Alternate title: Ticking boxes.
A few warnings before I get into this:
1) I've been on my own for a week and have not had a chance to share my journey with anyone but Cal. For you, this means this entry will probably be fairly long.
2) I've taken a tonne of photos and videos and stuff, so it's likely to be image heavy. Sorry if it bogs down your connection.
3) I'm going to use the word "awesome" a lot.
4) Excessive use of italics are also likely.
With that out of the way, I'll begin.
This trip has been one of those "always wanted to do" type things for ages. I guess it all stemmed in a sense from watching the tour de france with my dad of an afternoon and marvelling equally at the race and the country it crossed. I thought to myself that this was a place I'd like to visit, and every year when the tour was on I'd think about trying to plan getting there for it next year. Well fortunately for me, being in London makes getting to France easy, so plans were made. As Cal had already used up most of her holidays, and wasn't really interested in cycling I decided to go it alone.
Now travelling on my own was a fairly intimidating prospect, especially into a country in which I didn't speak the native language, and I will admit I was very nervous when I first stepped off the train in Paris.
But after the first 5 minutes, everything came up Millhouse. (sorry, Simpson's reference).
Travelling on your own is certainly a character building experience, but in my case it really served to really self assuring. From my travel experience with Cal, it's become clear that we're very different types of people. Cal is very proactive, and I'm very reactive. What this boils down to is Cal baring the brunt of dealing with people and problems because I'm happy to sit back and let the universe sort it out.
Being on my own really hasn't changed my reactive nature, if anything it's convinced me that in many cases it works pretty damn well – but putting this all to the test and relying on yourself, and yourself alone in challenging circumstances and succeeding is an amazingly rewarding experience.
I did get sorta lonely though a points.
Aaaanyway, I should actually probably start talking about the trip now, and moving the theme of this entry away from Oprah and towards my usual Springer.
So with one small step for me, and with one giant leap for my confidence (and my bragging rights to my mum) I arrive at the Paris International train station – and I've got absolutely no idea what to do next. I resolve to get to my hostel and check in and do all that stuff, but short of that I really had no clue what I'd do with myself. That is until it sorta dawned on me that I should explore. None of that pansy ass hopping on one of those red tourist busses and experiencing the city from behind a glass I decided that I'd walk. Where would I walk? I didn't figure that one out till later.
Eventually I'm unpacked at the hostel and I decide that I'd walk towards the centre of the city and just see some stuff. This was cool, it was only half an hours walk. This was of course until I somehow managed to end up walking up hill. You readers might notice something wrong with this statement – the core city of Paris is on the Seine, and I was highly unlikely to be finding a river on the top of a hill.
Rectifying the situation and walking for an hour in the other direction I eventually arrived on the Seine, and came to the conclusion that Paris is goddamn awesome. You know those birds that are attracted by bright flashing colours? Neither do I because I just made that up – but if that bird existed it'd be exactly what I was like for the rest of the day. I'd walk 100m see something I'd seen on TV or only heard of before, check it out before walking onto the next flashy thing. Paris really is a tremendously beautiful city – it's really hard to compare it to London or Sydney or anywhere else I'd been before. Each of these places has culture and style, but Paris positively oozes it from every orifice. Where in London you can see bits of the past in buildings around the place, in Paris it is everywhere.
Sunset in Paris from the Arc de Triumph
Despite walking for 9 hours and seeing the main things I'd wanted to see (Notre Dam, Arc de Triumph etc) and I still didn't manage to see the whole place. I did however get a massive blister on my big toe as a reminder of the experience, but I'll touch again on that soon.
While walking I quickly realised that my plan to go and see the Louvre would have to wait for the next day, as I'd heard it was a massive time sink, so the next day I was up and in there nice and early. Now even though I've got a degree in Fine Art (really) art as a concept doesn't really interest me that much at all – if something is aesthetically pleasing that's one thing, but to be blunt I find the concept of "art" a load of wank. But… the Louvre kicks ass. I did the standard things of seeing the Mona Lisa [spoiler]it looks exactly the same as every print of it you've seen[/spoiler] and the Venus de Milo and stuff like that, but the thing that turned out interesting me the most was the renaissance art. I noticed a certain theme common in some of the pictures which scarily corresponds to a recent event…
The wardrobe malfunction. Yep. You know how one of Janet Jackson's boobs popped out during the Superbowl? Well apparently renaissane artists had the idea a few centuries early. It's really quite eerie that in a vast majority of artworks featuring a woman in a prominent role one of her boobs was hanging out. Not that I was complaining of course…
I must also mention a certain photo I took outside the Louvre which I immediately fell in love with. It was a spur of the moment shot, and I wasn't even looking through the viewfinder, but it came out awesome. So awesome that I was compelled to mention it to every person I spoke to for a couple of days (including Cal multiple times). Ladies and Gentleman, I present to you "The Duck Photo".
Definitely all it's quacked up to be.
Moving on, the next day was my trip into the alps to see my first stage of the tour, the premiere mountain stage climbing l'Alpe de Huez. This thing is the ultimate mountain climb in the race for a reason. Observe the following graph:
Enjoying the precedent I'd set earlier in walking around and exploring I did the same with the town I was staying in at the bottom of the hill – Bourg d'Oisans, and I soon found out that while my grasp of the language was improving and I was not apprehensive about talking to people anymore, there were still some cultural things I didn't really understand. Sitting down at a pizza shop for some lunch, the owner came out and asked me what I wanted (I assume so anyway as he didn't speak english). I did the global "I'd like a menu" hand motions which resulted in a grunt from the owner. He turned, grabbed the standing menu thing to less than a meter away to face me, and wandered off with a "bloody tourists" look on his face.
This is not to add to the popular idea that France would be lovely if it weren't for the french – I found them to be amazingly welcoming and patient as I tried to communicate with them. Even the bums (who were also bilingual I should note) were really cool to talk to.
So the next day comes round and I set out early to get a spot to watch the tour on the mountain. On the way up I met this fellow.
The Devil I know.
If you know anything about the tour de france, you know how incredibly cool I now am. I can also happily report that contrary to what I've read on the internet, he does no smell particularly bad.
I climb the mountain for 6 of the 21 hairpin turns before I find a spot that I decide is good enough next to a really nice English family. A thing about the tour that you don't really see on TV is the incredible atmosphere. Everyone is essentially sitting around all day waiting for the riders wizz by, so people are out to make it a fun day. There were flags, mascots, costumes, food, singing, and all sorts of cool stuff, which actually made the 5 hours or so of waiting in the direct sunlight go really quickly.
About an hour before the riders come through are the caravans. These are a bunch of decorated cars and trucks owned by the major sponsors which come through and hand out free stuff. It is truly bizarre some of the things they have – I mean there is a lolly company which sponsors which thows out packs of lollys. Logical. However I'm really not sure how an insurance company throwing out giant inflatable hammers makes sense.
The riders eventually come through and everyone gets really excited, including me which you'll see from this video:
http://www.eclectical.org/crap/letour.wmv (Sorry about the crappy camerawork, I was excited)
It really is amazing what these guys do – they ride 200km a day for 3 weeks, and some of the stages like the one I was at they finish on the top of a massive hill. Amazing.
So the next day my plan was to head to Nice and kick start my couple of days of lazing around on the beach. As my luck would have it I hit a bit of a snag – the next day the tour was starting in the town I was staying in, and they'd messed with all the roads. This meant that the bus that I needed to catch to get my train wasn't going to leave till 30mins after my train had left. Naturally I miss my train, and ended up getting to Nice 3 hours later than expected, but I like to think it wasn't without the silver lining. Waiting for my train in Grenoble, I was sitting having a baguette and one of the beers I was carrying with me with on a bench near the station with a random guy. A third guy came around and asked me for some change. I didn't give him any, but he sat down anyway and began chilling out with us by singing to himself. I offer him a beer which he excepts, and we have a stunted conversation in broken english about ambient music with the original guy as the translator. While not necessarily a massive event, it really felt cool to be in there and just chatting to the regular people.
Nice. I'm really not sure what I was expecting when I decided to go to Nice, but it was probably the first time in France that I stopped feeling that continual feeling of awe that I'd had previously. Sure the riviera is stunningly beautiful, but the people really ruined it for me. It was filled to the brim with uber fashionable people, or fat American tourists, each equally as snobby as each other. It was unbelievable that when I arrived in my transformers tshirt I felt so looked down the nose at that I ended up going back to my hostel and changing into a nice shirt which I was saving for the weekend in Paris with Cal. This is the reason that you'll only find a couple of photos from nice in the gallery.
Temporarily fleeing Nice, I was off to Monaco which was essentially the same thing, except more expensive. I did manage to have a good day however by ditching the palace and the casino and all the other usual tourist traps and wandering along a coastal walk and stopping at the little beaches I found along the way. At one of them, I found this dude:
He was feeling a bit blue.
I didn't really get him. It was a hot 35 degree day, he was down on the beach and refused to take off his mechanic uniform.
Next was another day at the beach in Nice which was pretty cool, and definitely redeemed by a large ratio of white pointers. However, I now had my tan and made my way back to Paris to meet Cal for the weekend, and see the last stage of the tour.
On my insistence, Cal and I were to climb the Eiffel tower on a Saturday night at sunset for maximum romantic effect. Even though I enjoyed the experience and we got some fantastic photos out of it (see the gallery) there was a 3 hour wait to get to the top. 3 hours. It was a constant line complete with people trying to push in and other unpleasantries. The view in the end was worth it, but I'm very glad I'll never have to do it again.
And then my trip began to draw to a close. The next day was spent on the Champs Elysee watching the tour with Cal, who selflessly agreed to come along with me. I think she enjoyed it more than she expected. Like before they had the caravan come through, but this time they weren't throwing out free stuff – possibly because there were too many people. Whatever the reason, they really didn't do much to excite the crowd – I mean the only way some Logistics Company in a car that looks like a giant gas bottle is going to get me excited is if they throw me free stuff. But anyway, I digress. The riders arrive and we cheer them on for their 9 laps. Aussie Robbie McEwen is pipped at the post for the stage win, but ends up winning the Sprinters Green Jersey, so I go away happy. I end my fantastic adventure in France on a high.
However, I must end this blog trip for you on a low. You know the blister that I mentioned earlier? It got bigger and bigger during the trip, despite the fact that it was in a spot with no friction. But by the last weekend it was so large I punctured it before going to bed so that it wouldn't be so obviously. What I hadn't accounted for is that I had some sort of Wolverine blister in that when I woke up it had magically healed itself and was back to full size. I squeezed it to see just how big it was, a certain something happened. What something? I'll leave it to you to find out. It's probably not for the faint hearted.
And with that, this insanely long blog is over. Photos are up in the Photo section. I urge you to have a look because I'm vain and I think I took some good photos.
ps: If you managed to make it this far, let me know and I'll send you a dollar.