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.

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

First Dates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Much hotter than Hadid.

**K changed to C to protect identity.

[Gigi is not the cartoon male from 1866]

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.

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?

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.)


Nice is, well, really rather nice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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