Rome take two, and the end of my Contiki tour

Our second day in Rome was better than the first. We had more time to explore, and though the weather was scorching and the tourists were rampant, we were finally able to see the city by foot and have some free to wander the streets on our own.

We began the day with a ride on the metro to the city (see my post, The downside of Rome, for why the metro was, uh, not the best experience we could have had). Then, we embarked on a brief walking tour during which our wonderful tour guide, Josie, took us through the Roman Forum and around the Colosseum, where we had to navigate through crowds of tourists while being accosted by peddlers offering “exclusive” tours. The Colosseum is as big as I had imagined. Standing next to the massive structure made me think about how small I was not just in size but in relation to to the world’s history. This amphitheater is 1,400 years older than my entire home country, and more major events have occurred there than days that I have been alive. Tourists and peddlers aside, standing outside the Colosseum was my favorite part of being in Rome.

Euro Trip Summer 2014 - Contd 120Euro Trip Summer 2014 - Contd 139Euro Trip Summer 2014 - Contd 127

Our walking tour dropped us off along Via del Corso, a long street with a bunch of shops. A few friends and I  broke off from the group and visited the Disney store (my friend Sasha is obsessed!) and looked into a few other shops along the street. Afterward, we grabbed lunch at a small restaurant nearby. We were surprised by the quality of the food at the restaurant — Sasha’s pasta closely resembled Easy Mac and my pizza was nothing more than a tortilla covered in tomato paste and a few shreds of mozzarella. But we were starving and swallowed it all down, ready to get back to exploring. We stumbled upon a charming street market where we found a few souvenirs for friends and some great street art. Euro Trip Summer 2014 - Contd 151 Euro Trip Summer 2014 - Contd 160

 

After making our purchases, we continued walking down the street, shocked to find that it dropped us off right at the Trevi Fountain! Well, what was left of the fountain.

The Trevi fountain is currently under construction as the Fendi fashion house pours 2.18 million euros into restoring the historic site. While I’m glad that Rome is actively upkeeping its monuments, it was a bit of a bummer to see the fountain gutted and covered in scaffolding. But..I snapped a few pics with it anyway.

Euro Trip Summer 2014 - Contd 169

After all of that walking around, we realized we were hungry again (that  wasn’t the most filling). So Sasha, our friend Kharah and I wandered down a few more streets until we happened upon an alluring restaurant. It was called Dakota Cafe, and I highly recommend it for anyone traveling to Rome because of the fantastic wait staff. We ordered espresso and Kahlua drinks, which were perfect and cheap, and when I spilled my friend’s drink on my white dress, a server immediately came up to me and offered to help clean up. She ran across the street and came back with a spray can and a brush. Apparently, the spray had some magical stain removing powers and I was to spray it on my dress, wait five minutes, then give the spot a good brush and I’d be good to go. It worked wonderfully, and I thanked the waitress profusely. I’m not sure if helping customers get stains out of their clothes is customary of the Roman restaurant industry, but I was blown away by the kind act regardless.

We soon left the cafe, and with only an hour left before we had to meet up with the rest of the Contiki group, we wandered around the street some more. We were not using any maps and did not know where we were, but the same way we stumbled upon the Trevi Fountain, we happened to walk right into the Pantheon. We were crunched for time, so we could not go inside, but we walked through the plaza and took in the huge, grandiose building.

Euro Trip Summer 2014 - Contd 190

Minutes after we arrived at the Pantheon, we watched police chase down a street merchant who had been caught selling illegal merchandise. It was a riveting burst of action at the end of our day, and definitely added excitement to the adventure. And don’t worry, the police caught the guy.

We then headed back the Colosseum to meet up with our tour guide and snapped a few more pictures with the extravagant structure. All three of us were disappointed we did not have enough time to go inside, but we figured we still had a great day and we would just have to come back and visit again some day.

Euro Trip 2014 581

That night, we celebrated our last night on the Contiki tour with a huge bash with our comrades. Everyone adorned themselves in “I Heart Roma” t-shirts and went to the on-site club to drink, dance and write notes on each other’s shirts with permanent markers. It was a great way to end our trip, and we all got lovely souvenirs out of it. I retired early that night, needing to get some rest for the next day, when I’d be packing up and leaving for Switzerland!

Euro Trip 2014 612

 

Vatican City to Piazza Navona: My first thoughts of Rome

Ah, Roma. A city so decadent in history, yet rendered poor with the apathy of today’s peddlers. Our time in Rome had its ups and downs, to say the least; but Rome was a beautiful city and I just don’t think I had the chance to get to know it to its fullest extent. I’m sure I’ll go back someday — though now, I think I’ll travel to a few other paces on my bucket list first.

So, okay, from the beginning. We left Florence in our usual style — bright and early — and headed straight to the Vatican. The ride was short, and most of us slept on our way there. When we got to Vatican City, all 45 of us got dropped off at a bus port in a few steps away from the entrance to the Vatican Museum. We met the guide who would be escorting us through the museum, and received our headphones for the walking tour she’d be narrating. Then, we stepped inside. Immediately, we knew that this was a bad day to visit the Vatican.

Euro Trip Summer 2014 1519

Apparently, the next day was a holiday and the Vatican Museum was closing early. Consequently, everyone and their mother was at the Vatican to celebrate the holiday and get into the museum before it closed. Tourists from all over the world surrounded us as we embarked on our tour through the grounds. Our tour guide had to hold up a purple umbrella for use to see her above the other tourists’ heads. Inside the museum we could not see much of what lined the walls because there were so many people crowding the tiny hallways. We could at least see what was above, which were beautiful ceilings intricately composed with Christian paintings and sculptures. Though I could not see the majority of what we were walking through, I was still humbled by the pure fact that we were inside the most significant building in the Christian world.

Euro Trip Summer 2014 1545

We ended our tour in the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo, you do not disappoint. Talking was not permitted inside the chapel, which finally gave everyone the opportunity to peacefully soak in the beauty surrounding us. We stayed inside long enough to look at every panel of the Renaissance masterpiece, and then headed back outside into the square. A few of us had a quick glimpse into St. Peter’s Basilica, another humbling and surreal experience, but quickly had to rejoin the rest of our group and hop back on the Contiki bus.

Euro Trip Summer 2014 - Contd 033

After leaving the Holy City, we took a quick driving tour around the Rome, passing the Colosseum, Palatino and Piazza Venezia Vittoriano. Rome is unlike any city I’ve ever seen. The city is speckled with Ancient ruins, yet has a Starbucks or Zara on every corner (okay, maybe not every corner, but you get the idea). Looking at the  buildings whose heydays were nearly 2000 years ago (the Colosseum opened 80 A.D.), I could not believe that they were preserved for centuries. It was almost saddening to see people walk by these ruins with their headphones in, playing on their iPhones, completely desensitized to the history surrounding them.

Euro Trip Summer 2014 - Contd 077

Our coach dropped us off for dinner in Piazza Novona, a beautiful city square on the site of the Stadium of Domitian. Knowing the restaurants along the Piazza would be pricey, a few friends and I ventured outside the plaza to find a nice quiet place to eat. We settled on a cute little corner café with outdoor seating and friendly Italian waiters. Craving something somewhat healthy after days of engorging on pizza, I ordered a caprese salad. It was exquisite.

Sitting at that corner café, enjoying Italian food and watching locals zoom by on their Vespas, I realized I had been pretty critical of Rome so far. While some parts disappointed me, like the crowded Vatican and the complete modernization of the areas surrounding the ruins, I recognized I had set my expectations too high. I needed to forget about my preconceived notions of the city and just focus on what was in front of me. Rome is truly charming, with cobblestone streets and picturesque crème and preach-colored buildings that look exactly like the movies. There was beauty all around me, I just had to look through the bad stuff to find it.

Euro Trip Summer 2014 - Contd 098

 

After dinner, we grabbed some gelato (of course), then hopped back on the coach and headed to our campsite. This was the last city on the Contiki tour, and our last time setting up camp together. Back at the site, my friend Sasha and I grabbed our iPads and went to the on-site bar for WiFi so that we could Skype with our friends and family back home. Though everyone else was drinking, it was a quiet and peaceful night for us and we got much-needed rest for our next day in Rome.

How I fell in love with Florence

The Ponte Ponte Vecchio looked like a post card.
The Ponte Vecchio looked like a post card.

Sevilla, Spain will always fill the biggest space in my heart. But Florence came close to giving Sevilla a run for its money. Our time there was pitifully short, giving us only a taste of what the amazing city has to offer. But what a we did taste was so good, I think everyone on the tour will be going back for seconds. (Hehehe excuse my cheesey metaphor).

We had another long drive from our campsite in Antes to Florence. The coach drove along the coast, allowing up to glimpse the amazing views Riviera as we made our way into Italy. We made a rest stop not long after entering the country, during which I bought my first slice of Italian pizza. Oh my gosh it was so good. Even for a rest stop.

Then, we continued onward to our campsite in Florence. It was perched up on a hill with an amazing view of the city through a heap of branches. We had some time to set up camp and eat dinner, but soon we headed back out to the city. One thing our tour guide was skilled at doing was downplaying the amazingness of the places we went on the trip. She told us we’d be spending some time that night at a karaoke bar in Florence. But what she didn’t say was that it was one of the most extravagant karaoke bars any of us would go to, or that they had 20 euro pitchers of cocktails, or that the place turned into a nightclub at night.

Soon enough the night got a bit crazy. I think my favorite part was getting up on stage and shamelessly singing “Rolling in the Deep” by Adele to a crowd of tourists and Italians who I will hopefully never see again in my life. We stayed up into the late hours of the night (well, the early hours of the morning) and eventually caught cabs back to the campsite, though not before stopping for some late-night pizza.

The next morning came too soon and we sluggishly ate breakfast and got ready to go back into the city. I was feeling a little out of it after the long night we’d had, but I powered through as we embarked on a guided walking tour with a local Florentine guide. The city was bright and beautiful. We walked by the Duomo and other major buildings, stopping by the location from where the statue of David was removed.

The Duomo was so big, it was actully hard to see all of it from the ground.
The Duomo was so big, it was actually hard to see all of it from the ground.

The Ponte Vecchio was just as beautiful as it was in pictures. The impressive bridge looks like a city on its own from the distance, and feels like a market on the interior. Though I was feeling sickly, I was still frustrated with the speed at which we went through the bridge. I had no time to stop and really take in what I was seeing because I was too worried about trying to keep up with the group and hear what the tour guide was saying. I will definitely need to go back to Florence to experience this amazing city again.

The tour dropped up off in the center of town, then we had a few hours to explore on our own. I broke off with a couple of friends and headed to a pizzeria (surprise, surprise) for lunch. I had an amazing white pizza, though I had to custom order it because the waiter seemed to think the idea of a sauce-less pizza was crazy. I washed it down with a cup of coffee, and then we paid our tab and went back to exploring.

We did not get far because right next to the pizzeria was a street market that stretched for at least a kilometer and broke off into a few side streets. We spent nearly our entire day there, grazing through the fake leather bags, statue of David magnets, glass earrings and Italian shoes. Every little stand sold practically identical items, yet we went stand to stand, expecting to find new treasures along the way.

Ah, the fake leather smells...
Ah, the fake leather smells…

After a few hours, I managed to get some souvenir shopping done and my friends found some great buys, and we made our way back to the meeting spot where we were to catch up with the rest of the group. Along the way, we stopped for all of our very first gelatos. And let me just say, MMMMMMmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. Holy crap it was so good. I had a small cup of pistachio-flavored gelato, and though it was essentially the same thing as ice cream, something about eating it in Italy made it exponentially better than ice cream. In fact, I had to stop for another scoop before we hopped back on the coach. Totally worth it.

It doesn't get much better than pistachio gelato.
It doesn’t get much better than pistachio gelato.

Our free time in the city over, we went back to the campsite with the group to freshen up for our formal group photo. We hopped back on the coach and drove to Piazzale Michelangelo, a small plaza atop a hill overlooking Firenze. With everyone all dolled up and the breathtaking view behind us, we captured a beautiful Contiki group photo (which cost 11 euros, of course) to remember each other and our great time in Florence.

Here's one of me and the Florentine skyline!
Here’s one of me and the Florentine skyline!

Afterward, those of us who has signed up and paid for an optional Tuscan dinner at a fancy Florentine restaurant headed out to get out meal. While the others enjoyed their additional free time, we feasted on bottomless bruschetta, lasagna and salad. Our meal of course was accompanied with authentic Tuscan wine. The food was absolutely amazing, and I could have kept eating the lasagna forever, but I had to save space for the best part — dessert. We were all served fresh, gourmet tiramisu, deliciously coffee-tasting and overflowing with creme. To wash it all down, we were served shots of limoncello, a strong but sweet lemon liquor that apparently helps the body digest. It was possibly the best meal I’ve ever had. Thinking about it makes my mouth water.

This lasagna was made without tomato sauce!
This lasagna was made without tomato sauce!

I had signed up and paid to go to a night club with the rest of the group after dinner, but I was still recovering from the karaoke night and decided that I wasn’t ready for a round 2. So I said goodbye to my friends after dinner and headed back to the campsite for a night of much needed rest.

I’ll say again that our time in Florence was too short. The city was small, but I know there is so much more to it that I didn’t get to see in the few hours we were there that day. The yellow and brown buildings call to me to come back someday, and I know that I surely will. I truly loved Florence and cannot wait to reunite with it.

Euro Trip Summer 2014 1468
How can you walk away from this?!

 

How my Contiki tour has been so far!

Woo. This has been an adventure so far. Unfortunately, the wifi on this Contiki tour has been limited, so I will not be able to post everything until it’s done, but for now, I will post whenever I get a chance.

I’m exhausted. I’m four days into the tour and want nothing more than a clean, warm bed and a glass of water. But I’m not having a bad time!

It’s now Friday and we’re on the bus headed toward Bordeaux. I’ll start this post from day one.

On Monday the 16th I parted ways with Sarah as she headed to the airport and I got myself to the hotel for the start of the Contiki tour. I checked into my room at the hotel at 2 p.m. and worked on my Dublin post to pass the time until my roommate arrived.

My roommate, Jess, was a sweet Australian girl. Though we couldn’t become great friends in the short amount of time we had together (she is on a different Contiki tour that also left from London), we got dinner together and went shopping . We had to be back at the hotel for our welcome meeting at 7 p.m., so we headed in early and got our seats in a huge conference room with about 100 people. There were four Contiki groups leaving from London that day, so we all met our tour managers and learned some basic rules and regs for Contiki tours.

My tour manager, Josie, is a freaking awesome Canadian chick who has a fantastic attitude and an effervescent love for travel. She made all 45 people in my group feel welcome and initiated our group unity with little effort. Most of the people on the tour are from Australia, with a third of the remainder from New Zealand, six from South Africa, three from Canada, three from America and six from Asia.

After the meeting Monday night, we went to a pub next to the hotel and got to know each other. They are all crazy. Well mostly the Aussies and Kiwis, but the South Africans are up there too. I’ve never met a group of people who can drink so much and get so little sleep and still function.

On Tuesday, we rose bright and early to make our way to France. We took a ferry from the white cliffs of Dover to the French coast, went through the fastest customs check I’ve ever experienced, and then stayed on the coach bus until we got to our campsite on the outskirts of Paris. We set up our camp of little blue twin share tents, and then hopped back on the bus to do a quick tour of Paris.

I was blown away by the beauty permeating throughout the city streets and buildings. Of course, I knew from countless movies and photos that Paris was beautiful, but it honestly took my breath away when we drove through that night. Every building is so intricately furnished with immaculate sculpting on every side, from the entryways to the trim to the gutters. I couldn’t believe that these building were all sculpted by hand and have stayed this beautiful since medieval times.

Euro Trip Summer 2014 462

But our tour of the city was short lived as we had to return to the campsite so our bus driver could sleep (there are very strict laws governing how many hours the bus driver can work daily). And of course, that night, everyone got super drunk and stayed up into the wee hours of the night getting to know each other.

We rose early the next day to drive into the city for some free time. We were dropped off at the Arc de Triomphe, and had plenty of time to get some good photos. Afterward,  with a group of girls, I walked up and down the Champs Élysées, Paris’ main shopping district. We visited the Louis Vutton store, a Mercedes dealer show room, a Tiffany’s store, and then went to H&M so that we could actually buy something. Parisians are so well dressed and vogue I could barely handle it. I loved it!

Euro Trip Summer 2014 488

After shopping, two girls and I rented bikes and rode up and down the Seine River. It was one of the most magical things I’ve ever done. The river is beautiful despite the somewhat cloudy water and riding through the streets and gazing at the buildings was unforgettable.

Euro Trip Summer 2014 529

 

Along the way, we visited the Pont des Arts, or the Love Lock bridge. Legend has it, if you put a lock on the bridge, write yours and your lovers’ names on it, and throw the key into the river, then you and your lover will be together eternally. Romantic, but pretty intense, huh? So….that sort of commitment scared me and I didn’t put a lock on the bridge. But one girl I was with put her best friends’ and her name on the lock, which I though was a cute idea. The area was pretty toursity, and the bridge pretty crowded, so soon after we got to the bridge, we again headed off on our bikes back along the river.

Euro Trip Summer 2014 575

Later that night, we met back up with the full group at the Louvre and then headed to a restaurant for dinner. The food was amazing, though many other people in my group did not fancy the snails or French wine, but I was down to try everything that would add to my true Parisian experience. But the best part of dinner was the waiters. I’ve never been flirted with so much than by the old men waiting our tables at the French restaurant. They grabbed all of the women’s arms and shoulders when they talked and did a lot of cheek (and sometimes lip) kissing. It was, uh, enlightening.

Euro Trip Summer 2014 644

After dinner, we headed to a cabaret show where we watched dancers perform traditional French dances with a few modern twists. The show was absolutely fabulous, but I’m a little regretful that I spent 80 euros on it.

Wednesday night was again full of drinking and staying up later at the camp site, which is how every night of this tour is going to be — apparently. I don’t like it very much, but since we are tent camping, there is no quiet place to go escape the loud noises. And the lack of sleep caused by the rowdy partiers definitely contributed to my awful, awful day on Thursday. For that, I will need to start a new post.

London, Rome, Paris, Barcelona, Dublin, Zurich: The ultimate itinerary for my trip to Europe

Euro Trip 2014 MapIs this real life? Am I seriously heading to Europe in less than one week? I’m so excited, I can’t even see straight, and I really hope I haven’t scared away any strangers as I randomly gaze off into the distance as I daydream about the trip. I’ve been planning to go back to Europe since the day I stepped foot back in the U.S. last summer after returning from Spain. I just can’t believe it’s now one week away.

I’m finally taking the time to jot down the entire itinerary of my 24-day trip through 11 cities in six countries. Primarily, I’m making the list for personal reference, but I hope my friends and family can use it track where I am along the adventure. And of course, I hope anyone reading this will be inspired to plan a fast-paced Euro trip of their own. I’m sure it will be the experience of a lifetime.

June 10th – Washington, to New York, to London

I live in D.C., but my flight to London leaves from JFK airport in New York City. So I’ll be using Megabus to get to New York (have I written my ode to Megabus yet? I’m practically married to the company at this point), where I’ll then have four hours to make it to the airport and get myself through customs. This will be my first time flying internationally alone and I’m, like, crazy nervous. But I’m so excited for this trip that I know I’ll combat my nerves with thoughts of beautiful England, enchanting Ireland, feisty Spain, alluring Italy, majestic France, intriguing Monaco… wait, what was I talking about again?

June 11th – London Calling

I’ll arrive around 10 a.m. where my lovely, lovely travel pal Sarah will pick me up from Heathrow airport and help me get acquainted to the city. She and I will be staying with her aunt in Wimbledon, and Sarah will have arrived a few days before I do, so she’ll be ready to hit the town as soon as I get there.  Sarah’s been to London more times than I have fingers, so she’ll be my personal tour guide and take me around the London bridge, Big Ben, the London Eye, Abbey road, Platform 9  and 3/4, etc. She and her aunt are being so awesome about letting me stay with them and showing me around, and I can’t say enough how much I appreciate it.

June 12th – Explore London

Sarah and I will do more sightseeing and souvenir shopping early in the day. We bought tickets to Once, the musical, and will have to make our way over to the theater midday. Afterward, there will be time do more exploring after the show before we retire early to get a good start the next day for Dublin.

June 13th – Off to Ireland!

For more details, see my post: How we’re seeing Dublin in 38 hours (we might just be crazy)

Rising early, Sarah and I will take a train to the coast of England and then ride a ferry across the water to Dublin Port. The 8-hour journey will take up most of our day, but we’ll arrive with just enough time to hang out in Temple Bar and take a nighttime sigh-seeing tour of Dublin.

14th – Irish Overload

This will be an incredibly fast-paced day, with a morning 3-hour walking tour and then back-to-back visits to the Guinness Storehouse and Jameson Distillery. At night, we’ll go out like true Irish lassies and hit up a bar crawl with our fellow hostel visitors.

June 15th – Back to London for a Bit

A ferry and a train will take Sarah and I back to London, and spend the rest of the day relaxing and recovering. Sarah will be preparing to head back to the States, and I’ll get ready to start my Contiki tour the next day. But we must get one last scone together before we part.

June 16th – Head to the hotel in London to start my Contiki tour

I’ll have to check in to the hotel by 2 p.m. and then spend the evening getting ready for the tour. There will be orientation for the trip where I will meet the tour manager, chef and my fellow travelers. The checked-in travelers have a chance to go out to dinner, but we can’t get cray cray since we have to get up early the next day to head to Paris.

June 17th – Depart London for Paris

Off to Paris! We’ll begin our voyage on a ferry to France, where we’ll pass the White Cliffs of Dover. Then we’ll hop on the Contiki coach bus and travel through World War I battlefields in the Valley of the Somme to Paris.

Once we arrive at our campsite, we get to set up camp – which I’m super excited about because apparently, we’re sleeping in pairs in these cute little blue tents. I’m sure tight quarters will force us to become very close with our fellow travelers – literally. Once we have set up camp, our bus will leave for the Tour of Illuminations, which will take us around the beautiful, lamp-lit streets of Paris, passing the Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Champs-Élysées.

June 18th – 19th  Explore Paris

The city of love will bring us plenty of sightseeeing to do over these two days: Left Bank, Notre Dame Cathedral, Louvre and more. I know the enchanting smell of French baguettes will draw me in and I’m so looking forward to chowing down on some French cuisine. Plus, shopping!! I know everything will be way expensive, but I will do my best to find a few Parisian gems to ring back to the states. Our tour also includes a trip to Versailles, France’s most well-known château, where we will explore the impressive exterior of the extravagant palace. I’ll have to make sure I bring extra memories for my camera!

On the last night in Paris, we get to experience a Parisian night out, starting with an optional dinner in an atmospheric restaurant and authentic cabaret experience, complete with can-can girls and champagne. I’m so ready to live the high life.

June 20th – Depart Paris and drive through Bordeaux

Surely tired from the previous night’s festivities, we’ll pack up our campsites and head through Loire Valley, traveling past rolling vineyards and chateaus. On our way to Spain, we’ll stop in Bordeaux and visit the UNESCO World Heritage listed St. Emilion, with its fortified medieval city.

June 21st – Biarritz and Pamplona

Leaving Bordeaux and heading south, the bus will stop at the beach resort of Biarritz, known for some of the best beaches and surf in Europe. Since I’m not a huge sun-bathing person, I’ll probably spend most of my time in Biarritz hitting up the coastal shops and boutiques. Apparently, Biarritz has great beach fashion and locally made linens and regional produce like hams and salamis.

Leaving Biarritz, we cross the border to Spain and spend the evening in Pamplona, the city know for the Running of the Bulls. Pamplona has an awesome Gothic cathedral that I’m sure I’ll obsess over, and amazing Basque restaurants that serve traditional foods like barbecued lamb, fresh trout and red peppers.

June 22nd – Off to Barcelona!!!

Lately, I’ve become increasingly obsessed with Barcelona. Already suffering from an obsession with Spanish language and culture, I can only image how I’ll soak in the incredible, vibrant colors and beachy vibe of one of Spain’s best-known cities.

So on the way to Barcelona from Pamplona, the bus will head through the Baroque city of Zaragoza, set on the banks of the Rio Ebro. We’ll stop for lunch and engorge in Spanish tapas, and get a chance to check out another amazing Spanish cathedral. Once we arrive in Barcelona and set up camp, we depart for the city just in time to hit up Montjuic, a hilltop with full vistas of the city and location of the 1992 Olympic Games complex. Then we will check out the Sagrada Família!!!! I can’t wait!

Later, we get to enjoy a night out in Barcelona, which I’m sure will be one we won’t want to tell the kids.

June 23rd – Explore Barcelona

After a morning walking tour of the city, we’ll have free time to visit shops on Plaça de Catalunya, La Rambla, Parc Güell, or hang out on the beach. That night, there will be a family dinner and optional Flamenco show, then we head out for a night out in Barcelona – part two.

June 24th – Off to the French Riviera

The rugged coast line of the stunning Côte d’Azur will capture our attention as we roll along on the coach bus, stopping for lunch in Arles.  The beautiful city of Cannes will great us as we roll along the Riviera on our way to Antibes.

June 25th – Explore the French Riviera and Monaco 

On this sunny Wednesday, we’ll stop at the Fragonard perfumery, the home of the French perfume industry. We’ll have some free time to explore the area and try some French wine and, at night, get to explore Monaco and maybe even blow some cash at the Monte Carlo casino.

June 26th – Off to Florence

Leaving France, the tour crosses over the border to Italy. First stop: the Leaning Tower of Pizza (hehehe had to do it 🙂 ). We next drive to our campsite, have a family dinner, take a tour along the river and unwind with a glass of Tuscan wine.

June 27th – Explore Florence 

We’ll hit the museum and the city centre, take a guided tour through crowded streets, and watch a demonstration of Florentine leather making. At night, we’ll have an optional group dinner  (an authentic Tuscan feast, which there’s no way I’m missing), and then head out to experience Florentine nightlife.

June 28th – Head to our last stop: Rome!

Traveling through Tuscany, we’ll leave Florence and head to Rome where we’ll set up our last campsite on the tour.  A coach tour if the city will guide us through the Colosseum and Piazza Venezia, where we’ll then then step off the bus to see the Pantheon and Piazza Navona. With our free time later, we get to check out the Trevi Fountain or see the Spanish Steps. And at some point, obvi, we’ll  be stopping for pizza and gelato.

June 29th —  When in Rome…

In the morning, a tour guide will take us through the Vatican Museums, including the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. Then, of course, the tour leads to the Colosseum and Roman Forum.

Free time later in the day will give us a chance to explore the city, eat more pizza, go shopping, and, knowing me, take lots of pictures. I just really want to know what it means to “do as the Romans do.” Ha.

Then, it’s our last night out! I know that I’ll have made some awesome friends during this crazy Euro adventure, and the group will want to go out with a bang. And if that predication is wrong, I’ll just go out by myself. Whatevs.

June 30th – Ciao for now Rome!

On this day, everyone packs up and rolls out. The tour ends midday Monday and we’re all on our own to transport ourselves back home. But Europe won’t be able to get rid of me that quickly. I’ll have a few more days before I head back to the States.

July 1st – 2nd – ?????

Still not quite sure what I’ll be doing these two days before heading back to London. My friend Rachel, who is studying abroad in France, and I planned to meet up in Switzerland, but that might not be possible anymore. So I will probably just be spontaneous and pick up a one-way ticket to some place I’ll want to explore before heading back to the Heathrow airport the night of the June 2.

July 3rd – GOODBYE EUROPE

Oh, parting is such sweet sorrow. I fly out from London that morning, expecting to be back in Washington, D.C. later that evening. With the next day being July 4th (U.S. Independence Day), I can’t think of any better way to feel welcomed back to my home country than with firework, hot dogs, and everything stars and stripes.

Gracias, Merci, Grazie

My Upcoming Contiki Tour: The Mini Rider

I browsed through the Contiki tours and discovered on somewhat within my budget and target duration. It’s the Mini Rider, a 15-day tour through London, France, Spain and Italy. I want to see the major Euro tourist attractions — the Eiffel Tower, Colosseum, London Eye, etc.– since this will be my first trip through Europe. When I go back after graduation, I’ll explore the off-the beaten path spots.

TOUR TYPE

This is a camping tour, which means I will be sharing a tent with another traveler. It’s not as glamorous as staying in hotels, but camping is more adventurous and fun– and it’s a fraction of the cost. Along that note, I am assuming my tour mates will also be adventurous and open — and hopefully as broke as I am, since they, too, chose the budget tour.

COST

The tour is $1,620 with an additional $250 for food. In total, it will cost $1,870. I didn’t purchase the traveler’s insurance, which was another cost. Luckily, Contiki has a layaway option, so I can pay two to three hundred dollars toward the trip every month, or as often as I would like. Contiki layaway also allows other people to donate money to the fund through a link that users can email to others. On that note — I am writing this post on Dec. 24 and hoping tomorrow may bring some monetary gift from my parents (I’ve been good this year, I promise!)

TRAVEL PATH

Commencing on June 16, 2014 and concluding on June 30, the tour follows a curved path though southern Europe. Travelers are to fly into London on June 16, meet the tour mates and receive a Contiki orientation, then depart for Paris on June 17 (I plan on flying into Europe a day or two early to have more time to explore there). We’ll spend a few nights in Paris, then head to Pamplona, Spain. After leaving Pamplona, we will head to Barcelona for two days before traveling back to France, along the French Riviera. We’ll stop in Monaco along the way, then embark into Italy, where we will spend a few days in Florence and then swoop down to Rome. After two nights, the tour ends, and travelers are responsible for getting ourselves home.

 

the-mini-rider-map-600x600
From contiki.com.

As many of the reviews mentioned, the trip involves a significant amount of time on the bus. As someone who spent her childhood on road trips, though (and who, even at age 20, is rocked to sleep like a baby on any mode of transportation), I am fine with long bus rides. As long as I am sitting where a video is visible, I’m set.

ATTRACTIONS

But along with those long rides, there are also tons of sightseeing and cultural immersion opportunities. These are the major sights and destinations the tours covers:

Paris

Image from wikimedia.org
Image from wikimedia.org

Arc de Triomphe

Eiffel Tower

Louvre

Notre Dame Cathedral

Champs-Élysées

Château Versailles

Loire Valley

Pamplona & Barcelona

Image from independent.myreaderoffers.com
Image from independent.myreaderoffers.com

The Lighthouse & Bay in Biarritz

Sagrada Família

Rio Ebro

Montjuic and the 1992 Olympic Games complex

Zaragoza

Gothic Quarter

Parc Güell

French Riviera 

Image from royalcorrespondent.com
Image from royalcorrespondent.com

Côte d’Azur

Arles

Royal Palace in Monaco

Monte Carlo

Florence

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Duomo Cathedral

Statue of David

Image from thewondersoftheworld.net
Image from thewondersoftheworld.net

Ponte Vecchio

Medici Palace

Duomo

Basilica Santa Croce

Giotto’s Bell Tower

Baptistry

Piazza della Signoria

Rome

Vatican City

Image from destination360.com
Image from destination360.com

Colosseum

Roman Forum

Piazza Venezia

Trevi Fountain

Pantheon

Piazza Navona

St. Peter’s Basilica

Sistine Chapel

This extensive list of sights is, of course, paired with a list of night clubs, restaurants, bars and shops for souvenirs and nightly outings. I am beyond excited. As more plans unfold, I will be adding posts with details regarding the Contiki Mini Rider Tour!

 

 

Contiki Holidays: afforable tours for young travelers

Image from www.tntmagazine.com
Image from http://www.tntmagazine.com

I’m sure most people prefer to make their own travel plans, selecting their own destinations, accommodations and traveling pace, but I’m not prepared for that yet. This will be my first time traveling abroad by myself, and I would prefer to do it as part of a group. I’m cognizant that I’d be able to meet people while staying in hostels or joining day-long activities, however, my preference is to spend an extended period of time with the same people to build relationships and, hopefully, lasting friendships.

CONTIKI HOLIDAYS

Hence, through my quest to find an inexpensive trip, I stumbled across Contiki Holidays, a company that provides tours for travelers ages 18 – 35. As a 20-year-old, I am part of the younger crew, but I was very pleased with the age range. It looks the tours are geared toward people who are agile and love adventure — which is definitely me!  Their tagline is:

TWENTY YEARS FROM NOW YOU WILL BE MORE DISAPPOINTED BY THE THINGS YOU DIDN’T DO THAN BY THE ONES YOU DID DO.

YOU ONLY HAVE ONE LIFE, ONE SHOT, SO MAKE IT COUNT #NOREGRETS

Cheesy, yes, but it’s still the kind of sentiment I’m seeking.

THEIR TOURS

I looked into the tours Contiki provides, and found they have a dynamic and reasonably priced selection. They have tours through North and South America, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and, of course, Europe. Most of the tours are multi-city and entail sightseeing during the day and free-time during the night. The tours range from two days to several months, and they come in different accommodation options:

Superior Easy Pace (hotels & relaxed pace)
Superior (hotels)
Budget (a mix of hostels, cabins & budget hotels)
Camping
There are also different methods of tours, including sailing, snorkeling and skiing. Contiki even plans trips based around events such as New Years and Oktoberfest.

Image from lukehimself.net
Image from lukehimself.net
Prices, of course, vary according to length, type and accommodation. Lengthy “superior” trips are way out of my budget, but fortunately Contiki compensates for expensive trips by offering the budget and camping tours. They’re fairly cheaper, and provide most breakfasts and dinners — though I cannot vouch for the food yet.

REVIEWS

The reviews of Contiki are mixed, but generally positive. The majority had fantastic descriptors. These are a few from the review page on Contiki’s site:

“I could not speak more highly of Contiki if I tried. It was an absolutely fantastic trip.”

“Incredible experiences, Booze, Friend for life”

“Party, Long-Lasting Friendships, Adventurous”

“You’ll be tired and you’ll want to sleep for days but it’s all part of the experience. YOU’RE IN EUROPE! This may or may not be a one in a lifetime opportunity, so make the most of it. Seriously, have NO regrets… do everything you want to do and I promise you’ll have an amazing time.”

My personal favorite:

“I have travelled a ton before, but never with a tour, so I must say Contiki is great for new travellers and experienced travellers! The great thing about Contiki is that everyone is young and wanting to experience the same things as you. Everyone has the love for travel and adventure!”

Of course, with every positive review there are the negative ones:

“You will spend a lot of time on the bus—about 40% of the trip…A lot of people spend their time on the bus sleeping off their hangover or socializing.” (thesavvybackpacker.com)

“I have heard from multiple sources that many of the tours quickly turn into drunken parties with lots of sex.”

“…tours on Contiki tend to be filled with parties, young people, and alcohol.” (nomadicmatt.com)

“I was not happy with the accommodation…The tour guide and bus driver were awesome, and they tried their best but the group dynamic was poor and awkward at best.”

Image from broke.travel
Image from broke.travel

Essentially, it sounds like Contiki tours will be drinking-heavy and action-packed, but I am definitely okay with that. Most of the negative reviews were written by people who said they preferred solo travel or were not fans of drinking –but they did have positive comments otherwise. I think Contiki Holidays will be able to suit my needs for my first time travelling to Europe alone, and I am looking forward to the adventures I am going to have.