Liz O’ Brien ticked off her continental bucket list with a Contiki ‘European Highlights’ tour in London, Paris, Nice, Monaco, the French Riviera, Florence, Pisa, Rome, Rhine Valley, St Goar, Munich, Edam and Amsterdam
I’VE recently returned home from a whirlwind two-week ‘Contiki’ trip around Europe which took in some of the most iconic sights the continent has to offer.
And, since coming home I cannot stop daydreaming about my amazing adventure.
I signed up with travel company Contiki to tour Europe by coach, along with 39 like-minded 18-35 year-olds from Australasia, America, South Africa, Ireland, Brazil, Canada, Guatemala, Mexico, Japan and Korea.
There were two couples and a few pairs of friends, but most had come alone.
It was daunting — a two week roadtrip, sharing dormitories, meal times and experiences with people I’d never met — but I needn’t have worried; we shared a common goal and that was enough to bond us.
Contiki’s ‘European Highlights’ takes in London, Paris, Nice, Monaco, the Beaujolais, French Riviera, Florence, Pisa, Rome, Rhine Valley, St Goar, Munich, Edam and Amsterdam.
Everything I had always wanted to tick off my European bucket list, we did, and much more.
It’s a budget tour — accommodation is basic and food is hit or miss. There’s a lot of time spent on the coach, but it’s modern and air-conditioned and the pay-off is amazing.
I climbed the Eiffel Tower, cruised in a gondola through Venice, sampled incredible food in Florence; saw a clog demonstration in Holland, Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam and a concentration camp in Dachau.
We swam in the French Riviera, threw coins into Rome’s Trevi Fountain (which at the time was without water) and took the obligatory ‘I’m holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa’ photo.
We all met in London for a briefing and the next day boarded the coach for Paris. Our tour manager, Whitney, and driver, ‘Spaghetti’, were tasked with taking care of us for the trip’s duration.
A ferry from the Cliffs of Dover took us to France and just hours later we were face-to-face with the majestic Eiffel Tower in Paris.
We collectively gasped at what was the first of the many breath-taking moments we were about to experience. I had waited my entire life to see this Parisian icon and it didn’t disappoint. We jumped off the coach, free to explore with our new found friends.
That night snails and Champagne were on the menu, followed by a ‘Paris by Night’ tour which gave insight into the city’s history. As darkness fell, we again stopped at the Eifel Tower to watch its 20,000 light-bulbs in a spectacular display.
The next day was ours to do as we pleased. I climbed the l’Arc de Triumph and Eiffel Tower; others visited the catacombs, Louvre, Napoleon’s tomb, Notre Dame Cathedral or Lock Bridge. We walked the Champs Elysees — home to some of the world’s most expensive designer stores — and afterwards sat in a café to take it all in.
Apparently French people go to cafes along the Champs Elysees to be seen; where you sit determines what you pay and a cup of coffee in outdoor seating can cost anything up to €8. For location alone however it’s worth the splurge.
That night we watched a typical French cabaret, and bid farewell to Paris.
From there we drove through the stunning Beaujolais wine region, in Nice we swam in the French Riviera and in Monaco, had a flutter at the Monte Carlo casino.
We visited the Leaning Tower in Pisa and later arrived in Florence — a city that blew me away with its beauty and old-world feel. We dined at Ristoranti Orcagna in the Piazza della Signoria (home to a Statue of David replica) where I sampled the best pasta I have ever eaten. Feasting on gelato, we meandered through the city’s streets after dinner and stopped at Florence’s oldest bridge, which provided the perfect backdrop to our unforgettable Italian-experience.
Unexpectedly our lovely guide Whitney had to leave the tour in Florence, but we gained the equally competent Jess for the tour’s remainder.
With so much to see — Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, Colosseum, Pantheon, Vatican City, St Peter’s Basilica —- Rome kept us on our toes.
So, after a busy two-days in the Eternal City, a gondola ride and an informative, witty tour of Venice was a welcome reprieve.
En route to Germany, we were treated to magnificent scenery along the Brenner Pass and Austrian Tyrol; both of which boasted picture-perfect landscapes.
And, on arrival in Munich we were equally spoilt by the knowledgeable Rob from Mike’s Bike Tours. He gave us each a bicycle and took us on a fun, enthusiastic city-tour. We learned about Munich’s history, watched surfers on the river, rode through the stunning English Garden and stopped for beer in the Chinesischer Turm beer garden. For a discounted price, Contiki offers additional experiences at each destination; this is one of them and it’s one I highly recommend.
Amsterdam was where we spent our final two nights together, so we were keen to party. Many of us wanted to see what the city is famous for, so we went to the Red Light District, watched a sex show, visited coffee shops where cannabis is legally sold and drank in tourist bars. But, there’s so much more to the Dutch capital; a pretty city, it is vibrant by day, with good shopping and attractions. We explored the city and its canals in paddleboats, finishing our expedition at The Anne Frank Museum — once home to the posthumous author and Holocaust victim — it was where Anne and her family went in to hiding during the German occupation of The Netherlands in World War II.
We were met by long queues, but don’t let that put you off, whether you’ve read the book or not, the museum is a must. I discovered afterwards that queues can be avoided by buying tickets online.
Our final night in The Dam was full of laughs and was our last as a group, as the next morning we said goodbye to those staying on in Amsterdam to continue travelling, or fly home.
After a few tears, the rest of us boarded the coach for the last time, headed for London, where just two weeks earlier our journey had begun.
My Contiki trip was the holiday of a lifetime, one that’s given me new friends and wonderful memories.
And, while I’m thrilled to be able to tick Europe off my bucket-list, I also wish I didn’t have to, so that I could do it all over again.
Contiki’s European Highlights 14-day tour includes:
13 nights accommodation: 1 night in Contiki’s French Château, 6 nights in Contiki Village cabins, 5 nights in hotel upgrade, and 1 night in a hostel; 13 breakfasts, 7 dinners; modern, air-conditioned coach with power-points for charging; tour director who looks after every detail; sightseeing tours of major cities plus orientations in other destinations.
Special inclusions include an exclusive ‘Paris by Night’ tour with Champagne & escargot, a visit to a Monte Carlo casino, a special access Rome sightseeing tour, a private boat through the canals of Venice and much more.
Prices start from €1539pp.
More info at www.contiki.com , your local travel agent or by calling Contiki on 01 775 3803.
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