Saturday, January 30, 2016

Sud de France - Major Detour de France

We emerged at the top of the rock, walked to the edge and looked out over Nice, sprawling from the Mediterranean shore. I took a deep breath, taking it all in… and then my jaw dropped… where was the bag… THE BAG…

The view disappeared as I poured over recollections of our last steps. When had I last seen the bag? Nothing came, and then a glimpse - on the bench by the beach. Right. I told Chris to wait and legged it back down the rock. Reaching the bottom I sprinted across the road, hurdling a fence with sufficient clumsiness to catch my toe, do a triple commando roll on the concrete and emerge back into a run (only later would I find I screwed my wrist, not to fully fix for months). I made it back to the bench and… nothing. Shit. Fuck. Balls!
The contents of the bag flicked through my head with horror. Wallet, documents, tom tom, sunnies, phones and… all our passports. Shit. Shit! Had we left it? Had it been snatched? Did it matter? Where was the BAG?

After a frantic look around the surrounding area I rushed back up the hill to Chris. She look worried, which turned to aghast when I reported back my findings (or lack thereof). She was unsurprisingly not impressed. We were stuck in the southern corner of France with no passports, two small kids and a fast growing baby in Chris’ tummy.

Looking for half positives, we still had one phone, one wallet and the keys for the rental car. Thankfully these had been in my pocket.
We strapped the kids in the double buggy and rushed back down to the beach for another desperate search. Nothing. Having gone as far as checking all bins and dark corners within nearly a half mile, we were left with a trip to the police station. Unfortunately for us, it was a major festival day in Nice, Festival des Fleur, and therefore a major crime day. The queue of people waiting to report an array of offences stretched through the entrance hall.
Two hours later, via much waiting and a bemusing interaction with an Atari’esque bureaucratic French police reporting tool, we left with a police report, but no hope of finding our stuff.


With flights booked for the next morning there was only one place to go. The airport. We must have seemed like a hopeless case, a one year old, two year old, visibly pregnant woman and me walking up to the BA till announcing we had lost our passports and asking how we could get home. To my pleasant surprise, BA were fantastic. While there was no way they could let us on a flight without passports, they gave us their sympathy and free any time transferable flights from Paris to London.

You may be thinking - “But Paris is nowhere near Nice”. Indeed it is not. If it were just the boys and me we could have rocked up at the British consulate in Marseille the next day, received our temporary passports and boarded a flight home. Chris is though Greek and, in case you had missed the news for the last few years, Greece does not have the cash to keep luxuries such as full service consulates in second cities. The Greek embassy was in Paris, so Paris it had to be.

On returning back to our hotel in Cannes, we were greeted with huge warmth and help by the awesome owners, whipping up a free home cooked meal and letting us use their phone for free. We spent the evening planning next steps, getting our hands on some Paris bound TGV tickets for the next morning and a cheap hotel room in which to stay once we got there.


I felt a little like a fugitive boarding the TGV in Nice with a whole family but no real identification. Luckily no one asked. As the only remaining tickets had been first class, that is what we purchased and spent the next 6 hours whizzing through the expanse of the French countryside at up to 300 kmph, doing our best to keep the kids entertained with cards, books and snacks.
The time passed like a breeze. High speed rail leaves me in a pleasant daze, what with the hyper-strewn views distorting both the time and places passed. Still, this unexpected side trip reminded me of just how large our Gallic neighbour is.

When in Paris, things seemed to be working out. The people in the hotel were friendly and our room was just big enough to squeeze in. Before knocking out for the night, we peered out our window and were surprised by a framed view of the Eiffel Tower sparkling on the hour. I still hold that it is an ugly glorified pylon by day, but at night it is magnificent.
We set off early the next morning to the embassies, hitting the Greek one first. It was situated just up from the Arc de Triomphe, a short packed metro ride from our hotel.  The door was shut and no one answered the bell. On looking to the side we found a small note stuck to a door. It announced that the embassy was shut for the day. Come back tomorrow. Unbeknown to us, it was little heralded holiday for Greek public servants. We were not impressed. For the first time, Chris began to get rather stressed. Not surprising for a four month pregnant lady who had Greek public inefficiency blocking her way to getting home.
All we could do was move on to the British consulate, a short walk down the Champs Elysees and left at the Place de Concorde. There things were amiable, relatively efficient and expensive. Two hours later we walked out with three new shiny temporary passports for the tidy sum of GBP 285. They were just like the normal ones, but coloured a sickly cream and with less pages.
There was nothing more we could do until the Greek embassy re-opened, so we did our best to enjoy the city. And we did a pretty good job. Trip round the Louvre, a boat ride on the Seine and various stops to pretty corner cafes for refreshment. Every time I go to Paris I appreciate it a bit more. An unsurpassed combination of man made beauty, style and attitude. 


We were back at the Greek embassy first thing the next morning. The day before had been fun, but we were keen to get home. Forgetting for a second that we were already two days late for work and I had run out of underwear (I could live with that), we were running short on baby paraphernalia and pregnancy related medical appointments called in Blighty.

We pushed the buzzer and, after a nerve inducing long pause, were relieved to be buzzed in. To my eternal astonishment we walked out 30 minutes later with a temporary Greek passport. They were so Greek, mostly in a good way. Seeing a pregnant woman, they rushed her straight in and after a nice chat the official gave Chris her new document. Somewhat predictably, there was a catch.

In stark contrast to the full security, micro-chipped British temporary passports, the Greek embassy provided us with a piece of paper. A photocopied, ever so slightly crumpled piece of standard A4 paper. I admit it was nice of them to put an ink stamp on it and staple Chris’ photo to the top. They even went as far to add “via London” after the printed “valid for travel to Athens”. Despite their efforts, it still looked like a 10 years old’s forgery. 

This made us a tad nervous, but there was nothing we could do about it, so we booked flights for that evening and went off to see more of Paris. First stop Notre Dame.


Trying to look as confident as possible, we walked up to the check-in desk and provided the lady with our documents. She flicked through the replacement British passports without a word. She then held up the Greek “passport”, peered at it for some time, scrutinised it a bit more, paused, and asked - “What is this?”

I explained, again calmly, that this was the Greek equivalent of those shiny new British documents she had just passed and is valid to take us home. The lady looked slightly baffled and went back to discuss with her supervisors. Chris and I exchanged nervous looks. The lady returned to explain that this was not a valid travel document. I, a bit more sternly, explained that this was the only type of temporary passport the Greek embassy issues, it was valid and would be getting us on the flight. She walked away again to discuss with her supervisors.

By this point, our two small boys were starting to get upset. We did not discourage them. A bit more ruckus and tears would only put more pressure on the check-in staff.

The lady returned with her supervisor, who pointed out that the document said “via London” rather than “to London”. British Airways would not therefore let us on a plane to London when they knew we intended to disembark there (rather than continue on to Athens). This was not funny. If Chris was only permitted to return to Athens then we were screwed. She would not be able to return to the UK until she had been issued a new passport in Greece, the waiting list was currently six months and she was due to give birth in just over four. Even forgetting about the fact that we had jobs to return to, we were facing the prospect of either being separated or locked out the UK until we had had the new baby. Not funny!

Needless to say I made my point rather more forcefully. The “via London” was just the way the Greek embassy did it. There was nothing else they issue and, despite what the piece of paper looked like, it was valid and WE WOULD BE GETTING ON TO THE PLANE. If they were not able to make this decision then they would need to escalate, escalate and escalate again until someone was.
And, eventually, that is what happened. After another 15 minutes stewing, refusing to move from the front of the queue, we were informed that they would let us on the plane. It had been signed off by the head of immigration at Paris Charles de Gaulle.

We quickly gave token thanks, loaded our luggage on and headed for the plane. We did not want to give them a chance to change their minds.


There was only one hurdle left, UK immigration. Would they accept the flimsy joke document and waive us into the country? Yes, and with barely any hesitation. We did not care why. What could have been a mini disaster had worked out alright and given us an unexpected side trip to one of the great cities of the world. I have always loved the twists and turns of travel, but, for once, was happy to be home.

POST NOTE - Without any explanation as to how, Chris' stolen passport turned up six months later at her local police station in Athens. Mine and the boys' are still MIA.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Sud de France - Côte d'Azur


Leaving Provence, we found ourselves on a boring motorway in driving rain. The plan had been to drop in at Aix-en-Provence but, with this miserable context, we made a split decision to divert south and take the coast road. It proved to be a good call. The weather eased off and we enjoyed a scenic drive along the Mediterranean all the way to St Tropez.
Famed for its glitz and glamour, St Tropez in mid-winter proved to be a pleasant old fishing port, complete with pretty harbour, stern sea walls to wander along, and great views out across the bay (which, in our case, included a pink blur on the horizon, created by dozens of flamingos gliding across the water at the end of their annual migration). In short, I liked it much more than I expected. The locals we met were friendly and the place had character. This was, though, mid off season. I dread to think what it would be like in high season and plan never to find out.
Continuing on, hitting some traffic and tack, we really got a feel of how crammed and over-developed the Cote de Azure is. I am sure it was gorgeous 30 years ago and clearly retains some stunning parts, but it would be way down my list for a summer vacation. Unless you get a kick out of striving for the “it” crowd” – which I find a monumental turn off – I would not recommend it.

Talking of the "it" crowd, we ended the day in Cannes, which was to be our base for the next four days. Having said that....we enjoyed Cannes. It has a great aspect of green hills rolling into the Med. The seafront is fun and, if you can ignore the monstrosity of an exhibition centre which splits it in two, attractive. We found the people welcoming and stuffed ourselves with some excellent French cuisine. By far the best thing about the place was, though, where we stayed, the Hotel Ideal Sejour
This small, quirky hotel was most of the way up one of Cannes’ hills, on a ridiculously steep street. Niko’s expression at staying in a room with a massive red 3D dragon jutting out of the walls was priceless. The place was wonderfully chilled and, without any exaggeration, run by one of the warmest people I have met, Nicole. This was her home and she made it abundantly clear that we were welcome, cooking up special dinners when we turned up late soaked through from the rain, playing with our children and doing her best to dig us out of a big hole (more on that in my next post…).
My favourite side trip from Cannes was to the fortified port of Antibes. It was great to see all the bobbing boats in the old harbour and venture on to the high sea walls where we found a giant sculpture to scramble all over and amazing views across the bay to Nice. To my surprise, it was even better to pass through the town walls, wander through the medieval streets and end up savouring the produce of a traditional provincial market. The boys loved the tit bits of fromage, pain, et saucissons.

We put aside a day to visit the odd historic hangover that is the principality of Monaco. Entering, we received a stark geography lesson as to why this place is so distinct. Monaco is cut off from France by a wall of mountain and the sea. The place is nearly impregnable from the mainland. Driving in from France, our route in necessitated a trip through tunnels and back and forth on sharply twisting roads, before we disappeared into a subterranean car park.
Monaco is an undeniably dramatic place. Mountains give way to a forest of high rise apartments greedily clinging to every square inch of half-habitable space left by the shiny, yacht-strewn sea.
Don’t get me wrong - it was great to soak up the winter sunshine harbour side and take a peek into the Casino de Monte Carlo, but the place left me somewhat cold. From my admittedly short visit, I got the feeling that scratching beneath the surface would not throw up much I like. Super rich clubs, condos and yacht parties. Tax dodgers and posers. Appearance over substance. Bernie Ecclestone’s heaven.
I tried to square this feeling with my positive reaction to Gibraltar. While both are distinct, tax-friendly, geographically secluded hangovers from older times, my gut reaction to each was very different. Gibraltar felt like a pub and it welcomed all in an understated way. Monaco felt like a private members' club. Maybe too much of this is based on one rude encounter with a waiter, but there you go. Life is too short for such places.

All said and done, it was still awesome to drive the formula one circuit in reverse on our way out (semi-exposed tunnel and all), leaning into the corners pretending we were in a formula one car as opposed to a family Renault with two kids in the back.


Our final planned stop was to Nice. Unlike a number of the aforementioned places, I immediately fell for it. Nice has a fantastic setting, spanning a wide aquamarine bay before crawling up a big chunk of rock which bites into the sea at its eastern side.  It has some grand old buildings, proudly lining the sea front and reaching into the heart of the city. Vitally, it also has that all important edge. Alongside all the culture and beauty, it is a gritty Latin city. It instantly reminded me of South America.
I was put in a supremely happy mood by a combination of chucking pebbles with my sons on the beach, quick dip into the chilly Med, strut along the Promenade des Anglais basking in the winter sun and, the piece de resistance, dining with my family on salad Nicoise and ice cold beer in the old market square. Just stunning.
We had an ice cream on the promenade and then took the lift to the top of the rock for a final view over the city and surrounds. Reaching the top the view did not disappoint. I took a deep breath, savouring it all… an uneasy feeling gripped me... my head swung round to look and my jaw dropped… SHIT. Where was THE bag. Not any old bag, THE BAG with all our passports, phones, documents…