UK and Contiki Winter Wanderer
Here’s a short recount of my trip with Nela. I’ve done highlights so you don’t have to read the full thing.
Our trip starts in London.
highlights: Tate Modern; British Museum; Globe Theatre, Shakespeare; Big Ben; Westminster Abbey; Tower Bridge; London Bridge
We head to Red Lion pub to meet Charli and Megan (Dale’s sister) for a drink. It is really a strange feeling to see such familiar faces on the otherside of the world (a completely unfamiliar place).
I ate the best Fish Pie! Incredible.
Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland
highlights: Dunguaire Castle; Ailwee Caves and 100% darkness; 100km/h windy roads; Cliffs of Moher; Galway; Giant’s Causeway; Belfast Castle; Dublin.
We went to Ireland and saw, Cliffs of Moher. A breathtaking view, seriously. We walked through the Ailwee Caves and experienced 100% darkness. We saw the Giant’s Causeway and that was an incredible experience.
Even just driving around the seriously narrow roads, winding with stone hedgerows, max speed limit is signposted at 100km/hour. I don’t know how the Irish can justify this, but I kept around a safe speed 60-70.
We did cover a large distance around Ireland, some 1500km or so.
Contiki was fun! We had a meeting the night before the tour started. Nela and I went straight back to Charli’s, where we were staying. Waiting for a train at Russell Square in peak hour, is insane. The trains arrive every 2-3 minutes, but they are packed. Literally you can fit one or two people maximum and your back would be right up against the door.
Well, Nela and I waited around 20 minutes, before the first opportunity came to get on the train. We strategically spaced ourselves across the platform for maximum chance to get on. I got on, signalled to her that I was right and she kinda nodded that she would try to get on. The doors closed and I could see her still standing on the platform.
I waited at Bounds Green for 10 minutes, she managed to catch the next train, right behind mine. *phew*
highlights: Cliffs of Dover; Paris by night tour.
We had to be at the pickup point (Royal National Hotel) at 6:45am for departure at 7:30am.
The bags were all weighed, only 20kg max per bag was allowed. There were so many people having to repack there bags, and it was still only Day 1!!
The bus was loaded and we headed off to Dover. This place is famous for the White Cliffs that face France. When the French invaded England from this area, the white cliffs would have been the first thing they saw- in fact, on a clear day you can see the cliffs from Calais, France.
We didn’t go through customs, so I did not get a stamp in my passport.
When we arrived in Paris, there was a mix up with the rooms. Nela and I were supposed to have a twin (two separate beds), but we were given a double room (one bed). So that was a fun start to the holiday.
Our tour manager, Lily took us on an evening tour of the city – we stopped at the Eiffel Tower to take some photos.
In the 18th century, Paris underwent beautification which cost several billion francs at the time. There is lots of symmetry in the city and the Place d’Etoile has 12 roads that radiate from the centre.
highlights: Climbed up Eiffel Tower; Got into Louvre for free!; Sacré Cœur; Clubbing.
The tour group were taken to the Eiffel tower, this time we were taken up to the first level (the summit was closed on the day). Then, Nela and I went to the Louvre. We spent quite some time there, it is a massive museum. It used to be the palace for the Louis family- until they decided that it wasn’t big enough for them and they moved the capital to Versailles.
Luckily for me, as I hold a french visa, I am able to get free entry to many tourist attractions. I did manage to get in for free at the Louvre.
That night, we went out for dinner near the red light district. We were meeting up with the rest of the group after their show at the Moulin Rouge. A short stroll up to Sacré Cœur was one of the best things we did that night- the sisters were singing hymns and it was a beautiful experience that I will not forget. I must try to get back there for an actual mass.
This would be the first night we went out partying as a group.
highlights: Hottest 100 countdown on the bus; Australia day drinks at the pub.
We left France and headed to Lucerne, Switzerland. This was one of the only countries where we got some snow. It was also Australia Day, so we streamed the triple j Hottest 100 on the bus- starting from #8. To this day, I still haven’t checked what #9 and #10 were, oops.
Nela and I were given separate rooms, since there were not enough twin rooms available.
We all went to the pub for some brews to celebrate our country’s day!
highlights: Lion monument; Cheese Fondue.
All 53 of us went into town via the public bus. Imagine that! We all fit into one bus, only just.
We took a stroll down Schwannenplatz, so called for the swans that inhabit the area.
Through the old city we walked, streets still cobbled-stone, all the way to the Lion carving. The monument is carved into the side of the mountain, a tribute to 700 Swiss Guards to the Louis French royal family in the 18th century.
The Swiss have often been called upon for service due to the country’s neutrality. We see them guarding the Vatican City.
We visited a swiss army knife and watch store before heading off for Fondue for lunch. yum! Tap water was 4CKF (roughly AUD9)!!!!
In the afternoon, Nela went up Mt Pilatus. They were lucky to have fresh snow falling, unfortunately though this meant the visibility was poor and there was no view.
I used this time to buy a cupcake for Nela’s birthday the next day.
highlights: Nela’s birthday; Lautenbrunnen; Château de Fontager, pub trivia and singing with a piano in the castle.
It was Nela’s birthday. Remember how I bought the cake the day before? I woke up super early so I could go to the kitchen, decorate the cake and ask the staff to help me with the birthday surprise.
After Nela ate her food, the cake came out and the whole room started singing happy birthday. It was a really nice occasion. The cake woul be eaten later on the bus!
This is another travel day, we stopped over in a little mountainside town called lautenbrunnen, still in Switzerland. The guy who started Contiki has very strong ties with this place.
Our destination that evening would be the Chateau de Fontager, Lyon, France. This is a quirky little castle, original structure remains and the rooms are decorated differently depending on the side of the castle.
We played pub trivia with the group for Nela’s birthday, our team was called The Salmonellas! After a few drinks, several of us went into the reception to play the piano and sing a few songs together. It was a fun night.
highlights: just travelling this day.
Another traveling day, this time to Barcelona, Spain. We drive by the Mediterranean Sea and saw the Pyrenees Mountains.
Once we arrived in bartha, we had a tour on the bus around the city.
Nela and I had an early night. The others went to a football game to watch Bartha vs someone else. They got rained on..
highlights: health is regained after a visit to La Sagrada Familia; Place de Colom; shopping at Zara and H&M; La Boceria market; Flamenco dancing.
The morning begins with a metro ride to La Sagrada Familia.
I had a bit of a cold/flu for a few days prior to this and I was just getting over it. I went into the basilica, admired the beauty and then said a few private prayers. Immediately I felt 100% better. My ears unblocked. My sinuses cleared. There was no more nose whistle. There was no more wheezing. Just well being. That was the strangest experience!
We headed down to the Place de Colom, Christopher Columbus is atop this monument. His arm is pointing out into the distance, meaning to represent the discovery of the Americas, instead he is actually pointing to Algeria. Fail.
The markets are a delight here. Everything is fresh, fragrant and very well-priced. La Boceria is on La Rambla (one of the main plazas in the city). We spent some time in here eating, cured meats, fresh juices, ice cream, everything!!
This night we would head out to Poble Espanol, which is a microcosm of all Spanish communities (to show case all different architectures and cultures that make up Spain as a whole). The night begins with traditional Barcelonian dinner and a Flamenco show. Amazing to say the least. To portray such emotion through dance is something I could never comprehend.
highlights: Laundry, lol; Wayne’s World table dancing; falling off the table.
Another traveling day, destination: French Riviera. We stayed in Nice, also the first opportunity for us to do laundry (finally!). We had dinner in the city and then went to a pub for some partying. Here they encourage dancing on tables. So 50 odd Contikiers on tables tops, yes you can imagine the mayhem. I did fall off the table top- i experienced the fall in slow motion- first i fell off the table, then landed on the stool then fell off the stool and then landed on the floor. The distance from the table top to the floor is approximately 1.2 metres.
highlights: Breakfast by the sea; Perfumery in Eze; gambling in Monaco.
We slept in and had breakfast by the sea. A nice stroll along the pebbly beaches, I would like to come back here in the Summer.
Coco Chanel used to come down to the French Riviera to sunbake- she made it popular to have a tan, where before you were considered to be lower/working class if you had a tan (as you were probably working on a farm).
We went to a Perfumery in Eze, about 30 minutes from Nice.
Another 20 minutes took us into the city-state of Monaco. Lifestyles of the rich and the famous. We dined in style, headed to Monte Carlo for a bit of gambling. I won 160 euros on Blackjack!
highlights: awkward photos at the leaning tower of Pisa; my drunk guided tour of Florence.
This traveling day would be towards Italy, where we would spend the next 5 days.
First stop, Pisa for the most famous architectural failure, the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
A few awkward shots taken here and then it was straight off to Florence!
We had a traditional Italian meal together:
- Antipasto (cold cuts, bread and veggies)
- Best steak ever!
We were serenaded by a tenor and soprano singing duo. Just wow!
After dinner, most of the group went to a tacky karaoke night club, but I chose to stay in. The tour manager tasked me with music on the way home on the coach and I took the opportunity to do a guided tour for those who also went home. So much fun! And so many interesting facts I made up. 😛
highlights: I bought a cool money clip!; walking tour of Florence, the Duomo; Pizza!.
We visited a leather making store, apparently the ‘burn test’ is a false method of identifying fake leather. Of course, leather is made of skin, just like you and me. I could do the burn test on my own skin and nothing would happen unless I kept the flame in the same spot for a long time.
Here I bought the best souvenir of the trip, my leather money clip. I had my initials, SMC, stamped into the back. On the front, the Florentine symbol (Lily) is embossed.
We went on a walking tour, where we saw the Town Hall where Da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, Machiavelli and countless other famous renaissance thinkers worked. We walked over the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge), the bridge is lined with stores, but only jewellers selling mainly gold items.
The Duomo is something to marvel at! The inside of this cathedral is beautiful and looking up at the artwork inside the Dome is just amazing.
After lunch it was time to head over to Rome.
Rome has so many interesting buildings, streets and culture. Even just walking around, you can’t help but wonder about the roman cities that lie just 4 metres below the current roads. In fact, this is the reason that there are only two metro lines in Rome as excavations often reveal artefacts from the Roman empire.
highlights: The Vatican City; Colloseum; Trevi Fountain; Cappucino.
The Vatican City, the seat of the Catholic Church. A very humbling experience.
We had a guided tour, she was fantastic as we went through the history of the artworks, the building and architecture and the history of the St Peter’s Basilica. We had 2 hours in the city, not enough to experience everything.
The Sistine Chapel. But what caught my attention was St Peter’s Basilica. I could only imagine how the basilica would be like without electricity at night. Candle light and cavernous. The enormous statues would be quite terrifying for a sinner walking through the halls- they all imply sin and redemption, all pointing fingers or looking down on us.
We had a walking tour down through the city. We saw the Spanish steps (not that interesting), the Pantheon which has the largest unsupported dome and a 9m occulus which opens to the sky (rain just falls into the building), and finally the Trevi Fountain.
The Trevi Fountain gets its name from the three main roads that lead into the plaza (remember, all roads lead to Rome!), Tre (three) Vi (roads).
The tour group then went onto the Roman Forum and Colloseum. I did not participate, instead I went to a cafe in front of the colloseum and had a cappucino and biscotti. In fact, I ended up having three cappuccinos, yum!
highlights: Orvietto, the alternate home of a past Pope.
See ya later Rome, hello Venice. We were treated to a stop in an ancient town called Orvietto. While the Vatican has been the home to the Pope for most cases, there was a Pope who moved his residence to this town of Orvietto. There is a beautiful cathedral on top of this mountaintop town. We took a funicular (like an inclinator or diagonal elevator) to the top of the mountain, beautiful views over Umbria.
We actually did not stay in Venice, we were in a hotel about 45 minutes from Venice. (It is rather pricey to stay on the islands).
highlights: Venice; Getting lost; Glass blowing demonstration; Venetian lace making demonstration; Gondola ride!; massive pasta dinner, urgh!.
We were treated to a private ferry to the Venetian islands.
I went exploring by myself in the morning. I really tried hard to get lost, but I always managed to find my way back to where I needed to be.
The Rialto bridge was quite nice. The Campanille, also pretty.
I didn’t go into the Doge’s Palace, but admired it from the outside instead.
We saw a glass blowing demonstration, some of the pieces sold in that store are up to 300,000 euros.
We also saw a Venetian lace making demonstration.
We went on a gondola ride, that was quite nice. The skill of these gondola men is quite impressive, not once did we collide with anything, nor did we have any near capsizes.
We had a traditional venetian dinner, but seriously it was 5 courses of pasta. I was dying by the end of it.
highlights: Vienna; Mozart Concert; saw hip hop dancers ice skating; incredible clubbing.
Travel day to Vienna, see ya later Italy. We had a quick tour of the city around the Ring Road. Much like the French capital, Vienna underwent signficant beautification during the 1800s. Most of the old buildings are intact, and remain easily accessible thanks to the ring road that encircles the inner city.
We went to the old cathedral there, the tour is feeling more like a tour of churches. The swarovski crystal store was interesting, although they did not explain how the crystals were made.
Actually, Vienna was quite boring.
We went out to a Mozart concert and that was one of the highlights of my trip! Wow, it was amazing. It was a string quartet with pieces from Mozart and Strauss. There were even some ballet dancers on stage. We got to meet them backstage during intermission, where we were also served champagne, wow!
After the show, we hit one of Vienna’s largest night clubs, in the Prater Dome. At 10:30PM when we arrived, we were the only ones there. But i had a few drinks and suddenly (like literally within minutes) there were hundreds of clubbers and the place was pumping!
Incredible night out!
highlights: Nothing, Vienna is a chilled city.
Free day in Vienna, we chilled out in the inner city for most of the day.
highlights: Mauthausen Concentration camp; Hofbräuhaus beer hall; boring Cuckoo Clock; I got on the mic on the coach and gave an excellent guided tour of Munich + karaoke. LOL.
Travel day to Munich. On the way we stopped at a Nazi concentration camp, Mauthausen.
I walked around alone, it was something I did not want to rush around with someone else.
First, I went down into the laundry. It was an extremely cold and dark place. Empty. Just the laundry machine was left. It was empty, but felt very cramped. Strange feeling, i couldn’t really describe properly in words how that room made me feel.
I saw the gas chambers, the crematorium, the living quarters, the room of names (some 300,000+ recorded names and countless others who went unregistered).
Indeed, a sobering experience. I pray humanity does not ever reach such a low again, although genocide remains in parts of Africa, South America, and elsewhere.
Literally, this night in Munich was a transit stop. We went out to the Hofbräuhaus Beer Hall for dinner and drinking. There was an oompapa band and everything, it was an amazing thing to have experienced. It was packed even for a Sunday night.
On the coach home, our tour manager said I could jump on the mic. I was the fill-in tour manager and did a guided tour all the way home that was amazing. We also did coach-oke (karaoke on the coach).
highlights: Prague; Laundry!, LOL; astronomical clock; bucks night, hens night, strippers, pub craw; clubbing.
Onwards to Prague, Czech Republic. We arrived with plenty of time to walk through the biggest castle complex in Europe and all the way back to our hotel in the centre of the city (literally).
There is an astronomical clock that shows 365 boys names and 365 girls names. It is the Czech law to name your child according to this calendar, otherwise all variations must be applied to the state.
We organised a mock-bucks and mock-hens night. So all the girls went out together and all the guys went out together, planning to meet up again at a club later in the night.
Us guys went on a pub crawl around Prague, wow the beers are cheap and delicious.
The girls went to a cocktail bar, where you can lie down on beds. Kinda like a large bedroom just for girls and cocktails. Weird.
The club we ended up at was quite nice, there were dancers and a full dance floor (glass section in the middle where you could see down to the next dancefloor on the floor below you).
highlights: Lunch cruise; sleep in.
I slept in. Yes, well deserved sleep in.
At lunch, we had a lunch cruise organised. We were given some insight into the Czech culture and history. During Easter, it is customary for girls to be whipped by guys. Girls actually want and like to be whipped in public, as any girl who is not whipped will be ugly and ‘dry’ for the next year. LOL
highlights: Berlin; Ich bin eine berliner!; I could live here; East gallery is beautiful; Reichstag dome; Brandenburg gates.
Prague to Berlin. Ich bin eine Berliner! Said an American President once to the German people. A Berliner is a jam donut, different to what he meant to say “I am a person of Berlin”. Oops!
I tell ya what, this is one of the cities I could totally live in. It’s got the city vibe, its large, its spacious, its got history, culture and the rest of it.
We dropped in at the East Gallery, which is one of the last remaining parts of the Berlin wall that stands with the original graffiti and propganda artwork being displayed.
Our tour manager surprised us with a trip up to the Reichstag, now used at the seat of parliament for the German government. It is a fairly modern looking building which has a glass dome on the top- representing the transparency the government is committed to. We walked throught the Brandenburg gates at night, it was a really nice scene with it all lit up like that.
highlights: sleep in; currywurst, cheap and tasty!; Pergamon museum and the babylon gates; Pub crawl/scavenger hunt; dirty German clubbing!.
Yes, I slept in again. Gotta love sleep, seriously.
I ate Currywurst, which is basically chopped up sausages covered in tomato sauce and topped with curry powder. Tasty and cheap!
The rest of the group did a guided walking tour, that I was not part of. some of them took me on the walking tour backwards, so I got a little bit of the history. Students burned 20,000 books, somewhere, oops forgot.
We went to the Pergamon Museum. This place houses the original Pergamon Altar, transported piece by piece from Greece.
There is also the Babylon Gates reconstructed there.
In the evening, the tour guide who did the walking tour in the morning, also led a “scavenger hunt” tour for us. So we got to participate in some history, while on a pub crawl. Basically, there was a clue given and we had to follow the clues to find the next pub. That was fun. We were split into two groups, unfortunately our group finished in 12 minutes, while the first group finished in 8 minutes. But there was no prize anyway.
We were given pretzels on the way to the final destination, Matrix nightclub. There was a cage, yes I danced in there.
Incredible night again!
highlights: Amsterdam; no sleep; cheese and clog making; sex show!; Coffeeshop.
Berlin to Amsterdam. I literally had 2.5 hours sleep, so this trip was particularly agonising.
We stopped in a Cheese and Clog place. The guy showed us how Gouda cheese is made.
He also showed us how Clogs were made, very interesting.
We had the option of going to a sex show. Yes, a live sex show. Ok, slightly awkward, but hey, when in Amsterdam…
We all went along and then we stayed out afterwards to visit a Coffeeshop. A coffeeshop is not a café. A café sells coffee, a Coffeeshop does not.
highlights: Anne Frank’s hiding place; Sex Museum, LOL; Sushi; Seaside dinner; Canal cruise and jumping on the mic again!; Shots bar with flaming dragons; cab home alone…
We went to Anne Frank’s house in the morning. I am determined to read her diary, which was turned into a book.
Next it was the I Amsterdam sign. This was actually a big highlight for me. I really loved getting photos here.
We went straight onto the Sex Museum, oh god so funny. There are stairs going to the second level of the museum, the walls are lined with plastic body parts (such as breasts, bum,etc). There is one particular bottom that has a pair of eyes on it. There is a sensor as you walk past that triggers a spout of air to be released from the bottom, as the eyes wink at you. Hilarious to see tourists hitting the deck as they climb these stairs.
We had sushi here, but did manage to try out Frites (basically, just fried potato chips.)
Dinner was by the seaside in a tiny little village just outside of Amsterdam. I had the fish main dish, which was absolutely incredible. So tender and creamy, and it is fish!
We also had a canal cruise arranged, where drinks would flow from an open bar. I got on the mic and did a guided tour thing, everyone loved it.
There was a shots bar that served over 250 different types of shots. I went in, they had already started making what I call the flaming dragon. Literally, there are four shots lined up with alcohol already poured in- the bartender gets a blowtorch and flames the crap out of the shots, flames everywhere seriously!
I did not make it out of this bar to the next one and was put in a cab back to the hotel- before midnight! Ooops.
I guess it was our last night together, so the goodbyes wold have been more painful than a hangover. :O
This is the last day of the tour. We say our goodbyes to some friends in Amsterdam, the rest of us travel back to London together.
At the port of Calais, which we take the ferry to England from France, we get checked at the border. I didn’t have any issues getting into UK, but I still don’t have a stamp to show that I entered France in the first place. I hope I get one this Thursday….
Cruising through London for the last time with our tour group is a bittersweet feeling. I will really miss a lot of them.
Even some of the people I didn’t really get a chance to speak to come up and hug me and say goodbye. I am really touched by this, I will always keep my Contiki memories with me in fondness.
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