Thursday, August 6, 2009

Mr. Brightside

My flight was delayed leaving Scotland - feeling a little pressured, I was ready to scoot off the plane quickly enough to catch my shuttle in time... sure enough, there was a fire alarm at London Stansted airport, which inevitably kept me on the plane a little while longer. Luckily, there was another shuttle an hour later, and despite a driver with a cold who decided to stop for a coffee and a re-fuel, I made it to my hotel; self and luggage intact! After a bit of running around, I managed to find my Contiki 21 Days Camping tour registration and tiny room in the huge maze of the London Royal National Hotel. A convenience store dinner and a beer or two at the hotel pub was a fine finish to that travel day!

Day 1: escargot and “the city of love”

Bright and early the next day at 6 am, four coach buses of Contiki groups met to go on their separate ways – eventually, myself and the rest of my group found our bus and were soon well on our way to Dover, England to take the ferry to Calais, France. That evening, we arrived at our Paris campsite, and set-up our twin-share tents for the first time – refugee style! After a taste of escargot, we headed into Paris for a quick walking tour of the Eiffel tower, and a drive-by of famous monuments such as the Louvre and Arc du Triomphe. “Mr. Brightside” by the Killers became our tour song, destined to be played every morning as we disembarked on the coach, to pump us up for the day.
Day 2: larger than life

The day was ours to explore Paris. With one other, I spent some time in the Louvre – found the Mona Lisa, which is much smaller than one would think, and is located directly across from a extraordinarily larger than life painting called “The Wedding Feast at Cana.” The Louvre had incredible ceilings, painted to coincide with the exhibits in each wing of the palace-turned-museum. Other notables include Notre Dame Cathedral (the inside was beautiful and ornate with paintings and woodwork), Arc du Triomphe (up close and personal), champs elysees, conciergerie, St.Chapelle, and du Musee d’Orsay. That evening, I dined on a 3-course French meal that included orange marinated duck, cheese and red wine before going to a French Caberet. The caberet was fun and my front-row seats gave me a great view (sometimes too good a view) of the (occasionally topless) can-can dancers, and comical performers.

Day 3/4: cable cars

A day’s drive from Paris to Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland brought us to the most beautiful campsite of all; surrounded by cliff faces with waterfalls, and snowy mountains in the distance. I spent my full day in Switzerland alone – exploring the mountain villages. A cable car and railway took me from the valley town of Lauterbrunnen to Winteregg. A scenic hike from Winteregg to Murren and Gimmelwald took me among slopeside hobby farms with bells hanging on the sheds for large livestock, and beautifully decorated wood houses. A cable car from Gimmelwald to Stechelberg and a walk to Trummelbach led me to the relatively unknown Trummelbach falle, a waterfall that has chiselled itself through the inside of a mountain. From Trummelbach, I wandered along the glacial Weisse Lutschine river, with hang gliders in the air all over the place and the snowy Jungfrau mountain in the distance. Not a bad day, I must say! That evening, we celebrated the land of the Swiss, dressed in red and white – it was a good thing that I had shorts underneath the white towel I wore as a skirt because towels don’t stay put very well!

Day 5/6: I smell Nice

After setting up camp in Antibes, France, we spent a day in Nice, France. After a stop at a French perfumery for a promotional tour, I got myself some etoile scent and carried on to the beaches of Nice. That evening, we took a trip into Monaco, the world’s second-smallest country. Monaco was very posh with its harbour full of multi-million dollar yachts, clean streets and casino parking lots packed with Rolls Royce, Bentleys and Mercedes. Apparently the country’s unattractive prince has a reputation for having a long line of women companions that frequent his palace...

Day 7/8: heat stroke

40 C temperatures slowed me down completely in Italy. Drinking lots of water, and dousing myself, clothing and all got me through those temperatures. However, I still managed to “push” and “kick” the leaning tower of Pisa, and Florence was beautiful with its canals, old architecture, naked sculptures (including a replica of David), leather and silver. A multi-course Italian pasta dinner revived me enough to shake it up at a retro space disco dance club. I was woken early one morning at our Florence campsite by something brushing against my foot... turns out that one member of my group was drunkenly dragging himself into my tent, and passed out half-in, half-out. I finally kicked him out when I returned after a shower and saw him starting to drag himself towards my sleeping bag and pillow... ah, Contiki! Day 9/10: Do as the Romans do...

Rome was old, very old... the city is built upon ruins from older civilizations, and many ruins lie throughout. It boasts the colosseum/forum, Spanish steps, the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain (throw a coin in for each three wishes – a first wish of your choice, a second wish, you will fall in love, a third wish, you will fall in love with an Italian...) I visited the world’s smallest country, the Vatican City. After going through countless arches with masses of people (we weren’t sure which arch signified the end of a long tour through the Vatican Museum -> xxxxxxxxxxiii????), and sneaking a picture of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling (all of the ceilings and tapestries of the Vatican museum were spectacular), it was time to wolf down excellent pizza at the Piazza Navona. I showed my true colours as a rider on a mechanical bull, in a bikini at a beach party at the Rome campsite, yeehaw... oh, and pole dancing in the bar afterwards was a nice finale to the night!

Day 11/12: left behind After a stop in the university town of Bologna, we arrived in Venice. A water taxi ride into the mostly concrete city of Venice led to a day of viewing the St. Marks’ square, St. Peter’s basilica, glass blowing demonstrations, a visit to a lace maker, and lots of bridges with gondolas tied nearby. A quest for pizza at a good price with the boys satisfied my appetite and gave me energy to explore the markets full of glass, china masks and lace. Before our water taxi home, I made a quick stop in a supermarket to stock up on sunscreen, and it turned out that security wouldn’t let me in with my backpack. Tight for time, I handed it over to a member of my group and went into the store. I ran out afterwards, with only my camera and wallet, to discover that I didn’t know where exactly the ferry was, and missed it... stuck in Venice with no documentation of my campsite or map, I was a little panicked. Luckily, there were more Contiki groups heading back to the same campsite, so I returned 2 hours behind schedule... and proceeded to comfort myself with red wine.
Day 13/14: Wien
Our first evening in Vienna (Wien), Austria we spent at an amusement park and went on a few roller coaster rides, which was a treat after spending the better part of the day traveling on the bus, driving past the craggy peaks of the Italian and Austrian Alps. The next day I spent in the city, mostly on the popular main shopping street (believe it or not, I bought myself a dress for those occasions when I am required to look somewhat more feminine), and had a quick tour of the famous Spanish Riding School. The riding school was beautifully kept, with a chandelier hanging from the ceiling of the arena, and the tack room immaculate, with two sets of equipment for each Lipizzaner horse, all of which come from a single breeding farm in Italy. I spent the evening at a Mozart and Strauss concert, in the very building that Mozart composed his music (which I got to explore during intermission). Day 15/16: Czech this out

Our tour made a stop in Cesky Krumlov, a UNESCO world heritage site. The buildings were very colourful, and the castle of Cesky Krumlov had painted-on building blocks, which was a different design than what I had been seeing in other parts of Europe. Prague, Czech Republic was another pretty old city, with palaces and cathedrals throughout. A revolution in Prague after they became liberated was to incorporate modern art into the city, so much of Prague is dotted with unusual sculptures and creations. One in particular had two “men” swivelling their hips, peeing on the shape of the Czech Republic, another was a giant iambic pentameter up on the bank of the river. A lunchtime cruise down a canal in Prague was most pleasant and gave a good view of all the modern mixed with the old. The metro of Prague was memorable... I could barely stand on the never ending escalator, given its optical illusion effect, being very long, bright and the signs on the same angle as the escalator. We got lost, trying to find our way around the metro (Czech can be a bit tricky to read, yet the signs for watching out for pickpockets were quite clear), so nevertheless, I had to ride the escalator more than a few times...

Day 17: PROST! A jaunt to the glockenspiel and the German market (sporting cherries, pig heads and strange looking fish) in Munich was a prelude to a large dinner at a Bavarian beer hall. I lost count of how many times we prosted in-between trumpet playing and German dance performances, not because of the size of our beer mugs, but because of the number of times the trumpet player reached down to pick up his mug and demanded “Ladies and Gentlemen... a prost!” (which was literally every five minutes or so). I was happy to oblige, and enjoyed a big meal of pork knuckle and dumplings in-between.
Day 18: a table dance, sir?
My tent-mate and two others indulged ourselves to a night in a cabin in Heidelberg, Germany after a few damp nights prior. Such luxury it was to sleep on a mattress with a solid roof over our heads after 18 nights in a tent! (By then, our tent had started to deteriorate after the number of times it had been pitched and taken down in haste, and now resembled a tepee with its broken fly pole). After an evening of exploring the small town of Heidelberg, we had an excellent campsite supper with lots of food, spiked strawberry punch, red wine and Bailey’s chocolate mousse pie for dessert. This led to fun in the laundry/mess hall. I desperately needed to do laundry by then, and all I had to wear was my short skin-tight tiger print dress... which set the stage for table dancing. I’ll explain... in a little (silly) game of spin-the-bottle and truth and dare, I chose dare. Luckily, my darer was kind, and all I had to do was dance down the picnic tables to music – no problem!
Day 19/20: Amster-damn!
Our first evening in the Netherlands, we were given the option of going to a sex show – I figured, it’s Amsterdam... why not!! After visiting one of the local cafe’s and enjoying some home grown, I carried on to the show with the others... in one of the scenes, a guy dressed as a policeman strides down the aisle and picks one of the girls from my group... I’m laughing away, until he pointed at me – haha...uh... well, sure, why not! So, up on stage I went, and got “searched” by his police baton... a naughty policeman!! Then, piece by piece, we had to undress him, and apply body lotion... Amster-damnn!
The remainder of Contiki was much more low-key – we visited a cheese and clog factory, went for a little bike ride in a Dutch village; I visited the famous Ann Frank house and tulip market in Amsterdam. The following day, we passed through Belgium, back to the Calais, France ferry, and finally to London, and said our good-byes.

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