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Two Unbelievable Weeks in Europe

Author: Kathryn B.
Date of Trip: July 2006

Day 1 – Chicago to London July 25th

The journey began in Chicago O’Hare airport where I met the other four people I was flying with. We all were expecting security to take a while so were there way too early. We left Chicago on British Airways (go row 42!) and the flight to London Heathrow took about 7.5 hours. Since we left late afternoon in Chicago, we landed at Heathrow at 7am in the morning and missed the nighttime.

Day 2 – First Day in London!

We all took the tube to Russell Square and dropped our stuff off at the Imperial Hotel. This was the only hotel we had single rooms at, but the rooms were very cute and tiny. In the lobby, we met some more fellow Contiki-ers and we all decided to go explore. We’re tired and exhausted, so what better thing to do than go get drinks at a pub!

I enjoyed a lovely Strongbow (a cider drink, similar to fruit flavored beer). Couldn’t get any food at the pub, so found a little bakery. Wandered around the city some more and eventually wound up at the park across from the hotel again with some wine. This was also in the middle of Europe’s heat wave, and London doesn’t really like air conditioning. Quite warm. After some chilling in the park, I went back and took a much-needed nap.

6pm was our designated time to meet the entire group for the first time in the lobby. We met all of the 45 that were on our trip, our driver Aaron, and a tour manager Pete, later deemed Petey Pablo, made for a very large group. A big group of us went back into the city for dinner and ate fish and chips at another pub. The owner seemed a little daunted that a huge group of Americans overtook the bar, but he agreed to give us food. We all moved to the upstairs part and enjoyed some more drinks and food.

After dinner we took some pictures in Trafalgar Square, bought more wine, and from the advice of a few police officers, headed to the river to “drink to our heart’s content”. Enjoyed the sights of London and had a very fun first night.

Day 3 – Full day in London

The first group event was a coach sightseeing tour of London and saw all the big sights, including: Big Ben, London Eye, Tower of London, London Bridges, and Trafalgar Square. It was a great way to see the entire city quickly and not waste a lot of time walking around lost, almost being hit by cars coming at you on the wrong side of the road. We were dropped off in the middle of the city, got some lunch, then a group of us walked to Buckingham Palace. Took some pictures, then me, Anne, and Kate walked through Hyde Park and down Oxford Street back to the hotel. Lots of walking. Thought we might kill ourselves a few times crossing the street and not knowing where the cars were coming from. Due to jetlag, the heat, and an hour of sleep the night before, took another quick nap at the hotel, then met everyone for our first group dinner.

Dinner was a very traditional British meal of soup, meat pies, and a strange sponge cake dessert. Probably my least favorite meal of the trip. Took the coach to Contiki sponsored Battle of the Bands, but dinner took so long that we only saw the last band perform. Danced and had a great time then headed back to the hotel in a taxi.

Day 4 – London to Paris

Left early in the morning for our first long coach drive. Took about two hours to get to Dover, England where we boarded the ferry. I was amazed by how big the ferry was and how many cars and buses were loaded onto it. Saw the White Cliffs of Dover and the Dover Castle as we left the shore and ate lunch during the 80 minute ride across the channel. The ferry took us to Calais, France where we got back on the coach and drove about 4 four hours to Paris.

In Paris, we stayed at the Ibis Hotel in the more northern part of the city somewhat near Sacre Coeur. The hotel was really nice and I was roommates with Caitlyn, who was my roommate for most of the rest of the trip. The group ate dinner downstairs in the hotel, then we went on the “Illumination Tour” of the city of Paris on the coach. Although my digital camera broke on the tour, it was beautiful to see the city all lit up at night, and it really deserves its nickname of “The City of Lights”.

When we reached the Eiffel Tower, we were surprised to get out and be able to go to the top without even waiting in the long lines. It was awesome to go up there and experience it. In London I was still getting over jetlag, and it’s not all that different from major US cities, but Paris is such a contrast. Paris is still probably my favorite European city so far, it’s just gorgeous. I didn’t go out that night and got a decent night of sleep for the first time in 4 days. Lots of partying still to go.

Day 5 – All day in Paris!

Today we had the entire day to do what we wanted. I didn’t really want to go see the museums since I’d seen them the year before when I was in Paris, so I went off on my own to see how I’d fare by myself in a foreign city. I’m happy to say I did quite well. I walked everywhere around the city. Started by going to see Notre Dame, went inside, took some pictures, then headed back by the Louvre. I stopped for an awesome chocolate crepe. There is nothing like a nutella filled crepe in Paris for some reason. I decided some shopping was in order so walked up the Champs D’Elysee. I had a lot of fun shopping for souvenirs for my family in the chic stores. After finishing the trek up the Champs D’Elysee I ended up at the Arc de Triomphe for some more photos. I wanted to head towards the Eiffel Tower and ended up on a street that had all the big expensive stores on it like Chanel, Gucci, Jimmy Choos, etc. I was too scared to go in because I was in a t-shirt and gym shoes, but the window shopping was superb.

By the time I made it to the Eiffel Tower I was exhausted from all the walking so got some sort of slushie thing from a vendor and lay down on the lawn for awhile and people watched. Since I was by myself, I got a bit of unwanted attention from some French guys, but I assured two different gentlemen I was not interested in going out with them that night and was much too busy to stay any longer. It was getting later in the afternoon so decided to go see Napolean’s Tomb since I never saw that before and it didn’t look too far away on the map. The army museum was kind of scary, but the tomb itself was cool. I left to go find the nearest metro stop and figured I’d transfer a bunch of times, but I picked the one that went straight to my stop somehow. Got back to the hotel and slept for awhile.

Now comes my favorite night of the trip. We were going to the Moulin Rouge! I’m a little obsessed with the movie, so actually going to the real thing was so exciting. So we got all dressed up and headed to the very Bohemian artist’s corner next to Sacre Coeur for dinner. The steep steps were interesting in heels. Dinner was great though and definitely worth the climb up. We were entertained by this crazy looking old singer during the huge meal with unlimited wine.

I tried escargot for the first time, and it actually wasn’t bad. I had French onion soup and beef. Delicious. Being a little tipsy now, we made the treacherous trip back down the hill, still in heels, and somehow didn’t kill ourselves. Walked over to the Moulin Rouge and enjoyed a wonderful cabaret show. Fancy costumes, acrobats, tons of dancing, singing, lots of champagne, flashy colors, just overall awesome. If you ever get the chance to do any part of this trip, this would be one of the best times in my opinion. The whole day in a beautiful city, followed by a wonderful meal in an unique spot of Paris, followed by a world-famous cabaret show. I’ve definitely been bragging about this part quite a bit since I’ve been back, hehe. Anyway, it was really late by the time the show ended and got back around 2am.

Day 6 – Paris to Lucerne, Switzerland

Got up around 6am to leave Paris, which after the huge day the day before was a little tough. Thankfully we could sleep a few hours on the coach. It was sad to leave Paris after so little time there. Got my first sights of the Alps, and as we got further into Switzerland, just got more and more gorgeous. It was a long drive to get to Lucerne, but the scenery made it worth it. When we arrived, we went to a store to get some Swiss army knives and watches. Already bought quite a bit of chocolate at a rest stop on the way. Lucerne is extremely picturesque. Flowers everywhere, water, mountains, cute buildings, charming bridge. The Hotel Flora was really nice. We walked to the restaurant for dinner. We were told it would be traditional Swiss food and a show of some sort. The show was all different Swiss cultural acts like yodeling, horn blowing, dancing, saw playing, beer chugging, flag waving, and a cow licking the audience. It was so much fun and the food was great as well. I didn’t know much about the Swiss culture, but now I feel like I have an idea about how those neutral people spend some of their time when not making knives and chocolate.

Some people went swimming in the lake, but were done by the time we got there, so Rachael, Diana, and I went walking around the town. Out of nowhere it started pouring, like torrential rains that seemed like it was out of a movie, and we got stuck no where near the hotel. After waiting around by a store for a little bit with a French family, we decided just to run for it.

Halfway there once we were already soaked, we saw a pub, and figured a drink couldn’t hurt. A few Contiki people happened to be there so we hung out with them for a few hours and played a drinking game. It was pretty funny. We somehow got lost on the way back after the pub, so ended up wandering around laughing a lot for close to an hour. Jaimee kept trying to get us back and Narelle kept playing tour guide. For a night that didn’t seem like we were going to do a whole lot, it ended up being a lot of fun.

Day 7 – Lucerne to Hopfgarten, Austria

Switzerland was the only place we stayed for one night, but before we left, we got to go up Mt. Pilatus, aka the home of dragons. Mt. Pilatus is one of the highest mountain peaks in Western Europe and it was beautiful. The first part of the trek up was a four-person gondola ride halfway up, followed by a large group ride to the top. It was a gorgeous day and the clouds didn’t come until later so we got some great pictures. Once at the top, we climbed up the steep steps to the very tip, and got even better views of the Alps and the town of Lucerne. The fresh air is something that is forgotten in busy city life, and it was refreshing. We yodeled, yelled “Ricola!!” across the hills, and did other silly American things, but it was fun. We climbed back down, ate lunch, drank Swiss hot chocolate, and met to go take the steepest train in the world down. The steepest train ride in the world is not as thrilling as it sounds, mainly because it went extremely slow. Saw some Swiss cows grazing in the fields.

We got back in the coach and headed to Austria. As a surprise, once we got near Hopfgarten, we pulled off and stopped at the Sworovsky crystal factory. We got to shop for an hour or so, and I got a really pretty necklace.

We continued on to the adorable town of Hopfgarten and our hotel Haus Lucas and was greeted by Grandma waving in the upstairs window. The Haus was extremely comfortable and homey, and before the meal started, we were taught the correct way to take a shot of Schnapps. The pinky and thumb hold the shot glass and the other fingers rest against the glass. I think the meal prepared by the staff and served by “Hans and Helga” or our driver Aaron and TM Pete, was one of the best of the trip. Hopfgarten is not exactly a party town, so we drank at the Haus bar for awhile, then I went to bed in preparation of our mountain bike ride in the morning.

Day 8 – The day in Hopfgarten

We woke up to rain, lots of rain, which is not the greatest for a 25k bike ride through the mountains. So, we delayed the ride and I ended up having a really relaxing morning wandering around the town with Rachael. Bought some Schnapps, ate lunch, surfed the internet, enjoyed the picturesque simplicity of the mountain-surrounded town. By the time we met for the mountain bike ride again, it was beautiful and sunny. It was too late to go do the original bike ride, but we were able to bike through the entire town and stop at an ice cream place for some delicious ice cream. The rain then started again, and by the time we got back were soaked and muddy. Since we were so muddy and wet, a few of us decided to keep biking and enjoy the rain. Tons of exercise, really muddy clothes, but a lot of fun. Even when things could have been deemed bad, everyone made it fun. And besides, how often do you get to look like crap and be drenched through in Austria?

Another great dinner, some drinks at the bar, then we walked over to the Silver Bullet bar for some drinks and dancing. Couldn’t go too crazy, even with cheap chocolate shots, because white water rafting was the next morning, and that hungover would not be too fun.

Day 9 – Hopfgarten to Venice

Second favorite part of the trip – white water rafting! I was a little nervous about it, since I’d never rafted before, but the guide made it easy, and for a raft full of girls, I think we did a good job. The rapids we did were only a level three, but it was exciting still. We didn’t end up with a hot rafting instructor, but rafting through Austrian mountains, swimming in frigid waters that we were forced to get into, standing in a circle on top of the raft, made the experience awesome. Probably the thing that made this so special is it was an experience I never planned on doing in my life. Not only was this white water rafting, but it was in Austria. Ahh, so cool. Once we finished going down the river, we were met with orange juice and vodkas, got rid of our equipment, and ate lunch.

After an adventure packed morning, it’s off to Italy! It took the rest of the afternoon to get near Venice where we stayed. We ate dinner in the hotel then since we weren’t actually in Venice but a small town about 45 minutes away, we wandered around. Didn’t find much to do. I was pretty tired and sore from all the exercise the past few days (I almost never do physical activity, so two extreme sports was pushing it for me), so decided to go to bed early.

Day 10 – Ciao Italy!

Another very rainy day. Got to the spot where to board the boats to get to the island and got to buy some lovely Italian ponchos. Our advice for Venice was to get lost – which is extremely easy to do, and really all you can do to really experience Venice. Saw a glass blowing demonstration in the morning, then most of the day was spent wandering the extremely narrow streets and shopping for Murano glass and masquerade masks. Then of course, it’s not a trip to Venice without a gondola ride through the canals. Drank wine and relaxed on our ride.

Our gondolier informed us that they do not sing though, which was slightly disappointing. It made it better when we had a really hot gondolier in the gondola in front of us. After the ride, we wandered around a bit more, then met for dinner. Enjoyed a very traditional Italian meal which was very good, except the fish portion of the meal was a bit tough to eat because unlike America, the fish is whole, head and everything. Interesting little culture differences like that is what makes it so cool and you really realize you’re nowhere close to America anymore. We sang some songs on the boat ride back to the mainland, and I napped on the way back to the hotel and went straight to sleep. By this time of the trip, sleep was appreciated and the crazy schedule was starting to catch up with me.

Day 11 – Venice to Florence

I have to say I wasn’t all that disappointed to leave Venice. I had a nice time and it’s great that I can say I saw the city, but it wasn’t one of my favorites. Plus I heard wonderful things about Florence and couldn’t wait to see it. The scenery on the way was again gorgeous. Coach travel really lets you see the country side that you never would if just flying from city to city. It’s funny how there are random castles or postcard views, that aren’t tourist attractions, just part of life.

Sorry, got sidetracked there. It was a long drive to Florence, but we ending up making a surprise stop in Pisa, home to the Leaning Tower! Pisa is such a tourist town, and if not for the Leaning Tower, wouldn’t exactly be impressive. But, the Leaning Tower is a lot of fun to see and take cheesy tourist pictures with. We also had a crappy souvenir contest for under two euro outside the Leaning Tower, and it’s amazing how much crap they try to sell to tourists. But hey, it’s fun, and we fall for it.

Few more hours of coach travel and we arrived in Florence. Our hotel was right in the middle of the city, so we could walk everywhere and explore. Florence is so pretty and probably became my second favorite city. Had dinner on our own then met back as a group to go to the Red Garter bar. Drinks, karaoke, lots of Australians, dancing, and lots of fun.

Day 12 – A beautiful day in Florence

Started the day off with a guided sightseeing tour of the city. It was a good orientation of the city. Then off to go exploring some more. The main goal of the day was to see Michelangelo’s “David” at the Academia, so after a failed attempt to jump the queue, we waited in the long line and ate gelato. The line only took an hour or so, then we went in and saw David. Very cool. Took some sneaky pictures.

Wandered around the rest of the museum, but the rest was nothing compared to David. More walking and enjoying the city. Had to get back a little earlier to get ready for our best meal of the trip. Once we were all dressed up, we took our group picture at the top of Florence, then went to the restaurant. The food was amazing. The best Italian food hands-down I have ever had. I ate way more than I thought could fit in my stomach, then got seconds. During dinner we were treated to an opera singer as well, and she sang beautifully. I’d say this was favorite moment #3, because everything about it was just so authentically Italian and great. Maybe it was the wine, maybe it was because the trip was soon coming to an end, but I shed a few tears during dessert and “Ave Maria”. After dinner, it was time for some serious partying at Space Electronic, the biggest night club in Florence. At this point, I probably shouldn’t have kept drinking, but did have the one free drink that comes with entrance, and did plenty of dancing.

Day 13 – Florence to San Gimignano to Rome

We left Florence and headed to Rome. Around noon we got to the town of San Gimignano, which is a one of the cutest towns I have ever seen. The views from within the medieval walls are stunning. It’s so picturesque (which I say about a lot of things, but it seems like everything on this trip was) and it’s surrounded by vineyards as far as you can see. I loved stopping here. It’s too bad we only had an hour or so, I could have stared out at the hills of vineyards for hours. Got some Chianti though that I have yet to try from here, so hopefully it’ll be a good reminder of that little town.

Then officially off to Rome, which is not all that far from Florence. Got there in the afternoon for a guided walking tour. It rained a bit, but not too bad, and we learned a lot about the Colosseum, some of the ruins, and the Wedding cake building. Pete then took us on his tour and we saw the Trevy Fountain and ate some award-winning gelato. Had dinner on our own and had some awesome pizza. Met back as a group and headed to the hotel for a relaxing night.

Day 14 – When in Rome, do as the Romans do…

Another full day to do as we wished. I decided to stay with most of the group and go see the Vatican and St. Peter’s first. Long line in the hot sun, but Pete was awesome and got us Vatican pizza while we waited. After about an hour and a half we went inside the Vatican and saw the Sistine Chapel. The paintings in there are truly amazing. A few of us then snuck in with a tour group and went inside St. Peter’s without waiting in the line. St. Peter’s was probably the thing I was most impressed with in Rome. It’s the biggest church in the world, and it is enormous and beautifully decorated everywhere. Walking through that was great. Those two things took up quite a chunk of the day, so we went and got lunch at a really nice restaurant. Very good spaghetti. I loved the food in Italy, it’s all just so good. Especially the gelato, mmm.

After lunch, Racheal, Kelly, and I did more wandering around Rome and saw the Pantheon and Spanish Steps. Pantheon was very cool, Spanish Steps were disappointing, probably because of the construction. We met again at the Wedding Cake building as a group and layed around for awhile. Lots of walking as usual. We walked over by the Colosseum and had a great dinner with a wonderful view of the Colosseum outside. It was an awesome place to have our last group dinner.

Back to the hotel and we decided to have a toga party while giving out our Contiki Compadre gifts. I’ve never had a toga party, so Rome was a good place for one.

We had some drinks at the bar and all stayed up late talking since it was our last night. Some people had to leave at 4am and some at 8am, so lots of goodbyes were said the night before.

In summary…

It’s weird that I started the trip not knowing anyone, and by the time it was over, I was really sad to see everyone go. I really got close with some people and made great friends. My Contiki was so much fun, such incredible times and overall, UNBELIEVABLE, that’s about the best way I can sum it up. I miss traveling with the group on the coach from place to place, hearing the day songs played over and over, being in a new place so often you almost forget where you are, desperately trying to learn a little bit of a new language so you can get by, and having awesome experiences I never thought I would have the chance to do. I can’t wait to go on my next Contiki. If you get the chance to go on one, do it. You won’t be sorry.

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