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?

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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.)


Nice is, well, really rather nice

Following a flying visit through Turin (Torino in Italian – how much nicer) (I wouldn’t recommend), I left Italy behind me (weep) and moved onto my next country of exploration: France. As I had been learning French for the previous forty days (I worked it out – forty exactly), I assumed conversing with the natives (just on the basics, of course) would be a bit of a breeze. It had taken me a couple of weeks in Italy to perfect asking for a table in a restaurant, so I figured that all the practise I’d had (with my iPad) in French would stand me in great stead for hitting the ground running en français. Wrong. Turns out as soon as I crossed the border I was suddenly fluent in Italian. It was like I was born bi-lingual! I was all “buongiorno”, “si”, “grazie mille”. They were my defaults over even bloody English! This would have been great had I still been in Italy… but trying to buy a bus ticket from the airport to the city centre in Nice with my newly-contracted Italian pharyngitis was, quite frankly, highly embarrassing. (Disembarking the bus at the other end was in fact even more embarrassing: timing the backpack donning to the exact moment the bus driver performed a sharp hit on the brakes led to a near-catastrophic backpack vs. Rachel situation, which, however embarrassing for moi, was, I’m sure, highly entertaining for all other passengers. I won the battle (with the help of a stocky Frenchman) through the skin of my teeth, stepped off the bus and walked gingerly to my hostel, praying that my string of embarrassing incidents wasn’t going to advance to three.)

Reaching the hostel with no additional mishaps – thank the lord – I checked in, dumped my now despised backpack (I had forgiven it for the Slovakian trip (literally (the scars are still quite shocking)) but the bus incident had triggered my negative thoughts regarding the backpack to resurface (and I know it’s not the backpack’s fault, but one can’t help but blame those closest to them)) and met the first of my five new roomies. Alex (pronounced ah-lex (with a brief but definite emphasis on the first syllable) was a Russian thirty-something male who spoke as much English as I do Russian, as much French as I do currently (although none of the same words), liked to sleep in nothing but his boxer shorts, and developed an excruciatingly irritating favourite sitting position of top-bunk-leg-overhang (and I was the lucky bugger who had to dodge his smelly feet if I wanted to use the bathroom). I wouldn’t say his presence made my skin crawl, but he definitely wasn’t husband material. The other lucky inhabitants of dorm 15 over the four-day duration of my stay featured two French Canadian students (great banter), a Spaniard now living in Dublin (who I would have bet good money on being an Irishman living in Malaga) called Jesus (even better banter*), a young British couple who joined me for the England v Malta World Cup Qualifier (great banter), a Hungarian Wizz Air cabin crew member who got hit on by the director of Cartier while buying a train ticket to Monte Carlo (great legs), and a South American whirlwind of a girl who – immediately on entering the dorm – took the piss out of Ah-lex for his ridiculously burnt schnozzle (clearly the best banter of them all).

With my newly ignited love of hiking in indecent heat through beautiful coastal scenery at its most passionate, I could not not seize the opportunity to do just that on my first full day in the city. On consulting with reception on the best route to take to hike to the beach at Eze (a village a little further east) I was met with (as opposed to the admiration and ‘you go girl’ spirit I was expecting) a bemused, dazed look, a gaping mouth and an unmistakable double take. “You want to HIKE there? In THIS heat?” [ARE YOU MAD?] (Subtext.) I did indeedy want to hike there (and probably was indeed a little bit mad). Anywho, off I trotted in my sportswear, backpack and cap (always) to embark on the coastal hike from Nice to Eze, of which I had no idea on distance, duration or possible deathly hazards. (Because clearly no one had ever contemplated let alone completed this hike in all of the Côte d’Azur.) But I was feeling optimistic. Six hours, twenty-four kilometres, three suncream reapplications, two dodgy-smelling toilets, a wrong turn through the most swanky of seaside estates, a sandy apple and a now-warm homemade houmous and avocado sandwich later, I reached Eze beach. Ha! Obviously first on the agenda was obtaining ice cream, so the extortionately priced double caramel magnum from the roadside shack went down a treat. Then it was to the beach! By now – around 5.30 pm – the heat was fading and the crowds were thinning, with just a handful of others enjoying the last of the afternoon sun. Once I had licked off all the chocolate and caramel from around my mouth I performed my now-perfected clothes-to-costume (bikini) manoeuvre, with no sight of (not even the flashest of flashes of) any private parts. The quick dip in the water was great – relaxing, refreshing, reinvigorating. The getting out of the sea was not. With a strong tide and a sharp, rocky sea bed, my chances of executing an eloquent exiting were slim at best. My strategy was slow and steady. Slow I mastered like an Olympic champion. Steady… not so much. As I approached roughly one-and-a-half metres away from the shore I took a very slow, very steady and very embarrassing tumble to the right. (Now just imagine how shallow the water is at this point.) And all of a sudden, I was sitting. Literally sitting. Sitting in about one foot of water, alone, in front of three old Frenchmen resting leisurely on the beach (I have no doubt that there was humour and pity in their eyes, behind their dark glasses), wondering how on earth I was going to get up, let alone with an eloquent execution (that was both me and the locals pondering this conundrum). So I continued with the slow and steady gameplan (I really couldn’t have achieved anything of speed even if had I wanted to) and – somehow – launched myself up from the floor (physically and symbolically), got to my feet and continued my slow, hesitant and painful journey to my towel and pile of clothes. Ouch. Having had such a physically exhausting day, followed by such a mentally exhausting five minutes, I lay back on my towel and fell into a blissful near-REM level snooze, in which I was able to forget the day’s most recent incident and instead bask in the achievements of my long coastal hike.

Along with exploring Nice itself (obviously) one can’t take a trip to the biscuit-named city without visiting it’s two exceedingly exclusive neighbours. The Edina Monsoon and Patsy Stone of the French Riviera, if you will. First up was Edina (Monte Carlo / Monaco) (which I didn’t realise, until after my visit, is in fact a different country – not just a pretentious, self-obsessed French city as I had initially thought). I took a packed lunch (budget bitch) (fresh baguette, carrot sticks and, of course, hou-hou (houmous)) and ate it perched on a big concrete slab looking out over Hercules Port. Everything was absolutely fabulous until a rather rotund seagull took an interest in my picnic, clearly used to hoovering up all of the uneaten lunches of the super-skinny WAG-type inhabitants who, I judgingly assumed, spent their diamond-encrusted days wining (and evidently not dining) at one of the region’s many swanky bars and bistros. But me? Mais NON are you getting your grubby beak on my full-fat hou-hou (did he not get the memo on my feelings towards the king of all dips?). I successfully guarded and guzzled my lunch, and set off to explore the city state’s capital. It was like something out of a film. The main feature – Casino de Monte-Carlo – attracted a swarm of shameless tourists and millionaire wannabes, photographing, posing with and pouring over the array of seven-figure priced cars parked enticingly outside. I don’t really see the appeal of having your photo taken while standing next to another person’s car (and I do like cars), but it was a spectacle to watch none the less. However, my sneakers and cap weren’t exactly the most appropriate attire for such a wealthy environment, so after absorbing a little of the glitzy [definition: attractive in a showy and often superficial way] atmosphere I headed back to the station and back to more normal civilisation.

Next was the turn of Patsy (aka Cannes). A little less head-in-the-clouds that her best friend, but still housing a decent amount of decadence, it was much more up my street. And this time I dressed up for the occasion. In my ‘sophisticated’ dress (no denim shorts and stained tee), sandals (no Nike tick), handbag (no hiking backpack), made-up face (no spots or uneven skin tone) and NO CAP IN SIGHT: I was much more in keeping with my lovely surroundings. I window-shopped, wandered and whiled away the time (all the while paranoid of my scalp burning, my mascara running and tripping up in my non-supportive footwear). But I thoroughly enjoyed it. The shops were interesting without being intimidating, the people were well turned out without being total twats and there were food and drink options that wouldn’t break the bank (along with lots mixed in that most definitely would (one of the menus I perused charged €20 for a non-alcoholic cocktail…)). 

After a successful afternoon (pretending to be) living the high life in Cannes, I headed back to Nice to enjoy the final evening of my stay. I decided to treat myself to a night out of the hostel kitchen, instead sampling the city’s most famous dish (Salade Niçoise), the region’s most famous tipple (vin rosé) and the country’s most unauthentic nightlife (an Irish pub in which to watch England play footy). Every element was really rather nice.

*Jesus (Spanish name and pronunciation) works as a nurse in Dublin. (This is a true (slightly upsetting but equally hilarious) story.) He had just taken a patient up to be x-rayed on the top floor of the hospital. The next of kin asked the patient’s doctor where their relative was. The doctor looked down at the patient’s notes and confirmed: Jesus has taken [said patient] upstairs. (The initial reaction of the family member was not the most joyful.)

Every Blonde Needs A Brunette Best Friend

Prelude
Caren Kollis* has a secret talent. A fashion-forward superpower. She is, alongside many other charming and quirky qualities, a curious clothing chameleon. Somehow, without any observable algorithms in use before changing, she manages to dress herself in camouflage for the interior décor of that day’s outing, almost without fail. I don’t know how she does it, but she does. We went to the Milano Duomo and low and behold her navy, brown and cream dress flowed seemlessly with the ancient marble patterned flooring. We checked in to our Bolognian hostel to find the bunk bed privacy curtains were the very same grey and cream stripe of her newly purchased co-ord set, which she obviously happened to be wearing that day. We attended the opera in Verona and her floor length, feather embellished ball gown was an exact replica of that worn by the actress playing Tosca in the grand Arena di Verona. (Ok, last example may contain a touch of poetic license… (It’s always nice to provide examples in quantities divisible by three.))

Blog Post Proper
I had a window of approximately five hours in Milan between bidding farewell to my beloved Moo Moo and welcoming my next long-lost guest, Miss Kollis. I decided not to squeeze in a third trip to Budapest as I felt the timing might be a little tight. Instead I headed to the Airbnb which Caren and I had booked for our first two nights in the city. A teeny tiny studio flat on the eighth floor of a teetering tower block in the outskirts of the city; it was not the Regina Palace of Stresa but it was good enough for a couple of short arses to kip in for a couple of nights. Learning that the weather in the UK had been quite frightful, I was looking forward to welcoming my latest guest to the warm, sunny climes of the Italian capital. So, when said guest caught sight of me waiting for her at the metro station – looking as if I’d just taken a fully-dressed shower – she must have been a little bemused. The heavens decided to open 30 seconds after I left the apartment block, and instead of releasing a quick two-minute drizzle, the clouds decided to keep on whaling, with increasing fervour, for around 30 sodding minutes; drenching me completely and reversing the just-washed hairstyle I was previously sporting. (Maybe they just wanted to make Caren feel more at home. (With the weather that is, not the bad hair do.))

With all the best intentions of the first day of holiday, we booked Skip the Line tickets to the Duomo for the following day, setting our alarms for 8 am in order to get up, get ready and arrive at the ticket exchange office the moment it opened. At 11.30 am we were just finishing breakfast at the Airbnb and contemplating packing our bags for the day ahead. We arrived at the ticket office way ahead of schedule (if you use Hong Kong time), and did, literally, skip the whole flipping queue. It was bloody fantastic! We were escorted by our own guard through an alternative entryway, waving like the queen at the long line of tourists melting in the heat (the weather was now back to normal) waiting to enter the Duomo the conventional way (pity). The inside of the cathedral was big and grand and beautiful (and of course in sync with Miss Kollis’ OOTD). With such a tiring morning under our belts we needed to refuel and found THE MOST AMAZING BURGER PLACE EVER just a few streets behind the Duomo, with prices that were surprisingly budget friendly (especially for me as I didn’t pay a thing!!!) (love you long time Caren). Quinoa & vegetable burger + prosecco for me; salmon & avocado burger + aperol spritz for her. We knew this was going to be a good week.

Following the afternoon’s low-key activities of exploring the roof – roof ! – of the Duomo and discovering the best – BEST – gelateria on the whole of planet Earth (HEAVENLY liquid chocolate-filled cone (your choice of white, milk or dark (for me: dark)); DIVINE scoop of 80% cocoa dark chocolate gelato; SCRUMDIDDLYUMPTIOUS scoop of the creamiest, nuttiest, most indulgent pistachio gelato** I am yet to encounter (and I have met a fair few) with the FANDABBYDOZICAL addition of whole roasted pistachios; all topped with a circular wafer to crown the masterpiece with the halo it rightly deserved) we headed back to the penthouse to watch Midnight in Paris (thumbs up from me (Caren started snoring halfway through so I wouldn’t trust her verdict whatever it may be)) before getting a good night’s sleep ahead of travelling to Bologna in the morning.

Bologna was an interesting experience. Ninety percent of the city’s shops and restaurants were “closed for summer” (eh?) so we had to do a bit of detective work to seek out the open gems. Spoiler alert: we are great detectives. First for the hostel. Once we had found it (after standing directly opposite it for around ten minutes wondering where the holy moly it was) we were thrilled to discover it was one of the best hostels (like, ever). In the reception area there sat (permenantly) a giant penguin teddy (in penguin scale probably three-times life size) which pretty much secured the hostel’s ranking in my personal hall of fame. Then there was the loose leaf tea selection. Approximately sixteen varieties of floral / herbal / medicinal blends. All. For. Free. 😱. And then there were the dorm rooms. Humongous handmade boxpark-esque bunk bed set up with the most fashionable privacy curtains (remember – the perfectly matched grey and cream stripe). We were given the two bunks at the furthest corner of the room, allowing us space to be messy with our luggage, change in (semi) privacy and, most importantly, conduct a mini indoor workout using the wall as our resistance and water bottles as our weights. (Lol. What a couple of tossers.)

Our first day here we dubbed ‘alcohol-free Monday’. Well. That lasted about three hours. Walking back from our initial sortie into town we passed through a cool graffiti-laden street with a collection of street-food-type vans posing as cocktail bars, each with outdoor seating, fairy lights and hip-looking bartenders (not a beard-free chin in sight) inticing us with their toxic, herbalacious mixology. We looked at each other and we knew: ‘alcohol-free Monday’ was totally doomed. (What had we been thinking?) After dinner at the hostel (à la Rachelle 😉), a couple of beers and a rounding up of a posy of multi-cultural mates, we headed out to our recent hipster find (and were not smug about this excellent location scouting in the slightest). An evening of delicious twists on the popular classics ensued: rosemary-infused G&T’s, passionfruit-spiked mojitos and a supremely floral lavender rendition of the mai tai (the latter was a positively abominable concoction but – somehow – Caren enjoyed it). The following day was, without our consultation, alcohol-free Tuesday (due to the bloody horrific hangovers).

Next stop was Verona, home to a mammoth opera-focussed amphitheatre, all things Romeo & Juliet and our eccentric Airbnb host Catia (crazy cat lady is definitely unfair, but gives you the vague gist). Her first welcome was via the intercom to the main gate: “Caaarun?”, she hollered from the other end of the line, buzzing us in. We climbed the white marbled staircase (couldn’t have dreamed of a better first impression) and met our wide-eyed, charming and hospitable host. Her English was the perfect combination of Google Translate, demonstrative facial expressions and exuberant hand gestures, which made her even more adorable. (Teaching her how to pronounce ‘corkscrew’ was my personal highlight of our short-lived but meaningful relationship.) Verona was the city in which Caren and I spent the longest period – a whole three nights – so we were able to enjoy the city while also devoting a full day to topping up our tans, the amalgamation of which equalled a very happy travel buddy. (Albeit a couple of hitches: our pool day involved a leisure centre with the essential requirement of a swimming cap to gain rightful entry into the pool (we were without); the second half of Caren’s already disappointing smoked salmon and cream cheese sandwich got attacked by a swarm of ants (chucked straight in the bin); Caren’s mini portion of farro salad from the supermarket deli counter (of which I had a pre-packaged full portion (deli-cious)) was most definitely off to the point of tasting fizzy (after thoughtful consideration chucked in the bin); and Caren made a less than pleasing choice on the cheer-up-have-an-ice-cream front (Magnum double raspberry – not to her liking in the slightest) (should’ve been chucked in the bin), but she was encouraged with the day’s impact on the progression of her tan.)

Along with the strenuous sunbathing and city strolling, our three days in Verona featured a hefty portion of eating (no surprises there). And it was all freakin’ fantastic. (Bar Caren’s aforementioned unfortunate food day at the pool.) Thanks to some extensive culinary research (I just can’t help myself) we ate at some truly delicious little finds. We frequented a tiny family-owned restaurant specialising in parmigiana (the best we’d ever tasted), cured meats (not to my pesky palate, but ideal for that of my ten-year-long-suffering pescetarien turned biggest meat eater in the West Midlands companion) and (in true Italian style) fresh pasta – what else?! (no, not pizza – we’re not in Naples anymore, darling) – on our first night in town. Had you asked me before my visit to Parma a Tavola if a great big hunk of parmigiana would serve well as an antipasti you may have been in receipt of one of my ‘is that a serious question, you barbaric fool?’ looks (regrettably a semi-frequent expression of mine). But this parmigiana was SOMETHING ELSE. And the wine… Don’t get me started on the wine! One of the cheapest glasses of red going (obvi babe; I’m travelling) was a crystal boule of delicious liquid red velvet yummyness, which complemented the parmigiana, the pasta, and even the ruddy walls simply superbly. (After the second glass even the prosciutto tasted rather nice.) The pasta (duo de ravioli) was, of course, buonissimo, and I went home a merry (mood) merry (state) girl. Ending our Veronese jaunt in a highly acclaimed fish and seafood restaurant was an equally excellent decision (thanks a mil’, Lonely Planet). To start we shared red snapper tartare – surprisingly sensational, then I devoured a sweet (😉) sweet pea soup with the most delectable scallops this seafood-loving cake hole has ever demolished. The evening was a fully-fledged fish-filled fea-esta.

Back in the capital for our final night (Miss Collis flew home from Milan at an unearthly hour the next morning) we of course used our last few hours effectively; spending the majority of the time sitting outside Cioccolati Italiana – revisiting our favourite gelateria and reliving our out-of-this-world, orgasmic, omnipotent, (pistachio-based) ice-cold taste sensation. (Karen moaned at me for being a boring bitch, flavour choice wise, so this time I substituted the divine 80% cocoa dark chocolate for a divine salted caramel (all other variables exactly the same – I’m not a total maverick) and it was just as orgasmic – what a relief.)

The hours that followed (in post-pistachio bliss) involved reminiscing about the past eight days’ LOLs, the comically-timed outfits, and, of course, the indecent amount of pistachio gelato which had been consumed. And you know what? We didn’t regret one mouthful.

*Name changed to protect identity.

**Potential blog post title which just missed the cut: ‘If Pistachio’s Not Your Favourite Flavour You Can’t Sit With Us’.


Mamma Mia!

Somehow, without planning it this way, I have a near-constant stream of amici e famiglia coming to join me for a slice of the action until the end of September. This has both its advantages and disadvantages. Pros: I can be my true weird self and I know that I won’t be judged (they have already accepted me into their lives and PAID to have the pleasure of spending time with me); I will be wholeheartedly congratulated on the progress of my tan, rather than asked (by those who are unfamiliar with my milky complexion) if I am averse to exposing any skin to the sun as I am “really rather pale”; I can experience a luxurious style of travel which can only be achieved through an injection to the accommodation budget – privacy, cleanliness and some ruddy air conditioning (or at least an electric fan). Cons: I can no longer pretend I am a successful travel writer / degree holder / Parisian (the latter perhaps more in my dreams) or any other profession / nationality of choice when introducing myself to new people; I now have competition when it comes to seducing the handsome Italian waiter / French linguist / Dutch engineer…; I have a constant companion with whom to blow my already stretched budget on delicious food, wine, aperitivo… (and get treated to the odd glass of prosecco because they feel sorry for me in my crumpled clothes and bulging backpack). It’s a hard life. But someone’s gotta do it.

First on the guest list was the one and only Moo Moo. Hooray! Finally someone to do the sun cream on my back! We met at the confusingly named Hotel Bologna in the centre of – Pisa. (I thought the same.) I arrived first (I was determined to utilise every possible minute I could in hotel accommodation) and entered the lobby slightly nervous that they would catch sight of this make-up-free, bite- and bruise-covered, backpack-laden globetrotter and dial direct for the Italian authorities to pack me up and take me back to more appropriate lodgings. But somehow with my eyelashes on their best fluttering duty and my charm at its most Italian (and my mother’s credit card) I was able to gain entry into this other worldly haven of marble flooring, double beds and, no – it couldn’t be, COMPLIMENTARY SLIPPERS!!! As soon as the door closed behind me the Nike’s were off and the pantefole were on, the king sized bed was well and truly launched upon, and I took a series of shameless selfies posing alongside the Hotel Bologna branded pillows to send to Moo Moo who was en route from the airport. Ah. This was the life.

Half an hour later (just enough time to complete that day’s French homework (I’m learning the language, mon ami)) the hotel room door creaked open and a lovely little lady came peaking through the opening. It’s the maid with complimetary chocolates! I hear you all say. Mais non! It was of course ma mère, ma missing monopoly piece (figuratively speaking (she’s not a recently retired iron)), ma multi bueno mumchkin, ma magnifico Moo Moo. The reunion hug was just like the best traditional Italian pasta – warming, comforting and oozing with goodness, leaving a satisfied glow on the inside which lingered for hours after the main event. Of course there has never been a better reason to have a glass of prosecco than the reunification of mother and daughter, so off into Pisa we went, in search of a glass of bubbly. The rest of the afternoon consisted of catching up on all the latest breaking news from the UK: the last three months’ ups and downs of the Parish Council; the state of the flowers on the patio (and the state of the patio itself for that matter); and, most importantly, the current mental state of my most treasured possession: Bimbo – the best teddy bear of all time. (He is suffering from separation anxiety (as expected) but doing well all things considered.)

After one full day exploring Pisa, taking comically badly lined up Leaning Tower photos and generally just trying to prevent mother dearest from keeling over from the heat (a vast contrast to the murky midlands), we got an early night and set off the following morning for stop two: Florence. Getting the train was an interesting experience. If you think finding the platform, boarding the train, stowing your luggage and obtaining a decent seat was hard with an 18 kg backpack imagine doing it with an 18 kg backpack, a 15 kg wheely suitcase and a 65-year-old mother… Getting all three into the overhead compartment was a nightmare! But we made it there in one piece and, after nearly throttling each other while trying to find the hotel, we arrived, and – my God – had we ARRIVED. The hotel room turned out to be a hotel suite. My mother turned out to be the bloody Madonna. Along with the maxi king sized bed there was the seating area (a sofa EACH); a bathroom with shower AND BATH; and a complimentary bottle of the nicest chianti I have ever tasted. I’d give it a six out of ten for facilities. And then there were the breakfasts. Mamma Mia. I had the same combo every morning, I fell in love with mini frittatas a little more everyday, and I now know what I will provide for breakfast for every guest I ever house ever again when I am back to real life and back to the kitchen. I won’t reveal the full bonanza as I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but, friends, you are in for an eggcellent treat.

Our time in Florence was spent eating, drinking and doing lots of walking – pretty much my standard everyday life as I now know it. We even had a houmous, bread and cheese (and chianti) picnic in the suite (😉) to make me feel more at home. (In our complimentary dressing gowns, naturally.) We ticked off the Uffizi (lots of underwhelmingly endowed male sculptures), the Mercato Centrale (delicious octopus salad and even more delicious prosecco) and climbing up a hill to watch the sun set over the River Arno (a near mother faintality situation, but nonetheless a must do in any city).

Third and final stop was Stresa, a lovely little holiday town on Lake Maggiore. It had a definite air of older generation about it. The hotel was like something out of a film from a previous century. The entrance lounge was a meadow of a dozen different pink and red hues of floral apolstery, including on the walls, with the biggest chandelier you’ve ever seen hanging grandly from the ceiling like an upside down cake of cascading champagne classes (luckily no drips). I did consider hiding during check in to avoid embarrassment on my mother’s part but, once more, her credit card afforded me a temporary new identity of landed gentry with a penchant for all things kitsch.

Relaxation was the purpose and itinerary of this section of our Northern Italian mini tour, and boy did we do it well. I don’t think we veered off course for more than four minutes per day (and one has to brush their teeth, darling). The pool and garden area were as perfectly manicured as the nails of Amy Childs’ vajazzlist, with a sunny yellow theme to the towels, umbrellas and bar cushions which went fabulously with my floral yellow bikini. A solid two days were spent lounging, bathing, dipping and sipping. Aperitivo was a never-missed mealtime, during which I introduced Moo Moo to the Dolomitean-born (apparently) Hugo Spritz – my first successful convert to my favourite holiday tipple. The hotel also housed a spa and wellness centre which was unexpectedly about two decades ahead of the rest of the complex in terms of design, providing an additional escape for us when soaking up the Piedmontese sun became a little too much. I am a self-confessed spa snob and this one was pretty high up there. The lounge beds were sleep inducing, the lighting ambient, and the pool just big enough to do lengths, but not so big as to disturb the perfectly placid pulse rate. When you had completed your vigorous five lengths you could sneak around the corner to find a secret cave housing a delicate jacuzzi (none of this water in every facial orifice malarkey) in which to sink away into a deep state of gently bubbling calm. Experiencing this level of almost-meditative relaxation is what I love most about #SpaLife, and mother and I certainly achieved our quota of Vitamin R here, that is until we heard / felt a large splash from the pool and I received the following WhatsApp from the lounge bed to my right: Stop press! “Large guest causes tsunami at 4* hotel in Stresa by jumping into the pool” 😂. Oh mum. I do love you.

And before you chastise us for our utterly self indulgent three days, we also partook in a boat outing – yes a BOAT outing (for those of you who know Babsy babe) – to visit three of the nearby little islands on the extensive Lake Maggiore. They were all very beautiful and got progressively more interesting which made for the perfect three-stop tour. On Isola Madre we pootled; on Isola Superiore we pootled, had a drink, pootled, had some lunch; and on Isola Bella we explored (too strenuous to be defined as a pootle) the island’s magnificent palatial house and even more magnificent gardens, had a drink, and had a second near mother faintality situation.

Our last evening together was slightly scuppered by one of Stresa’s infamous storms (mum had been looking forward to one all week) so, like all good adventurous holiday goers with one last chance to explore the town, we decided to have nice long baths, get into our robes and order room service for dinner. Delicious. We parted ways the next day at Milano Centrale, and I felt like a proud mother waving off her child who was travelling abroad alone for the first time as she boarded the train to the airport. With mother, and mother’s credit card, now gone, it was back to the budget life for me. Grazie mille, mumma mia!

Five Guys

All the best things in life come in sets of five*: the Spice Girls; the number of days each week during which you can countdown to the weekend; golden rings. And the five villages making up the Italian Riviera’s Cinque Terre are certainly no exception. In fact, even better than the brightly coloured bric-a-brac towns themselves are the spectacular hiking trails which take you from one coastal haven to the next.

Staying just outside the five official chosen ones (I’m on a budget, darling) in La Spezia, I visited the nearest of the quintet on my first afternoon – the picture-perfect Riomaggiore – before (bravely or foolishly) attempting the remaining four, adjoining hikes included, the following (very hot (31°)) day. After an initially frustrating start to the morning (requesting laundry be done by the most away-with-the-fairies hostel volunteer I had ever come into contact with (who turned out to be the manager (I was flabbergasted to say the least)), followed by said manager attempting to help me (loosely used) pre-book my ‘Cinque Terre travel card’ online (categorically unsuccessful), I headed to the train station – much more willing to stand in line to buy my ticket in person over dying a little bit more inside with every confused nonsensical noise which escaped from the hostel manager’s cake hole. (Rant over.)

I bought my ticket (allowing for train travel between each of the villages (if I got lazy) and entry on foot to two of the payable national parks through which the last two hikes ran (if I didn’t)), boarded the train and set off for numero due dei cinque: Manarola. And – man-alive-a – it was beautiful. As in Riomaggiore, the jaunty, pastel-coloured, lego-like houses sat sweetly along the dramatic and menacingly jagged charcoal grey cliff side, with the luminous turquoise sea glistening cheekily at its feet. My reward, if I completed the four-stop hike, was a swim at the last resort, so I resisted the temptation of a quick dip and got on my way to the start of the first inter-village hike. It started on a somewhat uphill leg, and as I completed the first few hundred metres (of twenty nine thousand) with my clothes already sodden, my cap positively stuck to my head, my panting akin to an overweight Elmo on a treadmill for the very first time, and my water bottle at near depletion, I doubted my chances of a successful completion of the self-set task (doubting also whether I would indeed make it to the next village alive). But then I saw Manarola from above and realised: I was totally going to smash this. The views were breathtaking (literally – the pants were audible), and, once I had decided I was definitely going to complete the feat, my newest worry was making sure I stopped to take in the scenery instead of moving and musing simultaneously (which is never a good combination for me). (Visions of newspaper headlines echoing ‘Girl Prone to Accidental Damage Not Paying Attention to Feet Trips and Falls to Dramatic Death Between Village Three and Four of the Italian Cinque Terre’ did enter my thoughts on more than one occasion.)

Arriving at the third village – Corniglia – in one (rather sweaty) piece (imagine a cone of melting strawberry gelato and you’ve near enough got it) I headed boldly down about 673 steps, along a path about one hundred miles long in search of the secluded swimming spot (which would most definitely make a ruddy good photo). Was it at the end of this twenty-five-minute sortie? Of course not. I don’t believe anything ever touched by mankind was at the end of that trail. So back I went, and up (UP 😭) I went, to find the lovely little town, and secluded little swimming spot, just a three-minute sortie from the starting point. (It wasn’t a mistake. It was a learning experience.) Consoling myself with the now warm apple I had stolen from the breakfast buffet, I had a wander, got my snaps and got back on the road, headed to the fourth wonder of this magical coastline.

Vernazza (quattro dei cinque) was going to be my lunch stop so, naturally, I picked up pace and had a renewed determination with the thought of eating food in the back (front) of my mind (one of my three favourite hobbies along with cooking and restaurant research). 🐷. Another beautiful hike was had and I made my way into the main thoroughfare in search of a suitable place to eat (you know me). I settled on a lovely little café / restaurant cum wine bar. Caprese salad and small beer plus complimentary crisps and bread consumed (nothing better than a complimentary nibble (or two)) I was rejuvenated, replete and a touch on the tipsy side – the perfect state in which to commence the day’s final hike. 

I navigated the last stretch in record time (undoubtedly the easiest climb – thank the lord) and made it to Monterosso al Mare – CINQUE DEI CINQUE – just shy of 7 pm. I did it!!! And I was bloody well going to have my swim. I bought a towel / blanket situation from one of the tourist shops, found a shady corner, and did a highly embarrassing Mr Bean-esque change from my sportswear into my swimwear. (I think one or two passers by may have caught a glimpse of a buttock (or two), but hopefully they were in good shape from all the uphill action.) Bikini on, bystanders bemused and BO at its best (disgusting but true) I immersed myself in the Ligurian Sea (never heard of it either) and floated away into a hazy dreamlike state of elation and exhaustion. There was only one thing for it: pistachio gelato. I got my cup (with half a scoop of peach (much regretted)) and walked to the station to catch the evening train back to La Spezia.

One of the most strenuous, sweatiest and sublime days of my 6 months so far. High five to that.

*They don’t. It was very tricky to even think of three examples. Any better suggestions very welcome.

Mezzogiorno

Mezzogiorno, for those of you who don’t know (I didn’t – I’m not judging), is the Italian term for Southern Italy (which I was drawn to for its resemblance to melanzane (and we all know how much I like aubergine)). The first part of my Italian itinerary was exploring this area; heading south through Puglia and then up and across to Campania to visit the marmite city of Naples. I’m thrilled to confirm I bloody loved it.

First stop was Puglia’s capital, Bari, selected unashamedly not for any of its merits but for its airport into which I flew from Romania. As I got into the city it was hot, there were palm trees and it was full of Italian accents – I was a happy girl. After a run, a Greek salad for lunch (oh the irony) and a costume change I headed into the Old Town which, as Bari (and probably the whole of Mezzogiorno) has a 1 – 5 pm siesta, was pretty dead. I wandered along the sea-facing wall of the Old Town, excited to finally be at the actual sea (as opposed to a lake (man-made: Berlin; natural: Bled); a dirty river (Serbia); or the mother of all ice baths (Vintnar Gorge)). As I made my way to Bari’s small, and somewhat underwhelming, beach I spied police tapes blocking off the sea from the sand. Hmm. At least I could still smell the sea air. (It transpires that after heavy rainfall the sea at Bari gets very dirty due to a bad sewerage system – delightful.) I set up shop none the less and began my first – real beach!!! – sunbathing session of my trip. I hadn’t been lounging for long before it became blazingly apparent just how forward Italian men are… I was lying on my front, minding my own business, working on the back tan. But of course one wants to keep their achingly slow-to-develop sun-kissed glow even on both sides. So over I turn, to be greeted by the outstretched arm and ready-to-shake hand of a comically typical, and a little cringeworthy, Italian male. Swimming shorts? Short. Body hair? Clearly a keen shaver (legs included). Confidence? Overflowing. This prickly, tanned, almost nude creature was Marco, a Bari born and bred Italian who had a penchant for Russian girls (I think it was the blonde hair) and a lack of knowledge of (or interest in) socially accepted norms surrounding the personal space of strangers in public. That said, he was a great font of information on Bari and the surrounding area (every cloud). With my milky white skin now 0.5% less creamy, my stomach rumbling and my local knowledge topped up sufficiently, I headed back to my hostel to cook dinner (brown rice with prawns (that turned out to be crayfish (I think)), veggies and a sprinkling of crushed peanuts: yum).

As recommended by Marco, the hostel staff, and indeed any other individual who has ever been in the vicinity, I went on a jolly day trip to nearby town Polignano a Mare. The Old Town reminded me of a small version of Mykonos (just cream rather than white). It consisted of a rabbit warren of narrow winding streets in which to get wonderfully lost, and snack on delicious pistachio gelato. (I don’t believe there is a location unsuitable in which to snack on pistachio gelato, but this sure was an idyllic one.) The town’s biggest draw was its teeny tiny rocky cove which was packed – almost entirely – with brightly coloured towels laid out on the rocks, umbrellas poking out at jaunty angles and a spectrum of cream to caramel to chocolate to red velvet skinned bathers placed like candy crush pieces on every bit of available land. I found a free spot (all ten centimetres squared of it), dumped my stuff, de-clothed (bikini already in place (it wasn’t that kind of beach)) and headed straight to the glisteningly clear turquoise water. I say ‘headed straight to’… more accurately I ambled unsteadily in my flip flops across the rocks – and sunbathers – trying vehemently not to fall over, injure myself, or grab hold of anyone’s body parts in the unfortunate event of either of the former two coming to frightful fruition. Thankfully I made it to the water with no cuts, no bruises and no groping allegations (albeit a handful of near misses). The rocks continued once in the water – not most appreciated by my flip flop-less feet (OUCH), but once I was far enough out that I couldn’t touch the bottom I was in paradise.

Next pin on the map was Lecce, a university town not so different to Bari. It was here that the heat went from holi-yay to holy fucking shit (so the delicious gelato (dark chocolate with orange – my new second favourite flavour) was very much a necessity rather than an indulgence (ahem)). During my time in Lecce I met the cutest of poodles – two-year-old Mickey (as featured on Facebook) – in a traditional papier-mâché trinkets shop. I was much more interested in stroking the dog than eyeing up the handmade goods, and I think the owner (doddery old Italian man with very little, if any, English) rather took a shine to me, that is before I almost destroyed his entire window display (and my dignity). As I positioned myself to capture Mickey at his best angle (envisage legs squat, arse out, mouth open with utmost concentration on my subject) I backed into what I feared at first to be multiple shelves of the craftsman’s precious, delicate goods. In this split second I had visions of glass shattering, shelves caving, hundreds of euros demanded on the spot for damages. Thankfully I had just backed into the shop door! But even so, with my pugshot captured I swiftly left the shop with a red face and sweaty palms (both of which had nothing to do with the weather), at which point I indulged – I mean recouperated – with the decadently rich gelato with its luscious citrus hint.

My final stop in the lower half of Italia was the opinion-splitting, pizza-inventing, traffic law-disobeying, Unesco World Heritage Site of Napoli. And – oh my – what a city. The traffic is crazy busy with cars, taxis and vespers galore taking no prisoners when it comes to getting to their destination in the quickest time possible. You have to walk out boldly into the constant stream of traffic if you want to get across the road at an point (anyone timid would struggle to move more than five metres), but, surprisingly, I never felt like I would be hit; the drivers are clearly insane, but very much on the ball. And given it’s probably the street theft capital of the country, I luckily did not once feel unsafe or at risk of being mugged / kidnapped / raped – which is always a plus. 

And as for the pizza… The mother of all pizza. The pizza before pizza became a thing. The magnificent, heroic, simplicity-at-its-best, humble, handmade, wholly-loved – and loved to be eaten whole – Pizza Margherita. Well. Prepare to feast your hungry ears. Napoli, home to this game-changing delicacy, has, unsurprisingly, no shortage of pizzerias claiming to serve the best Pizza Margherita of all time. So I had some investigating to do. If I were to follow the advice of a fellow traveller in my dorm room, my station-to-hostel taxi driver, and Julia Roberts* herself, I would head to L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, (apparently) much hyped as ‘the best pizza in the world’ and featured in the American rom-com Eat Pray Love (I’ve never seen the film but still a claim to fame, right?). And so that’s exactly what I did. Luckily enough I met a fellow solo traveller on that morning’s walking tour, so I was able to enjoy the gigantic carb cookie with company (and also learn a great deal about the American fraternity / sorority system – equally fascinating and bizarre). Arriving at the pizzeria to a crowd of hungry tourists and locals waiting for their turn to be seated, we collected our ticket, bought a couple of beers, sat on the sidewalk (😉) and waited for our number to be called. After not too long a wait we got called, we were seated, and the mouth started a watering. The menu had the following options: Pizza Margherita (normale / media / doppia mozzarella) / Pizza Marinara (normale / media / maxi). Obviously we were both going to get Margherita (need that even be a question?): normale pour moi and doppia mozzarella for him. They came. They were beautiful. They were photographed. They were demolished. Perfectly textured dough (not thin and crispy but not thick either), perfectly oozy toppings, and a perfect Italian palette (basil-mozzarella-tomato). Perfection itself. (From now on and forever more I am going to be the snob of all pizza snobs: I apologise in advance.)

To continue the food talk (why change the habit of a lifetime?), along with the best pizza I’ve ever eaten (not an exaggeration) I also enjoyed – on the same ruddy day – the best gelato I have ever tasted too. (Apologies again if I return to the UK unable to fit through any doorways due to rapid Italian weight gain.) Made from buffalo milk, it was the creamiest ice cream, like, ever, and the pistachio really didn’t disappoint. (Mennella for anyone in the region.)

With my extra baggage well and truly secure (an additional wobbly layer just under my skin), I left the chaotically cool Napoli for the country’s romantic capital, Roma. At least the abundance of arduous sightseeing ahead might go some way to reverse the Napolean naughtiness (I can always live in hope).

*For this whole time I thought it was Sarah Jessica Parker that starred in Eat Pray Love, who’s photo was hung proudly in L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, and who’s wise tastebuds I was paying homage to. Lol.