In Vino Veritas in Vanuatu

The flight to Vanuatu was uneventful, as statistics would dictate. The peculiar arrogance of the individual – combined with the power of imagination – dictates that I spend all flights certain that, somehow, this one is different, this one is doomed to a forced water landing or perhaps just going down in flames, no survivors.

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Post-mortem in Paris

Reluctantly we left Prague. Still one of my favourite places. We stayed an extra night, giving up our night-train plan for a flight straight to Amsterdam the next day.

Amsterdam was… I’m not sure I’m a fan, really, but our first night wasn’t much help in that regard. First of all, Amsterdam is FUCKING expensive. I know people say that Amsterdam is expensive, but that’s not accurate. It is FUCKING expensive. That’s accurate. And it requires capital letters for accuracy.

The first night in Amsterdam, we stayed in… First, let me point out that it was simultaneously the cheapest place we could find that wasn’t a dorm room AND was the most expensive room we’d rented in two months of travel. See above re: FUCKING expensive.

It wasn’t so much a hotel as a little apartment, and it was actually really nice. Absurdly steep and narrow staircase up to a beautifully furnished and decorated tiny lounge/kitchenette. Our room was very sweet also. We happily dropped our bags and collapsed on to the bed.

That night, Diana did not sleep at all. I did, but not particularly well. Firstly, the windows didn’t have curtains. They had a kind of blind that went about halfway down and was semi-transparent. So I spent the night being woken up by the massive street Christmas decorations outside, shining in like daylight to the room. And if I happened to sit up and stop blocking the light from Diana, I got a thwack in the back of the head for “shining a torch” in her eyes and snapping her out of a nap.

That wasn’t the main problem, though. The main problem was that there was absolutely no soundproofing at all. The single-glazed windows felt non-existent as we listened to the street erupt into mad nightclubbing debauchery. Every beat from every club, every broken bottle and crying drunk girl and 5am brawl and every damned drop of vomit, we could hear clear as a bell through our magical amphitheatre windows.

So we were off to a great start. Before we learned the horror, I had actually emailed the proprietor and asked if the room was available for a second night, to which he swiftly replied that it was, but for twice the price of the first night. (See above re: FUCKING expensive.) Fortunately I decided against that and found another relatively inexpensive (read: FUCKING expensive) place 20 minutes’ walk away.

Just trying to find accommodation remotely affordable meant I selected through booking.com on price, not rating, and it wasn’t until after I was locked in to our second night’s accommodation that I read the reviews. One reviewer was outraged by the box of rat poison in his room which was never removed even after he complained about it. The most recent review (a few weeks earlier) gave helpful advice on which pharmacy to visit to get a good deal on cream for the flea bites her family endured.

“What do the reviews say?” Diana asks.

“They say–” IS THAT A UNITED COLOURS OF BENETTON OUTLET STORE?!” I answer.

Anyway, it honestly turned out to be absolutely great, and right next to a big park called Vondelpark, through which we very much enjoyed strolling. Great breakfast, helpful staff, clean warm room, etc. Charged for wifi, though, which has become a pet peeve of mine in Western Europe. Yes, you can squeeze the equivalent of a week’s broadband fees out of each guest in exchange for three hours of wifi, but it will make us hate you.

We decided to check out the Artis Zoo in Amsterdam, and the contrast with Belgrade was extraordinary. Funding, probably. Artis Zoo was one of my favourite things so far. This was a little overshadowed by the whole day of fireworks (during daylight, just to make loud noises) scaring the hell out of the outdoor animals more or less constantly.

That aside, we met some buddies from New Zealand in the form of two keas who gave me the impression that they didn’t belong there, they knew it, and they were breaking out of the joint. Every other bird in the place was going about its business, shitting and eating and squawking. Meanwhile one of the keas was keeping watch at the top of the room-sized cage while the other handily picked up bits of floor stone and deposited them in a growing pile.

There’s too much zoo to go into here. Naturally I have photos and videos, naturally they’re on the phone not the iPad, and naturally I’ll upload them when I get back to New Zealand. For now, let’s just say that I can attest to the overwhelming stench of tapir piss on my leg and we’ll move on.

We took a train to Eindhoven, where we would meet Diana’s childhood best friend and her boyfriend for a New Year’s party. Through sheer luck, I had booked a hotel directly across the road from the party venue.

If you know me (and, let’s face it, if you didn’t you wouldn’t be reading this blog – hi, Kev!), you’ll know that massive rave parties are not my thing. I like to ring in the new year with quiet contemplation, a book or a computer game, and a sudden realisation that midnight was 40 minutes ago but I was too caught up in the book/game to notice. And I don’t like crowds.

So packing me into a warehouse with 5000 increasingly drunken and drugged Dutch people isn’t precisely ideal, but I managed to have a good time until we headed to the hotel at 4am to sleep.

The next day we drove to Lierop, where Diana’s friend (Sam)’s boyfriend (Ton) lives. This resulted in quite a relaxing day and night of doing little beyond watching Comedy Central. From there, it was another train, this time to Breda, where we stayed with a family friend of Diana’s. We stayed for three nights there, before getting a train to Paris.

So that’s almost a week in that last paragraph, you know.

Now we’re in Paris, and tomorrow morning we leave for Thailand. Yesterday we went to Disneyland, which I really loved, though I have learned that I really don’t like roller-coasters, but I like other themed rides. We did Pirates twice, and had an awesome time on the Buzz Lightyear ride shooting aliens and getting points, and the Star Tours simulator is good fun. And lots of other rides. And I wished I had more hair so I could get a haircut from Dapper Dan’s.

Anyway. Now we’re in Paris, and tomorrow morning we leave for Thailand.

Now we’re in Paris, and tomorrow morning we leave for Thailand.

Now we’re in Paris, and tomorrow morning we leave for Thailand.

Gonna have to think on that one some.

Procrastination in Prague

Again, sorry about the delay. Again, caused in part by Diana’s obsession with playing Civilisation on the iPad. She assures me that this has now ended, as she has attained a high score on the highest difficulty setting.

Brasov, Transylvania, Romania, was a welcome break from firing from one place to another. Throughout former Yugoslavia, we hadn’t spent more than two nights in any one place, despite loving everywhere we went. After our disheartening rip-off in Romania, we decided to chill out in Brasov for four nights, where the rent and food was absurdly cheap.

Brasov is a sleepy mountain town, mainly visited due to skiing and Bram Stoker. We ate consistently excellent food for absurdly low prices, enjoyed the Christmas markets and mulled wine, and on our last day there it snowed. In theory, I’m at least a little used to snow from my childhood in Mosgiel. Still, it was a surprise to me to exit a pub at 3pm to find the town transformed in a matter of hours. You know when it’s raining outside, even if only subconsciously, because of the noise. But snow sneaks up on you.

The novelty wore off slightly when I realised I had to walk like an idiot to not fall over. And maybe it’s lack of practice or lack of appropriate footwear, but there is something uniquely embarrassing about carefully trodding from step to step through snow while locals wander past you at top speed. I felt a bit like someone hallucinating lava on the footpath while straight and sober normals trot by unconcerned.

From Brasov to Budapest, which quickly became another of my favourite cities. We explored the insanely beautiful city, went up Castle Hill and into an amazing church that’s being restored by local art students, enjoyed possibly the best food we’ve ever had in our lives. Such a great place. Two nights there. No, wait, three nights there. Wished we could stay longer.

Then Vienna, on a day train that took around four hours. The transition from Romanian prices to Austrian prices is like being dipped in freezing cold water. It was Vienna for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and we left on Boxing Day. The whole place was shut down for the holidays, really, and the highlights were in the hotel room: a Skype video chat with the Beebies and watching a downloaded Joyeux Noel on the iPad with a bottle of local wine.

Now we’re in Prague, one of the most beautiful cities in the world (and an equally beautiful exchange rate), but we have to leave tomorrow to keep to what has become a fairly busy schedule. Diana’s friend Sam has hooked us up with tickets to a New Year’s event in Eindhoven, Netherlands, and we’ve got half a continent to get through. Next step, finding out the options for an overnight speedy train to Amsterdam.

The timing is right. Time’s been speeding up on the downhill towards Thailand and the end of the trip. If we were still walking uphill, as it were, I’d be feeling weary. But now it feels like the final lap. Night train to Amsterdam, train to Eindhoven, a few days of catching up with friends of Diana’s family, train to Paris, Eurodisney, three nights in a beautiful hotel courtesy of the Beebies and then a flight to Thailand.

Then 24-hour massages at Thai-baht prices.

Booze in Brasov

I feel sad for Herzegovina. Is that how it’s spelled? Who knows. It’s “Bosnia and Herzegovina”, but if we face facts, I’m only going to call the place Bosnia, because I know how to spell that. I think. It’s hard to know.

Former Yugoslavia is a region so poor that it can’t even afford to buy vowels for its place names.

After the ferry from Ancona… No, wait, something needs to be said about Ancona. I really liked it. It’s a port town, for sure. After the noise of Rome, it was a relief. We walked long and hard to find a place for dinner, and found Cafe Irma. There we were served by the sweetest Italian man alive, whose hands shook from too much drinking and hard rocking in his youth, while we struggled to understand each other and he brought us delicious pasta with clams and a half-litre of red wine that turned out to be on the house like you’d expect tap water to be.

The ferry from Ancona was a ferry from Ancona. I really enjoyed it, being the furthest out to sea that I’d ever been, even if that sea was Adriatic. A bit like being at the top of a mountain named Mount Eden, but still kind of awesome. On the ferry I drank bizarrely flavoured rum, like a pirate, and watched Disaster Movie (without paying for it, like a pirate). I found myself enjoying the Juno parody chick in Disaster Movie despite myself.

We arrived in Split and I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t Split. The passport-control officers complimented my passport like it was a work of art, and I told them that I was a little surprised that Gandalf and Aragorn weren’t printed in there somehow. I’m not sure they understood a word I was saying, but Croatians are friendly as all hell and it was a good start.

Split is one of my favourite cities so far. I really loved Bordeaux. Nothing else in Western Europe appealed to me as much as Bordeaux. So then I found Split. Beautiful. The waterfront was all crazy Christmas markets and lovely cafes. The only beggar in Split was a guy who came up to me and explained carefully in English that he was a computer engineer who was clearly not a drug addict and had lost his job in the recession and just needed to gather some money to get a place to sleep and a change of clothes to help with finding a new job. I tested him with a few computer-related questions, which he passed, and gave him some amount of local currency. A lot to him, little to me, and we all win.

In Florence, which I haven’t mentioned, there weren’t beggars – there were umbrella salesman. They were all black Italians, perhaps from Senegal, and the violence that occurred several hours after our train left the city makes me extremely sad, because they were probably the nicest street salesmen we’d met so far.

“You want an umbrella?” they ask.

“No, we’re from New Zealand. We love rain,” we answer.

They give us the thumbs-up. Bang. We walked down the street where the murders occurred.

Anyway.

Croatians were uniformly lovely, and that was a factor in deciding to go to Dubrovnik next instead of moving on to another country. To get to Dubrovnik required a bus.

Diana figured that she wouldn’t need travel-sickness medication on a bus, which proved to be something of a mistake. Hell, I kind of needed some myself. The trip to Dubrovnik was via the coast, which meant every twist and turn God had devised when roughly shaving Croatia into existence. It took five hours to get 200km, which ended in a climax of our bus driver committing to bizarre and death-defying overtakes on blind corners, apparently to show a rival van that he wasn’t afraid of them. Hearts in our throats, we arrived in Dubrovnik.

We walked past the scores of old Croatians offering us places to stay, following my phone’s GPS to a place called the Jele Rooms in Dubrovnik. We found the address after knocking on a few wrong doors and spent 20 minutes yelling and knocking until the landlord arrived from nextdoor. He introduced us to the grandmother who lived there (Jele) and explained, “She speaks eleven languages, all in the same sentence.”

This lady was hilarious. I’m not sure I ever understood a word she said, but she was clearly lovely and adored by her family. We ate a bunch of clementines from her garden (like mandarins, but sweeter and harder to peel) and received directions to the old town.

Dubrovnik’s cable car and Dubrovnik’s old town were both extraordinary. We’d been in a few Old Towns by now, but Dubrovnik’s gorgeous combination of Venetian alleys, stray cats and an amazing dockside seafood restaurant totally enchanted us.

We left Dubrovnik again by bus, taking us through amazing landscapes first, then appalling impoverished suburbs, then Sarajevo proper. The land around Sarajevo is intensely beautiful, the suburbs terrible, the central city charming. Thanks to booking.com ratings and reviews, we were fortunate enough to stay at a great place, Pansion Harmony, a family-run hostel and probably our nicest stay so far since Venice.

In Sarajevo we wandered and ate and took photos and enjoyed. The people there seemed harried and it wasn’t the first time I’d feel like Bosnia had really lost 15 years ago. On our way in, we’d seen families living in apartments where the roof was literally caved in above them, leaving them exposed to the elements. No beggars there, strangely.

Also in Sarajevo we ate at the most amazing restaurant yet (enjoying the exchange rate all the more), and I was too oblivious to notice what Diana did – the loud Americans in the corner were some kind of diplomatic group and the massive shaved gorillas with wires in their ears at the door were their diplomatic protection squad.

We left Sarajevo once again by bus, this time an overnighter. Despite being our only option, it felt like a mistake. The driver seemed to have no conception that he was cooking us all alive by keeping the heater on the whole way, so we were waking up at 2am dripping in sweat and being blasted with hot air from under our seats. By the time we reached Belgrade, we were miserable. Diana had managed perhaps three hours of sleep, me even less (partly due to playing Settlers of Catan on the iPad) and we were in rotten moods while we looked for our place to stay. Things weren’t helped by me confusing the address of a place we looked at (the street name) and the place we actually booked in to (the street number). Few things are as demoralising as realising you’re looking for the right street number on the wrong street when you’ve had no sleep on a 10-hour moving sauna.

In Belgrade, our place was the Design Studios, with very helpful staff. Technically we were only in Belgrade for a day and a half, but it seemed like more. We enjoyed the Christmas markets on yet another pedestrianised street and I saw proper hawks and falcons and eagles for the first time (a dream since I was 6 years old) at their zoo. The zoo also horrified me with how unhappy some of the animals appeared to be, especially the tigers, lions, lynxes, bears, etc. And for some reason, domestic dogs had their own little cages. I left sickened. Video of the elephant reaching with its trunk to try and touch Diana’s outstretched hands will be uploaded soon.

Also in Belgrade was the Nikola Tesla Museum, where we were shown around by a guy who was Tesla’s greatest fan. By the end of the tour, our guide was almost in tears telling us about how Tesla just wanted to use technology to help the world, but Edison and the energy companies and private capitalist concerns prevented free energy from being made available to everyone in the world. He stopped short of endorsing conspiracy theories around the Philadelphia Experiment, and he was easily the most engaging tour guide I’ve ever seen.

Next it was a train to Bucharest, which was easier to sleep in as we had our own little cabin. Thing were going well until we were awakened by a Romanian banging on the window telling us in broken English that we had arrived and were holding things up by still being on the train. Four or five hours’ sleep and rushing out of the train with the intention of looking around in Bucharest before taking a train to Brasov turned into a frenzied taxi ride to the bus station while a helpful local told us how we’d narrowly escaped being mugged by an army of gypsies. The most helpful person we’d met so far, it turned out he was scamming us after we overpaid for the taxi and were unreasonably grateful for having made it to the bus out of this hellpit. Lessons learned and moods darkened.

So now we’re in Brasov, and taking a few days to recover from the hurried madness from place to place, getting our spirits up after being ripped off by such an incredibly nice guy, enjoying the insanely low prices and the sauna at our hostel. Tomorrow we’ll visit Dracula’s castle and right now we’re off to walk into the old town where Diana’s going to teach me how to ice-skate.

Hope you’re all well. We’ve been here 34 days and seen rain only two of them.

Up to Speed

Okay, due to various factors (including Diana’s new favourite iPad game), I’ve fallen behind on these posts, so I’ll bring you up to speed quickly.

Venice

Venice was cool. We met some nice people who actually got married in Venice on the sly and had a big night hanging out with them, which began for me with a dangerous Filipino waiter giving me a solid tumbler full of Jack Daniel’s. In Venice, we saw rain in Europe for the first time.

Florence

Florence was nice, I guess. The galleries were incredible, of course. But the city felt… used? Stretched thin, maybe. The biggest up-side was the B&B (which apparently stands for Bed & By God You Think You’re Getting Breakfast No You Must Be Kidding) apartment, all to ourselves. We got our fix of the Renaissance and moved on to Rome.

Rome

(This video’s been lost during a server update.)

So now we’re in Croatia. Split is an extremely beautiful city, very glad to be here. Not sure what’s happening tomorrow, but I suspect we’ll be heading to Sarajevo.

Venice, Vedi, Vici

Sorry for the lack of updates. Again.

While it seemed like everywhere we went in France – cafes, hostels, etc. – had free wifi, Italy is more intent on squeezing cash out of you by having you pay by the hour for it.

We took the train through the French Alps to Venice (photos in the previous post include Diana sleeping with her head surrounded by my jacket). There was an option for us to fly to Venice instead, but I’m extremely glad we took the train. The views were incredible.

So we arrived at Venice. Now, Venice is a ridiculous rabbit’s warren of tiny alleyways populated entirely by paid actors to give the visitor a really traditional feel. The canals smell mainly of Rotorua and the economy seems to be founded primarily on gondoliers exchanging 10 minutes of gondola riding for people’s first-born children; masquerade masks; feather-quill fountain pens; and glass.

The iPad, with a preloaded map of Venice and GPS, was invaluable in navigating. And someone (Gareth?) said something about food sucking in Venice. Not our experience. Diana decided early on that we would find places to eat by leaving the busier touristy areas and only eat in places where locals seemed to be eating. (You can easily identify French and Italian people from a distance by a slight distinct pattern of freckles down the side of the face – too complex to go into here.)

We saw one piece of graffiti that said, “Tourists go home.” And only one beggar, who just stayed there kneeling forehead-to-cobblestone with a cup out. And only one busker, who played the mandolin and was very good.

Our hotel was the San Cassiano, and our time there was kindly donated by my employers at Shift and Tequila. It’s a fantastic place, and I recommend it to all.

The Doges’ Palace was great to wander through, though we missed out on the Secret Itineraries tour. And next to it, the St Mark’s Cathedral or whatever it was, is stunning. Saw some long-dead fingers and leg bones of saints, etc. General shocking disregard for the signs saying no photos, no talking, and so on.

Before I go, I want to give a massive shout-out to booking.com, which is so good. We’ve given up on the Lonely Planet book for places to stay (though Hotel Touring in Bordeaux was a winner). Booking.com is great. We find our next destination, search for places, sort by price and get some incredible deal on somewhere not too far from the train station.

I’m actually writing this from Florence, and today we’re on to Rome, where we’ve got a great deal on a hotel right next to the Vatican. So more on Florence and Rome later.

Grenoble Intentions (adieu, France)

Yes, still alive. Sorry about the delay in updating. It’s not that we’ve been busy – quite the opposite.

As I said earlier, Nimes was a fantastic place to relax for a few days. I also took the opportunity to prerecord do some live crosses by satellite uplink to the Discourse election special. If I didn’t recommend it before, allow me to highly recommend the Hotel César in Nimes.

On Friday we took a train from Nimes to Avignon, which is intensely charming and I regret that we only spent a day there. We did have time to visit the Christmas markets (collecting a variety of gifts to send home in one big package) and a museum (photos in the previous post).

From Avignon to Valence, where we were picked up by Dom and Steph, friends of Diana’s family, who hosted us for three nights in their house in Montmeyran. It was refreshing and relaxing to be staying at a house rather than a hotel, hostel or backpackers for the first time in two weeks, and Dom and Steph were lovely hosts.

We’re now in Grenoble, staying with Dominique and Guy, other friends of Diana’s family. Today we looked around Grenoble, including taking the gondola up to the mountain fortress bastille. Incredible view (we still haven’t seen a drop of rain in Europe and every day has been clear blue skies) of both the surrounding mountains and the pollution hanging above the town.

So that’s the update, but the thing is, tonight’s our last night in France. Tomorrow we spend all day on trains taking us through the Alps to Venice, Italy. Sorry to say goodbye to France, though we’ll be back in Paris at the end of our time in Europe.

What better time than now for a few final observations of France?

Let’s see.


Often, we’ve gone into restaurants and I’ve said what I thought was, “Un table pour deux personnes, sil vous plait,” or something similar enough to get the point across. No less than three times, this has resulted in a waiter bringing two beers over to us. I figured that my pronunciation was so bad that my words were repeatedly mistaken for “two pilsners”.

Dom and Steph solved the mystery. I was indeed mumbling my words (in the hope that being inexactly right would be more effective than being exactly wrong in my pronunciation). When I was saying “deux personnes”, it was sounding like “deux presonnes”, or “depression”, which the waiters were taking to mean I wanted two draught beers from the tap.


I’m finding the constant barrage of people asking for money exhausting. It feels like it takes active energy for me to ignore them. Because so many ask me for money, I give money to none. Because I’ve seen people very obviously lie to me to get money from me (“I have a baby at home, please buy me a pain a chocolat to take to feed him.”), I give money to none. And almost certainly some of them actually need money.

So I feel guilty about ignoring them, every time. It makes me feel bad. And then I start to feel angry at them. I blame them for making me feel guilty for not giving them money. They’re no longer individuals asking me for money; they’re individual manifestations of a broader phenomenon that annoys me intensely. I’m on holiday – how dare this Entity keep adding guilt to my holiday, my first real holiday ever?

Naturally, feeling ridiculous and petty comes swiftly on the heels of the paranoid righteous indignation. I wonder what will come next.


Most people are friendly here. I was given vague tales of how everyone in France speaks English but refuses to admit it. Maybe that’s so. Diana pointed out to me how frustrating it would be for me if I worked in hospitality in New Zealand with a bare knowledge of French and French people kept coming up to me and refusing to order things in English, always demanding I make frustrating forays into half-remembered high-school French. So we make an effort, and it seems to be appreciated.


London had majesty everywhere, while people scowled their way about their business. In France, every town is built on geological strata of fossilised charm. Ancient layer after ancient layer. It can’t be faked and it can’t be concealed. The creeping moss of commercialisation – the chain stores, the occasional McDonalds, etc – never seems to penetrate beyond a superficial level. The slightest scratch and it falls away, revealing the cobblestones and crumbling brick walls and old French ladies with terriers and big wine-soaked French men smoking cigarettes, looking variously grim and elated and nothing in between.

Au revoir, France. Merci beaucoup.

Nesting in Nimes

We didn’t so much spend a day in Cahors as spend a day getting out of it, but I have to say: beautiful place, even more so in daylight. At a little restaurant opposite the train station we had some of the best food yet on our trip, and probably for the lowest price yet.

From Cahors, we went to Nimes, which meant passing through Toulouse. No revoir, Toulouse. Then on to Narbonne, where we switched to a regional train to Nimes. So now you know.

We pre-booked a place in Nimes with booking.com, which has an advantage over wotif.com of including some really low-cost places everywhere. The Hotel Cesar was our destination, and even though I can literally see the train station from the breakfast room right now, I still managed to get lost due to roadworks blocking our way.

Hotel Cesar is fantastic. Its imaginative name comes from the town’s obsession with the old Roman empire (and bull-fighting). Apparently, when the Romans met the Celts who lived in this region in 400BC or something, the Celts welcomed Roman rule without resistance (*cough*), and Nimes was sort of rewarded with some of the most awesome Roman buildings in Gaul.

The biggest attraction here is one of the best-preserved Roman amphitheatres in the world, which we’re visiting today. Yes, I will take photos.

Gotta go now. Back later. Keep safe, New Zealand.

Temporarily in Toulouse

Where do I start.

Yesterday we had a lovely last day in Bordeaux, with Diana doing a bit of shopping and us going up the tower and into the cathedral. Now, while I’m sure I’m in for stunning buildings in Rome and everything, I was still struck dumb by the cathedral in Bordeaux. I took a few photos and then gave up. There’s no point. You had to be there.

And we headed down to the train station and bought a few tickets to Toulouse. I took some footage on the train of the sunset and the little farms going by and everything. I’ll post that up soon. It was a nice trip.

Then.

“Bonsoir, Toulouse!” I say as we exit (or “sortie”) the train station. By this time we have already been asked for money twice. One guy had some sort of bleach-braided hair that looked like it probably cost several hundred New Zealand dollars.

It’s dark at this point, around 7pm. We’re looking for a place called Hotel Chartreuse, which Lonely Planet tells us is opposite the train station. What’s actually opposite the train station is a collection of around 20 rough-looking dudes with 20 rough-looking dogs. We gingerly circumvent them (two new requests for money added to the tally) and cross a river thing to the street opposite.

There’s the Hotel Chartreuse, lovingly nested between strip clubs. We knock on the door and the guy apologises – they’re all full up.

Now, you might think it’s silly to go somewhere without booking a room. And basically, you’re right. The thing is, up until now this has not been a problem. It’s the off-season, and backpackers and hostels have been stoked to see us.

Diana isn’t too concerned, as it’s not an area she’d like to stay in anyway. I’m inclined to agree. So we buy a map and start tracking down other places recommended by Lonely Planet. A half-hour trek through the city later, they’re full too – a particular pity as I had managed to ask for the room in French.

Now we’re thinking, “Fuck it, we’ll just take any old place in a two-star hotel.” So we retrace our steps, going into hotel after hotel. Complet, complet, complet. No room at the inn. I start waxing poetic about what a poignant story the Nativity tale is. We get almost all the way back to the train and try for a room at a place called l’Hotel Des Ambassadeurs, I think.

“Pardon, Monsieur. Complet.”

We stare mournfully up the stairs at the concierge who’s told us the same thing everyone else has. By now I’m wondering how well I could put a positive spin on spending the night at a 24-hour internet cafe, an old trick I’ve used to save on accommodation while backpacking, but probably not easily sold in to Diana. What would appeal to her? Could there be a 24-hour internet cafe next-door to some kind of 24-hour petting zoo?

The concierge takes pity on us. “Come up, come up,” he says, intuiting that we’re not native French speakers.

We scale the stairs and Diana collapses into a sofa in the waiting room.

“Everywhere is full,” explains the concierge unnecessarily. His name is Mathias. “There is a congress.” A convention. Some kind of business convention in Toulouse has booked out every damned room in the place.

So the concierge starts trying to help us. He thinks there are two beds left in a dorm room at one particular place in the city. He starts trying to phone them for us, but there’s no answer. All the while, about once every five minutes, the door downstairs opens, a bell rings, and a new person is told that there are no rooms left at this hotel.

Finally he gives up, at the same time as he finishes his shift. “The last available room was 30km away,” he explains. And it was snapped up hours ago.

So I start formulating a plan. We’re getting out of Toulouse. We’re moving on to our next destination, either Carcassonne or Nimes, and we’ll book accommodation ahead of time there.

First step: finding out whether or not any trains are going out this late. Mathias joins me on the walk down to the train station, having briefed his replacement at the hotel.

We walk past the collection of guys on the street with dogs, and I have to ask Mathias, “What’s with the dog club?”

He explains. It’s against the law in France for policemen to leave dogs unattended on the street. So all of the homeless guys have dogs as protection against being arrested. To arrest the homeless owner of a dog would be to either leave the dog unattended (not allowed) or somehow look after the dog (too much hassle). Thinking back, most homeless people I’ve seen in France have had sad-looking dogs with them.

So I get to the train station ticket counter. Naturally, there are no trains left going to either Nimes or Carcassonne. In fact, our only option is back to Paris – or something on the way to Paris.

This is the first time I have heard of a place called Cahors. But that’s our destination. Maybe. I ask the lady how many people live in Cahors, what the population is. She looks surprised and says, “I have no idea.” She asks the lady next to her, in French, who laughs hysterically at the question but doesn’t answer it.

Now, back to the hotel to see if we can book a place there.

The new concierge (Kevin) doesn’t speak much English, but we muddle our way through. He brings up booking.com and we book a place in Cahors. We use my credit card. We get details of where it is (500m from the train station). It all sounds good. We’re on our way out the door to buy the tickets before the train leaves when he says, “There is problem!”

What now.

He’s booked (and I’ve paid for) a room in a hotel in some place that’s not Cahors. When he searched for Cahors hotels, some other city’s hotels came up too. This is no good. He cancels it and hopefully cancels the credit-card payment, and with many many apologies books the Deltour Hotel in Cahors. He gives us a booking number and a four-digit code. I write them down.

Where is it? 2.5km from the train station. Is it a safe walk? Oh, yes, yes.

We get to the train station. The ticket counter has closed. So I walk up to an official-looking fellow and ask if he speaks English, because I’m too tired to try for French at this point. “Non, non, Laurent, Laurent!”

He points me to a man named Laurent, who starts singing Lionel Ritchie at Diana: “Hello! Is it me you’re looking for? I could see it in your eyes…”

We laugh a little. He asks where we’re from. “New Zealand,” we say.

“New Zealand?! Get out!” he says. Apparently they follow the rugby in Toulouse.

Now he takes us to a man who can sell us tickets to Cahors. Laurent speaks quickly in French to the guy, mentioning “Nouvelle-Zelande”.

“Nouvelle-Zelande?!” says the man. “Tell them to get out!”

“We wanted France to win!” says Diana desperately, and I’m reminded of that scene in Saving Private Ryan where the captured German guy, fearing for his life, starts saying, “Fuck Hitler! Fuck Hitler!”

Anyway, we buy the ticket and get on the train. For an hour and a quarter, things are going fine. Because we’re on a train. Diana plays Civ on the iPad. I read a book. Then we arrive in Cahors.

Now, we’ve got a map. It was printed out by Kevin at the hotel, from Google Maps, and it shows the route we should take to get to the hotel. It’s not detailed enough to have street names, but there are helpful step-by-step instructions (in French).

As far as I can tell, one of the first things we did was take a wrong turn.

It’s midnight by this point. I know the general direction we need to head in, but France appears to be a country dedicated to obfuscating the names of its streets. Every so often a street is labeled and it’s not a name I can find in our directions.

We see a main road and head there. There’s a bar, closing up. We find someone in there who speaks enough English that we can ask for directions.

“We’re going to the Deltour Hotel,” I say. “On foot?!” he says. And points us up a road.

“Keep on going. You’ll see it.”

Okay. So we start going in that direction. At times there is no footpath. At times there is no lighting. I pull out the flashlight and use it to help us out. Every so often we stop and take in the night, because it’s actually magnificent. Mild temperature, a clear sky of unfamiliar stars, a river running alongside the road we’re taking. Every house in Cahors is like a caricature of a French house. Some are massive, all are charming.

Finally we hit a road I recognise from the directions. Google Maps, in its endearing way, picked the technically fastest route from the train station to the hotel, which meant lots of tiny side streets instead of taking the main road we did. Naturally.

So we arrive, around 1am, at the hotel.

The story doesn’t quite end there.

We arrive at the hotel and there’s a sign on the door saying, in French, its open hours are until 9pm (about half an hour before we booked our room online), and there’s an emergency after-hours number. There’s a machine that looks like an ATM out front, and I’m too exhausted to think twice about it.

But the door to the hotel is open. We walk inside and gratefully put down our backpacks. Now, at least we’re warm. We could sleep in the lobby if we had to. Things are looking up. I check that emergency number and figure we’ll give it a call.

Diana finds a payphone and I pull out some change, but no, it only accepts some kind of telephone card. Then Diana remembers that she has some global roaming on her Vodafone prepay phone, which is currently beeping due to low battery. I call the number and a sleepy-sounding French woman answers.

I explain as simply as possible that we’re in the lobby and we have a reservation and we’re very sorry. She says, “Tres bien,” and then the battery dies on the phone.

There’s a horrible 60-second wait as I wonder how easily the furniture in the lobby could be turned into bedding, and how we’ll explain it in the morning. Then a hastily dressed woman emerges from a room, all but rubbing her eyes, and walks past us outside to the ATM-looking machine.

Remember the code we were given as part of the room reservation? Yeah, me neither. Anyway, apparently if we could read French, we would have seen that it wasn’t an ATM (and why would there be an ATM there anyway?) but an automated check-in machine. So, more apologies to the poor girl we’ve dragged out of bed.

We get given the card. We get to the room. We collapse on to the bed.

Various lessons learned, but now we’re in Cahors. We would never have visited here if all of this hadn’t happened. There are some sights to see, and there is a distinctive local wine to try, and we have to plan our next move.

Whoo! Anyway, your loss, Toulouse. Enjoy your congress.

Bye, Bordeaux

So we’re leaving Bordeaux today. A few things left to see before we do – got to climb to the top of that bastard tower, going to visit the Museum of Contemporary Art to see their Secret Societies exhibit… I think that’s it.

There appear to be no squirrels in Bordeaux.

Next stop is Toulouse. Twice the size of Bordeaux, I’m sure it’ll be a bit different. From there we’ll do some day trips to various places and marvel at Roman engineering, etc.

Last night we had dinner at a place called Bistro Regent, I think. They serve nothing but a hot plate of some kind of meat or fish, which is served on your table over a little tea light that keeps it hot. And over all of them is the same family-recipe shallot sauce stuff. There are three options of what meat/fish to have with the sauce, and that changes every so often, and they don’t sell any other food (except for unlimited fries on the side).

So tasty.

We’ve been in Bordeaux for… What? Three days, I suppose. Maybe two and a half, all up. I’m sorry to leave. But I expect I’m going to feel sorry to leave every place we visit, and sorrier again to leave the whole continent.

Climbing the tower today. Next post will be photos of Bordeaux from above.