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.

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.

F•R•I•E•N•D•S

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Sangria also helped us stay in the holiday spirit]

Taken

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.)