Sunday, May 30, 2004

South and Central France

Bordeaux - Toulouse - Carcassone - Montpellier - Marseille - Avignon - Grenoble - Annecy - Geneva - Lyon

Bonjour mon amis!

Sorry for not writing sooner, I’ve been quite busy gallivanting around and Internet access is also quite expensive...

Due to indecisiveness, most of my travels through France has been decided on a toss of a coin.

Anyway, from San Sebastian I flipped a coin, and ended up in Bordeaux.

Ah France, country of good wine, 366 types of cheese, arrogant rude French people, beautiful French women with ugly French boyfriends... France is also surprisingly full of Asians from Indochina, and Moroccan kebab shops.

I think France has two facets to it: the clean beautiful city centres with the arrogant beautiful snobby French people; and the ghetto urban African and Asian slums where hip-hop, skateboarding and seedy looking graffitied streets reside.

French people tend to also talk to themselves out loud all the time. And even when you tell them you don't understand French, they will still talk to you continuously in rapid French as if you do understand!

Speaking of talking to oneself out loud, I’ve noticed after travelling for so long and being on my own, that I’m doing the same thing, as well as getting slightly more eccentric. I have a tendency to think questions to myself in my head and then answer them out loud as if I’m talking to someone. For example, I would suddenly say out loud "Nah, I reckon I should head down that way instead" in the middle of the street.

Anyway, Bordeaux is a pleasant city, should really be called the City of Portals because of the number of beautiful huge archways and gateways into the city. Did the typical "sit-in-sidewalk-cafe-drinking-coffee-writing-in-journal-watching-people-go-by" thing that French people do, which I enjoy doing quite frequently for long hours everywhere I go now.

Did a winery tour of the St Emillion wine region near Bordeaux. Wasn't too bad, got to see a Bordeaux wine chateaux and try their wines...Also went to see the Medieval town of St Emillion itself with it's "monolithic" (the tour guide loved that word) church which is built underground carved from the limestone of the earth itself!

Flipped another coin and ended up in Toulouse, which wasn’t as nice as Bordeaux. It is called the "villa rose" because of the pink architecture within the city square. Though I think it looks more like apricot to me. But then the "villa abricot" doesn’t have the same ring to it doesn’t it?

If you want to go see a walled castle town, go to Carcassone! Carcassone has 87 towers, an inner and outer wall surrounding the town, all in preserved and complete condition. It really is quite impressive up on the hill, especially at night when the lights illuminate the walls. Thankfully there are no MacDonalds in the castle walls to ruin the effect (though they exist outside the walls).

Flipped a coin to Montpellier, a pleasant young student city, where everyone just seems to sit in the cafes in the main squares and drink, eat, and chill out. I've noticed that most sidewalk cafes tend to have their chairs facing the street, which means that if you are the only person walking in the middle of the main plaza you can feel everyone’s eyes looking at you, and more unnerving, judging you.

Another coin flipped and Marseilles I went. Marseilles in comparison to Montpellier is a large gritty city, but the best thing about Marseille was the best cheap good quality meals you can order in the youth hostel! In fact it’s the best food I’ve had in France surprisingly, and people who have stayed there can testify the same thing! What was also fun was buying a bottle of cheap French wine each after dinner from the grocery store, and drinking it on the beach down the road to the sound of people playing rhythmic bongo drums and skateboarders on the ramps.

Marseilles is renowned for being dangerous and seedy, but having managed to hitch hike, buy kebabs from a seedy area surrounded by prostitutes and drunk men, and sleep on the pavement outside the youth hostel all in the middle of the night, I don't think it was so bad (how I ended up doing all that is a long story).

Went to If Island to see the Chateaux d'If, which is the fortress turned prison island famous in the Count of Monte Cristo book. It was pretty overrated and boring.

Left Marseille (and just missed the famous Marseille International Skate Boarding Competition by a day ) to go to Avignon.

Avignon is a pretty walled town containing the former Vatican headquarters and the Avignon Bridge from that really famous annoying French song that I couldn’t get out of my head while I was there - "Sur le pont d'Avignon, l'on y danse l'on y danse..." Drove me insane.

Went to Grenoble next. Grenoble is an ugly city surrounded by beautiful French Alps. Went up this transparent bubble cable car to the fortress on top of the mountain for stunning views. The youth hostel was fun, got invited to a staff Moroccan theme party and all I know is that I'll never look at a carpet burn the same way again. Anyway, if I had more time I would consider working in a youth hostel because they can pay you in cash, you get free accommodation and food, and its a great way to learn a language and culture of a place.

Met a German girl called Marta on the train from Grenoble to Annecy, who was happy to me on a tour of Annecy. However because we got too distracted from talking that she accidentally led me out of the town into the middle of nowhere! But as an example of how things always seem to work out in the end, we actually found the youth hostel nearby which is where I needed to go anyways.

We almost had a fling except I knew she had a boyfriend back in Germany and I didn’t want to ruin it for her. Stupid morals!

Anyway, Annecy is my favourite place in France if not in Europe - it is gorgeous! It has a stunning blue lake with the Alps in the background, with a pretty river canal with flowers and beautiful houses and cafes lining it. There is not much to see besides that, but I could just sit in an outdoor cafe soaking it all in all day (which I did).

Went to Geneva in Switzerland next. Went to the UN headquarters which was pretty interesting, and also checked out CERN (Centre European of Research Nuclear) with the huge super conductor collider which basically is used to smash atomic particles at light speeds to replicate the big bang and learn about how the universe was created. Interesting only if you are a nerd like me.

Geneva, despite being in Switzerland, has more of a French feel to it. And it seems to be full of Irish pubs!

Popped back into France to Lyon. Lyon is a pretty cool lively place, reminiscent of a kind of mini Paris actually. It even has a stunted smaller version of the Eiffel tower there! There's also cool statues of painted lions all over the place, which probably explains the name of the town (Lyon = Lion?). Anyway, wanting to see the cultural nightlife of the place, guess where we ended up? An Australian pub! Oh well, that's the last time I let Canadians lead where to go. Tonight we might have a little more luck...

I'm meeting heaps of cool people, Canadians, Australians, Mexican twins, and English girls. It's kinda sad having to say goodbye to people you may never see again. As someone once told me, "in travel you make really strong short friendships with people that end as soon as you leave".

Anyway, Tomorrow I head for Paris, followed by Loire valley, Brittany, Normandy, then Belgium and then Germany!

A tout à l’heure !

Saturday, May 8, 2004

North Spain

Santiago de Compostella - Leon - Burgos - Bilbao - Pamplona - San Sebastian

Egumom (hello in Euskadi/Basque),

Santiago de Compostella (in Gallicia, north west of Spain) is the destination for people all over the world who do a pilgrimage to see the tomb of St James in the Cathedral situated there. Known as the "Camino de Santiago", People would walk, cycle or horse ride at least 100km from different trails across France, Spain and Portugal. Even George Bush’s daughter has just started the Camino, from a place called Astorgas (which I went through the day she left so I just missed her).

Anyway the mass in the cathedral is more like a show than a sermon. TV screens and speakers are located around the interior of the cathedral. At the end of the mass a huge incense burner called a botafumeria is lit and is hung on a big rope dangling from the domed ceiling. Acolytes would then swing the botafumeria back and forth over people’s heads spreading incense everywhere. Afterwards people would cheer and clap! Even the Bishop on stage took photographs while it was swinging!

Next place I ended up in was Leon. Leon has a cathedral and that’s about it. Though the streets are big and people are very friendly there. The cathedral itself is quite impressive too, with 1800sq metres of stained glass windows lighting up the place.

Went to Burgos next. Guess what is there? Yep. Another cathedral! Not as nice as Leon though, but I only went here because I couldn’t get to the Picos de Europa national park as I was planning to due to no public transport.

The weirdest thing happened in Burgos. I was at a cafe when a crazy looking old woman came up to the table next to me where a couple were sitting and she asked the guy to come with her somewhere. For some reason he obeyed, and ended up walking her to the end of the street and around the corner where he didn’t come back for about 5 minutes, in the meantime me and his girlfriend were exchanging bewildered and amused looks. Never did find out what that was about.

I was disappointed in Bilbao (sorry John), it is quite an ugly industrial city, its only salvation is the brilliantly designed Guggenheim museum, which is a metallic modern work of art cross between a fish and a ship.

Pamplona is famous for the San Fermin Festival, with the running of the bulls and the fiestas they have there. Pamplona otherwise is a nice little town with lots of bars and gardens. People from the Navarra area (Pamplona) are really friendly and pleasant to talk to, though they don’t look Spanish, more half Spanish half French.

San Sebastian is awesome! (Jenny you are so right!)

San Sebastian has some really great beaches, spectacular views in the mountains around it, and the nightlife - let’s just say my average time arriving back home from partying was 5am (for 4 nights in a row, despite my insistence that the next night will be "my short quiet night")! Bars next to bars next to bars, and the whole place parties on EVERY night of the week! Pinxos (Tapas) and Sangria are great quality but pricey.

Stayed in a place called "Pension Aussie". Met a lot of Canadians there.

My next destination is somewhere in France. Not quite sure where yet, I will decide once I cross the border where I want to go (either tomorrow or the day after). And this time I mean it when I say I will have a quite night in San Sebastian....

So, some things about Spain:

· I have to stop saying "oh my god" or "holy crap" when I see something cool in a cathedral/church.

· With all the siestas, fiestas and closed weekends, do Spanish people actually ever work? I wonder how they actually make money?

· When one person honks his or her car horn, everyone else decides to join in. Soon everyone in the street is holding his or her car horns down like a choir or orchestra warming up before a performance. Quite amusing actually.

· Some girls insist on wearing the ¨Michael Jackson 80s look¨ with the leather and metal studs, and 80s style makeup/hair. Scary.

· It’s cheaper to buy beer or wine than soft drinks.

· There is a Plaza de Espana in every major town in Spain.

· In Madrid there is a series of bars called ¨Museu de Jamon¨(museum of ham), with looks like a slaughterhouse with the number of hams hanging around the place.

· Spain has a thing called Plato Combinados, which are meals based on a selection of eggs, hams, chips, sausages, rice, salads, etc, for roughly 5-8 euros. Good stuff!

· Even better are the Menu de dias, (menu of the day) which consists of two full dishes of food, bread rolls, a desert, and a choice of a bottle of wine, soft drink or water. For 6-12 euros it is a bargain, and will fill you up for the rest of the day!

· Free tapas only seem to exist in Granada, though in places mainly north of Spain you can get a discounted price on a tapa if you order a drink with it (the price works almost like getting a free drink with a tapa). Very nice!

Spain in a Nutshell

Spain is what I would describe as "a feast for the senses" in that it has beautiful countryside of mountains, gorges, valleys etc, great music, exquisite variety of foods....And Spanish people know how to party! It is usual for them to start at midnight and go all the way to 7am!

However, Spanish people can tend to be rude when they can’t understand you so it’s essential to learn Spanish especially as most people in Spain can’t speak English. People from Basque and Catalunya are nicer than anywhere else in Spain.

Favourite places: Salamanca, Seville, Barcelona, Monserrat, San Sebastian

Worst places: Madrid, Bilbao

Places with best views: Monserrat, San Sebastian

Best meal: Large paella, roast chicken, chips, bread, bottle of wine, custard desert (Menu de dia) - for 7 euros! (Zaragoza)

Worst meal: Cannelloni that had been microwaved from frozen packet - for 5 euros! (Segovia)

Best nightlife: Madrid, Salamanca, San Sebastian

Best beach: San Sebastian

Best building/monument: Plaza de Espana (Seville)

Overrated tourist attraction: Toledo

Underrated Gem: Plaza de Espana (Seville)

Cool people met:
Christian and Ashton (Canadians met in Seville YHA)
Helena (Spanish girl from Pamplona on Barcelona-Zaragoza bus)
Xavier (French dude in Zaragoza YHA - Kleptomaniac and ex heroin addict, but nice guy)
Mike and Jamison (Canadians met in Madrid YHA)
Catharine (Fun Quebec girl met in Madrid YHA and Salamanca)
Carolina (Brazilian girl met in Madrid YHA)
Marie (Spanish girl from Pamplona on Pamplona-San Sebastian bus)
Simon and Georgie (Australians met in San Sebastian pub)
Inga (German girl from Cologne met in San Sebastian pub)
Christina (Canadian girl met in San Sebastian YHA, great fun and just as nerdy as me)
Erin (Canadian girl met in San Sebastian YHA)

Funniest moment(s):
-Badly coordinated group efforts to climb and steal oranges from trees in broad daylight (Seville)
-Me and Christian getting on Spanish TV by climbing a lamp post while drunk (Seville)
-Guy talking in sleep saying "si, si" and "por favor" - wonder what he was dreaming about? (Madrid)
-Defying the despots in Madrid YHA: "They say we have to all be back by 1:30am! We say, screw them, we all come back at 4am!" *Everyone cheers* (Madrid)
-Mixing drinks for people out of a plastic bag in middle of street (Salamanca)
-Catharine in general (especially when drunk)
-People clapping and cheering in church (Santiago de Compostella)
-Old woman walking off with someone’s boyfriend (Burgos)
-Learning Euskadi from the girls at the tourist info office (Pamplona)
-Me and Christina crashing a wedding afterparty and being the only people dancing on the dance floor (San Sebastian)

Foods tried: (I LOVE SPANISH FOOD) Paella, assorted Tapas, assorted Jamon (serrado, iberico, asado), Tortilla de patatas etc, assorted Bocadillos.

Beverages tried: Estrella Dam, San Miguel, Aguila & Amstel beers, Sangria, wines

Spanish Music: (I LOVE SPANISH MUSIC, its dorky and daggy and tacky but then so am I! - must download from internet when I get home)
"Dargostea din tei" - Ozone (actually Romanian but all the rage in Europe)
"Papi Chulo" – Lorna (actually Italian)
"Soy lo que me das" - Chenoa
"Lola" - Bebe
"Oye el Boom" - Dabid Bisbal

Other cultural experiences: Bull Fight (Madrid), Spontaneous flamenco (Seville), Spanish fiestas/festivals (Seville), late night partying

Best thing about Spain: Food, music, countryside, parties...

Worst thing about Spain: Siestas meaning everything is closed in the middle of the day and on sundays! Rude people.