Bonjour Paris


French food is the best. And I’m not saying that subjectively. Honestly, if I had my choice, I’d eat tacos every day of the week over a Croque Monsieur or a plate of steak tartare. And I’m sure I’m offending MANY people by stating this, but French food is the best. You see, UNESCO has actually declared French cuisine as a “world intangible heritage” and the gastronomy of French cooking is protected, just like any other UNESCO world heritage site on Earth. I didn’t even know intangible world heritages were a thing! But apparently, French food made the cut, and so I can’t argue that it is considered the best. So in light of this new fun fact, Jodon and I have spent the past four days eating baguettes, cheese, saucisson, pâté, and moules frites – And loving it.

Jodon loves microwave meals. His freezer is chocked full of 5-min Michelina dinners and ice cream sandwiches. And yet, despite his love for blue-menu cuisine, he has a pretty phenomenal palate. However, Jodon eats to survive. He eats because he HAS to eat, not because his mouth has been salivating over the thought of a creamy brie or a crusty baguette for the past three hours.  

I love everything food. Except raisins, obviously. Who would ruin a perfectly good grape like that? Otherwise, my entire day revolves around when, where and what I’m going to eat next. I could be stuffed to the brim at breakfast while still dreaming of that new restaurant to try for dinner later on. It’s a problem.  

So four days in Paris we’ve had to learn to balance our interests. I keep Jodon on a strict eating-every-four-hours-or-else rule, and he drags me around to museums and monuments and walking tours so that I actually come out of the city learning more than just what pate is made of. If I spend two hours admiring art at the Pompidou, Jodon will allow me to go wild at the local market and have a picnic in the park. If we visit the Louvre, we can then have some icy beers in monmartre with a charcuterie plate. And so long as the meals are never more than four hours apart, I am happy! So that’s what we’ve done.

We learned that the Pompidou is much more wonderful on the inside than the monstrosity of a building suggests. We listened to anecdotes about the city during our walking tour. And we lost ourselves in the art exhibits of the Louvre (albeit mixing up the closing times and missing the Mona Lisa. Jodon says I’m too hip to see such mainstream art anyways). 

By day three we finally made our way to the Eiffel Tower. I had gasped like a giddy high-school girl every time I caught a glimpse of it as we walked the streets. Eight years of travelling and I have never set eyes on the Eiffel Tower before. How is this possible? But even with my high expectations, the tower didn’t disappoint. We wandered the area, catching the views from all angles before heading to the Seine for our evening river cruise. Right as we were about to take off, the clouds broke and the sun turned the Eiffel Tower a shimmering gold. It was perfect. 

The boat then took off on an hour long cruise through the historic district of Paris. Classical music played softly as we rode away from the sunset, catching photos of the riverside, the old bridges and the Notre Dame. At our half way point, the sun set and the lights of Paris turned on. We came back to a glowing Eiffel Tower, sparkling on the city skyline: lit up in all its glory. It was disgustingly romantic, and also my favourite part of our time in Paris.

Some mandatory late night drinks and cheese along the river summed up the evening and was the perfect ending to our evening in the city of lights.

After three hectic days in Paris and a full day trip to the Palace of Versailles, our final day in Paris was spent relaxing. We sipped on ice coffees by the Sacre Coeur, wandered the streets in the Centre-ville and met up with my friend Megan for some bar hopping in the Latin Quarter. It’s always fun seeing friends from home across the world, and even more fun when those times are spent drinking French wine, eating Moules Frites and singing away the evening in a grungy Piano bar. Oh Paris, I will miss you!

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Jetlag in London


Jet lag is a bitch. Night three and I’m staring at the ceiling of Kelsey’s flat in a half drugged daze, unable to fall asleep. My eyes sting. My stomach is uneasy. The 8-hour time difference has wreaked havoc on my body’s inner clock. The air mattress makes a rubbery squeak as I roll over for the umpteenth time. Jodon is just as restless, creaking on the cot above me. Welcome to London.It’s been nearly two years since I’ve written a post. It’s embarrassing really. But life has its ways of tearing you away from the things that matter, and this blog has been left to collect cyber dust for the last 22 months. I have no excuses. 

But the road was calling, and the bug has caught up to me once again. And so here I am, jet lagged in London with my partner in crime, Jodon. We plan on spending the next few months exploring Europe, marvelling at its history, and learning how to travel as a couple… without killing each other. 

London has been a whirlwind. I don’t know how we would have made it through the days without Kelsey’s Grade-A guidance. I’ve never met anyone more organized than Kelsey. A plan, a list of directions, busses, trains, prices and must-stop food places were left neatly on the dining room table for us when we woke. We followed the directions like zombies fumbling toward living meat: dazed, half dead, unthinkingly. 

Camden, Soho, Westminster, the Thames, Borough market, Tower of London: each neighbourhood offering layers upon layers of history.  

I find it difficult to fully grasp the history that Europe has. Most buildings are older than the existence of Canada. The cobblestone streets we walk on, the buildings that now house H&M and Starbucks are older than the history of our entire country. The Tower of London has been a fortress, a palace, and a prison. It’s walls have held the kings and queens we learn about in school. William the Conqueror fortified it 900 years ago. 400 years later, Henry VIII beheaded his wives. The streets of London house the real life fairy tales of human history: even if they now lead to a McDonalds. It’s unfathomable to me.

And yet, through all the history, I still fall in love with the here and now of London: the bustling English-style pubs, the riverside restaurants and the hidden food markets that scatter the city.

Borough Market. My new happy place. I dragged Jodon, a non-market lover, to it two days in a row. Food stalls, cheese shops, wine and beer sellers, pastries, butchers, fish mongers: this place has it all. From Spanish tapas to Ethiopian cuisine. Life changing coffees to fresh baked baguettes. I got lost in the aroma of a stinky French cheese stand, smelling the molds, dying to try them all. My mouth salivated at the Pieminister stand; we bought a tarragon chicken pot pie and savoured in the flaky crust. Food markets are where I thrive. We splurged and picked up enough food for a charcuterie dinner, complete with French cheeses and chocolate truffles for dessert. Needless to say, it was sensational. Borough Market does not disappoint. And what’s more, the Market has been around since 1014AD… Just a casual 853 years longer than Canada. Mind blown.

So maybe it’s the time change, or maybe it’s the kilo of cheese I ate minutes before turning out the lights. Whatever the case, I’ve been carefully counting sheep for hours now without any progress. But the price to pay is small. The journey ahead is worth the week of restlessness I’m feeling now. And I’m already looking forward to our next stop: Paris. 

Carcassonne

Carcassonne is considered one of the prettiest fort towns in Southern France. It’s walled old city, with a river running along the outside is exactly how you would imagine small, French market towns to be. And yet, my time there was mostly met with disaster…
Carcassonne is so small, you could walk around the whole city in a half hour. Since there were no hostels in town, I planned on spending only a few hours there on my way through to Marseille. But when I arrived to a tiny train station with no baggage check, I realized I might have a little problem of what to to with the life I was carrying on my back.
The information office was closed, the tourist office was closed, and there was no place to leave my bag for a few hours. According to an online chat group, one hotel in town would take care of a bag for a few hours for a small charge. When I arrived at the address, however, it had turned into a clothing store…
The other hotels I stopped by at in the area don’t keep luggage unless you are already staying at the hotel, so my only remaining option was to go sightseeing with my 75Litre pack and hope for the best. So I strapped myself in and started walking!
The first 20 minutes weren’t so bad! The town is mostly flat, and everything was so pretty I forgot about the weight of the world on my shoulders. But about a half hour in I started cursing the ceramics I’d bought in Morocco, and the guidebooks I hadn’t left behind in some random hostel. My back was aching, and I felt like I was being pulled slowly deeper into the Earth. I made it an hour and 45 minutes of hiking around the area before retiring in the main square and giving in to exhaustion. I was not made out for trekking.
I plopped down on the ground next to a water fountain with a makeshift lunch from the carrefour: a baguette, some cheese and a few apples and oranges. I was soon spied by a couple of chatty homeless men who joined me for lunch and offered me their prized cheap wine, poured into a 1.5L water bottle… Which I politely turned down. But it’s nice to know wine is so cheap here that even the homeless can enjoy a decent tasting vintage!
I didn’t really think it was strange at first, sharing an apple sandwich with two, old homeless dudes on the dusty ground of a small village in Southern France. All of us surrounded by our worldy possessions that we carry around on our backs. If you think about it, I too am kind of homeless at the moment. And too be fair, I’ve been confused for being homeless on a number of occasions throughout my years of travels, so why not embrace it!
The problem with being homeless though, is that after trekking around for hours, and chugging a tonne of water, you don’t have a bathroom to use. And I needed to pee!
Not wanting to have to buy anything at a neighboring cafe, I said goodbye to my new friends and trekked back to the train station to use theirs. Sadly, when I arrived, ready to burst, I realized there was only a single pay toilet out back by the tracks. 30 cents per use, and the door only accepted 10 or 20 cent coins. I stood there digging through my purse in a desperate attempt to find the cash. I had a million 1s, 2s and 5s but no 10s or 20s. I searched my pockets and the change that had fallen to the bottom of my purse as well: nothing.
All of a sudden the door popped open in front of me and a woman came out. She smiled at me as I was elbow deep in my purse looking for coins.
“Please” she said, and held the door open for me…
My angel!!
“Thank you so much!” I said.
She nodded and walked back towards the station.
I left my pack hastily outside and stepped inside the large aluminum room. The door shut and locked behind me and a motor turned on. I looked around for a light, but couldn’t find one. There was just a dim glow coming from somewhere, otherwise I was in a damp, metal room with a squatter toilet on the floor and a strange, seat that popped out of the wall and hovered over the hole in the floor… Just when I think I’ve seen every type of toilet in the world, I stumble across something new. As I quickly scanned the room for a place to balance my purse, the motor picked up and I heard a loud sound of water on metal.
My reaction time was just not quick enough. I couldn’t quite put it all together that fast. The damp floor, the swooshing sound, the French sign in red on the inside of the door that I roughly translated to “self cleaning”. But then it hit me. Literally.
The water moved steadily across the room like a wall of rain coming in from the ceiling, or the wall or something. It started creeping towards me, spraying so hard it was bouncing back off the aluminum floor and spraying me from two angles!
Turns out, the toilet self-cleans after each use, by washing down the entire room, top to bottom, side to side. Because the last lady had held the door open for me, when it shut behind me, the toilet assumed no one was there, and so, started its thorough cleaning process.
As soon as the whole thing clicked I turned and pushed on the door… Which had locked for cleaning. I turned around, watching the water come closer and closer. I stood for a moment in horror, then turned back in a second, more desperate attempt at the door. This time, I spotted a red emergency exit button. I hit it and pushed on the door and the thing swung open, throwing me back out into the light of day.
I was wet, but I think I’d just barely missed the worst of it. I let the door shut behind me, and listened to the rest of the cleaning inside. Not knowing what to do, I just stood there for a minute. Then, still needing to pee, I went back to ransacking my purse for change. Finally I checked the outside pocket and low and behold I found a 10 and a 20 cent coin right away. I had to giggle a little at the ridiculousness of it all. Then I put in the coins for attempt two.
When I’d finished, I opened the door and saw a man standing outside, waiting to come in. In a natural reaction I smiled and held the door open for him.
“Merci!” He said and started to walk in.
“No wait!!” I yelled at him. He jumped and looked at me, this half wet girl emerging from the toilet, shouting at him. He clearly didn’t speak English.
“Don’t go in there! It will spray you down!” He stared at me, now holding the door open himself. I made a lame attempt at a whooshing sound and flailed my arms (I’ve never been very good at charades).
He still stared at me.
So I risked being mistaken for rude and pulled the door from him and shut it. Immediately the motor started up and within seconds the thing started cleaning itself. I pointed to the sound and the man started laughing.
“Ahhh! Merci!” He said. Then looked me up and down and started laughing some more.
Even I had to laugh as I grabbed my bag and walked back towards the station. My time exploring Carcassonne was over, but the trains took a midday break so I still had over 2 hours to wait. I found a rock by the river and tried to relax. My back was still aching, I felt like I was getting a cold, and a super dysfunctional family decided to sit next to me and scream bloody murder at each other for the next two hours… It was fun.
Considering my day, I would still absolutely recommend Carcassonne to anyone driving through the area. Just make sure you’re a little more prepared and a little less homeless than I was…

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Toulouse

I woke up the next morning in Colomiers and felt a lot better. The hostel offered free breakfast and Nancy, the owner of the place, was super friendly and helped me with the bus route into town. Even the guy who was so standoffish the night before turned out to be charming and funny in the morning time. I tried the first bank on the way out of town and got cash immediately. Things were definitely looking up!
To top it all off, the sun came out as I reached Toulouse. And even though I felt embarrassed at my complete lack of French, I managed to get myself a map and explore the city without having to talk to too many people.
Although I hadn’t travelled very far distance wise, France felt wildly different from Spain. And yet, I can’t quite pinpoint what is was. Churches were large and impressive, but had less detailing or moorish influence. It felt more medieval, Joan of Arc-esque and less Arabic or Gaudi than the architecture of Catalan or Andalucia. But nevertheless, it did not lack in beauty.
The churches, the cobblestone, the river running through the city: Toulouse is very picturesque. And, being my first French city, I was able to confirm or deny all my French stereotypes…
For starters, mimes, dressed in white face paint and sporting French berets are, perhaps sadly, no where to be found. However, people DO walk around just holding on to baguettes! (Not everyone of course, but a surprising number, so I dub this stereotype to be true).
People do NOT clean up after their dogs, but the general populous smell fantastic! Okay, so I don’t think smelling good is a stereotype, but maybe just a general observation of mine. I now understand why so many perfume ads are in French… The French are the ones who wear them!
But my real difficulty was not stereotypes, it was the accent. My mind was still in Spanish mode, and switching to a new accent was too much for my little brain to comprehend right away. This of course has made for some interesting conversations of late. My first of which was back at the hostel in Colomiers after I was finishing dinner.
I picked up some veggies at the grocery store on my way home and made a big salad for dinner back at the hostel. When I was finished, I started talking to two of the guys staying in my room. No one at the hostel really spoke English, but these two could get by in basic English, and so attempted to include me in their conversation.
“Do you like chocolate?” One guy asked me.
“Yes, of course!” I said
“I have some black chocolate, do you want me to get you some?”
“Actually, I’m so full from dinner, but thank you.”
“But with salad! Black chocolate, it is the perfect combination!”
“Dark chocolate and salad is supposed to be a good combination?” I asked skeptically, thinking he was joking.
“You do not have this in Canada!?” The look of profound shock on his face was almost comical. “But it is the best!”
“No, I can’t say that chocolate and salad is a popular food pairing at home”
The debate went back and forth for a while until finally he gave up.
“Well you must try it for yourself” he exclaimed, “I insist!” And he ran to his bunk to get the chocolate. When he returned he broke me off a piece and handed it to me.
It was delicious, obviously. Dark chocolate is my favourite. Not sure if it was really a winning match with my salad, but c’est la vie.
“It’s amazing. What’s it called?” I asked. He was confused and didn’t understand. “May I see the box?”
He passed my the rest of the chocolate. It was a brand I hadn’t heard of, but I instantly saw what the confusion was. The box read “chocolate noir et sal” or “dark chocolate with salt” it wasn’t salad he was saying, it was salt!
For some reason I found this so funny, I burst out laughing.
“Ooooh! Sal! Not salad!”
He looked confused.
“I thought you had said dark chocolate and SALAD went together, but you meant SALT!”
“Salt?” He asked confused
“Sal, not salad” to him, the words sounded exactly the same, so he still looked at me with a confused expression. But all of a sudden the guy behind him understood and started laughing hysterically as well.
The poor guy had no idea what was going on until the second guy calmed down from his laughter and explained in French.
“Salade? Salade?!” He yelled at me “But why would black chocolate go with salade!?!”
“Well that’s what I was trying to say!” I replied in between what had turned into uncontrollable giggles.
It was my first of many, many, many mistaken conversations. And I’m not quite sure why we all found this one particularly hilarious, but I was glad to be breaking through the language barrier, however slowly, and making some French friends!

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Welcome to France

I’ve always been a little afraid of visiting France. Not because I don’t speak the language, or heard the people are sometimes standoffish, or because I was worried I wasn’t going to enjoy it. I have been afraid of visiting France because I expected to love it SO much, that I never wanted to come home. That life in Canada would never compare after living the wonderful lifestyle of the French.
For those of you that know me even a little, you’ll know I have a strange obsession over cheese. All kinds of cheese. It’s by far my favourite food in the world. Followed closely by baguettes and wine… I wonder how France and I are going to get along.
I’ve been in France for exactly one week as I write this post, and I completely adore the country. But with a few hiccups to begin my trip, it took me a couple days to warm up to the place I was so looking forward to.
Actually, at first, I didn’t even know I was in France. I left San Sebastián in a thunderstorm with 12€ in my pocket. I stopped at 7 banks along the way to try to get money from one of the ATM’s. Nothing. My bank card just refused to work, after a month of no issues. Great.
So I hopped on the train in the direction I needed to go, in hopes I would figure the problem out later. With the purchase of a couple oranges and my first metro ticket I was down to 9€.
The end of the metro line dropped me off at Hendaye: apparently a town in France. The signs were in Spanish, the people spoke to me in French and the cafe across the street was called Cafe Jose. I knew this was a border town, but assumed the locals were speaking to me in French because I looked more French than Spanish. Turns out, after having to google where I was, I had made it to France!
I was trying to get to Toulouse. Originally I had wanted to go to Bordeaux, but turns out there are no hostels in Bordeaux. The cheapest hotel I could find was close to 70€/night for one person. Way beyond my budget. Toulouse was all booked up for hostels as well. Luckily, I found a place in a suburb called Colomiers that would take me in for the night, and so I was headed in that direction.
My transfer train to Bayonne didn’t run that day. So I was told my only route would be via Bordeaux, then onwards to Toulouse, then I could change trains again to Colomiers. It was going to cost me 80€. I put it on my credit card… Next train to Bordeaux: 5 hours.
5 hours in the tiny town of Hendaye. 5 hours in a thunderstorm with no where to go. The only place open was Cafe Jose across the street, which charged me 6€ for a sandwich so I could connect to the wifi to reach my bank.
I now had 3€ in my pocket.
The whole day was like this for me. Rain. Rain. Rain. I was freezing. My bank was closed with the time change. The train to Bordeaux was 25 minutes late which made me 5 minutes late for my connecting train to Toulouse. I had a 50 minute wait between my arrival in Toulouse and my train to Colomiers. The line to get tickets took me 40 minutes… I almost burst with anger as I waited in line, thinking I was going to miss my last train. With the ticket price, I now had 1.50€ in my pocket.
When I arrived in Colomier it was pitch black. The directions through the abandoned suburb were atrocious. Through side streets, under the highway, along streets with no name. I walked and walked, with no map. It took me a half hour to reach the hostel in the cold and dark.
The drive from San Sebastián to Colomiers is a little more than 3 hours. I arrived at the hostel at 9:40pm, 12 hours and 40 minutes after I’d left. I was cold, I was hungry, I was cranky, and I was poor. The small sandwich in Hendaye and two oranges were all I ate all day.
I called my bank from the hostel once I’d checked in. The internet cut out on all three phone calls I made to them. I finally gave up and went downstairs to ask if there was some place around the hostel for some cheap take out.
The young man behind the counter looked at me and scoffed.
“There is nothing. It is too late. There is nothing to eat now. You checked in a half hour ago. You should have thought about eating then, because now there is nothing!” He was sitting at the bar of the attached restaurant, eating and drinking wine with his wife. They looked at eachother with a “how stupid is this girl” look. In my hangriness I almost reached over and punched him for being so rude. A simple “sorry, I think everything is closed now” would have sufficed.
Then they started talking in French to each other.
I walked away. “Thanks anyways” I said.
“No, stop” he said. “I will make you a salad if you have to eat. With salmon. Ok?”
I almost didn’t want to eat his salad out of spite, but I was so hungry.
“Ok. Thank you” I said.
I sat down at a table and a salad was put in front of me almost instantly. Clearly it had already been made. I thanked him as he set it down, but he just turned and walked away. I felt sad and tired and cranky as I ate my little salad. But I have to admit, the salmon was the best salmon I have ever eaten.
I took a deep breath when I’d finished eating and told myself to suck it up. I could feel a cold coming on with the damp weather I’d been in all day. I just needed to go to bed, and tomorrow, everything would be better. So I watched the end of the movie that the hostel was playing and crawled into bed early. So much for my instant love affair with France. So far, it had been nothing but expensive and stressful.

San Sebastián

It is said by many, that the city of San Sebastián, in the Basque region of Spain, is the best place on Earth to eat… Clearly I wasn’t going to pass this up. So I left Andorra, crossed back into Spain, and traversed across the whole north of the country to reach the seaside city of San Sebastián.
The city is absolutely stunning. With great boardwalk strolls, beaches for swimming and surfing, and an old town, with narrow streets full of Pinxto bars!
Since I’d discovered my new love for pinxto bars in Barcelona, I was beside myself to hear that they were supposed to be even better in San Sebastián. I spent my first evening roaming from one bar to the next with a couple American girls from my hostel. We tried cheeses and octopus and smoked salmon and blood sausages, anything we could find: we drank dirt cheap, delicious red wine and local beers on tap… we were having no fun at all, I assure you.
The next morning the weather matched my mood. A red wine hangover and stormy, windy weather. The rains had finally caught up to me on the trip. It poured and poured and poured. So as a compromise to my full day of sightseeing, I decided to hit up the city’s famous aquarium, where I spent about half the day curled up in front of the shark tank, watching all the fishes go by.
The next day the rains cleared up just long enough for me to explore the length of the city. I walked to the end of the boardwalk where the popular “Peine del Viento” modern art sculpture sits. The sculpture, known in English as “The Wind Comb” was designed by two men, a sculpture and an architect, in an attempt to bring together the sea, iron, wind and rocks. The crashing waves that come in from the sea on the West side of the city, hit the walls and crash upwards. The artists have put star shaped wind holes in the ground that send wind and water geysers shooting up 20 feet or so in the air. The whole piece, which includes large, iron sculptures melded into the rocks, is actually quite impressive! And on a day after a storm, the geysers and waves were in full force.
But apart from wandering the streets and parks when the rains slowed, all I really did in San Sebastián was eat. Which is exactly what I went there for… And the food was amazing! It was a fabulous way to end my time in Spain. I’m definitely going to miss tapas and pinxtos, but I hear France might have one or two types of food I like as well. Time for a new country!

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Valle D’Incles and Andorra’s Largest Lake

“It’s not in the hiking pamphlet,” said the man at the information center, “but in my opinion, the Valle D’Incles is the most beautiful area in Andorra.” He scribbled a circle around a little river in the North East corner of the country map. “If you’re looking for a nice easy walk, and you don’t have a car, it’s only 1 hour, each way, through the valley along a road and it’s one of my favourites”.
I was really excited about exploring the valley, but a 2 hour hike didn’t seem worth staying an extra day for. So I looked up hikes in the area through the Active Tourism app. Sure enough, at the end of the valley, there was a popular hike that was 2 more hours, each way, to lake Juclar.
Lake Juclar is pretty much right on the France border in the parish of Canillo, and is Andorra’s largest lake! The photos looked great, so I decided to do the valley and the lake in a combined 6 hour hike.
According to the app, it didn’t look so hard, after all, it only climbed 500ft in altitude, how bad can it be?
When my alarm went off before the sun rose, however, I had different opinions on the matter. Even under the layers of blankets in my hotel room I could feel the cold outside. I did not pack for cold weather. I always forget to pack for cold weather, despite knowing that I’m ALWAYS cold, even during the summer months. I also didn’t pack for hiking. I only planned on MAYBE hiking for one or two days during the two months I was away. Not really worth hauling boots around for. So instead, I looked ridiculous throwing on my tights and my toms to go out for the day.
The bus driver thought I was crazy when I told him what stop I wanted him to drop me at.
“But why? There’s nothing there…”
“For hiking!” I said, a little too enthusiastically for how I felt that early in the morning. He looked skeptically at me, but shrugged and kept driving.
When my stop came up, the driver pulled over on the side of the highway and nodded for me to get off.
“Gracias” I smiled. Proud of myself for trying something a little more off the beaten track. And I strolled off the bus with confidence.
But as soon as the bus was out of view my confidence left me. I was in the middle of NOWHERE! I was standing on the side of the highway, in the 6th smallest country on Earth, stuck right in the middle of a mountain range. And it was freezing. It was absolutely freezing. Tights were definitely a mistake.
I quickly found the little side road that would take me through the valley and started at a brisk walk to try to warm up. But the sun looked like it was hours from hitting the area, so it was much more of an effort than I expected. For the first ten minutes I had my face down in my scarf and my hood pulled so far over my head I didn’t see any of the scenery. But then I remembered this was supposed to be the most beautiful area of the country and I forced myself to pay attention.
The valley was gorgeous. Perfect little stone homes scattered the valley, with cows grazing in the pastures outside. A small river ran right through the valley, all the way to a larger mountain that stood at the end of the road. I assumed that’s where I was headed.
The walk was wonderful, and easy. It was paved, and I didn’t feel like my pathetic excuse for walking shoes were out of place. And it wasn’t an hour later before I reached the end of the road and found a few signs for walking trails in the area. One that read “Juclar” pointed up a small hill along a rocky path. Well that must be it!
Since the sun still hadn’t made it to the valley, the path was icy. The water that had run from the stream onto the trail had frozen overnight and made for some slippery terrain. Oh great, good thing toms have such a wonderful tread on them…
As I started my ascent I looked around for where the path might be going. I must follow along another valley somewhere if I’m only ascending 500ft, but all the areas pointed to up: way up. About ten minutes in a thought occurred.
“It’s funny that the app would list the elevation difference in feet when everything around here uses the metric system…” Then I stopped. Pulled out my phone and rechecked the app. Yup. I was right. It wasn’t 500ft, it was 500m, or 1500ft in elevation change… Oh my god.
Well I’d come this far, I might as well continue. So off I went. I climbed up and up and up until my legs were burning. And every time I made it to the top, there was another peak to climb. That rumour about the 7 false peaks of a mountain… Yeah, that’s a real thing.
Luckily for the mountain, the views were all worth it. During my two hours of hiking upwards, the sun still hadn’t reached me. Which now that I had seriously warmed up, was a welcoming fact. But looking back down the path I’d just climbed, despite looking into the shadows, was spectacular. It really made me and my toms and my tights feel accomplished!
And to top it off, the app was bang on. Exactly 2 hours and 10 minutes later I had made it to the end of the path. Exactly the time it had quoted. And I had made it to the country’s largest lake!!!
As I stood at the top of the mountain, looking down at the lake I had to laugh. Coming from Canada I think we have slightly different views on what “large lake” means. Not that the app ever stated it was a “large” lake, but instead the “largest” lake. Still, I think I had envisioned something larger. I’m pretty positive that some celebrities have swimming pools the size of Andorra’s largest lake. Not that I’m judging.
But since the climb had been such an accomplishment, the lake was one of the best things I’d seen all morning! So I climbed down the rest of the path: over a pile of boulders from a previous rockslide and down the edge of a cliff with a rope that had been provided by someone. And I sat down on the rocky shores of the lake. Well to be fair, it was two lakes, side by side, that probably meld together during the rainy season. I took off my shoes and dipped my toes in. The water was glacial! Not that I had ever anticipated wanting to go for a swim, but at this time of year and at a couple thousand meters in altitude, I don’t know how anyone would want to go swimming. On the other hand, I’d reached the sun! So I sat down for a picnic lunch and reveled in the scenery! There was a cabin at the edge of the larger lake that was a year round guarded cabin (these are fairly common on hiking routes in Andorra). The first two people I’d seen on the trip were two men surveying the area around the cabin. About a half hour later a French couple, decked in full out hiking attire passed by me as well. Otherwise, the area was pretty much empty.
After lunch I started my slow descent back to the Valle D’Incles. The sun had come out in full force and I went quickly from four layers of clothing to one. It was a little less than 2 hours to reach the bottom and a further hour to make it back to the main highway. Instead of hopping on the bus right away, I walked another half hour to the closest town to check out what very, very rural Andorra looked like.
The tiny, 3 road village of El Tartare, albeit just as gorgeous as the rest of the country, was completely shut up for the off season. So I jumped back on the next bus to Andorra la Vella and called it a day. The Pyrenees will definitely be seeing me again!

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Andorra La Vella

As I drove out of Spain and over the Pyrenees into Andorra I had a sudden realization: I have no idea what language they speak in Andorra. Spanish? French? A language all of their own? Not a clue.
I decided to come to Andorra based entirely around one thing: a google image search. I typed in “Andorra” and a beautiful photo of Andorra La Vella, nestled in a valley popped up. I was sold. That was the entirety of my research on the country…
But as I stood in the lobby of my hotel, staring blankly at the receptionist, mouth agape and yet not saying a word, I felt like I should have done a little more homework. It was an awkwardly long pause as I waited for the receptionist to speak first, anything to give me a hint of what language I should say hello in. The street signs were unhelpful, there were minimal people chatting in the streets, and then I found myself in the lobby, not knowing what to say.
“Adeo” said the receptionist finally. Amazing! They speak Catalan! It wasn’t that amazing, since “adeo”, meaning “hello”, was the only Catalan word I knew. But at least I was getting somewhere.
Then before I had time to answer, she followed up with “ca va?”
Oh no. Maybe it’s French they speak! Once again, my conversational French is limited to basic greetings, so I decided to respond in English.
“I have a booking” I said with a smile. She stood and looked at me with a confused face. Clearly English wasn’t one of the languages they spoke here. “A reservation?” I tried again.
“Ahh! Si! Por su puesto!” She answered in Spanish, and then grabbed the reservation book. I was utterly confused. Three sentences, three different languages. I still didn’t know what they spoke here. So when I had been successfully checked in, I sheepishly asked in Spanish “this may be a stupid question, but what language do you speak here in Andorra?”
She laughed “Spanish, French, Catalan, it doesn’t matter!”
And that was that. For the next three days I was greeted with a mix of “ca va” “hola” “bonjour” “que tal” “adeo” the three languages were used almost interchangeably. Lucky for me, I could get by on basic Spanish.
My hotel was located right smack in the middle of the capital city. But seeing as it took only ten minutes to walk from one side to the other, and the population is only 22000, it felt more like a town than a capital. Regardless, the city was gorgeous. It was a stereotypical ski village: curled up in the mountains, stone chalets scattered among the hills, and a crisp Fall air. It was like Banff or Jasper with zero tourists. October is a VERY off season in Andorra. With no snow for skiing and little sun for hiking, most people avoid the little country this time of year. But the days I was there were beautiful: sunshine all week! Crisp mornings and warm afternoons. Autumn was just beginning, the leaves had begun to change, and the city was gearing up for the winter months. A man in the streets was celebrating the winter cheer early by LITERALLY roasting chestnuts on an open fire in the middle of the main square.
I spent a couple days in Andorra La Vella walking the upper paths that lie behind the city along either mountain. It’s a 10 minute hike straight uphill, but then a cobblestoned path runs flat along the entire length of the city. It was a popular route for locals heading home: many people had small homes with large vegetable gardens stretching all the way up the hill; the agricultural center of Andorra. It also had spectacular views of Andorra below. All the locals greeted me as I passed by. Everyone was ridiculously friendly.
After my city exploring, I went to the Information centre for some pointers on good hiking spots around the country. The man at the desk was so helpful and so enthusiastic about his country, I actually changed my itinerary to stay longer so I could fit it all in. I went back a few days later to thank him for his recommendations and he was so thrilled it looked as if he was going to cry. He even came out of his little hut to hug me goodbye and said he would have many more spots to suggest next time I visited.
I couldn’t take enough photos of the city, around each corner there was a new adorable little building with a dramatic mountain backdrop. Each time the sun moved I felt like I needed to hike back up to the walking paths for more panoramas. I loved it.
Then on my second day in the country I visited Ordino, a smaller village a half hour north of Andorra La Vella, and I was even more blown away. According to the guy at the information center, Ordino was the most beautiful town in all of Andorra, and I believe him. Most of the shops and restaurants were closed for the off season, but it didn’t take away from the beauty of the cobblestone streets and winding walkways. I spent the day hiking through the hills around the area. My discovery of the Active Tourism Andorra app was a life saver! It listed hiking, skiing, and biking routes all over the country. It grades them on difficulty, gives you a map, and if you’ve got 3G (which I sadly did not) it will follow where you are on the map and find the path for you if you get lost. It was wonderful, and I was able to find a tonne of little trails to explore. I was so happy about my day in Ordino that I decided to stay another day to hike the other areas I’d been recommended! And if I didn’t have other places to be, I could see myself easily getting stuck there…

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Barcelona

Like millions of others before me, I was utterly swept off my feet by Barcelona. There are few cities in the world that offer such a variety: culture, history, nightlife, food. I have actually procrastinated writing about Barcelona, because I’m not sure how to capture it’s full essence in words.
In a single day, I walked in the surf along Barcelona’s famous beaches; stood in a square with art and architecture ranging over 2000 years; meandered along Las Ramblas to the Mercado Boqueria for a fruit juice; contemplated life in the Sagrada Familia, a basilica that’s been under construction for over 100 years; ate tapas until I couldn’t move; and ended up at a hotel party at The W, one of the nicest hotels in Barcelona, dancing in the penthouse club with 360 degree views of the ocean and city. All in a day’s work…
The Gothic district of Barcelona is no less than breathtaking. Narrow corridors, cobble stone streets and a shocking amount of history around each corner. Standing in just one place, you can see the layers of history that are so prevalent all over the city. An old Roman wall, built around 40AD, juts out from the side of a stunning gothic era church. The church’s high steeples tower over the square below where people listen to busking musicians and shop at the antique market. Next to the market is a modern art sculpture just erected in the last decade. Behind the sculpture is a wall with a Picasso painting on the side of it; one of Picasso’s rare public works, just sitting above the hoards of busy tourists. 2000 years of history, and you don’t even have to move your feet.
Just Northeast of the gothic district lies the famous Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s masterpiece, an unfinished basilica that has been under construction since 1882. Although the streets and parks of Barcelona are filled with Gaudi spectacles, the Sagrada Familia is probably the most impressive. I spent almost an hour wandering in and around the basilica, listening to my audio guide and learning everything Gaudi. It is amazing how he paid attention to every minute detail. Everything from the amount of light that is let in, to the acoustics of the choir balcony and the shape of each individual pillar. Gaudi’s architecture reflected the great outdoors, and the Sagrada Familia is meant to connect a person with both God and nature. The pillars are constructed to look like trees, with the tops, flaying out like branches, and rounded detailing to represent the knots on the side of a trunk. Even after 100 years of work, the Sagrada Familia is yet to be completed. The construction end date is still debatable.
How I ended up at the W, is an entirely different matter. I met a woman on my tapas tour that had a gorgeous room at the hotel that she reserved for her and her boyfriend. Fortunately for me I guess, her boyfriend had to work, and couldn’t make the trip. She felt like the room was a waste just for her, and so, when we were looking for our next destination, a hotel after party was suggested.
Her single hotel room had more bathrooms in it than my entire hostel. The master bedroom had an ensuite bathroom with four rooms: one for the sink and powder area, one for the toilet, one for the shower, and one to change in before you got to the shower… This is how the 1% live.
The room had a view that looked right out over the ocean, and apparently is spectacular during the day. I remember walking by the hotel the night before thinking “wow, I’ll never, ever stay in a place like that” and then low and behold, not 24 hours I was drinking wine in the living room of one of the suites. A group of 8 of us sat around, telling travel stories with a bottle of vodka, a couple bottles of wine and beers to go around. Then when the booze ran dry, we went upstairs to the club. According to the Chilean couple we were with, the club upstairs was “the place” to be. With two bars and 360 degree views, I don’t know how anything else could top it. I couldn’t even tell you how much a drink cost, but I’m sure it was out of control. We danced and laughed the night away until we were all dead on our feet. Then it was time to turn back into a pumpkin and head home to the hostel.
But with all the luxury and history that Barcelona had to offer, it was the pinxto’s on Blai that really stole my heart. Blai street is this narrow street on the West side of the city center that is stacked full of tapa bars. Tables tumble out of restaurants and into the street for terrace seating, and every bar serves the same thing: pinxtos. Pinxtos, also known as my new favourite way of eating, are essentially single serving tapas. Usually served on a piece of bread, pinxtos are laid out on platters at the bar, with a toothpick in the middle, free for anyone to grab. You walk in, grab a plate, and stock up with whatever h’ordeurve you’d like! The bartender will gladly get you a drink, and the rest is all eating! At the end, just count up your toothpicks and pay 1€ each! Yup, 1€! Every pinxto is only 1€!
You would think that this would add up quickly, but with the size of each portion, I only ever had a maximum of 7 pinxtos and I always left overly stuffed! And the pinxto’s varied drastically! Pretty much anything could be considered a pinxto! Bread topped with smoked salmon, capers and sun dried tomatoes, mini tacos with ground beef and loads of guacamole, croquettes, caprese salads, avocado with bacon and tomato, mini creme brûlée bowls and slices of cheesecake! It was overwhelming for my foodie taste buds…
One night we hopped from bar to bar, using all our strength to try just one or two at each place. When we went back for the third time, however, we just picked our favourite bar and parked ourselves for hours. There must have been at least 20 pinxto options at each bar at any given time. And when a platter ran out, it was replaced with something new. (And usually something so enticing that we were out another euro). It was a great way to socialize, eat amazing food, and learn self constraint!
In the four days I stayed in Barcelona, I found myself eating pinxtos on Blai three times. It’s the best and cheapest food in the city!
Overall, I think I could have stayed in Barcelona a month and never once felt bored! With so much more still to offer, it’s definitely a place I’ll be back!

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The Long Road to Africa

I woke up Friday morning with a bang. Literally. A thunderstorm had rolled into Seville and the crash of thunder at 7am shook the hostel walls, waking everyone up. Rain was bucketing down and the wind pushed the window shutters wide open. After a late night chatting with new friends in the common room the night before, it took all my strength to drag my butt out of bed to close the window. Turns out rain had been pouring into the room for some time, and completely soaked all our bags that were lying under the window sill. Yup, it was going to be a long day.
I opted for paying the extra 4€ to take a taxi to the bus station, instead of fighting public transportation in the storm. I prayed there were still seats open on the bus to Algeciras. The online sites for bus bookings in Spain for some reason don’t accept Canadian credit cards. Which means all my onwards bus trips have involved crossing my fingers for free space. So far I’ve been fairly lucky, and only had to wait 4 hours for one bus onward to Granada. Luckily again, there was still space on this one too!
It was a treacherous 3 and a half hours drive South in the middle of the storm. Fork lightning crashed down a couple hundred meters from the bus, people were screaming from the thunder bangs, and I was fairly certain I was going to see a wind turbine explode as we drove through a field full of giant metal windmills in an electrical storm.
All I could think was, “there’s no way the ferries will be running to Morocco today. Not in this storm”. Then surprisingly enough, just north of the coastline, we popped out into the sunshine again!
The coast was gorgeous! It was surreal to be able to look across the straight of Gibraltar to see the coast of Africa on the other side.
I had decided to cross the straight from Algeciras to Tangier. Not only did my hostel recommend it, but my guidebook had said it was both the cheapest and most popular route across the straight… Not exactly so.
Had I read the fine print, there’s no way I would have gone the route I did. Sure it was cheap. That’s the only thing this route had going for it. 20€ and I could safely cross to Africa… But not exactly Tangier.
When our bus to Algeciras made a pitstop in Tarifa, and 90% of the bus got off, I should have known. The ferry from Tarifa, although 15€ more expensive, takes 35 minutes, and takes you to the edge of the Tangier Medina. Algeciras, which is a further 30 minutes on the bus from Tarifa, has a ferry that takes between 1.5 and 2.5 hours, and it takes you to Tangier-Med, which is a port in the middle of nowhere, 45 minutes from Tangier city. By the time I had realized this, it was too late. Looks like this journey just got significantly longer…
I managed to dodge the Algeciras touts that told me, not only did they not sell tickets at the port, but the ferry would cost 40€ and leave at 4:00 pm. My instincts told me he was crazy, and when I arrived at the port I was pleased to learn it would be 20€ and was leaving right away!
Well it was scheduled to leave right away. Our 2:00 ferry didn’t actually leave port until 3:15, but at least I was onboard. And the views of the coastline and the town of Gibraltar were enough to keep me occupied.
The route definitely wasn’t popular either. The ferry was large enough to hold hundreds upon hundreds of people… There were 6 of us that walked on the ferry. A few more drove cars on, but the ship was pretty much empty.
We arrived after nearly 2 hours into the deserted Tangier-med port. I was completely without a plan as we landed on the coast of North Africa. Originally, I wanted to head straight to Chefchauoen, but the hostel was fully booked and the last bus left at 12:30 in the afternoon. I had no money, no place to stay, no idea where to go. And yet I had the most amazing first impression of Morocco…
A local man informed us that exchange rates were much better in Tangier, and that we would only be ripped off getting money from Tangier-med. Since I and another couple I met on the ferry only had euros on us, the man paid for us all to take the 45 minute bus to Tangier. He refused to accept any money, and when we arrived, he pointed us in the right direction to a proper bank.
My card wouldn’t work at the atm, and since Friday is a holy day, the bank was closed. Luckily the couple from the UK switched me $20 worth of cash before we went our separate ways.
With $20 in my pocket and no plans, I almost felt a little anxious about what to do before the sun set. But I saw an Internet cafe across the street and looked up a hostel in the area I could book. The man that ran the VERY local Internet cafe was amazingly sweet. Arabic keyboards are more than just a little confusing, and yet he patiently walked me through how to make symbols like “@” or “.” as I needed them. When I was leaving he asked me “Your first time in Morocco?”
“Yes,” I replied
“Okay, let me tell you something…” He started. I thought he was going to warn me of the dangers, or tell me not to travel alone in the Medinas. Instead he said “you know Argan?”
I thought for a second…
“The oil?”
“Yes!” He said with a smile, “make sure you buy some before you leave Morocco. Put it in your hair and it will make it beautiful! It is the best for all the ladies in Morocco!”
I laughed and promised that I would. He then told me to make sure I didn’t pay more than 10 dirham to get to the medina where my hostel was and sent me on my way.
I was so thankful for a kind face after the unease of not knowing where I was. People in Europe were constantly asking me if I was nervous about travelling Morocco on my own as a woman. I wasn’t really, until everyone kept suggesting I should be. So far, everything seemed fine!
I paid only 10 dirham to get to the center of the medina, where many travellers were charged up to 100 dirham to go the same distance.
When I arrived at the medina I tried to translate the directions to the hostel. Medinas are confusing at best. Tiny side streets, very few signs, a chaos of people and vendors and animals all around. Some men encouraging people to eat at their restaurant gladly helped point me in the right direction, but even then I was all turned around.
Exhausted from the day and totally lost, I sat down in a park to take another look at the directions. As I sat down on the edge of a wall, three little girls that were playing nearby came and sat down near me. They whispered to each other and giggled, then inched their bums closer to me. Before I knew it they were practically sitting on my lap.
“Bonjour!” Said one little girl. They were about five or six years old, one of them younger than the other two.
“Oh, bonjour!” I said back.
They laughed, then broke into fluent French, talking rapidly at me.
I stared blankly.
“Espanol?” They asked me.
“Si, hablo Espanol” I said back.
More excited giggling from their side. As they asked me what my name was.
We did the intros, and chatted for a few minutes. Two of them were sisters and the other one their neighborhood friend. They said they wanted to talk to me because I was “muy guapa”. I laughed and thanked them. After we had run out of things I could talk about in basic Spanish I thought I might as well ask them if they had heard of the street Battouta.
At the sound of the word their eyes went wide.
“Battouta!!!! Battouta!!” They looked at each other and screamed in giddy excitement. I told them I needed to go to Al Andalusi hostel.
More screams.
They were pointing all over, jumping up and down. From what I understood in their excited shouting was that they lived nearby. They ran off to their mother, who was on the phone nearby and pointed wildly. Their mother smiled and waved them off. They ran back to me, grabbed my arm and dragged me off the wall yelling “Battouta! Battouta!”
Two of them held my hand and dragged me through the medina corridors. They paused to talk to their friends, and was slightly distracted by a vendor selling chocolate, but within a few minutes, down a side street I never would have found on my own, they pointed at a door that read. “Al Andalusi Hostal”. I had made it! I couldn’t believe they’d found it for me. I offered them a couple dirhams and said “go buy yourself a chocolate bar on me! You three are my first friends in Morocco and I want to thank you for helping me.” They smiled but refused the money. So I left them to finally check in to my hostel, finishing a long, 12 hour journey from Seville.
The hostel was beautiful, right in the middle of the medina with beautiful rooftop views of the city and the Straight of Gibraltar. The staff at the hostel were wonderful, and were so happy to hear about the little girls helping me. Thomas, one of the guys that ran the place, said he would buy them something special one day soon from me, since he saw them almost every morning in the street.
I quickly met some fellow Travellers from Australia and we all went out for a delicious meatball Tagine dinner and some mint tea. I was in heaven!
I could not have asked for a more pleasant welcome to a country. I have a feeling it’s going to be a wonderful couple weeks here…

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