The journey continues…

From Paris I needed to head west to start thinking about entering Spain. I didn´t really have a plan how to get to Portugal and was just assuming I´d figure it out on the way, what a debacle that turned out to be… but that´s a story for a different time. There´s a few places to cover before Spain.

    La Rochelle

I took the train from the Montparnasse station in Paris to La Rochelle. I didn´t know anything about it but it was alot closer to Spain and I figured it would be a big enough place to get a connection to Irun (just over the Spanish border). I was wrong, it was a reasonably small place on the coast which was a popular tourist destination but not a major travel hub. I spent a fantastic three nights on a camp site here using my tent for the first time.

A few things you should know about setting up a tent:

  • Always, always, set it on flat ground. Make sure when your looking at your plot that you check the area for the flattest bit. I spent three nights sliding towards the entrance to the tent on my sleeping bag.
  • Always, always, check the flat surface for mislaid objects. I assumed the lumps under me were all rocks and hard ground until the second night when I discovered they were mostly left tent pegs. It was much more comfortable when I´d moved them.
  • A sleeping bag is not sufficent when used on it´s own to protect you from hard ground. Definitely bring a sleeping mat, inflatable mattress or collapsible bed.

I had totally forgotten how to camp properly in the intervening years since I last did it. Still, despite the restless sleep, it was fun being back on a camp site.

La Rochelle is an old harbour town. It was recently modernised substantially when they removed the fishing operation and pedestrianised the town centre. Now it´s full of restaurants and little souvenior shops. It´s a beautiful little place and I spent a happy few days just walking round the cramped streets and sitting on the docks watching boats come and go.

After La Rochelle, and continuing my quest for Spanish access, I went to Carcassonne. Alot further south, and in between two of the better access points to Spain, Carcassonne was an easy decision. Especially considering I wanted to see where the game came from. If you didn´t know (and most of you won´t), Carcassonne is an old strategy game that was made into an Xbox Live title.

    Carcassonne

Carcassonne is amazing, probably my favourite after Versailles. When I arrived it was still very hot and summery, but within half an hour a massive storm broke out of nowhere and suddenly torrents of rain were coming down. I spent and wet ten minutes waiting for a taxi to get to my hostel (the busses had finished earlier in the day as it was saturday). The storm got so bad that on the way to the hostel we passed a tree that had fallen in the street after being struck by lightning. It was a big tree too, it took out a couple of parked cars and was laying across half the road. Further on the driver had to skirt a massive puddle in the road, but still the water came above the base of the four wheel drive we were in. By the time I arrived at the hostel though, the rain had stopped and it started to clear up. I was staying in a little hostel run by an English woman ten kilometres from Carcassonne itself in a typical little French town called Preixan. It was called Sidsmums Travellers retreat and was basically a converted wine cellar serving as a dorm with the upstairs set out as a full kitchen and rest area. They have cabins available for rent too out the back and it´s such a nice quiet place to relax in. The lady who runs it, Jan, gave a bunch of us a lift into Carcassonne on the sunday. She doesn´t normally do this on sundays but most of us were only there for that day and it was our only oppotunity to see the city.

The modern Carcassonne is just the same as most French cities, it´s only just big enough to call it a city. With it pedestrian shopping areas, cafes and souvenir shops it´s pretty similar to most places. The jem in it´s crown though, is the fortress on the hill on the edge of the city. The original city of Carcassone sits above the town but can´t really be seen from the streets until you get to the bridge which connects the old to the new. Once on it though, you can see the Fortress in it´s entirety, it´s fairy tale spires standing out against the lighter colour of the original stone. It´s a completely original preserved fortress that´s stood there since 1209. Before that there was always a fortress on the hill since the Romans in 10BC, but it was never permenant until the 1200´s when they rebuilt the original walls with stone. The oddly contrasting Disney-esque spires weren´t added until the late 1800´s when attempts were made to restore the disused castle as an historical attraction.

Walking around inside the city it came as a great surprise to find that people were actually living in there still. I thought it was purely an attraction and that there were only shops and kiosk insided the fortress walls until I came across a family barbecue next to the entrance to the actual fort. On one side of the wall is the museum inside the fort, on the other was some gently sizzling steaks and a guy in an apron with a beer. Imagine living in a tourist attraction? I wonder at the cost of real estate in a historical fort…

Once again I got in to the pay section of the fort by being under 25 and a citizen of the EC. For your money you get to walk the inner ramparts of the fort and get inside the fort itself which has a museum. After walking round for a few hours I still had some time to kill before I was due to get picked up. This was conveniently timed as there was a reenactment of a Grand Tournament about to start which I went to see. I wasn´t really expecting much, I just thought it would waste some time before my lift arrived. It turned out to be awesome though. Everyone in the show was in character, it wasn´t just some guys jousting. It started with the introduction of the knights and the queen and then there was some falconry. The second part of the show was the four knights doing tricks. They started off hitting targets with small axes and spear as they rode past, which wasn´t that impressive. Then they took turns spearing small hoops with a lance which were held out for them. This clearly took skill, it was like that bit in A Knights Tale where they try and train Heath Ledger. After this they put a handkerchief in the dirt and each rider galloped past and picked it off the floor as they went. Everyone oohed and aahed at that. Half way through them taking turns though the bad guys turned up and that´s when the real show started. After alot of posturing by each of the contenders they jousted each other with lances that actually shattered upon contact. When they fell from the horses they would take up arms and fight until one of them won. Obviously it was all staged and the outcome plain to all, but it was still fun seeing them joust for real. I´m pretty sure the bad guys were meant to be English, even though it was all in French and I couldn´t understand what they were saying. More than once I was tempted to cheer for the bad guys. When it was done, they took their applause and left the arena doing a series of tricks on their horses, like hanging off upside down and riding out backwards.

That´s enough for now, I´ll tell you all about getting to the farm in Portugal after I´ve arrived. Hopefully it won´t be as difficult as getting to Spain turned out to be…

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That last post was a bit out of place cos I forgot to mention a few things that happened before so I’m editing it to expand on it. Eveything that was previously in it that some of you may have read is in italics, so just skip that bit.

In the beginning… No wait, that’s a different story. I’ll start at the airport.

I was expecting to get on one of those massive jumbo jets you see, that seat about two hundred people. I was to be disappointed. The craft I got on both legs of the journey, from Newcastle to Southampton then to Amsterdam, was tiny. It didn’t even have proper jet engines, but was a single propellor plane. Meaning it had propellors on each wing, not one on the front like the name implies. Still, it was small and sat a maximum of seventy two people. On both flights I was seated next to the wing and could see through the window to the props and landing gears. The only thing that kept going through my mind was visions of the Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”. I kept expecting a gremlin to appear and tear apart the wing. Still, everything was fine and no William Shatner impressions were forthcoming (because he was in that episode… see?)

    Amsterdam

Amsterdam was entirely different than what I was expecting, and yet at the same time it filled in everything I imagined it to be. First let me get it out of the way (because I know some of you will be wondering) I did not make use of the red light district, though I did walk through it.

As a city, Amsterdam is incredibly confusing. Almost every street around the centre contains restaurants from around the world. You can get English, French, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Uruguayan, Spanish or Argentinian food from neqrly any street. There were a few others to, but I forgot. I did have some incredibly good falafel one time, which was one of the cheaper things to eat.

Amsterdam is an incredibly well thought out and planned city. I never knew before, but most of the city was planned exactly how they wanted it. First laying the canals and then selling the plots of land in between to people who wanted to build a home. The canals themselves are centred around the Centraal Station (yes, it has two a’s) which is situated on the Amstel River, and expand away from it in concentric rings. So, whether by design or not, all the canals bend North towards the major landmarks and the station. This is an incredibly good way of finding your way round the city. If only I had known at the start of my visit and not as I sat on the bank of the canal on the evening of my last day. Still, I managed to find my way well enough without this little trick.

The hostel I stayed at was definitely appropriate to the price. Despite that, it was quite a decent place to spend a few nights considering it’s location near the city centre too. One thing I thought was truly brilliant not to mention was when I was waiting for my Zune to charge. The only power outlet was in the hallway outside the dormitory, so as I sat and waited for the zune to charge (whilst playing FF7 on my PSP) a French guy came out of the dorm and sat a little way down the corridor from me with his acoustic guitar. Which he began playing. His friends (who weren’t currently sleeping) came out and sat with him. I’ve never felt so bohemian in my life. It was definitely one of those strange moments in life.

As Amsterdam is quite a small place (everything is within walking distance of the centre) I had seen most of the city in the first day so I decided to check out the rest of the area. A short train journey away was the town of Haarlem. Possibly a little better than Amsterdam, in that it had all the charm of a dutch city without the many (many) sleazy outlets. It felt more like a uniquely dutch experience than Amsterdam which can come across as an amalgamation of cultures. However, on my last day in Amsterdam I found a nicer part of the city than I had previously wandered. Searching for the Anne Frank house (far from the red light district) was a much more wholesome side of the city.

I caught my prearranged overnight bus to Paris and managed to get a little sleep, even though the bus driver stopped every couple of hours and insisted on announcing it over the tannoy. I’m sure I can’t be the only one who was planning to sleep the whole way.

    Paris

Paris was amazing, a completely different experience than I was expecting but it was incredible in a different way. It’s a much bigger city than Amsterdam (much much bigger) and so took a while for me to find my way around. I managed ok in the end though and visited most of the typical tourist sites. The Eiffel Tower, The Louvre, Champs Ellysee, The Arc de’ Triumphe and Notre Dame all fell under my watchful gaze. With remarkably bad timing though, I managed to arrive the day the Tour de France finished up in Pari. I did not know this at the time however and completemy missed the whole thing! This also happened in Amsterdam. Belying my usual timelieness I was able to completely miss out on Chris Cunningham (the weekend before my arrival) and Dizzzee Rascal (the weekend after my departure). Both of whom aould of been awesome to see.

The Eiffel Tower was a lot bigger than I was expecting, as well as incredibly busy. There was no chance I was going to stand in one of those queues for hours to go to the top. Besides, I have it on good authority it’s a little disappointing. I managed to get alot of photo’s of it though. Far more than I realised upon going back over them. The Louvre was typically busy, but the queues moved very quickly and I got in free too. The Louvre (as well as the Chateau de Versailles) is free to anyone from the EC who is under 25. Which was good. I saw the Mona Lisa, like everyone does, and checked out the rest of the renaissance paintings as well as the sculptures from Italy. I was disappointed that there was a lack of Napoleonic era displays. For some reason I thought the Louvre contained historical exhibits too but it doesn’t. It’s just Art. There was, however, a new exhibit displaying tribal art from Africa, the Asias and Oceania which was interesting. The other part I enjoyed was the look at Napoleons Apartments. While not actually having anything to do with the wars (I find so very interesting) it was a strange look into the mans personal life.

My favourite part of my visit to Paris was actually outside of Paris at Versailles. I think everyone learns about The Treaty of Versailles in GCSE History, but never before had I considered what it’s namesake was like (except of course, in relation to Marie Antionette). The Chateau de Versailles is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. It was by far alot busier than the Louvre. The ticket queue was at least an hour long, but I managed to bypass it. Again, being under 26 and having an EC passport meant I got in for free, so I could just go straight to the queue for those with tickets (yeah, there were two queues). So instead of taking about two hours to get in, it only took forty five minutes. The palace itself was amazing, seeing where the Kings, Queens and Dauphins of France slept and ruled from was incredible. The best bit however, was the gardens. I don’t believe I will ever be able to describe them satisfactorily with words, and the many pictures I took (before my batteries ran out) will never do them justice. The gardens are beautiful and have to be seen to be believed. The Grand Canal at the bottom of the gardens was so big, you could rent a row boat on it (and I spent an amusing ten minutes watching a young lad trying, and failing, to row a boat with three girls in it. He was sat the wrong way round for five minutes before someone convince him he was facing the wrong way). I spent about three hours walking round those gardens and still didn’t manage to see everything. Now it may seem a bit silly to you that I was so entranced by a garden, but you have to understand, these are the same grounds that Marie Antoinette and Louis XIV walked around. The same place where the French aristocracy ruled and were eventually deposed from. It was incredible to see.

Well, that’s enough for now. It’s at least a bit better than before where it was more of a footnote. Hope your enjoying reading (all one of you apparently) and sorry if it’s not got enough sex, drugs and rock’n’roll for you, but that’s not how I roll. More soon, promise…

I’m in Paris now. Arrived here yesterday after the overnight bus from Amsterdam, but first let’s go back a bit…

Amsterdam was entirely different than what I was expecting, and yet at the same time it filled in everything I imagined it to be. First let me get it out of the way (because I know some of you will be wondering) I did not make use of the red light district, though I did walk through it.

As a city, Amsterdam is incredibly confusing. Almost every street around the centre contains restaurants from around the world. You can get English, French, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Uruguayan, Spanish or Argentinian food from neqrly any street. There were a few others to, but I forgot. I did have some incredibly good falafel one time, which was one of the cheaper things to eat.

Amsterdam is an incredibly well thought out and planned city. I never knew before, but most of the city was planned exactly how they wanted it. First laying the canals and then selling the plots of land in between to people who wanted to build a home. The canals themselves are centred around the Centraal Station (yes, it has two a’s) which is situated on the Amstel River, and expand away from it in concentric rings. So, whether by design or not, all the canals bend North towards the major landmarks and the station. This is an incredibly good way of finding your way round the city. If only I had known at the start of my visit and not as I sat on the bank of the canal on the evening of my last day. Still, I managed to find my way well enough without this little trick.

The hostel I stayed at was definitely appropriate to the price. Despite that, it was quite a decent place to spend a few nights considering it’s location near the city centre too. One thing I thought was truly brilliant not to mention was when I was waiting for my Zune to charge. The only power outlet was in the hallway outside the dormitory, so as I sat and waited for the zune to charge (whilst playing FF7 on my PSP) a French guy came out of the dorm and sat a little way down the corridor from me with his acoustic guitar. Which he began playing. His friends (who weren’t currently sleeping) came out and sat with him. I’ve never felt so bohemian in my life. It was definitely one of those strange moments in life.

There’s a ton more stuff about Amsterdam I could say, but people are waiting to use the computer so it’ll wait till another time.

Oh, one more thing. I know none of you were expecting a treatise on the state of Amsterdam as a city and really just wanted to know about the other stuff so, yes, I got high, and no, I’m not telling you about it.

More soon…

Just a quick update today to let you all know I’m still alive. I’m still in Amsterdam as of this morning but tonight I’m getting the bus down to Paris so from tomorrow I’ll be in a different country. I’ve only got a couple of minutes left with the internet so I’m keeping it short but next time I’ll try and do a longer post with more detail on m first few days. See you soon!

So today is the day I finally leave. It’s taken a long time to get to this point and now I’m here it’s nerve wracking. I’ve taken care of the last few things in the past twelve days since my last post. I finally arranged the insurance just a few days ago, it seems like a good choice, I just hope I don’t need to find out if I was right or not. I had my last day at work on saturday and left with a kind of regret. I had worked there for two years and nine months and the familiarity of it had become something I relied on. It was the longest that I’ve had a job for and I made genuine friends there who I hope I will always know.

I’m off to Amsterdam today, where I’ll be spending the next four nights. After that, it’s Paris. Then I’ve got two weeks to make it to a farm near Marváo in Portugal where I will be staying for a couple of months. I arranged it through the HelpX website (previously mentioned) and I hope it will be as good as it sounds.

For the last few days it seemed like I had much much more to write about, but right now it’s all escaped me. I’m just trying to remember all the things I need to do before I leave the house in three hours. So for now, this is goodbye.

So, there haven’t been any posts recently because I’ve been a bit preoccupied. My best friend (or at least, the person I talk to most, I don’t think she’d like me calling her my “best” friend) moved to Japan. I’m extremely happy for her, having set off on what will doubtless be an amazing experience. I’m sure she will be living there far beyond the time I’m forced to return home from my own travels. However, I can’t help but feel a little selfish now , not because she’s gone before me (my time will come), but because she’s no longer here for me to talk to.

My own preparations are proceeding however, every day my plans seem to change. I’ve been looking into the HelpX program which lets you find farms and homestays in different regions of the world. In exchange for a variable amount of labour, you get a place to live and food for the duration. I’m considering finding a couple of places in Spain and Italy to spend a few months working before moving on. It looks promising, I just can’t decide whereabouts I’d want to stay.

My driving licence was delivered a couple of days ago, so now I can officially drive cars. Which is nice. However, most rental places seem to require you to have held a licence for a year or more before they allow you to rent a vehicle. So it looks like I won’t be able to rent in Germany like I’d hoped. Also, having checked into Australian driving regulations, I can only use my English licence for the first three months of my stay. After that, if I still want to drive, I’ll need to get an Australian driving licence. That will cost about £100 by the looks of it, as it consists of a theory test as well as a practical test. If I do successfully live there for a year though, I think that’s a small price to pay. Especially if I get to extend the visa for a further year afterwards.

As close as it is to my departure I still haven’t sorted out the insurance, which is increasingly becoming a pain. No single company seems to cover exactly what I need. If they cover for working abroad they don’t allow you to return home at all until the end of your trip (meaning no return at christmas if I wanted to) or it voids the warranty. If you can find a policy that covers the activities you need they don’t allow you to renew it on the road. I’ve read so much small print that I can’t remember which company does what anymore. I’ll have to figure it out soon though, after all, I only have twelve days left…

I’ve become obsessed with a tv program that’s been running for the last five years which I have only just discovered. Run’s House follows Joey Simmons (otherwise known as, Rev Run of Run DMC) and his family. I’m not normally drawn in to reality television at all as it tends to be absolute drivel targeting the lowest common denominator in a market which seems to debase itself further and further each year. /rant

Anyway, Run’s House follows in the vain of The Osbournes. Rev Run and family go about their daily business in the same way that the Osbournes did (do?) without acknowledging the cameras. The result is a very funny look into the Simmons family who are far more grounded and intelligent than a rap superstars family has any right to be. That’s not to say that they aren’t a little spoiled, his son JoJo in particular is a bit arrogant, but no more so than some people I’ve met who had no right to be. The Simmons daughters, Vanessa and Angela, are really very funny and were so popular with fans that they eventually got their own show, Daddy’s Girls. (Also good)

You can see a sample here, stick with it for a bit, it’s not serious like this makes it seem at first:

You should be watching it, it’s good television.

Gushing over, back to your usual business…