THE tourism industry is not exactly thriving in today’s economical climate. And for those in the business of international travel, the last few months have been a particular sore point, what with the collapse of Australian-based travel company Kumuka Worldwide, the UK government blithely recommending ‘staycations’ all year round and, last but definitely not least, the Olympics! Despite all of this, in late July I found myself boarding a coach bound for Paris, about to take the first leg of Topdeck’s European Wonder tour. What I have learnt since is that Topdeck has a history of doing the impossible (they once drove a double-decker bus from London to Kathmandu!). So driving a coachful of tourists out of London during Olympic season? No worries, mate!
The tour was to be a fourteen day exploration of Europe by coach, visiting eight countries, with the itinerary listing its major stops as Paris, the Swiss Alps, Florence, Rome, the Vatican, Venice, Tyrol, the Rhine Valley, Amsterdam and Bruges. Our tour guide and coach driver also went out of their way to stray from the itinerary and bring us to interesting places along the way; we saw the Gotthard Pass in Switzerland, the town of Orvieto in Italy, and we were even able to stop at Pisa for some quick snaps by the Tower! The whole trip offered such a brilliant taster of what the continent has to offer, and its brevity means that it’s ideally suited to recent graduates, or professionals looking to see a lot of Europe quickly. Not to mention, having a bit of fun while you do it!
I think the fact that we even had a pregnant couple on the bus with us was testament to the ease of this particular mode of travel. Why didn’t anyone ever tell me that travelling by coach is actually easier than flying? You don’t have to worry about things like carry on, checking in, putting liquids into tiny 100 ml containers, struggling with a suitcase on a foreign underground system…the list goes on! You can simply just sit back in your air-conditioned seat and relax. It is true that there is a lot of time on the road on these kinds of trips, however it does give passengers the opportunity to catch up on sleep, get to know each other, and learn to play ‘Bogan Bingo’.
The most memorable part of the ride was definitely the soundtrack. Not only did our trip leader introduce us to the joys of Eurovision, Flight of the Conchords and The Sound of Music, but he would play the Mission Impossible theme-song when we were going through a particularly narrow tunnel, and ‘Move B***h’ whenever a Contiki bus was blocking us off. That was pretty funny.
The total cost of the trip includes a £195 food fund which covers 30 meals. These mostly consist of hostel breakfasts and some pretty decent packed lunches — we even had a picnic by the Eiffel Tower! Additionally, restaurant meals in Paris and Amsterdam mark the start and end of the tour like delicious parenthesis.
What surprised me most about the dining experience on the trip was that the best food actually came from the Topdeck on-site chefs in the evenings. Fondue, tiramisu, rÃ¶sti — each dish was incredible and better than the last. On our free days, tour guide Jamie was quick to recommend the best places for pizza or a Florentine steak. More importantly, he knew where the good coffee was!
Accommodation on this European ‘wonder trip’ exceeded my expectations. Most of the time we were staying quite centrally in hostels or bungalows and the rooms were same-sex share for the most part, with two or four to a room.
I found the campsites in Italy to have a real Schoolies vibe about them, with lots of young people (mostly of the Antipodean variety) lounging by the pools. The sites didn’t feel very ‘authentically Italian’, but they were a lot of fun, with the campsite clubs hosting toga and masquerade parties in Rome and Venice respectively. The castle in Germany was a little disappointing — despite having a spectacular view of the Rhine Valley – it looked just like every other hostel from the inside. Austria and Switzerland were the nicest places to stay. Waking up to postcard views of the Alps and knowing we were in Paris the day before was a surreal experience in Lauterbrunnen, and the Austrian Gasthof had a pleasant homey atmosphere. With perfect timing, we also managed to be there for the town’s summer festival! The hotel in Paris was also very comfortable — and a tip for young players – get your power showers in on the first night in Paris because the plumbing in the rest of Europe can be quite sporadic!
You have to love European tour operators because all of the main sight-seeing bases are covered in the price of the trip. These include a bus tour of Paris and walking tours in Florence and Rome, as well as various other bits and pieces to give you a flavour of the local culture. And, as they had with the rest of the trip, Topdeck over exceeded.
The Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial in Germany provided time for reflection over some of the more harrowing aspects of Europe’s history. There was no pressure on anybody to actually go inside, but I think that it’s so important to include it on the itinerary and I’m glad it’s something they offers.
In Florence our tour was led by a local guide who gave us a lot of insight into the sights he showed us, like the Baptistry, with its bronze doors that allegedly begun the Renaissance, and the Accademia which contains Michelangelo’s ‘David’. Not to be outdone, our own trip leader took us on a walking tour in Rome that lasted for six hours!
The entire trip also offered some optional activities in the host cities which included a cabaret show in Paris, a gondola ride in Venice, and a sex show in Amsterdam. In Tyrol there was also the opportunity for paragliding, canyon-jumping and sky-diving! One experience that I would definitely recommend is the Jungfrau Railway excursion to the Jungfraujoch, the train station in the Swiss Alps which marks the top of Europe. The first 2k of the train journey from Kleine Scheidegg runs through the picturesque open terrain of Switzerland. After the first 2k there is a 10k journey through a tunnel actually hewn out of the alpine rock. At the top, the beauty takes your breath away — literally. It was an incredible experience, especially for those that had never seen real snow before!
I would also recommend visiting the Vatican. Our Vatican tour guide was extremely knowledgeable and imparted so many interesting facts that she barely stopped for breath. She also enabled us to surpass the crowds outside so there was enough breathing room to truly appreciate Michelangelo’s ceiling frescos in the Sistine Chapel.
Our guide made sure to stress that the ‘optionals’ were in fact optional, so nobody felt like they needed to spend money that they didn’t have. They also made a point of giving us as much free time as possible to explore the cities at our own pace, armed with one of their maps and a ‘get lost’ sheet for when the inevitable happens!
So, did I miss not being in London for the Olympics? With an amazing trip like this to keep me occupied, not on your life.
Stephanie Davis travelled on the Topdeck European Wonder tour courtesy of Topdeck.