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European Contrasts - My summer of a lifetime!

11 Jun 2011 LittleMissKate said

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European Contrasts June 2009 - My Summer of a Lifetime!
Tour Manager Scott & Driver Dave 
So its coming up to the two year anniversary since I left on my Contiki adventure, and I have finally got around to doing up my travelogue  The info below is taken from my travel journal, which I managed to keep up throughout my trip, usually catching up on entries during our time on the bus. I have transferred it unedited (and in first person – sorry if that gets annoying...) to give anyone reading a real idea of how I felt during the tour. Anyways, hope you enjoy both this journal and your upcoming trip – it really is an amazing trip of a lifetime!!

Day 1 – Brisbane to London
Well the day has finally arrived for my big adventure to begin! After looking forward to it for so long, it felt surreal and didn’t hit me until I was walking alone down to the departure zone at the airport that it was really happening – this is it! I have to admit I was a little nervous, which was not helped by the fact that I was the last one onto the plane (oops!), but once we were in the air I started to get excited – especially once we left Australian airspace  Coincidentally, I was seated next to 2 fellow Contiki-ers, Kelly & Lindsay, although they were doing Euro Discovery tour, not Contrasts. I flew Royal Brunei, and the food and in-flight facilities were great, the service outstanding! The only weird part was them spraying the cabin full of some aerosol stuff and the health department boarding to check us for swine flu with infra-red cameras... But now we are heading onwards to London!

Day 2 – London
And so I have arrived in London town! It was the best feeling to get off that plane after almost 30 hours of transit! So I decided to be brave, and grabbed my bags and headed to the Underground (Tube) to make my way into the city to my hotel. It was very easy to use, and cheap too, only 4 pounds – but very loud compared to QLD trains. I loved seeing all of the picturesque townhouses out of the window along the way. Once I got to Russell Square station, I found the Royal National so easily, excellent! I also had already seen an iconic black cab and red double decker bus – woo!! Haha. My plan for today is to dump my stuff at Contiki basement (My flight got in at 6am, cant check in til 2pm), but the Basement didn’t open til 9am, so I lugged my stuff to a little cafe around the corner and enjoyed a full English breakfast – YUM!! After more than 24 hours of airline food, eating something cooked fresh tasted like heaven  That should keep me going for the day...
I walked my ass off today! I spent the whole day wondering around exploring London on foot, an saw Covent Garden, West End, walked The Strand (made me feel like I was in a real life version of Monopoly). I went to the British Museum too, which was amazing – the size and quality of what they have there is pretty incredible. I did get lost a few times during the day (the street signage there is terrible) but I made the most of it, taking in the gorgeous city. I really love how they have kept all the old buildings so well preserved, you almost feel like you have stepped back in time in some places. The parks scattered around the place are great for a rest sop too – I reckon I could live in this city, if it weren’t for the weather...
So tonight was Shakespeare at the Globe Theatre – yay! I was brave again and caught the Tube, which meant changing lines too, and after getting lost after hopping of at London Bridge station, I eventually found signs pointing to the Globe. It is located along the riverfront, with a line of cafes and restaurants along the boardwalk. I saw As You Like It, and had a yard ticket (like the peasants had back in the day, hehe) which I was glad I purchased online in advance as the show was sold out – and it was FANTASTIC! I am also glad I got there early and scored a spot leaning up against the stage – for 5 pounds, I have the best view in the house I think! The actor were amazing and really bought the old language to life, I loved every minute of it  (and the guy playing Oliver was very cute...) The only disappointing part was just over halfway through when my 30 hours travel with very little sleep caught up to me, and I had an attack of the micro sleeps. ARGH! So I called a cab from the foyer and went back to the hotel to bed. Everyone who visits London should go and see a play at the Globe!

Day 3 – London
After a good nights sleep, I was ready to do the true tourist thing today. I started early by catching the Tube to St Paul’s Cathedral. The place is pretty amazing – the intricate designs on the roof seem to exude their own light, and all of the historical monuments almost seem out of place in a church, but then I guess they are placed there as a form of highest tribute rather than for religious worship. Since I was there so early, when I went down to the crypt I was down there all by myself – very silent and eerie, but a once-off experience! From there I caught the Tube to Picadilly Circus and had a look around, before meeting up with the walking tour for the changing of the guard ceremony (Part of the Hop on, Hop Off bus ticket deal). This tour showed us the ‘behind the scenes’version, where the new guards present for inspection at St James Palace, then march to the barracks, then on to Buckingham Palace. We got to follow them as they marched, and the tour guise was great with the commentary.
From there I jumped on the red Hop on/Hop Off bus and zoomed down to Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. I didn’t go into any of them, but was struck by how detailed all the buildings are – so much care and attention into every little part makes them almost works of art in themselves, and today’s architecture seems so bland and sterile in comparison. I arrived just on midday, in time to hear Big Ben chime, which was great  I then grabbed some lunch and sat by the pier to eat while waiting for my city cruise boat to arrive (another Hop on/Hop off freebie). The cruise down the Thames was beautiful, and the weather was so good that I actually got sunburnt while sitting on the deck, but it was lovely. I got off the cruise at the Tower of London and spent some time wandering around there. I saw the torture tower, Crown Jewels and the castle battlements, including the old Traitors Gate. Once again, I was amazed how old it is – we have nothing that compares in Australia, and the sense of real history was fantastic.
To finish the day off, I walked across the Tower Bridge, which gives you a great view of both London City & West End down the river. From there I walked over to the London Dungeon, a sort of novelty theme park/scare show based loosely on the true underworld history of London. They had shows and displays about the Great Fire of London, the plague, Jack the Ripper, the old Newgate Gaol and justice system. They also had a few ‘rides’ simulating a barge going through Traitors Gate and ‘The Last Drop’ hanging. It was a little cheesy, but good fun and full of interesting info. A nice way to round out my tourist day  Now bring on Contiki!!!

Day 4 – London to Paris
Woo hoo – today is Contiki day! I was a little nervous but very excited to be starting my tour at last. I was up at 4:30am to do my last minute packing and to try to find some breakfast (thank God for Tescos!!) before our 6am check in and departure. I made it downstairs and held my breath as they weighed my bag... it had to be under 20kg, and mine was 19.9!! Then it was time to wait for our coach to arrive, and time to make some new friends  A few of us solo female travellers quickly linked up and formed a little group – there was me, Sam, Jess, Steph, Laura and Marie. It was great to find some like minded girls to share the journey with, and I began to relax. So, off we went in our big white coach with our fearless leaders Scott (tour manager) and Dave (driver) to Dover and our trip across the English Channel to Calais, France!
While we were waiting to board the ferry, we were parked next to the Kings of Leon road crew, and ACDC’s tour bus was disembarking our ferry after their show in Amsterdam – cool! So we left behind the white cliffs of Dover and entered France  As we drove out of the ferry terminal, Scott played the French national anthem which was great (although I did find myself singing the Brisbane Lions team song in my head, hehe).Driving through the French countryside to Paris was beautiful, and inspired romantic ideas of living here... Scott’s commentary along the way on the history of the area really complimented the scenery and allowed us to appreciate how the country has developed, both politically and historically.
We also drove through a cute little new housing estate en route to our hotel, where even new built houses are done in the traditional styling. Ands going the ’wrong way’ around a roundabout was a bit of a spin out! After a quick pit stop at our hotel, it was into Paris for an overview tour of the sights that we could explore tomorrow. My impression of Paris in three words is huge, proud and beautiful. I can’t wait to get on the ground and see and experience it for myself! It has been a huge day, but being in a country that speaks another language makes me feel like my journey has really begun – viva la France 

Day 5 – Paris
So after seeing the sights from teh bus yesterday, today it was our chance to experience them! First stop was the Eiffel Tower, where myself and a few of the girls bravely decided to climb the stairs to the second level and then elevator to the top. 700 stairs later, we made it! It was exhausting, but so worth it – the views from the top were just spectacular! Next we found a spot on the grass in front of the tower to have some lunch, before navigating our way towards the Arc de Triomphe (thank God Steph can speak French!) Man, the French are crazy drivers – the 12 onramp roundabout there is insane, and I have vowed never to drive in Paris! The Arc was huge – Napoleon sure didn’t do things by halves. We decided to finish our day with a stroll down the Champs de Elyesse, which was a great experience. The wealth there is a little intimidating, but you can help but stare  By the time we made our way to Plaza de Concorde to meet our group, it was time to get ready for our optional French dinner.
Due to impossible traffic earlier, we had to get changed on the bus, which was a challenge but a hilarious memory! Then we made our way to our little traditional French restaurant in Montmarte- the cobbled village streets and quaint shops here are so charming, I wish I had more time to stroll through here. Of course since we were in France, I had to try the snails as my entree... they weren’t too bad, so long as you didn’t think about what it was you were eating! The local wine here is AMAZING!!! The wait staff at the restaurant were fantastic, and made jokes as they served. I had duck a’la Orange for my main, and it was delicious! And since the French adore their cheese and have it with every meal, we too were served a yummy wedge of brie and fresh bread for the next course, which taken with the local wine meant my tastebuds were in heaven 
So, rosy cheeked after a LOT of wine and a great meal, we all headed off to La Nouvelle Eve for the cabaret show. I didn’t really know what to expect, but it was great!! The dancers were amazing, and they also had acrobats, jugglers and a statue artist during the show – entertaining and good fun! Plus the bus ride home, fuelled by the wine from dinner and champagne with the cabaret, was a great bonding experience for our group with us spontaneously roaring into karaoke songs and giving a fabulous rendition of the Australian national anthem  I feel like today has given me a real taste of Paris – I will be back!

Day 6 – Paris to Beaujolais
This morning with a heavy heart (and sore head!), we left Paris to make our way to the French countryside and the wine-making region of Beaujolais. It was mostly a travel day, with a lot of time spent on the bus, but that gave us a chance to recover from the big night the night before. We also heard that morning that Michael Jackson had died, so the bus music today were all MJ classics in tribute. Our group also decided to skip the 80’s/beach theme for tonight’s party in favour of a black and white theme in remembrance of the King of Pop. Finally, we arrived at Chateau de Cruix, our home for the next few days. Very cool place, a real 18th century chateau in gorgeous surroundings.
After unpacking, it was time for our local wine demonstration & tasting. The wine here is made by a family living near the Chateau who use traditional methods. It was the best red wine I have ever tasted!! I bought a few bottles to bring back to Australia and share with family and friends, so they could experience the different flavour of French provincial wine. We then enjoyed a 3 course dinner, and I was a designated ‘dishie’ for our stay here, which turned out to be both easy and fun – the kitchen staff there were great  Tonight was also party night at The Cave, a cellar nightclub beneath the Chateau. It was an amazing night, relaxing and dancing with the girls and everyone mixing and getting closer. A fun night which left good vibes for the rest of the tour!

Day 7 – Beaujolais
After a big night partying at the Cave, I woke up with a killer sore throat, which turned into the dreaded ‘Contiki cough’ by the end of the day. I knew I would inevitably get sick on tour, but was disappointed it happened so early  But I was in Europe and determined not to spend the day in bed, so I took some of my cold and flu meds I had brought with me, and powered on! So in that spirit we took our picnic basket and set out on the Top of the World walk to a hill behind the Chateau. Actually, HIKE is a more accurate description, as we had to go up some seriously steep and rocky paths with only our hand drawn maps and hangover-influenced navigation skills ot guide us – it was a tough walk! But we made it to a nice spot – not sure if it was THE spot, but by this stage we were ready to sit and eat.
So we sat on Top of the World and enjoyed our picnic lunch of fresh baguettes, tomato, ham and French cheese, with fruit and a Mars bar to finish off. The sky started to turn grey then, so we headed back and made it just before it rained. I then took advantage of a few spare hours to grab a much needed nap, and spent ½ an hour on the net updating friends and family. It was nice to read messages from home and see who was following my travels  Since I was still feeling sick, I had an early night before our journey tot eh French Riviera the next day.

Day 8 – Beaujolais to French Riviera
I woke up this morning feeling worse, and reluctantly started on the antibiotics that I was now so glad I had brought. Today was another big travel day, so to break it up Scott had us act out some scene from French history, the Revolution and the storming of the Bastille. It was great fun – George made a great King and Bobby a good finance minister, with our group up the back playing the angry mob  Our lunch stop today was the charming town of Avignon, home of the Castle of the Popes during the religious schism that saw up to 3 popes claiming to be head of the Church. It is the largest Gothic palace in the world, and you get an idea of the wealth and power of the Church back then. I had my first European Maccas here as well (and I ordered in French!), but it was VERY expensive at $6.20 euros (about $11 Australian) for a small meal. Then it was on to our cabins at Antibes.
That night we all got dressed in our best and went to the principality of Monaco and the Grand Casino in Monte Carlo! The casino here is amazing!! It gives you some idea of the money that goes through there when you learn that people in Monaco pay no taxes, as the Casino profits cover everything... Inside the casino is extravagant and very traditional, nothing like our casinos back home. For this reason it was fairly intimidating to play the table games, but after a Cosmo or two to settle the nerves, I played some roulette – I didn’t win, but felt pretty privileged playing  I also played the pokies, but no luck there either. After this, we headed back to camp and I got an early night to try to feel better before our day in Nice the next day.

Day 9 – French Riviera
I woke up still sick, but after a cocktail of meds felt up to a day trip to Nice. We got the train in (and they have double decker trains here!) and my first stop was the pharmacy where I used my best French (Parlez vou Englais?) to get some more medicine and felt much better. We took a leisurely 3 hours to walk down the main street, shopping our way towards the waterfront. I bought a couple of nice dresses, and a fresh baguette for lunch. Next we headed down to experience our first European beach, and I have to say I am not a fan... The beachfront looks beautiful, but the stones do not make for comfy sunbaking or easy swimming, but hey at least I tried it! And they do have a square of sand for tourists to enjoy if the rocks are not for you  After our swim, we wandered through the Old Town of Nice and checked out the antique market, where I got a few unique trinkets. The perfect weather then started to turn, so we headed back to the train station and home.
That night we decided to head to the camp bar after dinner. It started out with intentions to be a quiet night with just a few drinks, but all that changed when Kim shouted the bar Froggy shots!! Then everyone got the taste for the drink, and we lined up for Jagerbombs – 19 in all – and the Contiki bar reps did an awesome job to line all 19 up and do a perfect domino line of the shots into the glasses – AWESOME  This was a new bar record, so they cheered with the rest of us when it worked. The night grew from there, and turned out to be a great group bonding night – we even initiated our young tour mate Sierra into the world of shots and Jagerbombs, hehe! I crashed out around midnight still feeling flu-ish, but what a great night!!

Day 10 – French Riviera to Florence
Today we say goodbye to beautiful France and start heading for Italy! Before we leave, we visit a French perfumery which was pretty interesting. The amount of effort that goes into making true perfume is incredible – something like 3 tonnes of rose petals to make 1 litre of oil! No wonder it is so expensive... From there we have a long day on the bus as we make our way to Florence. I was still sick so it was a tough day, but I did feel better after trying my first slice of REAL Italian pizza  The pizza here is nothing like back home – it has a super thin freshly made base, amazing fresh tomato sauce and loads of melted dripping cheese, and the slices are HUGE!! Bellisimo!!
Our next stop was in Pisa to see the famous Leaning Tower. Scott had warned us about the African hawkers here, but it was still shocking to see how quickly they pounced on the group trying to seel things to us. Pisa is not a very clean place and didn’t feel particularly safe, so it was good that we were only there to see the tower and go. The tower was pretty cool though – I go the cliché tourist pic pushing it over of course. I also bought a couple of souvenir Duff beers here from a street vendor (yes, they sell beer on the street here, woo!). Then it was on to our accommodation, which was actually pretty good, to prepare for a good day/night to come.

Day 11 – Florence
Today we have a free day in Florence to explore the Renaissance city. It started off with a guided walking tour with an excellent local guide who told us all about the history, politics and amazing artwork around the city. Florence is like an open air museum, there are so many amazing sculptures around the streets. After the tour, we spent the day wandering the streets of Florence. It was HOT, so we decided to get some gelato – and it tasted AMAZING!! So smooth and with a ton of flavour, everyone was instantly addicted :o)
To be honest I was a little underwhelmed with Florence compared to what I had seen so far, but it is probably unfair to compare. That night everyone got glammed up for our group photo and traditional dinner. The dinner was at a small Italian restaurant, and there was so much food! For starters, there was fresh bread with meat and bruschetta, then we were served 3 types of pasta (ravioli, pesto and spaghetti), then came salad with crispy potatoes and marinated chicken and lamb, and finally tiramisu for dessert!! Plus, there was free flowing Chianti wine to accompany the spread, and it was a fantastic meal – one of the best yet!
After dinner, it was onto the Space Electronic Discotechque to dance the night away European style! It was fun – we tried shots of the local liqueur Limoncello and danced on the mezzanine podiums til our feet hurt :P We ended up getting a taxi back to the campsite, what a fantastic night!!

Day 12 – Florence to Rome
All roads lead to Rome, and today ours did too! With the whole group struggling a little after last night’s effort, the bus ride was a quiet one. But when the bus entered the eternal city and Scott played a scene from Gladiator over the speakers, everyone pepped up and got excited :o) We met up with another local guide who took us through the Forum and the Colosseum. The Roman Forum is an amazing place – you can actually see and touch the layers of history there. People were even sitting on actual ruins! It was fascinating to have the history feel so tangible – I could easily have spent a whole day there. There are icons standing from B.C. times – just unreal :o)
Next it was onto the Flavian Amphitheatre (aka the Colosseum)… Walking inside the walls of this place was awe-inspiring to say the least – it is HUGE!! It used to seat 70,000 and has over 80 entry/exit points, and the lower stage could even be flooded to stage water events! Such incredible construction for so long ago, and so much of it is still standing. It was built in an old lake in Emperor Nero’s castle, which was drained when he died and the Colosseum was built as a way to give the land back to the people. It would have been an amazing atmosphere on event days in its time for sure!
After this, we were off to visit the Trevi Fountain. It was beautiful, and much larger and more elaborate than I had imagined. I threw in my three coins (1 to find love, 1 for happiness, and 1 to return to Rome), so fingers crossed my wishes are granted, haha! Next we made our way to Piazza Navona for a walkabout dinner. We got caught in a sudden hailstorm on the way and had to shelter in some stranger’s hallway :P After the rain passed, we dashed past the Pantheon and found a cute local restaurant for dinner. I had a strong, hot Italian coffee (yum!), an excellent gnocchi and a tiramisu you could dream about! I LOVE Italy for its food!!!! With full bellies and big smiles, it was then back to the campsite to rest up for our next full day in the eternal city.

Day 13 – Rome
Everyone was excited to head into Vatican City today. We caught the train into the Vatican, and entered the world’s smallest country without too much hassle. The Vatican Museum has so many amazing artifacts, but like everyone else we made a beeline for the Sistine Chapel. Wow, wow, wow!! Michelangelo is truly a master!! The walls and ceiling came to life, it was so beautiful. From here we went in search of St Peter’s Basilica. There was a big line here, but it moved quickly, and being prepared with our ‘church dress’, we got straight in.
The basilica is absolutely massive! It dwarfs the second largest church (St Paul’s) by a long way. Everything is crafted in marble and edged in gold – it gives you an idea of the wealth of the church. The domes and artwork are incredible, you could spend a whole day wandering around here. Even though I don’t consider myself a religious person, this place has a very special feel to it. Here we also saw another of Michelangelo’s masterpieces, the Pieta. The amount of detail carved into eh stone is unbelievable!! You can almost feel the pain of Mary holding the body of her dead son – photos don’t do it justice, but I took some anyway :P
After St Peter’s, it was time to head back into Rome and grab some lunch. We discovered a little place that had pizza and wine for 7 Euros, and it was delicious! Then we wandered the streets, and strolled up an avenue boasting all the big designer labels :o) We eventually made our way to the church of the Capuchin monks. These monks were charged with protecting the bodies and bones of the dead, and their church is elaborately decorated using the bones of 4000 bodies. The patterns look elegant, until you realize what it is made out of…. Creepy!
From here we walked to the Spanish Steps to meet up with the group. It was an early night all round to prepare for our 5:45am departure the next day to see Pompeii and catch our ferry to Corfu – yay :o) I really loved Rome – it felt like this was a city that had everything: history, fashion, amazing food and wine, and great people. I hope my Trevi wish comes true and I can return someday…

Day 14 – Rome to Corfu
Today marks 2 weeks of travelling for me, which seems to have gone by in a flash! So, with a super early start, we begin our trip into the heel of the boot of Italy – the Amalfi Coast. After a long morning of driving, we arrived at the ancient city of Pompeii, est 79AD. The ruins here are amazingly well preserved, and the ‘technology’ for their time was surprising. The streets had chips of white marble to reflect the moonlight at night, and there were stepping stones to avoid the sewerage in the streets – they even had lead pipes ot carry water, amazing!
After Pompeii, it was onto the ferry and off to Corfu! It wasa massive ferry, almost crise ship size, and being a Greek ship, it was here we got our first experience of Greek toilet practices… because the plumbing there is so old and narrow, you can’t flush toilet paper, you have to put it in a bin beside the loo! Ewwww, gross! Tonight we had dinner on the ship and a few quiet drinks on deck watching the sun set over the ocean as the coast of Italy disappeared behind us – I was feeling more relaxed already! Everyone was really looking forward to some downtime in Corfu – a holiday within our holiday :o)

Day 15 – Corfu
I woke up refreshed after a great sleep on the ferry. After we landed in Corfu, it was straight off to George’s Boat – yay! I had really been looking forward to this optional, and I was definitely NOT disappointed!! The water here is the most amazing colour blue, and right on the shore it is so clear it is almost colourless – just beautiful :o) So basically George is a dirty old man (in a fun way though, not a creepy way!) whose boat apparently used to be used for orgies, but now he does cruises for Contiki instead :P We cruised around the beautiful shores of Corfu, stopping off for water sports and swimming in the ocean.
Sam and I did parasailing here – we were the first ones up so it was a bit daunting but what a rush! Parasailing over the Greek islands is an experience I will never forget!! One of the spots we stopped was nicknamed ‘Skinny Dippy Island’ , so in this spirit myself and a group of brave girls swam topless, which actually felt great :P And the boys were all gentlemen about it, and a few of them even nuded up too! It was an amazing day of relaxing, swimming, eating, drinking, singing, dancing and tanning – and George was a real character. A definite highlight of the trip! Everyone was sad when it had to end, but what s fantastic day! Oupa!!

Day 16 – Corfu
Today was a quieter day, but just as relaxing. We went into Corfu town and wandered around the shops for the day. I bought a carry-on bag, a nice glass bracelet and a shot glass for my growing collection. It is a charming little town, and a really nice day just spent chilling out. We finished it off with a few drinks at the poolside bar, before getting ready and heading out for our Greek dinner and dancing!
A shot of ouzo on arrival at the restaurant put everyone in a cheery mood, and the Greek wine and cocktail specials made sure the night only got better :o) The food was fresh and delicious, and there was sooooo much! Apparently the name of the restaurant, Gloupos, means greedy in Greek, so I can see it lives up to its name! The dancers were amazing, especially the Zorba dance, and it was great that they got us all up and involved – so fun! George celebrated his birthday in style that night, and he and I playe the potato game and did pretty well. After dinner, it was time to turn in and save my liver for the toga party the next night.

Day 17 – Corfu
With so much free time here, I decided it was a perfect time to call home. I spoke to my Mum and sister, and it was great to hear their familiar voices and catch up on the news from home. After a lazy start to the day, we decided to explore the tiny Mouse Island – it was very pretty. We had also planned to go to the sandy resort beach, but on the bus there I began to feel sick so I got off at the hotel and spent the day in the shade rehydrating before the toga party. I did have lunch at the little café near the hotel, which was amazing! Eating a fresh mouthwatering gyros while the crystal clear waves roll into the deck right at your feet is yet another memory I will always keep :o)
The toga party was so much fun!!! The Contiki site reps showed us how to tie our togas out of bedsheets, and everyone really got into the spirit of it. Our group partied longer and harder than the other two groups there, and there were definitely a few sore heads in the morning – but it was worth it :o)

Day 18 – Corfu to Venice
Today we had an excellent turn of luck, and instead of being booked on an early morning 24 hour ferry, we now were on a 12 hour fast ferry leaving in the afternoon. So we got to spend an extra morning chilling out by the pool with a drink or two, relaxing. This really was a holiday within a holiday, and really recharged everyone’s batteries for the second half of our tour.
Our ferry arrived late – they were working on ‘Greek time’, meaning they were VERY relaxed about timing. But this boat was so much nicer than the last ferry – new, fancy and huge with more of a cruise ship feel to it. I again slept really well on the boat, and the food was pretty good aswell. Perhaps a cruise holiday might be on my next holiday agenda…

Day 19 – Arrive Venice
After stopping by the Greek mainland, our ferry arrived in Arcona and we began to make our way towards the floating city of Venice :o) Along the way we made a quick stop in Verona to see ‘Juliet’s balcony’, which inspired the balcony scene in Romeo & Juliet. It is a gorgeous town Verona, although we had to rush in and out as a heavy storm had erupted. So we had to almost run through the streets to the little alley that leads to the balcony. When we got there, I rubber Juliet’s left breast for luck as per the local custom, and even managed a quick photo before a rude security lady shooed everyone away. Then it was back to the bus to continue on to Venice. I really wish we had more time to explore Verona – it looks like a great shopping, eating and leisure town.
So being a rainy day and us being lucky enough to have scored one of only 2 Contiki busses in the whole fleet with TV’s, we watched a movie until we arrived in Venice. We got in very late, and had dinner around 10pm. There was some drama during the night with a few people having a few too many Attitude Adjuster cocktails, but I got an early night to prepare to make the most of Venice the next day.

Day 20 – Venice
I was soooo excited this morning, ready to explore Venice. Scott described Venice by saying that it looks like the sound of classical music, and it was true! The city has a magical charm about it that you can’t help but fall in love with. Our group had decided to have a mask party in the spirit of Carnival (which began in Venice) where in the week before Lent each year, the people would dress in masks and indulge anonymously in all the things they were about to forsake for Lent.
So we spent the morning looking for masks – it was amazing how elaborate some of them were! After lunch, it was time for our gondola ride. Gliding through the canals surrounded by new friends with a glass of bubbly in hand was definitely one of the highlights of the tour :o) We spent the afternoon exploring the markets and the beautiful glass stores around St Marks Square, before finally catching the water taxi back to the campsite. It was sad to leave, but I know I will be back to visit Venice one day.
The plan for tonight had been to have a few drinks in our cabin, then head to the bar for an Attitude Adjuster or two. But after last nights fiasco, they were no longer serving those, and instead were serving a Long Island Iced Tea topped up with champagne instead of coke – lethal!! Laura and I hit the bar in our PJ’s and got stuck into some cocktails the barman invented for us, and danced the night away. It was a great night, but was spoilt a little by the bar brawl at the end started by some guys from another tour group. Venice truly did have it all, hehe :P

Day 21 – Venice to Vienna
Today it was time to say ciao to Italia, and head across the alps into Austria. The scenery on the drive was just amazing! Everything is so green, with real stereotypical little alpine houses dotting the hillside. At our first rest stop I savoured the crisp clean air and ate what felt like the first fresh healthy-ish food in weeks! As the bus continued on, we were even inspired to sing some songs from The Sound of Music :P
After unloading at our hostel, it was back to the city for a quick bus tour, then we went for dinner at the Aussie pub – I was so excited about the mashed potato I had, yum! I regretted not going to the Concert optional though, and those who went said it was fantastic! When I go back to Vienna some day, I will have to make up for missing out. After the antics of Venice, everyone was pretty exhausted and so decided on an early and alcohol-free night.
Day 22 – Vienna
We had a free day to explore the city of Vienna. The heart of Osterreich (what the people of Austria call their country, meaning eastern empire), Vienna is home to classical music, amazing buildings and gardens for the people to enjoy. Our walking tour took us to Hapsburg Palace, the largest palace in the world and quite ornate. We then went to the Johan Strauss park to wander the gardens and see the famous statue of the composer.
Next stop was Hotel Sacher to try some Vienese coffee and the famous Sacher Torte chocolate cake. It was different to what I expected, but very delicious!! The story goes that the recipe was created by a kitchen hand years ago who had to make desert for the Royal family when the other chefs were off sick – the Royals loved it so much that the cake became famous and made the kitchen hand Sacher very wealthy, and he then began the hotel which now bears his name.
After our cake stop, Laura, Steph and I took a horse and buggy city tour, which was quite bumpy on the cobblestone side streets but a really great way to see the city and our driver was really knowledgeable about the sights. Being a Sunday, most of the shops were closed, so we decided to visit the Natural History Museum, which was actually pretty cool. They have some incredible displays, and it is housed in a beautiful old building.
Next went to visit the Mozart statue, and on the way back to the bus Marie and I bought a weiner from a street stall – it was THE BEST FOOD I HAVE EVER TASTED!!! I seriously want to go back one day just for another one of those wieners, it was that good :o) Back on the bus and it was off to the Schnapps museum – woo! The guy who did the demonstration was hilarious, and we got to try all different kinds of schnapps. I spent up big, taking home some gold flakes schnapps, Vienna Blood (made from chillies) and some real Absynth.
After this, we still had some time to kill before our dinner, so we visited the summer palace of the Hapsburgs and lounged in the sunny, expansive gardens for an hour or so. From here it was on to the Vienese dinner ‘in the woods’ – and in the woods was no exaggeration! Dave had to drive the bus off road and up a winding path to reach our restaurant. But it turned out to be a good thing it was secluded, as our host Herman the German not only served up a great schnitzel dinner, but also got us drinking schnapps, and getting up singing and playing games.
The highlight was the whole group, slightly drunk, arm in arm singing our day song! We continued our party on the bus ride home, dancing and singing in the aisles and on the chairs (poor Dave!) and kicked on well into the morning in the hostel bar drinking cocktails, playing pool and chatting up cute backpackers :o)

Day 23 – Vienna to Prague
I woke up this morning after VERY little sleep, feeling seedy :P The bus trip this morning was definitely a struggle… Scott had decided that as our group seemed to have a genuine interest in sites of cultural significance, we would detour via a concentration camp this morning. We visited Mathausen Concentration Camp, which was the last Nazi camp to be liberated on 5 May 1945. It is hard to describe the feeling you get walking around a place like this, like you are witnessing the most evil, disgusting and saddest moments of the human race.
Walking into the shower rooms, crematorium, gas chamber and execution rooms brought tears to my eyes, imagining the fear and confusion of those forced to live and die here. The documentary we watched made my already fragile stomach turn, hearing stories of the Death Stairs, inhuman games instigated by the guards and seeing the dead emaciated bodies with vacant eyes made me almost ashamed to be human if this is what we can do to one another. A truly gut wrenching experience, but I am glad I have seen it if only to appreciate how lucky I am.
So after our emotional morning, we crossed the border into the Czech Republic, stopping at the charming little town of Cesky Krumlov. This town had great food and a really fun and friendly vibe, I liked it here :o) This quaint town lifted our spirits, but after a big day on the bus and nursing hangovers it was a quiet night in the hostel tonight.

Day 24 – Prague
This morning we took the tram into town and did a walking tour of the city. We saw the world’s biggest castle complex and walked over the famous Charles Bridge. The bridge used to be the only link over the river for all traffic heading west into Europe. At lunchtime we did a canal cruise through the ‘city of bridges’ – Prague has so many of them! The local food on board was excellent, and Dave got us to try the local drink of red wine with coke – not bad :o) Next we went off to check out the Sex Museum, complete with 1920’s Spanish silent porn which was hilarious!!
We then gathered at Old Town Hall to watch the Astronomical Clock strike the hour, before heading off on our bicycle tour of Prague. The tour was fun, but crazy!! The guide was way ahead and trying to keep up while not being run over by traffic was scary, but finally we made it to a nice beer garden at the top of a huge hill for a drink and a meal. I was feeling pretty run down after a few crazy nights, so grabbed an early night to be ready to shop til I drop the next day.

Day 25 – Prague
We had been really lucky with the weather so ar on this trip, but this morning our luck ran out as we woke up to a thunderstorm. But after indulging in a lazy morning, we decided not to waste the day and caught the tram into the city for some shopping! Lucky we did, as just after we got into town it fined up into a perfect day :o) So we spent the day leisurely strolling the shops, and I bought some really nice clothes here. I also called home (interrupting the 3rd state of origin game – ops!) and spoke to Mum and Dad which was great.
After getting our fix of retail therapy, we headed back to the hostel to get ready to hit a local nightclub tonight for Tegan’s birthday – lucky I had bought a new dress! The club (Mecca) was not far from our hostel, and had a cool vibe. We danced the night away but didn’t get too drunk as the drinks were pretty expensive and the bar staff were kinda rude. I enjoyed Prague, but thought it didn’t really live up to the hype about the architecture or night life… although the shopping is good :o)

Day 26 – Prague to Munich
Today we left Prague (Bohemia) and headed to Bavarian country, Germany! Everyone was excited to get to Munich, home of Oktoberfest, for our beerhall optional tonight. First though we stopped to explore the city and I was very excited to find Das Boot (from the movie Beerfest) here! Had to buy one for the bar at home of course :P At 5pm we gathered in Marienplatz to watch the Glockenspiel tell its story, with the knights jousting and the beer merchants dancing, it was pretty cool.
Tonight was our dinner at a traditional German beerhall – the Muchenhoff Brauhuas! They served us pork knuckle (which was absolutely delicious), and there was a German band and dancers. Oh, and of course a huge, heavy, 1 litre stein of German beer!! I had no idea how I would finish it all, but it helped that the MC called out “Prost!” after every song!
So, full of pork and beer, we had another bus party on the way back to the hostel, and decided to kick on for a while in the basement disco. It was one of the best nights on tour, the only down side was that we only had one night there  I will definitely have to do Oktoberfest here at some point. Lets just hope the myth that German beer doesn’t give you hangovers is true…

Day 27 – Munich to Swiss Alps
Unfortunately we had to leave Germany for now, but I was excited to go to our next stop – Switzerland! Or Confederation Helvetia as the Swiss call themselves. Along the way, we stopped off in the tiny country of Liechtenstein, meaning we had now visited the first, second and fourth smallest countries in the world (being Vatican City, Monaco and Liechtenstein). I had my passport stamped here since due to EU border regulations it was looking a little bare. After having lunch here and dashing back to the coach in the rain, the next stop was the picturesque Swiss town of Lucerne. I had to have some Swiss chocolate here of course, and it was delicious – especially washed down with some fresh Apline water from one f the town’s fountains. After some gift shopping it was back on the bus again and finally on to our Swiss chalet for the night, which was very cool 
Tonight was our masquerade party and also our driver Dave’s birthday. We all got dressed up and before we headed to the party gathered together to sing happy birthday and down a few shots of some traditional Czech spirit that Dave had brought for us from his brother in Prague – whoa was it strong stuff!! We then headed to the bomb shelter bar with our masks on ready to party with the other groups. It turned into a HUGE night – I spent way too much money at the bar... But everyone was in the Venetian masque carnival spirit, including me who kissed a stranger in a mask, only to find out later that it was one of the guys form our tour – oops, hehe! Eventually I had the sense to head to bed, knowing we had a very early start the next morning to go up the mountain. Let’s hope my powers of recovery are up to the task!

Day 28 – Swiss Alps
My big night out came back to haunt me this morning, and I woke up with a killer hangover. But in true Contiki spirit, I wasn’t going to let that or the bad weather stop me from reaching the top of Jungfrau mountain, so I trekked to the train and caught the cog railway to the top. The train ride is so steep, they need cogs to keep it on the rails. The scenery on the trip up was amazing – there had been snow the night before and everything looked clean and beautiful. I survived the train ride without being sick, but being 3454 metres up in the air means the oxygen is thinner and makes you light-headed, which certainly did not help with the hangover. Grabbing a hot chocolate seemed to help though, and we walked the observation deck to check things out.
Unfortunately it was a bad weather day with a snowstorm, so the activities were cancelled. I was disappointed as I wanted to try out snowboarding and go on a husky ride. I did get to pat the huskies though, which were very cute. I decided to make the most of it anyway, and Laura and I took turns running out into the snowstorm taking crazy photos of each other. Being from QLD, I loved being snowed on, it was a real novelty – very cold and we though! So I will just have to book a snowboarding trip another time, nevermind!
We had some (very expensive) lunch here then explored the Ice Palace, sliding our way along the corridors Risky Business style  Having done as much as possible with the bad weather, we caught the train back down to Lauterbrunnen and strolled the local shops on the way back to the chalet. The views around here are spectacular, the waterfalls leave you spellbound. I definitely want to spend more time here, and next time visit the Tremmelbach Falls within the mountain aswell. And to eat more Swiss chocolate too 

Day 29 – Swiss Alps to Rhine Valley
I wish we could have stayed longer in beautiful Switzerland, but this morning we had to say goodbye and head back into Germany. We stopped off for lunch in the cute little town of Heidelberg, where I had the most amazing chicken salad at one of the cafes. We continued on to the Rhine Valley, with castles and vineyards lining the green river banks, and home to the legendary siren, Lorely. The story goes that Lorely was betrayed by her husband and in despair threw herself off a cliff in St Goar, and she now haunts the water, punishing sailor men for her betrayal by wrecking their ships in the river. A statue of her sits in the middle of the river in tribute. Once there, we went to a beer stein demonstration and had dinner at the pub in St Goar, then headed to the tiny town of Uber to do our wine tasting and spend the night.
Hans our host for the wine tasting took us through the various Rhine Valley wines (most of which were delicious!) including the Eiswein (Ice Wine), made while the grapes are frozen and is super concentrated and sweet. We had nice rooms here and even managed to get CNN on the TV to try to catch up on some news since we had pretty much been living in a bubble for the last 4 weeks. I got an early night to make the most of the comfy bed.

Day 30 – Rhine Valley to Amsterdam
It was time for things to get interesting as we crossed the Dutch border, headed for infamous Amsterdam. Before hitting the city, we visited the adorable village of Edam which is of course famous for its cheese. Most of Holland is actually below water level, so they have an ingenious system of canals and dijks (dams) to keep the water at bay. This system is powered by windmills, and apparently you used to be able to buy a windmill to live in for one dollar, provided you kept it in good working order – bargain! We did a bicycle tour of the quaint and charming town of Edam (much cruisier than the crazy adventure ride through Prague!) and it was great fun. We also visited a cheese and clogs demonstration here, and I tried on some clogs which were not so comfortable but practical I guess.
Then it was on to Amsterdam! Everyone had been hanging out to experience the ‘city of sin’ and it did not disappoint! We arrived at the Red Light District and indulged in our first ‘coffee shop’ experience. Laura and I ordered space cakes, which tasted like mud cake and had a delayed but strong effect. Then we all headed off to see the live sex show at Cassa Rossa – a surreal experience, especially when the space cakes kicked in! It was a full on show, and even included some audience participation from some of the boys on our tour involving a lady and a banana...
Walking through town we did see the famous ladies in the window, and my union strong Dad would be happy to know that the prostitutes over here have their own union – The Red Thread Union – which protects their rights and conditions. According to Scott, their current EBA was a ‘suck & fuck’ for 50 Euro... The things you learn on Contiki! After the show we went to the Grasshopper for a while, but I was pretty zoned (slight Amsterdamage!) so I went and grabbed some fritjes (fries) and headed back to the hotel. What a night 

Day 31 – Amsterdam
After a big night last night, today was a lot more low key. We started off with a relaxing paddle boat/bike down the canals of Amsterdam. Our group (Laura, Sierra, Aziza and I) were supreme navigators and managed to find the course without getting lost. Next step was the post office to send home all the booze and gifts I had brought along the way. From there I spent the day just wandering around Amsterdam, which was really nice. In the afternoon, the group met up for our canal cruise ending up at the Sea Palace restaurant for our last supper together. We shared an Indonesian rice table meal, where the table shared a huge variety of small dishes, and the food was excellent! Some of use decided to get an early night, and briefly took over Dave’s role as bus driver before he dropped us off at home. My body was so exhausted by now, and I was just about ready to head home.

Day 32 – Amsterdam to London
II woke up for the last time on Contiki today. The mood on the bus was quiet as people reflected on our amazing journey together. The mood picked up as we got to the the ferry to cross back into England, with people either excited about heading home to see loved ones, or starting the next leg or their travels. We saw another ‘Beat the Street’ black coach, and found out later that it was U2 who were leaving on the ferry after ours. We finally made it back to London through peak hour traffic to the Royal National. Steph and Marie had to leave right away, and I cried saying goodbye to my new friends. Those of us left had one last group dinner at the London Pub, which was a nice way to finish. I had tears of both relief and sadness as I went up to my room, relieved to have survived my first solo overseas adventure and to be going home to my family & friends (and puppies!), but sad that such an amazing experience had come to an end. The hot shower and warm bed cheered me up and I began to look forward to my LONG journey back home to Brisvegas.

Day 33 – London to Brisbane
Homeward bound! Another early start to the day to do the final bag check and head to the tube by 6am. After a few dramas, I made it to my terminal at Heathrow and held my breath as I test weighed my suitcase... 20kg exactly, woo hoo! Now I just hope the airline don’t look too closely at my carry on... I finally found the Royal Brunei counter and checked in without a hitch, phew! And so began my marathon 24 hour flight. First stop was in Dubai for an hour – the airport here looks more like a Vegas casino than an airport, pretty sweet. Next stop was health-conscious Brunei, where our plane was boarded by health workers with thermal cameras – I was stressing that due to my cough I would be quarantined for fear of swine flu, but managed to sneak through. At long last I landed back in Brisbane, to be greeted by my Mum, Dada and sister at the airport. After leaving here five weeks ago excited, nervous and with a full bank account, I returned exhausted, broke and overwhelmed by the amazing whirlwind tour I had just completed. It really was the trip of a lifetime, and everyone should do it at least once!

  • 4 Sep 2011 Alex211983 said

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    @LittleMissKate I enjoyed reading your travel review. Although I am thinking about doing the Ulitmate European tour, I still find your review to be most helpful. I was wonder, where did you get your tickets for the Globe and about how much it cost? As I will have a few days in London before and after my tour and would like to see a play.

    Thanks,

    Alexandria

  • 7 Sep 2011 Michael said

    Michael

    I am doing the European Contrast 6th Sept 2012. Your article has been the best insite into what I can expect from my holiday. Thankyou for sharing this and I only hope I have as much fun minus the flu lol

  • 28 Dec 2011 Megsy91 said

    Megsy91

    I am going on this tour on April 27 next year. I really enjoyed reading about all the things I will be experiencing in just a few months – I am so excited!

    I am just unsure of how much money to take over with me… How much did you end up spending over there?

    Thanks,
    Meagan

  • 28 Dec 2011 LittleMissKate said

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    Hi Magan! You will have an amazing time, enjoy the experience :) I ended up spending about $4500, and I did all of the optionals except one (which I regretted not doing!) but did not go crazy on shopping. Had a few big nights out or at contiki bars buT not drinking every night. Didn’t deny myself whilst over there and that what my total spend roughly – hope that helps!!

  • 28 Dec 2011 Megsy91 said

    Megsy91

    Thanks, that helps heaps! I plan on doing all the optionals, hopefully I don’t chicken out on the white water rafting in Austria though… haha!

  • 30 Dec 2011 kelly_m said

    kelly_m

    LittleMissKate – i loved reading this. i am doing the european contrasts tour next september and im already too excited, this has made me even more so! can’t wait to go myself :)

  • 23 Mar 2012 EJC said

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    Wow! really enjoyed reading your journal. it has got me so pumped for my tour! Im going on the 25th May :)
    i had one question though, a couple of times you referred to ‘the campsite’ i was just wondering if even on this concept tour you still camp and if so anything i need to bring extra?
    cant wait till i go!!!

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