Sunday, 30 June 2013

Day 11: First impressions of ITALY!

Today was the day we left France and headed towards our third big destination, Italy. We started off with another nice bigger brekkie in Nice, then walked over to the station. 
CC got a not-so-nice (even tho he was in Nice :( ) last memory of France of nearly being pickpocketed, literally we were in front of the station, last minutes in France, when this happened – some young guy walking past had reached into his pocket and nearly got his phone.

A bit traumatised, we headed into our last French train very wary of our surroundings. This was a French train whose last station was Ventimiglia, the first town after the Italian border. Our train was packed but I was kept amused by a big group of Italian girls talking very loudly, quickly and Italianly. I realised how much nicer it is to listen to teenage chatter when I have no idea what they're talking about. (Ok seriously contemplated deleting that sentence it makes me sound about 90.)

Ventimiglia gave a very nice first impression of Italy, a gorgeous little town. We walked down the street with cafés and shops and a fruit market, I started practising my Italian by saying bonjorno (however you write that) to the people in the stationery shop and getting myself an Italian Phrase Book woop! We went to see the sea too which was pretty awesome.

Next train: Ventimiglia – Genova. Checked on the departure board that the train is defo going through Genova – it was going through all the stations. Yep, Genova. Oh, another Genova. Makes sense since Genova is quite big, it must have a few stations. Another Genova. And another. And another. … I am not lying at all when I say I got bored of counting after eleven. Well, I'm sure we'll find one to get out at. (Just wikipediad it – there are altogether twenty six train stations/stops in Genova.)
First food bought in Italy - no idea what it is but it didn't disappoint! Tomatoey.
Ok, Italy. Everyone knows the stereotypes, but I decided to (try and) come with an open mind. But, after our train left at least ten minutes late, stopped in random places throughout the journey, spending ages at some random stations, and arriving in Genova an hour late, I couldn't help but think that those stereotypes may be quite correct. Trains do take their time.

We reached Genova at about half three, then trundled over to our hostel, Hostel Manena. Through a few uninteresting streets and a few more interesting, very narrow and dodgy ones. Passed a few impressive buildings, churches mostly, but otherwise it wasn't anything mindbogglingly amazing. The hostel turned out to be real nice though, after the initial confusion of being put in a 12 bed mixed dorm... I did not remember booking that... Oh well.

Within minutes of arriving, me at least shattered and tired, an eager young man came to talk to us – would we like a three-hour guided tour of the town, usually it starts at 4pm but since it's 4pm right now it could be postponed to 4.30? Sure, very keen, replied CC. Alrighty then.

In the end it was just three people on the tour – me, CC and a girl called Rachel studying in Birmingham. The guide was actually Greek, and he has the fastest English I have heard, ever, literally. It was really nice, and very interesting hearing his 'outsider' opinions on Italy, but pretty intense – I'm used to guided tours with MANY people where you can wander off and take photos and look at stuff and not listen without anyone minding. Here, obviously, I was one third of the tour so I couldn't do that. But learnt a lot about Genova, did you know that the word 'jeans' originally comes from 'Genova'? And it was Genova who sold Corsica to the French?

Yay persuaded Mr Guide to stop in at a bakery :)
Interesting detail added at whim by a random builder of his dog!
Three hours was a bit long, but we saw all of Genova which was pretty cool. So would not have been able to sightsee this well had it just been me and CC. Genova had its posh areas, its historic areas, its brothel areas, the harbour, etc etc, quite varied in the end. And very impressive architecture! So, if you are into architecture, VISIT GENOVA. I enjoyed it but it isn't a city I'd come back to, just because I prefer nature and high-up-top-views to buildings.

Tour finished at half seven, then me and CC and Rachel pretended to go the posh Genovese restaurant our guide recommended, actually ending up in one of the cheaper ones on the street restaurants. I ordered gnocchi au pesto (pesto is a traditional dish here), Rachel ordered spaghetti carbonara and CC ordered some meat stuff with rice as an extra dish.

Italians_do_take_their_time. After a LONG wait (but pleasant, it's always easy and interesting to find things to talk about with fellow travellers) I finally saw my gnocchi being passed about, looking for the person who had ordered them. I got them and politely waited for the other two to get their meals. They didn't appear within a few minutes, so they just told me to start without them.
Ten minutes later, Rachel's spaghetti carbonara found its way to the table.

Ten minutes later, CC's meaty stuff found its way to the table.

Ten minutes later, CC's rice found its way to the table.

Ok, maybe it was only five minutes with the rice.
CC waiting for his food

CC was quite grumpy by the time it came but promptly forgot his annoyance when he tasted the food. And true, though very questionable timings, all the food was amazing. My gnocchi cost me six euros, were a manageable portion (tho literally swimming in olive oil), and VERY GOOD.

And the hostel is very cool actually. There are only 25 beds altogether so it's a real nice community. Spoke to some Aussies, and to CC's great delight there is another kiwi-girl in our dorm!! There is a group of five loud American lads too who are coming with us tomorrow to explore Cinque Terre... That will be interesting!

Now, bed time. Or probably not, because since it's a nice community loads of people are still in the community area playing poker and stuff.

Bon bon, good night Italia. :)

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Day 10: A Nice day in Nice FEAT. MONACO

Even though muffins/croissants/pain au chocolats are a tasty breakfast, they're not exactly filling, but it's difficult to find anything else in France if you eat out. But, not in Nice! During our morning walk we discovered numerous cafés that did 'English breakfasts', which meant: omelettes. So indulged in a relatively scrumptious 'English breakfast' in the morning. :)
  Walked over to Nice beach, by when we already had to walk back to the hostel to join the 10.30 walking tour. There were a group of people waiting, but no one had turned up to pick us up at 10.40. Me and CC decided we know where the Old Town is (=CC knows), we'll just walk there ourselves. CC in his normal friendly fashion generally invited everyone else waiting along, and we were joined by Amanda, a Canadian solo-traveller. She had travelled Europe already LOTS so she was able to give us tips about where to go and so on, twas cool.
ADORABLE is not even close to what I want to say. BABY DOGS IN SHOP
We got into the old town and coincidentally bumped into the walking tour – turned out they had come to our hostel at about 10.25 but weren't informed of all the people actually wanting to come on the tour... So we followed this group around for the next one-and-a-half-hoursish.

Went to an awesome market where I bought nectarines and those beloved dried fruits we nearly bought in Carcassonne (dried pears OM NOM), and tried olive-spread and sundried tomatoes etc...
Didn't get any natural sea sponges tho
Not dodgesville, just sundried tomatoes
Another tour guide holding up a baguette so people would recognise him, AWESOME
Then we went up the nearby hill and saw yet some more awesome views of Nice. I was especially thrilled about all the aeroplanes flying really low down over the beach!!

Nice Nice
The beach was a tiny bit of a disappointment I guess, since it wasn't sandy, and there were loads of renovations and roadworks and whatnot in the way. Also after the tour the weather wasn't too amazing.

Amanda had decided to join us in the afternoon to go to Monaco – her spontaneousness was awesome. First we had lunch together, me and Amanda both had a Salade Niçoise (we are in Nice after all), which was tuna, egg and salad, very scrumptious and only four euros!!
Then, off to MONACO. Well, it was amazing. Even though I got seriously claustrophobic around the huge people-masses around the Casino, and even though the waiter at the café was a TWAT (Firstly, after we'd ordered he came back and informed us there is only one gaufre left, so Amanda had to sacrifice her gaufre for a crepe so I could get a gaufre. No apologies or anything. Secondly, he mixed up the orders twice. I didn't mind this, but the fact he was clearly seriously pissed off with us, as if it were our problem he mixed them up! When we left, he gave us one euro too little change. I went back to inform him. He rolled his eyes and took ages finding LITERALLY the tiniest change he could find from his change-tin, then sarcastically handing them to me with a “merci beaucoup”, I HATED him.). But in any case, Monaco was AWESOMEEEE.
With Amanda and her amazing white dress :)
We went to see the Casino – unfortunately CC wasn't allowed in, “not weez zat T-shirt”, said the man in the suit at the door. We walked past a rich man having three men pack his car with posh pink bags, a car with loads of bling bling on it, many many glamorous people...

Too cool for the casino

Grand Prix!
Then went to the other side of the bay, where the older part of the town was, with yet another sightseeing place, with AMAZING views. Amanda turned out to be as keen about photos as us (/me), so many amazing pictures were taken on canons!

Over the other side of the hill

Well, an interesting group photo

All the French food

Taken by cool French guy in suit who took an interest to Amanda ;)

Then headed back to the station, helping a lost American couple on the way, and I bought postcards and stamps which I realised too late could only be sent from Monaco... Oh well.
Also contemplated cool hat
Dinner was at a cool burger place near the hostel in Nice. Not-too-hungry-CC + relatively-hungry me = perfect amount of hunger to devour one awesome burger with chips (CC) and coleslaw (me). Om nom!

C'est tout pour l'instant.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Day 9: From Nimes to Nice via Avignon and Marseille

Hello fans, I will start with a photo of an awesome French conductor coz I think French conductors are cool, especially this one:
 Since we very much liked Nimes, we decided to spend the next morning exploring Nimes. The most famous sites were the Arène (a Roman-time arena, like a mini-Colosseum), la Maison Carrée – the oldest surviving temple from antiquity or something like that, and the Jardin de la Fontaine, 'The Garden of the Fountain', featuring a scenic tower. A perfect-sized town, and clear attractions, all very close by. 
La Maison Carrée
Best thing about our room: The feel-good-about-yourself-mirror (ie. slimming!!)

We had breakfast (apple-caramel-muffin om nom, CC had a nutella panini) in front of the Arène – impressive but the view of it was blocked by a million lorries – the famous Johnny Halliday, our ongoing joke, was going to be performing there... - Johnny Halliday is this random ass French singer who supposedly took English songs and made French covers of them? In any case, last year me and CC experienced, very amused, the stampede of people running to a Johnny Halliday concert in Lille. The French are obsessed. Lol. - And in this case, there were already people camping in front of the Arène rocking their Johnny Halliday T-shirts and American motorbiker-looks. 
Breakfast OM NOM
The Arena with Johnny Halliday-fans out front
We also just about had time to check out the Fountain Garden – very pretty with its Roman ruins, pretty little gardens and, surprisingly, fountains. We had our backbags with us and I failed to make it to the tower so, both of us disappointed, went back to catch our 13.49 train.

Some awesome ancient monument you were not allowed to "escalade" on
Awesome garden!
Thank you French tourists for patiently waiting for this picture to be taken
Lizard à la CC
Me portraying death
Two white swans and two black... geese? !!
Oh and why did we have so little time in the end? Well, let me have a little rant, and please skip this part if you are expecting only to read about happy travel adventures, because we will dedicate a moment to

FRENCH BANKS (and the French way of doing business in general)

So, as some of you know, I've spent the past year living in the North of France. This trip marks the end of my year, so I had to close my French bank account before leaving Douai, my town. I was able to close it but not get my money out since my final pay check hadn't gone through – I was told to go to a bank in the South, give them the little note the nice lady at Douai-bank had written me, they'll sort it out, give her a quick phone call, she'll give them permission, and I'll get my money. Simple, and I'm sure it would have been simple in any other country than France.

I queued for the general receptionist. She took a while studying it, looking up stuff on the computer, chatting to other customers etc, until she told me that “oh, it's a getting money thing, could you please see my colleagues to the right.”

So I queued to see the colleagues to the right. “Oh no, no, it's you who must call her, not us,” Mr Money Receptionist Colleague said, amusedly shaking his head to my silly young foreign ignorance. “Call her, give her our names, and she'll give you the accord de déclamation.” (or something like that, meaning the permission to give me my money) Well, I felt stupid but I know for a FACT she said that they'd call her, all I had to do was smile sweetly and wait. And in any case, why couldn't they call her, what difference did it make??

Well, left the queue and called the bank lady in Douai. That went quite well, I explained the situation, gave the names etc. She said all's ok.

So I queued to see the colleagues to the right again. Told them it's all good, and they invited me to sit down and wait for the money.

I waited and waited and waited and waited and waited and finally after a nice little gossip and chat amongst themselves, they said it was ready. Got up, went to the thing where he was finally writing the receipt for the money. Yay! “Une pièce d'identité s'il vous plait,” he asked for ID. I gave him my driver's license. Ah no, a driver's license doesn't work in France, I got told. He even phoned the bank lady in Douai, himself this time, to ask. No, driver's license is not enough, he confirmed.

So we walked back to the hostel, picked up my passport and backbags and went back.

So I queued to see the colleagues to the right a third time. This time I got my money. Very relieved, but the whole thing took over an hour longer than I expected. Tomorrow's adventure will be phoning my phone company making sure they're gonna cancel my contract............

Cathedral/church in Avignon
Ok, well, got on the 13.49 train. Off to Avignon, where we had one and a half hours before the next train. Avignon also gets points for good first impression from railway station – the remains of some ancient walls! In the 1300s Avignon was the place where the popes lived, so there was the big castle and loads of remains of the ramparts (some of the only ones remaining in France, love from wikipedia).
Cool bubble-man and thrilled school kids!
Where the popes lived a long time ago
The popes
Walked down the main road, Rue de la République, and bumped into this popey place, an awesome castle and church and... building. Cool views too. Then we had ice creams and so the hour in Avignon was defo worth it.

Next stop was Marseille – the second to biggest city in France, but also the dodgiest. We only had half an hour here, but got to see a magnificent view of the town, the church/castle on a far away hill, and the mountains in the background. MAGNIFICENT is the word. Loads of creepy guys though, so we did conclude that it was a good decision not to stay in Marseille any longer than half an hour.
View from Marseille-train station!!
More Marseille
Next was a three-hour train, but we decided to sit in first class and no one ever complained. Very enjoyable trip with some EPIC scenery, the Mediterranean and mountains and villages on hills, going through places like Cannes... Amazing.

Arrived in Nice at about half eight. Our hostel was a few minute walk away – Hotel Baccarat which actually had a hotelly reception, but a quality hostel atmosphere – they advertised a pasta&wine party this evening for only 3euros, and tomorrow we should be going on a free walking tour with them in the morning. And then in the afternoon (just the two of us): MONACO! Very exciteddd!

Beddybise now,

Bonne nuit