Tag Archives: travel

Underbelly of Paris – Les Catacombes

There is this incredible little pastry shop in the middle of Paris – quite possibly the middle of the map (though of course this depends on where you place your map)… And it is right opposite the entrance which goes down a stone spiral staircase that opens up onto thousands upon thousands of human remains. You know, location location location. (The bakery was really lovely though, don’t get me wrong!)

Bones

Les Catacombes, the Catacombs of Paris, France, are home to what seems to be an infinite number of old human remains that were dug up a couple decades ago from churchyards around the city, and placed, according to custom and set rules and regulation (because they have rules for how you stack bones, naturally), in the old underground quarries from even longer prior to that. People are weird. Maybe we were weird for being so intrigued and enthralled and captivated by it?

Greenstick fracture

This place is immensely creepy. Thankfully, I, unlike my crazy travel partner, had not watched “As Above, So Below” before going into the twisting, dark, dank tunnels, so I had no fear of imminent supernatural about to attack, but that didn’t make it any less freaky.

Tunnel

 

But enough of those childish descriptions. The information down there was great: I had no idea there were underground quarries below the densely populated city of Paris, and I got to learn a heck of a lot about the methods behind it. Also, how crazy miners are, and the people who don’t think things through, resulting in some ceilings of the tunnels collapsing. How do you not see that coming? Have you never built a sandcastle on the beach before (or in any sand whatsoever)? Silly…

Stone-masonry

What was not silly, was the fact that there was information in ENGLISH as well, for a change. It was a really nice relief to actually know what was going on down there. Except for the creepy Latin inscriptions as you head into the tunnels which house the actual skeletons – which makes it even eerier (grown up words!).

Typically people don't appreciate or respect others, or the dead, and they go and vandalise history... Spooky though

Typically people don’t appreciate or respect others, or the dead, and they go and vandalise history… Spooky though

It was really something nice and different to do in Paris. They are open until fairly late, the place is extremely accessible, and we even got a student discount, which is always great! The only problem (apart from having to do even more stairs) was that you come out somewhere quite different to where you go in, and we forgot to familiarise ourselves with the route back. It was fine, we were in Paris! Stunning little sight-see, not too busy, absolutely worth the visit!

666 graffiti

 

Palace of Ver-sigh

The Palace of Versailles is lovely, especially in the first few rooms you walk through. After that, though, the loveliness seems to spread and average out until the whole place has a lovely ranking of “Average”. Gold room, after carpeted room, after fancy chandelier.

Grand Trianon Ballroom

After the main Palace, you walk through incredibly expansive, stunning gardens. Now, I really wouldn’t mind having a garden like that outside my bedroom window! We couldn’t figure out how it was kept so impeccably neat though: we saw one lone gardener who was mowing the lawn, but we never saw anyone tending to the perfectly cropped trees, or sweeping up fallen leaves. It must just stay like that naturally, from years of being tamed to do so.

Gardens of Verailles

And it really has been years. A visit to the Palace of Versailles is like a snapshot into history that you enjoy but would rather not see. It’s almost as bad as visiting a concentration camp if you have any vague idea of what actually happened in that place. Everything is extremely grand, even the dwellings labeled as “petit”, and they clearly didn’t spare any expenses. But as you’re craning your neck to see yet another golden chandelier, you remember that there were people in the streets not very far from that very room who were literally starving to death.

Marie Leczinska

Some other Marie (Marie Leczinska)

Now, I completely understand Marie Antoinette’s instruction to “Let them eat cake”, I mean, cake is absolutely wonderful, and everyone should be allowed to enjoy it, but the detachment that the French government and bourgeois had from their people is horrifying. Then again, so is the massive economical divide we see around us even to this day…

But enough of that morbidity. It was a gorgeous day, and we got to see and learn quite a bit from the visit. I had never been to this particular overcrowded tourist destination, but I am really glad we made that long journey – though the “journey” around the Palace itself felt far more extensive and excessive and had us walking many miles through echoes of the very first chamber we went into.

Paris Day 1 – The Circumnavigation

Start: top left corner of the map. Walk “downhill”. Take a slight wrong turn. End up at Arc de Triomf. Realise your new camera’s lens does not zoom in or out; time to be creative.

Arc de Triomph

Take a stroll down the Champs Elysee, slight detour to the Grand Palais, and a nice long wait to go through security at the Louvre. Blur through the sculpture room, Medieval Art, Mona Lisa, Roman and Greek art,  foot-rest break in the Egypt chamber, and onward to the lock bridge. Slight wander to get to the Notre Dame, and a much welcome break at Quick. “Healthy” does not feature when in Rome Paris.

Petit Palais

Mona Lisa crowds

Notre Dame

Grand Palais

Obelisk Champs Elysee

A “just-around-the-corner” walk to Eiffel Tower, pause on the grass, pause in the queue, and begin the ascension to the second floor. Pause for elevator to the top, try not to get blown off the top, pause for elevator back to second floor, and some eccentric quad exercises to the bottom. Catch a bus that’s much further away than it seemed on the map.

Eiffel Tower

Get home to leave some baggage and go out for an evening walk, but end up crashing before 8pm, despite not having dinner other than cool cereal, and despite having no curtains for the remaining 2 hours of daylight.

Total: 15km of city walked. 1 wing of the Louvre explored. ±700 stairs up and ±700 steps down the Eiffel Tower. Day 1 = complete.

Oui went to Paris

We went to England for his first time overseas. He wanted something exotic for his first time though, so I figured why not hop on over to Paris for the weekend. After all, it is just around the corner.

Surrounded by history is the city of Paris

Outside the Army Museum: Surrounded by history is the city of Paris. It really makes me wish I had taken the noble subject of History, even if only at school level

The city of love, of lights, of overpriced restaurants, too much vandalistic graffiti, and enough litter in the sheets to tower over Le Toer Eiffel. I guess that’s how it’s always been though, a city of start contrasts. Our visit to The Palace of Versailles highlighted how lavishly the French Bourgeoise lived, while the proletariat went starving. Walking through the narrow lanes and alleyways of Paris, and suddenly, out of the cobbled streets, will rise, gold and grand, some immense building of some significance or other. And then it’s back to uneven paving and spray painted tags, where some French kid thought he was being cool by cussing in English.

Paris is full of rebels, even if it is just a way for them to declare their undying love

Paris is full of rebels, even if it is just a way for them to declare their undying love

The first time I went to Paris, I went by ferry, and it gave a stunning view of Dover (and boats are always fun). This time, we caught the Eurostar, for £72 one way, and £56 for the return trip. I expected more from the train trip, but hey, it was efficient and it delivered us safely to Gare du Nord train station, a short bus ride from our accommodation. If only we knew how to catch a bus in France… Luckily, the French folk were really helpful, contrary to my limited past experience. I still don’t know how to catch a bus though.

Beauty is in the sunglasses of the South African

Beauty is in the sunglasses of the South African

We booked our accommodation through Air BnB, which is pretty much my new favourite travel website, on par in usefulness with Skyscanner.net, We stayed in a 6th floor, one bedroom apartment which had windows that would have been completely perfect if their view had been one of the Eiffel Tower. Also, if they had curtains, especialy with the sunrising at 5am, setting at 11.

Check: he's holding the Eiffel Tower!

Check: he’s holding the Eiffel Tower!

The highlights of this trip:

Day 1

  • Arc de Triomf
  • Champs Elysee
  • The Louvre (and getting in for free)
  • Walking to Notre Dame
  • Grabbing a Quick burger
  • Walking to the Eiffel Tower; climbing the 700 stairs to the second level and then catching a lift to the top
  • And finally catching bus home
The classic French dinner: Sirloin and Pommes Frites (French Fries). The irony that they are called Poms...

The classic French dinner: Sirloin and Pommes Frites (French Fries). The irony that they are called Poms…

Day 2

  • Oversleeping, meeting some Americans on a train, and waiting nearly an hour to get into the Palace of Versailles, walking through endless illogical halls-come-bedrooms then corridors of said palace, being very hot walking through the extensive and gorgeous gardens
  • Returning to town for a trip through the Catacombs,
  • Dinner in Paris
  • Sunset from the Sacré Cœur, and
  • An evening stroll home along Place de Clichy (think red light district and “cabaret”)

Overall, it was a really lovely trip. Quite an expensive expedition, but that’s what you get when you visit one of the most popular world tourist destinations. We walked 15km on each of the days, excluding the walk around the inside of the Palace of Versailles, and excluding walking around the Louvre. We were only there for 3 nights, but we really made the most of the limited time that we did have there.

Paris has this uncanny ability to be an amazing fantasy before you get there, somewhat awful and scruffy while you are there, and then still manages to leave you feeling as though you went to this magical place of beauty and excitement when you return to reality. It’s bizarre and I like it.

Overlanding through Tanzania

Chopper, the Land Rover Defender 100 that took us on our epic journey through Tanzania

Chopper, the Land Rover Defender 100 that took us on our epic journey through Tanzania

I saw Mount Kilimanjaro. And it was so amazing that I forgot to take a picture of it. That’s when you know a moment is special: when it’s so amazing to be in the moment, that all other superficial cares of the world are lost in it – there’s no need to take a photo, or check in on Facebook, or prove to other people how much of a good time you are having. Those are the ones that are often cherished the most. It’s difficult for me, though, because I love to share my experiences with other people. Now, all I can do is tell other people I have seen it, but I have no proof! I have had to learn how to appreciate that moment for what it was: just me and the awe of being in nature’s massive presence.

The moment was amazing: we were driving along, trusting the GPS that there was a large mountain somewhere ahead of us. We tried to identify which one it was – maybe it’s that one over theeeeeere in the distance, it seems a bit bigger than the others, right? Then you see a slightly larger one, and you wonder if it’s not perhaps that one. Then all of a sudden, you look up. As in, up up. High above the clouds, high above any of the surrounding mountains that you were assessing, and you are left without a doubt as to which one it is. And you can’t help but feel small at the foot of this enormous chunk of rock that just rises high above all that is around it.

Then it gets confusing to your mind because it is so far away but so big that it actually looks small…

The roads were long, and mostly decent. The sun was bright, and it was hot. You can see the water effect on the horizon - polarized sunglasses were necessary

The roads were long, and mostly decent. The sun was bright, and it was hot. You can see the water effect on the horizon – polarized sunglasses were necessary

Tanzania was beautiful. I was highly surprised by how green it was though! Particularly in Ngorongoro, but everywhere you looked there was green. I definitely had different expectations. Traditionally I had pictured Africa to be more Savannah-type landscapes, with bush-veld as far as the eye can see. Instead, there were trees, and green fields. It was almost like the UK or Europe, except with skies brighter blue than you could ever imagine, and a sun that shines directly from above chasing all shadows away.

I also wasn’t expecting the traditional cultures to proliferate as they did: you drive along, and there are just Masai tribesmen walking along in their traditional blankets, with massive looped earlobes, with their knobkieries, just herding their cattle. Yes, I am most definitely a city girl, but this experience particularly highlighted how different South Africa comes across to me: yes, we have traditional people, but often it feels like they are traditional at certain times, and then resort to commercial, modern, “first-world” tendencies. For example, they live and work in the city, wearing suits, driving BMWs and drinking expensive coffee (I’m thinking bank executive here), and then get married in their traditional garments with cows as labola. The Masai tribesmen seemed all-tradition, all the time. It was fascinating and good to see that there are still some cultures out there that have held on to their traditions and the simple ways of life that don’t require the hustle and bustle and stress of today’s “modern world”.

Yes, there are people that still live in huts like this every single day of their lives. It's incredible and beautiful and so simple it just about makes you want to live like that too

Yes, there are people that still live in huts like this every single day of their lives. It’s incredible and beautiful and so simple it just about makes you want to live like that too

Having said this, however, I didn’t get any photographs of the locals. Unfortunately, while they still live according to their old ways, they have been touched significantly by the tourism industry, and as a result, I found that one of the only English words in their vocabulary was: “Dollar?” We tried to drive up to Lake Natron and got stopped along the worst dirt roads and we were asked for toll fees (you know, to maintain the dirt road?) a good number of times. At the one stop, there was a Masai woman who was trying to sell us her jewellery, which is fair, but after the heavy tolls, I didn’t want to be buying some piece of jewellery (which, to be honest, was basically the same as what I would get back in South Africa, except triple the price). When I told her “No”, she insisted that that I at least take a photograph of her: “Photo? Dollar? Photo? Dollar?” I tried to say no in as many tones as I knew, and she kept repeating those two words and ignoring (and not understanding) my refusal. The Dollar tourism industry has made travelling quite expensive, even (especially) in Africa. None of the Masai folk would let us take photos of them without us handing over some cash. So I didn’t take any photos of them (religious reasons would be ok, but tourist exploitation was unfair on principle).

***

We took a slight detour off the only just beaten track to check out this huge crater mountain thing. This is what we found on the inside (a crazy hat man! Just kidding).  It was easy to imagine a lone tent sitting at the bottom of the basin, but we unfortunately didn't have time to spend the night

We took a slight detour off the only just beaten track to check out this huge crater mountain thing. This is what we found on the inside (a crazy hat man! Just kidding). It was easy to imagine a lone tent sitting at the bottom of the basin, but we unfortunately didn’t have time to spend the night

The journey took us up from Dar Es Salaam (which was polluted and busy and full of traffic and taxis far worse than any Johannesburg Kombi) to the foot of Kili at Moshi, up through Arusha, and a slight detour to Ngorongoro Crater and National Park. We would have done Serengeti too, had time and finances allowed. We took the scenic route from there up to the border. This route took us past some cool volcanoes and craters that we did our best to explore (uncomfortably by excitingly off the beaten track). There were Zebra, wildebees and buck roaming free, and the expansive wilderness was breathtaking and typically African. Unfortunately we never made it to Lake Natron, but it worked out better as far as time went anyway, so I can’t complain too much.

We were tasked with getting some rock samples from the foot of a special volcano in Tanzania. This sounded simple, but it turns out there's a whole load of different rock types at the foot of a volcano, that aren't necessarily volcanic rock

We were tasked with getting some rock samples from the foot of a special volcano in Tanzania, Ol Donyo Lengai. This sounded simple, but it turns out there’s a whole load of different rock types at the foot of a volcano, that aren’t necessarily volcanic rock

Tanzania (I still don’t know how to pronounce it properly) was an awesome African experience. It challenged my preconceptions of my continent as far as the landscape goes, and it showed me just how far of an influence America actually has. I loved seeing that there are some people who still hold onto their cultural traditions as tightly as they can, with no desire to change that, where I am a person who is confused by people who are not looking for progress, growth and development (in themselves or in the world around them). It is definitely a place everyone should experience some time in their lives. I’m not sure that I would go back, but if I did, I would definitely go with lots of “dollar?” just to make the journey that bit easier and less frustrating.

Chopper delivered us safely through this unknown terrain. Such an awesome experience

Chopper delivered us safely through this unknown terrain. Such an awesome experience

Hidden South African Gems – Port Alfred

I officially graduated from Rhodes University. I am no longer a Rhodent, I now part of the upper echelon of Old Rhodians. Supposedly. But #Rhodent4Life!

My gran was supposed to come down to South Africa from the UK to celebrate my grad, but her goat attacked her. How’s that for an excuse? It was a pretty bad injury, and I’m glad she stayed home and rested and recovered, though it did make some of our “grad-weekend” plans seem a bit dull…

Port Alfred

We figured we could make a beach weekend out of a weekend in Grahamstown, so we booked in a B&B in Port Alfred that was absolutely stunning, right on the beach front. PA is only 40 minutes away (30 if you’re one of the students I tutored last year who did the trip daily), so it seemed convenient at the time. It wasn’t really, because we spent most of our time in GHT, so it was a little bit wasted. But gorgeous nonetheless.

I know my mom will probably hate me for putting this up, but she is beautiful and it's her birthday on Saturday, so all my love to her, lying on some super comfy bed in a really neatly and perfectly finished B&B bedroom

I know my mom will probably hate me for putting this up, but she is beautiful and it’s her birthday on Saturday, so all my love to her, lying on some super comfy bed in a really neatly and perfectly finished B&B bedroom

I was glad to have the opportunity to visit PA again, as beach trips were seriously under-utilized in my time at Rhodes. It made for a great day trip, though one that was difficult to over do, because it was just that little bit too far away. I do regret not spending more time checking out Bathurst as well, which is a quaint little place.

Taught mom how to take a selfie. Not sure if it was a mistake to have done that or not...?

Taught mom how to take a selfie. Not sure if it was a mistake to have done that or not…?

Port Alfred is basically just another one of those gorgeous small towns along the South African coast. It is especially beautiful because it is situated in the Eastern Cape, and somehow most places there are beautiful. It’s a stunning coastal visit that still holds it’s small-town simplicity.

Rock pools

The kind of place that makes you want to attempt to capture each crashing wave and the incredible rows of shells, and the crystal clarity of the water, but its just too beautiful to ever adequately do it justice

We got a local’s recommendation to check out the Three Sisters rock formation just up the coast from Port Alfred, about a 15 minute drive. We were about 45 minutes too late, but if you ever get the chance, make sure to go just before and for the duration of low tide. It truly is a wonder to behold.

This seemed like a good idea in the time before I did it. Then I realised that I am pathetic and spider webs can be icky but it was too late to turn back...

This seemed like a good idea in the time before I did it. Then I realised that I am pathetic and spider webs can be icky but it was too late to turn back… I promise I didn’t Photoshop that sky either.

Port Alfred is just another one of those places that reminds you just how beautiful South Africa is, and how lucky we are to have such simple yet breathtaking places right on our doorstep, and a reminder to take advantage of it before we as humans do the inevitable.

How I ended up in Africa

Spike Reid. Adventurer. Writer. Explorer. Photographer. Gentleman. Motivator. Friend. Opportunist. British. He’s a climber, a sailor, a mountaineer, an expedition leader. He was even mine once.

Spike

Spike discovered an opportunity to deliver a rare Land Rover Defender 100 from Cape Town to Nairobi for an Englishman who is now working up in Kenya. Spike needed a co-driver, and I had decided that this was going to be my year of adventure, so I said “Yes”. And what an adventure it was!

Spike would laugh at me beforehand when I expressed my reservations about going to ‘Africa’. “But you live in Africa!” he would say. I think I can now conclusively state that I do not, in fact live in Africa. South Africa in particular is very different from the likes of Stone Town and Moshi.

Stone Town

Google also didn’t help. This was my first holiday “on my own” and I had little experience in planning this kind of trip. Google told me: “BEWARE!” Beware of the water, beware of the fruit, the vegetables, the disease and, of course, the malaria. So I got my prophylactics, purchased some go-to snacks (3kg of them to be precise), and made sure I had a well-stocked first aid medications kit. I was glad to have the snacks (particularly the nuts and fizzers), and with the amount of mozzie bites I got, I happily endured the trippy dreams in prevention of the malaria.

***

So it turns out that Africa is very African. I expected a few ‘big towns’, and Arusha and Nairobi did meet (and somewhat exceeded) these expectations, but I didn’t expect just how rural many of the “towns” were. The corruption in the police also took me by surprise. Yes, we got stopped by every group of traffic cops we passed by (ons blanke), but by the end of the trip, not one monetary bribe was paid.

Just your casual African petrol station not too far out of Arusha

Just your casual African petrol station not too far out of Arusha

I was lucky to have had the opportunity to go on this trip. It was different, it was educational, and it took me right out of my comfort zone, which was ‘fun’ for me, but which Spike probably didn’t enjoy so much – if you ask any of my family, you would learn that I am not the easiest of campers, though I generally happily take on the challenge.

***

Here are my tips and warnings for planning a (camping) trip to Africa:

1. Use local currency – US Dollars are not as widely accepted in the more rural areas as Google claims. It also works out substantially cheaper.

2. Take antimalarials. Get your yellow fever and tetanus jabs up to date.

3. Don’t take too much food, but easy and healthy snacks are nice to have with you because ‘healthy’ options are rather limited.

4. Check when the rainy season is. We weren’t affected by it (somehow – we were there in the rainy season, but all the ravines were dry as anything – it still made for some awesome 4×4-ing).

5. Water. We bought water. It was pretty reasonable, and out of sealed bottles you know you can trust it. Obviously this is for drinking, and if you’re as fussy as me, you can cook your pasta in it too. Don’t forget you also use water for brushing your teeth.

6. Make sure your guidebooks are up-to-date. Ours wasn’t even that old, but the recommended campsite no longer offered camping. Also related to campsites: don’t purchase drinks from the bars – they are so overpriced! Grab your G+T’s from local spazza shops in the towns.

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