European Discovery » Review by Shaldon
I wrote this review more than a year after going on the European Discovery tour, but I remember it being absolutely brilliant. Everything from the cities we visited to the tour guide were all top notch. So, yes I would highly recommend this tour; especially if you are a first time traveller. You get to visit many of Western Europe’s main attractions over a relatively short space of time at a reasonable cost. You really do get bang for your buck (value for money; I’m from South Africa). However, this means that you don’t spend a lot of time in any single place and the tour is done at a very fast pace. If there was one general complaint, it was exactly that. People felt they needed more time to explore and discover each city. I don’t think that is the intention of this tour though. Rather you will visit each location briefly giving you enough time to get a taste and then decide whether you want to return for an extended holiday. A lot of my tour mates were real lighties (teenagers), and became quite rowdy and obnoxious at times. I guess you need to take this in your stride though, I couldn’t expect people to be all business-like on a Contiki trip. Having said all that, I thoroughly enjoyed this tour, learned a lot, made great friends and partied like a mad man.
So here are my reviews of each location and excursion. I hope it helps. Before I get into it though, I have one piece of advice: use your time on the bus to sleep. It’s the best way to manage the long days and rough nights.
London: London isn’t technically part of the tour but it starts and ends here so it’s worth mentioning. I suggest that you arrive at least a day early in London, explore the city at your own leisure and then meet up with the tour the night before it starts. I booked my extra nights in London at the Royal National Hotel near the Russell Square subway station. The hotel is walking distance away from the station and quite centrally located in London. The only reason I booked into this hotel was because the Contiki offices are located there and the tour started there as well. Honestly those were the only advantages of staying at that hotel. In truth I found it to be a dingy place. I also had to share the room with some random dude from another tour. I’m not normally one for sharing a room but this random person from another tour (WTF)? I suggest that you book a single room or try another hotel. I was a solo traveller so this might not be as much of an issue for everyone.
As far as exploring the city is concerned, I suggest that you get a ticket for one of the red tour busses and then take it from there. There are 3 routes indicated by 3 colours. Each route takes you past most of the major sights. The busses have guides, pointing out and discussing all the landmarks. You can get off the busses when you want, visit a site and just climb onto the next bus. You are also not limited to a route and can changeover whenever routes crossover. A day ticket cost me in the region of £24. It’s not just a great way to see London but perfect to get around.
The actual tour starts pretty early on day 1, after quite a night at the hotel pub. But no worry, the journey to Amsterdam is very long so you will have plenty of time to recover. You drive to Dover, get on a ferry and then dock again in Calais. From there you have a long drive through Belgium into Amsterdam.
Amsterdam: I love Amsterdam. It must be the coolest city in the world. I have never experienced a place where the people are so liberal and where all pleasures are catered for. Everything and anything goes,plus; they are the kings of EDM. Amsterdam is like a really hot woman with a great personality. The city is alive and has a unique vibe of its own that pulsates within you. It must be my favourite city in Europe.
The hotel in Amsterdam was pretty good although you don’t spend much time there. The night out is quite long and your departure from the hotelis early too. Your dinner will be included, as is the case with most of the destinations on this tour.
The night out in Amsterdam ranked is one of the most awesome nights of my life. The evening includes 2 optional extras: a canal cruise and a sex show (yes, a live sex show). The canal cruise costs €31 and is a great way to get to socialise and see the city. Importantly, there’s also lots of Heineken on the barge too. After that you wander through the narrow cobbled streets of Amsterdam until you find yourself staring into dimly lit shop windows, displaying what you may think are manikins but are actually prostitutes. The bright red light at every few shop windows confirms that you are in the famous red-light district. From there on Amsterdam becomes a weird sexually charged city, with no prejudice. The sex show cost me in the region of €16 and while you might think this to be very sleazy, it is quite an experience. It is done with a bit of taste (as much as this sort thing permits) and to be honest is pretty comical. Either way I enjoyed it and when I go back to Amsterdam, I will definitely do it again. After that, the night is open and you can spend it as you like. From there on I partied like an animal. It was certainly a night to remember. For me only a night in Cape Town and Prague came close to that.
The next morning is pretty laid back with a free morning before your departure to Germany. I spent the time wandering the city and visited the Anne Frank museum, which is quite popular and very informative. It costs €10. I recently heard that Justin Bieber visited the museum and wrote a comment hoping that Anne would have been a fan of his. What a dickhead. I also visited the sex museum. It cost me €2 and to be honest was only worth that much. I did it to kill time but it just shows you how liberal the Dutch are.
St. Goar: St. Goar is a quaint little town in the Rhine valley and the way I figure is not so much a tourist destination as it is a convenient halfway stop between Amsterdam and Munich. Having said that, nothing stops the fun! The hotel in St. Goar is great too but there is no elevator and if you are on the 4th floor then you might have a problem. I saw a lot of guys struggling with monster luggage belonging to the ladies on the tour. Fortunately I escaped that torture, not due to a lack of chivalry though.
You visit a beer shtein shop where you can purchase authentic German beer shteins (mugs) that are exquisitely decorated. They are quite pricy, but what could be a more German souvenir than a beer mug. On the single evening in St. Goar there is an optional wine tasting tour that costs €9. It is no different from any other wine tasting that I’ve done although the quaint setting gave it somewhat of a retro authenticity. I purchased a bottle of Eiswein which I understand is quite a delicacy and will appreciate in value substantially.
To end the night off, we spent the evening in the pub at the Hotel, the only place open in the town from what I could tell. There is a Contiki challenge running at the pub where the tour group must drink the most amount of a certain local shooter. There are 2 frames with the winning groups displayed on the bar wall. Apparently the winning group drank something like 3000 shooters. I find that really hard to believe though. That’s like 60 shooters per person. They must have just visited a boring town in Luxembourg before getting to St. Goar. They certainly could not have just partied in Amsterdam. Anyway I don’t think we even got to 100, mostly due to lack of interest brought on by severe hangovers.
Munich: When I think of Munich, I think of beer; lots of beer; lots of really good beer. What a great city. Now don’t get fooled into thinking that Munich is a dilapidated city full of drunks. Quite the contrary, Munich is prosperous; in fact it is one of the most prosperous cities in the world. I have never seen such a clean city. It’s as if it has been manicured. The journey to Munich is cool too, you realise that you are in the heart of lavish Bavaria, when the tour bus is stuck on the right lane at 100km/h with fancy German supercars passing at 180km/h every few seconds. Back to the beer though! Germany is full of Microbreweries where each kelder has its own local craft beer selection; all of which are tasty. I can only imagine what the Oktoberfest is like. I have to do that soon.
All the excursions in Munich are included on the tour. There is a bike tour through the city,which is done well and is very informative. On the bike tour, you stop at a beer hall in the middle of a park, have a few beers and then continue on your journey with a beer in hand. Very cool; back home I’ll be arrested for doing that. Keep an eye out for the river surfers too; I thought that was innovative. There is also a visit to MarienPlatz where you can get to try some of the local cuisine and shop (if that’s your thing). Make sure to check out the Glockenspiel at the square itself. It’s a clock, dating back to the 1500s, with a unique and intricate animated show.
For me the highlight of Munich was the HorfBrauhaus. It’s a huge legendary beer hall with so much of tradition and an amazing atmosphere. When you go in, you sit at any table where you get a seat, regardless of who is already there. We sat at a table with a middle aged German man and two ladies from a country I do not recall. The Germans are also super friendly, so you can crack up a conversation with ease. The beers are served in one-litre shteins by burly German beer maidens. Be sure to tip them well and give them the respect they deserve, lest they strike you down with a huge fist. They literally carry six beers in each hand. Try doing that for 8 hours straight! Every 30 minutes the hall breaks out into a local beer drinking song. They songs are tough to learn but fun nonetheless. We also had our dinner there; I recommend the Pork Knuckle; a very tasty local dish.
The staff at the hotel arranged a party for us at the bar in the hotel. I remember that I had a great time but cannot recall the details of the evening. All in all, Munich and the Germans are awesome.
Austrian Tyrol: Next up is another quaint little town not far from Innsbruck in the Austrian Tyrol province. Again, this is not so much a hot tourist destination as it is a convenient halfway stop between Munich and Venice. The area is especially popular for outdoor sports including bungee jumping, mountain climbing, skiing and river rafting. The latter is an optional extra on the tour. The drive from Munich is long so you arrive at a small but classy hotel late in the afternoon.
We had dinner at the hotel and then happened to stumble upon an entertaining local cultural experience at the dining hall. A few traditional dancers and musicians performed a few acts for the crowd, which consisted mostly of locals. The performers were all dressed in traditional garb and looked as if they came out of the 1700s. As the performance went on, it became more interactive. At one point one of the girls on the tour and myself went up and joined the dancers. Later on 3 other guys and I were called up to do a dance with 4 of the traditional dancers. We were given a pointy hat to wear and had walk around a cooking pot in tune with the music and then every so often stop and do an intricate dance consisting of slapping your hands against different parts of your body. It goes without saying that we couldn’t really follow the dance but we tried valiantly. What we could follow was the part when you kick the arse of the guy walking around the pot in front of you. This you do whenever you feel is appropriate and follow it up with shrieking peacock-like cheer. All this ends with a shot of Schnapps. As it turned out this was one of the most enjoyable experiences of the tour for me.
The next day, you depart from the hotel in the morning and head out to a remote location for the optional river rafting trip. This costs €41 and I would recommend it on conditions that you don’t mind cold water and that you enjoy a bit of extreme sport. It snowed that morning giving the water much more of a chill. It was supposed to be summer! Having called it “extreme” that may be a bit of an overstatement.The rapids are pretty gentle and don’t get higher than a questionable grade 3. In fact, at no stage do you even come close to tipping the dingy. The water is freezing, literally. The river originates at a glacier and only just doesn’t freeze over. Despite all of this, the experience is really enjoyable especially if you are a first timer. You get a wet suit which, helps with the cold as long as you stay in the boat. Having done grade 5 rapids in a crocodile infested river in sunny South Africa, this experience was somewhat timid. Still, I would highly recommend doing it. The scenery along the river is stunning too. What could be better than a day on a river out in the open?
After the rafting excursion, you depart for Italy with a stop at the Swarovski museum just before you cross the border. This will cost you €9 and is maybe not the most enjoyable thing you could do. I must admit that the ladies did enjoy it though. Diamonds are a girl’s best friend but I suppose Swarovski crystals do just fine.
Venice: I remember the drive from Austria to Italy over and through the many mountain passes being particularly beautiful. Unfortunately I slept through most of it. Again as I mentioned before, the bus journeys are the best times to sleep. In truth, Italy was the country I enjoyed the least. The Dutch, Germans and Austrians were all so friendly. The Italians on the other hand seem so angry at the world. They snap at tourists all the time and are generally rude. Having said that, there are so many foreign tourists around that I also may become snappy and angry if I lived there. The architecture in Italy is stunning and it is difficult to fathom the age of the buildings there. Some buildings are more than 2000 years old. It is truly a glimpse into the ancient world. The hotels in Italy are of the same quality as the previous cities BUT, their breakfasts suck. Apparently the Italians don’t do breakfast! Go figure!
There are 2 optional activities in Venice. The first is a guided tour through old city that costs €11. It is worth the money and is very informative. The volume of tourists is immense and you really must fight to keep up with your guide. The second excursion is a Gondola cruise through the canals of Venice. If you’ve seen the movie Casanova or The Italian Job then you might have some idea of what this cruise entails. It really is beautiful and amazing to think that the entire city was built on a swamp and reclaimed land. I would definitely recommend this extra. We also took 3 bottles of wine aboard and promptly finished all 3. Not great for your bladder if you’re stuck on a small Gondola for an hour. I must mention that our gondolier told us off on many occasions. We got quite used to that type of thing on the days to come in Italy.
Rome:Rome is where the ancient world really comes alive. You can tell why the Romans were one of the most powerful empires ever. So it goes without saying that Rome is all about the history and the ancient monuments. You will spend 2 nights in Rome, which is nowhere near enough. Not only is there so much to see but everything is overcrowded and slow to get through. It’s almost impossible to get a decent pic of anything without someone getting in your way.
There are 2 optional extras in Rome, the first being a guided tour through the Vatican City. The Catholics on the tour will obviously appreciate this a lot but whatever your belief, the tour is well worth it. It costs in the region of €14 and is quite lengthy. Again, the length is more due to the amount of people being funnelled through rather than the actual size, which in itself is quite large. The second optional tour is a visit to the Coliseum which costs about €26. How can you visit Rome and not go to the Coliseum. I would definitely recommend this visit. Other notable visits which were included on the tour were the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, the Roman Forum, the Spanish Steps, Piazza Venezia and Piazza Navona. My favourite was the Pantheon, a building dating back more than 2000 years with an impressive domed roof and oculus.
I remember partying in Rome but I cannot remember the details. I know that the beer wasn’t all that great but the wine was good. Rome is an amazing city and I might consider going back despite the overcrowding and general rudeness. So when in Rome do as the Romans do and swear your neighbour.
Florence: Florence was my favourite Italian city. You get that real renaissance feeling here. The red top roofs from an elevated view are breath-taking (very fitting for the group pic). The city is also a lot less crowded and the people are friendlier. I can just imagine artists and painters working in the city taking their inspiration from their surrounds.
There are 4 excursions in Florence. The first is a visit to a leather shop, which to me was a drag. Skip that if you can and get some time to walk through the city. The second is a guided tour through the city. This is also pretty good especially if you are interested in the history and culture of the city. The other 2 extras are optional and are both well worth it. The first is a traditional feast in the Tuscan Hills which costs €39. Now this may seem somewhat steep but it includes a multi-course meal (in excess of 7), lots of wine and good entertainment. The food here is the best on the entire tour. I would definitely recommend doing this extra. Thereafter is a planned night out to the space disco that will set you back €15.
I thoroughly enjoyed this club and I partied hard and had a blast. We got there pretty early and the place was quite empty but it really packed up after midnight. I thought I might mention the unique payment system they have. You get a compulsory drinks card at the door, which you use to order your drinks. The barman just clips your card for each drink you order. Before you leave the club you hand your drinks card in at the cashier who will then charge you for all your drinks and then issue you with an exit slip. The bouncers will only allow you out of the club after receiving your exit slip. It’s like some sort of negative bouncing. You can get bounced back into the club. The only issue with all of this is if you drink more than you can pay or if you lose your card; in which case you will have to pay the full possible value of the drinks on the card even if you’ve only had 1 drink. I somehow managed to keep it together and pay for all my drinks even though I went into a second drinks card. Other guys had to put large amounts through on credit cards. On the positive side, the system is fast and the queues at the bars are small despite the large amount of people. The system is great except they should allow you to put money onto a card before you buy drinks, just to help you to check yourself. Sorry for that rant but I figure you must be warned; I shudder to think what would happen if you cannot pay for your card.
Lucerne: The great thing about the long drive to Lucerne is not the breath-taking scenery; rather it is the opportunity to sleep off your dreadful hangover. Lucerne is one of the most affluent cities in the world. As with Munich it is super clean and for some reason it’s empty. You don’t see a lot of crowds or traffic. It’s as if everyone stays locked in doors. It seemed profoundly peaceful, bordering on boring though. The standard of living in Switzerland as a whole is very high and Lucerne is no different; but this comes at a premium… A hefty premium! The prices of stuff here is just ridiculous. No wonder people stay off the streets, they probably get charged to walk around. I bought an MGD at a bar and paid $9 (in 2012). Back in South Africa, I would get 6 MGDs for that price. The hotel in Lucerne is really cool. It is an old prison that was converted into a Hotel but without much architectural change. Your room is literally a prison cell with an elevated barred window, dim lighting and no furniture except for a bed. Some people found the place disconcerting. I thought they were pansies. Just don’t drop the soap.
There are 2 optional extras in Lucerne. The first is a 45 minute boat cruise on Lake Lucerne that costs €22. The cruise itself is not necessarily special but the surrounds are amazing. Lucerne is located in the middle of the Alps and the lake is surrounded by snow-capped mountains. The view from the lake, un-obstructed by concrete towers, is beautiful. Still for €22, it was a bit overpriced (in non-Swiss terms). The second excursion is a trip up mount Pillates which costs €40. (By the way the currency in Switzerland is the Franc. Just to swindle you into overspending by miscalculating the exchange rate.) You go up to the summit (2000m above sea level) via a cable car and go down with a mono-rope type contraption. The views from the top are exquisite and afford a great opportunity for some Kodak moments. Make sure to take some warm clothes, it is mid-winter at the peak. It is pretty crowded at the top so there are long queues especially to come back down. I guess that’s why the streets of Lucerne are so empty; everybody is on top of the mountain.
Before you depart from Lucerne, you get an opportunity to buy some cool personalised gifts from a genuine Swiss army knife shop. South Africans; keep a lookout for a place called the Bah-Bah-Las bar. If I had known it was there I would have certainly stopped over the previous night. Unfortunately, I only spotted it just as we were leaving. It’s not too far from the lion memorial statue thingy.
Paris: What more can be said about Paris? It is the city of romance and revolution, of architecture and art. Paris is truly a beautiful city. The Eiffel tower, however much it maybe clichéd, must be one of the most symbolic monuments in the world. It is distinct and it dominates the Parisian skyline. The renaissance style architecture is stunning and there are tons of cultural experiences to indulge in. The food is rich and tasty and the vibe is quite laid back. Paris is, one of the must see cities in the world.
The journey from Switzerland to Paris is very long, made worse by the large volumes of traffic. Sore arses and stiff bodies were the order of the day. You have 2 nights in Paris and you will need it as there is much to see in this city.
There are a number of things planned in Paris; a trip to the top of the Eiffel tower, a guided bus tour and the Nouvelle Eve dinner and show. Also you have a free day in Paris where you can explore at your own leisure. An important tip in France is not to assume that the locals can speak English. While most of them can, they just refuse, especially if you start your conversation in English. Apparently they have never really gotten over the battle of Waterloo. Rather ask them (in French) if they can speak English and then proceed from there. That usually gets you further. What works even better, is to speak to them in a totally different foreign language (I tried Afrikaans, a sort of South African Dutch) and when it becomes apparent that they don’t understand you and you don’t understand French, English simply becomes the happy meeting point in the middle.
The Eiffel tower trip is great with magnificent views. One of the elevators was out of order when I was there so the queue was super-long. Our guide decided to get us staircase passes instead and we literally climbed the Eiffel tower. In truth, I think walking is the better option. Not only do you get a well needed workout (after all the drinking) but you get to explore the tower and enjoy the views from different levels. The €12 I spent here was well worth it. Try to get to visit the tower at night. It is lit up in different colours and is pretty stunning.
The bus tour is interesting too and gives you a good departure point for the free day. Also, the guide will fill you in on all the need-to-knows of Paris. I found the drive around the circle at the Arch de Triomph to be quite exhilarating especially after seeing it on so many movies. The morning of the final day starts with a visit to a perfumery, which I thought was quite a waste. The ladies loved it and the guys with girls pretended to love it. After that, the day is yours. I visited the Notre Dame and the museum of modern art in my free time. Both are quite cool, especially the Van Gough section at the museum. The Louvre was closed on our free day so we unfortunately missed that. It is closed every Tuesday so if you really want to visit the Louvre, then you must get your timing right or you may want to extend your stay in Paris.
For €123, the Nouvelle Eve Dinner and show is expensive to say the least, but it is worth it. It is the final event of the tour and a big night is a must. The show is a Moulin Rouge style cabaret, but it is not at the famous Moulin Rouge. It is actually next door to the Moulin Rouge. This fact may leave you feeling a bit ripped off, nonetheless I still suggest that you go for the show. The show consists of a number of different acts including bear breasted dancers, acrobats and comedians. Dinner is served during the show and as I recall it was good too (wine included). After the show our guide took us to a local club where we parted till morning; all of us in a great mood but rather sombre to know that it a few hours it was all going to be over. I still can’t get over the how people become like family in just 2 weeks. I had assumed that I would go on the tour have a blast and leave without the slightest care for anyone I met. It is not so, not in the slightest.
I took the complimentary drive back to London where I spent an additional night before flying back home. I had a light flight so I had a bit of time to explore London a bit more. I visited Madame Tussauds and also went past Lords cricket ground; both of which are worthy day trips. It did feel pretty weird to end the tour wandering London on my own, it was a kind of peaceful yet melancholy feeling. Anyway, enough of my sad stories! This tour is amazing, so do it to the maximum and have the time of your life.
Review written Mar 2014event 0.3