Sunday, May 27, 2012

Our Europe Cavalcade

There's something special about experiencing something for the first time.  No expectations are floating around in your mind, just a blank canvas of possibilities.  So we found ourselves  tired and dazed in London after about twenty four hours of travel to start a seventeen day tour of Europe.

There were forty nine of us booked on the trip, about two thirds of the group starting from London and the rest joining us in Amsterdam our first night stop.  Those first few days were pretty quiet.  Most couples and family groups sticking together with just perfunctory politeness but as the week progressed people would start to chat with the people sitting near them on the bus and then most made an effort to sit with different people at breakfasts and dinners. By the second week some great friendships were starting to form and we were becoming a family of forty nine. I think we were pretty lucky in having a really great group with easy going personalities most of which were Aussies, a few NZer's, a few South African's, two Philippino families and two sisters from Bahrain. The majority of the group enjoyed a few drinks and we had some brilliant nights out with plenty of alcohol and lots of laughs.

All of us
Every day was full on with wake up calls generally at 6am, breakfast at 6.30am then on the bus by 7.30am. I think we were covering on average about 400kms per day.  Days were broken up into sections of travelling on our tour bus with stops on the motorway for snacks and bathroom breaks, lunches and of course various designated sightseeing locations. We all got pretty good at trouping on and off the bus in a fairly orderly fashion but my knees didn't always enjoy going from being bent for two hours to functioning well. But I loved it. I also got really good at sleeping while sitting upright something I've never been able to do.  But somehow that bus would just lull me to sleep.
Our Travel Directer Jon was pretty amazing.  While we whinged and moaned about how long we'd been on the bus for the day he worked non stop, checking luggage on and off the bus making it seem like magic as bags went from the bus to our rooms and back again with not a glitch.  He spoke the language of every country we went to, gave us a thorough education on how to navigate each city and what to expect, gave us directions to every even vaguely interesting spot to check out, took us to fantastic restaurants, made sure we all made it on and off the bus at every stop and knew more about the history of pretty much everything we went past than I could ever hope to remember. He even took in good humour many of us nodding off in the middle of it. 

Our bus driver Enzo was nicknamed Enzo Ferrari. This was because he drove the bus like he was Schumaker driving at a Formula One Grand Prix. Each day we had to move two seats forward on the bus and I think most looked forward to hitting those front seats and having the best view.  That was of course until you'd sat up the front and got to experience first hand just how close Enzo would sit behind the car in front and how fast he drove. In saying that I felt totally safe and I still marvel at some of the places he maneuvered that bus.

Home sweet home

Our travel route

At the end of the tour we were all asking each other what our favourite place was or what our own personal highlight was.  Most were hard pressed to pick just one place because we just saw and experienced so much.  When I look back at the photo's I have multiple great memories of each place we went to and what we did while we were there. For some places it felt like we needed a lot more time but the tour gave us a great snapshot of what was there and whether we'll make an effort to get back there one day.

Yep it was cold
My fav photo of Amsterdam
The first day of our tour took us through southern England, France, Belgium and onto Amsterdam.  We only had one night there so we went straight into the city and onto a glass window boat to do a tour of the canals.  Not sure I loved Amsterdam but of course hard to tell in that short period.  My main memory was that is was ridiculously cold, very wet and there were bikes everywhere.  Why have a fence when you can have a body of water between your paddocks.  Our Travel Director thought a wander through the red light district was in order. It was an eye opener that's for sure. Amsterdam kind of struck me as a bit of a dodgy place.  Lots of dark alley ways and dodgy characters around every corner.
From Amsterdam we headed east and into Germany stopping in Cologne on our way to Rhineland. We spent the afternoon on a river cruise down the Rhine River. Hard work but someones gotta do it...
From Rhineland we continued south through Freiburg and the Black Forrest ending the day in Lucerne Switzerland.

Rhine Valley
Lucerne was amazing. One of the most picturesque places I've ever been. Hard to beat a city on a stunningly blue lake that has a back drop of the Swiss Alps. We did a lake cruise and a trip up to the top of snow covered Mount Pilatus. Lucerne had a real energy and vibrance to it and definitely a place I would like to try and get back to one day.
Black Forrest

We spent two nights in Lucerne and then continued on to Innsbruck Austria. The drive was incredible as we wound our way through the Swiss Alps and then the Austrian Alps via Liechtenstein. 

Innsbruck was beautiful. We stayed in a winter ski resort nestled in the mountains. We were in the front seat of the bus on our way there and I had to close my eyes on several occasions as Enzo screamed down narrow winding streets in the tour bus. Actually that's how he drove the bus all the time but it's not quite as scary when your on a big motorway. While in Innsbruck we also got to visit the Swarovski Outlet. Apparently it's where it originated. So I had no choice but to buy some crystal jewellery to celebrate. 

From Innsbruck we crossed over the Italian border with a quick stop in Verona and then onto magical Venice. Jon warned us about the chaos that is Italy before we hit our first motorway shop once we'd crossed the border. 

I wasn't sure what to expect as we headed to Venice. I'd heard different things about it. It was actually pretty amazing. We did all the touristy things, a taxi ride down the Grand Canal, a ride in a gondola and standing in St Mark's Square. It was absolutely packed with tourists which wasn't surprising but it makes it so much harder to get in to see things. 

St Peter's Basilica

To get away from the beaten track a bit Jon took us to another island Burano which is one of the many islands that are in the lagoon where the locals still live like they used to (before tourism took over and made Venice too expensive for them to live).  It was gorgeous and we went to an amazing seafood restaurant where they gave us more food and booze than we could ever hope to consume. Although we gave it our best shot. 

After a couple of nights in Venice we jumped back in the bus and made our way to Rome through the rolling hills of Tuscany. It's hard to say what my favourite part of Rome was in a city with so much history and so much to see. I think it's hard to go past the Sistine Chapel for sheer jaw dropping ability. I'm one of those people who has about a two hour limit on museums before I need to escape but the Sistine Chapel was spectacular. We did all the big stuff, Trevy Fountain, the Forum, Colosseum, Pantheon, St Peter's Basilica, the Vatican and of course the Sistine Chapel.

On the last night we all went to dinner at an Italian Restaurant where the waiters put on quite a show. With more unlimited booze we were all feeling pretty happy by the time we left. The bus was looking a bit like a disco on the way home. Kind of embarrassing when I think back on it now but at the time we all thought it was hilarious.

From Rome we headed south to Naples and Sorrento with a stop at Pompei. Pompei was way cool and a place I've always wanted to go to. It's hard to describe the awe of standing in the middle of the ruins with Mount Vesuvius quietly looming in the distance. Sorrento was beautiful but unfortunately as close to the Amalfi Coast as we could get with a landslide the previous day knocking out the road. This was somewhere I could have spent a lot more time.

After a night in Naples with the best view we'd had yet overlooking the bay and in the distance Mount Vesuvius we hit the road again to head north, this time to the city of Florence.

Florence was magic but we only had a few hours in the main part of the city. I did however manage to find the time to purchase a lovely leather handbag from one of the many leather shops. I was also aiming for some gold from one of the many gold shops but after how much I spent on the bag it was time to put the credit card away.
Lamborghini in Monaco

After our night in Florence we stopped in to see the Leaning Tower of Piza (way better than I expected), then it was time to bid Italy good bye and say hello to France.  We did it in style as we traveled along the Italian Riviera and onto the French Riviera through the one hundred and sixty something mountain tunnels.  It was breathtaking.

We stopped for an hour or so to check out Monaco. I'm a bit of a petrol head so I spent most of that time drooling at the expensive cars that were showing off as they did a lap of honour down the main city drag. When I wasn't drooling over the cars I was dreaming about the multi million dollar boats moored in the harbour.  People who live in Monaco have way too much money.

Saint Paul de Vence

Lyon, France
Then it was off to Nice which I think was probably my most favourite place that we went to. For some reason when I was younger Nice was somewhere that I wanted to go. I hadn't given it much thought for a long time but after going there I know why. It's just a special place. We had a great night out with some of the other couples that we had made friends with on the tour and then the second night was a dinner with the group. More unlimited booze and a fine time was had by all. We also had our first free morning for the whole tour so a very rare sleep in was had so perhaps that made it seem even shinier! While we were there we also visited the steeped village of Saint Paul de Vence once of the oldest medieval towns on the French Riviera and bought some truffle vinegar which was divine. We went for a drive along the southern coast just outside of Nice which was nothing less than stunning.  Apparently one of the properties along that stretch of coast was sold for $136 million. Just slightly out of my league...

On our way out of Nice we popped in at Cannes and checked out the preparations for the Cannes Film Festival which was on the week after. Cannes was a bit plain and not a patch on Nice but it was nice to check it out. Then we continued on our way to the city of Lyon via Avignon another picturesque spot.


We only had one night in Lyon before continuing up to Paris. On our way we stopped at the Palace of Versailles somewhere we hadn't made it to last year when we were in Paris. Our tour guide marched us through the entire place in an hour and a half. I'm lucky if I can remember even half of what she told us. Too many kings and too many wives and children. The place is magnificent though and I'm really glad we checked it out. The gardens alone are sensational.

Paris at night
From Versailles we headed up to Paris.  This time we were staying west of the city. The first night we went out for dinner and then we went on a night river cruise on the Seine which I enjoyed more than I thought I would. Then we hung around to watch the sparkly lights on the Eiffel Tower which I also enjoyed more than I thought. The evening was finished off with a couple of drinks back at the hotel. We had chosen not to do the listed tour of the city with the rest of the group as we'd done all the major sites the previous year. Instead we set ourselves the challenge of catching the Metro rail into the Champs-Elysees for lunch, then a wander around the shops and back to the hotel.  That night we were off to see the Cabaret. I can't say I really enjoyed the topless ladies doing the singing and dancing thing. Perhaps if the men were similarly attired would have seemed more fair but the couple of comedy routines that they had on were hilarious and I was in stitches. Tears streaming down my face laughter. 

Last day of the tour with Jon and Enzo
And so we came to the end of our tour.  The bus dropped some of us off at our London hotel that afternoon. After travelling with forty nine other people for two and a half weeks there was a real sense of aloneness once the bus had driven off. Six of us went out for dinner that night which helped a little. It  seriously didn't seem right being by ourselves. The following day it was time to head to Scotland to finally meet Laura and Cody and get ready for the World Agility Open our next adventure! 

1 comment:

Kriszty said...

Great update, really enjoyed reading it. Sounds like it was an amazing tour!