A whirlwind tour of Europe!
|On a cool, overcast, London
morning, I boarded a bus filled with fifty-one strangers
about to travel to Holland, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and
France over the course of nine days. I saw only one empty
seat. I took it.
Most people on the bus were traveling in pairs, but I had traveled from California to London all alone. My potential travel partners either lacked the time or the money or both.
Still, I wanted to see the Eiffel Tower, the Notre Dame Cathedral, and the Venice canals. I wanted to sample the chocolate in Switzerland and the pizza and gelato in Italy. I wanted to experience a different part of the world than the one I’d known for my entire life. A travel agent suggested that I try a company called Contiki (which offers tours for people who are 18 to 35 years old). Once I’d paged through the brochure, I was sold on Contiki's "European Magic" tour.
After a bus ride, then a ferry ride, and then another bus ride, my Contiki Tour arrived in Amsterdam, Holland. We spent that evening exploring the beautiful canals whose water reflected the tall, thin houses. I collapsed that night in the first of many clean, but small (by American standards), hotel rooms.
The next day, we headed to Germany. Our first hotel in Germany, Hotel Montag, was near the Rhine River and close to one of many old castles that dotted the hillsides. As we settled in for the night, a few of us made a pact to wake up early the next morning and explore the castle.
As the sun rose, six of us, including my seatmate-turned-new-friend, Rob, trudged uphill to visit Burg Rheinfels. The ruined castle was like something out of a fairytale and the views of the Rhine River were gorgeous. After exploring, we walked back to the hotel as church bells chimed.
After breakfast, our bus departed for Munich. Our Contiki guide told us that the German pronunciation is “Munch-in,” so that we wouldn’t sound like tourists. Considering that this was one of very few words that I knew in German, I was afraid that it would be obvious that I was a tourist. I did try to learn a few words, like “hello,” “thank you,” and “excuse me” in the language of each country that we visited.
We arrived in Marienplatz Square just in time for a Glockenspiel show. After the show and a visit to nearby St. Peter’s Church, where we climbed to the top of the bell tower, I went in search of a toy store to buy some German toys for my four year old brother. A guide at the tourist information booth in Marienplatz Square knew the perfect place to go, Obletter toys at Stachus, where I found some little toy cars with German writing on them. That night, we unwound at Hoffbrauhaus, a famous beer hall. Even though I don’t really like the taste of beer, I sipped one out of a huge glass beer stein and enjoyed (and then joined) the people dancing in the aisles.
Our next stop was Venice, Italy. We spent much of our day wandering Venice’s narrow alleys, stopping for gelato almost every time we saw a vendor. In bustling, beautiful St. Mark’s Square, we watched children feed the pigeons. We had lunch along a canal and enjoyed real Italian pizza. We took pictures of the photogenic Bridge of Sighs, which connects Doge’s Palace to a prison, then we explored the interior of the palace. It was fun to look out on Venice through the windows of the famous bridge.
One of the highlights of our visit was a gondola ride in the milky green waters of Venice. Our friendly gondolier ably moved us through the canals, expertly ducking when we traveled under the low bridges. We chatted using a combination of English, Spanish and Italian. He even tried to teach me how to “drive” a gondola. I think I did pretty well for a first-timer, although he decided to take over when we were about to pass under a bridge. Ducking and "driving" takes some serious practice.
The next day we were off to Switzerland. I had one main goal for my visit to Switzerland: to try authentic Swiss chocolates. Rob and I wandered the quaint streets of Lucerne. We refreshed ourselves at Schwanen restaurant indulging in a tasty Swiss cheese fondue. By the time we finally found a gourmet chocolate shop, Confisuer Bachmann, it was already evening and the store had just closed. Still, we were in luck. They had another store that was open late in the nearby train station. There we found the best chocolate truffles we’d ever tasted! The final city on our tour was Paris. Our bus pulled right up to the Eiffel tower and we jumped out. After two elevator rides, I stood at the top of the tower with my fellow Contiki travelers, including my new friends.
My friends and I were photographing each other and soaking in the spectacular views when we realized that the rest of our group had gone, leaving us behind. We raced down the tower. There was a long line for the final elevator to the bottom, so we decided instead to take the stairs in one of the tower’s legs. The views from the stairs, especially that of the little park next to the tower, were beautiful. We stopped for a second to enjoy the views. Fortunately, our tour bus waited for us.
The next day, we explored more of Paris. We visited the Notre Dame Cathedral, which I’d really wanted to see thanks to Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Our entire group toured the church with its cool gargoyles and beautiful stained glass windows. Later, Rob and I returned to climb the stairs of the north tower, enjoy the open walkway connecting the north and south towers with its statues of chimeras (imaginary creatures), and then, climb to the top of the south tower. There we found impressive views of the roof of the church. I could almost see Quasimodo.
I'd also wanted to visit the Paris Opera House, the inspiration for the Phantom of the Opera story. The building was impressive inside and out, with colorful painted ceilings, grand staircases, ornate carvings and chandeliers. I especially wanted to see the main chandelier inside the theater. Rob and I slid into the theater during a rehearsal for an upcoming show. We watched graceful dancers practice their moves wearing their rehearsal clothes. It was a wonderful, unexpected treat. During the rehearsal, I couldn’t help stealing glances at the famous chandelier above us surrounded by an intricate mural and a ring of lights.
I’m not much of a museum fan, and so I hadn’t planned on visiting the Louvre, but my fellow travelers convinced me otherwise. It’s a huge museum and it would take days to see everything, so I went in with the goal of seeing the three most famous pieces as defined by a guide book I’d read: the (headless) Winged Victory of Samothrace, the (unexpectedly small) Mona Lisa painting (in a security case), and the Venus de Milo. I realized when I was looking at the Venus de Milo, that I couldn’t remember seeing pictures of it from any other angle than the front, so, while the other tourists stood in front of it, taking their photos, I circled around the sculpture to see the views that most people (even many visitors to the Louvre) have never seen. I also made a stop at the Arc de Triomphe which was much, much bigger than I’d imagined. I couldn’t go inside because the workers were on strike, so I strolled Champs Elysees, stopping inside Monoprix, which contains a grocery store, to buy some cookies and candies to try. They were delicious!
The next day, I was sad to say goodbye to Rob (he was staying in Paris for a few more days). Then, most of us made our way by bus, then ferry, then bus, back to London. During our final trip, I said a long goodbye to the rest of our group. They had helped make my tour truly special.
I was on my own for a few more days in London. I rode the Underground (subway), a red double decker bus, and the London eye (a massive ferris wheel overlooking the River Thames and Big Ben). I shopped at Harrods, wandered Notting Hill, and attended a Sunday organ recital at St. Paul’s cathedral (it gave me chills). I saw the (remarkably unstuffy) Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, the musical Starlight Express (performed on roller-skates), an improv show at The Comedy Store, and Blood Brothers (another musical). Blood Brothers, which I saw based only on the recommendation of a woman in the queue with me at tkts (a discount theater ticket booth), was my favorite!
Satisfied, I headed home from my whirlwind tour. I took with me wonderful memories, some photos and souvenirs, and the joy of knowing that the world that I knew was now a little bit bigger.
I did this in 2001 in England, Holland, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and France.
Jen (California, USA)