SPEEDING OUT OF Milan, it wasn’t until Genova that we saw the sea, and at which point a young Canadian guy came at sat opposite me. I was so glad he had saved me from the woman now next to him; she was the most annoying passenger I’d ever shared a carriage with. She’d been fidgeting and rolling her eyes since the departure because nobody had come for her to buy a ticket. At least I think that’s what she was fussing over; she persisted to talk to me in Italian despite my telling her ‘non parlo italiano’. Eventually she took her bags and disappeared somewhere, maybe in search of the conductor or or someone who could understand her middle-aged rant. The Canadian, Greg, who was actually celebrating his 24th birthday that day, told me about his great European rail adventure, of his wine-centric soirées in Rome and beer-focal festivities in Berlin. I wished him a happy birthday, although understood that it was most likely ruined by having to spend part of it sitting next to a much less glamorous version of Joan Collins who can’t keep still for a couple of hours.
It was only the station signage that told us we had passed into France, otherwise the two seem to blend seamlessly. I can see why it’s called the Côte d’Azur. Or can I? Is it the sky or the sea that gives the stretch of French coastline its name? Having seen the two together, I don’t quite know. The sea is a dazzling shade of electric blue, turning indigo as it meets the horizon, but surely the sea isn’t as blue as it is without an equally bright blue sky? Ugh, so much blue. I feel an EL James novel coming on.
God, no! Perish the thought.
It was amazing to finally see this part of the world, a part of France my colleagues back in Orleans had spoken of as if it were Robin Hood or King Arthur, a part of France brandished about in tourist brochures and Stella Artois adverts, but it’s impossible to not see why. I can see the eternal image of craggy white and green hills tumbling into the sea being loved and admired forever.
First impressions of Nice were, from its train station at least, that it is brash, busy and perhaps even ugly, its passengers spilling out onto a square covered in maintenance works, overlooked by cheap places to eat and sleep. You know the ones – the sort of hotels you’d see on The Hotel Inspector: Nice Edition, the ones that ironically call themselves ‘Royal’ this and ‘Grand’ that when really there is nothing grand about them other than the disappointement at the end of the stay. We followed the busy and commercial rue Jean Médecin, the only ones in sight sporting such huge bags amongst the shorts and t-shirts of everyone around us, and checked into the hostel. This was a 14-bed dorm, the largest of our trip so far. I have stayed in a 14-bed before. It was in Stockholm, where I was shoved up to the top of three bunkbeds at 3am when we arrived, surrounded by horny Brazilian boys pleasuring themselves at various stages throughout the night. I hoped no such occurrences would arise in Nice, especially because the first person we met was Michael, an American well into his fifties standing over his bed in a baggy t-shirt with a whimsical painting of wolves on it and an equally baggy pair of briefs.
‘I wanna make an announcement,’ he said fairly quietly to the room, before just turning to us.
Here we go, I thought.
‘We’ve had a couple thefts here in the last few days,’ he went on, his voice dogged by what I assumed were years of cigar smoking. ‘Girl over there had an iPad stolen, this guy a couple phones and there’s been some French books taken, too. So the thief obviously speaks French.’
‘Oh right,’ I said, looking concerned.
‘I suggest you put a lock on your lockers. Make sure it isn’t a TSA lock, ‘cos this guy’s been breaking into the locks with a special TSA key. Need to get yourselves a combination lock…’
‘What’s a TSA lock?’
He pulled out a lock with a keyhole at the bottom of it, telling us that a key used by police forces to get into such padlocks in emergencies.
‘…makes me think it’s an inside job.’
‘Well, have you told the staff here?’ called another American ‘jock’ from the other side of the room, one I imagined was called Joey Jackson Jr. or something, given his tanned biceps and baseball cap.
‘I don’t find the staff here all that helpful here. So I’mma take matters into my own hands.’
Sherlock Holmes of Utah then told us that locks could be bought at the supermarket in town. Fortunately my phone is always beside me and I don’t have an iPad, but I did have a couple of French books, whose safety was now in danger. Hurriedly we dashed to Monoprix, the trusty we-sell-it-all backbone of France and got hold of some locks. On the way back, we entertained the idea that Michael was actually the thief and that it would all come out on our last day in a dramatic Scooby Doo-style showdown where we catch Michael helping himself to the tote bag I bought in Milan.
After securing our things and leaving Michael to continue sorting out his clothes in his underwear, we headed into town. I like to think of Nice as a city inspired by the rainbow; it’s so bright and colourful – the bright blue sea and the white stones skirting it, the lush green palms, the coral pink buildings of the Place Masséna. And when the sun is shining, it’s certainly even more attractive. OK, OK, there are some garish and awful things to do along the seafront, some of which wouldn’t look out of place in Blackpool, but they are offset by the occasional chunk of luxury that this part of the world is renowned for.
On the Sunday we returned to the train station, where we were surrounded by what seemed to be boatloads of English tourists, struggling to figure out those yellow ticket machines in French train stations. I smiled to myself. What a turn of events, I thought. Eight months ago I was just like them, staring blankly into those slow and unresponsive screens in Paris. Now I am considering writing a manual on them given how much I’d used them since October. Anyway, needless to say we didn’t follow most of them and head west to Cannes, where the Festival was in full swing. Instead we headed back towards Italy and to the small town of Menton, which sits on the border. Menton would probably class as a ‘touristy’ resort on the sea, but it is much less touristy than I expect Cannes is; in fact almost certainly so. It is a charming jumble of orange and yellow houses which roll down to the harbour and beach, its old town brimming with restaurants and shops revolving around lemons. I wondered why; it turns out there is an annual lemon festival in Menton, which unfortunately we were not present for.
What we were present for, however, was the Monaco Grand Prix – or rather, the preparations for it. Monaco lies between Nice and Menton on the train, and when you pass through its modern station, cleverly built in a tunnel under the mountains, you could easily be forgiven for thinking you’d wound up in a sort of X-Men/James Bond set. Quite appropriate given where we were, I thought: a fabled land of casinos and yachts the size of whales. Except this was a Sunday. I might have rattled on a few times about how France is as exciting as a convent on Sundays, and I should have known Monaco was no different. We meandered through the stairways and escalators through the principality down to Port Hercule, cluttered with boats with prices so big I’m sure it would’ve strained my hand to write out the cheque. It really is another world, a world no bigger than Hyde Park, hemmed in by towering apartment blocks in various shades of beige, no doubt empty for most of the year. Having walked around the place, I felt mixed about one of the world’s smallest countries with the world’s biggest ego. There was something sugary and perfect about it, which appealed to the perfectionist in me, but that was quite the problem. All the buildings more or less resemble each other and everything was devoid of any sign of life. We walked through the recently opened rosaraie dedicated to Princess Grace. Even there every single rose was fully blossomed – beautiful but a tad unnatural to see. It feels like a Walt Disney World for grown-ups and you can’t get onto the rides without wearing Galliano or Gucci, or least having the funds to prove you could. Otherwise you can just roam around and look. You might think it was exciting to see the preparations for the world’s most prestigious Grand Prix, but really it ruined the place – streets cut up by rows of metal railings and vans parked at difficult angles where sunburnt men heaved cables out of the back, to hook up to Portakabins which invariably spoilt any panoramic photo I wanted to take. Glamorous? Questionable. I should come back, perhaps. But I would prefer to live in Menton, or Nice, or Blackpool. Just joking. I hear Blackpool is lovely this time of year…
Back to affordable normality and Nice is most certainly one of the nicer places I’ve visited this year. It’s alive with summer vibes (no doubt because of the fact it was brow-dabbingly hot) and it jostles with all the best bits of France and Italy that I was in my element. Where else can you get salades Niçoises and penne all’arrabbiata next to each other on the menu, served up just a boule’s throw away from the sea where half of the menu’s fish come from? I could have eaten all day.
I was also happy to be somewhere new in France, and to speak a foreign language with conviction, not like I did Italian with reticence in Milan. Well, I say this, but nearly all the staff at the hostel were native English speakers, who launched straight into English. Fellow language students will probably appreciate how annoying this is, so I shan’t dwell. Even away from the hostel, Nice and the Côte d’Azur seemed full of such Anglophones, either there for Cannes or Monaco or just a break away (and why wouldn’t you?), I suspect. At times I was in ‘Nice-on-the-Sea’ and not Nice. In France there are so many places -sur-mer… ‘Eze-sur-mer’, ‘Beaulieu-sur-mer’… and it sounds so romantic and whimsical, but its English equivalent ‘-on-sea’ just turns the skies grey and transports me to Ramsgate or somewhere and the sparkle is lost. I suppose I oughtn’t be surprised at the number of English folk in Nice. For decades we English have been strolling on the beach in Nice that they even named the main drag, Promenade des Anglais, after us. How very thoughtful.
Back at the hostel – a.k.a. crime scene – we were getting ready for bed late one night when someone came into the room, guiding their way through the darkness with a torch. It was Michael; I saw the Iron Maiden t-shirt and the baseball cap with some US state motif on it long before I saw his face. This was it! He’d come to see what he could nab during the night whilst everyone was sleeping, deploying a mini torch to execute his dastardly plans incognito. He faffed around with his locker for a good twenty minutes, the torch hanging out of his mouth, before changing into those nappy-like briefs and clambering into his bunk. So, Michael wasn’t the thief. There were eleven other suspects, however, and my money was on the chap from south Wales who told us he visits Nice every year (to get drunk) and stays in that same hostel. That night he came in very drunk (quelle surprise) and spent half the night snoring and making the most bizarre noises in his sleep that we’d thought something had possessed him in the night. Probably like he did last year. And the year before.
We left the hostel and the rowdy long-haired Ozzie boys loudly talking about things any female readers would likely not want to hear and took a last stroll around Nice, the Monday antiques market and the walk up to the castle. Normally there are lifts although in 27° heat, they weren’t working, resulting in a bit of sweaty and panting foot traffic on the steps up to the greatest views in the city, I’m sure. I would also advise anyone who visits nice to meander around Vieux Nice, the old town. It’s as nice as any other I’ve visited in France and making a false turn and ending up in front of a seafood restaurant or ice cream shop is not quite as taxing as sharing a dorm with the cast of The Simpsons, I can assure you.
The next leg of our journey took us not to the station but to the airport, positioned neatly in the corner of the Baie des Anges. I was seriously annoyed with myself for forgetting to transfer my deodorant and sun cream into the rucksack, meaning I had to throw the three-quarters-full bottles in the bin. I was consoled, however, by spotting the actress Linda Robson in the queue. My trip was then made by having seen such a stellar C-list star of British TV.
At this stage in the journey I have some bad news to share. When we arrived at the hostel in Madrid, I noticed something whilst checking in. On the desk there was a message in Spanish; I recognised the words ‘pano’ and ‘WiFi’ immediately and didn’t need to read the rest. Apparently the national telecoms company was on strike and as such, there was no WiFi. The girl behind the desk apologised, claiming it had been so for two weeks. This wasn’t good. 21st century travellers survive on WiFi and happy hour deals these days, so I can only imagine the number of disappointed faces she’d seen for the last weeks.
A strike in Spain and not in France! The world is a funny place sometimes.
We were both hungry and in need of internet so we set out back into the city, wandering through the beautiful Plaza Mayor, teeming with late night diners and those irritating men who try and sell you overpriced (if indeed worth anything) light-up helicopter things that soar upwards and invariably end up on rooftops, rendering the spoilt children whose parents stupidly bought one very upset. Nonetheless we were impressed with Madrid already and the relentless energy which pulsed through its veins at this hour on a Monday night. This one little patch of the city was teeming with people eating and drinking and walking and selling sunglasses from bed sheets, promptly packing up and darting when a police siren passed by.
After passing a man walking a rabbit, we stumbled across the mercado San Miguel – a stylishly converted covered market, now a hotspot for people to eat and grab good value paella to go, as we did. Perhaps unsurprisingly on the way back we got a bit lost – the Plaza Mayor radiates with cobbled lanes, all of which resemble each other in the dark, and so we made a few attempts to find the right way back to bed.
Lured into another walking tour after breakfast, we congregated in the city’s (almost, but not quite according to GPS) centre, Puerta del Sol. Within this hemispherical square are a handful of street artists, although the term is to be used loosely for someone who sticks a caricature mask of Mr Bean on their head and beckons for photos. Another woman had a coffee cup in front of her, apparently looking for tips for just standing there in a wedding dress. Anyway, the tour went on, our Latvian/Russian-turned-adopted Brit Anastasia led us through the warm calles of Madrid. She was surprised when she learned we were English, because the language Sean and I were speaking to each other beforehand didn’t sound like English supposedly.
I warn any of you considering an Interrailing trip that this is clearly what happens after two weeks of continual city-shifting.
Madrid is a bit like London in that generally, it is not an aesthetic masterpiece, but that’s what I like. It has a tousled blend of old and new, and everything in between, but something was missing for me – water. There is no lake, no sea, and a disappointing river on the outskirts. Why? Back in the 16th century Philip II decided to uproot everything from Toledo and set himself up in the geographical heart of Spain and establish the capital there, to unite the nation. You see, these tours do teach you things.
At the beginning of the tour, Anastasia got us all in a circle and had us introduce ourselves. Oh god, I said to myself. I’ve broken more ice than the Titanic over the years but the thought of them never seems to get any less awkward.
‘My name’s Connor, I’m from England and I don’t eat meat.’
I had no idea what to say, and for some reason I thought it a good idea to deride myself in a city where the Museo del Jamón was just around the corner.
After the tour some of us, again dutifully led by Ana, headed for lunch at a Spanish restaurant. At that point I thought it all very… I don’t quite know – amazing? There we were, two brothers from England, sitting and laughing over lunch in the underground dining room of a restaurant in Madrid, with our Latvian tour guide, alongside two Brazilians, a Pole, two Germans, three Canadians and a chap from Montreal who’d just done the 900km El Camino and had obviously forgotten to get changed because he did the whole tour and meal in his lycra jersey and shorts.
That night, we joined a crowd from the hostel for a bar crawl. Beforehand, I was adamant nt to leave Madrid without having had tapas, and so Sean and I headed to the aforementioned Museo del Jamón, a slightly misleading bar (not museum) where the whole of Spain likes to eat, apparently, but we managed to squeeze ourselves into a space at the bar counter grabbing a couple of beers and a ciabatta roll loaded with calamari. Everyone was doing the same; their hands busy with food and drink, their mouths gassing away contentedly. The place was just the tip of the iceberg in the sea of tapas culture in Madrid. I can see why tapas is so popular the world over; it combines effortlessly the two biggest pleasures of Latin life: food and good company, in a relaxed and easy environment so symbolic of Spain, in this case a brash mirrored bar surrounded by hanging legs of pork, providing a delightfully authentic reminder of the place’s name, which would send a vegan loco.
Afterwards we met the group in the same place as the tour that morning in Puerta del Sol, where the leader, this time a highly energetic Hungarian, Silvia, thrust upon us a spin the handmade dial drinking game, which resulted in me having to ask a random Spaniard where I could find a prostitute.
‘Up there,’ he replied.
‘Are they expensive?’
‘Do you have a cigarette?’
For my efforts I was rewarded with a swig of vodka from a suede pouch which frankly tasted like dust, but we soon headed out to the start the crawl. Silvia suddenly started keeping tally of our efforts with the open bar with a biro and the back of our hands. Sean bragged he was on his eighth, ninth, tenth or whatever, whereas I was still floundering on four. It’s not my fault; I don’t repsond very calmly to streams of alcoholic drinks, especially after those beers with tapas, too, and an open bar to tempt. I spent a good amount of time talking to Conrado, the Brazilian, or at least I think that’s how he told me he spells his name, in what I thought was good Spanish. I think it was good, at least. According to a lecturer at uni, one’s language skills improve after an ‘influential’ number of drinks, which on that night made perfect sense. I remember telling Conrado that I have a blog, and he asked for the link. So, wherever you are, Conrado, if you’re reading this, I apologise if I have misspelled your name and thanks for reading!
At some point after bar number two, I couldn’t keep up with the double figures being etched onto everyone’s hands so I left. I somehow managed to ward off the man selling me marijuana in Puerta del Sol; I will put it down to all the ‘non, merci’s I had to reel off to keep the North African weed dealers away from me near to where I used to live in Orleans. I called by the 24-hour churros bar Anastasia had pointed out to us on the tour, not far off the 4am benchmark she said was a good time to visit. I looked down at my churros and chocolate on the table, rocking slightly from the beers and sangria, my eyes heavy with tiredness. And also the beers and sangria. I was coherent enough to recognise that this was a very sorry sight, sitting alone in a café, chuckling at the churros in front of me, at 3am, too weak in willpower to continue the bar crawl. The group chatting loudly in the corner must have thought I’d been dumped or was homeless – either way just rather drunk.
That said, I did, however, wake up with bright eyes in the morning – the same cannot be said for Sean, who’d returned at some stage in the night. After breakfast we took the metro north to the home of Real Madrid, the Santiago Bernabéu stadium. Unfortunately tailed by a noisy group of schoolkids, it didn’t detract from what is probably the best stadium tour there is, nothing less to be expected from a club who does not hesitate to remind you it is the greatest in the world. Modesty aside, the stadium is very impressive and the tour astounded me. There are trophies everywhere, alongside kits and boots and programmes of important matches, but it’s the interactive element that singles out the tour: touch screens and holographic projections amaze and inform at the same time, making a trip to the Bernabéu a Madrid must. It probably has the power to make the most football-hating culture vulture step back and admire. Plus, you can have your picture taken with Cristiano Ronaldo. Well, you are superimposed next to a photo of him, but I will spend a good deal of time pretending otherwise.
After another spot of tapas – tortilla sandwich, the perfect hangover food according to Sean – we made our way to the Parque del Buen Retiro. This has to be one of the world’s best urban parks, and I think is now one of my favourites. It’s beautiful. Perfect, almost. It is a crisscrossing patchwork of pathways, passing in and out of the shade, all set in beautifully designed and maintained gardens of trees and clipped hedges, flowers and grasses. It’s easy to get lost, but if I were a madrileño, I would get lost there every day in my lunch hour, and wouldn’t be surprised if some of them genuinely do on such sunny days. Sean found a quiet spot under a tree for a much-needed ‘siesta’, so I had a wander around Madrid’s green lungs, unimpressed by the increasing prices of a Magnum throughout the gardens. There is a lot to admire here – the world’s only statue dedicated to Lucifer, as well as a serene boating lake (or is it a pond? I don’t know when things stop becoming ponds and start becoming lakes), and the Moorish-tinged Palacio de Cristál, currently hosting an exhibition on carpets. It got me thinking – perhaps I should write to Boris and urge him to recommission the Crystal Palace. South London is missing a giant glass exhibition centre and I’m sure people from all over the world would flock to see an artistic arrangement of rugs.
Regardless, I would flock back to the Spanish capital next week. It has a palpable, exciting energy and personality with a truly world-class ración of cultural attractions. In fact, I meant to visit the Galeria Reina Sofía, but its free admission hours clashed with our train to Seville, and so alas I was not able to feed my inner art critic. Never mind, though – I stepped on the kilometer zero, the measuring stick (or stone) for all distances to and from Madrid, meaning I am destined to return. I will use the art gallery as my excuse for returning, since I’m not sure I could muster another round of drinks with Silvia.
With interrailing, it’s unfortunately not as easy and jumping on and off whichever train you please; some must be reserved, including Madrid to Seville. We called by the mighty Atoche station on the Tuesday, which also serves as a giant greenhouse and terrapin enclosure, to reserve our seats. As I’m sure you’re aware, the Spanish’s reputation for punctuality and order is not the world’s best, and I certainly can confirm this, after having torn small clumps of hair from my head in German-grown impatience at the shambles going on before me. For reservations for trains that day, passengers are invited to queue and be seen in that way, but for trains on other days, passengers are invited to take a ticket and wait for their number to be displayed – that’s right, a bit like the butcher’s counter at Tesco’s before they decided to get rid of it. Normally this shouldn’t be a problem, but the station was so busy that afternoon that most of the staff must have thought ‘sod this’ and gone out back, leaving just an on-and-off handful of employees to deal with the hoards of passengers. What’s more is that the screens indicating ticket numbers was either broken or the queue really was moving that slowly. When I say slowly, I mean not at all. I watched several passengers huff and march off and I followed suit, always one to do as the locals do, although probably not done in quite as much Hispanic flair. I asked a guard if there was somewhere I could just reserve a couple of seats and queue somewhere else.
‘Yo no sé,’ he shrugged before trudging off to no doubt deal with another bewildered traveller.
Luckily I managed to hunt down a sales desk for local trains where the woman sneakily reserved our seats. She was probably an undercover German, and took pity on someone wanting a bit of help in such transport turmoil. A big muchas gracias to Isabel at Atoche.
Part Five: Seville to, er, Hounslow: https://theconnorsseur.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=1457&action=edit