"After all, you only get one first time." - Taylah Nilsson
This article was originally posted on AWOL by Taylah Nilsson.
As someone who has been dreaming about travelling her whole life, it was crazy that when the time came to actually leave Australia I was in total denial. It didn’t feel real and for a pretty good reason: it’s not everyday you’re offered a trip to Europe just to take photos and write about it. I was nervous, I’ll admit. I’d never even left Australia and was embarking on that first trip all by myself, until meeting up with my Contiki group in London. But I realised that this was it, my dream was coming true. I spent my leaving day whizzing around organising my camera gear and travel documents. After an emotional farewell to my entire family and boyfriend, I readied myself for the trip of a lifetime. After all, you only get one first time.
London To Paris, France
I arrived in London in the late evening, which let me transition into the different time zone easily. After a late night feed from Tesco, I settled into my place in Russell Square and slept. Next morning was an early one. I mean super early. This was the real beginning of my trip: leaving England across the Channel to France to find my Contiki group. Paris was always my wishlist city. Seeing it in real life for the first time left me speechless; the architecture, the culture, the people, the food, everything. I’ve never filled up my camera memory card so quickly. After a quick tour around the famous city sights, I laid my eyes on it for the first time: the Eiffel Tower, right in front of me. What was even more extraordinary was seeing it light up on my first evening in Paris, a Nutella crepe in hand. Our trip manager gave us a thorough orientation on the coach and a tour around the area, which helped us settle in and get our bearings. The next day I made sure I had the Metro map down pat, with multiple tickets ready to conquer Paris. I was the perfect tourist: I put a lock on the Pont des Arts, gawked at the Louvre pyramids and yelled at a French man to leave my camera alone – in French! I sulked the next morning when I had to leave my hotel room – with its wide window view of Parisian terraces – but I made sure I ate as many croissants as I humanly could before we left.
Beaujolais Wine Region, Lyon
The Beaujolais Wine Region in Lyon is one of the most picturesque places my eyeballs had ever seen. My jaw hit the floor when the 16th century, Contiki-owned chateau we were staying in rolled into sight. It was almost too much when they told us they were filming a video for Contiki there. A guy from Perth called Dave had always wanted to live like a king in Europe – and they were making his dreams a reality with an epic chateau party. There were jumping castles, water pistols, confetti canons, water bombs, fairy floss, drinks, smoke bombs, bubble machines, food, film crews and Australian DJs Flight Facilities to provide the music. What followed could possibly have been the most fun I’ve ever had.
The next day we hiked to a point where we could see all of Lyon. There were vineyards as far as the eye could see, and we got to enjoy them with a beautiful picnic basket full of delicacies from local providores. Here we just stretched out and watched the world go by. That night we partied in one of the chateau’s cellars, which had its own dance floor. On the final morning in Lyon we visited the famous Bordeaux wine vineyard. The wine was so incredible that I bought a souvenir bottle of Rosé and lugged it around for the rest of my trip.
The French Riviera
The French Riviera was always on my bucket list, so when I saw it on the itinerary for my trip I was ecstatic. This is the home of Nice, Antibes, Cannes and all of their incredible beaches. Nice (pronounced niece) – famous for its crystal blue beach and super interesting history – was particularly exciting. Once a city that was colonised by the Italians, it’s still such a hybrid of both Italian and French culture, language and cuisine. We shopped ’til we dropped, and ate our own weight in gelato. We eventually fell asleep on the lounges under the famous blue and white striped umbrellas along the beachfront, cocktails in hand.
Later, we headed out for some Italian food (in France): quattro formaggi pizza and white wine in the main piazza of Nice. Contiki even managed to pack an extra country into our evening, with a quick visit to Monaco and the Monte Carlo Casino. Elaborate cars were parked out the front of the casino and the long main street was lined with designer stores. Leaving France, we blasted our group song, ‘I’m Good’ by The Mowgli’s, over the speakers of our tour bus and danced and sung towards the Italian border.
I went into Florence without expectations, lugging around a seven kilogram camera on my shoulders, and it totally wooed me. Friendly locals, incredible food and the architecture – oh gosh, the architecture. After a long tour around the famous piazzas, most of us were starving and went to the first restaurant we saw. Thankfully, it was probably the best food I have ever had. Not only that, but I found myself surrounded by new friends all experiencing the city together for the first time. The 30-degree day didn’t stop us from climbing to the very top of the Duomo Cathedral. The Duomo was the most challenging climb of all – even after the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, and every other landmark in between France and Italy. The building is so old and the only way to get both up and down is via a very steep, long and narrow staircase with no proper windows. But the view was worth every step; I was in awe of those Firenze rooftops.
We spent the rest of the day wandering (more like shuffling) the back streets of Firenze, passing little shops and alleyways through the mass crowds in Florence’s famous markets. That night I had my very first experience of a karaoke bar at The Red Garter. Cocktails, dancing and bad singing followed. Being immersed in the nightlife of Florence was a truly incredible experience. In the morning we were told a huge earthquake had hit the city through the night, but in our tired and blissful state, we had slept through it. Florence won my heart, and I’ll definitely be back.
I can’t quite put my finger on Rome – I didn’t love or hate it. I guess you can’t love every city that you visit. Don’t get me wrong, the history and culture is mind blowing, but construction means that most of the famous sights were covered in scaffolding. Kickstarting the first day was a train into the heart of Rome where we checked out the less touristy areas. Then it was onto something really special: the Capuchin Monks. These are the bones and bodies of ancient monks now turned into artwork. Visiting them left me with goosebumps and strange vibes. It was creepy but cool. Later, we found ourselves in a downpour right out the front of the Trevi Fountain, but the rain didn’t stop me from throwing in a lucky coin that I found on the ground in the Monte Carlo Casino. An incredible storm blew over all of Rome and we ran through the streets in brightly coloured ponchos, clutching the ridiculous umbrellas we haggled from street merchants. In fits of laughter we huddled together like penguins, right outside the Pantheon. It could not have been more perfect.
But all good things must come to an end, and it was finally time for me to leave Rome behind and head home. It was actually one of the hardest moments throughout my trip – leaving behind new friends that felt like my second family. I said my goodbyes and headed off in another direction, solo once again.
At the beginning of this Contiki trip, I never expected to return home with a head full of memories and a heart full of love. It was tough getting back into real life, especially after waking up every morning surrounded by all the people I was on the tour with singing our song. This trip definitely changed my life in such in an amazing way; it opened my eyes to how big the world really is and how much is left to explore. You really do only get one first time travelling overseas.
Originally written by our friends at AWOL.