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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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How can you walk away from this?!

 

My strange adventures in Barcelona

Morning came on June 23 telling us to pack up camp and head across Spain towards Barcelona. The Spanish countryside is absolutely breathtaking. Quaint, red-roofed houses are scattered across the hills and the view kept my eyes occupied for hours.

We stopped for lunch in Zaragoza, Spain, the fifth largest city in the country. The coach dropped us off in front of a huge cathedral in a central square of the city. The cathedral, Our Lady of Pilar, looked like a castle and was the most visible facet in the city. We walked around the square and grabbed lunch at a local café. Afterward, since it was Sunday at noon, we got to watch the procession go through the square into the church for Mass. We were so lucky to see such a beautiful ceremony take place, though most of us could not go inside the church since our dresses and shorts exposed too much skin 😦

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After an hour and a half in Zaragoza, we made the final leg of our journey to Barcelona. When we finally arrived in the city, we took a driving tour around the major roads, stopping at an overlook on the highest peak of the city. Barcelona is as bright and colorful as I had hoped. The trees and other foliage are so tropical; all I could think was that I’d finally found my paradise.

We stopped again at la Sagrada Familia, the expansive gothic cathedral designed by the famous Spanish architect, Antonio Gaudí. Scaffolding covered the majority of the architectural masterpiece, but we were still able to see the bizarre features of each façade, including fruit, animals and a Christmas tree.

After leaving the city, we headed back to the campsite, which was about 30 minutes away. This was by far the best campground we’ve been to so far. Called Tres Estrellas, the campground bordered the beach and was equipped with a pool, full service store, laundry facilities, and night club and a bar. How cool is that?

The first night, our onboard cook, Laura, made us a huge bowl of sangria which we used to kickoff our nighttime beach party. After dinner, all 45 of us headed to the beach where we blasted music and had an incredible time. My amazing friend Sasha and I even striped down to our skivvys and jumped in the ocean. I’m not quite sure what the name of the body of water was that we went into,but once I find out, I’ll be able to say that I officially went (somewhat) nude in that water 🙂

The next day, we went back into Barcelona and started the day with a walking tour of the Gothic Quarter. We roamed the narrow side streets, making our way to the main cathedral in the area. I was mesmerized by the beautiful, authentic gothic architecture and the historical significance (I know I’ve been using that phrase often, but I can’t help that these places have played such important roles in Europe’s history). We learned from one of our tour guides that a courtyard we visited was the site of one of the most deadly attacks on civilians ever to happen in Spain.

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We roamed the quarter for a while longer, taking plenty of photos before splitting up for free time in the city. A few friends and I were keen on seeing el Parque Güell, a fantastic park designed by Gaudí that sits raised on the edge of the Barcelona with a beautiful panoramic view of the city A picture of the park has been the background on my laptop for the past year, and I could not have been more excited to go there.

Of course, nothing goes smoothly when you’re really excited for something, right? As we rode the metro from the Gothic Quarter and as we climbed the hill on our ascent to the park, I kept raving to my friends about how excited I was to finally visit the place I’ve been dreaming about for months. When we finally arrived in then park, we walked to the spot where my background image was taken, but could not get in! Apparently, the beautiful section of the park where intricate mosaic tiles on a wall create an overlook of the city was a ticketed area.

So I told my friends I would go around the corner to inquire about tickets and meet them in back in 15 minutes. Going to the ticket booth, I found that n order to actually get to the overlook, I would have had to wait in line to buy an €8 ticket at a designated time (the next slot available being an hour from that time). I was with a group of people and seriously did not want them to have to wait for me soooo I had to skip out on the thing I was most excited to do in Barcelona. But it’s okay… I’m sure I’ll be back!

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I went back to meet my friends at our meetup spot but didn’t see them anywhere. I waited about 10 minutes then walked around to look for them, and still nothing. I panicked for a second, but I remembered we had agreed to all get lunch at 1:00 at the food market back near the Gothic Quarter. By then it was 12:30, so I figured my other friends had just headed there already and I could meet them at that spot.

So I left the park a little disappointed and took the metro back to our starting point. I walked to the food market, getting there at 12:50 and looking around for my friends. Still nothing. I waited for another 20 minutes, wandering around the market in case they were already inside, and still didn’t find them.

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At that point, I figured it was a lost cause and decided to get something to eat and explore the city on my own. I knew the full Contiki group was meeting at 5:30, so I had four hours to experience Barcelona however I wanted to. Which, of course, means I went shopping! I spent the next two hours walking around stores like H&M, Zara, Mango and a few jewelry and accessory stores. I bought a couple of really cute, super cheap dresses and a few souvenirs for friends.

As I was walking about in search of a shoe store, I ran into those friends with whom I had been separated in the park. What a coincidence! We met and hugged and they said they thought I was dead (an exaggeration of course, but I can still image how scary it could have been for them!) and I explained what had happened. It turns out that I had just come back to out meetup spot much earlier than they had. It was all a miscommunication with time.

Reunited, we got sangria at a streetside café, then bought a few more things and a souvenir shop. It was pretty embarrassing when I knocked into a porcelain mug at the shop and shattered it. Not only did I have to pay €20 for it, but a shard of porcelain hit my foot and cut it. So I walked out of the shop with a bleeding foot, an empty wallet and a story to tell. Could have been worse.

Our free time in the city shortly ended, and we met back up with the full group at 5:30 for a flamenco show. I have been to a flamenco show once before in Sevilla, the birthplace of flamenco and home of the Flamenco Museum. I was, then, a little spoiled going into this show because the Sevilla show was probably one of the best in Spain. We all sat around a table facing a small stage with complementary glasses of sangria in front of us. The dancers were professional and definitely skilled but I do feel that the dresses and choreography were still incomparable to the ones in Sevilla.

Overall though, the show was good and I am glad I went. After the dancers finished the audience members were all invited up to the second level of the hall to learn on keys dance moves of our own. This was probably the best part of the flamenco experience but we all got to go crazy dancing on a small stage with lasers shining from the walls. Pretty fun, eh?

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After flamenco, we hoped back on the coach and headed to Port Olympico for dinner. Being in Spain (though Catalonia would beg to differ), we of course went to a tapas restaurant for dinner where we had some of the best tapas I think I’ve ever had. Well done, Barcelona. Then we headed down the street to meet our tour manager for some drinks at a local bar.

We were fortunate enough to be in Barcelona on el Día de San Juan, a major holiday in the country. Most people on the tour went back to the campsite after dinner to join in a beach party that the campground was hosting. But a few friends and I couldn’t imagine missing out on a night out in Barcelona! So, we stayed in the city and had an amazing time dancing the night away with some locals. We ended the night by walking to the beach and watching the fireworks go off everywhere that we’re being set every few feet. The beach was immensely crowded, and we had to dodge people as well as firecrackers going off in the sand, but it was the best way to experience Barcelona the way it’s meant to be experienced. It was awesome.

Paris to Pamplona, highlights and thoughts

We left Paris and spent the day on the road, headed to Bordeaux. The bus ride was long and draining, but we stopped at a few service areas along the way to get food and stretch our legs.

We arrived to Bordeaux around dinnertime. The campsite was an in adorable, quaint town comprised of small cottage-like houses with flowers hanging from the window sills. It was as picturesque as you would imagine a small French town to be.

That night, we had a bit of free time so I walked around with some friends to explore the town. We got a couple bottles of Bordeaux wine, which the city is famous for, and headed back to the campsite for dinner. After dinner, some people headed to the river for a swim, while I went with a few others to a local bar in town to watch the France versus Switzerland FIFA World Cup match. It was probably one of my most favorite nights of the trip so far. I loved the communal spirit resonating in the bar as the locals cheered and shouted for their team. Still feeling sick from the previous day, I left the bar and headed to bed early to get some much-needed sleep.

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Rising at 6 a.m. the following morning, we packed up camp and headed out towards Pamplona, Spain. On the way, our tour manager surprised us with a quick detour to the Dune du Pyle, Europe’s largest sand dune. At first most of us groaned a little, thinking it would be a boring excursion through a mound of sand, but we soon found we were terribly wrong.

We climbed to the top of the dune and were taken aback by the view from the top. The dune was situated right on the coastline, overlooking the ocean. On the other side, a vast, lush forest covered the ground. And in between, the dunes stretched for at least a kilometer, making the peak and awesome place to take pictures. We stayed there for less than an hour, but we had enough time to take a few group photos and watch some boys from the group roll all the way down the dune. Pretty badass.

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We soon left the dune and headed toward our next stop on our way to Pamplona. This time, we stopped at Biarritz, which I knew was a beach town, but did not realize how incredible a beach town it is. Biarritz is a ritzy area in the south of France, turned into a popular vacation spot by a king who used to live there. The streets are lined with expensive shops and boutiques and beachfront restaurants with breathtaking views.

The water there was a deep, crystal blue and the coastline was split by huge, beautiful boulders protruding from the water. Instead of hanging out at the beach with the rest of the group, two friends and I walked up and down the shops along the beach, stopping for some necessities and exploring the local commodities. Oh to be rich!

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Our stay in Biarritz was short-lived and we soon continued on our way to Pamplona. After a two-hour ride, we crossed over the border into Spain and arrived in the city for a short walking tour and stop for drinks.

Pamplona is one of the cities I have studied for years in my Spanish classes because of its rich culture and historical significance. This small town in the north of Spain is best know for its San Fermin festival, better known as the Running of the Bulls. Heard of it? Yeah. It’s when a bunch of crazy people run down a long path and have six bulls chase them to the bull ring, where afterwards the bulls are slaughtered. The festival lasts for more than a week, and has been a national tradition for centuries.

We walked about the city for a few minutes, stopping at a statue of the festival. After snapping a few pics with the sculptured bulls and matadors, we continued into a local pub for some sangria. Of course, having spent the previous summer in Spain, I had already had my fair share of the fruity, delicious drink. But most of the Australians and other people on the tour from the Southern Hemisphere had never had it! And boy did they love it. The pub we went to made the drink extra strong and extra sweet. We split three pitchers between six of us and drank every last drop. It was the perfect drink on a hot day.

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The group then headed back to the campsite for dinner. We had a choice of stay at the campsite or go back into the city for a night out after dinner; and of course I wanted to go back into the city! I couldn’t pass up on a night out in Pamplona. Luckily, I wasn’t alone. About 20 of us shared cabs to go back downtown and we ended up in the famous square of Pamplona where the San Fermin festival begins. But during the rest of the year, the square is a popular shopping area with lots of bars and a few night clubs.

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We ended up at a pub in the square where we got mojitos, more sangria and a Spanish drink called kalimocho (red wine and coke). We helped turn the somewhat empty pub into a club by dancing up a storm inside. It was unbelievably fun standing around with everyone in a circle and taking turns showing off our skills in the middle. It was definitely one of the best nights yet.

Bordeaux, Dune du Pyle, Biarritz and Pamplona were amazing places we only got to spend a a few hours exploring. I wish we had more time in all of them, especially Pamplona, but I was happy to head to Barcelona the next day!

Why Paris will never forget me and vise versa

Paris Won

This post is a continuation of my last one. Here, I am going to explain why I had possibly the worst day ever in the most beautiful city ever: thanks, food poisoning.

Thursday morning, we rose early once again to head to Versailles. I wish I could have enjoyed the palace more, but I was already feeling a little lightheaded and thirsty. I fought through and stopped to get a bite to eat, but that is where the day took a turn for the worst.

We spent two hours in Versailles, then headed back to Paris for a few more hours of free time in the city. The entire ride there, I was rocking back and forth in my chair, clinging to my stomach. I felt awful and was trying my best to hold it together so that I didn’t make a big deal or put a damper on anyone else’s journey.

When we got to the city, two friends and I stopped to get a lunch at a cute French café. It was there that I vomited all over the bathroom (I’m very sorry for how much information I am about to share, feel free to skip this post if it becomes too much!).

Vomiting helped clear my stomach, and I tried to eat a bite of the Parisian burger I had ordered, but after a few minutes, I was right back in the bathroom. Again emptying my stomach, I felt dizzy and weak. We left the restaurant and walked to the Louvre, thinking that I would get better with some water and fresh air. We were wrong of course. I almost fainted once we got inside, and got no help from the wait staff at a café inside the museum who refused to give me water because they were “closing up.”

I made it to the bathroom to get tap water, and then sat down on a bench outside because not only was dehydrated and dizzy, I was also overheating and sweat was seeping down my forehead. We had to leave the museum to make it back to our tour group to go back to the campsite. Of course, on the way outside, I vomited once again in the bushes surrounding the museum. This is where I say that Paris will never forget me because indefinitely left my mark. Gross, I know.

The bus ride home was awful. Again I sat clinging to my stomach with my eyes closed and my head bent down on my lap. Luckily, I was so empty inside that it was impossible to vomit again. The plan was for the group to go back to the campsite and eat dinner, then head back to the city for a picnic outside the Eiffel Tower, which we hadn’t seen yet. Unfortunately, we got stuck in horrendous traffic and our bus driver went over his allotted amount of driving hours for the day so we couldn’t go back to the city.

Though it was still light out, I went to bed early once back at the campsite. I laid down in the tent, still feeling dizzy and weak, but couldn’t sleep because my stomach still hurt so much. I kept trying to force myself to sleep, but as the night went on, so did the partying. Everyone outside was incredibly loud and getting drunker by the minute. I ended up laying in my bed with my eyes closed and my hands over my ears for 5 hours until the last of the partiers went to bed at 3:30 a.m. We had to get up at 5:30 the next day to drive to our next location.

That was yesterday. I’m now on the bus, headed to Bordeaux, typing away this story on my iPad. I still feel a little faint, having gotten fewer than two hours of sleep and having contracted overnight a cold that is spreading through the campers. I’m hoping to get some sleep on this ride, but I can’t guarantee anything. At this point, I really just want to curl up in my bed with a huge glass of water. But I’m in Europe and have been anticipating this trip for SO LONG that I have to make the most of it. I’ll do what I can and keep this blog updated! Let’s hope things get better from here 🙂

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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