We arrived in Paris on Friday evening. After a group dinner at the hotel, we got back on the bus and were driven around the city while our group leader pointed out all of the attractions we might want to visit on Saturday. We were dropped off by the Eiffel Tower just in time to see them turn on the flood lights. We had timed entrance tickets, which was nice since we didn’t have to wait in line. I had been on the Eiffel Tower once before, but I didn’t go all the way to the top that time. This time I did, and it was amazing!
We arrived in Bordeaux on Thursday evening. The drive from Barcelona to Paris is too long to do in one stretch, hence the scheduled stop in Bordeaux. Apparently Bordeaux is one of the food and wine capitals of France as well as the town after which Paris was redesigned in the 1800s. After checking in at the hotel, our group leader took us on a brief walking tour of the center of town and showed us the areas with good restaurants. There seemed to be a lot of restaurants of different types of cuisines – Thai, Chinese, Indian, etc. I went to an authentic French restaurant with several other girls in our group. The waiter was very friendly and patient helping all of us with the menu.
After dinner, a couple of the girls and I walked over to the Place de la Bourse and took some pictures near the fountains. We had a nice stroll through town, especially since Bordeaux isn’t completely overrun with tourists!
On Thursday, we had a long drive from Barcelona to Bordeaux. Almost everyone slept the entire way since most of us had been out late at Opium the night before. However, we did manage to wake up at our stop in Carcassonne, which is a fortified medieval town in southern France. Inside the walls are lots of shops and restaurants, all of which have storefronts that keep with the medieval theme. It turns out that this was where Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was filmed. Now it is mainly a tourist attraction, but they also hold many concerts and other events there as well.
After the flamenco show on Wednesday, our tour group leader got those of us who were interested tickets to see DJ Alesso at a club called Opium. The show had been sold out for a while, but our tour group leader knows a guy at the club who was able to get some tickets. The flamenco show was finished around 10:30 or 11 pm, so we had a couple of hours to kill before things got hopping at Opium. We headed over to a bar called Port Olimpic close to the club, where they played good music for dancing and had discounted drinks for us. I had decided not to drink anything since I was terrified about having another issue getting back to the hotel and/or getting mugged. By the time we headed over to Opium, I almost just felt like going back to the hotel, but I decided to stay out since I wanted to see DJ Alesso and also Opium, which is supposed to be the epitome of the European club scene.
When we got to the club, we got to skip the line which was hundreds of people long. It was because our group leader knows a guy at the club, but it still made me feel really cool. By this time, it was 1:45 am, and it was packed inside. Apparently clubs in Spain don’t really get popping until 2 am. The club was enormous, but if you were on the dance floor, it was nearly impossible to move. DJ Alesso was awesome, but by the time 2:45 rolled around, I was ready to leave as it had been a long day. I caught a taxi back to the hotel with another girl. We got back around 3 am. We weren’t the first to leave, but a lot of people stayed until 5 or 6 am! I don’t know how those kids have the energy to party that long! Ah, to be young again. . .
On Wednesday evening, we went to a flamenco dinner show at El Tablao de Carmen, up on Montjuic. When it was first opened, the renowned flamenco dancer Carmen Amaya performed there for Alfonso XIII, King of Spain. The first half of the show was Jondo Flamenco, which is a serious style that expresses profound feelings that are often tragic. The passion with which the dancers performed and their facial expressions were very moving. The second half was Festero Flamenco, which is a lively style that deals with happy subjects. It was amazing how fast the dancers moved their feet! The entire performance was accompanied by live music and singing, which was amazing. This was definitely one of the highlights of the trip.
Wednesday was our main day out in Barcelona. Our guide told us that there is a joke in the tourism industry that “you haven’t gotten the true Barcelona experience until you’ve been mugged.” He told us some horror stories, enough to make me worried. One guy on a previous tour had gotten mugged of everything he had on him except the t-shirt he was wearing. Yes, they even took his underwear! I’ve never been somewhere where so much emphasis has been placed on mugging, pickpocketing, and scam artists before. Apparently this type of crime is particularly bad here because of lax punishment. If they get caught, the punishment is either a fine or a few days in jail, no matter how many times they are caught.
After breakfast, we went for a walking tour of the Gothic Quarter. We stopped in a square in which the buildings were marred with gunshots from a mass shooting during the Spanish Civil War. After the walking tour, we had free time for the rest of the day. A lot of the people I had been hanging out with wanted to go shopping again, but I really wanted to see the sights instead. I ended up going on a hop-on, hop-off bus with a girl from Ottawa and a guy from North Carolina.
We rode around on the bus for a while before getting off at La Sagrada Familia, one of the most famous works designed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi. The line was about an hour wait, but it went by fast because we took turns holding our place in line and getting lunch. Incidentally, the man at the sandwich shop where we went for lunch told me to take my cell phone out of the front pocket of my purse and put it inside because someone would take it. He went on and on about how you have to be super careful of your belongings in Barcelona. He told the other girl from Ottawa the same thing. And here I thought that our tour guide was just trying to scare us earlier! The basilica, although still being constructed, was amazing. Every inch was a precious work of art. At this point, I’ve been in many churches in Europe, but this is definitely the most unique one that I’ve seen. It combines gothic elements with more modern design.
After La Sagrada Familia, we got back on the bus and went to the Olympic stadium up on Montjuic. Then we walked to the National Museum of Art of Catalonia and took photos in front of the fountains. We got back on the bus and were considering going to the Picasso museum but realized that we didn’t have enough time because we had to be back at the hotel by 8 pm to meet everyone to go to a flamenco dinner show. The other two people I was with wanted to try to do one more stop, but I wanted to go back to the hotel to take a shower and change my clothes. I stayed on the bus until it got to the main square where I caught the subway.
The subway was very easy to use. The problem was that, once I got off at my stop, none of the surroundings looked familiar whatsoever. We hadn’t taken the subway as a group, and none of the 4 maps I had showed the location of the hotel which was just north of where the maps cut off. I tried to use Google maps on my phone, but of course this was the one time it decided to keep crashing. I was starting to get worried and decided that the best thing to do would be to get a taxi even though I was probably really close to the hotel and the minimum charge would be high in relation to the distance travelled. There wasn’t a taxi stand in sight, but luckily I saw a free taxi at a stop light and was able to get in.
I gave a card with the hotel’s name and address to the driver. He didn’t seem to know it, and when he typed it into the GPS, it said the address was invalid. He started driving anyway while consulting a map in this enormous map book of his. After a while, it became clear that we were lost – very, very lost. I don’t panic easily, but at one point when he had driven to a suburban looking area that was not at all familiar, I thought I might start crying. I was worried that he was going to just drop me off at some random place since he couldn’t seem to find it. Combine being lost with not knowing Spanish and the fact that we were warned many times about being mugged, and I was about to have a break down. I tried to ask the driver to call the hotel and ask for directions, but either he didn’t understand what I was saying, or he was just being a man and was afraid to ask for directions. Finally Google maps was working on my phone. The driver and I compared maps and somehow we were able to get to the hotel. I was so happy, I could have kissed the ground! What was probably a two minute drive took 40 minutes. At least the driver didn’t charge me much.
I ran up to my room and got ready for dinner as quickly as I could. I felt like a homeless person, but at least I made it back in time to meet everyone for the flamenco show. It turned out that a similar thing happened to the other two people I had spent most of the day with when they tried to get back to the hotel. They had to get out of the taxi and ask locals for help. Apparently a lot of maps don’t show the tiny side street on which our hotel was located.
Today was our “holiday within a holiday,” as our group’s leader put it. We had a completely free day in Nice – no group activities whatsoever. I slept in, then had a delicious lunch at a restaurant overlooking the French Riviera before heading to one of the private beaches across the street.
The private beach cost €22, but in addition to the lounge chair and umbrella, you get access to private bathrooms, showers, lockers, and a changing area. It doesn’t hurt that they have good-looking French waiters serving you drinks at your lounge chair either! I was lucky enough to get a lounge chair in the front row, so I had a perfect view of the beach. I also had a deep tissue massage on the beach, which was absolutely wonderful! I was at the beach all day. The water was the perfect temperature to be refreshing, but not too cold.
I witnessed a Baywatch moment when I was at the beach. A little girl, maybe 4 or 5 years old, about 15 feet away from the shore, wearing arm floaties, started screaming, “Maman! Maman!” Strangely enough, her mother was right at the shoreline but did nothing. After a few seconds, the lifeguard whipped off his shirt, dove in the water David Hasselhoff style, and brought the girl to her mother. You go, little French lifeguard, you go.
I had dinner at the restaurant on the beach before exploring the shopping area of Nice. I got some souvenirs and a few necessities at a pharmacy that was open late. I then just wandered around until it got dark. On the way back to the hotel, I came across an impromptu breakdancing competition. When I got back to the hotel, I turned on the TV and tried to find an English station to watch the news. Strangely enough, the only English station is the NHK world news, which is actually from Japan. They keep switching between the news and a demo on how to make inari sushi!
Last night we had a 4 course dinner in Vieille Ville, Monaco. Afterward, we walked around for a bit before heading over to the Grand Casino in Monte Carlo. The casino was every bit as glamorous as I had expected, with rows of exotic cars parked outside. It was completely luxe on the inside. The front of the bar was covered in crystal. The main room had a beautiful stained glass ceiling surrounded by crystal chandeliers. It’s a pity pictures aren’t allowed inside!
I’m not much of a gambler, but I wanted to play a little since we were in this epic casino. The minimum bid for a card game was €20. I decided to play the slot machines instead and ended up coming out ahead by €13.25! Although, I did buy a water for €6, so I guess I was only up by €7.25. A couple of people in our group won €350 playing blackjack. Luckily no one in our group lost a lot of money!
We arrived in Florence late Friday afternoon and had a bit of time to relax in the hotel before heading out for a group dinner. On the way to the dinner, it started to rain pretty hard. No one was prepared for rain. By the time we found a sheltered place to stand to wait for it to pass, we were all soaked! I was worried that the restaurant wouldn’t take us since we looked like drowned rats! They didn’t seem to mind though, and we enjoyed a nice dinner.
After dinner, we went to a karaoke bar called Red Garter. It was packed inside, and all the drinks came in huge two liter pitchers. It took a while for the singing to get started, so I actually went back to the hotel rather early with another girl who wasn’t feeling well. I mostly just wanted to get out of my damp clothes, take a shower, and go to bed. Apparently, several people in the group decided to leave the karaoke early to go to a nightclub somewhere either on the outskirts of Florence or outside of Florence. They had a really difficult time getting taxis back to the hotel. A couple of arguments broke out, and it sounded like they had a terrible time. I’m glad I decided to go back early and missed out on all of the drama.
Saturday morning, we went to a leather shop and watched a demo on how they make Florentine boxes. They also told us how to tell the difference between real and fake leather. After that, we had a walking tour of Florence with a local guide. Once the walking tour was over, I had lunch with some of the Australian girls. We had up until dinner for free time. Once again, everyone just wanted to spend their free time shopping. . .and not even in the little shops. They wanted to go in some of the chain stores that are everywhere! We ended up splitting up after a while. I looked in the market stands for some specific souvenirs, found a quiet place to enjoy some gelato, and then went back to the hotel to take a nap. The only thing I didn’t do that I kind of wanted to was to climb to the top of the Duomo. I figured it would take too much time, plus I was tired and it was hot out – not exactly the kind of conditions that inspire a 400+ stair climb.
We went to a place called La Certosa for dinner. It was sort of like a banquet hall. There was live music and dancing, and we all had a good time. Afterward, we went to Space Electronic Discotheque and danced until the wee hours.