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One City, One Day

One City, One Day

Day 14 – Barcelona, As Best We Can

 

Dawn arrives like an unwanted guest. The pace we have set ourselves exploring and always moving is becoming draining. But Barcelona is waiting and it’s rude to keep a lady waiting.

I’m sorry to say that we only gave Barcelona a day, she deserves so much more. We tell ourselves we’ll come back… I hope we do.

We organise ourselves and join the day. We get overwhelmed by public transport, we explore Les Ramblas, we take in the mighty Catedral De Barcelona and lose ourselves in the La Boqueria Food market. We shop the tiny streets, find souvenirs and keepsakes, we rest when we’re tired but we hound ourselves to keep exploring.

We fly to Morroco tomorrow and will leave much of our stuff in storage. We have more organising to do so as the afternoon draws in we head back to our hotel. We catch the wrong train and end up close to Tarragona. We’re saved by the kindness of strangers that can relate to travel in a foreign country, we tell ourselves everything happens for a reason and up in Sitges to catch the right train. We get back to our hotel hours after our intended time and rush to prepare ourselves for the next day… I’m giddy about tomorrow’s leg, unsure of what Marrakech has in stall for us.

Packed, fed, tired we fall asleep the alarm is set early.

 

Blood is thicker

Blood is thicker

I’ve wondered for some time how best to approach this… You see so much of the story that gave rise to this leg of the journey is not mine to tell and it certainly has no place here. For those who know me best, you can ask, of course. For everyone else, well… as I said it is not my story to tell. Suffice to say I am one of five children and whether half or full doesn’t matter, not one whit… as the saying goes, ‘blood is thicker than water.’

We leave France and get the usual piss-taking route from our GPS. It is as if Siri has the intent of visiting areas she’d like to see or placing us in precarious situations and judging the outcome, kind of like the candid camera version of Skynet. For this part of the journey, it results in me staring headlong into a bus and then a short time later at two smaller vehicles followed by loud swearing, me breaking out in a panicked sweat and visiting inside the wall of Avignon not once but twice. Both times, unnecessarily. Despite our deranged GPS best attempts, we get to Spain, specifically Tossa Del Mar on Costa Brava (yes the word Tossa is funny, not clever but certainly funny).

Day 10 – Arrival in Spain, greetings and meetings.

The Spanish seem even more multilingual then the French, so I’m spared even the poorest attempts at Spanish – checking into or hotel is a breeze. I’m contacted by Paul and Monica, my older cousins. I know they will read this so it’s tempting to kick the boot in but that would be unfair. Paul and Monica are in many way surrogates, they looked after me when I went to the UK on my first trip and their son Andy, is like a brother. We became family not by virtue of blood alone but also friendship, respect and character.

Now, we are not travelling deep into unknowns and nor are we wandering or lost and though we have occasionally glimpsed despairing situations, our journey thus far has been more or less blessed. Still, when meeting with family and embracing the familiar there is undoubtedly a sense of comfort and joy. You become a tribe and there is safety in numbers.

Paul and Mon have started early and we’re invited to join them at the bar, two mojitos in and Sandi is on her way, we head to the Old Town for Tapas and Sangria and make with the merry. I’m contacted by my brother Jamie and they too are on their way, we decide to meet them at the hotel. Walking back to the hotel we are poignantly aware of fireworks going off. Not the elaborate Australian affairs which are under the strict and almost jealous guard of ‘professionals’ but a wild and sporadic array or cracks and bangs that happen almost underfoot during our descent from Old Town. Shortly out of Old Town we find ourselves moving among a throng of others and as dusk settles in we became aware that we have joined a festival. Later we discover, that by inadvertent chance the festival will last the duration of our stay. Three days of celebration that seems serendipitous.

Sitting back at the hotel I learned swiftly that ‘Grande’ is Spanish for big/large… I knew this as I’ve drunk coffee before and have also put two and two together, I guess it just never really clicked. It’s clicked now as Paul and I have ordered three ‘Grande’ water bottles and we will soon be at the bladder splitting point of hydration and still surrounded by the oversized bottles that we accidentally ordered at the hotel bar and had too much pride to admit that perhaps ‘yes we did mean the smaller ones’. It’s at this moment that my brother Jamie, my sister Heidi and my nieces Jasmine and Scarlett arrive. I also meet Heidi’s partner Lee and Jamie’s fiancé Tess and her son Ollie. Willow plays with both Scarlett and Ollie with the reckless abandon that is only known to children and drunks at this hour. The greeting is short lived, it’s been a long day, we are all safe, we are all here and we all must sleep.

Day 11 – Mad dogs and a Perfect Night

It’s hot, we wake in our own time and take our fill of the Hotel’s buffet. I’m impressed by the offering. It’s decided that today will be a beach day, with the sun shining and the mercury soaring it’s a no brainer. 

There is old Noel Coward song “Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun” in this case it’s true.  As Aussies we are taught to avoid the midday sun, failure to comply results in third degree burns and a lifetime dose of Vitamin D administered in a nanosecond. In Australia we like our sun but in-between 10 am and 2 pm we find ourselves in the shade. Europeans haven’t gotten the gist of this and in the interest of company we join our family for some ‘sun’.

On the beach I note an island in the distance, I put it at just shy of 1 km. Naturally, I throw down the gauntlet and let it be known that I will swim to the island. It’s all bravado of course. At about the 800 metre mark I start wondering if there has been any shark attacks in Spain, despite the beautiful turquoise of the water I’m out pretty far and not feeling at all brave or even particularly clever. I’m also beginning to suspect that the island looked a lot closer from the beach. Feeling like I’m representing Australia in some sort of commonwealth competition and reminding myself that I am the president of the VA swim team (consisting of only myself, until 3 weeks ago when Wayne joined) I battle on. Despite the Jaws theme reverberating through my skull I make it to the island in one piece and feel pretty chuffed – C’mon Aussie, she’ll be right eh? No worries!

The swim to the next beach is nowhere near as long. I come out of the ocean doing my best Daniel Craig impersonation – I think I’m nailing it until espy an abundance of exposed breasts. Out of decency I note the particular coarse sand that is endemic to this area and become expertly interested in how it sticks to my feet taking only occasional glimpses to make sure I don’t wander into any aforementioned breasts. On one of my glimpses and among all the tanned skyward pointing areola I see Paul and Mon sitting on the far wall and make a b-line towards them. I let them know where the rest of us are and we start the walk back. Paul is suitably impressed by my swimming efforts and advises that ‘floaties’ might make a great addition for my next heroic aquatic adventure. Mon, however is feeling a little worse for wear with last nights revelling calling the bill due. It’s decided that she’ll get some rest and Paul can catch up soon.

We chat amicably, we catch up on family that can’t be here, when the sun gets too hot we cool off in the ocean and we apply ourselves to reapply.

It’s mid-afternoon, my skin has turned an alarming red and lunch is overdue. We sit down and order lunch, Jamie impressively orders in perfect Spanish and I learn what a Spanish omelette actually is.

Later I go for a run with my niece Jasmine. Finishing school she’s on her way to law school and I have no doubt she will make a fine lawyer. During the run the conversation switches from pleasantries to more meaningful and deeper topics. We touch on Carl Jung’s archetypes, the displacement of modern man, the future of AI and more. I forget I’m chatting with an 18 year old. She tells me that she gets that a lot.

It’s Saturday night and the festival is reaching its crescendo. We eat, head to the beach, there are fireworks, live music and mojitos. The light reflects off the walls of old town in the distance, the music bounces across the beach accompanied by the smell of fireworks and street food. There are rides nearby and their tinkling music entwines with the greater piece happening on the nearby stage adding to the festival air. It is warm, there’s a cold drink in my hand, there is easy conversation and I’m surrounded by family. It is a perfect night.

Day 12 – The Old Town, Paul Feeds the Fish, Dinner and the first farewell…

The days starts well. I stopped early the previous night and switched to water so I’m more or less good to go. The weather has turned for the worse so we all decide to explore ‘old town’ and see what it’s about. It was walled centuries ago to stop pirates from North Africa invading and as a testament to their resolve, it still stands today. We wander and saunter taking in the history of the place, letting it wash over us.

Scarlett my niece is a small bundle of energy and charisma spurting out whatever comes into her mind. She’s somewhere between a cute bunny rabbit and rabid football hooligan after a big night out with the winning team. Shortly she has all in stitches.

We’ve opted to take a boat trip today and see more of the coastline, it’s touristy but hey… we’re tourists :).

Not long into our trip the boats natural rocking motion puts those who got merry last night ill at ease… it’s not long before Paul turns green. It’s said that words speak a thousand words, so I’ll let the images do the talking. The long and short of it is that Paul fed the fish.

After the boat trip we organise a family farewell dinner and we all opt to do our own thing in the meantime; pool, rest or wander.

Over dinner we all chat amongst ourselves, I catch up with Heidi. The table is abuzz with conversation, we’re all delighting in the company of our clan, of our tribe. We are many and the concerns of tomorrow pale and fade to the present moment and the company… but it ends.

Paul and Mon have an early flight home, the children are getting tired. So, despite the long days of the European summer, we say our good-byes, we call it a night, we promise to catch up soon. We thank each other and jest, but a chapter is closing and as the last hint of daylight leaves the eastern sky we know tomorrow is a day of good-byes.

Day 13 – Parting and till next time

We’re down two, we have checked out and we wait by the pool. The forthcoming farewells hang in the air like a miasma – thick, heavy, unavoidable. Despite this we talk, I get some ‘bro’ time with Jamie. Then we wander the shops. The march of time is inevitable and the hour is approaching, reluctantly we head back to the hotel and claim our luggage and pack our car. The ordered taxi arrives and we spill our hasty goodbyes.

They pile into the taxi and it drives off… then silence. The air once abuzz with conversation, well wishing and promises becomes eerily still. I feel their absence keenly. That comforting sense of tribe and the familiar rapidly dissipates. There are cracks appearing in the veneer of my confidence. We are again alone and making our own way… just we three, it doesn’t seem enough. I think of my family at home.

The drive to Barcelona is long and filled with weighty silences occasionally punctuated by the previous days’ highlights. When we arrive at our night hotel I slowly drift off to sleep staring at the ceiling, my thoughts awash with all that could be said, all that hasn’t, all that should be…

Where the River Starts

Where the River Starts

This feels long overdue, Provence in the South of France feels like a distant memory already. Time seems to be moving far too quickly, as is always the way when you spend it as you wish. The memories are already beginning to fade, their edges dulled. It is both time’s cruelty and its kindness. I wish you were there and that you could take it in as we did, maybe one day. For now, I hope I can do it justice and I hope you will forgive me for falling woefully short, as surely I will.

Where to start… The strange yellow flowers that grow by the roadside and smell of sandalwood, cinnamon and rose. The icy feel of the water of Fontaine DeVelacluse after walking in the summer’s heat, the sudden coolness as the waterwheel turns in L’isle De La Sorgue, the way the sun beats down on the cobblestones of Lacoste or perhaps the purple of lavender fields a vivid and stark contrast to Roussillon’s ochre. Maybe, the blue and warm waters of Verdon Gorge or even the flowing waterfall of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie. Or maybe just at the beginning.

Despite our misadventure, we arrive in the South of France it is every bit the beauty that we are led to believe it is…

Day 6 – Our village L’isle De La Sorgue

Sick of driving we explore the village and take it easy.

Day 7 – Gordes, Roussillon, Lacoste

Further abroad we tick off three villages that have long been on Sandi’s bucket list.

Day 8 – Avignon & the Palace of Papal, Marcs Advice leads us to Fontane De Velacluse

Feeling confident with driving we head to Avignon and meet up Marc who tells us we must visit Fontaine De Velacluse. Here the river Sorgue starts emerging from deep springs underneath the mountains, a place of hermits, Saints, Dragons, ruins and adventure.

Day 9 – Verdon Gorge

The Grand Canyon of France.

 

A Bad Day and New Friends

A Bad Day and New Friends

Not everything runs smoothly, it’d be nice if it did. Character comes from diversity, everything happens for a reason…. or so we tell ourselves and we get on it with.

The long and short of this one is I got locked in a bathroom for four hours, we nearly crashed the car and I learnt not to ever, ever use a locksmith in Paris.

How it Started

I’m a pretty personal kind of guy, perhaps it comes from growing up in a house dominated by women, it could be a hangover from parents archetypal British behaviour or character flaw that’s arisen from some forgotten childhood experience… whatever the cause, I close doors when I pee at home and yep… even abroad. This isn’t usually a problem, you close the door behind you, go about your business, wash your hands and then exit the room, except when it doesn’t go that well and the door won’t open and you get locked in a bathroom for four hours.

I call Sandi we try the door together no luck, she calls the wonderful Charlotte (our awesome Air BnB caretaker) we remove the door handle and try everything from a few convincing blows, turning the inside chamber with a screwdriver to swearing loudly in French and English… nothing. I’m trapped and we’re down one hour, Sandi’s timetable has bid us adieu and is off to see the French countryside whilst she patiently fumes downstairs. We call our host Marc, who can’t get to his phone… at a loss we call a locksmith, this seems logical right?

At this point let me take you away from our little Air BnB with its character, spiral staircase and friendly hosts. Let me remove you from its ideal location, modern amenities and quaint Parisian charm, let us close the door, as it were, on this story for now, so I can say this…

If you are a Parisian locksmith and by some sad chance you wander onto this blog – let it be known that I cannot express my deepest contempt of you. Snakes bellies grace loftier heights than you, you are soulless and damned. You are demons wearing the cloaks of men so that you can disguise your hellish misdeeds. In short, you are thieves and scammers and you bruise the face of every honest profession in Paris.

…Now, were we? Locked in a bathroom, for two hours at this stage. We call Five locksmiths, the first one answers then hangs up, apparently, foreigners aren’t worth dealing with on a Sunday… we try four more with no success. We eventually call on Charlotte’s phone we explain our situation… everyone gets a chuckle. They say “Okay no problems, 110Euro and they can be there in one hour”… we muse on it, it’s a lot but the day is slipping away and we certainly didn’t travel all this way to hang out near the loo. Two hours, 85 push ups, 3 ‘Learn French with Duolingo’ lessons later they arrive and inform us that it is fact all up going to be 468.80Euros. My stomach drops, my mouth goes dry, I all but scream ‘NO!’ but it’s too late. They’ve strong-armed Sandi already, thrusting a portable EFTPOS machine into her face and intimidating her to act. The situation rapidly changes and is lost. They spend all of a minute banging the door with a hammer, remove the lock and I’m free… Free and hateful. Staring disdainfully at my liberators with a rising anger that is utterly alien to me.

It turns out a door bolt needs a small mechanism to retract it when you turn the handle otherwise it won’t withdraw and the bolt stays embedded into the door frame. Essentially, turning a door into a wall and no amount of turning, banging or cursing will remove it. Take it from me.

The locksmiths leave. Charlotte, Sandi, Willow and I are dumbstruck the silence if broken when Marc (the owner) calls Charlotte back. No-one is happy…

Later, we find ourselves back at the Airport at the Europcar service desk picking up our hire car. The bitterness of the morning has left a foul taste in our mouth and it is with this taste that we attempt driving through Paris and France with. It got ugly. We fought as only long-term couples in high-stress situations can. We chastised, blamed and sat in brooding silence as the madness of Paris traffic zoomed, zipped and beeped it’s way around us, oh and the GPS stopped working.

Driving on the opposite side of the road was always going to be a challenge in our current state it was magnified. Sandi at the wheel, my failing directions, my bathroom door challenge putting us hours behind… well, you can imagine. We sat cursing in a rough neighbourhood until we decided that the way forward is, well… forward and we get on with it.

How does it end?

Still in love of course and with two new friends. Every couple fights, by virtue of being a couple you know when enough is enough, when to work together and how to accomplish as one and so we did. Step by step, together. Our character is built from our diversity.

By happy chance, we met Marc at our next stop at ‘L’isle Del La Sorge’. We sit down at a cafe and resolve everything we try both our insurances with no luck. We decide to split the locksmith bill in half and end up chatting amicably like old friends. The next day we catch up with him at his mum’s house, he fills us in on where we must visit, we hear about Fontaine De Vaucluse and much, much more. Marc is an actor he makes movies. Both he and his mother are wonderful and the whole incident seems a blessing, a crooked blessing but still… well perhaps, everything happens for a reason.

 

The Journey and Paris

The Journey and Paris

My calves ache. 3 days of wondering Paris I imagine would do that to anyone… this is a long one but we covered a lot.

The journey was as expected, the usual last minute panic with closed motorways, a few farewell phone calls and that strange almost eerie lack of movement when you sit quietly waiting to board the flight awash with pointless thoughts along the lines of ‘Have I forgotten…?’ & ‘Should I have of…?’. It’s too late to change anything, so we simply stare out the window at our plane, look at the splattering rain and wait before boarding.

Anyone who has done the flight from Australia will fill you in on the details. Ours was no different. To sum it up; restless toddlers, plenty of movies, more than one failed attempt at sleeping, very impressed with Singapore airport and surprised by the 13hr Europe leg being better than it’s 8hr counterpart from Australia (especially sans toddlers).

Arriving in Paris is no different from any arriving anywhere and I’m reminded of the chorus of a Paul Kelly song (you can guess which). We catch a cab out to our Air BnB as both Sandi and I are too travel weary to hazard the train, though 55 euros later and in glorious retrospect, it may have been a wiser choice. Our apartment is great, small, comfortable out of the way and a short (2min) walk to the Metro. We’re greeted by our host’s caretaker, given the run down and more or less left to our own devices, which at this stage boils down to get some sleep or make a day of it. We opt for the latter and head to the Notre Dame.

Day 1 – Notre Dame, Luxembourg Gardens, Ears are pierced and the glorious Metro.

The metro is easy, even in a jet-lagged stupor of dumbfoundedness. I’m slightly paranoid of pickpockets and looking overly like a tourist but paranoia proves unfounded. We take the route from Nation to Chatelet, take a mental check of our surroundings and when we surface, start the walk to Notre Dame.

The line at Notre Dame is long but moves quickly, there’s also a strong military and police presence, Sandi is reassured but I can’t help to question what circumstances have arisen that warrant such a fierce and imposing presence… (I figure this out eventually over the coming days and likewise become grateful).

The Notre Dame is heavy, obviously, but I mean the atmosphere. The feeling is dense, like being covered in a thick blanket. The building’s greatness coupled with its religious purpose and active worshippers are almost stifling.

You can feel the weight of centuries bear down and almost crush you with their enormity and sentiment. It becomes sharply apparent that Paris was largely built when religion reigned supreme and the majesty of the Notre Dame is a testament to this. I’m almost relieved when we head for the exit.

Luxembourg Garden’s is in many ways the opposite of the Notre Dame. Whilst one is living the other seems a tomb. We leave the noise of the street behind and start our wayward meandering along the paths and gardens. Paris reveals a new face, perfectly manicured and largely flawless. The military presence remains strong but I consider the gardens to be a highlight of Paris.

We take our fill of the gardens, we walk the busy streets and roads of Paris, do our best to navigate the crossings always looking at the wrong side of the road, grab something to eat and decide to return.

We pass a ‘girlie shop’ I know this isn’t a great description, but I can’t imagine a better name for it. Willow is attracted to it like a magnet, all pink and soft edges, glaring jewellery and glitter designed to overwhelm and intoxicate. It is the bane of any indulgent father. Sandi and I secretly agreed that Willow can get her ears pierced when in Paris, we figure it would make a great memory. She must have known, we are dragged in and the decision is made in a whir.

We stop at a supermarket grab dinner and retreat to the silence of our accommodation by 7:30 pm and despite the hours of daylight remaining, we fall blissfully asleep.

Day 2 – Sacred Heart, Eifel Tower, the Louvre.

We feel like Metro pros now, we even try multiple lines to get around – hey look at us go ;). Sacré-Cœur Basilica is an easy leg and very tourist friendly, despite this I find myself piqued and aware. Starting our ascent we are approached by three large Afrikaans, my hand is grabbed by one of them and he hastily attempts to tie a piece of string around my wrist. Sandi, in all her bluster, comes to the fore and snatches my hand back. One the men come over and tell her to be happy. She’s fuming and I feel almost childlike that I’m in this situation and my wife is coming to my rescue… I’m also grateful. I find out later that it’s a scam. They tie the string on your wrist and demand to be paid. Similar to the Gypsies that ask you to sign their pieces of paper – Sandi has done her research and lets fall these pearls of wisdom. Despite the view from the Sacred Heart, the situation puts a blemish on the morning. As we descend I note that the men have moved on, replaced by three armed policemen their automatic weapons lying like sleeping devils strapped to their chests. I understand the necessity of their presence despite the mildness of my encounter.

We ordered the tickets to the Eifel Tower beforehand – I’d recommend this to anyone who doesn’t like queues, however, we need to print these tickets. Our walk from the Metro to the Eifel Towers passes within spitting distance of the Australian Embassy, we ask if we can print our tickets there… the words ‘Sure, No Worries,’ wash over me and I feel a small pang of homesickness… ‘Sure, no worries’ – it just rolls off the Australian tongue and I feel incredibly patriotic.

We walk around the entire Eifel tower, we politely refuse every souvenir and we take it in. Willow has wanted to do a cartwheel in front of the Eifel Tower since she heard that we were going.

It’s slightly cooler this day so when we do make ourselves inside and up the tower, the wind is biting. We make a gift of Willow’s birthday present, take in the view, take our photos and decide to head down the stairs. More walking…

We leave the Eifel Tower by Pont d’lena, and start our long walk to… well, anywhere. Preferably something to eat.

After lunch and another stumbling order (I’ve opted for the simple point and hope method – which sometimes results in food that otherwise I may not have eaten), we head to the Louvre… mostly on foot. My legs are sore at this point, I comfortably run 5km a day at home, despite this I’m footsore and wishing for a bike, an Uber, a pair of wings or even rollerblades – Willow astounds me with her efforts. We never intended on visiting the Louvre, but I’m so glad we found our way there. Friday afternoon we start … it doesn’t shut until 10 pm, we think we can do it all in one afternoon. We can’t not by a long mile, but we give it a good nudge. We start at Egyptian antiques, we cover Islamic Art, we wander underneath and marvel at the original foundations, we end up near decorative arts after near Eastern antiquities. We meet a nice man whose knowledge of the Louvre and history astounds me. He talks to us in near perfect English, telling us his love for all this knowledge stems from his retirement and that in history we find stillness, that we can observe at our leisure. He tells us to remember to sit down often when wandering the Louvre, let the blood flow and take it in.

Willow is fidgety and restless, her little legs have walked two steps to our one all day, we use one of the ‘strollers’ provided by the Louvre but we ourselves have only another two hours left before we admit defeat and head for home. We sleep, deeply, peacefully and wake up sore.

Day 3 – Paris’ marred beauty and more Lourve.

Sandi has her heart set on a visiting a market Paris’s largest flea market. She advises it’s in a poorer area… it is. Paris reveals a marred face, the poverty is obvious, the smell overpowering and we realise that this part of Paris and others like it but far more dangerous are the parts you read about and see on the news. Overall we manage just fine, but Sandi is disappointed we leave to Les Halles and back to the Louvre.

Today we take in Sculptures Grecian and Roman, we spend hours in Renaissance art and we see ‘her’ – the Mona Lisa. At this point I accept that I know nothing about art, I’m okay with this… my legs hurt. We leave the Louvre and get lost in Saint Paul. Willow picks the direction at every crossing and we wander all the way to Republique. We go home, make a small dinner the first decent amount of vegetables in days, pack a little and sleep…

Tomorrow we leave Paris and we discover the joys of driving in Europe… but hey I’m still here :).