Remember that volcano in Bali that we climbed four months ago?
Well, my two big toenails have been black ever since and I’ve been keeping the ugly things covered with some pretty pink nail polish. (The Tux in the Backpack was more right than he knew when he called my blog, a pink approach to Flashpacking)
I guess the moment was inevitable – but I was still pretty freaked out by it. I immediately emailed my friend Cindy who had lost a toenail while we were training for the Honolulu marathon in 2002 and she was very reassuring about it’s re-growth as well as my ability to still function normally.
It is a very strange sensation to be able to touch the skin on your toe that is usually protected by the nail.
I lost the other nail in Marseille – so I guess I really did leave a little piece of me behind in France. Two little pieces actually.]]>
Marseille might not be the most beautiful city (it is kind of on the ugly side but is surrounded by beautiful pale cliffs which drop into a sparkling sea) but it is entertaining. Everyone there is so laid back. Postal workers don’t wear uniforms (unless gold chains and earrings count – and I am referring to the men here). The city workers digging up the road to lay new pipe were hilarious. They seemed to spend most of their time on breaks, sitting on the pipe drinking from their big beer bottles.
Curtis booked our accommodations in Marseille. Up to this point, I had arranged literally all of it. He decided to help out by booking us a charming looking, cheap private room at Le Cigale Et La Fourmi.
The bus ride from the train station was easy enough to figure out and we knew that the hostel was a short walk from the bus stop. Navigating the confusing streets of Marseille in the dark without a map is another story. Fortunately we got pointed in the right direction (ask as many strangers as necessary – one of them is bound to have heard of the street you’re looking for) and didn’t have too much trouble locating Le Cigale Et La Fourmi (unlike a few of the other guests we met who said they wandered around lost for some time before stumbling upon it).
Upon arrival, we climbed the narrow winding staircase to the “reception” area where three old men sat chain smoking on a couch and lots of young people were scattered about the kitchen/dining area eating and drinking. Jean, the owner, spent enough time fiddling with some paperwork that I began to get nervous. Sure enough, he said that he had given our private room away and we would have to spend the night in the dorm. He apologized and said we would get a private room the next day.
As long as there was somewhere for us to sleep, I wasn’t too worried about it. We got led to our bed for the night, which was in the “house” a few doors down which we had passed by earlier. It had caught my eye because the garage door was rolled up to reveal an area that looked to have been converted into more of a dining room. Several people sat smoking and eating giant plates of pasta around the table.
The door off the dining room/garage led to the rest of the “house” which consisted of a small kitchen, a small bathroom, one double bed stuck right in between the two and a three foot cubby/loft area where everyone else slept. It was a very open concept where the only place one had any privacy was in the bathroom.
We met a couple of Australians on their gap year who showed us where we could buy beer and introduced us to the local pizza joint. It was our first taste of Mediterranean style pizzas and was definitely not our last.
These thin crust pizzas were simply topped with a little tomato sauce, lots of cheese and four whole olives and baked in a wood oven for about five minutes. The result was perfection (for only 5 Euros)!
Armed with our pizza and beer, we passed the rest of the evening on our front steps until it was time for bed.
Our “frat” house consisted of us, and about eight young guys from various parts of the world, most of them students in Marseille.
I was tucked into bed with a book, while Curtis brushed his teeth, when a few of our housemates came home slightly drunk. They seemed quite happy to see me – one very friendly fellow from Sweden sat down on the foot of the bed and chatted to me while emptying his pockets onto the bed and taking inventory. He wasn’t put off by Curtis’s reappearance from the bathroom at all, he settled in deeper and chatted to us for ages
before stripping down to his underwear and socks and climbing up the ladder to his bed.
Since our bed was located right outside of the bathroom, every time I opened my eyes in the night when awoken by a noise, I saw a different guy in their underwear – it was very entertaining.
The next day we were moved to a “more private” room – not to be confused with an actual “private room”.
This one was in the main house, up the narrow staircase, up another winding staircase then up a ladder, through a trap door and voila – two double mattresses about a foot apart from each other with a sloped roof ceiling.
The really great thing about this room though was the roof top patio with outdoor kitchen.
This has got to be the craziest hostel ever in terms of oh say, fire code regulations. It looks like at one time some of the rooms had 9 foot ceilings – which have now been cut in half or even thirds horizontally – so that some people can’t even stand up in their 3 foot rooms.
Jean, the pervy old French owner, had made some comment to Curtis that he was a lucky man to be sharing this room with two beautiful women (he actually got much more graphic than that – and also told us about some caves where we could “make love on a flat rock where the slapping of our bodies would echo in the caves”). Turns out we were to share this room with a young Asian student – who vacated the premises after Jean scared her away with graphic descriptions of an upcoming night of passion. (We learned all of this later from friends who had overheard the conversation – we never even met the poor girl).
Our roomies for the first two nights were two nice girls from Switzerland – although the petite one snored like an old man with a sinus infection. On the third night, we bunked with a couple from New Zealand, who weren’t too happy to find out that the private room they had booked had been given away as well. Turns out that there are very few actual private rooms at this place and booking one in advance means nothing. Anyone who ended up getting one was considered very lucky.
One of those lucky couples was next door to us. Not only did they have their own room – they also had their own toilet. We shared the roof top deck with them but they had to go through our room to get to the shower or to leave the building.
Jonathan and Jessica are from Iowa but are living in London for a few years. We kept running into them throughout Marseille and discovered that we were on the same Ryanair flight to London at the end of the week. We spent a few nights drinking wine, talking and laughing with them out on the deck. When the European travelers joined us, they just didn’t seem to get our North American humour – but the four of us were usually in hysterics over something silly. We especially enjoyed cornhole jokes (the Iowans became the butt of many jokes) and steamroller references (you know the game you play at sleepovers as a kid –Jess admitted to finding it kinda hot).
We spent a couple of days swimming and lazing at the beach, where the water was cool and clear, surrounded by topless sun-crinkled retirees.
There is a phenomenal hike called Les Calanques that was the highlight of our stay in Marseille (well that, and meeting the Cornholes, of course).
With a backpack full of Brie and bread, we took a bus to the beginning of the trail.
The hike snakes through these amazingly beautiful pale stone cliffs that drop into an azure sea. It is simply stunning.
We make our way down to one of the coves where we hop across the painfully sharp rocks and into the pleasantly cool sea. A perfect way to spend the afternoon!
When it’s time to leave Marseille, we journey to the airport with Jessica and Jonathan via bus, train and another bus only to find our Ryanair flight is delayed by two hours. Once on board, the American pilot announces, “Sorry for the delay folks. It was due to the French air traffic control but they have a saying here in France – it’s c’est la vie. With the tail winds though, we should arrive at London Stansted only an hour and a half behind schedule. In America, that’s what we call progress.”]]>
According to Lonely Planet, Beaune is pronounced “Bone”, but whenever I said it like that to a French person, they had no idea where I was talking about until I spelled it. So it’s really pronounced more like how it’s spelled….which doesn’t help you at all does it?
I loved Beaune. This is a town where everything revolves around wine. They’ve got wine schools, wine tours, a wine museum, tons of tasting rooms and a bike path through the vineyards. In nearby Meursault they’ve even got a spa where you can take a bath in red grapes in a real barrel or get a rejuvenating grape pulp body wrap. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it to the spa (it’s a fair bike ride – and who wants to ride home after a spa treatment?!) but next time…
I had a really hard time finding reasonably priced accommodations in Beaune so when I finally found the Stars hotel, I was ecstatic. And a little apprehensive. Because it’s only a one star hotel. But then I thought, “How bad could it be?”
We have stayed in some very basic bungalows along the way and I now know that I could put up with pretty much anything for a week. (I was never worried about Curtis, he once spent 6 weeks hiking and camping the Pacific Crest trail, which runs from Canada to Mexico). As long as the place was clean (ie no bed bugs!), it would be fine.
Well, Stars turned out to be a hidden gem. The staff were so friendly and nice (even giving us free coffee and croissants some mornings), the location was a short walk from a big grocery store and not too much further into the heart of town, it had free wifi (albeit in 20 minute increments so we had to keep logging back in), the bed and pillows were clean and comfy and we even got one channel in English on the tv. Too bad it was CNN – I’ve had my fill of anything to do with Sarah Palin!
If it’s a luxury vacation you’re looking for, I wouldn’t recommend it, but for anyone who’s traveling (flashpackers and backpackers), it is absolutely ideal (and a steal at 36 Euros per night!). The shower is a little small, larger people would have trouble squeezing in and out of it, but we even found that with the turnstiles at the Metro in Paris. Although our packs make me look like a pregnant camel (I’ve got the front pack and the backpack) and make Curtis look like a giant turtle.
Now back to the magical place that is Beaune.
On our first day, we went to wine school at Sensation Vin. This was an excellent way to begin our week because it gave us some basic knowledge of the region. In Burgundy, they’ve got four classifications for their wine. Regional, Villages, Premier Cru and Grand Cru. The grapes for the Grand Cru come from the middle of the slope of the best vineyards and the Premier Cru grapes come from the top and bottom of the slopes. The Villages grapes come from the flat areas and the Regional grapes can come from anywhere, as long as they are within the region. The two main varietals here are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay but they also grow Gamay and Aligote.
While learning all of this, we sampled six wines, 3 white and 3 red, as our palates were able to start distinguishing the differences between the classifications.
On my favorite day in Beaune, we rented bicycles and rode them through the vineyards from village to village. There is a great paved (and marked) bike path that makes it easy, and it is so beautiful being amongst the grapes. Of course we picked a few from the vines to taste. Conclusion? Yummy!
We cycled from Beaune through Pommard and Volnay to Meursault where we stopped at Ropiteau Freres for a tasting. Florent, whom we rented the bikes from, had suggested a few good places to stop and this was one of them. He even told us who to ask for.
Before our free tasting, we were able to check out their caves. We walked amongst the barrels of aging wine while the smell of stone, wood and fermented grapes filled our nostrils before emerging back up into the sunshine, ready to quench our thirst.
We sampled several wines and one crème de cassis, which Regis told us was what most French youths drank on the night they lost their virginity. It tasted like blackcurrant and is a common aperitif. We left armed with two bottles of their sparkling white and reluctantly hopped back on our bikes for the return ride home. Which was surprisingly easy after our tasting.
The two specialties of Burgundy are Coq au Vin and Beef Bourgogne. When we tried the beef, it was delicious, but we obviously ordered the coq au vin at the wrong place (never order a local specialty at a restaurant that obviously specializes in pizza). All of the other meals we had in Burgundy were delicious (including my first encounter with escargot!) When in France, order the house wine and you’ll never be disappointed.
There are tons of places to taste wine in Beaune, from the Petite Cave (small wine store owned by a wonderful local woman who was eager to share the delights of her region with us) to the Marche Aux Vins. This is a must see!
Most of the tastings are free (with the expectation that you’ll buy something you like) but the Marche Aux Vins charges 10 Euros per person. You receive a small silver tasting cup (yours to keep!) and go on a self-guided tour through their cave where you taste 15 different wines. The first three are white and the remaining 12 are red. The wines get increasingly tastier (and more expensive), the further along you go.
This is the way to taste wine. You are in a dimly lit cave and as you make your way through, you pour yourself “a taste” at each station. The “station” consists of a barrel, lit by a candle, with an opened bottle or two. After the underground portion, you climb some stairs and enter a beautiful high ceiling stone room, adorned with paintings and awash with dozens of flickering candles.
We left the tasting with the second best bottle of wine they had (no way could we justify splurging for the best), with a great buzz on and went in search of some dinner. It’s not the best idea to shop for dinner after that much wine – our judgment was definitely impaired because we ended up with one huge duck and pork filled pie (so disgustingly delicious!) and three pretty pastries. The next day we stuck to fruit and yoghurt and salad in an attempt to make up for our gluttony. (Watch for a future post on keeping fit while traveling – there is much more piglishness to come.)
When we weren’t drinking wine, riding through vineyards or eating snails, we were wandering the cobbled streets of Beaune, often getting lost in its labyrinth – delighting upon new discoveries.
We also spent time at the wine museum, which was interesting and educational.
Our week of everything to do with wine eventually came to an end and it was once again time to hop on a train. We had a brief stop in Dijon where we were too late for lunch (most restaurants in France close between lunch and dinner and most everything else closes for lunch). The owner took pity on my obvious hunger and made us some sandwiches, while the other diners finished their three course meals and coffee and went outside for a group smoke.
A short visit to the garden across from the train station and we were back on board – bound for Marseille and the Mediterranean.]]>
Patrick made great home made bread and treated us to wonderful home cooked meals. He also turned us on to many wonderful French cheeses (other than Brie).
The reason I wanted to visit Champagne in the first place? For the champagne of course! They make sparkling wine all over the world – but they only make champagne in Champagne.
Champagne is a beautiful region – driving along the windy country roads through all the vineyards, stopping to visit the church where Dom Perignon lived (and is now buried), admiring the sweeping views of distant villages among the rows and rows of purple and green – it is simply awesome.
We also visited the Notre Dame in Reims (I told you all the cathedrals in France were named Notre Dame!)
They have lots of champagne houses (obviously!) in Champagne. A visit to one (tour with a glass of champagne at the end) costs 10 Euros. Otherwise, I would have tried to visit every single one of them! We went to Taittinger, where we learned all about how many hectares of grapes they own (a lot!), how they make champagne, how long they age it for and how tasty their bubbly is.
Besides everything to do with champagne, we also visited a photo exhibit called Earth From the Air. We saw this exhibit in Bangkok as well – I recognized many of the photos but there were also some new ones. If this exhibit is ever showing at a city near you, I highly recommend going to see it. Here are a couple of photos of photos that I took. Amazing how real they look.
Next up after Champagne? Beaune! One of my all time favorite places in the entire world! Stay tuned….]]>
Paris is one of those cities that captures the imagination. Just like New York, Paris is portrayed in films so often you feel like you know it before you’ve even arrived.
We both expected that we’d fall in love with Paris immediately. I imagined being able to gaze up at the Eiffel Tower while sipping coffee at a cafe (any cafe – because in my imagination the Eiffel Tower could be seen towering over the city from anywhere), watching well dressed Parisians stroll by.
This was not so. Not only were the fashions disappointing (although to be fair, half the people we saw were probably tourists and not actual Parisians), but we had to walk forever along the Seine before we caught our first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower. Once we did though, we were hooked.
Drawn towards it, we walked until our feet hurt. Waiting in the queue for tickets, darkness began to fall. There are three observation levels to choose from so of course we were going to go to the very top one (at 276 meters high) but just before we bought our tickets, they closed the upper deck so we were forced to be content with the view from the second deck. Which, at 115 meters, was high enough for Curtis.
While it was exciting to be on the Eiffel Tower, the hordes of people up there with us really detracted from the romance. It was much more romantic to admire the twinkling light show of the Tower from a distance as a misty rain fell.
A much better way to view the city (and the Eiffel Tower itself) is from the Tour Montparnasse. It’s a very tall modern looking building, not interesting to look at, but it has a roof top observation deck without the crowds. It’s a much more relaxing, pleasant way to look down on Paris.
We rented an apartment in the Latin Quarter for the week, which I found on Craigslist a few months ago while waiting out a storm in Cambodia. It turned out to be a cute, simple bachelor pad type place where the sofa converts into a bed and the “kitchen” is separated from the living room/bedroom via a curtain. The price was right, the location was excellent (steps away from the freshest baguettes and pain au chocolat as well as the metro) and it had a washing machine. When you’re traveling for so long, a washing machine is an exciting luxury. If anyone is looking for a self catering, safe apartment to rent in Paris, let me know and I’ll give you the owner’s email address.
When we were in Singapore, we were interviewed by a journalist from the Canadian Press who was doing an article on flashpacking. When she asked us for a photo “in an exotic location” to go along with the story, we knew Paris would be just the place. Since it was too far for them to send a photographer, we asked a nice shopkeeper to take a few of us outside of a cafe with our laptops. I think she did a great job! To check out the article click here .
Continuing on with our tour of Paris – the Louvre is one of the most impressive buildings I have ever seen. The sheer size of it is unbelievable. It stretches for many miles and is so ornate and beautiful.
The art inside however, I found rather boring. It felt like corridor after corridor of the same painting – there were just so many similar paintings from the same era, that they began to blur together and I couldn’t wait to get past them and see the piece de resistance. The Mona Lisa.
The Mona Lisa is protected by an armed guard and now sits behind glass after some bozo made an attempt to deface it years ago. The Mona Lisa was definitely worth suffering through all the boring religious era art.
The art in the Musee D’Orssay though, is anything but boring. I loved it! It was filled with paintings I could look at for hours. Some of my faves:
I met a young Canadian couple near the Van Goghs that I spoke to for about half an hour. Trading travel stories, it felt so good to speak to someone in English, especially people from “home” (they were from Ontario – but close enough!). Even though most of the Parisians we had encountered spoke English, it had been awhile since I’d had an actual conversation with anyone other than Curtis – and I had been there for all of his travel stories.
The Sacre Coeur (Sacred Heart) was one of my favorite places. There was a narrow winding staircase to the top of the dome. So narrow and windy in fact that it made us dizzy. The view was amazing of course, but it was the building itself that felt as beautiful as it looked. I couldn’t help but feel a serene happiness – maybe Paris was finally getting to me and seeping into my veins. Or maybe I was just enjoying the moment. Whatever it was, the Sacre Coeur will hold a special place in my heart.
One day we made a pilgrimage to visit the gravesite of Jim Morrison. Curtis was disappointed that we couldn’t pay our respects in private. His was the only site with a fence around it and with a guard. The crowd was just big enough to make us feel like part of something dirty instead of something special. I stood in the shade, away from the crowd, and watched a cat sun himself on someone else’s grave. It seemed apropos somehow.
It might seem strange to visit grave sites, but the cemetaries in France are amazing – and filled with famous people. We also saw the graves of Chopin and Oscar Wilde.
I loved all the parks in Paris – we would often picnic in them. A baguette with brie and some fruit, along with a cold beer or a small bottle of wine, became the perfect lunch. I’m not sure how legal it is to drink in public but saw so many people doing it that we assumed it was okay. A picnic really does taste better with a little red wine or a chilled Kronenbourg.
The Arc de Triomphe stands in the center of the Place Charles de Gaulle and honours those who fought for France. Apparently the best time to view it is at sunrise but close to sunset wasn’t so bad either.
What I loved best about Paris was just wandering around. Sometimes we spotted the most unusual window displays that made us laugh – like this one that used dogs to model their hats and jackets.
And others that made us drool – like this one of the giant chocolate pencils.
It may not have been love at first sight, but Paris definitely had it’s way with us and in the end, we were seduced by it’s charms. We’ll definitely be back for more.]]>
We spend one night in Frankfurt (at Motel One, which I fully recommend. FYI – they’ve got a free shuttle service from the airport. Unfortunately, we found out too late. It’s a new service and one will that will save you 16 Euros in cab fare.)
The next day, with the help of some very friendly Germans, we make our way via bus and tram to the train station. We settle in for our first European train ride and comment on how comfortable the seats are just as a porter offers us a newspaper and asks if we’d like to order anything from the on board cafe. Several minutes later we realize we are in first class with our second class tickets. The tickets are in German, which makes them difficult for us to read (thanks for nothing to both of our German mothers – who neglected to teach us their mother tongue). We have since figured out that the rail tickets will tell you which car number you are in, usually along with assigned seat numbers, but, not realizing that yet, we boarded the wrong car.
Walking through the narrow aisles of a swaying train with all of our bags, through multiple first class cars, the restaurant car and into the second class section, narrowly avoiding getting pitched into the lap of an old man, we find our seats.
And two hours later we are in France!
Our introduction to France starts in Strasbourg, which is in the Alsace region.
We immediately fall in love with Strasbourg – it’s cobbled streets, colorful old buildings, flower boxing blooming over every balcony.
We are couchsurfing with Pedro and Lenka who couldn’t be more welcoming if they tried. They traveled for 10 months themselves and recently got married, so we have a lot in common. We trade travel (and wedding) stories – laughing at some of the similar experiences we’ve had, especially as blondes in Asia (Lenka and I).
They introduce us to the local wine, beer and culinary delights and we have so much fun with them during our three day stay.
Sometimes, a little too much fun…
We spend our days wandering the quaint cobblestone streets, take a boat tour of the city along the canal, discover such culinary delights as the Alsatian salad (a little bit of lettuce and a whole lotta cheese and sausage), sip cafe au laits at sidewalk cafes and take in the beauty of the Notre Dame cathedral (there are Notre Dame cathedrals in almost every city here – I thought there was just one – which is probably a North American misconception).
We spend our evenings eating, drinking and laughing with Pedro and Lenka and their friends. None of them are actually French – they are all from other European countries – but they all speak it of course. Most of them speak many languages (which we find very impressive) and which also shows another big difference between European and North American cultures.
When it’s time to leave, we do so reluctantly. So reluctantly in fact that we barely make our train…we are literally running through the station with Pedro, Lenka and Lucy (Lenka’s sister) with mere minutes to spare.
As we wave goodbye, I feel like we are leaving old friends.
We settle in for our fast train (speeds up to 320 kms!) to Paris.]]>