In August 2009, my friend Jodie and I spent a month abroad enjoying the life of leisure through the sights, tastes, and sounds of France, Spain and Morocco. And here I have extracted from my notebook some little tidbits of information, stories, and pictures to describe our experiences in Hong Kong, Paris, Barcelona, Málaga, Algeciras, Gibraltar and Tangier.
My first impressions of Hong Kong – dirty, humid, hot, and highly polluted. Having just endured a 9 hour flight from Perth, we still had most of the day to explore the city before departing for Paris.
The public transport system however is highly fast, effective and very cheap in Hong Kong and so easy to get around. We left the airport, and caught a bus, followed by train to the hub of the city. We trekked around the city and visited the Yuen Po Street Bird Garden, a small rectangular garden where songbird owners carry their beloved pets around in ornate carved cages. So many beautiful birds were to be seen here, singing beautifully. It was nice place to sit, cool down and repose from the tiring humidity. Nearby, was one of many colourful street markets, and in particular the Flower Market, which is a jungle of gorgeous exotic blossoms, luck-bringing houseplants and sweet scents.
There were an abundance of markets, and many hawkers, trying to sell you copy jewellry, bags, shoes, and clothing, and they became very repetitive – and something of little interest to me. We left the main island and caught one of the many old ferries (no thrills wooden seats, open air) back to Kowloon across the Victoria Harbour, to make our way back to the International Airport -stopping on route to a large department store.
Upon touchdown in Paris, after a 13 hour flight, we were surprised by a round of clapping applause from passengers ! I don’t know if this is normal for Paris, but not something we expected, it wasn’t a difficult landing or anything.
Having got through customs, we caught the train to Gare du Nord and made our way to the Oops Hostel to drop off our luggage. Unfortunately we arrived in the early hours, and we could not check in, therefore as tired as we were having not slept for almost 48 hours we ventured out to the Tulleries Garden to find a bench to relax and reverie.
OOPS Hostel! – Located in the start of Latin Quarter, with nearby Metro lines directly to Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe and the Champs Elysées – all line 6 – as well as line 7 direct to the Marais, the Louvre, the Opera and the Montmartre neighbourhood. Les Gobelins the closest stop.
It’s a shoe box hostel, brightly coloured, with small dorm and shower – however it was Air Conditioned, and it was Summertime. The street had some fantastic restaurants, cafes, dancing and cinema, making it a lively place to be. In our dorm we had two young Russian guys who we enjoyed random conversations with, and Jodie would try an explain Australia Football to them, as they were interested in it.
Cinema Night – One evening we went to a french restaurant before seeing the movie “The Ugly Truth”, and Jodie’s charms caught the attention of an older waiter who jokingly tried to take her off into the kitchen, and whispered that the other waiter was going to be jealous. After the movie, we had to go past the restaurant and the same waiter waved at us, tried to say something to Jodie, and about ‘her friend’, yes moi..lol..but we just laughed and walked it off.
Apartment – We booked 7 nights (A$1,071 for 2) in a lovely residential apartment in Saint-Mandé (12 arrondissement) via the French Experience website. They were professional and all instructions for getting the keys were clear, even if it did seem like a puzzle to unlock the Da Vinci Code.
Our nearest station was called Picpus (line 1), which we found amusing. It has some great restaurants, and cafes which we enjoyed eating at regularly and meeting up with my french friends, as well as a local boulangerie, where we enjoyed buying daily, raspberry tarts, croissants of all types, fresh juices, jams and berries from little market shops. It was a highly secure apartment, but the size of a box; as you entered the door a little kitchenette was to the right, and an oblong triangle bathroom with toilet and shower. The only main room comprised sofa bed, large double bed, and small dining table and chairs. When my great friend Celine, from Belgium, visited for a few days, we had to share the bed.
Bateaux Mouche (The Fly boat) Pont de l’Alma– One special evening, Jodie, Celine and I dressed for a beautiful evening out (courtesy of someone very dear to me). We enjoyed a dinner cruise and prestige a la carte menu. My choices were: Smoked Salmon millefeuille with scandinavian bread, creamed dill and horseradish; Medallion of Lamb, green beans and goat’s cheese, cheese plate, and iced flute with strawberry and mascapone. It was a magical cruise, to see the beautiful city alive at night in lights, and gold. Piano and violin played in the background and it was lovely to see the Parisians picnicing, romancing and dancing along the river banks as the sun goes down.
Tour Eiffel– Of course you cannot come to Paris and not visit the Eiffel Tower, or E.T as I affectionately call it. This time we stayed on the ground, as Jodie and I had both been there before, and enjoyed the views. We went to the local supermache and bought some cheeses, bread, fruit and drink to enjoy a picnic on the grass and soak up the sunshine. It was very relaxing, and interesting to people watch. A lot of gypsies move through the groups of people trying to obtain money or charm you with a story, but we were not bothered.
Jardin Des Tuleries Garden – A place where it’s good to relax and watch the world go by- but ‘Keep off the Grass’ signs are everywhere.
The garden occupies an area of 25 hectares, between the Carousel du Louvre and the place de la Concorde, the rue de Rivoli and the banks of the Seine. As it was summer, a carnival was set up with rides, carousels, ice creams and ferris wheel, so we wandered through soaking up the atmosphere. In one of the large ponds you see children being amused with toy sailing boats, and adults sun bathing in the chairs that encircle it.
As we were leaving towards the Louvre, we saw two police on roller blades, a big tourist attraction, as it was evident they enjoyed having their photos taken with tourists – how could I resist too!
The Louvre – Such a great museum, and I’ve been there 2-3 times now! and I’ve never had to endure a big line up to get in. Not only the exhibitions, and rooms, but the whole architecture is just amazing. I personally love the history of the place, knowing that I am walking upon stones and walls hundreds of years old. It started as a fortress at the turn of the 13th century, and later a royal residence. The gold, crystal and ruby opulence of Napoléon III’s rooms is incredible to see. The Mona Lisa was difficult to get close to, and such a quaint painting.
Canal St Martin – Some would say that it’s not that interesting walking along a canal, and admittedly there is very little along the path as you walk. However, at times we would spot Cafés and quirky and colourful boutiques flanking the water and iron footbridges. Our entertainment on our walk along this canal, was a group of 20 or so people in their roller skates, dancing and cruising along to loud and funky 80’s and 90’s music emanating from their portable music blaster.
The Estate of Versailles Palace and Gardens – Only 30 minutes by train, this place was amazing and so vast it was impossible to see in even one day. The chateaus were stately, with manicured gardens, opulent and ornate architecture and furnishings. This place is one of the most prestigious of world heritage sites, and 17th century art. Whilst extremely busy with tourists, the glimpses into rooms of Mary Antoinette, and gardens and groves, were ingrained into my senses.
Champs Elysses – We spent part of the day exploring this prestigious and elegant street, and definitely a lot of window shopping. You will find high end cafes, cinemas, designer stores, elite car dealers, and If you’re a fan of all things pastry, pretty and macaroon-y then the Champs élysees branch of Laduree will make you gaze wide-eyed once you step through the door. We tried to take some photographs of the Arc de Triomphe, but there were so many people around trying to do the same!
Rock On Seine -This was a great music festival, and very different from an Australia music concert. People dress conservatively, not in the funky outfits, dress-up theatrics you see back at home. Instead of fried chips, hot dogs, and juices we get back home, the food was fresh, and you could choose from a variety including Ethiopian, Japanese, and Moroccan. There were wine bars, and beer gardens with seating and uncrowded lines, and you could visit various modern art exhibitions. The hot, sunny ambiance almost overshadowed the Gallagher brothers’ split (and subsequent cancellation of the Oasis gig which we had hoped to see, we thought it was a joke when they didn’t come on stage but they had a big fight), which was the only bum note of the festival.
The Line Up: Madness, Keane, Bloc Party, Amy Macdonald, Vitalic, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Vampire Weekend, Just Jack, James Hunter, Oceana, Bill Callahan, Passion Pit, Gush, The Tatianas.
Musee de Erotisme – After visiting Montmartre, this museum was not very far to walk to and explore as a novelty. Deceptive in size, it spans 7 floors or more, and comprises 2000 items.The facts are not too in-depth so don’t expect an anthropological insight here, simply a fun museum with a wide array of sexual art through the centuries and comprises modern art, model enactments, video footage, photographs of prostitutes from the 30’s and 40’s. It’s interesting, and not for the prudish. I bought some tasteful modern erotica postcards from the shop before leaving.
Bois de Vincennes – The Bois de Vincennes had its beginning in the 13th century when Philippe Auguste surrounded the area with a 12 kilometre wall creating a royal hunting preserve for himself. This beautiful english landscaped park has lots to offer, and we enjoyed rowing on the lake, and taking the beautiful and relaxing scenery.
Centre Pompidou – This building is a piece of modern art and you will either love or hate it. It houses an art collection although I didn’t go inside to see this. Instead Jodie and I soaked up the surrounding atmosphere of buskers, cafes and modern art.
A quick 1 hour flight via EasyJet from Paris. Barcelona is lively, festive and touristy. Las Ramblas is full of flower stalls, restaurants, markets, cobbled streets and lanes that are a maze to move through. Attractions along the Ramblas including live performances, human statue art, artists that will draw your portrait or caricature, as well as established attractions like the Wax Museum or hidden shops and bars tucked away and discovered by accident.
Absolutely love the weather, and even more, the food and Sangria!! Lots of ice creameries, freshly made juices, that can be found just about everywhere. The Market (Marcat de la boqueria) was incredible – everything so fresh, seafood, meats, vegetables, and fruits, and not to mention the pre-blended juices on ice ‘to go’ – I tried coconut & papaya, and strawberry -and it cost only $1 euro each.
Tapas & Guitar – On arrival we feasted on lots of Tapas – tomato bread, mixed mushrooms in oil and garlic, asparagus, potatas bravas, sardines baked whole with oil and garlic, and all enjoyed with generous Mojitos :). Behind our hostel was an old church, and we bought tickets to an acoustic concert with maestro Manuel Gonzalez. Sitting in the pews, and listening to the acoustics of the chords being played was magical, but the room was very hot, with only a little fan firing
Museu da la Xocolata (Chocolate Museum) – The story of chocolate! and a chocolate bar as a ticket :). An interesting exhibition with the historical information, and chocolate moulded confectionary sculptures scattered around in glass cages. From animals to matadors, they’ve chipped and chiselled every block of thick brown chocolate and shaped it into a significant spread. We could not depart without having a traditional stodgy, and super thick, spanish hot chocolate stirred up in their kitchen- with sponge biscuit to dip into it.
Barcelona Zoo – We found the zoo to be enjoyable and well laid out. The Barcelona zoo is world famous for housing Snowflake, the only captive albino gorilla in the world. Jodie, a big monkey fan, who was so excited to be seeing Snowflake, however sadly he passed away a couple of years before. My favourite were the dolphins, I’ve never seen them so close up before, but I did feel sad at the same time seeing them living in a round fishbowl. The zoo is centrally located and easy walking distance from where we were staying.
On the way walking back to hostel, we witness the mugging of a woman. She was walking along, and a guy on a bicycle grabbed her bag. She put up a huge fight, and held on for dear life to her bag as he dragged her along from behind. She managed to make him fall off, but he got her bag and sprinted off on foot with it. Locals helped her to her feet, she was shaken understandably.
Museu de Cera (Wax Museum) – Whilst I wouldn’t say the resemblances were overly representative of their subjects, it was an entertaining experience. Over 360 waxworks of personalities from different periods and walks of life covering -History, Culture, Fantasy, Cinema, Music, Literature, Art. They are exhibited in different settings with projections and audio-visual effects.
Bosc de les Fades -This beautiful little cafe is hidden off the side of the Ramblas – its like being in a forest. You walk in the front door and you are among a forest of realistic trees from a Sleepy Hollow movie. There are waterfalls and small caves and the weather changes from being calm to lightening flashing and thunder roaring.
We enjoyed some drinks, and met some Irish boys who were working in Barcelona. They had been heavily drinking, and were continuously breaking their glasses and ended up being threatened to leave. They were harmless and funny to talk with. Next door there’s a very intriging gift shop, the window fully decorated with origami, with all sorts of little bits and pieces to look at and buy.
The Port Vell– Absolutely awesome tapas and Sangria again
. It’s nice to be able to order little plates of different tapas, and enjoy the sunshine, and atmosphere for as long as you want. Enjoyed Potatos bravas with spicy sauce and cream, seafood pieces, tomato bread, cheese balls and mushrooms. The area also has IMAX, aquarium, restaurants and bars, and huge shopping complex which we explored and did some shopping.
Had an ill feeling leaving Barcelona for Málaga, there were many delays in getting to take off, and we seemed to be just driving around the runway.I felt apprehensive as we were flying into Málaga. The plane was tilting left and right constantly, as we flew over dicey arid mountains. But we got there safe and sound in once piece, and grabbed a taxi. We were immediately in bright spirits as the Aussie Men at Work song “Down Under” played as soon as we drove off. The Hostel we stayed at was adequate, but the flight of stairs was not great for my foot problems, and I had already endured the same struggle in Barcelona.
Even though our hostel was not central, we had some shops and cafes close by, for example a little pastry shop, where we could buy small cakes for $0.44 euro and cup of coffee for $1.20, and a bus fare was minimal!
Málaga is one of the oldest cities of the world, and sits in Andalusian part of Spain. My first impressions was that it looked very industrial and was not attractive. A lot of Málaga is ugly blocks of urban sprawl flats, but in the old centre you can find a beautiful heart. Full of narrow sometimes cobbled pedestrian streets winding in and out of each other, and the weather was absolutely perfect with cloudless skies and 35 degree days. We also found the cost of shopping and eating one of the cheapest, and they have some very phallic asparaguses!.
The malls and streets are marbled and beautiful and there are little cafes, and shops, around every nook and cranny. We met a local construction worker who we befriended us one afternoon, so we spent a couple of days enjoying the sites with him, and doing what we do best in Spain, eating great tapas! Siestas do occur everyday with shops shutting completely, but later reopen to late.
Some of the highlights :
Museo Picasso Málaga – a little overrated, and heavily secured. Before you can enter you have to go into a security room, and take out everything out of your bag and put into a tray which is then placed in a locker. You cannot take photographs or mobiles in. Their are security guards just about at every corner. It was interesting to see Picasso’s work however but it was not worth the entry fee in my opinion.
The Castillo (Moorish castle ruins)– We endured a big hill walk to the 14th century Castillo Gibralfaro (which dates back to Pheonican times) but it was worth the stunning view of the city, and below you can see the old teatro romano (roman theatre) which was hidden for centuries, until it reappeared in 1951 during the completion of the gardens of the Palais des Archives and Libraries.
Paseo del Parque – this was our haven for relaxing and also keeping cool in the heat of the day. It extends along the harbor, flanked by promenades shaded by palms and plane-trees, and full of rare flowers and plants, fountains and benches. Click on this 360 view to see how beautiful and peaceful this place is.
Horse Carriage ride – a lovely way to get around and see the city!
We got up early and packed ready for a bus trip to Algeciras, a quick and cheap ($11 euro) 2 hour ride to Algeciras. I had found some advice through travel blogs about how to get to Gibraltar the easiest way, and this little port was the answer.
Finally after staying in hostels, we enjoyed the luxury of a andalusian styled hotel (Hotel Alboran), one that afforded spacious rooms, with massive bathroom and bath – our night was one of pampering. The following day we had our sights set on the looming big rock, Gibraltar.
The Hotel Stalker – also known as the aqua polo shirt man
Jodie and I enjoyed a lovely little dinner in the restaurant in the evening, and the wine admittedly went to my head, and we giggled like school girls, and I got a bit silly! Anyway, so the restaurant was quite vacated and we were sitting around a corner, however from my vantage I could see diners. So here was this guy, in an aqua polo shirt, on his own and staring me down whilst eating. Jodie of course didn’t see him! It wasn’t until we later ventured outside to go for a brief walk to see where we would be catching the bus to Gibraltar the next day, that I saw him again, this time on the balcony watching us! I still don’t know if she believed me at that stage or thought I was tipsy!.
It was the following day, upon returning from Gibraltar, that by chance we took the stairs, and at that moment he walks up the stairs in his aqua polo shirt, and looks at me again, and I hold my breath, til we get down and then laugh…because now Jodie believes me!!!
We were lucky to be staying on a main road, which had buses to La Linea bus port, where we could then walk 5 minutes to the customs gate to Gibraltar. When we arrived at the entrance we purchased a ticket for $22 euro which covered buses, cable car trip, and reserve access on top of the rock.
It’s quite incredible to step over a line/road and everything is suddenly all English – you see double decker buses, UK brand shops, English flags everywhere, pubs, and use Pounds for currency.
The magic was the view from the top of the rock, even though it was overcast, thick with cloud and wind, it was rather incredible. However, it was the Barbary Apes that enraptured us for many hours across the rock – they are everywhere, and are so cheeky. I had the shock of one jumping onto my back from behind, and it was fascinated in playing with my hair. They feel so soft! Apparently the Barbary Macaques were introduced here by the Moors who lived there between 700 and 1492.
St Michaels Cave – this place is wet, immense and very old – a place made of myths! I recently learned that it is linked with Plaeides. Homer, the poet also wrote of the caves, and artifacts that have been found inside the caves reveal that it was known to Greeks, Romans and Phoenicians in ancient times.
It cost $31 euro for a ferry from Tarifa to Tangier. As we were preparing to board the ferry, I got questioned at customs because there was nothing in my passport that actually indicated how I arrived in Spain! After this little drama, we boarded and endured a very rough ride to northern Africa.
Now, I had read a lot about what to be aware (i.e scams & safety) of upon arriving at the port in Tangier, however, as we arrived, my friend had already been approached by a man called Sherrief, who claimed he was from the Tourist Board. I knew immediately it was too late! He was already helping with baggage, taking us to an ATM, being overly helpful, and had a car organised. In hindsight…this is rather scary, we could have been taken anywhere! We cooperated calmly and he did get us to the hotel we were staying at.
Sherrief was keen to take us to the markets and show us Tangier. We told him to give us 2 hours to unwind. Sure enough he was waiting for us in the foyer later, and we set out on foot, at a cracking speed through the rabbit warren of cobbled streets, markets with smell of mint, live chickens clucking and carpets!. I knew his intention, and it was no surprise to arrive at a friend’s carpet shop, where we were given fresh mint tea and cushion seats. Then we watched with curiosity and awkwardness as an array of carpets were pulled out, turned around showing their best views, and my friend invited to step on it and feel it! We told them we could not take carpet back home, and managed to leave without too much hassle.
The medina is a maze, and if we left Sherrief we would have no clue where we were. You see lots of coloured string around the cobbled pathways, apparently this is so the children can find their way back? Our next stop was a berber’s shop featuring carpets and jewellry and discussions about how we would be worth about 5000 camels! After stating we had no interest in carpet, and having our heads wrapped in scarfs, we showed interest in the jewellry….it become certain that we were not getting out of here without a purchase.
Whilst perusing the jewellry, the berber sounded just like Fagan out of Oliver’s Twist, he would say in a scratchy lowly voice…”it looks beeeeeautiful on you…yes yes..”. I picked out a necklace I did actually like, and my friend had a number of items, then we sat down for the bargaining process. Sherrief became less friendly and become more aggressive in his manner, and told us to accept the price (we still thought it was over inflated), so in order to get out of here we agreed.
Finally, we were taken to a restaurant at dusk to have dinner as the men were heading off to call of prayer, it was also Ramadan when we arrived. We got sketchy directions from Sherrief on how to get back to our hotel, and ended up lost. We fortunately found a UK couple familiar with Tangier and they tried to give us directions, but we still felt disorientated. We were headed up this huge hill, just as prayer had finished, and the streets then filled with men – it was a really scary experience – we were intimidated and felt vulnerable. Luckily, our UK couple, who were worried about us, decided to find us, and they stopped men hassling us as we made our way back to the hotel.
I’d have to say that the experience did put a damper on how we felt about the city, and we spent our final day not venturing very far. Instead we found a place with internet and then a cafe for lunch that was surrounded by 15 cats or so. In the evening we enjoyed a lovely meal and I had a drink at the bar in which the waiter put 3/4 of a glass of gin with tonic, it was so strong and sickly and impossible to enjoy.
Back to Paris
At the Tangier airport, my friend’s charming ways with the security guard, allowed us to get our names written in arabic on a piece of paper,which stroked his ego nicely.
The flight was eventful back to Paris, we had a disruptive and arrogant young man who refused to comply with mobile phone use and seating arrangements, and there was a medical emergency with a young wheelchair bound girl who stopped breathing.
We eventually arrived back in Paris, and boarded a train to Gare du Nord. We found it impossible trying to get a taxi so we decided to go for a wander as we were hungry and were fortunate to stumble across a great Indian restaurant (Restaurant Bharath 51 rue Louis Blanc 75010) which had delicious curries and tropical smoothies.
The rest of our trip was spent staying at the Suite Hotel for a week (chain of Novotel – 22 Avenue du professeur lemierre
75020 PARIS) which was great. Modern, funky, better than any hotel room and featured free massage on arrival and unlimited and free internet, movies, music and tv. The remainder of our time was spent catching up with friends who were living here, having lunch with a couple we knew who were going to be in Paris at the same time, and exploring the wonderful city of Paris.
We also shopped locally and bought snacks, novelty meals and wine. Explored markets across the road from the Suite, and shopped at boutiques in our little village district.
One outing we were returning from the metro to head back to the hotel, and my friend went to the supermarket whilst I went back home, and an old man followed me and tried to get me to go with him in his car! for some fun :S
Disneyland – the weather was not the best on the day, but we had lots of fun. My favourite rides being the Pirates of the Carribean and the Haunted House. The train ride back to Paris was interesting, there was a man in white gym gear walking up and down and doing pushups in the carriage, then getting off running down and back on to train again.
Restaurants – The Durer in Montmartre, named after the artist and complete with similar paintings. The place is cosy, candlelit and warm. Went to a traditional french bistro where I tried escargot, but decided it was not something I enjoyed.
Grevin Wax Museum – this was actually fun.It takes you through history, magic, illusion and mystery with about 500 wax models from politicians, actors, models, french stars, writers, film makers and important historical figures. Before you enter, you get to enter the room of mirrors or the Palais des Mirages, as it is known, which is a hexagonal room that has a very special effect with the lights and multiple reflections from the mirrors that go from floor to ceiling and completely surround you and invokes all your senses.
Notre Dame – extraordinary architecture!. To think that the Notre Dame Cathedral, undertaken at the initiative of Maurice de Sully, began about 1160 and was completed within 40 years.
Berthillon Ice Cream – so divine and lovely to visit! I enjoyed Apricot :).The company is owned and operated by the Chauvin family, descendants of the eponymous Monsieur Berthillon, who opened the first store in 1954 and prides itself on its natural ingredients. The sun was shinning, accordians were playing and people were riding by on bicycles.
One month of fun and memories to last a lifetime.