the way of what could turn out to be true love. (I hope you’re all very proud of me.))

The food shopping experience was one I’d never like to repeat. Without a phone (still) (imagine the added complications of organising the first date) or an internet connection, I rather struggled to even find a supermarket and wondered, at times, if I would ever make it back to the apartment after walking in so many circles around the centre of the city that I was starting to feel a little dizzy. At last, alas, I found a supermarket. It was like something out of the olden days (or how I imagine them to be, anyway). A counter for everything (even a wine buff to help you choose your bottle!). I liked it a lot. I liked the fish counter lady a lot less. We had an almighty communication issue. (Even with a semi-English speaking butcher to help us out.) After watching her massacre one poor sea bass-ish fellow to barely two unbattered fish fingers (not the desired cut), and an awful time trying to explain that WHO ON EARTH WOULD WAN’T TO PAY FOR THAT? I managed to use enough hand gestures and mimes to describe “two fillets, skin on, pin boned and scaled”, and walked away with my dinner (phew).

When Gigi arrived I think we both knew there was going to be a make-or-break two minutes, which would lead to either the best first date we had ever had or the longest three days one could ever care to imagine. Luckily we totally aced these initial two minutes. He seemed to enjoy the aubergine-based dinner (or at least he certainly acted convincingly), and we knew it was going to be, like, totally the best date ever. The weekend was spent exploring, eating (you know me) and unapologetic eye-gazing. I spent about three-month’s worth of travelling budget in three days, but (old romantic that I am) it was totally bloody worth it.

As I sit and type this, exactly six months and one week since we met, I am writing from my ‘secondary office’ in Gigi’s flat in the Netherlands, waiting for him to get home from work so I can cook an aubergine salad for dinner (I kid you not (aubergine will always come first in my heart)). I may have to change the name of my blog because I think I have just stumbled upon happy…

*Much hotter than Hadid.

**K changed to C to protect identity.

[Gigi is not the cartoon male from 1866]

Dummies Guide to Surfing

Following the thoroughly needed boost from the best friends in Portimão, I was back on top form and ready to embrace true travelling life once more. And on the south coast of Portugal this could only mean one thing: surfing. Gulp.

Having been put off sailing at a young age by the interaction one has to have with water during said activity, and having worked in nautical publishing for four years during which time I did NOT ONCE partake in any kind of water-based pursuit (except for the horrific photoshoot carried out on a large motorised RIB on the choppiest of days on the Solent wherein my understanding of seasickness reached a whole new height (literally)), one could conclude that I was not the biggest watersports lover that Europe had ever been witness to. But I was travelling; I was free; I was going to try out surfing.

Settling into my newest abode in Lagos (Olive Hostel – highly recommended (daily doses of complimentary port and sangria especially welcome after a day drowning while attached via right ankle to a surfboard twice your size)), I asked the staff for Surf School recommendations. There were plenty to choose from, but naturally I opted for the one with the “really fit surf instructor”. I booked one day’s training which consisted of two hours in the morning, lunch and sunbathing time on the beach, followed by two more hours in the water in the afternoon. Having been told a group of four were already booked onto the day’s trip, I was expecting to be joined by four twenty-something males who would embarrassingly show me up on the water and emphasise my total lack of aptitude. Arriving at the pick-up point I was delighted to see that the party of four was actually a very normal, unintimidating German family: fifty-something mother and father with young teenage sons. What a relief.

After an hour’s drive through the Algarve countryside we arrived at the chosen beach, which was swarming with long-haired, caramel-skinned surfers unpacking their wares from big vans, and not a whole lot else. It was quite a spectacle. Clearly this pastime was a way of life for many of the locals, and at that precise point in proceedings I had no reason to doubt that the surfers lifestyle wasn’t my true calling too. (This daydream did not last more than four minutes.)

Once we had unpacked the van and taken all the equipment down to the beach we set up camp and changed into our provided wetsuits (assigned by a thirty-second up-and-down by the “really fit surf instructor”. (I wasn’t complaining.) (Although I think the (however flattering) bestowment of the size 6 wetsuit (two sizes too small (at least)) to me did not help me get into the role seamlessly.) I couldn’t get the bloody thing on. The calves were about as far as I could manage on my own. The one-to-one tuition that the surf lesson turned out to be soon commenced with the careful stretching and easing of the neoprene over my posterior. (Thank God I’d gone with the attractive instructor.)

Wetsuit on (virtually ripping at the seams), it was time for the theory. (Yawn.) Luckily this just consisted of some rudimentary drawings in the sand of the students, the sea and the safety flags, and we were soon onto the first stage of the practical: surfing on the sand. Well. This was brilliant! I was loving it! I was amazing! This (I naively believed) was going to be a super duper day. (In case you haven’t tried surfing yet yourself: it is slightly more difficult when you are attempting it on the water.)

Once we were out in the sea the day suddenly took a turn for the worse… I was terrible. Truly terrible. Utterly useless. Exaggerate I do not. And the German family of four? Bloody fantastic. The boys were standing in no time; catching waves and making breaks (is that even a term?) like they were pros. And the parents were just as good. Even the friggin’ fifty-year-old mum!! They were embarrassingly showing me up on the water and emphasising my total lack of aptitude. The surf instructor soon realised that I needed a little more instruction than my fellow surfees. (Again – I was not complaining.) He positioned my board, held it still, looked out for the approaching waves and pushed me in the right direction as the water took me towards the shore. Before I could even contemplate attempting to stand, I needed to master simply staying on the board as the instructor, Jorge, let me go. I found this a little challenging. On the successful runs I ended up washed up on the beach with the board still below me, lying on my front with my head in the air like I was practising the back-bending Cobra Pose. Which, as I’m sure you can imagine, must have been a rather ridiculous sight. On the unsuccessful few (thousand) I ended up immersed in the water, surfboard God-knows-where and all facial orifices pumped full of water. Again, a rather ridiculous sight.

Just as I had been washed up for the seventy-sixth time it was time for lunch, for which I couldn’t have been happier (you know me). I took the executive decision to reward my (deplorable) efforts with a beer with Jorge alongside my cheese sarnie and mini-Mars. It certainly helped my (rapidly depleting) optimism, but not so much my waterborne abilities. After a post-lunch Super Bock-induced snooze in the sun, I slithered into the wetsuit once more (just) and took to the water for the second half of the lesson. The medicinal quota of lager consumed did nothing to help my hand / eye / body / closing facial orifices balancing act, but it did – somehow – enable me to fight the fear and get up on my feet (for a grand total of about 0.35 seconds). With a couple more mili-second-long verticalities, and a lot more underwater near-fatalities, it was time to wrap up the session, unpeel the wetsuit and crack open another beer.

Overall opinion of the day? Great fun. Overall opinion of my surfing? Abominable. Overall seawater intake? More than the recommended daily consumption for the whole of the Portuguese south coast. Boy was I looking forward to drowning in the complimentary port back at the hostel.

[Post-beer (that’s why I look like I’m enjoying myself)]


To re-cap; I am up early to catch a bus from Seville, heading to Portimão, Portugal, with no watch, no map, no phone, no iPad (and not even a bloody compact hairbrush). (I had been robbed the previous afternoon – in case you had the audacity to forget the barbaric recent state of affairs.) So I am sitting on the Alsa bus, which is just as stuffy, uncomfortable and travel sickness-inducing as ever, with the added bonus that I don’t know where we are, I don’t know what the time is, and I don’t know when we will be arriving. A testing situation, one may surmise.

We pull into a bus stop at an unidentifiable port, and after shouting “Portimão?” enough times to enough of my fellow passengers, I come to the conclusion that this is where I am to depart. (Fingers crossed.) Twenty-kilogram backpack donned and I’m off in search of my next resting place: best-friend Rachel’s parents’ brand-spanking-new holiday home in a state of the art complex with electric gates and private pool. Oh my. I must have been in purgatory ‘cos yesterday had been hellish and I sure was on my way to heaven. In amongst the panic of last night’s HORRIFIC attack (did I mention that I’d been robbed?), Rachel, back home in England, had screen-shotted and emailed to my hostel the route from the bus station to the apartment, which they then printed for me (attempting to charge me 10p per sheet (which, as you can imagine from someone who was somewhat out of sorts, was politely declined, followed by a succinct explanation to the jobsworth behind the reception desk that the mere mention of a paper charge to someone who had NO BLOODY MONEY was totally (fucking) preposterous)). So I had my print-outs and I was at the (what I dearly hoped to be correct) bus stop and set off on the last leg of that day’s journey.

It was hot. Like, really hot. Like, t-shirt-has-absorbed-all-it-physically-can-and-now-you-are-just-dripping kind of weather. Not the ideal environment for a sleep-deprived, cantankerous, knotty-haired mess.

Off I went in the direction of the apartamento. Or so I thought. (It transpires that I had got confused between the start and finish pins on the map – and had been walking in exactly the wrong direction for circa twenty minutes. (This may not seem like much of a big deal but add the weight of twenty sacks of potatoes, an evil sun and the aforementioned prior events (the brutal robbery at gunpoint and near death experience) and you’ve got yourself a bloody great catastrophe.)) I did not realise my mistake alone, though. After walking seemingly off the map for a good while, I came across a rather posh looking hotel on the opposite side of the road, and decided to chance my luck at an English speaking front-of-house. I was in luck. Trying vehemently not to judge me on my dishevelled, and quite frankly humiliating, appearance, the receptionist whipped out a local map, drew on my route and bid me (a rather relieved) farewell. (I was doing nothing for their chic and classy image.) Back on the road I made my way back to the bus stop and on (in the correct direction) to the complex at which, after a few more minor hurdles here and there (backpack, tired, hot – you get the picture), I finally arrived. Fina-fucking-lee!

Once the keys were collected I went straight to the apartment and straight to…bed. (I sure know how to celebrate.) Now I just had to wait for my friends to arrive (Rachel (whose parents owned this amazing abode) and Claire (here for the free holiday). Between napping and unification with my two favourite blondes I decided to take a (braless) nip to the nearest supermarket to pick up some provisions for dinner. (I don’t know if you have ever been for a braless supermarket shop yourself (obviously I hope that this is customary for the male readers) (my reasoning was that it was far too hot to warrant any extra clothing than absolutely necessary) but I would very much recommend! It is a very freeing experience and, in such warm climates, comes with no worry of any evidence of your braless nip, if you no what I mean. Anywho. Said supermarket shop was (unsurprisingly) not all plain sailing. Again a recipe of no internet access, no idea, (no bra) and heavy bags made for a rather sweaty, rather cantankerous, and still rather knotty-haired mess (but at least my boobs felt free from their usual confines). I bobbed back slowly (literally), contemplating after every five steps whether to hitch hike home, but concluded that given my recent ill-fortunes, and my current state of (un)dress, this might not be the best idea.

What seemed like three hours later I returned to the pad, with just a few hours left before my bezzies were to arrive. Thank God for that. Arriving that evening with iPad and iPhones (and hairbrush!) galore, the next three days were spent – in a slight change to proceedings from our planned care-free girls weekend away – sorting out my insurance claims and money situation, while drinking A LOT of Portuguese green wine to remind ourselves that we were, in fact, on holiday, and that nothing can get in the way of us enjoying a bottle (or fifteen) of the region’s local vinho verde. Cheers, you blonde, boobtastic, mega-babes.

[Sangria also helped us stay in the holiday spirit]


Following a long break in my blog writing (sincerest apologies (since returning home from my travels I have been forced to partake in some strange phenomenon coined “earning money”, as opposed to frivolously spending it (and the vast majority of my waking hours) on local European delicacies and extortionately priced imported bottles of La Chouffe)) one might be concerned for the ability of my memory to recall and conjure (with the vivid description that you’ve all grown to love) the intimate details of my yet untold days spent exploring, which by now – you fear – could be but a distant haze in the ever changing scenery of the old brain box. Fear not my friends. For the following tale is so deeply etched on the surface of my hippocampus that it is truly immovable and totally there to stay. But it is, I hasten to add, the single worst experience which I encountered during my six-month jolly.

It began, as all good tear-jerking (we will get to that part in due course) nightmares do; with a very pleasant opening scene. The sun was fierce on arrival in the city (we’re in Seville now, FYI) (picture an overripe beef tomato caught in a rainstorm and you will be close to the appearance of my face), so the hostel’s PRIVATE ROOFTOP POOL was somewhat of a welcome revelation. The fact that I was also handed a ‘half-price sangria’ token at the reception desk was, too, warmly received (clearly – we were in excess of thirty-five degrees). So off I trotted (definitely not a gallop, and it would be a fabrication to deem it a canter) to my dorm, trading my sneakers for flip flops and my bright red glossy noggin for a more subdued, matte finish. And continued on up to the Sangri-La. Ahh.

During my time spent in Granada the previous week I had (as embarrassing as it is to admit) failed to secure myself a visit to the UNESCO World Heritage Site (and, more importantly, the bloody great photo opportunity) that is the Alhambra. The Moorish (in the Islamic architectural sense as opposed to that of Italia’s pistachio gelato) palace / fortress complex is one of the highlights (if not the highlight) of the region of Andalusia, let alone the whole of Spain, and had come highly recommended to me by every single living sole I had ever graced with the topic of my visit to the city. And I was too bloody late to get a bloody ticket to visit the bloody thing. (Although the very respectable couple (who I met on the free walking tour) who had booked their long weekend away to Granada six months ago – with the chief motivation of wishing to explore the iconic masterpiece – but had managed to neglect the need to pre-book their sightseeing tickets, just like me, made me feel a whole lot better about it.) But now in Seville, with its similarly Moorish, and equally UNESCO-status, Alcázar, I was not going to make the same mistake twice. So I was rather smug indeed as I bypassed the layman’s queue and entered the palace with all the grace and snobbery of a overly egotistical Spanish queen (who had pre-booked her ticket a mere twelve hours prior). The place was spectacular, and did nothing to ease my annoyance on missing its Granadian sibling.

Increasing my love of the city even further was the mushroom- / waffle-esque (and highly controversial due to this bizarre resemblance) timber-framed structure, the Metropol Parasol. It sticks out like the sorest of sore thumbs from the city’s gothic, historic centre, but, for me at least, acted as a rather funky addition to the traditionally beautiful skyline. (And any construction that resembles food has gotta be worth something, hey?) I believe I did said waffle in the best possible way (hair flick followed by fleeting self-congratulatory clearing of the throat). I implore you to follow my lead: The sun was due to set at (let’s say) 7 pm (don’t quiz me on the precise sun path) so I arrived at the ticket office at a respectable six fifteen. For just three euros (I don’t quite know why I’m acting as their international sales rep either, but let’s just go with it) you are permitted free reign to explore the structure, and a nifty one euro discount on a drink at the top floor bar (don’t mind if I do). The slightly tricky part (although only if you are on your lonesome (as I)) is to use the power of thought to keep one of the in-seriously-high-demand tables free while you are queuing at the bar to order your large glass of wine. My power of thought, as it happens, was not very strong at all. With glass of white in hand I hovered, quite obviously, trying to sound out which would be the next party to depart, and thus which would be the next free table on which I could pounce. There was absolutely no movement. I approached a group of three ladies to ask if I could make use of their free fourth seat, to which I was faced with broad smiles and a knowing gaze – they were all total strangers too, and clearly watching the sunset as a lone ranging female was somewhat of a fashion in these parts. So my seat was secured, my wine was in hand, and all I had to do now was watch the city go from day to night. I love this precious time of day in any situation, but experiencing it while in a wooden-beam giant waffle is really something quite spectacular. And once the sun has gone to bed the illuminated swirling walkways take you up, down and around the impressive edifice, before you saunter back home in a daze of mushroom-made wooziness.

All of this sounds far too jubilant for the nightmare weekend for which it had been billed. So now for the bloody great palaver…

It was my third and final day in the city. Having achieved all of my sightseeing goals while the sun did not even think about relenting, all I wanted to do was to lie in the park all day long with nothing much more strenuous that a little bit of reading and a little bit of lunch. So I found my park, I found my spot, and I took up position. It was lovely. I had just downloaded a new book (Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, which, incidentally, had been recommended to me by the rather respectable couple from Granada) and relished the opportunity to get stuck into the story with merely the reapplication of suncream as a distraction. The hours went by, I topped up my tan, I went for a spot of lunch, and I reassumed my position on the grass. After another hour or so of Laurie I decided to have some horizontal action, and so lay down on my towel and closed my eyes – bliss. To give an idea of setting – I was alone, next to a tree, with a scattering of other groups – teens, adults, families – lying, chatting and playing in the park around me. When I got up to do the next application of sun protection my day suddenly turned sour. My bag was gone. Literally gone. Nowhere to be seen. And in it was my iPhone, iPad, purse, suncream, etc., etc. I thought I was going crazy. It can’t have gone! But it most definitely had.

After talking to some of the groups nearby – who were very sympathetic but had nothing useful to tell me – I went on the hunt for a policeman. I could not find any, and so my search now centred on finding a police station. (It was a Saturday which really didn’t help the police station opening hours situation.) However without a phone I didn’t have a map (note to self: do not rely on iPhone for all of life’s needs), and without a map I was pretty much stuck. And without being able to converse in Spanish I was really up shit’s creek without a paddle. Turns out miming ‘police station’ to less than friendly restauranteurs while somewhat distressed is something of an art form which I am yet to master. Suffice to say that almost three hours after I left the park I entered the estación de policía. After making my statement over the phone to an English-speaker in Madrid I had to wait my turn to be called in to sign it off. A few hours later (God knows how many) I was called in to see the officer. I sat down, showed him my reference number and waited. He printed off the document for me to check and approve, and then waited, watching me expectantly. The document was totally in Spanish and he didn’t speak a word of English. This was going to be interesting… At just that moment there was a knock on the door (I don’t know who was more relieved – me or the police officer). The Polish girl who had also had her bag stolen (right out of her basket while cycling along the street (bastards)) anticipated my current quandary and came to save the day with her abilities in both the English and Spanish languages. She was my angel. (She was my Liam Neeson.) But the story does not conclude here (I regret).

I made my way back to the hostel (again – no map, and probably via the most inefficient route) to cancel my bank cards and find my device serial numbers with which to take, along with my passport, back to the police station to complete my statement (all for insurance purposes – I really couldn’t have cared less for reporting the crime itself). I soon learned that trying to log onto ANY DAMN THING from a unknown device when you do not have ANOTHER FRIGGIN’ DEVICE WITH WHICH TO CONFIRM YOUR IDENTITY is near ruddy impossible. So accessing my email was declined. As was my iCloud. Thank God I had caved and created a Facebook account the month before – at least I could then tell people about my endless frustration. So with passport in hand I made my way back to the police station, by which point it was circa midnight. I waited – again – to be called in to amend my statement, this time with an officer who knew some English. Along with my passport number and serial number of my phone, I wanted to add my hairbrush to the list of stolen items (it’s Mason Pearson, I’d had it since the age of about five, and it’s really fucking expensive). At this point he began to chuckle. He was mocking me for the addition of my hairbrush. At which point my floodgates opened and suddenly we were under Niagara Falls. And it wasn’t just the tears. Snot, too, was cascading down my face, dripping from chin to table, covering my initial (hairbrush-less) statement with blobs of yellowing gunk and pools of inky mess. It really wasn’t my greatest hour, but I have never been so thoroughly and genuinely apologised to in all my life (must remember that one).

Off I trundled back to the hostel once more (at some point in the early hours), longing for some rest but wondering how the heck was going to wake myself up the following morning with no electronic device, no alarm clock, and not even a ruddy analogue watch to know that I had overslept and missed my bus / stare at all not night long to prevent any bus-missing. At the hostel reception desk was a lovely man who reinstated my faith in the kindness of humanity. Clearly seeing there was something the matter (whether he could tell I had been crying or assumed I had been victim in some sort of savage gunge-throwing attack I will never know), he offered to personally wake me up at 7.15 am to ensure I caught the next morning’s bus. He did, I made the bus and I am eternally grateful.

Pie Yay Ya

If you thought Barcelona (or my cooking class instructor Alfredo) might have paella’d me out you would be very, very wrong. Turns out it had merely whet the old appetite. Because the next destination on my list was in fact the place in which paella was born (, raised, and catapulted into a national, neigh – international – superstar. (I’m sure Simon Cowell has shares in that partnership somehow.)) And when one is in the home of such a renowned (and often butchered) dish, one simply has to taste the original creation (or one of the three hundred claiming to be at least). Now let’s get the technicalities over and done with right away. Paella is not a dish. Well. It is. It is a dish. Literally. It is the pan within which the cooking happens. The contents therefore are referred to by ingredient: seafood paella, chicken (? 😱) paella, vegetable paella, etc., etc.. One must never go to a Spanish (particularly Valencian) restaurant and order just ‘paella’; the best outcome would be a hearty side portion of ridicule and pity, the worst being presented with an empty pan with which to cook your own meal. So that’s your first piece of insider know-how. (You’re welcome.) Second up is timing. Paella is always eaten at lunch time, never in the evening. The (very sensible in my opinion) reason for this is that YOU SHOULDN’T EAT A BLOODY GREAT (in both senses of the word) PORTION OF RICE JUST BEFORE GOING TO BED! Seems sensible, hey? The Spanish prefer to have their bigger meal at lunchtime to allow themselves the time necessary to properly digest the heavy food (and then snack on a little tapas in the evening if the tummy rumbles start to holla (or should I say ola)). So never order paella (seafood / snail / something else) in the evening as a) you will again be served an appetiser of mockery and shame, and b) you will be served the lunchtime service’s scraps. So (to recap for the over 60s readers 😉) go at lunchtime, order a ‘seafood paella’, and celebrate with a jug (or five) of sangria (you always deserve it).

I became a member of a very bizarre threesome during my stay in Valencia. (NOT sexual in ANY way, THANK THE LORD.) The first member of the group was the Danish post-grad student Johannes. Never out of his royal blue football shirt (literally never (we were in the same dorm which makes me a reliable eye witness (even post-shower (of which I was definitely not a witness) the shirt went straight back on))) and barely ever out of bed (I arrived at 5 pm and he was still napping), Johannes had (in the least offensive way possible) wild, unbrushed, overgrown hair; a questionable wardrobe; and a less than impressive conscious to unconscious state ratio. However. Appearances can be deceiving, and luckily, despite the very tangible, questionable hairdo, dress sense and sleep pattern, Johannes was fun and chatty and, most crucially, up for some tapas for dinner. Completing the trio was the American bartender Chad. At just 21 years old he was a calm, contented and cheery traveller (after the first 30 minutes of our co-existence, during which he made no noise whatsoever, made not a second of eye contact with anyone in the room (which was probably just me and sleeping Johannes, though, to be fair to him) and kept his headphones firmly in his ears). But with my friend-making neurones furiously firing I soon got beneath the near silent exterior and had myself a dinner date for three at a local tapas bar. (Chad was even up for sharing some sangria which gave him multiple bonus points.)

Following our calamari-fuelled bonding session, naturally we attended the city’s daily free walking tour the next morning as a well-established posse (we definitely gave the current Sugababes line up a run for their money). If you have never before partaken in a free walking tour you will be unaware of the fate you put in the hands of your guide when you sign that sheet / scream your nationality / walk with the group to the first talking point. You will either have signed up for two to three hours of entertainment, insight and great recommendations, or two to three hours of annoying, unfunny, cringeable jokes, boring history about the city (featuring the country’s past three thousand Royal Heads of State) and unjust, clearly paid-for, plugs for the most touristy spots in town. This tour was unfortunately one of the latter. Let’s start with the guide herself. A perfectly chirpy young Spanish woman (my word do you need to be chirpy to get through multiple hours worth of Civil War stories without wanting to shoot yourself in the head) led our group, but who’s ill-fitting attire was so offensive to me that I do believe it negatively impacted my overall enjoyment of the outing quite substantially (or at the very least added to the shitness). Her bright orange company t-shirt (I know I can’t blame her directly for that) was not only blinding the old retinas, but also showed off her three-cup-sizes-too-small bra which housed (just about) her buoyant bosom, which got more and more animated as the climax of each story neared. I honestly didn’t know where to look. And it wasn’t just the bazookas that had me bewildered. For the first HOUR (no exaggeration) we did not move from the main square in which we initially gathered. We did move within the square (by distances no greater than 25 metres each time) which just made things even more disconcerting. Eventually we (and the bouncy boobs) moved from the main square to other areas of the city, and for a further two hours were fed (un)interesting facts and dried fruits (I kid you not – pulled out of dear María’s rucksack (actually one of the highlights of the tour)), before the three-piece dream team made a run for it without paying the voluntary (100% expected by every tour guide there ever was and ever will be) tip, and escaped to find some lunch in the home of the sacred paella.

And oh was it pie YAY ya. Seafood paella for three, served in one large paella (the pan, remember), after enough of a wait to suggest they definitely made this thing from scratch and to order. It was sticky. It was chewy. It was dark and tempting. Spread thinly across the vast pan it had just the right amount of char and crunch around the edges while being comforting, rich and melt-in-the-mouth. We scraped the dish clean in ten minutes flat. And thus the tour, the square and the jubilant jubblies were all forgiven in a matter of mouthfuls.

As for the city itself? Beautiful cream, brown and rose gold hues adorned the decorative buildings, and every spare wall was crammed full with the most bizarre and wonderfully grotesque street art, creating an enticing, almost hypnotic juxtaposition which I, for one, ruddy loved. Right up my street, honey. (Literally.) Adding yet another dimension of magically misplaced construction was the Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències (I’ll let your translation skills flex with that one), just a short walk away from the central (bloody) square. Comprising of futuristic, spaceship-type structures (one of which I’ve now (almost three months later) discovered is a huge digital 3D cinema (!)); large hatted-head sculptures (my personal favourite being a rather serene and eloquent lady donning an oversized, slanted cowboy / floppy sun hat hybrid, named Pamela); and a great expanse of water filled with multiple human-sized hamster wheel / bubble type sphere situations, each of which inhabited by an energetic youngster trying to stand up and roll around on the water (a great invention by frustrated parents wanting a break from the little rascals if you ask me). A relaxed sunset stroll through the seemingly never ending stretch of adjoining parks and gardens took me along the outside of the city and back to the hostel in the intriguing and beautifully mis-matched centre. Surely it was time for some more paella by now?

In The Words of Ed Sheeran

We’ll dance around La Sagrada Familia
Drinking Sangria
Mi niña, te amo mi cariño
Mamacita, rica
Si tú, te adoro, señorita
Nosotros, vivir la vida
Come on, let’s be free…

Yep, you guessed it (and if you haven’t: shame on you), I was in… Barcelona! (A series of fiesta- and food-related emojis here seems nothing short of inevitable (💃🏼🍻🎇🍷🥘👯).) (I hope you appreciate that as much as I do.) After my well below average stays in Toulouse (so far out of town you could have been mistaken for being in Spain already) and Montpellier (so far below average it could barely work out average’s gender, let alone its eye colour), I was more than ready for five nights of top-notch paella and tantalisingly toxic punch in the Spaniards’ party capital. (It was initially meant to be four nights but, after suffering for thirty-six long hours at Jimmy’s boot camp, and then getting rapidly more infuriated with the whimsical (read: intolerable) landlady at the so-called Toulousian auberge, I decided to cut my losses (a few days late I will admit), throw caution to the wind and double book my last (pre-paid for) night in Toulouse with an additional night – a prelude, if you will – in the Catalonian capital before the city’s main event: A Night with (well, four if you are counting) the one and only, the inimitable, the inspirational (drum roll please) Big Sissy Louise! (Although she far prefers to go by her middle name, so henceforth she will (lovingly) be referred to as Deborah (pronunciation: deh-BORE-rah).

But first I must tell you about the most wonderfully unexpected amuse-bouche (or, to keep things culturally correct; aperitivo) which came in the form of a fleeting foxtrot with my longest-standing (and equally probably the longest (in length) when standing) best friend Charlotte. Not quite as overtly welcome as the chance encounter itself was the fact that meeting up with her (away with the girls for a birthday weekend) highlighted the shameful truth that I am – truly – a terrifically terrible (read: boring) traveller. The previous evening I had microwaved myself a jacket sweet potato (topped with spinach and two poached eggs (a rather cracking combo if I do say so myself)) and hit the sheets at approximately 9.57 pm. Charlotte, and her four mates (all (bar Charlotte) over the age of forty may I add (does nothing to help my street cred in this story)), on the other hand, was partying in a rooftop club until 5 (yes FIVE) am! To make matters (my speedily diminishing credentials) worse, I turned up at their hotel in ripped jeans, sneakers, make-up-free face and my borrowed-from-mum day backpack (the one redeeming fact being that I forewent the dusty pink cap) to be greeted by five of the most glamorous Brits abroad La Rambla had ever caught sight of. ALL in maxi dresses (and, to add insult to injury, ironed), with their hair freshly styled, their make-up perfectly in place, wheeling lovely little cabin bags behind them as they clutched their handbags (in colour coordination with their frocks) gracefully in their manicured hands. And all of this was seamlessly achieved on a severe hangover and about three hours of sleep. I could barely manage a matching pair of trainer socks following eleven hours of shut-eye. Anyway. After the obligatory introductions (Charlotte, I provide my sincerest apologies for any embarrassment caused when unveiling me to your perfectly preened pals) the six of us went for the most amusing brunch and coffee (obviously I (most probably to everyone’s dismay (/ expectation following the shoddy appearance)) whipped out my supermarket-bought banana and yoghurt (still riding the budgetmobile)), where I simply sat back and was thoroughly entertained by the hilarious stories from their booze-fuelled weekend in the city. By the time the bill came my cheeks ached from laughing and, although far too brief, I was thrilled to have miraculously been in the very same city at the very same time as my chica, on a very well-deserved break from the everyday (which, as I’m sure you’ve gathered, is my current speciality).

Now back to the holiday in hand. I arrived at our accommodation first, with Deborah (remember: deh-bore-rah) meeting me circa three pm. With my banana and yoghurt brunch and her Pret at the airport munch, we were both teetering towards the tapas side of the hungry scale when we met. And oh weren’t we in the best place for this rumbling-a-tumbling scenario. (We did endeavour to spend the entirety of the rest of our four-day trip remarking “we definitely need to eat there” to every tapas bar we walked past (and in the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona these are far from infrequent). However. Our first snackette of the day (we certainly weren’t going to classify it as a meal and reduce our future eating capacity) was rather underwhelming (Deborah and I would go so far as to deem it wildly dissatisfactory but I suspect we are a touch more unforgiving in the culinary department than the general populous). But we really only have ourselves to blame. (And our growing hanger (which can be to blame for many a fateful decision).) Firstly, the restaurant (if it deserves that title) was in between one of the most touristic streets and one of the most touristic squares in the whole of the city. Secondly, there were no other punters there (not even any chavvy British ones who might mistake the customary Spanish omelette for a spicy Mexican wrap). Thirdly, it looked really rather shit. Anyhoo, we allowed our (by this point) screeching stomachs to seat us down and tentatively ordered one portion of patatas bravas and another of some questionable ‘house style’ octopus. The potatoes looked far inferior to any patatas bravas I had ever ordered in UK, with the unsightly (but, taste-wise, critically redeeming) addition of a splat of white gloop and a splot of burnt orange (in colour) gloop, with no frills, no finesse and – God forbid – no sautéed garlic or shallot. (It transpires that this rendition of the famous dish is, in fact (and unfortunately), the traditional recipe which is used here, there and everywhere in Spanish kitchens (including that of Alfredo Rodriguez (our cooking class guru) (which just proves the sad reality to be true)). And as for the octopus? Tasted more like meat than seafood. Which is not the ideal taste sensation for a budding pescatarian (now verging on full-on vegetarian (due to this and other (similarly nauseating) fishy situations)). So we had learnt our lesson the hard way, and from that point forward did not deign to dine anywhere highly touristic, entirely empty or clearly a little bit shit.

With a large chunk of our time spent eating delicious Spanish delicacies (excluding the first fateful forage into the country’s characteristic cuisine) I have the very tempting opportunity to tease your tastebuds with titillating tales of each and every bite we savoured around the city. I could write lengthy prose about the bold homemade aioli- and pesto-smothered toast; the delicately crafted scallop ceviche; the sumptuous and juicy prawn topped polenta. But don’t worry. I won’t bore you with the intimate details. I will simply surmise with one piece of advice: go (to Barcelona in general) hungry and you will (one hundred percent guaranteed) leave full. (And then I will write in unnecessary detail about one of our favourite foodie encounters: our Master Cooking Class with the fabulous Alfredo.)

The class started at 10.30 am (a little strange to me (the cooking class virgin) but actually totally normal (according to the cooking class maestro (Deborah))). We put make-up on for the occasion (naturally (think of all the tapas-titivated selfie opportunities)), made the four-minute stroll from our hotel to the Master Kitchen, and knew as soon as we were buzzed in and entered the kitchen / living / dining room bonanza that we had picked the right class. The space was big, bright and airy; beautiful light fittings hung down from the high ceilings; bottles of the finest wines adorned the walls; and fairy lights were aplenty. I was in heaven. We were the first to arrive (eager as always when there’s food involved), shortly followed by a South Korean marketing man, an American nurse / engineer couple, an Australian couple of which the man had no culinary flair except for insane egg-cracking skills (which had been developed during a part-time stint at McDonald’s in his teenage years) and the most hilarious retired American couple who’s constant bickering and general conversation proved comedy gold for the entirety of the class. With introductions out the way we approached the cooking station – an enormous central island surrounded by swivelling high stools, took our seats and were greeted at the table by ten incredible looking tapa, pre-made for us by Alfredo himself, who was going to talk us through each of the small plates (with the help of his glamorous assistant (sous chef and Spanish-English translator, Maria)) before we got to taste. Oh. My. God. Each one was friggin’ delicious. My personal favourite was the (I acknowledge rather boring) mushroom croquette, but other highly recommended morsels included the tomato- and toasted almond-topped mussels and anchovy-topped slices of creamy manchego…😍 Unlike most other classes, here we cooked together; each appointed by Alfredo specific tasks in the making of the dishes, which seemed, to me, a brilliant way to run things. You could laugh at other people making a hash of things (which, in our lively yet down-to-earth group, was really rather fun); it gave more time for the all important sister selfies (while not falling behind our classmates on preparation of our meal, of course); and – most importantly – it allowed plenty of time for drinking the continually-flowing crisp white wine (I think we probably averaged one bottle per person by the end of the class). On the menu (after the endless tapas) was Spanish omelette, seafood paella and Catalan cream (crème brûlée for all the British (and French for that matter) folk). Each course was expertly taught, expertly made (😉) and expertly devoured. Up my sleeve there are now many a culinary trick and tips for cooking the above three courses, as well as general kitchen genius (including removing the garlic smell from your hands without using any soap (!!!)). You may now and forever more refer to me as Delia / Nigella / Ping (from MasterChef…remember?!).

Along with the consumption of the entirety of Catalonia’s tapas supplies we did some sightseeing activities (bloody good sightseeing activities come to that). First up was La Sagrada Familia. (Which we did not dance around (like Ed) (sorry to disappoint).) With pre-booked tickets (I’m now somewhat of a professional when it comes to religious building queuing time reduction) we swanned past the ill-prepared swarms, gawking unapologetically at the magnificent (yet TOTALLY FUCKING RUINED BY CONTINUAL BLOODY CONSTRUCTION) exterior with its fairytale-esque bone-like structure adorned with bright, glistening pieces of fruit (not real (they would be awfully off by now)), almost enticing you in to see what treasures are to be found inside. After the obligatory (and extremely unflattering) Sagrada Selfie (imagine the camera angle required to include all of the ruddy spires) we crossed the threshold and were instantly transported into another world. The basilica is vast, the ceilings are tall and the decoration is exquisite. (I am aware that this description is fitting to every basilica that has ever been built.) But this one was different. It felt modern even though its construction started 135 years ago. The stained glass windows were totally unique, like nothing I have seen before (and (not to brag, but) I’ve seen quite a few stained glass windows in my time) and the illumination they created as the sun shone through was something quite spectacular, which, I have no doubt, would have been in Gaudí’s creative vision. We were so in awe we even watched the infomercial that was playing on repeat in one corner of the church. It was actually very informative! Did you know for example (in the voice of Jimmy Carr), that Gaudí was actually killed by being run over by a tram?! And not only that, no taxi driver would pick up the injured man and take him to a hospital because they thought he was a beggar, unaware of his real identity?! (I am not condoning tram hit-and-run cases on beggars.) But can you bloody believe it! Imagine! (Having now lost one potential question for my Christmas quiz I won’t reveal any more juicy facts for fear of ruining the festivities altogether.) But just trust me on this one: go (with a pre-booked ticket) and you won’t be disappointed. (Although the infomercial may be more mercial than info following that super saucy (and obviously super tragic) leak.)

Continuing with the Gaudí theme we visited Park Güell. (This was booked in for directly after the cooking class – which overran – so was reached after a rather stressful (mentally), rushed (physically) and uncomfortable (food baby-ly) journey involving slow metros, uphill paths and an extremely unwelcome wrong turn (of which I did not let on to Deborah (I was navigator) for steam was already escaping from her delicate little earholes).) But we eventually reached the gate (indigestion in tow) thirty minutes after our booked slot but (thanks to my natural Spanish charm (or possibly the fact that they allowed for a thirty minute grace period (although the fluttering eyelashes can’t have done any harm))) gained legal access (to Deborah’s visible relief) and entered the magical world of Gaudí’s creative genius (again). However. It was a bit too crowded for my liking. Don’t get me wrong; the mosaics were great, the Hansel and Gretel houses were very reminiscent, and the guided tour (done by me for dearest Debbie) was truly second to none. I just would have preferred a private visit with the architect on hand to answer any queries, but I guess you can’t have everything in life.

Once we had completed the park, and wandered the hour-long route back to our pension, it was time for our final evening. (Why is it that this always comes around far too quickly?) Obviously dinner was surplus to requirements, so with my love of a good sunset and the beach close to hand we decided to partake in a ‘last night spent watching the sunset on the beach’ scenario. Two factors rather scuppered this plan. Firstly, due to one party pooper named geography and another named architecture, one cannot actually see the sun set while on the beach in Barcelona. (Bit of a bummer.) But we weren’t going to let this tiny, insignificant detail ruin our night. So to the beach we headed, drunk with the joys of the last night of holiday (and also with a little of the remnants of the morning’s white wine). And guess what bloody happened along the way. We only bloody bumped into Cris from Brazil whom I had met two months prior in Lake Bloody Bled! Shouting out “Cris!” I confused my sister no end (also the name of her husband whom we had just been talking about (all good, Chris, no need to worry)) who suddenly thought that either she had been ambushed by her lovely other half, or that I had developed some kind of rare family-member-name-calling Tourette’s Syndrome. I soon explained and introduced her to the present Cris, who we invited to come and join us at the beach. He was waiting for a friend and so would maybe join us later. (Pfft.) So on we went, stopping en route to collect a cheeky couple of cans and packet of cheesy Doritos (for sustenance as we watched (pretended to watch) the sun go down over the beautiful Balearic Sea). Soon we were on the beach, the blanket was down and the can’s were popped. Before we even had the chance plant our delicate derrières we were joined (a little suspiciously speedily?) by Cris and his new mate Sunglasses*. To introduce both with thoughtful details: Cris = lovely, interesting, normal; Sunglasses = inappropriate, immature, and clearly a little bit horny. A lovely conversation developed between myself, my sister and my recently reacquainted Brazilian friend. Then Sunglasses piped up. He wanted to introduce us to his friend, Mary. We were all rather perplexed. Magdalene? Berry? The mother of Jesus? All wrong! Turned out he wanted to introduce us to his stash of Mary-juana. We were still all rather perplexed. (Since when did it stop being just teenagers that smoked weed (and gave it a rather unfitting, dated female pet name for that matter)?) Anyway. Out came Mary, off came the sunglasses, and now came the awkward monologue surrounding his lady friend’s aphrodisiacal qualities. It was an interesting five to ten minutes… Suffice to say we three all politely declined a drag, and Deborah and I made a quick dash for it at the soonest possible moment. (Sorry, Cris!)

Thus, all that was left for us to do was to go for a drink (obvi, babe) and reminisce about our week of unbeatable food, breathtaking architecture and our baffling encounter with the potty (pun intended) young man.

*I cannot remember his name for the life of me, but he was wearing a rather large pair of sunglasses, which is what he shall now be named. (This was a good look and he even appeared quite handsome, until he took them off and we realised, unfortunately, that it was purely a good pair of shades.)

Hell on Earth

My absolute minimum Hostelworld requirement is an eight out of ten star rating. Usually. (From now on you’ll be lucky if I stoop below an eight point nine.)

Between my cousin in Marseille and my sister in Barcelona I had a window of five nights to play with. With a list of French cities worthy of research in my left hand and a map of the French / Spanish border in my right I plotted my route from A to B, choosing Montpellier and Toulouse as my two stop-off points. ‘A city with style’ followed by ‘life in the slow lane’ (according to my tried and trusted travel guide, Lonely Planet). Perfect. Exactly what I needed to leisurely ease myself out of the beautifully serene south of France and into the eclectic, charismatic and cobble-tastic Catalonian capital (we’re talking pre-referendum). Next job was finding accommodation. Toulouse was booked first – a ‘charming’ (not the most hospitable) ‘family-run’ (one-woman front of house show (who valued eating at the table (her, not the guests) and answering personal calls above all other reception-related duties (including checking guests in and staying behind the reception desk for the entirety of a conversation))) guesthouse ‘just outside’ (ten-minute walk followed by thirty-minute bus followed by five-minute tube) the city centre. To tell you that arriving here couldn’t have come quicker will give a little indication of the quality of accommodation sourced in Montpellier. Hostelworld had absolutely nothing to offer (not nothing worth looking at – nothing full stop). Booking dot com had absolutely nothing to offer (nothing worth looking at anyway). But I really wanted to visit Montpellier. So I either needed to drastically lower my standards or drastically increase my budget. Only one option was feasible. Like the ex-boyfriends of all of my closest friends, I bed-hopped from an eight (minimum) to a six (barely even that) and booked two nights at the less-than-raved-about Jimmy’s Guesthouse. (Never EVER downgrade from an eight to a six. You will make yourself crazy with constant comparison and continually ask yourself why you ever left the eight in the first place. You will spend your nights awake wishing you could turn back time, play things out differently and regain some of your ground floor (perhaps basement (or, more fittingly, dank, dark depths of the underworld)) level of self respect.)

But off I trotted (cousin Kate in tow (remember her flight-cancellation-fiasco)) to my latest accommodation, eager to show her what life in the world of the backpacker truly looked like. Her first impression: this is what my nightmares are made of. (If only I had been able to un-tense enough to drift off one of the following two (long) nights, I’m sure my nightmares would have looked remarkably similar.)

First I will start with the kitchen situation. Oh what a situation it was. And a situation, at that, which could not possibly be described as a kitchen. The ‘kitchen’ was an interchangeable description for the owner’s bedroom – no joke – and, not even just that, also the bedroom of the owner’s latest best friend, a perfectly nice Asian guy who, in the circa ten days he had been residing at the shit tip (sorry – hostel) had been appointed as the institution’s head chef. (Seriously not kidding.) As CK (cousin Kate) and I were just about to escape having dropped our bags I was approached by Jimmy with an offer: a family dinner at the hostel cooked by Jimmy II (cannot remember his name but he looked like a kinder, more approachable version of Taboo from the Black Eyed Peas (when he had long hair) with a drastic undercut and a nervous giggle) for a reasonable €5 (reasonable is very questionable but it’s not extortionate, I grant you that). My query regarding the vegetarian nature of the dish did not go down so well. I offered to cook my own thing (God knows how in their cramped twin bedroom) but Taboo insisted that he would sort something out for me. Slightly worried about the quality of food I would be served, as well as the certainty of its meat-free creation, I announced boldly (and over excitedly): I can be your sous chef! (Anyone who knows me well / has cooked with me / has merely witnessed me in the kitchen will know that I would (and do) make a truly terrible sous chef – I am far too controlling, nit-picky and struggle to keep my mouth shut (in the nibbling sense as well come to think of it), so provide more of an annoying, judgemental omnipresence than a constructive and helpful aide.) Luckily for everyone involved (Taboo’s self esteem most crucially) that evening the chef was unneeding of any extra hands, so I was able to sit back and relax (as much as one can in a dirty, god-forsaken hell hole) and was presented with a beautifully simple and truly delicious (isn’t that a relief) spaghetti / vegetable / garlic concoction which, I can testify, contained no dead pig. Hoorah!

And then there was the bedroom side of the room (in the subsidiary, not locational, sense). During my first day (of two (I know; I’m mad)) there was just one single bed occupying the master bedroom. The proud owner of which was Jimmy: entrepreneur hotelier sleeping soundly each night in the cluttered ‘communal kitchen’. (His parents must have been proud.) So where on earth did Taboo sleep? The thought did cross my mind, but there were certainly not enough fireworks between the two of them to seriously suggest a top-and-tailing situation. Obviously (being the nosey guest that I am) I enquired where the bloody hell was Taboo laying down his half-a-head-of-hair (of the half which remained long gushing locks) every night? Why, in the makeshift fold-down bed, of course! Interesting. (And there was me thinking that their sleeping situation couldn’t get any worse… (imagine not be able to go to bed at 7 pm if you wished to… scandalous!) (Totally serious.)) Then came the second night and an upgrade (of sorts) for the resting place of dear Taboo. Interrupting the plating up of dinner (NOT impressed) was the delivery of a second-hand bunk bed, due to replace the single and fold-down contraptions currently housing the chuckle brothers. Even more alarming than the pause of food preparation to accommodate the back alley furniture delivery was the strategy adopted by Jimmy to source a suitable mattress for his new (slightly smaller) bed frame. With the delay in dinner in full flow I popped to my dorm room and found a shifty looking Jimmy eyeing up my lower bunk. Everything OK, dearest host and friend? Oh, no problem, he was just scouting out the IN USE (by VASTLY OVERPAYING GUESTS) mattresses to see which one would best fit his newly revamped chambers. Well. I certainly wasn’t bed hopping with Jimmy this evening. After standing uncomfortably close and breathing uncomfortably loud for long enough I managed to bump him on to the next bed and the next (unaware as not present) mattress-theft victim. I didn’t see it happen but I do know that it did, and I send my deepest sympathies to the lovely German girl who was in the bed to my immediate left (and hope that you didn’t catch any deadly diseases from Jimmy’s potentially SAD mattress). This was all done, too my knowledge, without said German girl’s knowledge… that’s the type of guy who was running this joint (and most probably smoking it too).

Now onto my bedtime situation. Spoiler: it was not five star. Not only was I trés trés cold (nothing new there) and trés trés on edge (could be argued the same), I was also trés trés physically and mentally STRESSED. (To the extreme. (Just in case the block capitals weren’t indicative enough.)) I don’t believe I slept for longer than an hour (IN TOTAL) on the first night, spending the majority of the twilight hours peering at my iPad under the sheets, researching getaway hotels in which to spend the following night, being unimpressed by the talent, telling myself to bloody well suck it up, turning my iPad off, attempting to sleep for another thirty minutes, failing, and then turning my iPad on again to repeat the sequence again (and again (thrice more)). This night was so horrifically bad for me that I actually developed spots. Like actual big, bulbous, ruby red volcanoes on my actual freakin’ face. Five of them! And: I don’t get spots!!! Two of them (TWO) were on my mother fucking left eyelid. Can you believe it? So even when I closed my eyes and tried to remember happier times there were two Belisha beacons warning every innocent onlooker of the terrible fate I had been subject to. (On leaving the squat the blemishes faded in under a week (thank the Lord) which just proved to me how utterly allergic I am to a six out of ten hostel, but equally how quickly I’ll heal following a short-lived but deeply intense exposure to such monstrous conditions.)

And finally onto the bathroom situation. The title, for sure, was not an embellishment or sugar coating of the facts in any way whatsoever. It was a room which contained a bath. (One room. One bath. (No shower…)) The room also contained an old ironing board (no iron in sight), numerous towels (the cleanliness of which your guess is as good as mine) and the leftover cosmetic goods from approximately two years of the six-out-of-ten-rating-approving houseguests of the less-than-hygienic landlord. My first (and only) ‘wash’ was quite traumatic. After talking myself into staying there for the pre-paid-for two nights, I knew at some point sooner or later I was going to have to clean myself. First on the conundrum superlist was where to rest my towel while I was otherwise engaged. The hooks on the door were full, the floor was not to be looked directly at for fear of instant vomiting, and the edge of the bath was to be avoided at all achievable costs. So the ironing board it was. (I folded it in the slimist possible fashion to ensure the smallest possible surface area was to touch the board itself, and tiptoed to the tub in flip-flop flourished trepidation.) Big mistake strike one: I stepped on the soft-and-fluffy-looking bathmat (in flip flops, don’t worry too much) only to sink over an inch in the water (and who knows what else) drenched floor covering with a frightfully audible squelch. Lovely. I thus decided the sanctity of the dry footware was more crucial than the sanctity of my bare tootsies, and clambered into the bath tub unprotected. There was a shower head (someone was watching over me) but no holder (let’s not get carried away) so the following 3.5 minutes (quickest shower since records began) consisted of a one-handed, eyes-squinted, toes-curled ordeal which far greater represented an I’m A Celebrity bushtucker trial than any regular morning ritual I had ever experienced. But I did it, I survived, and I was clean – and that’s always something to be proud of. Having not thought through the positioning of the towel in relation to the dry footware and myself, the dry footware went out of the window as I donned the flops on exiting the tub to seek refuge in the travel towel, and dried, dressed and departed as quickly as physically possible. The following night was not quite so bad thanks to a fabulous help desk called Sauvignon Blanc, and the following (slightly cloudy-headed) morning my alarm went off at 7 am and I ecstatically left the building at not a moment past seven thirty. I sure had learned my lesson.

P.S. Apologies for the lack of photographic content. I toyed with the idea of including my ‘save me I’m dying’ selfie sent to CK during the long (LONG) first night, but decided on artistic (and vanity) grounds that it was better omitted.

P.P.S. Apologies for the lack of recent posts. This is due to being robbed in Seville (😩) and a subsequent three-week hiatus in Apple product usage (just wait for the blog post about that). But thankfully I am back up and running, with embarrassing stories aplenty!

The Calm Before The Storm

Marseille may well conjure up (especially given recent events) thoughts of decay, poverty and dangerous criminality. Luckily my five-day mini-break there with Cousin Kate (CK) was relaxing, luxurious and – most importantly – attack free. We were in Marseille exactly three weeks before the recent fatal attack on two young women at the city’s main train station, Saint-Charles, which happened to be literally (used literally) across the road from our apartment. We must have visited the station at least eight times during our stay. All I can conclude is that the world is an increasingly terrifying place at the moment. 

Our biggest worry, thank God, was the logistics of getting CK home (to make her all-important sofa delivery) amidst a nation-wide strike on the majority of forms of public transport scheduled for the day she was due to fly home, which we only became aware of at roughly 7 pm the prior evening. (That and the opening of an impossible-to-pop bottle of prosecco with an impossible-to-handle corkscrew – obviously a major worry on any girls’ holiday (but actually, in the end, yielding a more successful result than the retaining of the sofa delivery slot (more on that later)).)

Onto the calm: CK was arriving by air from the UK earlier than I was by bus from Grenoble, so I had the pleasure of calling out “Hi honey, I’m hoooome!” as I was greeted at the door by my long-lost relative. (In actuality she was far too busy sunbathing on our sun-lounger-fitting balcony (😍) to hear me knock, so after a good three and a half minutes of gormless waiting at the door I realised that she’d left it open, let myself in, bounded (as much as one can bound with circa 20 kg luggage on their person) up the entrance stairs and greeted her with an awkward front-and-back-backpack-hindered hug and air kiss on the cheek (I couldn’t  have reached any closer even had I wanted to (not really) due to the sizeable frontal baggage).) After a much needed cuppa (she is from the north after all (English breakfast tea addict)), catch up and toilet stop (you know I like details) (I won’t go into further detail don’t worry) we headed out for some lunch as we were both starvin’ freakin’ Marvin. Was trés bon. The wine? Not quite so bon, but it was wine none the less – so who were we to complain. Following a strenuous post-lunch wander and mooch around the basilica we headed back to the apartment to recoup with a good sit down and cup of tea. (It’s tiring when your days are so physically demanding.)

The next day we did actually partake in activities other than sitting, gossiping and drinking tea / wine / both (although these did all feature (quite heavily)). Having been recommended the Calanques National Park as a great place to walk, sunbathe and swim we formulated a plan (after an unnecessary amount of hours getting more and more frustrated with Rome to Rio and Google Maps) which involved getting a metro followed by a bus followed by a 30-minute downward hike to a lovely little cove – Sormiou – where we would then sunbathe, swim and contemplate a further hike to next-door Morgiou which, if undertaken, would be followed by another (equally as strenuous) sunbathe and swim. I will start with the public transport. Metro journey? Tick. No memorable mishaps. Bus journey? Ahem… Finding the bus stop? Tick. Realising everyone had a ticket already and we did not? Tick. Asking a random bus driver in the most broken, incomprehensible attempt at French possible “is it that we are able to sell ticket on le bus?”? Tickety tick. And the answer was a firm, albeit extremely friendly, nada. (It was at this point I realised my mistake when boldly telling CK we could bin our metro tickets after taking the metro – as, it transpired, these could also act as bus tickets for our continuing journey.) The bus was due to depart in four minutes and we we needed to buy tickets from the metro station. Queue a bobbing boob in bikini holding situation while skidding down the escalator, running to the ticket machine and purchasing two tickets while trying to fend off gypsies trying to sell us (and indeed anyone in the ticket machine vicinity) their tickets. Tickets successfully bought. Boobs successfully intact. Back up we bobbed. We made it onto the bus, onto seats and on to enjoy fourty minutes of the most aggressive, abrupt and appalling bus driving I was yet to witness. (One man was carrying a very cute baby (along with a week’s worth of groceries) whose precious life I worried for every time the driver lurched to a hault and almost catapulted the father, son and vegetable bundle into one of the many vertical holding poles. (I did offer him my seat and he profusely refused.).) But eventually we made it (with no vomiting on my part).

Believing that we were being so original and intrepid with our chosen outing, we were rather put out to realise that precisely half the bus load were also venturing down to the not-so-secret Sormiou. (CK tried to pick up pace and undercut the crowds but then remembered that my legs are about half the length of hers (daddy long legs) and slowed to a more sympathetic speed (I for one was mightily relieved).) We reached the national park’s car park and managed to loose the group (there’s no such thing as a wrong turn), making our way to the cove amidst the most beautiful scenery – through woodland, along rocky roads (unfortunately no marshmallows or chunks of brownie to be seen (or eaten)) and down jagged, boulder-filled cliffs. It was truly spectacular (and the perfect backdrop for our first selfie on the week). On reaching the beach we pretty much collapsed into a blissful state of sunoozing (sunbathing & snoozing (a pastime I’ve become quite a pro at over the last few months)), with the occasional dip in the sea when the rays got too intense, which was MOTHER FUCKING FREEZING. I exaggerate not. More than 30 seconds in that water and I’m certain a migraine would have ensued. (Neither of us got past the mid-thigh mark. (Obviously mid thigh for me is upper calf for CK (but I sure don’t blame her for not venturing any further).) As I’m sure you will have guessed, with us having not even had the guts to get so much as our bikinis in the water, we did not have the slightest inclination to hike further to next-door Morgiou, instead enjoying our sunoozing at Sormiou to our hearts’ content. 

The following days were a lovely amalgamation of eating fresh bread from the nearby boulangerie for breakfast, exploring the various districts of Marseille and other nearby villages (Cassis) and cities (Aix-en-Provence) (both worth a day trip), taking selfies in the sun and drinking lots – whether that be tea, wine, vodka… (and boy did we need the wine on the fateful last (correction: supposed last) evening).

Returning home from Aix-en-Provence for our last evening in the pad (the evening had already gotten off to a good start when the ticket inspector declared his undying love for CK, to which she replied, ever the linguist, with a very British sounding “merci beaucoup” (I think he probably had kittens at this point)), our plan was to enjoy the last of the rays on the balcony (with a cuppa and a biccie (of course)), head into the city for a celebratory drink (or three) and return home to enjoy a nice light spread of all of our leftover food (along with the fiendishly problematic aforementioned bottle of prosecco (CK defeated it in the end (when CK wants prosecco, CK will have prosecco (and this was post-disaster, so the prosecco was a critical necessity))). So we started our evening on the sun-loungers, tea and biscuits in hand (maybe even the odd dunk here and there (we are British after all)). And then CK received the first – of MANY – airline communications. BA had cancelled her flight home scheduled for the following afternoon and had booked her onto a replacement flight for the following following morning. But this would not do. CK had a sofa delivery planned for 10 am the following following morning (after OVER A YEAR in her new flat), and so was desperate to receive her new piece of furniture. She got on the phone. (I stayed in the sun.) I checked in half an hour later (nothing to do with the fact that the biscuits were in the living room where she was set up). There were no other BA flights that would get her home in time for the sofa, so the re-scheduled flight was cancelled and a new flight with Ryanair for the following day was booked. It was earlier than her original flight so messed up our brunch plans, but we both agreed that this was the best solution and that the long-awaited sofa took precedent over two portions of Eggs Florentine. So that was that. The new flight was booked, the sun had gone down and we headed over to the port to enjoy our final celebratory drink(s). After some earlier scrupulous research we  settled upon the bar in which the scene where Jamie (Colin Firth) proposes to Aurelia (not famous enough to bother googling her name) was filmed for Love Actually (arguably one of the very best films of all time). We hadn’t even reached the bar when the second less than welcome airline communication pinged through: Ryanair had cancelled her flight scheduled for the following morning. Now. This was really rather rude. We still didn’t know why the first flight had been cancelled, so realised something bigger must be going on for it to be affecting two entirely separate airlines. We arrived at the bar, ordered our drinks (deux verre de vin blanc, s’il vous plait), and started researching what the hell was going on. (We were not, initially, all that successful in finding out any helpful information whatsoever. Then the drinks arrived and our creative juices started flowing.) We started looking on French language websites, combining our very limited French with Google Translate (the copy and paste function on my phone having never seen such action) and finally deciphered that the public transport network of France – as a whole – was striking. Brilliant. Luckily not all French cities were affected, so Plan C was formulated: CK would join me on the (unaffected) FlixBus to Montpellier the following morning and catch a flight home from there that evening. Phew. We were now free to enjoy our wine, reenact the Love Actually proposal, and head back for The Last Supper. 

Day of Travel Extraordinaire got off to a less than pleasing start. Having been able to revert our plans to the initial brunch-before-bidding-byebye, we had conducted our research and set off in the direction of highly rated (and conveniently close by) Cafe l’Ecomotive (famed for their delicious vegetarian breakfasts). We managed to arrive exactly one minute after breakfast service finished, 59 minutes before lunch service began. What a bloody tofu scramble. Second on our list was another recommended authentic bakery which, when we arrived – sweaty and panting after a tough ten-minute luggage-laden uphill struggle – greeted us with baguettes, quiches and whole ruddy loaves of freshly made bread. Not exactly the cinnamon infused bircher muesli we were hoping for (but I can’t turn down a slice of quiche at the best of times, so may have indulged in an extremely premature spot of lunch (just to show willing)). CK still only had eyes for brekkie, so opted to hold out for another café, simply ordering a cup of English breakfast tea (to keep the hunger pangs at bay) which, of course, they did not have. Quiche devoured and herbal tea tolerated, it was onto bakery numero trois. With a queue spilling out onto the street, a scent that wafted deliciously into your very core, and an owner so fierce you left the counter quivering; we knew that our search was well and truly over. Having stated in the queue that I was full to the brim and couldn’t possible fit another morsel in, I (droolingly) left the shop with a seductive, irresistible almond-encrusted pain au chocolat, and a rather unseductive, definitely resistible five-pound weight gain (and couldn’t have been happier about it). It was divine. Suddenly the morning was taking a sugar-coated, butter-drenched, baked-to-perfection turn for the better.

My first accompanied FlixBus ride went by in a flash (no vomiting, no dodgy smelling next door neighbour, no fear-inducing driving), during which we were mainly occupied with a split-headphone Netflix viewing of I Give It A Year (surprisingly bon), which even left us friends on the ‘I would go for him’ front (for me the funny but out-of-work writer (Rafe Spall), for her the suave but boring businessman (Simon Baker). (Who knew we would arrive in Montpellier with a joint wedding to plan.) My first accompanied hostel check in, very much on the other hand, went by like a slow, rat-infested I’m A Celebrity coffin-themed endurance challenge (of which the unabridged description will be published in due course (the hellish experience can’t possibly be condensed to a mere sentence or two (it, unfortunately, requires a whole post’s worth of attention and brazenly scathing adjectives)).

A couple of glasses of wine and bag of cheesy doritoes later it was time for CK to collect her suitcase from the hell hole (quite miraculous that she actually left it there unattended in the first place), take an Uber to the airport (at this point she had done her time living the life of a frugal traveller) and catch her third booked flight back to London. Before reaching the airport she received the (now almost comical) third airline communication: EasyJet had cancelled her flight home scheduled for that evening. I mean, you could barely write it. A fourth flight booking, hotel assigning, taxi catching and – most importantly – sofa delivery rescheduling later, she was back in Montpellier city centre (at the Crowne Plaza no less) ordering a room service dinner and filling me in on the latest shenanigans of the utterly ridiculous saga (I had popped round for a cup of tea and to escape the squat masquerading as a hostel). After filling up my water bottle (I didn’t trust the water at my ‘accommodation’), stealing the hotel’s complimentary slippers (my current ones from Hotel Bologna were going to have to be burned after making contact with the floor at the ‘hostel’) and pocketing as many of the mini-toiletries I could stuff into my handbag (what can I say… I’m on a budget!) we said our goodbyes (for the umpteenth time), closed our eyes and prayed with the upmost sincerity that the transport strike would be over tomorrow as planned, and that I would survive my first night at Jimmy’s Guesthouse.

(Both prayers were gratefully fulfilled, although ‘surviving’ was the full extent of my night at the hostel – relaxation, let alone any sleep, was seemingly far too difficult a feat for any ethereal power to muster.)

DID SHE GET ON THE PLANE? (A Ross and Rachel Situation*)

Rossie (see asterisk, bottom) and I have been friends for almost exactly five years now. Evidently a supreme being felt that this half-decade-versary was the time for us to be having exactly the same experience, at exactly the same time, a mere 1,000 kilometres away from each other (and each totally none the wiser). I will start with my morning (definitely the more embarrassing of the two). As you know (and if you don’t – why not? – scroll down and read my ruddy last post (I hope you’re feeling suitably chastised)) on my last night in Nice I enjoyed a classic Salade Niçoise et un verre de vin rosé. What you don’t know as of yet is that I had been attempting to complete four nights of absolute sobriety in Nice, and also that the vin rosé was just the first drink of the evening. Following dinner I moved onto the dingy Irish pub down the road (only because I wanted to watch an England World Cup Qualifier (I promise I’m usually much more of a classy bird)), and consumed two extortionately priced and (for British standards) extortionately alcoholic half pints of La Chouffe (which happens to be the very first drink I had when I arrived in Ghent at the very start of my trip (no wonder it got off to such a good start)). With my new friends in toe, and England 4-0 up, when the match was over we headed to a nearby cocktail bar to celebrate. Here I had a mojito. And that is all I drank. Period (said in an annoying American accent). However. The Salade Niçoise (as delicious as it was) was not overly substantial (no new potatoes in sight (was it even an authentic Niçoise?)), and I had had a few days off the old travellers’ Achilles heel – alcohol errrday. This all conspired against me the next morning to equal an horrifically hungover Rachel whose alarm went off at 6.45 am and who had to get an EIGHT HOUR coach to Lyon (and I suffer from travel sickness at the best of times).

The first sign that this was more than just a sore head was when I arrived at the airport (from where I was catching my coach). I needed something (anything) so bought a cappuccino (with sugar (and I never have sugar in my coffee)) whose froth made me feel positively queasy. I love a cappuccino and I love a cappuccino’s froth: something funky was going on. But I kept my composure. I boarded the coach, it got on the road, and I got started on brekkie: natural yoghurt with blueberry compote and whole blueberries. It was rather good! I thought this had turned things around for me (blueberries are a superfood afterall). Fast forward thirty minutes and things had taken a severe turn for the worse. I was feeling very travel sick. Like, EXTREMELY nauseous. I put my earphones in for some distraction. I managed about twenty minutes of Ed Sheeran’s ÷ before I had a rush of OH MY GOD I AM ACTUALLY GOING TO BE FULLY SICK RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW. This was not overly desirable as I was one hour in to an eight-hour bus ride, with plenty of passengers surrounding me that would not, I believe, take kindly to being vomited all over. I had to act quickly. I ripped out my headphones (sorry Ed), undid my seatbelt (yes I do wear my seatbelt) and made a dash for the onboard toilet. Luckily it was vacant (the potential outcome of this story had the toilet been engaged is truly not worth thinking about). I got in, I shut the door and I was violently sick. EVERYWHERE. And it was full of half-chewed blueberries and compote. It was like a live-action Jackson Pollock creation in the confines of the FlixBus WC. And when I say it went everywhere I’m not exaggerating. Some of it went in the toilet, no problem, but cleaning up the 40% that was splattered all over the seat, walls and floor was not the most enjoyable activity I’ve partaken in. (Especially on a hangover.) (Sorry for the detail (just feel glad you didn’t have to experience it).)

Back in my designated seat, feeling rather delicate but definitely better than before, I got back to my most overplayed album of all time. I was going for the eyes closed, music load, breaths deep strategy to survive the rest of the journey. And then my phone pinged. Rossie had been having a somewhat below par morning as well. Turns out this sickness bug I had picked up had made its way over to the UK. (At least we were both suffering I guess – we could share stories later.) Rossie’s sickness, however, was a bit more unrelenting than mine (although ferocious, my episode in the toilet was, thankfully, the extent of my indisposition). Her’s was almost debilitating and, after hours of trying to help it subside, there was a big question mark as to whether her flight to Lyon booked for later that day would be caught. (I tried to ease the situation by regailing her with the story of my similar ailment – gory details and all – but I’m not sure whether this helped or made things a lot, lot worse.) We were in no man’s land for a period before I received the confirmation that Rossie would (extremely regrettably) not make it over for our long weekend in Lyon. Obviously I was super bummed, but in a seriously groggy state myself I could understand the lack of will to get on an airplane, on your own, when feeling utterly shoddy. I was sad, but I got it. (We had booked an Airbnb so I had a private apartment and a DOUBLE FRIGGIN’ BED all to myself to look forward to!) Some more time passed (it’s hard to remember exact timings as I was still severely hanging) when my phone pinged again. (I thought maybe it was Ed, just checking in.) It was Rossie. The message read as follows (with no punctuation, emojis or kisses (so I knew this was serious)): I’m gonna try again. What the…?!? Next thing I know – she’s through bloody security and about to board the plane!!! And in four hours time I was meeting her from the airport shuttle in Lyon to begin our long weekend away. Now that’s what I call girl power. 💪🏻❤️👯

Now onto the city in hand: Lyon. Wonderful. Just wonderful. It reminded me of Britain a bit (in a good way) and I can definitely imagine myself living there. (I am seriously considering moving to France for a year (while I still can (thanks Boris)) and Lyon is a serious contender on the location front.) The city is cool, quirky and creative, and not really very touristy which, after four months of Tourists R Us, was a big plus. I decided to walk the forty minute stretch from the bus station to the Airbnb (due to the still very prominent hangover), which did me the world of good (fresh air plus a little exercise (I can call it exercise when there is an 18 kg backpack involved) was just what the doctor ordered after the longest eight hour bus ride), that is until I reached the street on which the apartment was located and the heavens opened like a shark’s mouth at the faintest hint of blood. Once more in the run up to welcoming a guest from home I was thoroughly drenched and a quivering, sodden mess. Marvellous. It didn’t help that I also couldn’t actually find the entrance to the apartment for a good five to ten minutes, so I was now a cold, wet, frustrated and still marginally hungover backpacking embarrassment. (The cold that ensued from this less than ideal quarter of an hour is still not fully gone now (three weeks later) (please send lots of healthy thoughts (and a stash of lemon and honey strepsils)).) 

I eventually managed to locate the apartment, find the keys, make it up the flight of stairs and unlock our pad for the next three nights. And what a lovely little home it was. The biggest studio I have ever seen, there was a huge double bed, huge flat screen TV (not that we even tried to turn it on (too much gossiping to do)), kitchen area, breakfast bar situation (love a breakfast bar situation) and loadsa loadsa floor space so we weren’t cramped at all. Too good to be true? Well, yes, there was a little hitch. A little hitch which came in the form of the flush for the toilet. I went to the toilet before Rossie arrived and struggled so much to even work out where the flush was that I had to contact our Airbnb host with the humiliating question: how do you flush the toilet? (I was praying it wasn’t something obvious that would make me look like a total wally.) The reply came: Sorry I forgot to tell you! [Not the most reassuring first line of the answer to that specific question.] You have to press the bottom several times 🙂 [Not quite sure a smiley is appropriate here.] don t worry press lot. First thought: I bloody well hope she means the bottom of the toilet as opposed to the bottom of the user. On closer inspection I think she actually meant ‘button’, but it was oddly enough situated on the bottom section of the toilet, so who knows what she was actually referring to. Anyway, I pressed away. A lot. I actually counted 60 presses before the flush choked into action. When Rossie arrived I got her to try, to see if it was just me doing it wrong, but she struggled too. I went with the index finger and her approach was the thumb. We were both getting sore. One time I got to two-hundred presses and still no joy; Rossie had to begrudgingly take over. And then we figured out the trick: it was pure speed. That was all the was too it. Hammer away at it with enough momentum and you could get it going in fifteen pushes, maximum. Sometimes – if you were really lucky – it even went on the first press (we both achieved that once and couldn’t have been more thrilled for ourselves and each other). I couldn’t work out whether this bizarre, enforced flushing ritual felt more like pleasuring or resuscitating the lavatory, but, in any case, neither is best carried out in the bathroom, especially when there is a fresh whiff of excreta in the air.

I realise I have digressed – again – to toilet-related nightmares. I do apologise. On a more savoury note, we had a thoroughly great time exploring the city and catching up over delicious food, cocktails and wine, making a name for ourselves throughout the entire city as Those Bloody British Selfie Stick Wankers (the day I can successfully take a selfie without the stick ruining the shot will be a very proud day indeed). Other than visiting a beautiful basilica (the most beautiful basilica I have ever visited) we didn’t really do that much, which is often when you have some of the most precious moments while travelling. And Lyon has definitely been a highlight. Unfortunately she did get on the plane home at the end of our stay, so I was back on my own once more (for two brief nights in Grenoble before guest number four came to join me in Marseille…).

*Similar in every detail, except: Ross was a girl (let’s call her Rossie); it was Rossie getting on the plane, not Rachel; the desired outcome was that Rossie did get on the plane. (Glad that’s sorted. Now for all of you who don’t have a clue what I’m referencing: we are no longer F.R.I.E.N.D.S.)