Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Go go gadget GoCar

And so on to Barcelona! A welcome break after 4 hectic days of sorting all our accumulated bits and pieces for shipment back to Oz. Sadly that also concluded our cycling adventure as we conjured up hidden packing genius trying to fit our preciously complicated little queens into their narrow, cardboard containers.

Soon enough our two wheels would be replaced by three when our friends in Barcelona suggested we try GoCar. They'd seen these cute, yellow convertibles around town and thought they'd be great fun so, after taking a peek at their website and discovering an awesome discount for bloggers (yay cheap publicity), off we went.

We found their office tucked away in an alley and it struck me, what with the trendy yellow decor and funky beats, that we'd made a proper departure from shoestring tourism and entered weekend getaway territory. So I put on a brave face and tried not to look at all surprised that a 300 EUR deposit was successfully deducted from my credit card.

"So you have experience?" said the nice man in reference to the scooter car thing. P2 and I said "Yes" and "No" simultaneously then laughed nervously as he waited for an explanation. I gave P2 a confused look until I remembered that we once took a motorcycle rider training course but didn't go through with whole license process. To my surprise the nice man didn't seem overly concerned and proceeded to roll out the car and go through the workings of the vehicle.

It's basically a GPS enabled, scooter-driven car that gives you an audio tour of the city as it guides you to the major points of interest. Helmets required, as are seatbelts. Fair enough, except that the seatbelts weren't adjustable. Oh well, let's just hope for the best.

"Who's driving?" That would be me seeing as I still had a valid license. That meant that P2 would be navigating. Oh dear. We hadn't anticipated that. P2 started examining the map with dismay and I could sense her headache coming on.

Still, no time to fuss. We now had to test the GPS system which meant going for a short drive. Ignition? I see. Brakes, uh-huh. Throttle ... stall ... throttle ... What's that? More throttle, OK then! We're instructed to go to the end of the road and make a U-turn. Getting to the end of the road was ok but the U-turn proved to be more challenging. I misjudged and got stuck just as a taxi entered the intersection and looked on with an expression I dared not gauge. Driving a scooter also means no reverse gear so P2 had to hop out and push, adding to our general style and decorum.

"There's no way they're going to let us drive away with this thing," I muttered to P2 but to my amazement they hardly batted an eyelid and sent us on our merry way. I struggled a bit to keep it under 20km/s as instructed as I wasn't all that comfortable blocking so much traffic but, as we'd been warned, any faster than that and we'd miss vital instructions from our audio guide and once you're off the path you're completely on your own.

The brakes were a bit tough and P2 nearly bit my head off for scaring her with a few close calls but eventually we all managed to calm down and start to enjoy the ride.

"Just relax," I said. "Don't worry about the directions. The car will tell us where to go." So there we were, snapping away at the Arc de Triomf, Sagrada Familia aka Gaudi's hideous cathedral, under construction, the Toreador stadium and the like. The funny thing was that we seemed to be a tourist attraction ourselves. Wherever we went people stared, some took photos, and I was conscious of the fact that the running commentary was audible to everyone, not just ourselves. This was particularly embarrassing in tiny, narrow streets where the tall buildings on either side seemed to amplify everything. Still, the engine noise was quite loud so turning it down wasn't really an option.

After nearly two hours of this madcap, non-stop adventure we decided it was still worthwhile spending a little more to see parts of the city we wouldn't have time for later. At the beginning we'd missed a vital turn at a really very confusing roundabout so with a bit more experience under our belts we gave it another go. This time the map was out and P2 got down to business. We got around that whole circuit with barely a hitch despite road closures and unintentional detours but it was distinctly less fun with map in hand rather than camera as navigation required our full concentration.

Having decided to call it a day we made our way back hoping to return within the hour to avoid clocking extra time when P2 made an executive decision to take a short cut. Given her navigational record it took more than a little faith on my part but seeing as she'd done so well that day I thought perhaps I could be a bit more generous. Things went well at first but before too long, P2's defiant optimism was slowly beaten down by Barcelona's irregular network of one way roads. Eventually we made our way back on to the GPS guided path and the audio guide sprang to life with encouraging noises only to let us down at the final turn by informing us far too late. Around we went again before we finally made it back and were only too happy to hand back the keys and regain our pedestrian freedom.

Would I do it again? If I were on a bigger budget then I certainly wouldn't rule it out but right now at the regular price of approx EUR 30 an hour I can think of a number of things I'd rather do with that kind of money. Eat more tapas and drink more beer for instance.

If you're considering it, a bit of motorbike/scooter experience would be a definite bonus if only to allow you to focus on the more interesting parts of the 'tour' and it helps if you don't mind making a spectacle of yourself. A lot of the reviews I've read talk about their experience in San Francisco where perhaps that wouldn't be such a problem but in Europe I felt more than a bit self-conscious.

We floated past so many interesting spots wishing we could hop out and take a closer look without worrying about our remaining time or where to park. On the other hand, we probably wouldn't have seen them at all if we were solely on foot with the time that we had. It would be best to hire a GoCar for the day so you have more freedom to stop whenever you want (you can park in 2 motorcycle spots or one car space) and the daily rate is better value.

The GoCar is very cute which definitely adds to the appeal but there's plenty of room for technical improvement. The GPS gives audio guidance only which affects timing as it tries to fit directions in with commentary and it can be difficult to hear in traffic. The rear view mirror was basically useless as the road vibration would shake it out of alignment almost immediately and the seatbelts need to be adjustable!

Overall it's a good concept but for me, I'm happy to wait until GoCars go electric, speakers put in the helmets and a visual GPS display added. One can always dream!

Now that truly is the business.

Friday, 13 June 2008

Meanwhile, in the off season

So skipping forward a few chapters we quit our London jobs and are now living in Paris. Hooray! Well, technically we're just outside of Paris proper in an area called Pantin which has been described as 'the hood' but we've been assured the part we're in has been gentrified and looking around it certainly seems that way.

The great thing is we've arrived for the summer festival season so there's heaps going on even out here. Last weekend was the fete de Pantin complete with street parade, loads of kids stalls and a live band with accordion playing French classics whilst retired locals were getting down on the dance floor (doing the Cha Cha says P2 - still looks like line dancing to me).

In the evening there was some cool performance art over the canal itself. An acrobat pulled some interesting and very expressive maneuvres suspended from a rope counterbalanced by a large wooden bucket of water. He'd use the canal to adjust the water level/weight of the bucket allowing him to do different movements. Extra atmos was provided by a solo alto sax paddling around in a boat.

Next weekend there's a fete de musique happening locally. Once we look into what's happening in the rest of Paris I'm sure my head will explode but for now, we've settled into a nice holiday routine of sleeping in and enjoying our petit dej before walking along the canal looking to feed 4 fluffy ducklings P2 has adopted.

Last night P2 suggested we try out escrime (aka fencing). To my relief the instructors were friendly and welcoming despite my limited French. I'm sure P2's smooth talking had something to do with it but when it came time to receiving instructions things got a bit tough. P2 understood most of it but there was little time to intepret before the instructor started calling "En garde! Riposte! Recule!" and I had to do my best to muddle through. Fortunately no harm came of my confusion but it occurred to me that French language lessons might be more immediately beneficial.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008


Dear friends,

Some have you may have been wondering whether something terrible happened along our journey as our tales came to a mysterious and unsatisfying end. Rest assured we are safe and well and hope to fill you in on the details in good time. Sadly, the electronic journal I'd kept was whisked away by a light fingered fellow on the London Underground before I could update this blog so I will have to rack my brains to recall our travels. I doubt very much this will be done in chronological order for which I apologise but I will do my best to keep the posts in correct sequence by fiddling with the dates.

Meanwhile, our bicycles have gone into hibernation whilst we bury ourselves in work and wait patiently for the warm weather to return and annual leave to accumulate.

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Epernay: Day 2

We decided to try out a cycle route from the Lonely Planet Cycling guide to France loaned to us by the new friends we’d made in Lille. It was rated “Easy-Moderate” but without any real reference this was not terribly meaningful. The book was written by experienced cyclists and probably not aimed at almost complete beginners like ourselves but the only way to find out was to give it a try.

The first part was smooth sailing, a mild incline past long stretches of sunny, open vineyards including some owned by the famous Veuve Clicquot. Then the first hill nearly killed us. It was the steepest we’d ever encountered. Granted, that’s not saying much having just come from the Netherlands but it was a rude shock to find that even on unloaded bikes we couldn’t make it up the first hill, a hill that didn’t even rate a mention in the guidebook. We took a break mid-way up in the old village and as we caught our breath we wondered what exactly constituted a ‘steep climb’.

It took quite a bit of convincing to get going again but after some dallying about and peeking into the former abbey of Dom Perignon we decided to give the ride another go. Thankfully the remainder of the ride was no worse and we passed through some rather pretty villages and gathered some frightening speeds back down towards the main town.

We made it just in the nick of time for a guided tour and tasting of 3 vintage cuvees (P2’s choice) chez Mercier. Not the most prestigious producteurs but word had it they put on a pretty good show and had one of the largest chalk caves in town. I’d never heard of them but apparently this was nothing to be embarrassed about because, like the vast majority of French wine, this stuff doesn’t reach the export market as it’s all consumed domestically.

Our tour began with the giant vat at the entrance which took 16 years to build and which the founder, Eugene Mercier, transported all the way to the World Exhibition of Paris in 1889 only to be upstaged by the Eiffel Tower.

Our elegant guide with the cutest French/Oxford accent then escorted us down to the enormous chalk caves 30 metres underground where we boarded a laser guided automatic train. All the key stages in the champagne making process were explained including the gruelling manual process of ‘riddling’ i.e. turning the bottles around at regular intervals to aid the settling of sediments before being extracted but thankfully that’s all been automated now.

After our tour we returned to the surface to appreciate the subtle differences of three different vintages and I was deeply impressed at how polite they were about herding us out of the tasting area and into the store so they could pack up and go home.

Our own journey home was that much more pleasant for having exerted ourselves earlier but I suspect the bubbles affected me more than I realised. P2 looked on in horror as I weaved through the traffic, faintly aware but not at all concerned about the cars swerving to avoid me. What a pleasant day for a ride!

Friday, 14 September 2007

Epernay: Day 1

Next stop Epernay, the Champagne capital of the world. We arrived fashionably late at the municipal campsite to find our little plot surrounded by what looked like a bunch of college boys on summer holidays. They’d hired these enormous campervans over which they’d strewn beach towels, board shorts etc and seemed pretty intent on getting hammered and making ridiculous whooping noises all evening.As we set up camp in the darkness with our headlamps a guy from New Zealand spotted our little tent and immediately recognised us as fellow cycle tourists and was terribly excited. He was retired now and he and his wife were at the end of an epic journey from China to Paris. Amazingly he’d hardly seen any other cycle tourists along the way. I hastened to downplay the significance of our little expedition considering that we’d actually caught the train that day but it was fascinating to hear about his travels. I was alarmed to hear that he’d been attacked whilst camping in Kazakhstan and had to be hospitalised! Fortunately a local intervened during the attack to save him and his wife but I admired their determination in deciding to continue their trip. It did cause me to reflect that two girls travelling together might be best sticking to safer countries. France and the Netherlands were just fine for now.

After hardly getting any sleep that night our priority the next morning was to check in to a hotel. We found a lovely little place not too far away run by another of those wonderful older couples we would come to grow so fond of in our travels. We were so tired we slept through until afternoon before venturing out in search of dinner. We followed our hosts’ recommendation and after some waiting gained a table amongst the 50-something entirely French crowd. A good sign in my book. The wine list met with P2’s approval (no mean feat) and the food certainly didn’t disappoint. It was my first experience of choucroute. This version was a deceptively simple mix of pork sausages, belly pork, apple, potatoes and onions baked in white wine. Result? Delicious!

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Sancourt du Sud

It turned out to be a full day's ride to Sancourt du Sud, almost 60kms and quite a few hills we needed to push our bikes over. We passed through many eerily quiet towns and ran a little short on food as no shops seemed to be open past midday.

Using good maps made a world of difference. Navigating was a breeze and the IGN maps even had contour lines but sometimes it was hard to motivate yourself when you saw the steep inclines ahead. At halfway I was ready to give up and catch a train but when we reached the town which showed a station on the map it turned out that line was no longer running passenger trains. The closest one that did took us even further away from our destination so there was no avoiding it, we had to push on.

When we finally arrived the owners greeted us with a good laugh, remembering us from the night before. Our accommodation was comfortable and spacious, all the more appreciated given the effort in getting there.

We were so hungry from the ride it wouldn't have taken anything special to impress us but the food was simply delicious. The farmer's wife cautioned us not to spoil our appetites on the first course, a fabulous duck rillette served with warm, crusty baguette. We still managed a reasonable effort on the rest of the meal, slow cooked leg of duck, dripping in it's own jus with the meat just falling off the bone, served with a huge dish of ratatouille and for dessert, P2's favourite, rhubarb tart.

In the morning the farmhand showed us around the farm, his explanations brief in his coarse, mumbling. We saw many kinds of duck including the multicoloured Mandarin, pheasants, honking geese and a pair of enormous Goliath horses. The saddest though were the Giant Flanders rabbits, all terribly cute, some impossibly large but all destined for the table.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Sancourt du Nord

Despite going by train, getting to Sancourt by the appointed time was not a trivial task. We'd had some difficulty finding accommodation at one of these farms so were keen to assure the owners that we were indeed coming, if a little later than expected.

There was one train a day to the nearest station and it arrived 30 mins late. Not wanting to spend time getting lost P2 had gone on a mission previously to find a detailed map of the region so it was straight forward navigation to Sancourt. Despite needing to back out of an very rocky, unsealed road we made it in reasonable time with enough daylight to see by.

Now to find the place, 8 Rue du l'eglise (i.e. Church St), there's a steeple, off we went but there was no such street to be found. A few circles later we met a family returning home who, seeing us obviously lost, kindly gave us some assistance. We began to suspect something was amiss when even the locals didn't know the street or of any tourist lodgings in their small village.

Not ones to abandon two stray girls as night falls their daughter accompanied us on her own bicycle to aid our search. She spoke to the farm owner on our mobile. I only caught glimpses, town park opposite...50 metres down. We cycled around again but no luck. Mystified she rang again and the landmarks were checked and the situation explained. After a pause, "Ah! Sancourt du Sud! I see, then we have a problem."

We would never have guessed that there were two villages of the same name within 50kms of each other, close enough to confuse them but too far for us to make it to the other place by dinner time. The farm owner was somewhat exasperated and we later learned that she'd been driving around Sancourt du Sud looking for us. Fortunately the French family offered us their backyard to camp in for the night so we could rest now and sort the rest out in the morning.

After lugging our gear up through the side gate and into their spacious garden we pitched our tent and joined them inside the house for "something to eat". We hoped this meant dinner but we weren't sure as it was past 9pm and their daughter had already changed into her pyjamas. They brought out saucisson (dried sausage), bread and butter. Oh well, I thought, it's food. We tried not to look too hungry and ate at the same pace as they did.

Once they'd finished, fearing that was the end P2 asked if we could help ourselves to more.
"Of course," he said, "the pig is already dead." I didn't quite understand the expression or catch all of what he said and for a moment I thought they might have actually killed a pig for us. To my relief and disappointment P2 explained he was referring to the sausage.

Sadly, my French lessons didn't come flooding back to me and I remained mostly mute during our stay. They were extremely kind and quite interested in our travels. They had five cats, only one of which they'd intentionally acquired. The remaining four were strays brought home by their own cat and had been integrated into the household. We did pretty well to stumble across these folk.

To our great relief dinner was served consisting of spatchcock, tomato and salad. The father showed us on a map where we were and where we originally wanted to be. In the morning we joined them again for breakfast before they headed out to work or school and left us to arrange our affairs in their backyard.