The Arab Baths of Granada

My blog posts aren’t happening in real time – I’m months behind in telling the tales of all the cool countries we’ve been to.

Since London we’ve been to Italy, Germany, Austria, Spain and are now resting our heads in Portugal.

I want to keep my posts in sequence – telling you the tales from our journey exactly as they happened.

But a recent visit to the Arab Baths in Granada was such a great experience that I wanted to write about it now and not wait until after all the other stories. So I did a guest post on another travel blog.

Check it out at 3 Troopin’ Travelers.

Stay tuned for tales of Venice – the perfect place to spend my birthday!

Uncle Where Art Thou?

Back in Nottingham, I had mentioned to Libby that I was thinking about looking up my uncle, whom I believed to be living in Sheffield, and giving him a ring. I didn’t know where to start looking for the number (I assumed the phone book) – but she told me she was visiting the library the next day and would check there. Apparently the librarian just looked up the phone numbers online for all of the B. Tomlinson’s in the Sheffield area. There were six of them.

I took that folded up piece of paper from her but didn’t work up the courage to actually call – until we reached London. (Sheffield is quite close to Nottingham – much closer than London – so that would have made more sense for arranging a visit).

But well, when you are calling a long lost relative out of the blue, sometimes it takes a week to work up to.

I haven’t seen my uncle Brian since I was two. Of course, I don’t actually remember meeting him, but I do have the photos to prove it.

Brian is my uncle on my father’s side (that’s how I was able to obtain my British passport) – but my parents got divorced when I was six. I didn’t see my dad much after that, even though we lived in the same town, never mind an uncle who lived across an ocean.

My parents had a pretty messy divorce, what with the adultery, the abuse and the alcoholism (all on the part of my father) so when I ran into my dad at the local mall four years later, I wasn’t too communicative when he approached and tried to talk to me. I saw him in the toy store and immediately left, only to have him follow and find me in the big grocery store engrossed in the ingredients on a box of cereal (not a very convincing way to hide for a 10 year old). He stood behind me for several moments, clutching his shopping bags. I could feel his eyes on me but I refused to turn around.

He finally worked up the courage to say hello and my automatic response to reply with my own hello followed. Then I turned back to the cereal section.

He continued to stand there for awhile before he spoke again.

“Aren’t you even going to say hello?” he asked.

“I said hello,” I uttered, in the hardest tone I could muster.

He gave me a defeated look as he shrugged his shoulders and turned to leave.

I never saw him again.

My dad died two years later of a heart attack.

It’s not the greatest last memory to have of someone. But more than that, all of my memories of him are of the first six years of my life. Some are good. Others are not.

So I think that my uncle, his older brother, may be able to shed some light on who my father was. As a child, as a teen, as a twenty-something, before he became my dad, before he became an alcoholic, before he died.

I had worked up the courage to dial the digits on the paper in front of me and as the first B. Tomlinson on the list answered the phone, I took a deep breath and asked for Brian.

“This is Brian,” came the response.

“Did you have a brother named Donald?” I asked.

Turns out he didn’t. It was the wrong Brian Tomlinson. The other five weren’t the correct numbers either.

Brian Tomlinson formerly of Sheffield, England might be too old to be web-savvy. But I know he has two daughters, and probably grandkids, who may stumble across this.

If so, please drop me a line. I’d love to hear from you.



Our Easyjet flight from Edinburgh to London Gatwick was in fact, easy. Catching the tube from the airport to Plaistow station went equally as smoothly.

Flashpacking Wife at the London Bridge Tube Station

It was dark when we exited the tube station with our packs, armed with the directions to our flat (which promised a short walk) – and we thought we had it made. Friends of Curtis’s mother had offered us a free flat to stay in for our week in London. They happened to be visiting Vancouver and Powell River while we were there and all info (such as directions and key pick up) had been emailed to Curtis.

Following the directions to the letter, we found the landmark of the pub they had mentioned. Continuing to follow their directions, we continued down the road.

The next street we came upon was completely sealed off with yellow police tape and – I am not exaggerating here – there were at least 50 cops canvassing the area. I was really hoping that this wasn’t our street – thankfully it wasn’t – because whatever had happened here was obviously not good.

I asked a few of the policemen directions to the street we were looking for but none of them seemed to be familiar with the area. After walking around a little more and asking a shopkeeper, we realized the directions after the pub just didn’t make sense so we returned to it.

The barman said we were on the correct street (no sign of course), which led down the opposite way of what was written in our directions (very confusing – obviously). Around this time is when I started to notice the local youths milling about. Menacing would be the best way to describe them.

We quickly found our flat but after pressing the buzzer for Flat 5 – we realized that Joan had given us her buzzer number and not the neighbor’s buzzer number. You know, the one who was actually in London and had the key.

Not feeling safe at all, I just started pressing random buzzers until someone let us in. In the safety of the stairwell, we hatched a plan that I would stay there with our luggage while Curtis went to try and call the neighbor. While he was gone, I was approached by one neighbor who offered to rent me his flat for 75 pounds a night (obviously I refused his offer to inspect the flat) and was also approached by a lovely couple who offered me use of their phone and a cup of tea. I told them I would wait until my husband had returned.

Curtis in front of the National Gallery

Curtis returned with the frustrating news that the neighbors cell phone (mobile phone as they are called here) wasn’t being answered. He was able to leave her a voice mail but his other attempts left him with an endless unanswered ringing….

This is when I decided to just ring everyone’s buzzer until I found the correct neighbor. Which only took two tries (it’s a small complex). She was absolutely lovely, offering us tea (of course), lending us two Oyster cards (which saves heaps of money on the Metro), apologizing and pointing out that you can in fact buy crack two doors down (I knew this was a dodgy neighborhood!) and offering us a frozen pizza so we’d have something to eat without having to leave the safety of our apartment again.

We breathed a huge sigh of relief once in our free digs – the free flat was fabulous.

Until the next day when I attempted to take a shower. It took us about half an hour to figure out how to make the shower work. The water for the bath was easy to turn on but we couldn’t figure out how to make it come out of the showerhead. After trying everything we could think of, Curtis spotted a pull cord over by the window. More out of curiousity than anything else (he was actually saying, “I wonder what this is for” as he pulled it) – he gave it a tug and it voila – the shower box turned on!

Flashpacking Wife jumping in front of Big Ben

Our time in London was spent sight seeing, relaxing at home and running around the neighborhood. After our almost two week stint of way too much British pub food and beer, we were determined to make a concerted effort to get back in shape. We ate a lot of salads that week and packed healthy sandwiches and fruit to go that we could eat while sightseeing. Picnic lunches in small parks became our thing. And we banned the beer and wine completely (except for the one evening that we met up with The Cornholes – the couple we had met in Marseille).

All of our efforts paid off, I actually lost 2 pounds that week. Running in the streets of the Plaistow neighborhood however, was probably not the sanest thing to do. We often got mocked by the local youths who were drinking beer outside of shabby pubs. The rest of the people we passed just looked at us like we were crazy.

Besides our little health kick, we enjoyed walking around, taking in the famous sights.

Curtis in front of the London Eye and Big Ben

The London Eye

Big Ben

On our way to the Tate Modern (free admission!) museum, we passed the Globe Theatre. I went in to have a peek and saw a sign that read, “5 Pound Tickets available for every show”. When we enquired about it, the cashier told us she had two left for tonight’s performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor. Sold!

We spent a couple of hours enjoying the Tate, ate our sandwiches, warmed up with a coffee and then lined up for our play.

I had no idea when we bought our tickets that we were buying standing room only. No wonder they were so cheap! Not only were we expected to stand for the duration of the play but the theatre was actually open air – there was no ceiling in the middle of the building. Did we get cold? Did our legs or feet get sore from standing all those hours? No! The Merry Wives of Windsor was the absolute best Shakespeare play I have ever seen. It was so high energy – so hilarious and fun – that I would have felt a little sad when it was over if I hadn’t been grinning so enthusiastically!

Inside the Globe Theatre in London

There was a catwalk that came out from one side of the stage and circled around to create a mini stage in the middle of the room, which was also used creatively in set changes. Part of the floor flipped around to create a “garden”, then magically disappeared to a regular floor, depending on the scene.

We were standing between the main stage and the catwalk so that the actors were often sweeping past us in their amazing costumes. It really felt like we were part of the play, being that close, I was able to smell the dust and perspiration clinging to the ends of their petticoats.

Another highlight from London was going to see the Changing of the Guard. It may be a cheesy tourist thing to do, but I felt a surge of excitement at my first glimpse of the procession.

Changing of the Guard

London is a very expensive city – everybody knows that. But we managed to get by on 20 pounds for a weeks worth of groceries. We spent more than that taking the tube! So the free stuff is very appealing – which includes most of the museums, the Changing of the Guard, walking around Camden Town (market neighborhood full of punks), seeing the sights like Big Ben, the London Eye (to actually ride the thing costs 15 pounds – so we skipped that), London and Tower Bridges (the Tower Bridge is the nice looking one, the London Bridge is actually plain and boring).

Store in Camden Town

Even spotting the double decker buses and the phone booths is neat!

Flashpacking Wife in a London phone booth

Curtis really wanted to visit Abbey Road – the sight of the Beatles album cover by the same name – and recreate walking across the road just like they did. There were a few other tourists who had the same idea – so we took turns taking pictures of each other walking back and forth across the street. We were giggling with our new Japanese friends in no time!

Flashpackers walking across Abbey Road

There is a recording studio on Abbey Road and we saw a real life paparazzi waiting outside with his giant camera. He wouldn’t tell us who was inside when we asked, and actually had the nerve to scoff at us for being tourists. I took his picture just as he was getting off his cell phone – I figured fair is fair. So here’s a picture of an actual paparazzi in action. Unfortunately, I don’t have his name, but I can tell you he spent an awful lot of time on his phone and pacing around waiting. Boring!

The paparazzi in London

We were told that one thing we should see while in London was a football match. We splurged on the 40 Pound tickets (that’s $80 each!) to witness our first footy game. (Which is called soccer where we’re from.)

Football game - Queens Park Rangers vs. Derby

It was a blast! They have to keep the fans separated on opposite sides of the stadium and no one is allowed to have the tops of their water or pop bottles (obviously in case you try to hurl a full bottle at someone or out onto the field). We didn’t witness any violence though – just some good old fashioned singing and stomping with each side’s fans shouting down the other. It was the Queens Park Rangers vs. Derby. Footy is actually quite a good game to watch!

Flashpacking Wife at the Footy Game

With our week in London coming to a close and a very early morning plane to catch, we opted to take the last tube to Gatwick at midnight instead of catching a 4:00 am bus to the airport. That is how scary our neighborhood was! We didn’t want to be walking with our stuff in the wee hours of the night, only to get rolled for all of our earthly possessions. Or worse, stabbed! Every day in the paper we read about several stabbings – the most “famous” of which they dubbed the Phantom of the Opera murder. This was the one that had taken place in our neighborhood on the night we had arrived! I will spare you the details….

Gatwick airport is a haven for the sleepy traveler. By that I mean, everywhere, literally everywhere you looked, people were sleeping on benches, in chairs and on the floor.

Travelers sleeping at Gatwick

I managed to stay awake until 4:00 am and then joined in the sleepy masses, finding myself a bench for a 90 minute nap – until Curtis woke me up to wander in a zombie like state through check in and onto our flight – where I slept like a baby from before take off until just before landing at our next destination.

Edinburgh, Scotland

Our train trip to Edinburgh took about five hours. There were some beautiful sights along the way and when we hit the coast, it was dotted with colorful houses – which set off the bold blue of the wild sea even more majestically.

When you exit the train station in Edinburgh, your breath almost catches as you’re struck by the awesome architecture of the old buildings, monuments and of course, a castle.

Edinburgh Castle

We are spending the next four days with Rob and Ashley. Rob is originally from Edinburgh, but has spent the last six years in Vancouver (where he and Curtis met while working for the same company). They have just moved back to Edinburgh so Ashley can attend university and after only one week, Rob is already homesick for Canada, so he’s very excited to see us.

Rob and Ashley

Within the first twenty minutes of our arrival in Edinburgh, as we are walking from the train station back to Rob’s, we witness a drunken argument. Punctuated with colorful curses, the couple in question seem to be following us. Rob apologizes – he had hoped we wouldn’t witness this kind of welcome so soon. This episode is very mild compared to the other shenanigans we will witness – since we have arrived smack dab in the midst of Frosh week (Freshman week).

One evening, we sign up for a literary pub crawl which lasts about 3 1/2 hours. Our host is a local writer and in between visits to three pubs (which all have some sort of literary significance), we walk the streets and learn all sorts of interesting details about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes), Ian Rankin (who we met at a book signing earlier in the day and who is the author of the Rebus series), J.K. Rowling (we stand outside of the restaurant where she wrote the first chapters of Harry Potter, not far from Potter Row) and a few others.

Sign in Edinburgh

At the first bar, The Royal Oak, we get treated to an impromptu show. A local musician has dropped by for a pint and agrees to play a few songs on his guitar for us. There is a little back and forth between him and the bar maid – some kind of traditional question and answer shout out in rhymes.

At the second bar, The Southsider, we are surrounded by young men dressed as women. A typical Frosher night out. There is a rather large hairy guy at the bar, dressed in a short skirt, sporting too much makeup and a wig – who is carrying a handbag. When he reaches into his purse to pay for his beer, he takes out his cell phone and keys to get to his wallet. I comment to him that it looks like he’s making good use of his handbag – he replies that he likes it so much, he may end up using one all the time, even when he isn’t dressed as a woman. It’s much more practical than shoving everything into your pockets…

I meet another young man who can’t help pointing out to me that his nail varnish is the same color as his nipples. Which is obviously only something a boy dressed as a woman would do.

Flashpacking Wife with a Frosher

Our last stop is Sandy Bells. It’s a very narrow bar with a great band squished up into one corner. As Irish guy gives us a good show as he breaks into an amazing rendition of Riverdance. I try to take some photos but the bar is so crowded that they don’t turn out. We stay until closing time – enjoying our pints, the music and the friendly patrons.

Rob, Ashley, Lindsie & Curtis at Sandy Bells

On the way home we do like the locals, stop at the chip shop for chips with chippy sauce. Which is French fries with a brown sauce that tastes like vinegar and HP. But, according to the Edinburgh Chippy Brown Sauce Appreciation Society (who knew?!), the secret recipe is Gold Star brown sauce and tap water, not vinegar.

The next day we go on an amazing hike up the crags. At the top we are rewarded with spectacular views of the city and hair whipping winds so strong, the birds have trouble flying.

Hiking in Edinburgh

The crow at the top

Hiking with Rob and Ashley

We also take a tour of Edinburgh Castle one day.

Edinburgh Castle

View of Edinburgh over the cannon

And then go for haggis with neeps and tattys…

Haggis with neeps and tattys

Which turns out to be delicious! I didn’t believe Pedro back in Strasbourg, but he was right!

Edinburgh has so many old churches that a lot of them have now been converted for other uses. They still look like a church, but now act as cafes or theatres.

Among the many statues we walk by, this one turns out to be one of my favorites. When his owner died in 1858, this little dog would sit at his grave site, only leaving for food. He sat there every day for fourteen years, until his own death in 1872.

Greyfriars Bobby

The city is also filled with closes, which are narrow passage ways. We did a tour of The Real Mary King’s Close one day and it was neat to see how the city used to be and what life was like in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but the “Disney” like effects definitely had a cheese factor. The new city of Edinburgh has been built over top of this close – unfortunately, we were unable to take any pictures down there.

Fleshmarket Close

World’s End Close

We took a road trip one day with the ambition of making it all the way to Loch Ness – which turned out to be too ambitious for a day trip, especially since we stopped along the way.

Robert the Bruce with the Wallace Monument in the distance

The Wallace Monument

Lindsie somewhere in Scotland

I was disappointed not to see any hairy cows, but we saw so many sheep that it made up for it.

Sheep in Scotland

After a long day of driving, when we were back at Rob and Ashley’s, Rob declared, “I’m cream crackered.”

Which is Scottish for, “I’m knackered.” Which meant that he was tired – but the whole rhyming thing sounds a lot more exotic.

For our last lunch in Edinburgh before we hop on a bus to the airport, I order the deep fried haggis balls.

Deep fried haggis balls

They were a lot tastier than they look – and a fitting final meal in this beautiful old city.

Nottingham, England

We arrive in London, Stansted to a “balmy 10 degrees with light rain.” The captain jokes that he’ll wait if we want to purchase a return flight back to the sunshine of Marseille.

But alas, we’ve got a train to catch as we’ve got to be in Nottingham in time for dinner. Our flight from Marseille costs us a third of what our rail tickets from Stansted to Nottingham cost – welcome to Britain!

I enter Britain on my British passport (so I won’t have to get a visa for the Shengen parts of the EU, since we’re staying longer than 90 days). In the line up I’m shaking a little inside, suddenly nervous about my Canadian accent and the maple leaf sewn onto my backpack.

What if they quiz me about my Britian? Do I even know who the new prime minister is? (Gordon Brown – yes I do!) Not that there is anything wrong with having two passports – I am considered a British subject even though I’ve never set foot in the UK before. I just identify so strongly with my Canadian citizenship that I feel as if I’m doing something wrong passing myself off as a Brit.

I breeze through without any problems or inquiries into my funny accent and have collected our luggage by the time Curtis makes it through the line up for all other nationalities.

There are big signs in the airport that say you are allowed to bring as much alcohol into the country as you like – this is one of my favorite things about Europe. They don’t worry about the booze.

Unlike the Canadian authorities who will tax you heavily if you try to bring back more than one bottle of wine, tequila, rum, Bailey’s or what-have-you from our lucky neighbors south of the border who enjoy their booze at a fraction of the cost.

Since our trains are going in opposite directions, we say goodbye to our new friends, Jessica and Jonathan and stride confidently up to the counter to purchase our tickets.

It feels so good to be back in a country where I can speak the language without feeling self-conscious. The ticket agent directs us to platform 2. We think. It’s a little noisy and it sounded like he said two but just to be sure, we ask a gentleman waiting outside the train on the platform if this is in fact, the correct train.

He replies, “You are speaking only Spanish.”

I am crushed. I can’t believe that he is making fun of my accent.

Then he corrects his response with, “I speak only Spanish.”

Aha! He is not a rude Brit but a fellow tourist who doesn’t speak English. The next guy we ask looks so British that there is no way he’s from anywhere else. Sure enough, he’s a Brit. Who assures us that this train is not stopping at the stop we want and rushes on board.

Curtis jogs back to find someone in uniform who assures us that yes, this is the correct train and it does in fact stop where we need to transfer.

Dilemma solved, we have a pleasant ride to Nottingham and are greeted at the station by Richard. It feels so good to see a familiar face!

He drives us back to his flat, which is incredible and spacious with an amazing view. He lives on The Park.

We are seriously spoiled for the next four days.

It begins with a bottle of bubbly before we are taken out to a wonderful French dinner. Richard’s friend Libby joins us and the four of us enjoy a five-course meal, each course paired with a different French wine. We have a wonderful evening and leave stuffed full of delicious delights.

The next day after an amazing breakfast of fresh salmon and eggs, we go for a walk in the warm sunshine. Not at all the weather I had expected.

Later in the afternoon, we drive out to Stratford-upon-Avon where we visit Shakespeare’s grave before meeting up with Libby, Nestor and another friend of Richard’s (I can’t remember everyone’s name that we meet along the way!) for dinner.

During dinner, we discuss where we should spend my birthday week. I’m tossing around the possibilities of Amsterdam and Prague but am also open to other ideas. This may be the only time in my life that I get to choose anywhere in Europe to spend my birthday.

Before the question is even out of my mouth, Nestor blurts out, “Venice.” With so much enthusiasm that it sticks with me….

After dinner? Why Hamlet of course. Starring Patrick Stewart and David Tennant.

The set is absolutely fantastic and the actors are excellent. My only complaint about the play would be the costumes – it seems to be an odd mix of modern and classic attire. I would have preferred classic, or at least for them to choose one. But regardless of that, it is a magnificent evening out and we haven’t paid a pence. I told you we were being spoiled!

Another great thing about staying with Richard was that we didn’t have to think. We didn’t have to figure out what to do and how to get there. He planned everything and he drove. After traveling for six and a half months, it was so nice to be taken care of.

He also took us to Chatsworth where the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire reside. It’s a beautiful drive through the country with flocks of sheep wandering over the hills. I love the English countryside!

The English countryside

Chatsworth Gardens

Chatsworth is an amazing estate, part of it open to the public, so we can enjoy some of their treasures and the beautiful garden. I can’t imagine actually living there.

Formal dining room at Chatsworth


My favorite statue at Chatsworth

After hours spent wandering the house and grounds, it’s time to go home for Sunday dinner. I have just enough time for a luxurious soak in the tub first. I haven’t had a bath in seven months – I’m sure you can imagine what a treat this is.

Richard is quite the cook and makes us a delicious pork roast with all the trimmings.

The next day he takes us to Newstead Abbey, where Lord Byron used to live.

Newstead Abbey

We have a great time wandering through the house checking out interesting tidbits like his old boxing gloves, letters and books. The real fun begins when Curtis happens upon the dressing room.

Curtis dressed as Lord Byron

They encourage people to try on clothes like the kind that Byron used to wear – and Curtis really got into it. I was taking photos of him when two old ladies stopped to admire how handsome he looked. They insisted that I take a photo of him against the intricate dark wood paneling of one of the bedrooms. They told me to just hop over the rope and that they wouldn’t tell anyone.

I was hesitant to break the rules, but they were so insistent and the wall would make a beautiful background so I decided it wouldn’t do any harm.

I put one foot over the red rope and as soon as it touched the ground, a very loud alarm sounded. It reminded me of those caper movies where the burglars have to avoid touching the laser beams….

The four of us left the bedroom giggling as one of the security guards came ambling up to turn off the alarm.

“Don’t worry, it happens all the time,” he said. “It’s just usually the children who set it off.”

The old ladies admitted that it was their doing and apologized – then went off down the hall still in fits of laughter.

* * *

Nottingham is home to Sherwood Forest and of course, Robin Hood.

We drove by the “Robin Hood Experience” one day and Richard told us that when his niece was two and his nephew was four, he took them there, figuring that it would be a fun thing to do with kids. It was so bad in fact, that as soon as the “experience” was over, his two-year old niece declared, “that was rubbish.” We gave that one a miss for obvious reasons.

On our last night with Richard, we went out for Indian food and insisted on paying to thank him for showing us the most brilliant time in the UK.

The UK was never really one of the places that was on my “must see” list – so it was a great surprise to find out how wonderful it is.

Nottingham also happened to be home to one of Curtis’s friends from University so we spent two nights with him and his wife – the boys catching up on old times over a bottle of Scotch.

I made the mistake of indulging in the pub lunch two days in a row – once in Britain’s oldest pub, once in it’s oldest inn. At both places I had this amazing roast beef wrapped in Yorkshire pudding and served with gravy and chips– delicious. But I had a terrible ache in my belly for a day afterwards. Being a pig never pays!

After our week in Nottingham, it was time to board a train for Edinburgh, Scotland.

Something Pink

When I stepped out of the shower one morning in Beaune, I was in mid-towel off when I spotted something pink on the floor. It only took a second for me to realize what it was.

My toenail.

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.


When people ask us why we picked Marseille and not somewhere nicer like say, Nice, we don’t really have a proper answer. We planned the France portion of our trip during a few stormy days in a beach bungalow in Cambodia – and Marseille fit our criteria. It’s on the Mediterranean, easily accessible by train and most conveniently of all, is a hub for cheap flights to London – which is our next stop.

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.

Flashpackers at Les Calanques

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.

Our first room at Le Cigale Et La Fourmi, in Marseille

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.

Flashpacking Wife on the ladder at Le Cigale Et La Fourmi Flashpacking Wife on narrow stairs at Le Cigale Et La Fourmi

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.

Enjoying the patio

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.

Flashpacking Curtis with the giant thumb statue in Marseille

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).

The Cornholes - I love you guys!

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.

Les Calanques

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.

Flashpacking Wife at Les Calanques

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.”

Beaune – my favorite place in the world!

Beaune, located 32 kms from Dijon, is the capital of the Burgundy wine region where Pinot Noir and Chardonnay reign.

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?

Flashpackers in Beaune

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.

Vineyards of Burgundy

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.

Flashpacking Wife at wine school in Beaune

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!

Curtis biking in Beaune

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.

Curtis in the cellar at Ropiteau Freres

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.

Flashpacking Wife on the wine trail

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!

Flashpacking Wife in wine heaven!

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.

Marche Aux Vins tasting room

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.)

Curtis eating a pastry

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.

Lindsie in Beaune

Flashpacking Wife in Beaune

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.

Flashpackers really do have Champagne tastes

We couchsurfed with Patrick and his family for a weekend. Although it was pretty much just with Patrick since only one of his three sons was home (and he was depressed over a girl so spent most of his time in his room playing guitar and listening to heavy metal), and his wife Pascale was at a craft fair all weekend.

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 grapes!

Flashpacking Wife hugging the grapes 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.

Sign near Dom Perignon’s grave

Dom Perignon’s grave marker

Champagne region

We also visited the Notre Dame in Reims (I told you all the cathedrals in France were named Notre Dame!)

Notre Dame, Reims, France reflection from the library

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.

Curtis and Lindsie at Taittinger


Thousands of champagne bottles at Taittinger

Lindsie, Patrick & Curtis at Taittinger

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.

Photo of photo - where the two Buddhas used to be. Blown up by the Taliban.

photo of photo - Earth from the air

Next up after Champagne? Beaune! One of my all time favorite places in the entire world! Stay tuned….

Paris – ah, Paris!

You can’t help but be excited about Paris – at least I couldn’t.

Lindsie at the Sacre-Coeur

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.

Lindsie at the Eiffel Tower

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.

The Eiffel Tower at night

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.

View from the Tour Montparnasse

View of the Eiffel Tower

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 .

Flashpackers in Paris

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.

Outside of the Louvre

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:

Gustave Caillebotte painting done in 1875

Flashpacking Wife with a Monet

Van Gogh

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.

Sacre Ceour viewed from the Tour Montparnasse

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.

Flashpacking Wife on the Sacre Ceour

Sacre Ceour

Sacre Ceour

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.

Chopin’s grave

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.

Curtis with a bronze statue at the Palais de Luxenbourg

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.

Arc de Triomphe

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.

window display in Paris

And others that made us drool – like this one of the giant chocolate pencils.

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.