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!

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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.)