I usually book all of our travel plans online including air transportation, car rental if necessary, and vacation rentals. Our desired types of accommodation are private residences owned by individuals rather than large companies. We like to have our own little home away from home where we cook our meals and experience a lifestyle somewhat similar to the local inhabitants. This method of travel, however, can be a wee bit challenging at times with no one awaiting our arrival even though we may be entirely unfamiliar with a new destination. I have not actually found myself homeless by following this manner of travel but have experienced some interesting challenges. Well, there was that time in Europe many years ago….but that’s another story.
A fairly memorable experience that involved my chosen manner of travel and the challenges thereof, was a recent trip to Nice, France. This was my wife Caroline, and my, first European trip together. Having only two weeks we decided to travel in the shoulder season when there would be fewer tourists and, possibly, some Euros would be saved due to off-season rates.
Departing late one Friday afternoon, we arrived at the airport about 3 hours early for our flight as I seem to be my father’s son. Our first flight was uneventful as we landed in Calgary, waited a short time, and then boarded a shiny new British Airways 787 Dreamliner. This was a fine piece of aviation technology, at least from the cabin’s perspective. It was very wide and new, offered plenty of movies, and wonderful free meals with wine provided to all. It seemed similar to my perception of what heaven might be like. We settled in for a long trip over the North Pole and were buzzing with excitement as is common on the first day of a holiday. Two yokels from Kelowna were actually flying off to Europe in a big new Dreamliner….very exotic!!
We eventually landed at Heathrow Airport near London amid cloudy skies and drizzling rain at about 5:00 AM Kelowna time, the next day. We had chosen to travel through Heathrow Airport for some unknown reason. I think we thought if we flew over London we would catch a glimpse of Big Ben or Buckingham Palace. Nothing of the sort was visible however and, in fact, we could not even see land for rain and fog.
Upon landing, we had an hour to change planes and board a second British Airways flight to Nice. Heathrow is notoriously very busy and there was no listing for our next flight on the display screens. We were a little nervous and roamed the terminal for a time with some thoughts of requiring perpetual lodging similar to poor Tom Hanks in his movie, appropriately named, The Terminal. We eventually found our way via subway to another terminal where, apparently, all flights to the continent depart. After a bit of anxious anticipation regarding our possible non-existent flight, the words Nice, France and our flight number appeared on the screen. It seems Heathrow is so chaotic they do not assign departure gates until a few minutes before passengers board their planes. I guess you just have to guess what terminal to gravitate towards.
The second British Airways plane was much smaller and certainly no Dreamliner. It was, however, half empty so Princess Caroline settled in for a short nap. Being the man I, of course, remained vigilant to ensure our interminable safety and that none of the free wine was wasted on other passengers. We were, however, delayed leaving Heathrow by about an hour because of the backlog of flights trying to depart. At one point we turned onto another runway and I counted nine identical planes following us as they similarly awaited their departure.
After about two hours in the air we descended on a balmy Nice evening. It was about 10:00 AM Saturday in Kelowna but 8:00 PM Nice time. We had squandered a whole day sitting in one chair or another, while consuming large quantities of empty calories. Our challenge was now to find our rental car and new home for the week to follow.
Once in the terminal we were informed by a helpful information person that the car rental office was at the opposite end of the terminal. Off we trudged carrying our wisely packed carry-ons and little handbags. We perceived ourselves as smart travellers with appropriately packed bags and no check-in luggage.
Reaching the end of the terminal, we were unable to discover our car rental office as the information person had directed. We turned around, dragging our increasingly substantial burdens before noticing a desk that appeared dark and ominous but bearing the name of our car rental agency. Upon further investigation a little paper sign revealed to Caroline in French, as it meant nothing to me, that the night car rental office could be located in terminal two. We were in terminal one. So back to our original destination we slogged to seek further direction from the less than helpful information person. We were soon directed to a bus stop that would purportedly take us to terminal two. No bus was apparent so I attempted my primordial high school French and soon learned that a free bus would be arriving about every 8 minutes.
After the bus ride, and a lot of sign following, we found the rental office quite hidden in the very bowels of terminal two. A nice girl, coincidentally named Caroline, rented us a sleek little Peugeot diesel. With papers signed and keys provided we were off to find a vehicle that would transport us to untold adventures on the European continent.
As we were about to depart I was, however, left with a feeling of foreboding when Caroline #2 asked if I wished to purchase extra insurance, which I declined. Prior to our departure I had shrewdly reviewed literature that suggested car rental agents, even the wonderfully named Caroline, would try to sell us unnecessary insurance. My declination caused her to circle some small print at the rear of our contract depicting a figure of $13,000.00 Euro that I casually initialled. Upon further consideration, while rolling down the highway sometime later, I had a strong suspicion that this number would be the approximate value of our rental car. This little circled section caused me much lingering consternation through the entirety of our trip.
The car was located in a dark parking garage and, with bags loaded, we set off to discover Europe. Unfortunately we had not considered that we would be arriving in the dark, to an unfamiliar city of 400,000 people, on a Saturday night, and I would be driving a new vehicle with standard transmission in a foreign land.
We recklessly set off.
Our first quest was to find Nice then parking for our vehicle, somewhere near our future place of residence. We emerged from the rental garage and started following signs to Nice. This progressed well as we advanced in a four lane entourage bumper to bumper with innumerable Nicians along the Promenade Des Anglais. Even I remembered this street from my previous time on the Côte d’Azur as a youth and my frequent perusal of maps in preparation for our trip. We followed the traffic while I tried to avoid any act of stupidity that might enrage my fellow motorists even though our door handles were barely detached from theirs and I was entirely unfamiliar with my new Peugeot and the city. Caroline was attempting to guide me in the dark by a paper map. We soon became aware that the centre of Nice and Old Town, where we would reside, was before us. Instead of remaining on this street, however, I found myself in a left turning lane that necessitated my departure from the Promenade and seemingly into the depths of this unfamiliar city. Amazingly we encountered a parking sign for the Cours Salaya which was the parking lot our landlord had advised was under a flower market and close to our residence. It seemed luck was with us and we would soon be lounging in our new domicile.
This was not to be, however. By now we had paid $350 Euros for a vehicle that had only transported us 10 kilometers. I must have subconsciously desired to drive a little further for our investment as, upon finding our Cours Salaya parking, I entered the underground lot and took the first wrong turn that deposited us back onto the streets of Old Town Nice and into a potpourri of people and little narrow streets.
Now, the reason I formerly suggested Saturday night as a possible challenge is that, unbeknown to us, this night is the busiest of the week and most of the streets in Old Town are closed to vehicle traffic. This allows pedestrians to wander unimpeded by wayward tourists in shiny new Peugeots.
Back on the streets of Old Town, perspiration began to spring from my pores. I drove slowly through the hordes of pedestrians who increasingly seemed to regard me with grievous intent. I managed to enter a second underground parking garage just to escape misadventure. This was, however, not our destination as it belonged to a different company and was several further blocks from our presumed residence. I, consequently, navigated us back above ground once again amid the swelling populous. In more than one instance I entered a one-way street, causing pedestrians to dive for cover, only to find there was no vehicle exit, necessitating my little vehicle’s reversal through the maddening mob. Eventually I located our desired parkade to find a “full” sign hanging from a closed entrance gate. Drat!! On we drove, enraging further walkers and soon found the Palais Des Justice parking lot only a few blocks away, where I gladly deposited our vehicle.
Upon leaving the parkade we spoke to a man who had previously told us we would be able to attain the same very advantageous arrangement in our current parking spot as promised in the Cours Salaya parking if we brought our ticket stub to their office. We, consequently, dragged our increasingly weighty luggage to the streets, mingling with the growing crowds, in search of the Cours Salaya parking administration office. We passed numerous restaurants, retracing our steps several times, before discovering a little set of stairs that descended to subterranean depths. We discovered an underground parking cavern and the administration office. We entered the office where I produced the ticket that would presumably grant us parking for a week. Unfortunately I was only able to provide a ticket from the parking lot that we had briefly descended and was not operated by the same company. Our plan would be thwarted until I could produce the ticket from the lot currently holding our Peugeot. It was suggested we should return to the former lot and find the ticket as we would not be able to remove our vehicle from the garage without such a coupon.
Well, I’ll have you know, this traveller was becoming a bit frustrated. We had been awake for 40 hours, travelled half way around the world, dragged our bags back and forth past feasting diners, been threatened by incensed mobs, and sweat was beginning to cause my clothes to cling unhealthily to my emasculated frame. Miss Caroline however, with dogged determination, was going to overcome all obstacles. A minor protest from this frustrated traveller proved fruitless as we headed back to our car, dragging our monstrous bags, to find the ticket and, once again, park in Cours Salaya as the lot was no longer full and, apparently, had never been.
We emerged from the depths, trudged past countess revellers once again, and found our Peugeot. We scoured the floor, seats, trunk, and all places possible while another motorist idled his engine beside us, awaiting our departure, and appearing very exasperated. The ticket was not there. We would never leave the parkade and would spend our entire holiday, perhaps the rest of our lives, below ground in this urine reeking cave. As a last desperate effort I searched my pockets for the fifth time and found the dastardly ticket in my back pocket. It had been there all along. Sweet Caroline cast no blame. A lesser person would have ripped out my heart but not my Caroline. Now I know why I married her.
Anyway, getting back to the drama, we hopped into the car and drove back to Cours Salaya, paid our $86 euros for the week, and ascended the stairs for the sixth time with some consideration that perhaps renting a car was not our smartest undertaking. The car was to bed and now we must find ours.
At this point I fantasised that my diligent planning had caused us to reach our city of destination, obtained transportation, and located a stable for our shiny steed. I disregarded the consideration that most people would have, by this time, found their friendly travel agent at the airport who escorted them to their accommodation, and were leisurely sipping a quaint Beaujolais Nouveau while awaiting their first meal in a lovely French restaurant. Not this couple. We were entirely drenched in sweat from hauling our burdens hither and yon around an unfamiliar city, in the dark, spent much time underground, risked life and limb, and had no idea where our place of residence may be found. I was living a delusion.
This is where my trusted Caroline wrestled control from my hapless fingers. She had actually arranged the accommodation and was in possession of a detailed written instruction for our destination and some semblance of an address. I was a bit worried, however, as I had previously Googled the address and its exact location could never be determined. I expected we would hail a cab and be deposited on our new doorstep.
In Old Town on a Saturday night there are, unfortunately, no cabs. We walked back and forth once again along the upper Cours Salaya making enquiries and receiving instructions to go one way, then another, but our residence remained anonymous. I began having visions of an imaginary address where I had sent funds to some seedy internet con artist who was presently sipping a nice Beaujolais Nouveau on my hard-earned dollars in a lovely French restaurant.
As the man, I finally decided to take control, and hired a Pedi-cab (bicycle cab). After all, Old Town isn’t very big, probably a couple square kilometers, and about 25 streets in all. We soon located a nice Pedi-cab and showed the young peddler our information. Although a Pedi-cab is essentially a bicycle with a large basket on the back for passengers, our unit was an electric model with our driver pretending to pedal. It seems this was our driver’s first night on the job and, although looking fit enough to turn the little knob that propelled us, he had no idea where we were going.
With treacherous disregard, we boarded the precarious vehicle and set out to discover Old Town. His first attempt didn’t seem to be in the right direction so our young protégé apparently said something to me about Garibaldi, at which I, for some unknown reason, blankly nodded my head in the affirmative, probably just agreeing to make him feel better for not knowing anything. This seemed to please him immensely and caused us to set off at a torrid pace in a new direction.
We arrived at a big plaza called Place Garibaldi where our trusted driver told us to sit tight while he elicited further enquiries of a few restaurant patrons who directed him to another street. We set off in a new direction. This wasn’t proving any more beneficial than our previous contradictory directions by the pedestrians on Cours Salaya. We eventually stopped at a second intersection where he, again, accosted pedestrians with our little map and instructions. Soon a group of six people gathered with Caroline joining in, all jabbering in French, while I bravely held down the fort in our little Pedi-cab revelling in my linguistic vacuity. Finally one smart young man found the address on Google Maps and suggested we could reach our destination by going to Place St. Francois, the fish market. I began to think everything in this town was near some sort of market.
So, off we were again, our poor driver still not sure how he could discard us after an hour of accommodating two exasperating refugees. I would expect his experience this night may cause him to reconsider career options. He did, miraculously, know of Place St. Francois and we were soon in a little square while our trusted driver gestured for us to exit his vehicle forthwith and go up some dark stairs where his fake Pedi-cab could not proceed. I considered that perhaps he was sending us to a local gangster hideout but reconsidered; relying on some misguided faith in humanity, and followed his instructions.
As I am aware nobody does anything for free even though our friend’s skills may have been substantially lacking, I asked Mr. Driver how much he was owed. He, however, declined stating (even I understood this) that he had failed us and would not charge a single Euro. What a nice young man!! I insisted, giving him $10 euros for his extreme efforts and advised him to consider a new vocation. He was finally free of his perplexing burdens with a gentle cloud of dust the only evidence of our association and his certain enrolment at the local university come morning.
We were now in a dark fish market square that had been closed for hours, at about 11:00 PM Nice time (22 hours after we left home). Caroline was still trying to read the instructions that actually described ascending these very same dark stairs. We do so, turning left, then right, climbing higher with our mountainous luggage grinding up the steps. Ascending through dark alleyways we reached a group of four young men making idle chatter and smoking cigarettes. One fellow asked if he could take Caroline’s bags. She declined, not willing to give her life’s possessions to a tattoo-clad stranger in a dark alley of a community several thousand kilometers from home. I was thinking, “Take my bags as long as you don’t hurt me.”
Caroline, and these apparent young ruffians, begin to converse and I even offered a few syllables in some undetermined dialect. One fellow quickly identified, no doubt from my incomprehensible communication attempt, that we were Canadians. With this revelation, our interaction was seemingly transformed to a more accommodating tone. The, now, nice young men pointed to a church door a few yards further and directed us to some diagonal stairs. We were above this most beautiful city in a dark alley climbing ancient stairs with our massive luggage…..but a door, as vividly described in the instruction, appeared. It was a miracle!! It was our door. We enter a code, gain entry and followed the directions up the stairs to a second landing where our keys awaited and we flopped into bed with dreams of travel agents waiting for us at airports. The hicks from Canada have arrived.
Well, I won’t say this is typical of my lack of planning but, rather, probably the worst instance. We always reach our destinations but, think about it, we saw most of Nice by moonlight, met many friendly and helpful people, drove the Promenade Des Anglais, experienced a fake Pedi-cab, saw most of the parkades in Old Town, and lost about 10 pounds of excess body weight from sweat and fear. Caroline actually considered this experience an adventure and would have it no other way. This mode of travel is not for everyone and, likely, not for us as the years roll on. But on this night we succeeded and, after only four challenging hours, were snugly tucked in our cozy beds above a monastery in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, Nice, France. Pretty cool!!