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!

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. 

Avignon

After the busy city of Marseille, Avignon was a medieval oasis of calm. It was by far my favourite city in France. The walled city, surrounded by a moat looks like a town from a fairytale. The famous Avignon Bridge (that now stands only half completed after being destroyed by the river years ago) and the Palais de Pape (a castle that served as the papal residence during the 14th century) make for some stunning backdrops to a picturesque, old brick town. I spent four days in Avignon, even though you can circle the outside of the city in a little less than an hour. I had high hopes of using Avignon as my home base for exploring small towns in the area like Les Baux and Arles. But in the end the rains came in, buses were scarce in the off season, and private tours were expensive. So I used my time in Avignon to relax: drink coffee, eat pastries and crepes, read a book. It was perfect! I walked around the city when the rains slowed, and even made the trek over to the new city one afternoon to take some more photos back on Avignon from across the rivers.
I don’t know if I could use words to describe quite what the town was like, and so, I’m going to let the photos explain for themselves how beautiful the little town was…

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Marseille

I had absolutely zero expectations about Marseille. Which is probably the reason I loved it…
Whenever I’d mentioned to anyone that I was headed to Marseille their reaction was always the same: “eeeeeeh, yeah, Marseille, sure”
It never seemed to be anyone’s favourite stop, but it wasn’t terrible. It didn’t really matter to me; Kelsey and Peter were flying back down from London to meet me on the Saturday. Kels had found us a nice AirBNB to stay at in the city center, and if we hated sightseeing, we could always just drink wine, eat cheese and catch up on life.
But it turns out I really loved my day of sightseeing before the two of them arrived. For starters, the day was perfect: 20 degrees, sunny, not too many tourists with the off season. It was perfect.
I’d gotten a basic rundown of everyone’s favourite sites from some friends at the hostel the night before, and after a lazy morning drinking coffee, I set out for a day of exploring!
I walked for about 6 hours that day, only stopping for a short break to eat a baguette on the beach. I meandered all along the coast, through parks, and over stunning walkways that ran right along the sea. I ended up a couple hours South of the city at Prado Beach where I stopped for a snack. Then I worked my way back inland until I hit the famous Notre Dame at the top of the largest hill in Marseille.
You can see the Notre Dame church, and the golden statue that sits on top, from all over the city. It is the landmark of Marseille! And it comes with some stunning panorama views of the mountains, the port and the islands just off the coast.
I had been taking photos of the little islands off the coast all day; from every angle it seemed! I had photos from the port, from my walk along the coast, looking back at them from the beach, and now from the viewpoint at the Notre Dame. As I stood above the city, looking down at them I decided right then and there that I needed to see them up close!
So I cruised down the big hill to the port where I found a boat that would take me out. Being so late in the afternoon, I could only choose one island to visit: I chose the Isle D’If.
The isle D’If is very tiny. You could probably walk around the entire thing in 15 minutes. On the island sits a large fort. The fort was originally built to protect the port from pirates entering the area. But since it was so poorly designed as a defensive fort, it was soon turned into a prison.
The chateau D’If, as it was called, ran as a prison for many, many years. Over the years, it was home to numerous important dignitaries and military men. But in the end, the chateau D’If is famous for it’s fictional prisoners instead.
The Isle D’If was the setting for Alexander Dumas’ famous novel “The Count of Monte Cristo”. When the novel was released, the chateau D’If became famous worldwide. People travelled from all over to come see the famous prison where Dante was held captive. Over a century later, it was again the setting for the film “The Man in the Iron Mask”.
As it turns out, very few people remember any of the real life prisoners that were held in the jail. And so, even today, the chateau caters towards the Dumas fans, selling paperbacks of “The Count of Monte Cristo” in several languages, and even highlighting the room he was supposedly held in. As touristy as it is though, the chateau was great to explore. Plus the views back on the city as the sun set were worth the 10€ ticket out there alone!
The next day, Kelsey and Peter arrived in the afternoon and we had fun wandering the port area and the city’s famous fort for the sunset. Then we headed back to the apartment for a night of wine, beer and an epic cheese and meat spread we bought from the grocery store. We adopted a friend of mine from the hostel for the night, and the four of us played drinking games and caught up well into the night.
The next day it poured. Our plans to hike back up to the Notre Dame and sightsee for the afternoon were quickly thwarted. The rain had easily convinced us that a big lunch at the port and then naps back at the apartment was a much better plan of action for the afternoon.
So we spent the day relaxing as the rains continued, before finally all saying goodbye and carrying on our separate ways!

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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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