Europe – There for the travel and the friends
Why do a tour of Europe rather than independent travel? Sarah Blinco explores the benefits of a guided (yet budget) expedition, and all the unexpected things to fall in love with along the way.
Glacial water rushes below us, mist floats over the peaks that are now covered in snow thanks to last night’s spectacular storm and I’m day dreaming upon this serene Swiss feast for the eyes. Usually on this 26-day coach tour of Europe I’d be catching up on some sleep, but Brad the serial ‘sleep photographer’ is opposite – so I’m not risking a dreary state (and the consequent embarrassing image of me dozing). If not snoozing on the bus, I’d usually be chatting to an array of my new Aussie, Kiwi, Pommy, Yankee, Canadian, South African or South American friends. Today though, I’ve withdrawn into my own cocoon, and to a soundtrack of Savage Garden (in my head since last night’s ‘card game over wine’ when we discovered everyone from all corners of the globe quite liked our ‘90s Aussie pop duo) to watch the world go by and reflect on the adventures of the past three weeks.
We embarked on our European experience with Expat Explore early in August. It was chosen because it offered our perfect itinerary, covering just about every place on the continent we wanted to see. We had priced navigating our own way through Europe by way of hop-on-hop-off coach / rail passes and hostel websites, but taking into account our number of required stops, the hassle of language barriers and unknown accommodation options, a tour equated as the best deal.
For the first couple of days on the bus, everyone was a bit tentative and shy but we gradually all emerged from our shells to form a jolly band of happy travellers – couples, solo travellers, family groups – with a mixed demographic spanning six different decades! We gradually got to know each other through our first few stops – Bruges, the Netherlands, Berlin and when the nightclub over the road from our accommodation in Berlin proved too hard to ignore (even for those of us who freely admit to being ‘past’ our ‘partying days’), it was over cocktails, strobe lights and some Snoop Dogg that we all finally bonded.
Walking tours of beautiful Prague and Vienna, silent discos in Rome, pasta by the beach on the French Riviera, gelato underneath the stars in Venice, adventures of architecture in brilliant Barcelona, astonishment at Renaissance cathedrals in Florence, Medieval charms in France, and views all the way to the top of the Swiss Alps… we’ve all got varying amounts of gorgeous photos that comprise our individual highlights, but everyone’s lucky to also share the same delightful memories.
In normal life I’m usually irritatingly independent, so to thrive for a month in an almost school-like group was completely outside my comfort zone. And now, with only one week of travel left, I am starting to feel quite sad about it all coming to an end. Sure, it takes some getting used to lengthy coach rides, early starts and diligently updating a daily blog (regardless of whether the internet is receptive or temperamental); but to have the chance to be somewhere new and fantastic each day, with an equally fabulous group of people, well, I feel lucky just to have been part of it all. Just yesterday there was an unprecedented two marriage proposals (on the top of Jungfraujoch Mountain, Switzerland, no less)!
For me (and most of our party, I’d reckon) the journey has been more than just the travel (which obviously, was why we all booked such a trip in the first place). It’s turned out to be about the experiences: meeting interesting people who are in the same mindset at this point in time, who travel or live abroad (sometimes both); people with stories to tell, life know-how to share. My partner loves that he has a new contingent of Union and League fans to chat to about ‘who is top of the ladder’. I enjoy talking to the girls from Canada about all the amazing places I’m yet to visit there; and practising Spanish with those on the trip who hail from Colombia, Ecuador and Mexico. There’s also Ali, our very interesting and friendly tour guide who has in the past four years worked across many amazing countries, and Steve, our helpful, funny driver who has delivered us safely from one point to the other – both experienced, profoundly professional and loved by all of us.
In a nutshell, the accommodation has been brilliant, and the ratio of travel, information/history/background, to free time and fun/impromptu parties has all been perfect. I’m not interested in a wet t-shirt competition every night; but of course we’re all keen for a bit of a ‘knees up’ and there have been plenty of fun opportunities for the group to opt in or out of. Similarly, the travel options are there for individuals to do as little or as much of the group activities (walking tours, meals, additional extras) as they choose (or as budget permits, as the case may be).
As the sun shines across the sparkling lakes to the right hand side of our coach, I take snapshots in my mind of moments I never dreamed possible in my 32-years on the planet. We’re on our way to Munich now, where I am sure there will be a beer or two tonight (‘when in Rome’) because we need to celebrate today’s two engagements and look forward to the upcoming weddings in America and New Zealand! Friends, memories and experiences for life.
I don’t have a ‘favourite place’ from our journey because each location has its own charm. I only know where I’d like to spend more time in the future: Prague in wintertime, Italy in spring, and Barcelona all the time – I could definitely live in Spain!
Now, to make it through the final week without being caught on camera sleeping along the way…
Sarah’s ultimate top 5 backpacking tour tips
1. Utilise the supermarket! If we had our time over in Europe we would take a spare bag (and even a cooler bag/esky) to enable us to ‘stock up’ when there is access to a supermarket. It is BY FAR cheaper to keep food and alcohol on hand – you will inevitably eat and drink on tour, and it’s better to have paid the equivalent of less than £2 per meal/beverage than the £5 or even £10 per unit. Trust us!
2. Keep emergency numbers, passport, credit card(s) and phone with you at all times. Anything can happen in the time between when you step off the tour coach and when you’re supposed to meet back. Be prepared in the event of an emergency, in case you get lost or you need to make your way elsewhere on your own.
3. Multivitamins – to combat sickness, lethargy/exhaustion. It’s easy to pick up germs when travelling with a group in a confined space so being at optimum health is advantageous.
4. Walk away from the centre of town/main attractions before spending money – without fail food, coffee, souvenirs – everything in fact, is significantly cheaper!
5. Sun cream (especially a once-a-day application type like Ultrasun), and insect repellent are critical in summer.
By Sarah Blinco