Porto: Part Two

In Porto one simply must partake in the pastime of port drinking, darling, and Daddy Dearest and I are not ones to do things by halves. Probably the highlight of our stay in one of the fortified wine capitals of the world (the lack of decisiveness due only to the memory-reducing qualities of the sheer quantity of consumption) was our Port Wine Tour of the Douro Valley, which took us through the tumbling hills home to the abundant grape crops; up and down the valley on a lovely wooden vessel; and right into the heart and home of one of the region’s family-run estates.

The fun and games started before we had even been collected by the tour company’s minibus, which was due to pick us up at exactly 08:05 at a crossroads nearby to our accommodation. We dutifully arrived at said crossroad at 07:50 – to be on the safe side – where we then waited for fifty-five minutes, rather awkwardly pacing up and down the street, assessing each and every vehicle which drove past, trying to look prominent yet not vulnerable, all the while not knowing where the bloody hell the car was, or what it was going to look like. (Turned out they’d given us the wrong pick-up time.) As 08:45 drifted upon us so too did the minibus, into which we hobbled, trying to show our frustration yet not alienate ourselves as the complainers, and commenced our trip to the valley of the vinho do Porto.

What the trip had lacked, thus far, in punctuality was definitely made up for, during the journey, in comedic value. Accompanied by two couples who were holidaying together, Dad and I were also joined by the lone ranger John, a marketing consultant from the Black Country, and the fresh-faced driver-cum-tour guide Gonçalo, who was clearly doing this as a summer job, but did a mighty good job at keeping us all amused. The hour-long drive went something like this: the couples at the back conversed freely amongst themselves; John would inundate Gonçalo with trivial questions and suppositions; Gonçalo would respond to John with wit, maintaining a professional level of calm and an enjoyable level of sarcasm; Dad and I would observe the John and Gonçalo debacle, finding it highly entertaining. John’s one of those guys that you roll your eyes at and nudge your pal about, but underneath the incessant point-proving and fact-sharing is a fun, friendly and free-to-tease kinda guy. (This made for great banter as the port began to flow.)

Our first stop was in fact an Olive Oil Museum – which is grown and made in a similar way to port – but fear not; along with the oils for dipping there were aplenty of wines for sipping. All were exquisite and all were consumed on a sun-drenched terrace overlooking the picturesque valley. And this was still pre-lunch! Once suitably lubricated we hobbled back into the minibus and were driven a short way to the day’s lunch venue, a typical Portuguese restaurant stuffed full with locals (win) and with wine waiting for us at the table (double win). To start with we were served an array of exotic and traditional nibbley sharing plates (who doesn’t love a nibbley sharing plate?) featuring delicious fresh olives, delectable açorda de camarão (a kind of fishy and fresh houmous situation) and divine bolinhos de bacalhau (waist-defying cod croquettes). Most of the clan went for a meaty main but, as I love animals too much to eat them, but clearly show no similar regard to those with gills, I went for the bacalhau, naturally, which certainly did not disappoint.

The post-lunch slump was short lived: we were soon on our way to the Quinta de Marrocos estate, high in the hills of the beautiful Douro region, where we were welcomed by owner and should-be politician César Augusto Coreia de Sequeira. His opening line lasted fifty (long) minutes (indeed), during which time he recited chapter and verse about the current state of the port industry, and how the household names (think Taylor’s, Graham’s, Warre’s) were sucking the blood of the family producers like him, and were by all accounts the devil incarnate. This soliloquy was both tedious and illuminating, made even better by the exaggerated regretful facial expressions and gesticulations of Gonçalo, standing behind César, who clearly didn’t have this in his script, but didn’t have the heart to stop the maturing port producer mid flow. But eventually it came to an end, allowing us all to breathe a sigh of relief (including César, who I’m sure had not taken an in-breath since starting his address).

We were led inside the estate, shown around the vineyards and the pressing room (the grapes are pressed with the feet, in a particular rhythm, which, of course, was demonstrated by dearest César) and on – finally – to the tasting room. Here we tried four LARGE glasses of port, which, just incase everyone wasn’t entirely intoxicated by now, got us well and truly sloshed. These glasses went from sweet and sickly to dry and sharp, each served alongside a homemade conserve. Unfortunately the conserves were totally and utterly disgusting, like really really yucky, but the port, in all of its guises, was totally and utterly sumptuous. With our 3,458th glass of port down we slid, quite literally, back into the minibus, and strapped up ready for the long drive home.

The post-port slump was now well and truly let to roam, and a lovely, harmonious crescendo of snoring entertained Gonçalo the entire way back to Porto.

I’m Still Alive (Ah, Ah, Ah, Ah, Staying Alive, Staying Alive)

Sincerest apologies for the lack of highly amusing blog posts during the past few months (I hope you have survived without the bi-weekly update, and if you haven’t… my thoughts go out to your family and friends). The thing is… I’ve only gone and bloody emigrated! Yep, I just couldn’t deal with Boris any more. Or Brexit. Or Bangers & Mash. (Linda McCartney, obviously.) (OK so I can’t remember the last time I ate bangers and mash, and would never buy a fake sausage, but, you know, it might be the newest reincarnation of the Johnson and Davis post-cabinet two-piece boyband (both have exceedingly mash-like hair, but I think David would have to take the sausage half due to Boris’ slightly yellow tinge up above).) Am I rambling?

Back to me. (Yay.) I returned home to Blighty in November last year, after my six-month bonanza getting lost in much of wonderful Europe. (The accounts of which, which stopped rather abruptly mid-Porto com Darling Daddy, will recommence – you’ll be thrilled to hear – and will take you step-by-step (bite-by-bite) through the last stages of my trip.) The grand homecoming was great. Aside from the lovely welcome from Mummy Moo Moo at St. Pancras’ exquisite Champagne Bar (the longest in Europe, did you know), I thoroughly enjoyed the proceeding home comforts: the use of non-microfibre towels after showers within which I did not, for hygiene reasons, need to wear flip flops; the comforting feel of the fridge door handle which was never covered in an unidentified suspect stickiness; the ability to dress and undress in peace, and in a space larger than the average toilet cubicle. Oh it was bliss. And then there was Christmas. (I love Christmas.) And then there was the first Valentine’s Day I spent with my new, exotic, European, name-impossible-to-pronounce boyfriend (he came to England and we indulged in some PROPER (greasy) fish and chips). And then there was my birthday (more presents – yay!). And then I thought, “humpf”. “Now that I’m a fully-fledged nomad,” (thought text), “I may as well move to another land, where I cannot speak the language and don’t even own the right currency.” So I did!

For the past couple of months I have been settling in to life in the Netherlands, and settling in to life with an unpronounceably-named roomie. (Both have been testing in their own ways, but I can now officially say that I own a bike (and can ride it with semi-confidence) and can correctly pronounce my boyfriend’s name (at least that’s what he tells me, with semi-confidence). So all in all things are going rather swimmingly!

The language is by far the most difficult obstacle, especially given that I am British and, you know, Brits don’t really do second languages. But I am giving it my best shot. I Het is heel moeilijk. I’m starting to realise that it’s all about the facial expressions pulled while speaking to achieve the correct sounds. It’s the exaggeration of the lips which helps our ‘potato-stuffed’ mouths pronounce these moeilijk words (apparently speaking with an English accent is like speaking with a potato in your throat), and the occasional widening of the eyes for words like watermelooooooon. I am slowly learning to loosen my face muscles in a bid to try to recreate these frankly ridiculous sounds, and in the meantime, while I’m still in the beginner stage, at least people will be captivated by the faces I am pulling even if they can’t understand a word I am saying. (Maybe that’s why everyone finds me so witty?)

Anyway, best get back to the mirror and practice loosening my lips… this language isn’t going to learn itself. But I will leave you with a new Dutch word to add to your one-word repertoire (moeilijk = difficult (if you hadn’t already twigged)). Alsjeblieft = please / you’re welcome, with the ‘j’ pronounced as a ‘y’. (And if you want to say it in a Chinese accent, just for fun, pronounce it ‘asha-bleed’ – I was for a good number of weeks.)

Dutch Football’s Lucky Charm

This time last year in the Dutch Eredivisie calendar (‘the highest echelon of professional football in the Netherlands’*) I was in Rotterdam, on day six of a six month sortie around much of Europe’s captivating lands. When I woke up that morning, one lifetime of a year ago, I was blissfully unaware of the chaos that was about to descend on the Netherlands’ second largest city. I was also blissfully unaware that I was to have a pivotal part in the success that would cause the ferocious football-mania. I know this now because yesterday I caused the exact same dogged delirium in the country’s fifth largest city, Eindhoven.

Pure coincidence? I think not. Granted, PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord Rotterdam may be two of the ‘Big Three’ of Dutch football, but, really, who actually takes notice of these league tables anyway? I’m confident that it was my presence, rather than any so-called tactical tenacity or innate voetbal talent, that secured both teams their glorifying wins. Don’t you agree?

Firstly, last year, Feyenoord had gone eighteen years without winning the Dutch league. So of course they were not the favourites to beat Amsterdam’s Ajax. They needed a helping hand. And I gave them two! Along with my new international mates from the hostel, I headed to a chock-a-block pub on the corner of the main street and joined the local crowds in fist pumping, beer swigging and general patriotic merriment (which did include, to my utter embarrassment, slurring some Dutch-sounding noises to the tune of the home team’s anthem).

This time round I went, along with my new international boyfriend, to the chock-a-block ‘bar street’ (which he has been sure to shield me from thus far, but wanted to take me to for the ‘full experience’ of the footy final) to join the local crowds in fist pumping, beer swigging and general patriotic merriment (which did include, to his utter elation, slurring some Dutch-sounding noises to the tune of the home team’s anthem). Unable to actually enter a bar premises due to sheer volume of people (clearly Eindhoven fans are more committed than those from the ‘Dam), we took up a spot on the street, where we were to be surrounded by the tallest and drunkest of Dutch hooligans with a penchant for standing on my feet, dripping beer on my head, and shoving me here, there and every which way possible. I’m not sure if this was the ‘full experience’ anticipated by my personal city guide, but it sure was an experience I’ll remember for a long time to come.

Both times the ratio of beer being flung out of plastic cups, cans and bottles to that which remained within its vestibule was rather dampening. The first goal in Feyenoord’s winning match was scored in under five minutes; for PSV Eindhoven it was at the twenty-third minute. I did appreciate the extra twenty minutes of dry hair and clothes in this year’s final, before the celebratory Bavaria rainstorm. This time I was slightly more mentally prepared for the hoppy onslaught, and even managed to blag said boyfriend’s jacket to save mine from the ever-lasting sticky coating (savvy, hey). But no matter one’s level of preparedness, when one is suddenly thrust upon with gallons of lager, one automatically experiences a shock to the system. But once this initial shock has subsided a little, one must immediately start jumping, fist pumping and celebrating with the rest of the crowd.

The festivities post-match in both cities were (and still are here in Eindhoven) extremely over the top. Shops shut, bars stay open, and people actually take the following day off work. Seriously – most of the city’s inhabitants had already booked it off in preparation for celebration or commiseration. And celebration it was, both times, to be. As the evening unfolds the bars get EVEN BUSIER. The floors get even sticker. The songs get even more Dutch (😱). As you can imagine, it is all a rather inebriated spectacle. One of the few times I can confidently feel less embarrassed about my own nation’s drinking problems, I was quickly brought back into line by one of the group who responded to my (polite) refusal of yet another glass of beer with: “are you even British?”. Seemingly no matter the positive effect I have on their football, I am not any closer to improving the Dutch opinion of Brits as brash, uncultured, binge-drinking messes (I must do better in the future).

With the music still blaring (twenty-four hours post-victory) and the final festivities still to come, I can only bask in my own lucky charmedness. (I certainly can’t face basking in any more beer.) For next year’s tournament there’s still all to play for… if any Dutch team would like to hire me for my fortune services I come at a very competitive rate and can make up convincing sounds for the words to any Dutch anthem after just one-and-a-half beers. Let the bidding war commence.

*Source: the highly reputable and trustworthy Wikipedia.

Porto: Part One

Porto. The home of port. A haven of sea breeze and beers by the river. A hubbub of freshly caught, cooked and incandescently consumed bacalhau. The ideal destination for a visit from Daddy Dearest. (Did I mention the port?)

The long-awaited meet-and-greet between father and daughter was, in all honesty, nothing short of hopeless. We were Airbnb-ing it (courtesy of said father’s credit card), and I was the first to arrive (I always like to welcome my guests, darling). One thought one would be waiting for one’s father for approximately one and a half hours. (Due to meticulous estimations on his flight, train journey and walk to the apartment.) One couldn’t have been more wrong. One was, indeed, waiting for one’s father for approximately four hours and fifty-seven minutes.

Problems arose when Daddy Dearest landed in Francisco Sá Carneiro (Porto) Airport… (Doesn’t one feel for one. (You for me (obviously).)) Firstly he had to battle with the city’s metro system, which was a little bit of a challenge for someone who hasn’t caught a bus since 1967 or used a self-service ticketing machine since, well, ever. To be fair to him, I found the ticketing system perplexing myself, and I had been abroad and using public transport possibly daily for the past five months. And this was just the beginning of the long, drawn-out, unfortunate saga.

On reaching the desired metro station – just a ten-minute stroll from the apartment – Darling Daddy was (unbeknown to him (and me)) still 70 minutes away from the final destination. (You know the film franchise? Things were close to resembling a Portuguese-backed sixth instalment.) Turns out not only is Dad unable to read a map; he also has trouble with locating and reading road signs which, when trying to find your way – sans-sat nav – in a foreign city, makes navigation rather troublesome indeed. On about the two-hour-post-expected-arrival mark I texted Father Unfound to check that he was still in the country / alive. He responded, reassuringly, with the word ‘Yes’. (I could sense a little frostiness so decided to refrain from getting into an emoji-heavy text convo.)

Another hour passed and there was still no sign of the old codger. Then my phone began to vibrate. It was only bloody Dad (who knew he could make a telephone call unprompted?!). Baring in mind that I had not seen the man in over five months, and had spoken to him once – while in Nice – since setting off on my adventure, his opening line was: “I give up”. Well. This was going to be interesting. We tried to ascertain where exactly he was. This proved difficult as he hadn’t the foggiest, he couldn’t see any road signs, and also his ailment of slight colour-blindness meant that me shouting out the colours of passers-by’s jumpers down the phone was not a great help. Somehow, however, he was actually just around the corner (probably took us about twelve minutes to figure this out), and he was soon in the apartment and lamenting to me the abominable lack of road signs in the city. (There were, in fact, road signs – on every street, including ours – which I happened to point out each and every time we walked past one for the duration of the trip. (What a sympathetic daughter I am.))

Anywho, with Dad safely at base, and me finally able to relieve myself (I couldn’t go for a wee for the four hours that Dad was due to be arriving any minute), the holiday could properly begin. Within a couple of hours we had beers in the fridge (and one dropped, smashed and seeping all over the open-plan floor (but that’s a-whole-nother story)), our glad rags on, and were headed into the city centre for a riverside meal and a much needed bottle of wine. With that down (approximately seven minutes between the two of us) the trials of the afternoon were forgotten, repressed, seeping away almost as quickly as the beer on the floor of our stark and stylish Airbnb.

Now it was definitely time to move on to some port.

Sintracalifragilisticexpialidocious

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Palàcio de Pena

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?

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.)