Another enjoyable train ride through the English countryside and I was back in London.
I wanted to visit Buckingham Palace to view the ‘announcement’ of the Royal baby’s arrival at the Palace gates. After checking out the only luggage storage facility at Victoria Station and discovering they would charge me nine pounds to leave my suitcase there for less than an hour, I trundled off with said luggage in hand for the walk to the Palace. It was around 30 degrees and I don’t do heat very well, so you can imagine my dismay when I arrived at the gates to be told that the ‘announcement’ only stays on display for twenty four hours after the birth. I was forty eight hours after the birth.
Back to the station and another train to Greenwich and arrival at my hotel. I’d been upgraded to a better hotel, after the cheap one I had booked made a double booking, and I was very impressed. I enjoyed a beautiful meal in the restaurant of the Clarendon Hotel and listened to a jazz singer in the basement Jazz Bar – so had a great night without having to leave my hotel.
A quick cab ride early the next morning took me to my pick up point for the next leg of my journey – a fourteen day coach tour of Europe. I ducked inside the Holiday Inn (our pickup point) to the breakfast room to see if I could purchase something to eat, and the kind concierge told me to help myself to whatever I wanted! A couple of mini muffins, a yoghurt, juice and some fruit stashed in my bag and I was a happy chappy! What nice people at the Holiday Inn! Some excited conversations amongst our group passed the time until our coach arrived, and we were on board.
Introductions were made and house rules laid out by Cameron, our tour leader – rule number one – if you are late getting back on the bus, you sing your national anthem. And he meant it – our first rest break had us listening to a rather poor rendition of the Indonesian national anthem! What a diverse coach load of people we had on board! There were families from some exotic locations – Trinidad, Barbados, Colombia, Honduras, Philippines, Malaysia, Korea, Indonesia, UAE, South Africa, Russia, Canada, England, Scotland and of course Australia. No Americans, which surprised me. They were a friendly bunch, we got to know each other very well over the course of the trip. I loved the ferry crossing from Dover to Calais, keeping myself amused with silent renditions of Vera Lynne’s ‘White Cliff’s of Dover’ as I raced about snapping photos. It really is a beautiful sight watching the white cliffs trail off behind you.
First overnight stop was Amsterdam. I love this city (most visitors do), it is a friendly, vibrant, interesting city. After a surprisingly good meal at our hotel, we were transported into the city for a guided walking tour. This included a walk through the famous Red Light district, which shocked some of the more ‘conservative’ members of our group. I’d seen it all before, so enjoyed watching the reactions from some of them.
The Grasshopper Coffee Shop – aka a marihuana cafe
For our first night I had been paired with the only other Australian on the tour – Josie – to share a room, and was politely informed the next morning that my snoring had kept her awake all night. A quick word to Cameron with a suggestion that the four ‘single’ girls rotate each night sorted that out.
Fortunately, Josie was the only ‘light’ sleeper among us, the other two wouldn’t have woken if a bomb had gone off, so she only had to endure me every third night. It worked well. A visit to a family run cheese and clog making facility and a quaint little windmill village called Zaanse Schans filled in the following morning before heading off to the Rhine Valley in Germany.
We were treated to a cruise along the Rhine to arrive at our hotel in Boppard, right on the banks of this beautiful river. We passed many castles, vineyards, cute little villages and enjoyed a glorious sunny afternoon.
Another in house meal was provided that night, along with entertainment in the form of the dreaded Karaoke. We only had two volunteers – our tour leader, and two sisters from Manchester who blew us all away with their performance.
Next stop, the beautiful old city of Nuremburg followed by a visit to a brewery in Plzen in the Czech Republic – famous for its Pilsener beer.
I stopped short of tasting the hops, unlike some of our group who were still pulling faces long after we left. I did enjoy a couple of glasses of beer at the end of the tour though. There was a nice balance of non drinkers and those of us who like a drink or two, so we managed to score second helpings at a number of taste testings!
On to Prague for a two night stay. By now the weather was really heating up – some days were in the high thirties – so we were all delighted to find our hotel was air conditioned. Our ‘free day’ in this gorgeous city was spent visiting the castle as a group, then riding a funicular up to Petrin Hill for more spectacular views of the city.
It was at the castle walls that I decided I’d follow the others lead and pop myself up on a ledge to pose (seductively) with a vista of the city behind me. As I took my weight into my hands to push myself up onto the ledge (backwards), the muscles across my chest ripped – and I fell in a crumpled heap to the ground.
I didn’t know you had muscles across your chest that you could rip (I do now – the Pectoralis Major), but wow did it hurt! For days… So now I had to contend with a knee that decided that night time was a good time to bring on the most pain, a sore tail bone from the escalator fall, and ripped muscles that made deep breaths impossible. This was going well!
Our next port of call was Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. A walking tour in 38 degree heat took the shine off our enjoyment of the city, and I really only enjoyed lunch and a cold beer. By this stage the heat was so intense that I succumbed to the embarrassment of holding an umbrella above my head. It helped a little. Bratislava was however, a beautiful city full of historic buildings and many sculptures.
I’ve never been to Budapest before, and I was ‘wowed’ by its beauty. We were treated to a driving tour of the city before arriving at our hotel.
A group of us then made our way by public transport to Szechenyi Spa and Thermal Baths: (http://www.budapest.com/city_guide/sights/baths/szechenyi_bath.en.html for a fun afternoon jumping in an out of mineral pools of various temperatures. I was the only one hardy enough to brave the coldest pool twice. After the heat of the last few days, I welcomed it.
This afternoon was the highlight of my tour so far. I thought Budapest was beautiful, half a day is not enough for this amazing city. I’ll just have to return!
On to Vienna. This is one of those city’s I could happily live in, there is just something magical about it.
Cameron had organised lunch for us in an amazing underground restaurant, famous for its Wiener Schnitzel. The Zwolf Apostelkeller (www.zwoelf-apostelkeller.at) – the Twelve Apostles – was a fantastic find, it was very authentic.
A genuine wiener schnitzel and apple strudel was enjoyed by everyone.
I continued the Austrian trend with a Radler – a shandy in our language. Doubt I’d ever find the restaurant again though! There are so many beautiful buildings in Vienna – Schoenbrunn Castle, Rathaus (Town Hall), the Parliament building, Hofburg Palace, the State Opera and St. Stephen’s Cathedral – so many photo opportunities. Enjoy these:
After a great walking tour of the city, a group of us returned to Rathausplatz, the plaza in front of the Town Hall and home to the famous Christmas Markets. A summer Music Film Festival was attracting a crowd and looked like a fun place to be. There were food stalls everywhere, we enjoyed some great food and drinks in a really buzzing atmosphere.
Found some seats in front of the giant screen to wait for the film to start, but didn’t factor in that it starts when darkness falls and of course that doesn’t happen till around 10pm. We called it a night – this tour was exhausting! Our next stop was Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. I’d been looking forward to seeing this city – I’d been to other parts of Slovenia and loved it. The approach to the city was a little disappointing – there was graffiti everywhere, even on historic buildings. One place we passed I thought was a marketplace full of stalls – it wasn’t, it was a type of ghetto covered in graffiti. The city itself was quite charming. Pretty canals, ‘lovelocks’ on bridges, statues everywhere, gorgeous painted buildings and churches with frescoed ceilings and a magnificent door.
The main square in the city centre turned into a buzzy, lively scene at night. Josie and I found an outdoor cafe with comfy chairs, settled in with some yummy icecreams and listened to a live band.
On to Venice. I have one of those ‘love-hate’ relationships with this city. Yes, it is beautiful, unique, romantic and historically interesting – but oh, the crowds! It drives me insane – shoulder to shoulder crowds in 40 degree heat is not my idea of a pleasant experience. I did however enjoy a gondola ride with everyone else on the coach tour – Cameron had organised a thirty minute group booking for only fifteen euros – a deal too good to pass up. After a slice of pizza and a gelato, we made our way to the steps outside the Hard Rock Cafe for the gondola ride. I left the group after this to go exploring on my own. They were attending a lace making and glass blowing exhibition and I had seen it all before, so enjoyed the rest of the afternoon getting lost in the streets of Venice.
Florence was the next port of call. A surprise stop at a lookout on a hill provided us with a fantastic photo opportunity. One of our best hotel experiences so far – the Plus Florence Hostel – where we enjoyed a refreshing swim after another stifling hot city walking tour. The evening proved much more enjoyable as it had cooled down, and after another ‘free’ meal and a couple of drinks in the adjoining dance club, I wandered back through the city centre grabbing more photos of this lovely city.
The following morning we headed to Switzerland, with a photo stop at Pisa on the way. We were given a challenge – the most original Leaning Tower of Pisa photo – and had a lot of laughs watching everyone take on the most ridiculous positions in a bid for the prize. My contribution was a pose of ‘downward dog’ – a yoga position, with my butt up against the leaning tower. I won! My prize? A tacky marble statue of – you guessed it – the Leaning Tower of Pisa!
Our ten hour drive to our Swiss hotel turned into a fifteen hour journey, thanks to a Swiss national holiday weekend and major traffic delays. I was thrilled to get glimpses of the gorgeous Lake Como on this long drive. We amused ourselves with games on the coach – name that tune, quizzes and dancing the Macarena and Chicken Dance to get the blood flowing. At one stage I headed down to the back of the coach and layed down on the floor in the aisle, had a snooze and then did some yogic floor exercises! Our driver exceeded his legal driving hours and faced a heavy fine and a black mark against his licence, a situation we all felt very bad about. His only other option was to offload us at a service station and go off and have a four hour break – to his credit he opted to wear the penalty.
We finally turned up at the hotel at around 11pm, to be greeted by a very gruff hotel owner who informed us that if we wanted a wifi code, we had to buy something at the bar. No warm welcome, cup of tea or coffee, nothing. This once national ski champion had the most unpleasant bland personality for a hotel owner, his house rules bordered on the ridiculous and I have to wonder why this tour company continues to book his hotel. Still, the rooms were pleasant enough, and I woke in the morning to a beautiful view of a Swiss valley.
This day became the highlight of my tour. A train ride up to Jungfrauhoch – the highest railway station in Europe. It consisted of two parts, a train to Lauterbrunnen, then a cog railway to the ‘Top of Europe’ station – 3454 metres high. Not the top of the mountain (Jungfrau is over 4000 metres), but high enough. The journey up was great fun, the views were astonishing and I got to see Swiss cows with cowbells, so I was happy. I had been a little concerned about the effect the thinness of the air might have on my (now diminished) lung capacity, but I took Cameron’s advice to everyone to not rush around, and I was fine. Good practice for when I eventually go to Peru to see Machu Picchu. I had a fantastic time on this trip and was so glad I experienced it. The journey back down the mountain was amusing – most of us slept – an effect of the lack of oxygen at the higher altitudes.
After playing in snow a couple of hours previously, we arrived back to our hotel to mid thirties temperatures and promptly jumped in the pool to cool off. A bit of a nap afterwards was a welcome treat – this was the only time on this entire tour that one was possible – so I relished it. A very nice evening meal that night (served by the still gruff hotel owner) finished off a fabulous day.
I was sad to leave beautiful Switzerland behind as we made our way across to Paris, again another long coach ride.