European Discovery Trip Review - July 2008
24 Jul 2008 benji said
The following is a review of my European Discovery trip that my husband and I took in July 2008. While reading this, keep in mind, this is OUR trip. Other people on the same tour made other decisions at other times. Some did all the excursions. Some did none. Some wanted to always be with the group, others wanted alone time now and then. So this review is based on what my husband and I did, and the choices we made.
I also just want to say I had the BEST time on my trip. I had the best tour manager, the best driver, and the best group. We all got along, we all had fun…everyone liked everyone. It was simply the best trip I could have imagined, and it certainly exceeded my expectations. I had enough time to see and do everything I wanted to do. The only places where I felt time crunch was in the Louvre, and in the Vatican. I wish we had had more time to explore those places….but there are SO many pieces of art to see in those places, you’d need one full day each, and I didn’t book that type of trip. Maybe next time I go to Europe, eh?!
July 4 – Ottawa to London
Off we go! We checked in, cleared security, and were sitting at our gate in only 20 minutes. So much for a 3 hour check in required.
July 5 – Arrive in London
Our flight arrived only 15 minutes late – not bad! But the movies/tv/entertainment system didn’t work, so it was a long flight…through the free booze helped us forget about that.
The Tube from the airport to Russell Square took about 45min. What a shaky, LOUD subway it is! But we got there safe and sound. Leaving the tube station to walk to our hotel, it was pouring rain! But we changed when we got to the hotel (The Imperial – our room was not ready, but we changed in the public washroom). This was our only day really to see London, so though jetlagged, we headed out on the Original Bus Tour ( http://www.theoriginaltour.com/ ). We pre-purchased our tickets (before we left) to get a discount, but finding the kiosk that redeems the email voucher was hard…only certain kiosks accepted them, and their computer system was down, so in the end, only ONE kiosk was accepting the online vouchers. We finally found it, and all is ok.
We toured the city, seeing all the sights you’d typically see as a tourist in London, hopping on and off the bus as desired. We had lunch at Sherlock Holmes pub….but since we had been up for over 24hrs at that point, ordering beer was a mistake – we nearly feel asleep in the pub!
We made our way to the pre-tour meeting at the Royal National hotel (in the café in the courtyard of the hotel)….Be sure to bring your passports with you and proof of insurance! At this point, we were now awake for over 30 hours, so we didn’t really meet anyone – we just left the meeting and went to bed.
July 6 – Depart London for Amsterdam
Thank God for earplugs… The Imperial is on a noisy street! Anyways, we left London at 730am sharp. Here’s something I was SO happy about – we did NOT get a Contiki bus. We got a bus that was contracted by Contiki. It was only 3 months old, and in great condition.
What this means, is that Contiki buses normally have 51 seats plus two for driver and tour manager. Our bus had a little over 40 seats plus two for driver and manager…so same size coach bus means more leg room, and more recline on the seats. We also had only 28 people on our tour, it was very roomy and comfy. Because our bus was not a Contiki bus, it did not have the on-board adaptors that you read about, so don’t rely on charging your cameras/ipods on the bus. Plan to do it overnight in your hotel room – so bring your own adaptors! Also, our non-Contiki bus had a mini-fridge that our driver had some cold drinks in, that you could buy for a Euro. Our bus also had the ability to listen to MP3 players/ipods, and it also had a DVD player for long drives – you had the choice to sleep, watch a movie, or look out the window. Again please note, you probably won’t get a bus like we did.
We drove through England to Dover, and yes, we saw the White Cliffs. I’m glad it was sunny, or the impact wouldn’t have been the same. *Make sure you have your passport ON you, and not in your packed luggage under the coach, since you go through customs before you get on the ferry! We took the ferry across the Channel, and I’m glad I had motion-sickness pills that I took ahead of time, since a few people felt ill. Once we landed in France, we drove through Belgium and into the Netherlands. In our case, we switched drivers at this point (not sure why, but it doesn’t matter). So with our new driver onboard, we arrived into Amsterdam around 6pm. We checked into our hotel, changed, had a quick dinner (which was pretty good – buffet style), and then headed out for our canal cruise (optional excursion).
I highly recommend this excursion for a few reasons. One, it’s the first real night all together, and it’s a great way to get to know everyone. Second, what else are you going to do at 730pm in a town you know little or nothing about? Three, you get to see the city from the canal. Four, booze. Really though, it was a beautiful ride and we all had fun getting to know each other.
After the cruise was over, our group met up with another Contiki group, and we all headed to the Red Light District. Okay, now to answer some pending questions – can you take picture in the RLD? Yes. Can you take pictures, specifically, of the women? No. No, no no. You can take a picture of a building, yes, but if there is an open window with a lady standing in it, then don’t take a picture. A girl in our group was taking a picture of a sign..her camera was aimed up. She took a picture, and the flash went off. A women who was in a window in the general direction of where the camera was pointed came running out and was screaming at the girl. The girl showed her picture to the woman, showing her it was just a sign….so the women just yelled some more and went back to her window. I took a ‘generic’ picture of an alley way. It was looking down the alley way, so you couldn’t see the windows – just the red lights. That’s fine. Also, when the women see tour groups walk by, some of them close the curtains or walk out of the room, to avoid pictures being taken or gawked at. We were also told that some “pedestrians” aren’t really pedestrians or tourists – their pimps or security or whatever for the girls…so if you think “the coast is clear” to take a picture, you really may have someone watching you…!
Amsterdam is also known for, well….smoking up. You can find these famous menus in coffee shops. Coffee shops don’t sell coffee. They sell marijuana and soda pop. If you want a coffee, you have to go to a café. Strange…but it’s the way it is in Amsterdam.
Anyways, I literally have no relocation of getting back to our hotel that night. A combination of booze on the cruise and the coffee shop experience left my mind a little blank.
July 7 – Amsterdam to St Goar
So we woke up around 630am-7am, had breakfast, and then headed off to see the city! First stop was at Central Station, where there is a massive bike ramp filled with thousands of bikes. You may have seen this as a task on “The Amazing Race”. Next, we walked to Waterlooplein, which is like a market, but it was too early, so only a handful of stalls were open. Most shops in Amsterdam open at 11am, so there wasn’t really a chance to see too much of the city. Anyways, we then headed over to Beginjhof, an area of Amsterdam that is historically for single women – it’s also the place where you’ll find the only wooden home left in Amsterdam. It’s very beautiful, and quiet, and peaceful in this area. So then, off to see more of the city...checked out a sex-shop (man there are some weird videos in there – I am more naïve than I thought!). Anyways, we left Amsterdam at 1230pm, and headed for St Goar! Note – our tour manager DID make the announcement that if you had any marijuana on you, to smoke it or throw it, because it IS NOT allowed to be taken out the country.
We arrived in St Goar later in the day, so all of the other stores in town were closed. Thank God, Contiki has an agreement of sorts with these stores, because our TM called and asked that they stay open..so they did! We bought beersteins, others bought cuckoo clocks and other souvenirs.
From there, most of us signed up optional excursion for the wine tasting. We walked over, and headed into a dungeon like room – I thought it was a scene from “Hostel”, but it was a friendly wine cellar! Yay! We sampled wine and cheese, and had a fun time.
We then headed to our hotel, which wasn’t in St Goar, exactly, but that was okay. It was quite cute, and overlooked a hill of vineyards. Our meal was truly homemade, and quite yummy. There really wasn’t anything else to do in this town, so we all headed back to bed for the only real “quiet” night on the trip!
July 8 – St Goar – Munich
Woke up at 6am, had breakfast and then hit the road by 730am! We drove through Germany, and got into Munich just before 2pm. We had about an hour to rest/change at the hotel, and then headed off for the optional excursion for the bike tour!
Okay, I’m going to highly recommend this one as well. To be honest, we had NO intentions of doing this tour. At all. But when I found out just how much ground the tour was covering, we changed our minds, signed up, and boy were we glad. The only reason anyone should NOT sign up is if you can not ride a bike. You see way more on this tour than you ever would on your own, on foot.
The tour met up at Marienplatz, and then from there, went and saw the city, including the Residenz, and Hofgarten…the tour went into Englischer Garten, and we stopped at the Chinesischer Turm – which is a German beerhall with a Chinese pagoda theme – for dinner and beer. You can have traditional bratwurst or pork knuckle, or have a more common roasted chicken. Beer is served in 1-litre steins, so be ready to have a fun and wobbly bike ride back!
After we dropped off the bikes, we headed over to Hofbrauhaus were we drank many more litres of beer, sampled some German snuff, and partied until we passed out!
July 9 – Munich to Austria
We were up and out of there by 730am. Beer headaches suck, but are quickly cured with ice-cold melted Alps snow! That’s right, off to whitewater rafting! ( www.feelfree.at ). We got there around 11am, suited up, and headed out! It was so much fun! It was my first time whitewater rafting ever! And MAN, that water is COLD. The views were absolutely spectacular And the crisp fresh air felt so good….I wanted to stay on the boat forever! For those debating on whether or not to do this, the only condition really is you need to know how to swim. The waters aren’t THAT rough, so you don’t need to worry. Remember, this was my first time, and I wasn’t really that scared…more in awe of the scenery!
Anyways, after the ride is over, you meet your bus and anyone who didn’t go on the ride at the meeting point. There, they provided towels for you, and a warm shower. You can keep all your things safe on the bus – do not worry. When the ride is over, you grab your “change bag” and run to the showers. Note – this is not time to wash your hair and shave. It’s to warm up, get off any dirt, and get changed. There’s not enough time to get ready like you would in the morning. Anyways, there’s a little shop and snack bar if you want to get a beer or souvenir. You can also buy the pictures that were taken of you during the trip. I’m SO glad I bought these.
Anyways, we left there, and normally, the next stop is Swarovski Crystal World. However, no one really signed up for this, so we made a group decision (easy to do when there’s only 28 of you) to go to nearby Innsbruck instead!!! What an AMAZING city. It was so beautiful and so clean, and so..so…ah, I want to move there! Now people should note, this is not part of the Contiki European Discovery tour normally, and our TM was very flexible, so anyone going on this in the future may not necessarily get to do this. But I am so fortunate that we did go.
We left there about 4pm or so, and headed to the hotel in Itter. It was really cute! We pretty much had the whole hotel to ourselves. We had dinner (um, veeery salty/garlicy soup as an appetizer – no one liked it and I SWEAR there was fennel in it!), then had drinks on the patio. We eventually moved inside for the “white out” party. Basically, you are supposed to dress in white (which only a few people did), and they have a black light on so everyone’s glowing. There was dance music/top 40 music playing, and everyone drank, danced and had a great time! Most of us were pretty hammered and danced the night away.
July 10 – Austria to Venice
Early breakfast again at 7am, and the bus left at 730am! I decided that it’s official – anyone who lives near a highway in Italy owns a vineyard. Seriously. There’s were vineyards all the way into Venice!
Anyways, so we arrived into Venice around 2pm. We took a “shuttle boat” over to the actual city itself, walked past the Bridge of Sighs and into Piazza San Marco. Everyone was left to explore on their own – there was, of course, the free glass blowing demonstration for those who were interested, but my husband and I wanted to spend our little time there seeing the city.
We went up the Campanile, and had an amazing view of the city. The wait in line was about 5 minutes, and it cost EUR7.00 each. We also walked down to the Rialto Bridge (classic! gorgeous!), and on to the Campo Di San Polo (which is supposed to have a great little market, but it was lame – don’t waste your time walking over there. I mean, we got to explore more of the city, so that was nice, but there were only a handful of stalls there…not worth the walk.) Next, we all met back at Piazza San Marco, for those wishing to do the optional excursion of the gondola ride.
I’m really glad we did this, but it was way too short. The time booked was for 45 minutes, but that includes sitting in the line up of gondolas to go back to the dock. Basically, we left the dock in the main waterway, did a U-shaped tour in the canals and back out to the main waterway, then sat in a lineup to go back to the dock. Was it worth it? Well, ya. I got to do a gondola in Venice!! Now sure, I probably could have had a longer ride if I found a gondolier on my own, but I’d also have been paying a lot more money. So there were pros and cons to doing the pre-arranged tour with Contiki. But I didn’t feel like haggling, and I didn’t know who to trust, so I went with Contiki, and I’m glad I did. Note – go to a store and buy a bottle of Bellini and get some cups! It’s a tradition, and it makes the tour a little bit sweeter!
So at this point, the group leaves for the optional excursion – Venetian dinner. We opted out of this, planning for a romantic evening just the two of us. There were a few other people that opted out from this dinner as well.
What is so great about our group is that no one made us feel like crap for going off on our own, and in fact, a lot of people asked us how our night went…..and this was consistent throughout the tour. Whenever anyone decided to do something “outside” of the group, everyone else was cool with it, and followed up on that person(s)’s choice afterwards. It was the same when people chose to go out at night, or stay in. No one ever made you feel crappy for the decisions you made. Sometimes we partied, sometimes we didn’t. Some people partied every night, some people never went out….but no one cared what your choice was. Everyone was accepting that it’s “your” vacation, so you do what “you” want. It was really nice. But I digress. Back to dinner.
My husband and I found a great little place right beside the Rialto Bridge, called “Ristorante Caffee Saraceno “. They were really friendly there, and didn’t try to sneak in any surcharges for bread or linens, etc. The only thing is that gratuity was already included in the bill, so there was no need to tip extra. The portions weren’t huge, but they weren’t small either…they were just right. The food was delicious, and the wine was crisp and clear. It was a REALLY good dinner, and it only cost us EUR53.50 total for two people. It was a really romantic and quiet moment away from the hustle and bustle of the tour!
But that didn’t last long! When dinner was over, we headed back to the meeting point at Piazza San Marco. Now from what I *hear*, it was a good thing we made our own plans. Apparantly, the dinner wasn’t all that great – the only good thing was the unlimited yummy wine…which was evident when we met up with the group. Across the Piazza came roaring our drunken group! Hahah! Everyone had their own bottle of wine in hand!
So we all stumbled back to the shuttle boat, where our tour manager met all the ladies with roses! Awww! We partied it up on the boat back to the “mainland”, where our coach bus became a party bus – drinking, dancing and fun!! We got to our hotel for the first time that day….some people crashed, while others continued partying into the night!
July 11 – Venice to Rome
We left Venice at 730am and drove until about 3pm. Our tour manager gave us a guided tour of Rome. It started at the Piazza Del Popola, then moved down to Piazza Colonna, and onto Trevi Fountain. Trevi Fountain….look out for gypsies here! This area is packed with people and gypsies, Some do look like what you’d stereotypically expect, and some don’t. I’d been warned ahead of time of people who drop money in front of you, then pretend to be helpful, saying it’s yours and trying to give you the change. While you’re distracted, someone’s going into your pockets or bag…..so of course, when a man dropped some change in front of me, I tore out of there! Now it was probably just a tourist who dropped some change – after all, it is tradition to throw money over your shoulder in the Trevi Fountain, but my paranoia got the better of me, and I got away from him.
In any case, the fountain is quite beautiful. So we went on from there to the Pantheon (WOW) and then to a little known church called “Santa Maria Sopra Minerva”. Now from the outside, there isn’t much to talk about, but once inside, it’s a whole other story. You first will notice the blue ceilings, reminiscent of the Sistine Chapel (but hardly as detailed). When you first go in, you notice the statue of the Virgin and Child, with a rosary draped across her hands. This is the same statue that hard-core Catholics will have on their dressers at home, with their own rosarys draped across her hands. But the most amazing part of this church is little ‘ol statue by Michelangelo called “Christ the Redeemer”. There are literally no crowds….no one’s around. It’s so strange! It’s a beautiful statue – it’s J-e-s-u-s holding the cross. (had to put in dashes since the website x's out this name!?) And his foot is a bit worn, from where people touch the statue. In any case, this little church should be visited, as it’s without a doubt the easiest and cheapest (free) way to see a piece of art by Michelangelo. (note, there’s a beggar/gypsy at the door asking for money to enter…don’t be fooled, as there IS NO ENTRY FEE)
After the church visit we went to dinner at the “Risto Theatre” near Piazza Gesu. This was a really good meal – everyone enjoyed it. The place is actually a converted theatre – it’s very nice inside.
After dinner, we walked to Piazza Venezia, where you see the massive National Monument, and the office where Mussolini was based. We continued walking, passing by and getting a sneak peak of the Forum, and ended our walking tour at the Colosseum!
So after this whirlwind tour of Rome, we hopped back onto the bus, and headed to our hotel. We changed, and then headed to a nearby pizza place for cheap beer and YUMMY pizza (3Euro for a pizza, and 2Euro for a beer). We all sat around and socialized there, until they kicked us out for night, then we headed back to the hotel, hung out there by the fountain, and eventually to bed.
Now just a heads up about Rome, bring a water bottle – it’s HOT. And you only need one bottle. Rome is covered with fountains that have free, fresh, cold water. You just go up with your bottle and fill it up! We did this all day long – Yay Rome!
July 12 – Rome
Left the hotel around 8am to head into Rome. It took 2 trains and a bus to get there. Our tour manager pretty much assumes (and he’s right) that everyone wants to hit up the Vatican first. So we went straight there. The line ups can be brutal if you don’t go first thing in the morning. Now here’s where the choice is yours. You can stand in line, and just roam the Vatican museums on your own (the museums also include the Sistine Chapel). Or, you can pre-arrange (like we did) a guided tour to take you through. There are pros and cons to both.
On your own – Pros: can go at own pace, can skip the things you want to, focus on the things you like, and it’s cheaper. Cons: you could be in line longer (depending on time of day, and just plain ‘ol chance if it’s busy that day or not), you may miss things unless they’re pointed out to you, you may not understand things your seeing or know the story behind it.
Guided tour – Pros: explanations and stories of key pieces of art, interesting oddities and pieces are pointed out, you really don’t miss anything, get to bypass some lines within the museum, get to bypass the main line outside because you have a specific booked time. Cons: more expensive (obviously), tour can appear to move slowly if someone in your party is not interested, tour can appear to move too quickly if there is a piece you would like to focus on.
I should note, you can get a portable audio tour if you do the museums on your own. Several people used it, and were happy they did…but you can’t ask questions to a headset….also, find out ahead of time where to drop them off! Some people in my group missed the “drop point”, and the only choice they had was to go all through the museums again!
Also, you CAN NOT go straight to the Sistine Chapel. There is a specific direction you must move in to go through the museums, and the last stop is the Sistine Chapel. So if that’s all you want to see, then attempt to push through the thousands of people to get there, but I don’t recommend doing that. – there are so many beautiful things to see along the way. Oh, and there is no photography allowed inside the Sistine Chapel, and there are guards walking the floor to holler at you if you do. So don’t bother. Just look up, and enjoy the beauty. And whisper. You get in trouble if you talk too loud too.
Keep in mind, just like dropping off the headsets, and going to the Sistine Chapel, everything goes in one direction, and one direction only. If you try going against the crowd, it’s like a fish swimming upstream – you’ll get nowhere fast, and probably get trampled. They say 17,000 people a day go through the Vatican museums….just stick with the crowd.
Ok, so after the museums and Sistine Chapel, you exit out into the Piazza San Pietro. This is of course, if you follow what everyone recommends – take the door/exit on the right!!! No one’s there to stop you, regardless of what you hear. There’s a door on the left, and a door on the right. Take the door on the right. Period.
So back to my story… once in the main square, we went into the St Peter’s…what a HUUUUGE church. Pictures do not do it justice at all. It’s massive. You have to see it in person. Upon entering, we immediately walked to the right, and saw Michelangelo’s “Pieta”. I cried. It’s so beautiful. You can take picture of that.
We walked around some more, then had to head out if we were going to catch the next optional excursion on time. We met up with the group just outside of the Forum, and had a few moments to rest in the shade – so nice! But then our guide arrived, and the tour began. He toured around the Forum – not as much of the Forum as I’d like – but he gave fantastic explanations and details that I know I would have missed on my own. Once we were done with the Forum, we headed across to the Colosseum. We went inside, he gave us another “lesson”, and then left us on our own to explore the archeological landmark. Our group mostly stuck together, but when were pretty much done there, everyone was talking about what to do – some wanted to shop, others wanted to go see more sites, some just wanted to roam around, while others wanted to eat or drink.
So the group divided up, and my husband and I along with another couple headed to find a nearby Roman Aquaduct. It was only steps away from the Colosseum! However, prior to discovering that, we walked a little and noticed entrance to the Palatine. Hmm…I remembered reading before I left on the trip, that our tickets (which we received at the beginning of the guided tour) were valid for the Forum, Colosseum AND the Palatine (even though the guided tour doesn’t include the Palatine). So we tried our tickets, and as I thought, we were able to go into the Palatine!
Now if you have the time, I would recommend doing this! The ruins are a lot nicer and more interesting than in the Forum, and you can also get much closer. But more importantly, you can get up on the hill, and look down into the Forum for a bird’s eye view, and get some other great shots of the Colosseum, and even St Peter’s in the distance! Since there’s no additional cost to go to the Palatine, I can’t see why you’d NOT want to go (unless you hate ancient Rome or rather go shopping!)
So after the hot day of sightseeing Rome, we headed back to hotel. Three trains and a bus later (travel time a little over an hour) we were at our hotel…this is now about 8pm. The original plan was the four of us would shower, change, and head back into Rome for dinner, but it was getting too late, and Rome was too far,…and we didn’t want pizza again – we wanted something nice. So we asked the hotel for a nearby recommendation. He recommended “Ristorante La Graticola”, within walking distance, across the highway. Okay…we can do that.
*** If you read nothing else, read this *** DO NOT go to this restaurant. http://www.ristorantelagraticola.it/gliambienti.htm
The hotel said that it was a good restaurant, nice atmosphere, and reasonably priced. Nice atmosphere – check. It had a patio and nice lighting, etc… We were warmly greeted and seated immediately. But then things went downhill.
The waiter came over and told us that they specialize in seafood (which they do), so he told us we are going to start with the seafood appetizer for four. He said we’ll love it, and he’ll bring it right out. Our friend spoke up and said no, we’ll take a menu. The waiter seemed offended. A menu? But he KNOWS we’ll like the fish. We said we’re sure we would, but we want a menu. So he stormed off and I could see him talking away with another couple of waiters. Finally, he came out with ONE menu, saying they only have one English menu….and some of the prices were crossed out with new prices handwritten on it (to be fair, some prices were reasonable).
This should have been the sign to leave, however, where else would we go at this point? The hotel’s restaurant had a very limited selection and was overpriced, and the only other choice was the pizza place with plastic lawn chairs. So we chose to stay.
First thing we noticed on the menu was that the seafood appetizer he was trying to force on us was, gulp, EUR 45!! Um, no thanks…there were MUCH cheaper choices on the menu, a few of which we decided on. Now there’s only one menu, and four people…so we had to keep passing it around to decide on what we wanted to eat. The waiter was SO impatient, and asked us LITERALLY every 2 minutes if we were ready or not. We said no, we’ll let you know when we’re ready. There’s four people and one menu…My god, he was irate. He even sent over the head waiter to try and move us along (who attempted to try and order for us again). Finally, we made our decisions (which in any other situation, I would think our ordering time was normal!). He took our orders and went away.
The food – mine was delicious. Yay! Our female friend’s meal tasted good, but was overcooked and dry. Our male friend’s meal…well, he did not like it at all. It was a pasta, and it really, really tasted like fish, yet he did not order a pasta with fish. He said something to the waiter who became angry and defensive, and said he can order something else, but he’ll have to pay for the original meal anyways. Yeesh. Anyways, the next meal he brought out was actually awesome!
So that brings us to my husband’s meal. For the record, my husband hardly spoke to the waiter at all. When we asked for a menu, or more time to order, my husband was the quiet one (for the most part)…so he didn’t cause a scene or anything to cause the waiter to dislike him. When the waiter came out with his meal, smiled and said “This is a special recipe just for you!” We didn’t think much of that comment at the time. We thought, “Oh, how nice!”
It tasted very good, but about halfway through the meal, he started looking sickly. He lost colour from his face, and started sweating. His pupils were huge. He started just poking his food with his fork….I asked if he was okay, and he said no. He said he feels cold and he’s shaking. He said he doesn’t feel “sick” (he didn’t feel like he was going to go to throw up or need a toilet)…he said he kinda felt “stoned”. Nice!
We called the waiter over to our table, and asked what was in the meal. He just said it’s a traditional recipe. We asked again, “what are the ingredients?”. He said it’s just what you’d find in this type of meal. Hmmm.. So we came right out and said “we want you to tell us what is in this dish. What are the ingredients? What food is on this plate?” He then, and ONLY then, pretended he didn’t understand English all that well. We asked to take the rest of the food with us, and he said no.
So of course, we now wonder back to when he brought the meal, and said it was a “special recipe”. Perhaps we’re being paranoid and reading too much into this. But maybe we’re not. My husband is not one to cause a scene (especially sober, hahah!) or embellish a story. He’s a very honest man, and there is no question, SOMETHING was wrong with the food. Perhaps they slipped something in…perhaps it was just bad food. Either way, this shouldn’t have happened, so please, PLEASE do not ever go there. Rude service, bad food, and high pressure tactics, and “service charges” for linens and cutlery. Not exactly the fine dining experience you want on your vacation. We’d have been better off eating EUR 3.00 pizza.
So we walked back to our hotel, in a weird mood…but things were nicer when we saw group out on the patio again. So we grabbed some beer from our room (we had bought this earlier in the day) and spent the rest of the evening hanging out and having fun. In case anyone’s wondering, it wasn’t until the next morning when my husband felt normal again.
July 13 – Rome to Florence
We left the hotel by about 8am and headed to Florence. We arrived around noon or so….to torrential rain and hail! No one wanted to get off of the bus (and one girl didn’t!), but we only had this one day in Florence, so we were going to tackle it head on! There was a guy standing there selling umbrellas for like EUR3.00 or so for those that didn’t have one already, but it was raining SO hard our legs and butts were SOAKING! But we charged on, and headed to Piazza Santa Croce to get our official Contiki picture taken. Of course, the photographer said the weather was not suitable, so we headed to the free leather demonstration. Now my husband and I were normally going to skip this, but with the rain, we thought we’d give it a go.
However, they were three groups behind when we got there, and the “waiting area” was outside…so the group left there and headed to the Galleria dell’ Academia to see Michelangelo’s “David”. Since the weather sucked, the line up there was much shorter than it normally is, so some people who were going to skip this museum chose to stay in line. It moved well…about a 45min-1hr wait. And we all took turns “saving our spots” so we could grab a bite to eat, or go to a shop, or go to the bathroom.
The museum is really, really small, not must else to see (unless of course you are an art lover). But due to time constraints, we went straight to the back to see David. It was gorgeous. You’re not supposed to take pictures, but most people did. Just don’t use a flash, and be discreet.
So at this point, the group had the choice of doing whatever else they wanted, or meeting up in Piazza Della Signora for a free guided tour of Florence. I think our whole group went. There was a local guide, who took us around. We spent a lot of time in the Piazza Della Signora, where there is a copy/fake of David, and the decapitation of Medusa, and many, many other statues. We then walked down past Uffizi (but didn’t go in), and from there, we walked down to the Ponte Vecchio – it’s so pretty! I wish we weren’t so rushed on this tour (though it wasn’t THAT rushed, to be fair), because I would have liked to take some time to visit all the shops there. So we left there, walked through Florence, past a big market, and up to the Duomo. The guide spoke to us a bit more, and then the tour ended here.
The group then had a choice to do what they wanted, or go back to the leather demonstration. Since the weather was now cleared up (it was by the time we got into the Galleria ‘dell Academia earlier), my husband and I decided to go visit the Duomo and see Florence. The line up for Duomo was a whole five minutes (and it’s free)! Once inside, it was truly beautiful, but you can’t really see the whole dome the way you’d like. The only way is to buy a separate ticket to gain access to see this. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time, so we were unable to do this. There is also free access to the catacombs under the church, but the lineup was long, and again, not enough time. So we left there, and shopped around Florence for a bit, and met back at Pizza Santa Croce in time for our official Contiki group picture (which turned out AWESOME!).
So we left central Florence, and headed to our hotel. We all had time to shower and change, before the optional excursion dinner. Now the documents I received from Contiki specifically said it would be at La Certosa – it wasn’t. And for that, I was disappointed, only because it’s supposed to have quite a history and sit on top of a Tuscan Hill. However, the place we went wasn’t bad at all. It was called La Mullinaccio, and was about ½ hr drive into the Tuscan Hills from our hotel.
The food was quite good….very yummy, and the wine was delicious and endless. It was a beautiful setting amongst the Tuscan vineyards, and apart from two other families sitting inside the restaurant, we had the whole outdoor seating area to ourselves. There was entertainment – a guy with a karaoke machine singing pop tunes. It was pretty loud, too loud, in fact (over the dinner itself it should have been softer) and kind of took away from the natural atmosphere. But once dinner was over, everyone took their turn at the karaoke, and we danced until our tour manager said it was time to go. It was a great night.
There is no other way to put it then to say we rode “the party bus” back into Florence. We brought leftover wine with us, and danced and drank all the way back into town. The bus made a stop – to drop off people who were doing the optional excursion for the Space Electronic Disco….for those that weren’t going to the bar, you just stayed on the bus and went back to the hotel (which is what we did. We originally planned to NOT go to the club, but then we were having so much fun with everyone, we decided to go….but then I got the Contiki cough cold and I was NOT well at all – my karaoke singing at the restaurant proved that – so we decided not to go to the bar after all).
July 14 - Florence to Lucerne
And boy am I glad I didn’t go out and got a good night’s rest. We left Florence at 730am, and what AMAZING scenery we saw on the drive to Lucerne! Most people were passed out, but a few of us were awake and just absorbing the views and taking pictures.
Anyways, about an hour before we were to get to our destination, we hit some bad traffic. One of the tunnels was blocked for some reason. Luckily, our tour bus was able to sneak into a rest stop, so we were all able to get off the bus and eat, stretch, go to the bathroom, etc. If we were on the highway, by law, we wouldn’t have been able to exit the bus.
By the time traffic started moving, we no longer had enough time to get to the cable cars to go up Mt Stanserhorn. But we had an amazing driver and tour manager, so they planned the next best thing – to take the mountain pass to Lucerne! See, normally, you just take the highways and tunnels, because it’s the fastest way to the cable cars. But since we weren’t going to make it there before they closed, there was no reason to NOT take the mountain pass! So up, up, up we went! We were able to stop and get off at one point, and the views were spectacular! We also got some great shots of our whole group!
Anyways, it was a gorgeous drive to Lucerne. Our tour manager pointed out Mt Stanserhorn on the way, and everything happens for a reason – it was covered in fog, so had we made it there on time, we wouldn’t have seen anything from up there anyways!
Of course, because of the day we had, by the time we got there, all the stores were closed. * Another reason why I’m glad Contiki has an “in” with some shops!! – our tour manager called ahead and said we were running late, so they kept the stores open just for us!
Getting sidetracked for a moment, some people don’t like the idea that Contiki has deals with certain stores in each town. I personally don’t mind, and for the exact situations that we encountered – two times we got into towns where it was after business hours, and stores were closed. Had Contiki not had a deal with any of these stores, they wouldn’t have been able to call ahead and keep stores open for those of us that wanted to buy souvenirs. And even if that hadn’t been the case, I personally like the idea of knowing that Contiki has done their research and that they are sending their travelers to reputable, reliable and trustworthy merchants. On our own, we may not know if we’re getting swindled, or getting knockoffs, etc…. I’ve read online that if you search on your own time, you can find cheaper stores. Sure, but you don’t know if you’re getting a fake, or getting a legit guarantee/warranty, etc. Sometimes paying a little more for peace of mind and a good guarantee is worth it. That’s my two cents.
Ok, so where was I…. Ah yes, shopping in Lucerne. Well, since the cable car ride was cancelled, that meant some extra money back in our wallets, so I convinced my husband I needed a new watch. I didn’t buy it at the main Harry’s shop – I bought it Harry’s smaller store, across the street (same owner and everything, but cheaper watches, still top quality). Harry’s also owns a souvenir shop next to the “cheaper” store, so all three stores were open for us to shop in.
After shopping, we got our things and headed to the hotel. Note: the coach bus can not get to the hotel, so you have to carry your things with you, therefore, before you leave Florence, you will have to pack an overnight bag for the NEXT night in Lucerne. If you try to bring your whole suitcase with you, good luck. Make sure to pack your alarm clock and adaptors (items that quite a few people forgot!).
So yes, we stayed in the Lucerne Jail. It was nice (hotel reviews are to follow). We had dinner in the hotel (Indian curried chicken – how Swiss), and then following that was the optional excursion boat cruise on Lake Lucerne. A few of us opted out of this….my reasoning was two fold – I’ve been on boat cruises on lakes before (sure the view would be nice, but a boat cruise is a boat cruise), but more importantly, if I did the cruise, I would not have gotten to experience LUCERNE. I wanted to walk around and see the city!
So, we walked up past the Musegg Wall, and over to the Lion Monument. It’s quite a peaceful relaxing area. From there, we walked up onto the hill where the Musegg Wall is, and got some AMAZING pictures of city and mountains. We even saw the boat cruise leave the dock on Lake Lucerne from up there! We then walked down to Chapel Bridge/ Kapellbruecke. Then we went over the Lake Lucerne, and finally, back to our hotel.
July 15 – Lucerne to Paris
Another time I was glad I went to bed early, as it was another GORGEOUS drive, and I was able to be awake on the bus to enjoy it!
We left early again…and arrived into Paris around 4pm or so. We got to our hotel, changed and had dinner. From there, we headed to the subway station where we were on our way to the Eiffel Tower!
The wait was about 1 ½ to get in, but since we all drank wine on the bus, we got loaded and the wait wasn’t so bad. Some people chose to walk up, but most people took the elevators.
The sun set while we were there, and all the flashing lights came on. It was perfect timing. The majority of us chose to go up to the top level, which seriously, is worth it. I mean, this is the EIFFEL TOWER! Of course it’s worth it!
So after that (it was after midnight) we all headed back to the hotel via cabs, and most of us called it a night.
July 16 – Paris
Up early to take the bus into Paris! Our driver/tour manager gave us a crash-tour of the city. We actually got to see quite a few things, so I’m glad we met the bus in time for the tour. The best part is we were able to stop at Le Palais de Chaillot – this is where the best pictures of the Eiffel Tower can be taken.
Our driver then decided that causing us all to crap ourselves was a great way to start the day. We were told to fasten our seatbelts, and then we entered into the Arc de Triomphe traffic circle full speed ahead!! He went around a few times, and we were all laughing and screaming and having a blast!
Now the bus tour ended at the free tour of the French perfumery – which my husband and I opted out on. So we hopped on the subway and back up to the Arc de Triomphe, which is also the start of Les Champs-Elysees. We took the underground tunnel to the Arc, but didn’t bother going up on top (which you can for a fee). We then went window shopping down Les Champs Elysees (with a few stops so hubby could check out Peugot, Renaud and Ferrari stores!).
We got on the subway again, and headed to the Centre Georges Pompidou. My husband is an architect, so I had no choice! While he walked around snapping pictures of this building of modern architecture, I sat by a fountain and watched some young artists draw and compare pictures.
From there, we headed down on the subway to the Latin Quarter for lunch…and then walked to the Notre Dame Basillica.
Whew….so then we took the subway to Le Louvre. Tip – there are a few subway stops you can get off at for Le Louvre. We got off at “Palais Royal/Musee Du Louvre”. Look for the signs, and you’ll find a little tiny shop/convenience store that sells tickets to the Louvre. No line up. We just bought our tickets there, and walked right in the Louvre!
Of course once inside, we rushed to see the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo. In my opinion though, their guide map is a piece of crap, because everyone was getting lost…including some people from our group that we ran into! I guess that’s expected though, considering the size of the museum. I wish had had more time there! There was so much to see!
So we left there around 430p-5pm or so ( I don’t remember exactly), took the subway back to our hotel where we showered, changed, and met the group in the lobby for 7pm.
Not a single person confirmed for the optional excursion Nouvelle Eve, so our tour manager came up with an awesome plan that suited everyone’s needs.
We all stopped at a supermarket for wine, cheese and baguettes, then took the subway to Montmartre. We saw the Moulin Rouge (didn’t go in though), and walked through the area until we got to Sacre Coeur church, where we all just sat on the hill overlooking Paris, and we all just drank, ate, talked, laughed, took pictures, and fully enjoyed our last evening together. It was AWESOME. Big kudos to our tour manager for coming up with this plan!
Eventually, they closed this area, so we were forced to move on. Our tour manager led the way, and found a restaurant (La Cremaillere - http://www.cremaillere1900.com/crema1.htm ) that could accommodate us all, and even negotiated a set meal and price – EUR24/person for what we got was a steal! It was a great meal with great win….but mostly, great company!!!
When dinner was over, we were all in the mood for a good time (despite my stuffed nose!) so we headed to a bar that was –literally- right next door to Moulin Rouge. We danced the night away, and ended tour with a “bang”!
July 17 – Paris to London
Well, the tour is “officially” over. Since we left early, there were some people we never got to say goodbye to (those that stayed in Paris). We dropped off a couple at the airport, and then headed back to London.
I asked our tour manager if we’d be stopping at Vimy Ridge (a very important war memorial for Canadians) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vimy_Memorial. He said it’s not part of the plan, but he talked to the driver, and we made a pit stop!!!
How absolutely moving. It was a stunning monument, and I was speechless. I can not thank the tour manager or driver enough for stopping there. It was amazing.
So we took the ferry back to Dover, and then made our way into London. At a red light, I looked over and saw the hotel that my husband and I were staying at that night! Our driver drove around and dropped us off at the front door! YAY! How sweet and thoughtful!!
We got to our room, and I sat on the bed and sighed. I was so happy that I just had the most incredible trip of my life – I saw and did things I never imagined I’d ever do, and I met the best people and I’m sure I now have friends for life. So obviously, I was also so sad that it was all over…..all I have now is my journal, souvenirs and 2000 + pictures and video files…thank god for Facebook – a way for all of us to share our memories, stories and pictures.
So that is my review…um, report..better yet, essay of my trip. Would I do Contiki again? Nope. Because this tour was SO awesome and everything went SO well, I think any other tour won’t be able to match it!!
- arc de triomphe
- bridge of sighs
- eiffel tower
- lake lucerne
- lion monument
- mt stanserhorn
- rialto bridge
- royal national hotel
- space electronic disco
- st goar
- the louvre
- tour manager
- travel advice
- venus de milo
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- Add to discussion 55 comments so far
7 Aug 2008 jess said
What was the deal with optionals.
Did you get “the list” in London and have to pay for everything then?
I know you and your husband weren’t planning on doing certain optionals at first and changed your mind later, but for the most part you pay in London correct?
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16 Sep 2008 jess said
Hey Benji! Promise, this is my last question ….
I leave for my trip in a couple days…getting very excited, but also going crazy with what to pack
I was just wondering, did you get an opportunity to do laundry? When and Where?
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1 Oct 2008 Tanuki said
May I ask what Vatican guided tour company did you use? Would you recommend them?
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6 Oct 2008 Explorer1084391 said
Are you able to tell me what time did you’ll arrive back in London?
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18 Oct 2008 Caz said
I just want to say that your …. review is the BEST i’ve read – detailed, funny, ancedotal, TRUTHFUL and basically if i wasn’t doing this tour already it is enough to make me want to do it now….
I plan to print out your review and carry it with me when i go on my tour in …. 9 weeks….. and try as muchas possible to replicate it. you had a such a greeat trip, i can only hope mine will be as wonderful as yours sounds.
When you talk about the pre-booked tour – do you mean a tour you booked privately, or the optionals you paid for at the begining? Also The Louve is an essential in my world, and you talkabout the tix you bought – was that not part of the tour? Are you saying you had to pay for them seperately?? Not that i am concerned at all – I’m bloody well going there regardless of the cost, its more knowing how much i need to organise….
Thanks for your ….review, your work is amazing
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18 Oct 2008 Griffmanjoe said
I was on the tour with Benji. We had the best time of our lives. When you visit the Louvre, ask for the “secret entrance” which is a less well-known alternate entrance. It will save you time in line. There are kiosks to buy entrance tickets. Beware, the Louvre is a Labyrinth. Expect to get lost and spend lots of time deciphering your map. Have fun!!!
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5 Mar 2009 Agnes&Arnold said
This was a great informational post! I am going May 7th 2009 with my boyfriend.
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27 Mar 2009 Neetz4415 said
heyyy i’m doing this tour in about 15 days!! so excited you’re review was EXTREMELY helpful thank you sooooo much!! i just have one quick question…around what time did you get back to london after the tour was done ?
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31 May 2009 The Pilot said
This was an awesome guide/review/overview thingy! It really has given me a good idea of what to expect when I do my Euro Discovery next month! Also, the hotel guide, THANK YOU!!! <!--graemlin::D--> I was wondering what they would be like!
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23 Jun 2009 Asian.gem said
Hi, thanks for the review, it’s really helpful! I’m really excite but kinda stress out since I got so much planning to do! I have a quick question, for the money that you bought to the trip, did you bring cash, debit/credit card, traveller’s cheque?? I was thinking about getting traveller’s cheque as what my friend was recommending for me to do, but I read some posts on the forum that’s no point of bringing them. What do you think?
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15 Jul 2009 travelbug said
Thanks for the review. It gave me lots of information for my upcoming trip!! Just wondering how much money did you bring to Switzerland (Swiss Franc)?
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10 Mar 2010 Mrs Jay said
In Paris do you think we have time to go to dinner at the Eiffel Tower at 9p.m or 9:30p.m???
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28 Apr 2011 hatman86 said
hey love this post, has me pumped an excited for my trip, what was the common style of camera on the trip ? did yours feel bulky carrying it around an recommendation for making sure u get enough photos
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