European Spirit Review - September 2009
13 Mar 2010 ArrylT said
Day 1 - Arrive Paris
Welcome Drink 5:45pm (would have been 5:30 except for all of us latecomers haha)
Coach leaves for City Tour 7pm
Whether you are arriving by plane, or train, it should be relatively easy, if lengthy, to get to the Contiki Village. Make sure to arrive in Paris by 3pm however. Any later than that and you will be late for the 5pm Meeting. While being late for the meeting is not the end of the world, you'll be stressed for time to finish all the necessary paperwork, find your cabin & eat dinner, before the Evening Tour of Illuminations.
Assuming you arrive at Gare du Nord (train from London) or Charles Du Gaulle (airport) you will be on the Blue Line of the Metro. It will cost at least 2.50 Euro to take the Metro to Joinville Le Pont (closest stop to Campground) and you WILL have to change lines. Do that at Chatelet Les Halles. Make sure to get on the A3 Red line. For more info go to http://ca.contiki.com/contikip...concept-budget-tours. Expect an hour from airport, and 35-40min if from Gare du Nord.
I, and about 12-15 of my tourmates (so about 1/2 of the tour) just missed the bus from Joinville Le Pont. It usually only runs ever 30min. If you don't have a ton of luggage you could probably walk it in 20min. But since no one else was willing, I chose not to LOL. Anyways because we missed the bus, we did not arrive until about 5:30pm (meeting started at 5pm). I was not surprised our TM started the meeting without us, considering she had a lot of information to go through and not too much time.
I like snails & the snails at the campground were good. The Contiki crew was friendly & helpful. The dinner was alright. Do not expect 5-star food. However the food was edible, there was a good variety & that is all I expected.
The evening Tour of Illuminations should NOT be missed. Apart from being part of what you paid for, it is a good way to see the sights of Paris and prepare for tomorrows hectic day of sightseeing. It costs about 15 Euros to get to the top of the Eiffel Tower. Great views! Make sure you have a digital camera that takes good night scenery shots. The Eiffel Tower all lit up is awesome.
I think the TM gave us 90m at the ET. You'll need it as the lines are long, even in Sept, and it will take a while to get the elevators down. I walked down, with a tourmate, from the 2nd Etage, and so was about 5min early for the "deadline". However most people were late.
Btw, for those curious, my tour had 32 people. Of this 1 couple. Several of my tourmates had GF/BFs at home, but I'd say at least 60% of the tour was single. 40% male to 60% female. At least 2 hookups happened. :-) I tend not to keep track of such things, unless I am involved LOL, but I think by the end of the tour there were 3-4 "couples".
Day 1 Rating - 8 / 10
Day 2 - Day In Paris
Breakfast around 8am
Coach leaves for City 9am
Meet at Louvre for Optionals 5:20pm
Optionals - Parisian Dinner & Nouvelle Eve Cabaret
Like dinner, the breakfast was edible, and that is all I ask. Don't expect anything fancy like waffles or pancakes or Eggs Benedict. :P
Coach made 3 drop off points. This means that they would drop people off at 3 different locales. Sometimes you'll get 3, in other cities 1 or 2, or you'll take public transit. The locales were
The Musee Orsay
Arc du Triomphe
I got off with a couple of others at the Arc du Triomphe at about 10am. Most people got off at Musee d'Orsay. My plan was to do the Arc du Triomphe, then walk down Champs Elysees to the Grand Palais. Then metro to Hotel du Ville (City Hall) and a quick walk over the Seine to see the Cathedral Notre Dame, then back over to the Louvre. This I did with my new friend, that I had made last night.
Went off without a hitch. :-) Was able to see 3 major attractions & do some window shopping all in 7 hours (10am-5pm). Btw, I recommend buying the Paris Museum pass if you plan to see at least 3 attractions. The pass cost 32 E for 2 days and covers 30+ attractions, including the 3 I visited (Louvre. Arc & Cathedral).
With it I was able to skip the ticket lines at both the Louvre & Cathedral Notre Dame, saving AT LEAST 30min at each location. Had it been July/August I bet you're talking an hour at each. On a Contiki tour you simply do not have the time to waste waiting in long lines.
So buy tickets in advance or buy passes whenever possible/convenient.
Anyways I enjoyed all three attractions. The Cathedral might give you a spiritual feeling as well, it was that inspiring. All the attractions had multi-lingual signs and pamphlets in English. The Louvre is HUGE. You WILL need a pamphlet so you know where to go to find what you want to see - be it the Mona Lisa or the Venus de Milo.
Anyways my friend & I finished up around 5pm, with 20min to spare to meet the TM at a designated spot outside the Louvre.
Btw if you're doing either optional - PACK & BRING A SPARE CHANGE OF CLOTHES. Your TM should recommend this. Leave it on the bus and you'll be able to change after you meet up. Both optionals, while not required, it is recommended to dress nice.
The Parisian Dinner, like many of the optional dinners, will give you a small selection to choose from. If this is your first trip away from home you NEED to be aware that you'll be eating at restaurants designed to accommodate large groups, and as such your choices will always be limited.
There were 3 choices (one of which I think was Vegetarian). I took Cuisse of Canard a l'Orange. Thats Duck. It was delicious. And of course as an entree they had Escargot (Snails) as a choice. Also delicious. If the snails at the campground were a 6 on 10, these were at least an 8.5. However the dessert was a disappointment and sort of anti-climatic.
The Coach takes everyone back to the campsite that is not also doing the Cabaret. Those doing the Cabaret will get a special shuttle complimentary from the Cabaret. Expect your TM to do most of the Optionals with you, unless otherwise mentioned. Your driver will miss a lot of them, because they have to drive/park/etc. You might also get Contiki people who review the optionals from time to time to make sure they are still good.
The Cabaret was enjoyable, if a little silly at times and a little long. I went for the experience. I loved how my TM described it. For the Guys: Naked Breasts! For the Girls: Naked Breasts done tastefully! And she pretty much nailed it to a T.
The complimentary champagne was ok.
No one went out after the Cabaret. Probably because of the long day, and the fact that you needed to be up quite early tomorrow. Pick your spots as to when you want to party all night - otherwise you'll be dead tired after 1 week. Of course if you're capable of sleeping on a noisy, cramped moving Coach, then you probably will be able to recharge your batteries. I personally can sleep on Coaches, but prefer not too because I like scenery, and Coach time is ideal for reading/chatting with tourmates/chatting with TM/writing journal/etc0.
Day 2 Rating - 8.5 / 10
Day 3 - Paris to Amsterdam
I think we left at 8am. People still getting used to deadlines. Btw if you have never done a Contiki before - being late is a great way to get asked Embarassing questions. :-D
Today you'll learn your Day Song. The song you will hear at least once a day for the rest of your trip. You will also hear your Wake Up Song (ie song that means to wake up & pay attention). Our song is and shall always be I Gotta Feelin' by BEP.
I like this song a lot. I am of two minds however. On one hand I give kudos to my TM for picking a song that has a good dance beat, and is likely to be played in clubs everywhere. On the other hand, we ended up sharing our song with at least 3 other tours. Something slightly more original might have been nice. ;-)
This is your first long coach day. Get used to it. On average you will have one every second day. Some tours it will be every day (Suckers!), while if you're lucky you'll be on a tour that has the occasional 2 day breather.
If your tour has more than 40 people - you will not have much free space. Furthermore electrical outlets are at a premium. I think the average Coach has 4. Our tour had 32 people, and most people were smart & charged things at night in their cabins/hostel rooms.
I brought 2 camera batteries. You will need 2. Any less and you'll miss out on great photo opportunities because your camera died at the wrong time. Charge the 1st battery AS SOON AS you've put the 2nd batter into your camera. Expect to need to change batteries every 2nd day. More frequently if you do a lot of video or take a lot of photos.
I took over 2000 photos. I needed 4 2gb memory cards. :-O
Bus Scenery is usually ho-hum but every so often you'll get some great views. If you have a good driver you'll be warned when these will come up.
Our tour had a good driver & a good TM. These are ESSENTIAL imo. Not only does your TM show you how to maximize your free time, and give you information on every location, your TM will also set the mood. So treat your TM well and you will be treated well in return. Your driver is also very important - because they know the quickest routes, the best parking, and so forth. Inexperienced drivers or TMs = less free time & more frustration.
Having said that, do NOT take everything your TM says as gospel. Consider them a source of information, but not your ONLY source of information. I can think of at least 3x, that my TM experienced as she was, either got lost, or mismanaged things. I can only think of what it would have been like if you have a TM that mismanaged things on a daily basis.
Unlike major cities in Europe, many of the travel stops will NOT have much if anything english either in signs or service. GET USED TO IT. You are in a foreign country. Make an effort to learn some basic French/German/Italian. It will make things so much easier.
Expect travel delays, especially between Paris & Amsterdam. I think it can only be worse during the Summer. We got to Edam about 40min late. As a result, we got a really abbreviated lecture on how to make cheese, by someone who was clearly high.
Btw these demonstrations, are something of a cash grab. I have heard plenty of people state that the companies we visit are owned or at least sponsored by Contiki. That was fine by me, I guess because I was aware of it. I didnt spend big bucks on cheese or clogs or silk or leather or glass products. I did pick up the occasional souvenir when I felt it was reasonably priced.
Anyways the cheese & clog demonstrations were ok. The cheese guy was high, the clog guy was slightly creepy. But they were proud of their products, and I would have been too. I could have lived without these demos, but they were a part of the tour and they did have some nice stuff. Besides sometimes it is nice to unwind from a hectic sightseeing day or a long travel day with a relaxing demo.
Regardless of whether Contiki owns or sponsors the demonstrations, I NEVER felt pressured to buy anything, whether from my TM, Driver or the people doing the demonstrations. Unlike some of the people selling trinkets in London or Paris, they were never pushy.
The Bike Ride on the other hand was pretty fun. There was something unique about biking in a small town in a foreign country. The scenery was great, and the bike guide was hot (I have photo proof haha). It was a sunny day with limited clouds and a nice breeze. In other words it was a perfect day for a bike ride in the Dutch countryside.
After the demos & bike ride, we got to our hotel on the outskirts of Amsterdam.
In case you havent already figured it out - on concept/budget tours your accommodations will be cheap. They will not be centrally located. If you know this in advance, you'll be able to shrug it off. Its basically a free bed for the night.
The hotel was ok, but quarters were slightly cramped. IMO 3 people to a hostel room is ideal. 4 or more and it is just too crowded. In Amsterdam we had 4 in a small room with 2 bunk beds and a tiny bathroom.
Dinner was included, and as per usual, was edible, but nothing special.
After dinner we got to do the optional that is the worst kept secret in Contiki. Advertised no where, if you have not heard about it, well then you obviously have not done your research. :-P
Unless you're a Victorian Prude or have no sense of humour you'll probably find this one to be interesting.
If you are the least bit interested in anything to do with sex, it is worth the 25 Euros. Free drinks btw. And it is right by the Red light district (which is shrinking so visit it while you can!!). Do not expect anything classy. Expect it to be cheesy, funny, and different.
I've had sex while other people were in the room. But I doubt I could ever do what many of the performers did on the stage in front of a rowdy Contiki crowd. Different people different strokes I suppose.
After that, most of us went out to enjoy the nightlife. I know I did. This is your best chance to try drugs. They are not hard to find. They are not hard to purchase. Do it in a small group of no more than 4-6 people. Buy from a coffee shop. DO NOT BUY THEM ON THE STREET. THAT IS ILLEGAL, NOT TO MENTION STUPID.
All in all a great night.
Day 3 Rating - 8.5 / 10 (6 for the day & 9.5 for the night)
Parisian Dinner - 8 on 10
Limited choice but what they have is good food. Dessert may disappoint, but that will likely depend on the restaurant you are taken to. Expect to be in a large room with plenty of other Contiki people, so don't consider this a typical french restaurant experience. Nonetheless I would do this again if I was on a Contiki. Our restaurant had a guy playing an Accordian.
Nouvelle Eve Cabaret - 7 on 10
Expensive but worth it if you have never done cabaret. Slightly long, and somewhat silly at times, but overall an enjoyable experience. I do not think I would do this again though, unless the option was to Moulin Rouge.
Show in Amsterdam - 7 on 10
Worth the visit. Not necessary to repeat though unless your friends are going & you want to party with them afterwards. Lasts about 1 hour. Well the show goes for hours, but it repeats itself, and you'll be there for about an hour before it is the next groups turn.
Anyways more later. If you have any questions you can contact me at email@example.com
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- Add to discussion 13 comments so far
14 Mar 2010 *Alicia* said
this is really good,
i’m doing this tour in july, cant wait for you to put the rest up <!--graemlin::)-->
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14 Mar 2010 lizzie said
hey this is an awesome review.. just wondering about the Paris museum Pass did u purchase it in paris whilst on tour or before the tour. thanks <!--graemlin::)-->
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14 Mar 2010 ArrylT said
Alicia – Thanks! I will try to put up a section every couple of days. Guess that will depend on how much free time I have. I am sure you will have a great time. My TM thought that the European Spirit tour was one of the better designed tours, and I certainly thought it was a good tour.
lizzie – My friend & I each purchased the Paris Museum Pass at the Arc du Triomphe. The Arc du Triomphe had a very short line, possibly because it was a Thursday in Sept & the weather was overcase (but cleared up and became Sunny). You can purchase the Pass at any of the attractions listed (just google Paris Museum Pass) and at many of the Paris Metro stations.
Anyways back to the review. <!--graemlin::)-->
I’ve updated the review through til the end of Day 6. I’ll start a new post later with Days 7-9 (Prague & Vienna).
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15 Mar 2010 ArrylT said
Day 4 – Amsterdam
8am – Breakfast
8:30am – Bus Leaves for City
3:30pm – Meet to go back to hotel (if you want)
5pm – Amsterdam Cruise & Sea Palace Optionals
The Hotel we stayed at was Nieuw Slotania. It is a pretty massive hotel, or so I thought, but it is not like the Royal National in London. As previously mentioned the rooms were small & cramped, for four people, but you’ll be used to it after the Cabins at the Contiki Village in Paris. The toilet was a joke – literally – it was easily removable from the floor!
I have since looked at the prices of the hotel, and imho, it is quite pricey for what they offer. However it was a place to sleep, and the bed was comfortable enough. I think you will find that with a lot of the budget hotels in Europe. They simply are not on par with those in Canada or the USA. The thing to remember is to not let it affect your enjoyment of your trip. I didnt have to live there, only spend 2 nights, so I shrugged it off. I only mention my criticisms so that people are aware of what to expect.
Breakfast was pretty decent, but I found the staff to be somewhat curt & abrupt. Definitely makes you miss the cheerfulness of the Contiki Village.
I cannot remember where the Coach dropped us off. I think it was near Centraal Station. I remember we were shown the Victoria Hotel, because that was the pickup point, for those that wanted to meet to go back to the hotel to freshen up before the Optionals later.
Anyways a group of us walked over to the Anne Frank house. I’d read on this site that you should do that early, and I concur. We got there just before opening, and there was already a small lineup, and by the time we had left it had pretty much doubled. If you read the diary, or have any interest in the Holocaust or WWII History, then this is definitely a museum you should visit. Although I am not Jewish, one part of my family is, and I feel I would have been wrong to not do so. Like in Paris, the Museum was multi-lingual.
After the visit, my friend & I walked around through Amsterdam for a little while, before heading over to Centraal Station to take a ‘free’ guided tour. I put free in quotations, because although the guides did it for free, they certainly appreciated tips. The tour lasted about 3 hours, and was very interesting. You will find that a lot of the guided tours given on Contiki can be a bit dry or dull. However our guide made it very interesting and certainly deserved all the tips she got. I have unfortunately forgotten a lot of the interesting factoids she shared. However I do remember this is how I learned that the Red light districts in Amsterdam are slowly shrinking. Apparently the mayor is buying out the windows and putting in shops & such, so there are about 1/2 as many Red Light Windows as there were about 5 years ago.
She showed us where the main Red Light District was (which I already knew from the previous night – but it is interesting to see the contrast between day & night). We got to see a lot of the historical buildings in Central Amsterdam and she had a good story or anecdote for each one. I wish I had been able to do some of the free guided tours that were offered in the other cities I visited, but schedule wise it never worked out. However other people I met said that the company that runs them does a good job in every city.
For those wondering the tour was called – The NEW Amsterdam FREE WALKING Tour and is run by a company called SANDEMAN.
After the tour she took those interested to a local restaurant. The food was filling, authentic dutch, and pretty reasonably priced. My friend & I then took the tram system to go and visit the Heineken Experience. The tram system is pretty impressive in Amsterdam, and reasonably priced. I think it cost us 7 Euro for a set number of tickets, and those tickets lasted us the full day, and we used the tram 4 times, and gave some of the tickets to tourmates we met up with later. I believe the tram tickets were bought at a local supermarket.
Well the Heineken Experience was definitely interesting, if a bit rushed. By the time we got there it was about 3:30pm. So yeah, we were not going to go back to the hotel (but we had not planned to do so anyways). But we needed to be back near Centraal Station by 5pm to meet up for the Canal Cruise. You could definitely spend at least 2 hours at the Experience. Btw included in the price are 2 pints of Heineken. :-)
Instead, we did it in about an hour, and that included my buying a souvenir glass for my father. Then we hopped on the tram (they run every 7-10 minutes it seems) and took it back to the Central Station. We got to the meeting place at about 5:05pm, and I thought we had missed the boat, but actually the rest of the tour met up with us in about 3-5min. So did one of our tourmates who had left Amsterdam to visit a nearby castle, and he got to do some hawking – which I thought was pretty cool.
The Canal cruise was decent. I liked cruising the Canals of Amsterdam, but was a little disappointed that they did not point out much in the way of sites or landmarks. Nonetheless it was pretty chillaxing, and that is always a good thing to do after a day of siteseeing.
The cruise lasted about 75min, maybe closer to 90 but I was not timing it. After that came the Sea Palace Optional.
I had long ago decided not to do this optional. When researching the optionals, it had gotten only so-so feedback. I checked out the restaurant on the web, and learned it was Chinese food. Because of the Dutch East Indies there is a tie between Chinese food & the Netherlands. Nonetheless I was not in the mood to eat Chinese for for 31 Euros when I could do so at home for much less.
Turns out a good number of people felt the same way, and probably 60% passed on this optional to find their own dinners. My friend & I and two others (including the guy who went to the castle) found a nice restaurant on a side street and it was a great choice. My portion came to 25 Euros, including Wine. So cheaper, more enjoyable and good company. What else can you ask for when dining in a European city? :-)
After dinner we meandered for a while taking some night shots. The fourth member of our foursome was a great photographer and took some amazing b & w shots. Then we had an adventure trying to get back to the hotel.
Before leaving to go to dinner, I had asked my TM how to get back to the hotel, if we did not meet them in time to take the Coach. She told us to take a certain tram, and so we did. Turns out she was mistaken, and the tram we took put us in a completely different part of the city.
Luckily the photographer amongst us also spoke some Dutch! They found his accent funny (because he spoke it with a spanish accent) but we got help getting unlost. We hopped off the tram, took a train, and then switched to a different tram (in the process finishing off my tickets – definitely worth the 7 euros) and finally got back to the Hotel around 11pm (instead of 10pm as expected).
All in all it was a fun little adventure, and definitely a memory I’ll long remember. I certainly do not have any issue with my TM. She was only trying to be helpful, and just happened to give us the wrong directions. The lesson to be learned is that you should not rely solely on your TM. Had we double checked before getting on the Tram, then we would have quickly figured out that this was not the right tram, and gotten correct directions. No harm, no foul.
Played some darts with sone of the tour before heading off to bed. I was pretty excited, because tomorrow we were going to Berlin, and that was one of the four cities I most wanted to see (after London & Paris). Along with Berlin, the fact that Prague, Vienna & Venice were all on the tour was a key factor in my choosing the European Spirit. The ES is one of the few tours that goes through Berlin btw.
Day 4 Rating – 7.5 / 10
Day 5 – Amsterdam to Berlin
7:30 – Breakfast
8:15am – Bus Leaves for Berlin
8:15pm – Meet to go to Reichstag
I cannot remember breakfast this day – so obviously it was not worth remembering. I think someone came close to being late for the Bus departure, and by now we had learned that for every minute you were late you’d be required to answer a question. Some of the questions can get pretty interesting at times, and I know that more than one person vowed to never be late, or never be late again.
I was looking forward to Berlin, however it was going to be a long Bus day. I believe we made 3 stops prior to arriving in Berlin, possibly four. There were two that were distinctly memorable. Firstly we stopped at a service center in West Germany. Unlike Museums and many of the restaurants in France & the Netherlands, the menu was only in German, and most of the staff there spoke only German. That did not come as a surprise to me, after all, if someone visits your country, you are not expected to speak their language, be it German, Swahili or Mandarin. However it did make ordering slightly dicey, especially with those on our tour who didnt have a german/english phrasebook handy.
At one point some of my tourmates, who had ordered their lunch, slipped off, either to do some browsing or go to the washroom. However, the woman serving got very agitated, and probably thought they were going to leave without paying. She pretty much refused to serve anyone else until she was satisfied that the people who had left, would come back and eat & pay for their meals. Needless to say that took some time to straighten out since she only spoke German, and none of us spoke German fluently.
I ordered a salad. Not sure what I was thinking but I was one of the last ones to get an order in and I did not want to order anything that would take too long to prepare. Salad in Germany is definitely not like a salad in Canada or the US. That is not to say it was bad, just different, and mostly greenery. Lesson learned from that experience is to remember that different countries serve the same thing in different ways.
The other memorable stop, was at the former East/West German border. Considering that Germany has been reunited since 1990, a whole generation of people have been born without knowing of the divide. I was glad to make this stop, and see physical evidence of a former border station. Unfortunately, it was pretty much only in German. Got some nice photos, but I do not really know what each area of the border station represented, since my German was very basic.
We finally got to Berlin around 5pm or so. And three cheers to my Driver & TM. Instead of taking us straight to the Hotel, they gave a nice sightseeing tour. Ok, I think the sightseeing tours of each City were included, but the one in Amsterdam had been really brief. This one however made up for it, because we stopped and spent time at the remnants of the Berlin Wall. We got about 45min to walk along and take in the East Side Gallery. Definitely a must-see in my book.
In every city I was going, except for those in Croatia, I had at least 1 must-see site on my list, and the East Side Gallery was one of the must-sees in Berlin, just as had the Eiffel Tower been in Paris. So I was quite happy to have Contiki include these sites on their tour. <!--graemlin::)-->
Anyways after the East Side Gallery, we drove by the Reichstag & the Brandenburg Tor (Gate) before heading to our Hostel. I liked this hostel (or was it a hotel?). Although the rooms did not contain bathrooms, rather each floor had its own mens & womans washroom/shower room, they were slightly bigger and the beds were nicer.
Another thing I liked about the Hostel, was how friendly & helpful the staff were. They had a computer that had internet access, and I was allowed to use it for free. They also did laundry for a very reasonable price (3 Euros!). It was a little out of the way, and somewhat quiet, I think our tour was 3/4s of the guests, whereas we made up a much smaller portion at the Hotel in Amsterdam.
After dinner, our TM had another treat for us. She took us to see the Reichstag at night, and not just as a drive-by. She got directions from the hostel, and we took the train into Berlin, and changed to the subway and took that a few stops. I can now say that Berlins transit system was more confusing than that of any other city I visited.
Just so you know, the Reichstag is usually open til 12midnight and I would have to say daily, because I am pretty sure we arrived in Berlin on a Sunday since this was Day 5 and our tour started on a Wednesday. However last entrance – which is free – is 10pm. We got to the Reichstag at about 9:30pm and were one of the last groups to get in (they usually allow 20 in ever 10min). More great views – once again make sure you know how to take good night shots!
Our TM left us at the Reichstag, but we were able to find our way back without much difficulty. Just needed to (a) remember which subway station to get off at and then (b) remember the name of the train line to take and of course © which station we got off at, which was pretty easy when you’re clever and take a photo of the station sign beforehand. A lot of stations will look a like in the dark – so ALWAYS remember to write down or take photo of the station, it makes things a lot easier.
The ride into and out of town did not take too long, but Berlin trains/subways do not run as often as Paris Metros or Amsterdam Trams. Of course it was a Sunday so that could have had something to do with it! So while it took 1h15 to get in and another 1h or so to get back, at least 1/2 that time was spent waiting. Some of us wanted to go to a bar/pub on the way back, but by the time we got to our stop it was already almost midnight and last call was already done at the closest pub (I know because we met some tourmates that had gone to the pub). So I checked some e-mail courtesy of the kind staff at the hostel and went to bed.
Day 5 Rating – 8.5 / 10
Day 6 – Berlin
Breakfast at 8am.
Meet at Front Door to leave at 8:45am for Walking Tour.
Meet at 5:45pm at Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church to go to Beer Hall & then Eye Spy Optional
German breakfasts are slightly less varied than those in Amsterdam or Paris. But still compared to the breakfasts to come in Croatia … (you’ll see soon enough)
Today was a coach-free day. According to EU law Coach drivers can only work so many hours per day, and so many days per week. So today, rather than getting a ride into town, we were taken by train/bus. However this meant that our transit was free for the day (ie paid for by Contiki). Actually it could have been free last night, but that was because there was no one at the stations checking tickets. Rather you buy your ticket from a machine. Cannot remember if it was multi-lingual, but I think so, and then you get it validated.
Of course if no one is around to check to see if you validated your ticket, or that you even had one, then you basically are riding for free. I think about half of us ended up riding for free the previous night. But today it was necessary to get tickets & validate them, because we would be taking a bus, and the driver will be checking your tickets.
Once again lots of waiting for trains/and especially the bus. I was used to this, because the transit system in Ottawa runs about as frequently, but I could tell others were annoyed. Heck I was a little annoyed because the more time we spent waiting, the less we had for actually siteseeing. Our TM had a Cell (not sure how you could survive without one when travelling) and let the Tour Guide that was doing the Historical Walking Tour know we were a little late. Finally the bus came, and after a 20min ride or so, we got to our destination.
Unfortunately I cannot recall the name of the park in which we met our tour guide, but it did have a statue of Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, so I think it was Marx-Engels-Forum. Anyways this is where we would have our next optional – Berlin Historical Walking Tour. In hindsight, I think I would have passed on this one, and rather done a SANDEMAN free walking tour. They both would have covered the same ground, but I have a feeling the tour guide for that company would have been more interesting.
Nothing against our tour guide. She knew her stuff. I was impressed with the information she shared. Rather, it just was presented too dryly. I have friends who work as tour guides for the Canadian Parliament, and I know that they make their stuff a lot more interesting than our tour guide could. However hindsight is 20/20 and I like history, and WW2 History at that, so I had signed up for this optional back when we had to choose our optionals.
That was on the bus going to Amsterdam. We did not have to pay for them all right away, and you did have the ability to add or drop optionals, with some prior notice. Every TM handles this differently from what I have heard, and I have no complaints how our TM handled it. I found her to be very flexible & understanding, and quite patient getting people to pay.
Anyways the point I am trying to make is that I found the tour to be educational and it really helped me to orientate myself for the rest of the day, but that it was not as interesting as I had hoped for, maybe I was spoiled by the “free” tour I’d taken in Amsterdam
The tour guide was smart though. She stopped about 1/2 through to let people take bathroom breaks and grab snacks/drinks. I took this opportunity to buy myself a souvenir t-shirt. I probably could have paid less elsewhere, but I had no qualms with the price, and I really liked the t-shirt I bought. Just before the break we went through the Holocaust Memorial (aka Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe). That was quite the experience. It is designed to disorientate you and it does that perfectly. You’ll understand when you see it.
Today was the coldest day on the Tour. I think it was also the only day where it rained. Weatherwise this tour was awesome. Pretty much every day, except today, would have great sunshine and reasonable warm to hot days (depending on where we were). It is too bad that today was the worst weatherwise as I think that coloured some peoples impressions of Berlin. The overcast skies really made Berlin seem like such a drab city in comparison to Paris or Amsterdam or London (which I had visited before the tour).
Everyone was pretty happy by the time the tour ended. 3 Hours was a long time to be listening to dry historical information. I almost fell asleep once :-O. After the tour, people went off and did their own thing. There was about 4 hours til dinner, at least for those who wanted to meet our TM at a beerhall.
My friend & I walked through Central Berlin until we found a nice cafe to have lunch. We had currywurst. Delicious and reasonably priced as well. I was pretty happy that my rough german was able to get me to converse with the waiter. After lunch it was off to the Pergamon Museum. This was not a must-see but I was really curious to see their collection, which consisted of original-sized, reconstructed monumental buildings such as the Pergamon Altar, the Market Gate of Miletus, and the Ishtar Gate, all consisting of parts transported from the original excavation sites.
It was pretty impressive, although the audioguide was a little difficult to work out at first. Audioguides had become my friend. Rather than having to follow a museum guide, you got an audioguide, which came in at least 3 different languages (English and some combination of French/German/Italian/Spanish depending on the country were typical) and gave in depth info on the museum, or historical site. Usually they were pretty easy to figure out, and you could skip to any portion you wanted. The ones in Berlin were not as easy as those in London though.
I wish I had more time in Berlin, as there was so many different things to see. I did not even get a chance to visit the Tiergarten. :-( Hopefully my next visit will have warm weather & sunshine!
After the museum we slowly made our way to a s-bahn station. That was another thing Berlin had that differed from Paris or Amsterdam. Paris & London had buses & metros/subways. Amsterdam had trams. Berlin had this hodgepodge of buses/subways and different trains, some of which were closed on different days. However in the end we got to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church to meet the TM for the short hike to Joes Beerhall.
I hope to go to Munich some day. The Beerhall we went to was nice, and they served beer in 1/2 litre and 1 litre jugs. They were massive! I think they were almost as big as Alis head (shortest person on the tour). The beerhall itself was pretty nice on the inside. On the outside not so much. I had pork knuckle. It was pretty good, although not as nice as that currywurst I had earlier. But the portions were pretty big, and I had the feeling this beerhall catered to a lot of tour groups, and my suspicion was correct because another contiki group came by shortly before we left.
I think that is the only weakness of Contiki Dinner Optionals/large group dinners. You had to eat in restaurants that were designed to handle groups of 20/30+ people. So the only people you were eating with were your tourmates. Not that there is anything wrong with that! Far from it! It was always good to eat as a group & see how everyone was doing.
However, the dinner I had in Amsterdam, and the lunch I had earlier that day were not only better quality wise, but also felt more “authentic”. It is hard to explain, but the restaurant & cafe were places where you could find average people who lived in that city. I doubt many people in Amsterdam go to the Sea Palace or Joes Beerhall, because they cater to groups, and tourist groups mainly.
Anyways the point here is that if you’re looking for authentic food & culture you are more likely to find it when you are in small groups during the day, rather than at the dinner optionals. Those are more for spending time with your tourmates & socializing. I think I struck a decent balance between both throughout the tour.
Nonetheless the beer was good, the food was good & plentiful and the company was good. I had a good group of tourmates. Very little in the way of drama usually happened. Although some of us did get on other peoples nerves occasionally but that will always happen when you’re in the same crowd for 3 straight weeks!
After the beerhall, those of us that had signed up for the Eye Spy optional left with our TM while the rest mostly went back to the hostel with our driver. We had to take a train and then a subway, and leaving the subway station our TM went in the wrong direction LOL.
Of all the optionals I attended (and I did most of them) this was the one that disappointed me the most. It was still a fun event, and I liked exploring Berlin at night, but I was disappointed by our guide. I suppose he was trying to not do what our walking tour guide had done, and overwhelm us with information, but I found him to be lacking nonetheless.
The highlight of the event was the visit to the Shisha bar. In case you are not aware of what that is – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hookah. I am not sure what a Shisha bar has to do the Stasi or anything Cold War related but it was fun nonetheless. We also had a little spygame where we had to follow clues to get to our next destination, which was a bar under a train tracks.
I was feeling worn out, and a little disappointed by the evening, so I left ‘early’ with a couple of others. Turns out those that stayed went on to a really cool club, but I needed to recharge my batteries. as I had not been asleep before midnight prior to leaving for Europe (and that includes the 3 days I spent in London before the Contiki tour).
Needless to say, the return trip became something of an adventure as well. First we walked to the closest train stop. However it was closed. So we turned around and went in the other direction, finally reaching a subway. Unfortunately this subway was on the wrong line, so we could only take it so far. Switched to a subway that would take us to the right line, then to the train on the right line. Unfortunately this train did not go the whole way though, so we had to wait again, and finally got a train that got us to the stop by our Hostel.
So in the end we were on 2 different subways & 2 different trains, and 5 different stations in total. In hindsight it was pretty funny, but at the time we were all tired and starting to snipe at each other. Berlins transit system was definitely the most confusing of any of the cities we visited. I believe we left the event around 10:30pm, but I am positive we did not get in until after 12:30am. So much for my getting to bed “early”.
Day 6 Rating* – 6.5 / 10
* – Had the weather been better, had the transit system been more reliable/less confusing, I am certain I would have rated this higher. Nonetheless it was still a good day – just not on par with most of the others. However the best was yet to come.
Amsterdam Canal Cruise – 6.5 on 10
I think I would have rated this higher had it been done on the day we got into Amsterdam. The Cruise was a nice way to see Amsterdam and get orientated, but it really cut into my plans that day (ie abbreviated Heineken Experience). Also, I think you could do this for the same price, or cheaper, outside of Contiki. I guess that is why they call it an optional LOL. Basically I do not think it is a must or should do. Rather I rate it as a could do. If you have nothing better planned, then do the Cruise. But if you want more time to shop/explore/whatever then do that instead. However, a lot of your tourmates will likely do this optional, so it is definitely good for socializing & being with the group after everyone going their own way during the day.
Sea Palace Restaurant – 0 on 10
Obviously since I did not go, I cannot really rate it. However pretty much everyone who went, said the Paris Dinner was much better. This is basically just a meal. No entertainment included and it does not really feel “Dutch”. Yes the Paris Dinner was 34e, but I would rather pay 34 for a great French meal than 31 for average Chinese food.
Berlin Historical Walking Tour – 6.0 on 10
Although dry & overwhelming at times, it was still educational. I think the tour guide tried her hardest, and was able to sense the mood of the group so knew went to take a break. She definitely planned the route well, and showed us a lot of intriguing sites, from the Nazi Propaganda Ministry, to Hitlers Bunker to Fredrerick the Greats Palace. We also saw the square where famous book burnings took place.
Eye Spy Optional – 5.5 on 10
This will be the lowest rated Optional, that I did. Like with the historical tour, the guide certainly gave a good effort, but left me with too little, unlike the walking tour where we got too much. The Shisha bar rocked though, even if we were the sole patrons (but who goes to a bar on a Monday night?). I hear the club was great as well, but that is for my tourmates to review. ;-)
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20 Mar 2010 ArrylT said
Hmmm ok I think I got this forums thing figured out – you get 24 hours to edit your post and then its ‘locked’. I was hoping to get 3 days in per post, but do not always have the time to do that, so we’ll see how it goes. Anyways on to Day 9 and a review of Day 8/9 Optionals.
8am – Breakfast
8:45am – Departure for Vienna
7pm – Departure for Prater (Optional)
By now, even if this is your first tour, you have hopefully learned to not unpack anything you really do not need, and to do some re-packing the night before departure, especially if you are going to go all out that night. I am sure some of my tourmates who had gone all out at the club last night were really feeling it this morning.
Btw I realize now that I was mistaken earlier. I said that the only day we had rain was in Berlin (which was just a brief drizzle). I remember now that we also had some rain in the Czech Republic. I cannot recall if it was raining when we left Prague. But it was definitely raining when we stopped for lunch in Brno. Brno is the 2nd largest city in the Czech Republic, but in the rain it just did not look very appealling. I am sure it has plenty of charm, and I know it has castles & churches to explore, however we only had 90min. My goal, was the same as everyone elses, get lunch, and spend/exchange the rest of your Czech Koruna. Honestly, I would not be surprised if that was the main reason we stopped in Brno.
Most of us ate at a fast food place. Not a McDonalds (or Maccas as Aussies call it) – the one and only time I ate McDonalds was in Dresden – but a Czech fast food type restaurant. It was run by some people from South East Asia. It was pretty funny. They did not speak any english, we certainly didnt speak any chinese/vietnamese/etc and none of us (including them) spoke much Czech. Considering there were about 20 of us who visited this restaurant, and considering the communication barrier, we still got served reasonably quickly. Most of us just pointed at the menu item we wanted (the menu being photos of the different foods). The food was edible and reasonably priced, and I believe that is all we had hoped for.
After that my friend & I grabbed an ice cream – yes I know it was raining on & off and pretty chilly – but we were in the mood for ice cream & it was reasonably priced for tourists. Then we meandered around the main square of Brno for a bit before heading back to where the bus was parked.
When we got to Vienna, our first stop was a Snapps Museum/Distillery. I believe only one person had decided not to do this optional, and even he changed his mind when it came time, probably because you had to get off the bus, and he would have just been idling in front of the museum for 60-75min. Since it was only 6 Euros to participate, may as well eh? If we had gone to the hostel first, I wonder if we still would have had the same turnout … but I do not blame our TM & Driver for doing it this way … traffic in Vienna was pretty busy, and it would take 25-30min to get to our hostel from the Museum, which was on the way from the direction we had come. So there was no point in going to the hostel, unloading those who did not want to participate, and then head back to the Museum.
Anyways the guy who ran the Museum was quite the funny character. He let his children run the day to day operations of the business, and just did the public relations aspect. We were always cracking up at his comments and his wordplay with some of our tourmates. He showed us how they made schnapps Austrian style, and then we got to sample the different types. They had at least a dozen different types of schnapps & assorted liqueurs.
I thought about buying a bottle, as the prices were reasonable, but I had plenty of alcohol at home, and I did not really want to be managing bottle(s) of alcohol the rest of the trip & then trying to get it on a flight home. Of course for a cost, they were willing to mail/ship it for you. Plenty of others bought bottles, so I did not feel I needed to. They had some cute shirts as well, but I decided to wait to see what other souvenirs Vienna had to offer.
Ok now most of you doing the European Spirit, or any other tour going through Vienna, likely will be doing the Viennese Dinner. Our tour did not do that optional. What happened is this:
A few days earlier, our TM was not a big fan of that optional, and downplayed it to us on the coach. Rather, because one of us (and the only person actually celebrating a birthday during the tour I believe) was having a birthday while we were in Vienna, she proposed to take us to Prater to celebrate his birthday. So everyone who had signed up for the Viennese Dinner booked off & got their $ from that optional back (if they had paid).
Prater is an amusement park in Vienna, similar to 6 Flags or Wonderland. There is no entrance fee to get into the park; instead, each attraction charges its own fee, the attractions being individual businesses mostly owned by local families. Pretty brilliant if you ask me. The park is open from 10am-1am daily. We got there around 8pm and had a little over 2 hours (meet at the bus for 10:15pm).
The park was a lot of fun for most of us, and would have been a lot of fun for my friend & I, except for one thing. We got on the wrong ride hahaha. By this I mean we got on a ride that was not what we were expecting, and after that neither of us were really the same for the rest of the time at the amusement park. I do not normally get motion sickness, but neither do I not get it. The ride we were on was going in at least 3 directions at the same time. The contraption was going around in a circle, while our specific seat was going in a circle in the opposite direction – which I can handle. However when you start adding 360% degree rotations as well – then that is a bit too much heh!
About 30 seconds after we got off, my friend puked her guts out. I felt like I could do the same heh. I never did puke, but neither of us did another ride that night. Rather we just walked around, inhaled gulps of fresh air when needed, and ate some greasy popcorn to try and settle our stomachs – which worked. I normally prefer roller coasters, and I wish that I had stuck to them instead, instead of trying new rides I was unfamiliar with. However I had promised myself before the trip to try as many new things as possible and I guess almost getting sick in Europe counts haha.
A couple of the girls on the tour ended up being late for the bus, one of the first occurances since we were made aware of the Embarassing questions aspect of being late. They were 4min late, so they each got asked 4 questions. I asked one of the questions, and made sure it was appropriately embarassing. :-D
I still was not feeling too well when I got back, so I went to lie down, and basically just fell asleep and did not wake up til the next morning, so I missed another good party. That sort of bummed me out, so I vowed to make sure not to miss any other opportunities, and for the most part I am pretty happy to say that I kept my word.
Day 9 Rating – 8.0 / 10
Take away the rain & the nausea and this day becomes at least a 9 hehe.
Btw I will explain my rating scale at the end of the trip review. I know I’ve given scores from 5 to 9.5. I know the 5 probably looks back, but I’ll explain later why it is not as bad as it seems.
Prague River Cruise Optional – 9.0 / 10
Awesome. Great variety of food. The cruise boat had 2 levels, one enclosed & a top deck, so you could choose depending on the weather. Fun & friendly tour guide and some great views & sights. I would do this cruise every time I am in Prague.
Vienna Old Schnapps Museum – 8.0 / 10
Lots of fun. The guy was definitely good at his job and knew how to work the audience. Never boring and you got to try schnapps! I think they were a little stingy on the number of shots they put out, as there were a couple I wanted to try, but didnt get to because of the limited supply.
Wurstelprater Amusement Park – 8.0 / 10
This would have been a 10 had I not gotten nauseated. Great atmosphere. Plenty of choice. Rides were a little pricey (between 2-4 euros per ride) but I figure that the average day pass to an amusement park here in Canada comes to around $50, so if you are only going to an amusement park for a few hours, the per-ride price program makes more sense than a daily pass.
Viennese Dinner – Unable to review due to no one doing this optional
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5 Apr 2010 *Alicia* said
Sounds like you had heaps of fun. cant wait to read the rest
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10 Apr 2010 ArrylT said
Hey – yes it was a blast! Had a lot of fun. I haven’t forgotten to finish this – just unfortunately injured my hand so I am waiting for it to finish healing before I continue on …
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21 Nov 2010 Micca said
Thanks for the review. I’m going on this next year and am getting excited for it!
Do you have any further info about the rest of the tour. I’m wondering about the whole Croatia part of the tour. Just wondering if I should do this or go on a different tour that goes through Munich and Monaco instead.
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10 Jan 2011 Daniel_2011 said
Hey Micca, what date are you doing European Spirit this year? Ive just booked in for the one on 5th June, hanging out for it!!
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14 Jan 2011 Micca said
At the moment I’m booked to go on June 29th but am probably going to put it back to the 6th July. I’m looking at doing the eastern Med cruising straight after as well.
I’m going on my own at this stage but am seriously looking forward to it!
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17 Jan 2011 Daniel_2011 said
absolutely, looks to be an awesome tour! Sounds like your making the most of things going on the eastern Med cruising afterwards as well, nice work!!
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19 Oct 2011 IngridandDavid said
Thanks heaps for your posts! I’m doing a 21 day European Vista tour.
Do you recommend booking Museum passes online before the trip?
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