My European Adventure
By Pamela, age 26, South Africa
Sweet Designs Featured Writer
After arranging my flights and visas I was ready to go. On March 3rd, 2011, I nervously boarded a flight on Emirates Airlines from Durban, South Africa to Dubai where I changed flights to London. I was stung by an icy wind as soon as I stepped out of Gatwick Airport. I then took a train and two tubes to reach my hotel in London. After my pre-tour meeting that evening I collapsed in bed exhausted and didn't even get to do any London sightseeing. That would have to wait until after my tour!
At last my tour was about to begin! I met up with my Contiki tour manager and tour mates bright and early and boarded the bus. Soon we were admiring the stunning White Cliffs of Dover and driving onto a ferry that would whisk us to France. Once in France, we travelled via World War I battlefields in the Valley of the Somme to Paris.
After checking in at our hotel we were told to dress warmly if we wanted to go up to the top of the Eiffel tower that night as it was still winter in Europe. Our tour manager took us on a "Tour of Illuminations," which showed off the French capital's transformation into the "City of Lights." He explained the background of the world's most recognized monuments, like the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe. It was surreal to see the beautiful and famous monuments in person, especially the Eiffel Tower that twinkled like a million stars in the dark night. We took a cruise on the River Siene and bravely chose to sit on the freezing deck of the boat instead of the heated interior!
After the cruise we felt exhilarated and decided to go up to the top of the Eiffel Tower. Even though it was winter, there was a massive crowd going up to the top. We had to take several elevators until we reached the very top. As promised, it was freezing up there, but it was worth it to be able to gaze at the bright lights of Paris from the most famous monument in the country, and perhaps even the world. The next day, we were given maps and were free to explore Paris. We strolled down the famous shopping street, the Champs Elysees, and beautiful tree-lined avenues. We managed to find a side entrance to the Louvre museum and avoided the hour long wait in the queue. Once inside, we explored the endless galleries of the Louvre and even caught a glimpse of the real Mona Lisa painting through the crowd of tourists trying to take her photo. We also indulged in a delicious French treat called macaroons before admiring the grand Notre Dame Cathedral. That night we treated ourselves to a real Parisian cabaret experience, the Moulin Rouge show, complete with can-can girls, dinner, and champagne. Though completely different from the movie and a bit dated, I thoroughly enjoyed the cultural experience.
After leaving Paris, we travelled through the scenic wine producing regions of Burgundy and Chablis to the exquisite alpine town of Lucerne, Switzerland. Our hotel was set in the mountains and had an amazing view. We wasted no time going up Mount Rigi into the breathtaking Swiss Alps. I was so lucky that my first time seeing snow was in the Swiss Alps. After taking a train up into the Alps, we hiked up until we were at the very top and breathed in the pristine view. This was one of my favorite moments on the tour - one I'll never forget. We then headed to the Lion Monument and enjoyed a traditional Swiss fondue lunch. We were very fortunate to be in Lucerne during their festival to scare away the winter spirits. The wooden bridges and cute cobbled lanes were filled with locals dressed in bright elaborate costumes, marching bands playing modern pop songs, and rainbow confetti. At night we watched as the locals dressed in costumes and menacing masks, parading with drums to scare away winter.
The weather became gloriously warm as we headed closer to the French Riviera and followed the beautiful sapphire waters to the palm trees and sun-soaked shores of Nice, France. That evening, we got a taste of the high life in Monaco, the glamorous principality packed into just 1.92km, and home of the Formula 1. We indulged in a bit of glitz by opting for a typically French 4-course meal just a few doors down from the Royal Palace, and we admired the famous Grand Casino. The next day was a free day to explore. I took a short train ride with some of my tour mates to Cannes, home of the famous film festival. We strolled along the marina and saw the expensive yachts and the stunning sea before making our way back to Nice and talking a stroll on the magnificent pebble beach.
Our tour manager took us on an unplanned detour to a place not many people know about, San Marino. One of the two smallest countries in the world, San Marino is situated on the eastern side of the Apennine Mountains. It is an enclave surrounded by Italy. Wandering around the deserted cobbled streets surrounded by mist made me feel like I was on the set of a soap opera, as it did not seem like a real place.
From San Marino we explored the magical floating city, Venice. Surrounded by water, we had to take a boat to get to the city. Unfortunately it poured with rain the day we explored, but we still marveled at this amazing place littered with mask shops, art-filled palazzos, cafes, and museums. We enjoyed lace and Murano glass-blowing demonstrations, and strolled around St Mark's Square and saw the Doges' Palace, before taking a rainy gondola ride.
From Italy we travelled to Munich, Germany. Home of the world-famous Oktoberfest, Munich blends traditional Bavarian culture and modern lifestyle. We explored the heart of Munich's Old Town where we spotted the famous Glockenspiel - a Gothic clock, complete with 32 dancing figures and 43 chiming bells. We also got a taste of tradition at a typical beer hall.
From Munich we ventured to Austria. Our tour manager took us on another detour, one that was solemn and emotional. On a grey, rainy day we stepped through the stone walls of Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Austria where thousands of Jews were killed by the Nazis during World War II. We saw where they slept and bathed, and we took an emotionally taxing walk through the gas chambers were so many lives were taken. It was a depressing, moving, and unforgettable experience that I am so thankful to have had.
On a lighter note, when we arrived in Vienna we stopped at a schnapps museum, saw how schnapps is made, and even got to sample a few shots. The next day, we explored the royal and impeccably clean city of Vienna, home of the famous Habsburg family. We visited the Swarovski shop, saw the famous dancing Lipizzaner horses in their stables, went on a tour of the Habsburg tomb, strolled along the Blue Danube River, marveled at St. Stephen's Cathedral and the State Opera House, and saw statues of famous composers like Mozart and Schubert. One of my favorite optional activities was a traditional Viennese dinner followed by a Mozart and Strauss concert in one of the city's imperial palaces, featuring talented musicians, opera singers, and ballet dancers.
Next, we ventured to the Czech Republic and the fascinating city of Prague, "The City of a Thousand Spires." We had to change some of our Euros into Czech crown and learnt that "cheers!" is "prost!" We went on a walking tour and saw the landmark Charles Bridge, Hradcany Castle (the home of the original Bohemian Kings), and the gothic St. Vitus Cathedral. We also posed for cool photos in front of the John Lennon wall, which is a huge wall spray painted with different words and slogans. It began during communism when someone continuously spray painted John Lennon-inspired graffiti as an act of defiance against communism. It is now covered in colorful graffiti. We chilled out in the old town square and saw the amazing astronomical clock chime. We also took a lovely lunch cruise on the Vltava River and I enjoyed a hearty meal of goulash for supper at a local pub.
From Prague we headed back through Germany to the Rhine Valley and the pretty, old-world village of St. Goar, complete with a fairy-tale castle and a free-standing cuckoo clock, which is said to be the world's largest! We watched a demonstration on the local craft of beer steins, and then enjoyed wine tasting in a candlelit underground cellar.
The last stop on the tour was the vibrant city of Amsterdam. We passed windmills on our way to a cheese farm and clog maker's house where we watched demonstrations on how to make cheese and clogs. At night we stepped into the twilight zone as we took a tour of the racy Red Light District, which I'd only recommend doing at night if in a large group! The next day we had free time to experience Amsterdam's coffee shops, museums, and quirky boutiques, and wander along the canals. On the last night of the tour we had dinner at a restaurant in Volendam, a pretty fishing village, and then took an evening canal cruise where we experienced Amsterdam from water level.
On the final day of the tour we drove all day and took a ferry from Belgium back to London where I said goodbye to my new friends. After my tour I stayed in London for a few days and had a reunion with some friends that I made while we worked together at a camp in the USA in 2009. We did some sightseeing and catching up. Then we had lunch at a pub where I had traditional bangers and mash, and we hung out with some friendly union workers who had come to London to march. My weekend in London happened to fall on the same weekend that the unions were marching, so the city was packed with protesters, and my first time on the tube was a sardine experience.
During my time in London, I also took an open-top bus sightseeing tour where I hopped on and off as I wished. I saw Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, The Houses of Parliament, The London Eye, Piccadilly Circus, and Trafalgar Square. I enjoyed exploring London on my own.
At last it was time to say goodbye to Europe, and I was ready to go home after having the time of my life. It feels like a dream now, but every time I see a picture of a place I visited I remember that I was there, and it was amazing. I definitely recommend taking a tour of Europe or going with friends and staying in hostels. It is so worth it. Bon Voyage!