Les Villes de La France.

This past year I’ve had the opportunity to spend some time in some of the great cities of France. Lyon, Bordeaux, Marseille and Nîmes… I’ve really been blessed to be able to experience these places. From the contrasting cultures to the longstanding traditions, I never thought in my life I would have an opportunity to conquer this historic nation.

“La France, le plus beau royaume après celui du ciel.” de Grotius.

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Nîmes
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Nîmes
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Four auld men in Nîmes.
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Nîmes
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A Pub in Nîmes.
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I missed the last bus from Bordeaux Airport to the city centre. So I camped outside and waited until morning.
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Bordeaux
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Bordeaux
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Bordeaux
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Marseille
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Marseille
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Marseille
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Skater boi
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Marseille
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Sick architecture in Lyon.
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La Sucrière, Lyon.
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Crossing Borders. A Three Part Series.

Part 3. Sofia & Stefan.

Now I was focused on finding somewhere to camp. Being on the outskirts of the city would prove to be an advantage, even if I still had to be fairly cautious. I started to walk along the road and my bag weighed me down again. ‘Why did I bring so much?’ Very generously a taxi driver stopped and offered me a lift. I told him I was headed to a fairly large district on the very edge of the city, Boyana. It took its name from an old orthodox church dating back to the 1600’s. The day after I managed to get a swatch of said decrepit temple, but thats another story all the gither. Originally I planned to make my way up past the church and to a waterfall some way into the national park. So I would find somewhere for the night before embarking on any sort of waterfall quest and head for the Boyana waterfall the following day. Despite the language barrier the taxi driver seemed a good man. His wife and child were in the back and we shared some laughter about the comical situation now taking place. They weren’t even going this route in the first place but he took me further down the road in my decided direction and let me out where it was easy to navigate and settle for the night.

There and then I found myself in the middle of this great, stretching road which went on and on until the heady beginnings of the city of Sofia could be seen to commence. Behind lay nothing but neglected fields of despondent, moribund grass. I could only gaze forward which in truth to anyone passing through on an ordinary day in Boyana, Sofia this road would have been just like any other road. Not for me. ”Fuck” I thought to myself. I couldn’t believe I was there. And so quickly aswell. How did this happen? Why did I do this? What do I do now?

I skipped along the road (like a mad fanny to be honest) and cried out cheers of an unburdening joy. ”Yasss!!” A possessed loony among streams of cars passing me on each side, drivers bewildered at the exhilirated ginger traveller playing a game of proverbial chicken. I didn’t care. My hopes now are maybe they read the situation exactly how it was and felt a deep sense of gratitude for witnessing my watershed moment. Or maybe my wishful thinking played no part in their experience and they only seen some foreign alien prancing about oddly on the road. But whatever meant nothing to them meant everything to me. The demons within me who had held me back for so long fought hard to derail me and they didn’t go down without a fight. I had learned to resist however and inspire the adrenaline to sail through me only to instill happiness, periods of absurd peace of mind in situations where usually i’d lose the nut. These weren’t the times when such calm feelings were expected yet for many years I had waited, dreamed and worked for times like this. Truly the small moments that make life worth living.

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”My Watershed Road”

It was too late to enter the city at this point so I searched for a nice spot to pitch my tent. A single person Ferrino Lightent 1.. Snug and secluded. It’s actually class and I seriously regret not using it more. (I only used it twice through my whole trip; this night and then another time outside Bordeaux Airport behind a bush.) Along the road and to the right there was this small lake, kinda like a pond, and a wee dusty beach area on one side. Cars surrounded the pond and the owners sat outside, fishing quietly. The beach area was empty. I kept my distance and went there, far enough to be left alone or to not disturb anyone around. Well I started to set up the Ferrino for the night until a young guy came along and asked me to leave. It was a private fishing lake. I had no idea but I wouldn’t cause a fuss. I started to repack my things into my bag, gutted with my predicament. Then the same guy stumbled around for a bit, spoke on his phone with someone in Bulgarian. He returned to me shortly after.

”Bring your stuff over here man.”

We walked around the lake to the busier side and stood next to this old wooden cabin with some benches outside. I was allowed to set up directly beside it. Phew. After I had my things sorted, Stefan invited me for a drink at the benches outside the cabin. It was his uncle’s place and they made their business by charging folk to fish on the lake and supplying them with food and drink. He spoke better English than me to be honest. We spoke a lot about his life in Sofia and his future, his dreams. It was cool to speak to someone like me apparently and he hoped one day the opportunity for him would also be there to venture out like me. But money was an issue. Bulgaria is officially the poorest country in the European Union and Stefan would only make 12 Euros for a 12 hour shift. 1 Euro per hour. I felt guilty turning up with all the bullshit I had in my bag. I tried to level that with advice of my own and stories from where I’d come from. With each passing topic or story I felt proud and extremely grateful for my start in life. There’s an unsettling discovery to be found in conversations like these. And even if I couldn’t help be born into my opportunities it certainly didn’t lessen the effect of his words.

I didn’t get a great sleep. The cabin was directly beside my ‘watershed’ road and cars drove past frequently as if the traffic never stopped. When I woke up all the fishermen were still by the lake, fairly obvious they had stayed the whole night. Stefan took me to a tram station, much further into the city.

”It’s important to help others out I mean.. isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?”

Where would I be if it hadn’t been for people like those I had met in my cross country adventure? Without hesitation these folk saw me as another person in need rather than an unwelcome stranger. Stefan later told me that his uncle was ready to let me stay at the beach the previous night but they were concerned about others mugging me for all my stuff. He said anyone like me was particularly vulnerable. I didn’t resemble anything other than a lost foreigner. He fed me Bulgarian sausages in the morning and helped me find my way to the centre without hesitation. We could all learn a lot from a young guy like him.

Stefan.. When you’re reading this, I want you to know how grateful I am for that time and all the help you gave me. You didn’t need to do any of that but since you did there’s nothing but love on my behalf. I look forward to the mad adventure we take on when I come back to Sofia.

Once again.. Thanks mate.

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”Boyana, Boyana”

 

Bergamo to Bucharest.

Taken from my journal, 30th May 2018.

Flight W6 3136 – Bergamo > Bucureşti Otopeni.

The gate to Sofia is closed. You must go to the ticket counter. 2nd floor.

I’d never missed a flight before. We left in the morning pretty sharpish, a little later than our scheduled time but with still plenty of room for error. My nerves were further eased thanks to the Italian authorities somewhat relaxed approached to highway speed limits. It’s a business for them with all the tollbooths every few kilometres. Deaths don’t matter.

The route was special. You can look at all the brochures, pictures and YouTube guides you want. Nothing beats being smack bang in the middle of the most beautiful places on Earth. Like an All-You-Can-Eat buffet for dreamers. It’s no wonder three countries have laid claim to a piece of this treasure.

It was my second time in Malpensa Airport. A real nightmare experience. My boarding pass wouldn’t scan upon entry and this little old apathetic & uninterested Italian man stared carefully at nothing while I signalled desperately for help. He didn’t seem to care for my troubles. Eventually (without aid) I passed through. At the security check it was much of the same problem. Prolonged queues, few staff and thick-witted ‘heed the baws’ who wait until their up before delving into their oversized cases to search for any liquids. Thoughtless idiots of the highest order wasting precious valuable time while the rest of us are forced to wait attentively and sweat the last ounces of eager body chemicals from our pores, good to go. I was beginning to grow concerned, but not overly.

Once I was through I started to get a jog on, realising that time was beginning to go against me. I found my gate number. The last f***ing gate in the airport. Speed became my main issue. A man can only run so fast when he’s carrying his house on his back. The sweat was running quicker than me now and my back was aching from the strain of the weight. My hands shuffled additional bags in a valiant attempt to juggle them without error. The gate was closing in. I turned the corner expecting the last of my fellow flyers to be heading out onto the tarmac.

Shit.

I wasn’t to make it to Bulgaria that day. I trudged back into the airport lounge, awaited my partner who hadn’t yet left and began to search for a new flight to the Balkans.

9.55pm. Milan, Bergamo > Bucharest Otopeni.

Romania wasn’t part of the plan. I knew very little of the place itself except for the odd football team, Dracula and the swathes of gypsys who use the country’s identity when begging across Europe. Bergamo Airport was an hour away so I got one more afternoon to spend with my lady in a pleasant Italian city. The roads were typically populated with classy vespas and angry commuters, repeatedly antagonising other drivers with their bellowing horns and their flailing Italian handwaves of disapproval. We took the road upto the city centre, sitting high and mighty in a fortress on a hill. We ate joyously in a little restaurant called Da Mimmo’s. Classy joint with the kind of Pasta you can only find in this corner of the world. Authentic Italia.

It would seem that our enduring morning had been sweetened by an unforgetable dining experience. But the mayhem of mishaps returned almost instantly to fire up the flames of anxiety once more. Parking problems, failing cards, security checks once again causing disruption (they took my tent pegs and pocket knife, my only source of protection.. Graze mille) and the flight company charging me 35 Euros to check in at the desk. My phone had died earlier, what a shitshow. My girlfriend questioned if it was best if I go. The whole day had been a taxing mess. But my luck was going to turn and my dreams soon realised. I couldn’t give up. This was it.

The next few lines come directly from my journal, expressing my feelings as the plane began to land.

”So now I find myself.. starting a descent into Bucharest, Romania. Who knows what may lay ahead. It feels glorious. Whatever happens, it doesn’t matter anymore. Even the bad times will be good. I look out the window and the lightning forks dance feverishly in the sky. The vibrant moon flirts modestly from behind a curtain of clouds. Everything has felt right since boarding the plane.”

 

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‘Bergamo, Italia.’

 

 

Here’s to My Treasure Island..

It’s a new day tomorrow. Wednesday, 30th of March to be exact. And it marks the beginning of another new expedition to add to the previous escapades on record. An early morning drive to Milan in Italy followed by a fairly short flight to the Bulgarian capital of Sofia and I will be ready to take on the lower half of the Balkans. I have my tent, my hammock, my Jack Kerouac books and lavender spray for the mosquitoes and I am ready to go. I hope to take six or seven weeks and make my way through some of Europe’s poorest and unknown countries by throwing the thumb out and taking a lift with some happy locals willing to share their hidden piece of this world with an enthusiastic, ginger, 20 something from a country they might never have heard of (before anyone contests this I’ve had several conversations with people who don’t know what Scotland is. Or if they do, they think it’s a part of England..).

The majority of the countries I will be going through are not the typical destinations at the top of a European getaway wish list. But after doing some research and targeting some adventurous places I decided to go with my final findings. I wouldn’t be human if I wasn’t nervous. It’s a region of Europe which still has various issues mostly linked to the break up of the Yugoslavian Republic and the brutal wars that preceded. This is not my reason for choosing these places and I wouldn’t like to think of myself as some sort of ‘war tourist’ (I don’t know the phrase word for word but I read about some Danish guy being accused of this after visiting Syria.. And after seeing widespread criticism of folk posing emphatically for photos at several commemoration memorials I intend to pay my utmost respect). Most of these countries are trying to move on from the past and bring the benefits of change to help their poor nations. And with the attempts to step away from the limelight for the wrong reasons I hope to embrace the future with the locals in a shared hope of personal wealth and a long-lasting happiness.

I can’t choose a favoured part of the plan I have drawn up for the coming months; I hope to spend time in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, venture through the wilderness of Montenegro, find out more about the Continent’s newest country Kosovo (or South-Western Serbia for when I arrive at the border) and experience the valiant & enigmatic cultures of Albania and Macedonia. Even as I head North to more common-known places like Croatia, Slovenia & Italy, I can’t begin to dream about what is in store for me.

I look forward to the moments that await me and the joy they will bring. In the previous days the thought running through my head has been one of great excitement. Embarking on a trip like this to me is potentially life-defining. Or as we fondly say back home.. ‘One to tell the grandweans‘. Maybe i’m getting carried away and it won’t be anything extraordinary. Or maybe they’ll talk about me in parts of the region as a ‘much loved Scottish explorer’. I don’t expect my name to be up there with Robinson Crusoe after a summer stint in the Balkans, but these are the scope of thoughts that enter play in the preceding moments before an adventure as such. And is it dangerous to aim high? To dream of great happenings and endearing moments? The romantic in me says no. The realist in me says ‘get a f**kin hawd of yersel!‘.

Perhaps striking the balance might be what shapes this chapter as a decorated highlight in the ongoing novel that is my life..


The last few weeks I’ve been exploring various places in La France with my partner. We’ve mainly divided our time between the wonderful city of Lyon and the South of France. Over the coming weeks while i’m away i’ll be sharing various tales from our shenanigans, so keep updated by following the blog at the links provided. Cheers X