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Jan/Feb 08 European Encounter

12 Oct 2008 Ang said

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Alrighty, for those of you about to embark on a winter European Encounter tour, and finding not much in the way of reviews on the board, here is my brief account of my tour, Jan/Feb this year - I loved it!
Please note, coming from Australia, our flights etc are not included - we got in to London two days before the tour, and spent some time sight seeing.
Advice for the pre tour meeting: be BOLD! My friend and I went hoping we'd get talking to someone from our tour, and go out for dinner and drinks...we chatted to one guy, got shy and left :-p

Day 1: On to the bus - we were about the fourth last people on, and ended up at the back of the bus...and got stuck there the whole trip - not great. Driver Tezza and TM Loz got everyone laughing on the way out of London, with a short run down of the tour. On to the ferry at Dover, which made me feel queasy, even though the water was like glass (I don't usually get seasick). On to land at Calais, then through Belgium into the Netherlands. Everyone had to get up and introduce themselves on the mic, saying their name, something they were looking forward to on the trip, an interesting fact about themselves, their traffic light colour, and whether they were a scruncher of folder - this caused a little confusion for the ESL tourists Wink .
Our first service stop in the Netherlands, and after wandering around looking at all the food on offer, pretty much everyone went for...Maccas. Yep, sad but true. I was very disappointed in myself, and resolved to do better.
Driving into Amsterdam, Loz gave us our maps and suggestions of sights to see on our free day tomorrow. Check in at the lovely hotel, buffet dinner, and off to town for a look around the red light district and the secret optional - the infamous Amsterdam live sex show. What a way to get to know 51 strangers!
Then onto a local cafe to try some local produce, a couple of drinks, and the train back to the hotel - does anyone have water, my mouth is so dry!

Day 2 started with the cheese and clogs demo, a short drive through the pretty miserable weather. Cheese was first, and I ended up outside - we didn't really fit in the building properly, but I didn't really care, not that into cheese (it was tasty though!), then onto Wilhelm the crazy clog-making Dutchman - pretty cool. On to the bus (after obligatory photo in giant clog) to be dropped into town. We teamed up with some of the ppl who had been sitting near us on the bus on the first day, and who were interested in the same sights. We started at the Van Gogh museum, which didn't have as many of his 'famous' works as I expected - they are mostly on loan to 'bigger' galleries. Then on to Anne Frank's House, which was very moving. We wandered around a little, exploring, having difficulty making decisions, before meeting at the appointed time to get the bus back to the hotel to change for the first optional dinner. We (the bus) ended up being a little late, which made dinner very rushed, but nice - good chance to meet some more of the group.
Back into town for the booze cruise - I mean, canal cruise optional. Seriously, this is at night, so if you are expecting scenery, don't. There was some nice stuff pointed out, but mostly there was time to meet people and drink. And then drink some more off the boat...including running into a random tiny pub chanting "Ole, Ole, Ole" at the tops of our lungs - before running back out again. Then onto another pub, whose name no one could pronounce, where we promptly took over the table tops for dancing purposes...there may have been poles involved.

Day 3: A "trick" 7am wake up call was appreciated by everyone after about 4 hours of sleep, but at least we were early for the bus. A fairly uneventful drive through some nice country led us to St Goar earlier than planned, with some uncertain free time. Then, it was beer stein demos, the world's largest cuckoo clock, Birkenstocks, and the wine tasting optional - fun! I'm not a wine drinker, but well worth the euro.
Dinner at the hotel with one poor guy serving everyone, so I helped serve dessert - I think everyone thought I was a little weird - I just felt bad for the guy. Most people had a big night in the hotel bar, though I crashed out early, feeling a little under the weather.

Day 4: Up in the total darkness for a 7.30am departure, for the amazing drive to Switzerland. 2 service stops and a lot of driving today, but what great country to do it in - snow capped peaks everywhere - bliss!
Made it to the cable car in time to go up Mt Pilatus to the Bellevue - highlight of the tour!! So beautiful, and my first snow.
Some pre dinner drinks from the fridge (a.k.a the windowsill), before a slightly strange dinner with a killer view, and more drinks before our Australia Day party. Cue a whole troupe of Swiss Army Men. Ah, the entertainment!

Day 5: Back to the cable cars this morning to go to Lucerne, where the weather was FREEZING! ARGH! But what a beautiful town! A quick stop at Harry's for knives and watches, then a day to explore. We headed to the Lion monument, and then enjoyed wandering through the first day of carnivale - fantastic! back to the meeting place for the bus to the cable cars, and up to the mountain. Relaxed evening in with a showing of Euro Trip - so cliched, but so fun - "Mi scusi!"

Day 6: Slightly sour note as we weren't allowed off the mountain until everyone had chipped for a vomit cleaning bill (we still blame the army guys), then much trading of stories of the previous two nights...am still waiting to hear of Contiki/Swiss babies.
Weather a little cloudy, not as cold as yesterday, as we covered three countries - Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Austria. More fantastic scenery, got our passport stamp in Vaduz (2 euro), then into rainy Innsbrook. A quick walk to the Golden Roof, then the Swarovski Crystal shop - oh so pretty. Hit the liquer shop - free tasting! - tried Sacher torte at the Sacher hotel, and enjoyed wandering. Giant schnitzel dinner at the hotel, then an early night (for us anyway).

Day 7: On the bus early again for the drive to Venice, and our first experience with Italian service stops...not as confusing as I had heard. Patchy weather for our afternoon in Venice, where we got to see an Italian man blow a horse (Contiki speak for glass blowing demonstration). free time to explore before our gondola ride, where most were disappointed with the non singing, non-informative gondaliers - I didn't really expect them to put on a show, because I heard you had to be pretty lucky, or pay more for that.
Shopping, wandering, looking (Carnivale again) was great fun. Opted out of the optional dinner, as the menu didn't sound like my kind of thing, but they had much fun with masks and hats. We found a nice restaurant near the Plaza where they looked after us well, then back to the meeting place for the boat back to the bus to the hotel. Concked out again (I swear, I don't know where the party-ers get the energy!)

Day 8: Early start again for a long day on the bus to Roma - 3 stops, then a slightly illegal drop in town. Great walking tour, which showed us the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Partheon and Piazza Navona. Bernini's Four Rivers was covered in scaffolding, but oh well, can't be helped :-)
A roving dinner (read: go find your own Wink), before meeting back at the bus. Quick photo stop outside St Peter's, but beware the Italian drivers!! Hotel was quite good, better than I expected after reading about it on here, then time for some drinking games in the bar downstairs.

Day 9: Well, lucky we were listening to the instructions on how to get to town, because we needed them - got down to breakfast, room is locked. Hmm. Waiting, waiting...15mins late, doors open, we grab some food (average), cruise back through the lobby, morning TM, just going to grab out bags, come back to the lobby and - no bus. and 5 of our tourmates standing around, looking shellshocked. Ok, so we knew to get a bus to the trainstation. but which one? On which side of the road? the guy on the front desk was no good to us, so we ventured outside and found some friendly gardeners, where two of our group managed to get the info we needed in broken italian, with lots of hand gestures. On to the bus, where an Italian guy snuck up behind me and whispered in my ear that he liked my friend - but it is a secret - um, ok. I checked my pockets - everything in place. Then onto the train (where my friend's admirer stared at her the whole time, and kept edging closer), changing where we needed to, then onto the metro, then to the vatican museums...to arrive about 10mins after the rest of the group. hah! quick run through the vatican museums, sistine chapel and St Peter's, which I loved! but we had to hurry - we had a date with the POPE! Yep, Loz had read he would be speaking, and had got us tickets. Go Loz. So we got a blessing (in many languages), then some free time for lunch (best gnocchi in the world!) before meeting for our Roman Forum tour - great!
Opted to do the Colosseum as well, and had fun doing gladiator poses. Great, sunny weather, and quite warm as we wandered Rome for the afternoon. Meeting back at the Wedding Cake, we were walked to dinner, as lots of girls showed off their new Gucci, Pradeaand Guess bags - ah, street vendors! Dinner was a little on the crap side, as we were one of the last tables to be called up, and there wasn't much left - though it was worse for those after us. A sour note for the tour on the bus back to the metro to get the train back to the hotel, as one of our group was pickpocketed. It was crazy - he bumped against her on a crowded bus, they both appologised, he got off - with her wallet. He even managed to zip her bag back up before he went!

Day 10: We were all a bit early to the bus today (after yesterday I think), but couldn't leave until the appointed time due to driving time laws. 3hrs, rest stop, then onto FLorence, where it was wet and miserable - not good for the team photo. Quite an entertaining leather demo, before time to shop and eat gelati. then, our included walking tour, which took in the square near the town hall, past the ufitzi gallery, the Ponte Vecchio, through the markets to the Duomo - I loved it all, even in the bad weather. We then chose to run to the museum to see David, while others shopped, climbed the Duomo, or ate more gelati. Quick bus back to the hotel to get ready for the dinner optional, which was an entertaining night - wine, italian food, singing and dancing. then the party bus headed back to town to meet up with some of the others for the Space Electronic Disco optional! Wowser! We had the place pretty much to ourselves, which I think was a good thing. First drink is included, and they do not mess around - I ordered a Black Russian, which back home is kahlua, vodka and coke - standard, I thought. The girl behind the bar slammed a glass on the bar, poured it half full of vodka, then topped it with khalua - there was no measuring involved...and no sign of the coke - holy! ended up being a VERY messy night for some, with a real concern for some of the girls on the trip...danger time!

Day 11: Some sore heads after not much sleep this morning, even with a late start (8.45am). A little cloudy for the quick pit-stop in Pisa to see the leaning tower (more obligatory photos), then back on the bus through lots of tunnels to France, and Nice in the afternoon. Lovely weather, slightly dodgy hotel and area - though VERY central. Dinner (included) was at an Irish Pub with a kiwi waitress, so I felt like I was back at home Big Grin Most of the others went on to another pub down the road for table top dancing with another Contiki tour, but we decided to walk back to the hotel to catch up on some sleep.

Day 12: Free day today, which was great - slept in, then wandered and shopped - if your TM doesn't tell you, take an opportunity to buy some Moet champagne here - quite cheap compared to everywhere else, and well worth it! Back to the hotel in time to get ready for the big outing to Monaco - everyone looked very spiffy. We walked past the church where Princess Grace was married, and to a nice look-out, then onto the included dinner, which was lovely.
Driver Tezza roared us down the grand prix home straight, before dropping us at the Casino. 10 euro to get in, then 11(!!!!) for a drink! Some of the crew had a bet, but it's really not my scene. A little chilly outside as we admired the expensive cars, most of us having forsaken warm gear for stylish gear :-)

Day 13: VERY late start today, but didn't leave until 10! After about an hour we stopped for a tour and sample and shop at Fragonard perfumerie, then a long drive to Avignon for lunch. Most people were a little tired and grouchy at our 3 o'clock lunch break, which was made worse when our order of "hamburger with egg" turned out to be just that - a meat pattie with an egg on it. I though it was hilarious, but not everyone thought so. back on to the bus (no! no more!) for our arrival in Lyon, France's gastronomical capital. Our "15min" walk to town from the hotel led my little group to a hippo steak house (we had no luck finding escargot and steak tartare, but others did), with some of the best desserts on earth. The walk back home was shorter (I should say 'run' back home), through some slight dodginess.

Day 14: More driving in partly fine weather to our first service stop. loz was bored, so we played trivia games on the way to lunch stop at Fontainbleau - one of the best times on the bus so far. Fontainbleau was very nice, we found a lovely little cafe where I finally got to try steak tartare - yum, before jumping back on the bus to Paris. The Louvre would be closed on our free day tomorrow, so Tezza put the foot down to drop us off directly at the Louvre on our arrival to Paris. Out to the hotel for a fairly rushed "roast meat" meal...I'm not sure the French quite understand vegetarians...one poor girl had her meal replaced with a plate of vegetables, and a strange look from the waitress!
Back to the bus for the night-time illuminations tour, which was great - Tez driving us around and around the Arc de Triomphe with Mission Impossible blasting through the speakers was hilarious.
Monty Python's French taunting played us home to the hotel... "Now go away, or I shall taunt you a second time!"

Day 15: Our free day in Paris started COLD and blustery, as the bus dropped us at the Tower. You may have heard that the Italians are lazy when it comes to work, but the French...ah, the French. We open at 9.30am actually means: We will come out sometime after 9.30, tell you you are standing in the wrong place, make you re-line-up while we take our sweet time setting up security check points, we will look at your bag, make you wait again while we decide to open the ticketbooth, then leave most of you standing aghast while we take 6 people up in a lift that is designed to take about 40.
I can't complain though, as I was one of the first people to set foot on the tower that day. And even though it was overcast, and galeforce winds threatened to blow us away, it was still amazing. (The top level was closed because of the winds, but eh.)
The girls and I walked to the Arc de Triomphe, climbing all the stairs for another windy view of Paris, then headed down the Champs. The girls wanted to shop, so we left them and jumped a metro to Notre Dame, where a lovely old man saw us come out of the metro station, pull out a map and look confused, so he came over and showed us where to go. Notre Dame meant more stair climbing (good god I should have buns of steel by the end of this). We ran out of time for Saint Chappelle, and walked back to the meeting place to go back to the hotel to get ready for the cabaret!!
Moulin Rouge via the Arc (this time to "Dangerzone"), and an awesome last night on tour. The Moulin Rouge show was awesome, then it was next door to O'Sullivans for farewell drinks. If you are camera shy, I suggest not attending - many happy snaps taken. Some barely made it home in time for the bus the next morning.

Day 16: a 7.30 departure saw us leaving some behind - for some Paris was the nominated end of the tour, for others, they could not be roused to get on the bus in time. It was a fairly subdued trip to the airport drop off, then on to the war memorial at Vimy Ridge - the misty rain made it all the more memorable. We had a wait at the ferry, so Tez turned the bus around and took us to Maccas - a "Royale with cheese" was needed by many. More quizzes from Lauren's trusty new ipod as we waited - and much fun.
On the ferry, then all too soon it was the white cliffs of Dover, and then suddenly we were back in London, and the bus was pulling into the Royal National. Time to say goodbye. A few people went out to dinner together, but we had to sort our accommodation, so we met up later for a few quiet drinks. So sad, and so very tired - thank god for Facebook.

It was an incredible trip, and so much fun. As you can tell, I didn't do a whole lot of drinking, but I don't think I hid in my room the whole time - I just found I needed sleep!! It really is a whirlwind, but in a good way - you see just enough to be bitten by the travel bug I think. it was particularly good for my friend and I, as we had another 2 months touring Europe and the UK after the tour, and it gave us a good idea of cities/areas we wanted to go back and spend more time in. yes, sometimes you will be crabby (and so will others), and sometimes you will get sick of the bus, but really, what do you expect? You are seeing 11 (10? I can't remember) countries in 16 days, of course there will be travel days. Yes, sometimes the included dinners are crap - but really, for the money, you have to expect that. A tour like this is not about staying in 5 star resorts and having your meals served on a silver platter. It is about seeing as much of this fantastic continent as you can, and not having to do all the planning and timetabling yourself - and believe me, I've done both. Yes, it is nice to be on your own time, and decide stay somewhere a day longer because you really like it, or leave two days earlier because you hate it. On the other hand, it's really nice to know you already have accommodation in the town you're rolling into, and when you wake up in the morning you don't have to go and find the train station to try to book a ticket to your next destination - you just get handed a map and told the sights.

I thoroughly enjoyed this tour, and would recommend it to anyone. Obviously, having not done others, I can't compare it, but I think 16 days is a good time frame - long enough to make some friends, and not too long if some people piss you off Big Grin

Doing it in winter was fantastic, and the weather really wasn't a problem (for me anyway) anywhere except Florence - that was just because it's hard to organise 53 to stand and smile in a photo when they are cold and wet.

If anyone has any questions, let me know! I am trying to find my packing list to post as well - and I took a backpack (never had one before, never having traveled before), and I loved it - especially being able to climb the stairs to our rooms, passing people bumping their cases up the stairs on the way. but to each his own I suppose. When my mum did Contiki 30 years ago, they sent you a Contiki case you had to take - so everyone had the same thing! Eeker
  • 12 Oct 2008 Emm said

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    thankyou soo much! im hoping to do this tour mid next year and cant seem to find much feed back.. thanks heaps Smiler<!--graemlin::)-->

  • 19 Oct 2008 Explorer1084391 said

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    Hi…. What time did you’ll come back to London?

  • 22 May 2011 KC said

    KC

    Hi Ang
    Your blog is really informative – my friends and I will be doing this exact tour in June / July so thank you so much for wetting our appetites! :) I noticed you went to the Anne Frank house – we want to go too, but we want to book online as we have been warned about the queues. Only problem is that we have to give a time which is difficult. Can you remember what time you went or what time the bike ride finished? Did you have quite a bit of free time? I was thinking about 4 or 5pm because we also want to do the Van Gogh museum (we’re art teachers :) ) as well? But need to make it back in time to do the Sea Palace Restaurant too so don’t want to miss that. What do you think? Sorry for all the questions ;)

    Kerry

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