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Toulouse – Fine French fayre, an old castle and exploring the Ville Rose

Guest post – Rob Cussen

“Where are you traveling to sir’? asked the unusually friendly security man as he took out my toiletries bag for scanning at Gatwick. ‘Toulouse’ I replied, ‘ah, no time to lose’ he responded, smiling and nodding at me. I smiled. ‘Not many people get that’ he said. ‘I bet’ I replied.

The Capitol - Toulouse

The Capitole – Toulouse

‘No Time To Lose’ had immediately popped into my head once arrangements had been made with Richard and Ollie and I had watched the clip of that Monty Python sketch (linked to the Kamikaze Highlander Regiment sketch) and realised it was a lot funnier to the 1973 version of me. Nostalgia eh?

Toulouse is the capital city of the department of Haute-Garonne, in southwestern France. It lies on the banks of the River Garonne, 150 kilometres from the Mediterranean Sea, 230 km from the Atlantic Ocean, and 580 km from Paris. More facts at Wikipedia and elsewhere on t’interweb.

Why Toulouse? Why not is the short answer. The long is that our intrepid travellers were originally going to be off to New Zealand after stopping off in France for a family wedding in Montpellier. They would stop off in Barcelona and catch up with some friends there and I wanted to see them before they went down under. Originally Perpignan was considered for me but flights and airport arrangements for them made that difficult so Toulouse was decided upon.  The NZ plans changed but Toulouse remained on the schedule.

The streets of Toulouse - or the 'Ville Rose' as it it is known.

The streets of Toulouse – or the ‘Ville Rose’ as it it is known.

Thankfully, they met me at Toulouse – Blagnac airport and it was lovely to see them both again after nearly 8 months. Their blog, instagram and Skype have been fantastic; reassuring as well as really interesting but I had missed them both and my regular lunches, drinks and chats with my boy.  Seeing them in person again was wonderful.  Also this old chap would have been forlornly wandering around gazing at bus timetables for hours and eventually getting lost without the two chicken bus timetable experts who, it seemed, had worked out the city transport links within minutes of their arrival the day previously.

I was there for 5 days, 4 nights and we stayed in a very VERY bijou 2 bed apartment on the Rue Gambetta, behind Bar L’Impro with the now famous greyhound cross ‘Eddington’ and around the corner from the impressive Place du Capitole, a huge pedestrianised square where the impressive Capitole can be found. A fantastic public place in a city where, around every corner it seems, is a public square, large and small.

During the fantastic, very warm weather, the citizens of Toulouse could be found enjoying their 2 hour lunch breaks and excellent French working hours in the full bars and restaurants.

From what I saw, Toulouse is a very busy, vibrant and interesting city and well worth a visit. We mooched around the centre mostly and found it to be a safe place with a pleasant atmosphere late into the night.

One day saw a drive west of Toulouse to the middle of nowhere near a small hamlet called Belmont in the Gers department in the midst of the Côtes de Gascogne wine region near the sleepy town of Vic Fezensac (worth a Google). I drove, the other two lunched well…. very well. Richard kept me in the right lane throughout. Fantastic countryside and great roads.

Another day saw a trip by train, despite the best efforts of the unions, to Carcassone (again worth a Google) a fantastically restored medieval fortress, now a tourist trap but some great views to be had but I enjoyed the view of the castle from the ‘new’ city, chatting and people watching during a couple of beer stops in warm, busy squares.

We ate out in some really nice places, one the ‘Au Bon Graillou’ one of the fantastic restaurants that run the length of the first floor at the impressive Marché Victor Hugo (the largest covered market in the city – and what a fantastic market it is) a superb lunch ‘formule’, great atmosphere and nice friendly staff.

Another great meal, dinner this time was at the Le May restaurant on Rue Du May. Great steaks, nice atmosphere and again really friendly staff.

The Bar L’impro was the venue for an evening of cards and beer and on one occasion, after our visit to Le May, a father/son chat accompanied by a glass or two of Jameson.

Eddison - Watching over proceedings at Bar L'impro

Eddington – Watching over proceedings at Bar L’impro

Day 5 arrived and after another nice lunch in Place St George, it was time for me to depart back home. Richard and Ollie took me to the bus stop for the airport, put a sign around my neck giving my flight number in case I got lost and damn if I didn’t get something in my eye again!

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During my time with them, Richard and Ollie were planning ahead and I’m sure we’ll be reading all about it on this fantastic blog!

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Grácia – A gentle European transition

Barcelona - Why not?  There's a reason it's so popular!

Barcelona – Why not? There’s a reason it’s so popular!

“Do you think the foie gras is overkill with the chorizo, four kinds of cheese, olives, aioli and bread? “ We had suddenly found ourselves back in Europe. With access not only to luxury items such as toasters, hairdryers and sofas but also to delicious foods that we have been dreaming about for several months whilst eating peanut butter and crackers in an effort to save cash. Being our two year wedding anniversary as well we decided that not only would we have all the delicious food, but a few bottles of wine would be acceptable also.

Supermarket binge

Supermarket binge

Barcelona is a city that many visit for city breaks and I have always wondered why it is one of the most popular destinations in the world each year. A little flat in the Grácia neighborhood set us back about 60 euros a night, which when compared to the outrageous price of dorm beds is a pretty sweet deal.

Catalan flags hang from most of Barcelona's balcony's.

Catalan flags hang from most of Barcelona’s balcony’s.

Enter Europe: phase two of our journey. It turned out that Grácia is the perfect spot to reintegrate into European society and get a sense of ‘normality’ as it were after 7 months riding around on chicken buses and sleeping in hammocks. After deciding to not wash our clothes with us while we showered as per usual and use the washing machine instead, we headed out to explore what was to be our little home for the next five nights.

Streets of Gracia

Streets of Gracia

“I want, tapas, in a square, with a beer whilst listening to the faint sounds of a strumming guitar as the sun goes down!” Not an unreasonable demand I thought, seeing as we were in Spain, so into the warren of narrow streets we went, each one lined with handsome five story balcony clad buildings. After finding initial refreshment in a little bar called El Otro (which was immediately designated our local) we tried to find some food. Initially unsuccessful in my demands for sundowner tapas with a Catalan soundtrack we went into a restaurant…but left shortly after when we couldn’t understand the diagram ridden menu. Feeling miffed at the lack of success we wandered towards home, and then stumbled across Plaça del Sol, which offered the sound-tracked tapas dream that we had been looking for. A handsome little square surrounded by bars serving small things to eat and cold things to drink, positioned perfectly so it gets the last of the sunshine…of course, being so near the equator for so long, we were not used to the sun going down at 10pm! The square was filled with people just sitting around enjoying the weather; some with guitars, some juggling, but everyone just chilling.

It wasn’t all sitting around squares, drinking cañas (draft beers) and cava; we ventured out to see the city a bit too. First stop was that strange construction project called the ‘Sagrada Familia’, Gaudi’s 100 year old ongoing project that is probably one of the most visited sites in the city. I find it hard to describe this thing creatively and there are many other more poetic people out there who could definitely do a better job so I will sum it up in one word…mental. Ollie described it as “like a castle in a child’s nightmare”. Here’s some photos of it, but they don’t do it justice.

Gaudi is a legend in this city and his works/influences can be seen all around the city. Including of course ‘Park Güell’ which we decided not to enter as felt the 8.50 Euro entrance fee was slightly steep seeing as you had to share the experience with thousands of other tourists. It irks me when you are forced to pay to enter public spaces such as this, so we didn’t pay it and retreated to a plaza for a beer. ..money better spent!

A stroll down La Ramblas showed us the touristy side of the city, but gave us the opportunity to see a fantastic market in La Boquería. After drooling over various products in there, we headed for a wander round the Gothic quarter, before sniffing out a delicious lunch at Bar Del Pla on the recommendation of our friends Sean & Fi. A menu of squid ink croquettes, ‘octopus bombs’, foie gras on crispy beef and a couple of drinks at the marble bar was an affordable and indeed delicious lunch. Thanks Faun! Walking off the lunch back towards Grácia we decided to go via the Arc de Triomf and up the wide avenues.

The hustle and bustle of La Ramblas is soon forgotten as you hit Grácia, where we decided to celebrate our anniversary by getting our second of course of ink for the day, this time in tattoos at the 19:28 parlour (can’t recommend it enough, Dani was a legend!). Not matching ones…no names, just a little something each to remember the trip by.

We quickly fell in love with the city (well, Grácia mainly.) The area is so very chilled, and we both agreed that we could live there, in fact agreeing that when we make our millions, we will buy a little flat there. Maybe even the one we rented off Sergio. The narrow streets, beautiful buildings draped in Catalan flags, boutique shops, little markets, pretty plazas, fantastic eateries and friendly little bars make for a top get away to the city without the tourist masses bothering you. Sadly five days sped past and it was time to leave. Not far though; we headed back to Barcelona airport to meet some buddies and hit our palatial villa on the outskirts of the city…

Villa Crew!

Villa Crew!


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Morro de São Paolo – How to spend your last week in South America…when you need to top up the tans

Beers with the waves lapping at your feet on 1st Beach - Morro de São Paolo

Beers with the waves lapping at your feet on 1st Beach – Morro de São Paolo

Brazil is famous for many things; football, samba and beaches are often what spring to mind for most people. Everyone can name Copacabana and Ipanema but these are certainly not all that Brazil’s massive coastline has to offer. Just a couple of hours from Salvador de Bahia, and given barely a footnote in the Lonely Planet guide, are a few small islands, the largest of which is known as Morro de São Paolo (nothing to do with and nowhere near the metropolis which shares its name). Most information we could find on it was on other blogs and these almost entirely written by Brazilians, so we decided this would be a good opportunity to sample some authentic Brazilian beach life. We were not disappointed.

Great old buildings at the port at the bottom of the Lacerda

Great old buildings at the port at the bottom of the Lacerda

Looking back on Salvador.

Looking back on Salvador.

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There are a couple of ways to get to the island – a cheaper but more convoluted journey by ferry, bus and small boat, or when the weather is fine and by paying out a little more (75 reais each) you can catch a catamaran directly from the port at the bottom of the Lacerda lift in the old town of Salvador. We decided to treat ourselves to this option. Having had dubious previous experiences with catamarans Rich armed himself with seasickness pills and we set off to catch the 9.30am boat. The weather was on our side and the sea was calm so while Rich succumbed to medicinal drowsiness I sat on the back of the boat and watched Salvador retreat into the distance under blue skies. Two hours later we slowly rolled up towards the island. Ancient city walls greet you just behind the port, along with a picturesque old lighthouse. Lining the jetty were rows of wheelbarrows with the word ‘TAXI’ emblazoned on the sides – this is due to the fact that the island is entirely traffic free; the wheelbarrows are run by locals offering to lug your baggage up the steep hill on arrival and around the roads and beaches to your accommodation. Given that our hostel was a mere 5 minute walk we decided to go under our own steam but fellow Brazilian holidaymakers did look at us as though we were mad! The wheelbarrow taxi ‘drivers’ all wear vests emblazoned with their names – ‘Wanderson’ being my particular favourite moniker! The few actual streets in Morro have only recently been paved – by all accounts it used to be just sandy tracks until a year or two ago and a few have complained it’s ‘not what it was’ but we can confirm that the island certainly does retain a very relaxed feel and the lack of cars is bliss!

Taxi!

Taxi!

Turning right off the main square we passed under a stone arch that read “Rua da Fonte Grande 1746” down to an old fountain (from around the same year) which formed the island’s water supply in years past and still flows today while doubling up as a precarious playground and climbing frame for the island’s children at dusk. Just past the fountain was our hostel; another HI-affiliated place (but much, much better than the one in Salvador) called Hostal Escorregue no Reggae. The name means ‘slide into the reggae’ in Portuguese; the colour scheme and laid-back owner back up the general theme! Recommended.

Rua da Fonte Grande 1746

Rua da Fonte Grande 1746

Fonte Grande - Morro de São Paolo

Fonte Grande – Morro de São Paolo

We wasted no time in checking out the island’s beaches which are handily numbered rather than named: Primeira Praia is the first one you reach from the port, followed by Segunda Praia, Terceira, Quarta… you get the picture. As we walked onto Primeira Praia we were greeted by an Argentinian lady selling homemade empanadas which sorted out the issue of lunch pretty well and was just the first of many great beach snacks on offer. The next nice surprise was a series of makeshift bars with plastic chairs and tables selling cold beers while the sea washes over your feet. The French have the expression “pieds dans l’eau” that is used for anywhere on the seafront but this was a whole other level and probably one of the finest spots for a beer that we found; you just have to occasionally reposition your chair if a particularly large wave comes and destabilizes your drinking spot! The final surprise on this beach plummeted into view out of the corner of our eyes – a zipline that runs down from the hill on the island and deposits the user straight into the sea. It would have been easy to sit there all afternoon until the tide (or the beers) knocked us off our chairs completely but we carried on along to the other beaches; Segunda Praia is where the most action is in terms of bars/restaurants/watersports etc, and after that the beaches get quieter and a little more rugged. There’s something for every kind of beach goer really.

The next few days slid by, mainly based at Segunda Praia by day and the pizza-by-the-slice joint next to the old fountain by night. Restaurants on the island are a little pricey so we saved a few of our pennies by dining on pizza (5 nights out of 7 to be exact – don’t judge us!)

There are few great stories to tell about day after day of sunbathing but one thing worth mentioning is some of the great snacks available on the beach in Brazil. Mr Whippy and sandy sandwiches have nothing on this country’s offerings:

Fresh coconuts – drinking the water then scooping out the soft interior afterwards. Bliss.

Açai – or “assa…EEEEEEEEE” as pronounced by the lads selling it on the beach: a sorbet of dark purple açai berries topped with chopped pineapple, banana and granola (or pretty much anything you want really).

Grilled cheese – Oh yes. Sticks of halloumi-style cheese cooked right in front of you on little portable barbecues. This should be sold everywhere in the world, all the time.

Acarajé – also found in Salvador and cities but great as a sunset snack – a fried back-eyed bean fritter filled with vatapá, a kind of shrimp paste, chillies…and some other great stuff which I don’t know how to make but do know how to eat.

The other observations on Brazilian beach life are as follows:

You can wear as little as you like, but you have to wear something: In mainland Europe topless sunbathing is commonplace but in Brazil it’s not the done thing. However, wearing the smallest bikini or shorts possible is positively encouraged, whatever your age or size. It’s a refreshing attitude to be honest but you do occasionally get quite an eyeful…

Don’t even bother playing beach sports unless you’re extremely good at it: From beach football to bat and ball or ‘keepy-uppy’ volleyball – if you’re going to give it a go you have to know what you’re doing. The competitiveness and level of skill on show on a family day on the beach or a group of friends having a kickabout is extraordinary and not exactly inviting to join in, but great to watch!

These guys mean business.  No 7-1 results here!

These guys mean business. No 7-1 results here!

I suppose the general conclusion is…Brazilians know how to do beach life. Morro is a fantastic and authentic spot to experience it without big crowds and away from the tourist hordes (although we were slightly out of season; it could be quite a bit busier at peak time, but a visit in May is highly recommended!).

Sadly though, it was time to head back to Salvador for our final night in the Americas before our flight back to Europe. I won’t go into too much detail about our journey back to Salvador ‘the long way round’ (due to the catamaran being cancelled), suffice to say just don’t do it if you have any choice in the matter. Fork out the extra 20 reais for the catamaran if you can.

Central Square in the Pelourinho - Salvador

Central Square in the Pelourinho – Salvador

The excellent pully delivery system at restaurant  Dona Chika-ka

The excellent pully delivery system at restaurant Dona Chika-ka

By the time we arrived back in Salvador the World Cup was even closer and so the old town had been decked out in colourful flags making it an even more magical sight. The whole atmosphere of the place seemed to have revved up into celebratory mode and I found myself enjoying it more that our first visit which was a nice surprise. We had a final fantastic Bahian dinner and caipirinhas at Dona Chika-ka restaurant in the Pelorinho (the best moqueca of our time in Brazil) to the sounds of a street party down the road. It felt like a great send-off, even if it had hardly sunk in that we were leaving the continent and this leg of our adventures…