Too crowded and too hot.

My experience of Paris this time was so different. I have no idea how I ended up wandering around with a guitar waiting for a bus at 2.30 in the morning.
The day before, I had arrived at Gare du Nort from Amsterdam at 9.40pm, it was a very warm evening and I walked along the back streets to find my hostel. The Gare du Nort and the Gare de l’Est, strangely, are right beside each other in a drab part of the 10th arrondisement in north east Paris alongside the massive corridor of railway lines. I soon found myself walking past a group of about 100 North Africans sleeping and lounging on the footpath under the watchful eye of the Gendarmiere carrying their compact submachine guns. When I arrived at the Generator hostel, sweating a little, the reception guy had no greeting for me, no smile – he eyed me up and simply said, ‘Passport’.   Welcome to Paris; crowded, dirty, hot and a bit edgy.
The attitude was so different from where I’d recently been. The Scandinavians and Dutch are so courteous and they all speak English, in France they will, but only if they have to. Many can’t speak English at all (and it’s not that they should, but it does says something about the French that speaking English is an option). This does not apply to people in any official capacity dealing with the public with a huge tourist population. On the other hand, for example, a woman in a supermarket working at the checkout did not attempt to speak English. I made the mistake of bringing my fruit selection up to the till where I assumed it would be weighed and priced as they did in other places I’d recently been. In France you weight them yourself and put a sticker on the bag which pops out of the scales machine. It’s all these little things that need to be explained – just once. It was explained to me very clearly and patiently, in French.
I nodded intelligently and there’s always someone around to help, usually a younger person. I just wish I had worked a little more on my French language before coming, although, the phrase, ‘You need to weigh them, press the button and a little sticker comes out that you put on the bag’, may have been a bit beyond my comprehension, anyway.

I would recommend The Generator Hostels to anyone budget travelling in Europe, they’re a new approach to hostels and more like a hotel. They cost about NZ$60 a night. The big difference between these and the usual hostels is there’s no kitchen, no self-catering, no fridges, no food to be brought into the place (but people still do, of course, and take it to their rooms. But the rooms are cleaned everyday, so they’re keeping an eye on it). There is a $NZ14 breakfast available, which is probably better value than you’d get in the local street cafés because it’s self-serve which means you can load up for later. The rooms all have ensuites and the reception areas are very modern with spacious parts set aside on the ground floor with sofas, tables and chairs to hang out with your friends. Generator Hostels are the way of the future I think, they’re all over Europe, referred to as Designer Hostels. The wifi reception is strong everywhere and good in all the rooms – and there’s no password. My room had 3 other women already asleep in the room. There seems to be so many women travelling now, not just as couples but many solo and in pairs, and completely comfortable staying in mixed dorms that they can opt for and get slightly cheaper than a women’s dorm.

I was up and away at 8am before any of my room mates were awake and had a basic plan for the day. First, the nearby Sacre-Coeur for the big view, St Germaine-des-Pres for the street culture, Musée d’Orsay for some art, and to stand beneath the Tour Eiffel. But it didn’t go to plan. I must have taken the wrong streets up to the Basilique. I was wanting some breakfast but the streets were all just drab and faceless apartments – where were the quaint cafés with guys wearing Ray Ban Wayfarers and elegant women wafting perfume walking with poodles that I remembered from 20 years ago?

When I got there I was disappointed I couldn’t walk all the way around the Sacre-Coeur, it’s all gated and locked off, and the only big view available from the front steps didn’t include the Tour Eiffel! What’s the point of taking a photo of the Paris skyline from the top of a hill if you can’t get the Eiffel Tower in it! – ha ha <-;

The cafés I did come across walking up the hill looked a bit tired and were empty – maybe it was still too early. I noticed how the advertised price for a croissant and coffee kept increasing the higher up I walked, and NZ$18 was getting a bit much and I couldn’t really go back down to the cheaper ones so I have up on the idea of breakfast and would wait until I found a place on my way down.

Everywhere I went I was searched by security, everyone was, even entering a canal swimming la plage area. Anyway, I sat inside the Basilique and had some snacks and water from my pack looking up at the dome. All the little gates around the pews were locked up, why so many locks everywhere? Twenty years ago I was in awe of the power expressed in the art and architecture of the Roman Catholics – but now, to me it looks different; the biggest and most elaborate con-job in history; cruelty, subjugation, exploitation and the repression of women and science, a relic of the dark ages, and still today expressing it’s medieval mumbo jumbo.

So interesting going on the Metro again, I was amazed they still had the same system with the little paper tickets – I bought the 10 pack, as you do, and watched young guys jump over the turnstyles. I wondered at what age a bloke gives up doing that little athletic move. Other guys enter using the exit gate by reaching their hand around and pressing the button to open it. No wonder they have the Oyster card system in London.
Musée d’Orsay was shut on Monday, so onward to St Germaine. The streets are all so long and there seemed to be so much construction and whole blocks are fenced off. I couldn’t seem to find what I was looking for – so much walking.
I chanced upon a small art gallery, the Musée Maillol  with works by Leger, Picasso, Braque, Pissaro and Sisley – my favourite period of French art, roughly 1890-1920.  It was creeping up to 34º and after the gallery I sat at a cafe had a coffee and chatted with the woman opposite me who suggested I go to the Rodin Garden nearby. I was thinking it might be a nice place to have a quiet nap under the trees, – but of course, it was shut on Monday.

Later, I returned to the hostel, the subway was getting really hot and crowded by now and I needed a break. The room was empty and I slept and showered and headed out again with my guitar to an open-mic night on the other side of Paris. When I finally got there the bar manager shrugged his shoulders – there’s was nothing going on. According to my Google search there are plenty on Tuesday and Wednesday night, of course – but only one on Lundi and that wasn’t happening.
I still wanted to get up close to the Tour Eiffel, so more Metro and walking the long boulevards. It was nearing midnight and the place was really crowded and the air so humid. The tower was blocked off with temporary high-fencing and armed guards were all around it. Such a shame, so much has changed because of the Islamic attacks, it seems like the city is now in a permanent kind of low-level, lock-down mode – they’re not taking any chances. Paris seems to be full of people who look like they aren’t there for the cafés and the culture – they’re just milling around, looking a bit out of place  . . nothing to do, just looking  . . looking at you, trying to sell you a souvenir with a flashing light.

The Tour Eiffel looks magnificent when up close, something I never did before. I came towards it from the 16th, west of the Seine across the Pont d’ Lena bridge to the 7th, unfortunately the gardens, the Parc du Champde Mars, wre fenced off. The Metro had stopped, the buses were few and far between, I waited nearly an hour and took a bus all the way across Paris (where would I be without Google maps with bus timetables). I finished the last part of my journey to the hostel with a $12 taxi – the only one I have taken so far on this trip. I didn’t feel all that concerned out late at night, I just figured another 2km walk down these streets holding an iPhone for the map with drunken kids and homeless people sleeping here and there, was just too much.

That was my day in Paris and the best part was meeting the woman at the table in the café who showed me two of her favourite small hidden public gardens nearby, they would have been convent cloisters, I think, they all had fruit trees and vegetable patches. It was nice walking with someone else for a change without having to hold my phone – to just chat away and be shown around a bit. I knew Paris in mid-July was never going to be a great idea and I was glad my plans had only allowed one full day. I was looking forward to getting into the countryside. My accomodation there had a pool and I was really, really looking forward to that pool.

At the moment I’m sitting in a gypsy caravan with that pool outside. I have a brew of coffee going, there’s goodies from the local village boulangerie and patiserrie and I’m listening to RNZ. I’m using the hotspot from my phone on a signal that comes and goes from one dot to three dots out of five. Tomorrow I go to Vienna. It took me hours to figure out how to get there. Originally, I was planning to take a train from nearby Lyon but it takes 13 hours and goes via Frankfurt in north Germany, unbelievable. I considered numerous options, nearly did my head in, it’s like a game of chess.

My journey involves a bus to Roanne, a train to Lyon, the TGV to Paris Charles de Galle, and a flight, and I needed to co-ordinate all those journey times. And of course I was looking for all the cheapest variables. There were no direct flights from Lyon to Vienna either, only ones going via other places and taking 10 hours. It may have been better to hire a car from Lyon to Vienna, I don’t know, but that would result in a different set of costs and issues – and might take two days. The only decent wifi I could do all this research was at the Office d’ Tourisime in the local village of Marcigny. It took me such a long time and they needed to close at 6pm but I continued outside sitting on the step.
Again,  my apologies for the poor grammar and spelling, will tidy up later.

Vansbrosimningen 3k river swim.

I registered for the Vansbro swim not just because I enjoy swimming long distances but because I thought it would be a good way to see another side of Swedish life, away from the
quaint streets and museums of Stockholm.

Once in Stockholm I booked a return trip on a bus that was offered on a email newsletter I’d received from the Vansbrosimningen (Vansbro swim event) organisers, in Swedish of course, but I could roughly decifer it and some locals at a hostel were happy to translate. The bus left at 7.30am on Friday morning from the Central Station, T-Centralum, not an easy place to figure out so I went the day before to find out where my bus would leave. T-Centralum is a sprawling hub for commuter trains, trams, metro trains, local and nationwide buses, and it’s on various levels with linked buildings. If I was carrying my gear and running late there’s nothing worse than trying to figure out a big station when you’re all weighed down, and of course, all the signage is in Swedish. So Friday morning was easy, I went straight to Gate 16 on Level 2 – and there it was, a bus being loading up with happy swimmers.

My accomodation was booked 6 months ago, there was nothing available in Vansbro even back then so I booked a place 18km out of town thinking there would be some kind of bus service or at least some other swimmers staying who I could get a lift with.

I registered for the swim event first, everything is so well organised, I got my goodie bag; a cap, a meal ticket, a wristband with the timing chip, and a plastic bag with my number on it that you put your things in at the start of the swim that they transport to the finish.

My accomodation turned out to be a problem. There was a local bus 3 times a day but the lodge was 2 km from the turnoff. It was a long walk in the sun and when I got there it was an old smelly place – completely unlike the clean modern hostels I had been used to in Stockholm. The old toothless owner said my cabin was 200 years old and built by hand, but there was no ensuite, and all the facilities where in the main house.

Next morning I had the free breakfast; a boiled egg, fresh-baked fruit loaf, sliced ham and a slices from a massive block of cheese, and all the usual cereals, and I checked out. I have to admit this place was an authentic experience, the bread was so fresh, still moist and warm, and it was like an old homestead from a by-gone age. But it was going to be too hard getting back there after the swim because I wanted to stay for the evening entertainment and I knew there would not be a late bus. The old toothless guy insisted on charging me for the two nights, I was hoping he’d waive the second night but as a late cancellation I had to accept it. I managed to get a lift with a couple going to Vansbro and once there asked about accomodation in Vansbro. I had heard some of the schools offer swim visitors dorm places in the classrooms. The school was 10 minutes walk from the centre of town and with that organised I was happy everything was going to work out.

To get to the start of the swim you need to walk, it’s a track through the birch and pines alongside a railway line. They process about 6,500 swimmers that day by sending them off in waves of a hundred every 10 minutes, and each wave has a different coloured cap. My cap was pink but I never saw the gathering of ‘pink caps’ at my allocated time, only green caps. Suddenly they announced my name and country. It surprised me because the announcer had been speaking non-stop Swedish, and then I heard my name. He looked up and I waved both my arms, ‘I’m here!’ I then realised the pink caps were special entries of one some kind or another – another pink capped person had their birthday that day and they announced her too.

The water was 17º, which is not cold at all. I was thinking my time would be about 1.5 hours. Once underway I really enjoyed myself, I never got tired and felt relaxed and comfortable, just a bit of cramp started to clinch my left calf at one stage. Occasionally, I stopped, lifted off my goggles, trod water and had a look around. There was a string quartet playing under a gazebo at the river side, families picnicing and I waved to people who waved back. The first 2 km is downstream, nice, and the last 1 km is upstream but there’s barely any upstream current to speak of. I had started with the green caps and was eventually swimming among the red caps who were a previous wave, so I figured I was going ok.
I was surprised to discover the majority of the Swedes don’t swim freestyle, (or crawl), they swim a variation of breast stroke without ducking their head in the water. They kind of bob along in what we’d call a  sort of dog paddle, except with a breast stroke and kick, so I guess you could call it a ‘frog paddle’.

Anyway, it’s pretty slow and I found I was crashing into swimmers all the way. My final time was 59 minutes and 56 seconds. Yes, woah!, sub 60! I even did some back stroke in the final section just because I was feeling so good.
From there everything is laid on; a warm energy drink, a medal, bag collection – and then I entered the big shower enclosure. Here I was confronted with hundreds of naked blokes all taking warm showers or waiting for a shower – never seen that before. I followed suit only to realise I didn’t actually have any pants, just a top and a polar fleece jacket because I’d put my wetsuit on at the Information Centre where I put my bag in storage. It’s never very pleasant putting a wet and cold wetsuit back on.

Many people were there as part of the Swedish Classic where you need to complete 4 events within one year; cross country sking 60 or 90km in winter, bike 300km in spring, swim 3km in summer, and run 30km in autumn. It’s really popular and thousands do it, some year after year.

After changing at the Info Centre I went down the road to Smedbergsskolan School; a modern, clean, and again, well organised place with friendly helpful people, and was shown a room lined with fresh mattresses and new white duvees and pillows. I made my bed, lay down and fell asleep. It turned out we had only four people in our room. It was warm, dry and quiet – and, a bonus –  breakfast was included in the price which was 390 krona, or about NZ$62.

The best hostel in Stockholm

City Backpackers voted best in Stockholm 2017

I’m here for a week and I love the place – it’s what all hostels should be. So pleased I picked it on many months ago. After you check in at reception a person shows you around and explains the way things work; there’s a no-shoes-policy in the living areas, they give you fresh white linen, the mattresses are new, each bed has two plug sockets and a funky working light with an LED bulb, in the kitchen there’s a bank of fridges, every room has been allocated it’s own fridge.  Access is electronic keypad entry and the outside door code changes everyday. It’s all so well organised, all the fittings are quality, nothing has been done on the cheap, maintenance people along with cleaning staff are on site, and standards are kept high. There are no signs everywhere – the decorative items are carefully chosen and I’d say quite expensive. The central courtyard has live music some nights and a restaurant does subsidised meals for $15. I’ve had the same traditional Swedish meatballs for three nights running now.
The staff are helpful and enthusiastic, one of them helped me decide that I should fly from Stockholm to Amsterdam. I was planning to go overland by rail but the costs and the number of changes and connections I’d have to make would be a mission. I thought there would be just one train all the way – but no, and it’s so much cheaper so I’ve booked the flight now. The wifi here is the fastest I’ve ever used and I base this on the speed I can upload images . . woosh!
The  City Backpackers Hostel  Upplandsgatan 2a, 111 23 Stockholm, Sweden is NZ$403 for 7 nights, that’s $57 a night plus a single additional cost for linen, and breakfasts are 55 Krona NZ$8.80. This hostel is one of a chain of hostels around Europe called Europe’s Famous Hostels and I wish I’d booked the same in Amsterdam and Vienna.
This little example tells you a lot, I put some food in my fridge, (the visit to the local supermarket was an adventure, but that’s another story), and I put the food in the fridge, next morning there were little stickers on my items saying ‘Please label’, meaning, with my name and departure date – now, that’s efficiency, and so polite. There’s also a Free Fridge, plus there’s free pasta if you’re really broke and need a meal – very civilised.
Just a little touch, where you leave your shoes in the alcove area there’s a sign saying, ‘If you love your shoes, take them to your room.‘ Which is so much more pleaseant than the alternative, other places might have a sign in the negitive, eg: ‘Theives operate in this bulding, leave shoes here at your own risk.’  The difference is what makes this place special – everything has been thought about – and that’s good design.
And tomorrow . .  I’m going to the design museum.

The Courtyard where there’s DJs, and tonight, a band from Liverpool is playing, apparently.


Reception area with free filter coffee.
Spiral stair going to the office mezzanine.
Reception area instalation – travel theme.
Reception area with longboards for hire.
My comfortable four bed mixed dorm called Drottningholm with view onto the park – shows my privacy curtain invention, borrowed from Luthansa Airways
Even the room name labels have a bit of retro class.
First floor foyer

The foyer area outside my room with a continuous Betty Boop cartoon on a vintage telly.
Every room has an allocated fridge and if you don’t name and date your food, they put a sticker on it to request it is.

Great sinks, tiled floors and always clean.
An iMac with hostel info
IT lounge, fast free wifi throughout
Doesn’t work but looks great.
Breakast choice of a filled bun, cinnamon bun or croissant, plus free yoghurt, meusli and fruit, and filter coffee all day.
Breakfast ready to go.
Fresh yoghurt in the fridge
Foyer installation.