Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Montels, France: The Real French Christmas

After saying good bye to my ride from Marseille I was met on the side of the highway by Lucille, a very happy girl and a friend of my very first Couchsurfer. She drove me to her parent's home where they were waiting with an amazing French Christmas Eve dinner. The French open their Christmas presents right on midnight, and they even had had a couple for me.

The next day Lucille drove me around to some cool places in the countryside and a château.

The Sun

After the morning tour of the countryside, Roman ruins and a château we were off to Lucille's parent's house for a massive Christmas feast with friends and family. The meal was one of the best I've had. There were 6 very different courses served formally with a break for talking and drinking nice champagne and wine between each course. The food was very unique to me and amazing... a successful French Christmas.

In the evening Lucille and I trekked to one of her best friend's places, Claire's place, for some drinks. Claire is a girl I have mixed history with, both good and bad, we were both each other's first couchsurfing experience way back in 2011 and she is the catalyst to why I have so many awesome French friends. She was back in France to spend Christmas with her family.

The next day involved another French lunch with Lucille's parents followed by dinner with Claire's family. My stomach was made to do some serious work but you can't say no to great food.

My last day with Lucille involved loading snowboards into her car and driving through snow covered roads to the Pyrenees. Her family lent me all the equpment and gear. It was time for my 2nd try at snowboarding. Ski tracks are coded with 4 colours; green, blue, red and black (easy to difficult). There were no black runs on these slopes but we rode every red track in the park... I was pretty impressed with myself.

After an awesome day of snowboarding I relocated to Claire's place. I hosted her in 2011 and 2012 so it was time for her to return the favour. Claire's family were very friendly and took good care of me.  Claire's mum's heritage is from a Galician town so we could make some conversation with my limited Spanish. I ate like a king at this place. During my stay I toured the little village of Montels, Canal du Midi and visited the stunningly beautiful medieval castle of Carcassonne... I even did some Cuban salsa.

Montels, a hunter with a shotgun



Old Friends

The Castle

After 3 nights at Claire's it was time to leave, but not before cooking pesto fettuccine for the 12th time on my trip.

Following lunch I was dropped off near Perpignan where I attempted to hitchhike to Barcelona for NYE. This was my first experience staying with a French family and my third good bye to Claire, although this time the circumstances were different making it much easier... Favour repaid!

Au Revoir
Hitchhiking didn't quite go to plan. I ended up walking 10km into the city of  Perpignan with 3 French hitchhikers. I managed to pick this up along the way.

The Pyrenees

Next stop Barcelona!

Lessons Learnt:
French families could actually kill you by stomach explosion.
Carcassonne is a must see in France.
Many friendships/relationships have an expiry date and it's not a bad thing.
Not speaking the language of the people can be difficult at times.
Hitchhiking isn't as easy as I believed... but I can still give you many tips.
Galician girls!

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Marseille, France: Wesh Wesh

Following my failed hitchhiking attempt to Avignon I decided to jump on a train to Marseille and wing it. Marseille is the 2nd largest inner city in France by population and 3rd largest by metropolitan area population (In general conversation the Frenchies I've spoken to seem pretty split in what position they refer to it as. Australia always uses metropolitan area, a much larger area around the city, so I'm going to say 3rd largest city). Marseille is an old port city and was the European Culture Capital of 2013.

I arrived by train and soon found WiFi to find the address of a hostel. I had heard bad things about Marseille and it was late at night so I was a little cautious. There were many people standing alone at the beginning of smaller streets staring at me as I walked past. I decided to stick to the main roads instead of taking short cuts down the smaller streets, occasionally looking at the map on my tablet. There was also a lot of rubbish in the streets. The night was a big contrast to the following day. When I arrived at the hostel I was told it was fully booked, the guy called another hostel that was also fully booked... Fuck! Was my first thought. Then he told me he does have a separate 5 bed dorm that isn't on the computer but we would need to look at it first to see if it's made up since it hadn't been used since the summer. We walked out the back door of the hostel and accross an alleyway and up some outdoor stairs. The room was better than good. It was a massive studio appartment with a kitchen, bathroom, toilet, cable tv and a modem for WiFi. I paid him there in cash. After he left I realised I gave him no passport and he doesn't even know my name.

I paid for a dorm bed and got this by myself!

The next morning after breakfast when I went to checkout a different guy was working and asked for my room number and name. I said "I was outside the"... and got cut off mid sentence with "ahhh you, it's all good". I dumped my bags in the left luggage room to explore with the hostel never knowing my name... lucky for them I didn't decide to sell the TV to help fund my travels.

The city was completely different during the day. All the rubbish was gone and the city was alive with people everywhere. It had a really cool vibe. It was also surprisingly cheap and packed with restaurants, street stands, bars and cafes.

I didn't take my camera with me so these three photos from my phone will have to do.

After returning to the hostel to collect my bags with no definite plans for the night I had a message from a friend of a friend saying I could go to her house, 250km away, to spend Christmas with her and her family. I used the hostel computers to try find a ride to Béziers, the closest I could get was Montpellier and only one ride left on Bla Bla Car for the night. After some texting I was off on the metro to get picked up by my driver and his girlfriend. It turns out they were going to Bézier but put Montpellier because they had to stop there at one of their family's places... Perfect! I met the girlfriend's family. Her younger sister had already been to Australia for 1 year on Working Holiday Visa using Couchsurfing and was planning to go back for the 2nd year... small world. When they dropped me off at my meeting point at the highway turn off to Béziers I pulled out the money and a bit more since they drove me all the way but they wouldn't accept any money (taking 2 trains would have cost almost 50 Euro, an awesome little present on Christmas eve). They said I'm travelling and they enjoyed talking to me (they were both 25 years old)... People like this make me love travelling, the world and people.

I waited less than 30 seconds for my meeting with a friend of a friend.

Lessons Learnt:
People are awesome once again.
The world is small.
When you don't where you will sleep everything always works out one way or aother.

P.S. If you're wondering about the title, Wesh are the gangsters of Marseille. You can joke around saying this in other parts of France but probably better if you don't say Wesh Wesh in Marseille.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Nice, France: L'Auberge de Jeunesse

After a 10 hour road trip with my new Italian friends I was in Nice. The Italians were only just over halfway into their journey to Rome so it was time to say good bye. The best things about being back in France were the CHEESE (Spain has equally as good cheap wine, bread and dry meats but not cheese) and I have free WiFi in every street in France thanks to a hostel in Paris that still hadn't changed both of its hotspot logins for the 2 biggest service providers after 5 months (Merci Beaucoup!). I used this WiFi to find the address of a hostel and booked 2 nights in person from possibly the only French guy in the world with a proper aussie accent when he speaks English... again a 4 bed dorm for the price of a 10 bed. The 3 aussies he stuck me in with (he asked if being with aussies was okay first) weren't happy with my discount (about $8 less a night than what they paid). This was a very social hostel so a night of drinking pursued.

Nice is the 5th largest city in France (7th by metrpolitan area) but probably the 2nd most well known French city around the world. It is a very beautiful city on the Mediterranean coast. Also a very expensive and touristy city, according to my wallet it is ranked 2nd for both in France behind Paris.

On my second day after dragging my hungover self out of bed it was time to jump on a train to Grasse to meet one of  my closest friends that was visiting family for Christmas, Isis (the person that carries the burden of knowing most of my darkest secrets). She drove me into the countryside to a town famous for making lollies out of plants (roses, violets, etc). I tried every amazing free sample they had but with prices starting at 20 Euro for a little box the samples had to do. Afterwards we went to another little villiage in the mountains to walk around before stopping for some hot violet wine (a very unique drink)... I also experienced real traumatising French driving.

The town with the famous sweets

Pretending I know people here

The view from the balcony of where we enjoyed the hot wine

Drinking hot wine to improve her driving

After an awesome afternoon it was time for me to head back to the hostel for another night of drinking. The staff also join the drinking at this hostel... listening to them do a late night check in after quite a few drinks gets most of the people in the communal area laughing.

The next day Isis and her very young sister gave me a tour of Nice.

The next few days involved more drinking with other travellers in the hostel, meeting Isis' father without knowing, going to Cannes to meet Isis and Anne-Sophie (another French friend I met in Brisbane), meeting more of Isis' family, exploring Nice and eating cheese.

Every morning I asked the hostel for one more night... 5 times. Each time they said we will give you the same deal.

I also did a day trip to Monaco,  a country/city full of Lamborghinis and Ferraris, and the location of the famous Montecarlo Grand Casino from all the Bond movies. If you stay away from all the high end restaurants it's actually quite cheap... the bus from Nice was just 1.50 Euro. I did worry a little when I realised I was going to another country with my passport sitting safely in my hostel room.

Monte Carlo Grand Casino, Monaco
The Montecarlo Grand Casino
After 7 nights in the hostel it was time to leave... the hostel staff were shocked that I was finally going. I did consider staying 2 more nights to spend Christmas with the awesome group of people there.

Hitchiking to Avignon!

Hitchhiking Avignon

Maybe hitchhiking failed for the first time but you will have to read my next post.

Lessons learnt:
It is great to meet good friends on long adventures.
My Frenglish became Spench.
Hitchhiking doesn't always work.
Cheese is the thing I miss most about France. 

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Valencia, Spain: The Real Paella

I said good bye to the awesome city of Granada I and hopped on my first ever overnight bus ride. After 8 hours of irritably uncomfortable sleeplessness I arrived in  Valencia. My phone and tablet were both flat so I was in search of a power point and breakfast. I found both in the same cafe with free WiFi as a bonus. I was soon joined by a group of young Spanish people on their way home from a night of clubbing with beers in hand. A few of them sat with me for an entertaining breakfast. Before leaving I searched the address of a hostel I had a couch lined up for the night with a Greek girl but she wasn't available until the afternoon and I really wanted to ditch my lugguage.

Valencia is the 3rd largest city in Spain. Every touristy city in Spain will be full of bars/restaurants that sell paella, with very mixed quality, I had never tried it during my 3 months in Spain. Paella is a Valencian dish and I was holding out.

After settling into the hostel (another more expensive room for a cheaper price) I explored the city before searching for lunch. The main streets were lined with bars selling paella. I walked a few streets away from centre where I stumbled across a nice restaurant where I received an amazing 4 course meal (including 1 course of paella) cheaper than just a plate of paella in the main streets. This is probably the best value restaurants I've been to with quality food... A bit of Spanish was required as the staff spoke almost zero English.

I returned to the hostel for a siesta before meeting the Greek girl for a tour. Valencia once had a giant river running along the city but it no longer contains water, instead there are now parks, sports fields, tennis courts and many other things on the riverbed. The city still has many bridges over this empty river. After the tour it was time for drinks... Another visit to 100 Montaditos and it was Sunday so 1 Euro half litre beers. People are generally intrigued by how I can afford to travel long term without working,  which I usually brush off with a bit of fun, but this Greek girl really wanted to know my exact salary in Australia... beware of Greek girls. She was still entertaining.

The River from a bridge

After many drinks it was time to return back to my hostel.

I was up early to pack and go. I had a ride lined up at 7am with 3 Italians to Nice, with a quick stop in Barcelona for a passenger change, another Italian. After 1000km and 4 Italians I was finally back in France after 3 amazing months in Spain and Portugal.