Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Topdeck Europe trip 2012

This is going to be a document of our Topdeck trip through Europe. I guess it began yesterday after we moved out of our flat and headed to The Clink hostel in Kings Cross. For the first time since we've been away from New Zealand we sported massive travel backpacks which is sort of like carrying a big flag professing your tourist vulnerabilities.

We got quite lucky at The Clink as we only had to share our 8 bed dorm room with one other person. Despite this, Pip and I got almost no sleep at all, the unfamiliar beds and our room mate who although nice to talk to, decided to drag her suitcase in and out of the room a handful of times and as slowly as possible in order to (what I can only assume) be considerate and not wake us. I guess we'll have to get used to it and it was far better than the last experience I had in Earls Court in September (Refer to early blogs for details).

We got up nice and early, ate some breakie and took in some much needed caffeine. The trip to Dover was quick and we were on the boat and leaving rainy England behind.
As I'm writing this, we are on a bus traveling through the beautiful countryside of Paris with only periodic rain tickling the windows, so it's not all bad (Topdeck FM is terrible and our earphones are in the cargo hold). The ferry crossing here was nothing to get the least bit excited about. I was quite looking forward to traveling between countries by boat but I wouldn't recommend it. Here is the best way that I can describe it. Imagine boarding a run down ferry in 1986 with a rest home group of field trippers on their way to a special rest home where you never come back from... That's sort of what it felt like. Tonight we'll set up camp and hopefully our school tour group will let us be adults.

We arrived at the campsite and it looked like an unmaintained, overgrown paddock. It's raining heavily and there is no hot water. We set up camp, struggle to sort dinner and go to bed soaked. Everybody is having "what are we doing" moments. Later we got back on the bus and were driven around Paris and feed a bit of history and got familiar with the cities layout.

Monday arrives and we have the most beautiful day you could imagine. The bus drops us into Paris and we are left to explore for the day. Pip and I walked up to the second level of the Eiffel tower, the top was closed so we had to make do but we got some great views of Paris. The city is more touristy than London but more beautiful at the same time. We ate crepes walked to the Arc De Triomphe, popped into the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, and then wandered back through the side streets to our tour group who put on a picnic at the Eiffel tower for us which included escargot (snails) caviar and champagne. After which we did a river cruise and headed home to sleep. Good day.

Waking up the next morning to rain wasn't so nice but we got all packed up, fed and are now driving for a day to the Swiss alps. I need to stress here that the Swiss Alps are incredible. It's like a photoshopped travel billboard except it's actually real. We pulled into Lauterbrunnen quite late after delays on the road and Pip and I were on kitchen duty. When we finally got away from the cook tent, we were left with the worst tent, the wettest, dirtiest tent and the driver had shut down the air bed machine. It was also semi-raining. I started to enter the early stages of flipping out but it did all work out as we ended up with a brand new dry and unused tent. Washing up in the dark was a mission but at least we are getting our duties out of the way first.

It was a nice surprise on Wednesday to open our tent to see the Swiss alps climbing up from what felt like inside the campsite. The campsite is between two cliffs with the mountains behind them. We took the train up to Jungfrau mountain and played around in the ice palace, outside in the snow and had some lunch. It was cold up there yet sunny, when we got back down it was insanely hot. The rest of the day was spent drinking and mixing with all our tour mates, this was great fun until we all went to the local pub and younger ones started showing their age and it was a little embarrassing to be frank. We are now on the road to Aningnon.

Avignon is a Medieval city which used to be home to the Pope for a while until the Italians got annoyed and made sure that the French never got to be Popes again. It's an old city surrounded by an old wall, which is the centre of town. The town spills out beyond the walls and over the river to where our campsite was. We were only there for a night but I guess there wasn't much to do beyond our walking tour and our dinner. Pip and I bought baguettes parma ham camembert cheese and had a picnic by the river. We spent the evening showering and doing washing.
This morning we packed up and jumped on the bus to head to Barcelona, stopping at Pont Du Garde which is an ancient Roman Aqueduct. It dates back to about 300 BC and is still in great condition. We took some snaps and are now driving to Spain. Hostel accommodation tonight, not that I've really minded being in a tent. I'm stoked that Pip and I have got our kitchen duties out of the way early too as we are now free to enjoy the trip.

Two nights in hostel accommodation are next up. Barcelona is the next city, arriving mid afternoon we get a driving tour around the city checking out Sagrada Familia. The hostel is central, has bathrooms in our dorm and is pretty tidy. That night we are taken to a Spanish restaurant to try Paella. It was sort of average and I was starting to feel a bit queasy after drinking too much local tap water (well that's what we think it was anyway). After that we caught a local Flamenco show (which was interesting). It was in a small bar and had three guys, one playing Spanish guitar, one singing and one playing away averagely on some drum pads. Two ladies in long dresses then proceeded to dance in a both fluent and stuttering freak out kind of way.

Very tired from our day of traveling, Pip and I walked back to the hostel (going about 6 blocks too far after we failed to see the entrance). Just as I was nodding off the room door opens and one of my fellow roommates Nick, is standing there going "oh... Oh... Sorry man", I look over and realize that he is trying to bring one of the girls on our tour into our room and she's standing there looking quite embarrassed. It turns out that they tried a couple of rooms. So back to sleep I go until the door is once again thrown open, this time the lights go on and three guys carry another fellow throwing up on the floor. It turns out that the drinks are rather strong in Barcelona and those who tried to get a bit drunk and got proper plastered. So there were a few sleepless hours of people trying to stop others from passing out and cleaning up spew. Not a great nights sleep was had but we were up nice and early to explore the city.

I was not sure how we were to fill a whole day looking around a city that none of us much care for. I'm happy to say that we found plenty of things to keep us busy. First we went to the massive food market just off La Ramba and got a few things for lunch. We wandered the Gothic quarter and found a spot overlooking the beach to munch down our fresh lunch. We then took the gondola up to the Olympic village, the site of the 1992 games which I remember watching as a very young kid. We descended the hill past the art museum which brilliantly had outdoor escalators to help get you back down. From there we took the Metro back to the hostel. The Barcelona Metro is incredibly easy to use despite everything being in Spanish.

Being disappointed by the dinner the night before, Pip and I decided to call upon the Tripadvisor app to find some proper Spanish tapas. It just so happened that a place down the road had excellent reviews so off we went. My appetite was playing up but Pip convinced me to order a few dishes. We got salted and fried green peppers, prawn skewers, mushroom and asparagus and cured ham with tomato bread. It was a meal we'll never forget, I got my appetite back and it is one of the best meals we've had.

An early night followed and we are now busing down to the French Riviera. After setting up camp down by the beach we all grabbed our towels and hit the Mediterranean. The beaches here are pebble beaches but I'd class them more as rocky beaches as they are far bigger and harder to walk on than what we found on our trip to Brighton. The water was refreshingly nice, a perfect temperature although it's not a surf beach as there are no breaking waves and it also gets deep extremely fast.

The next morning we were dropped in Nice. I was full of a cold like most of the people on the trip which made Nice a hard day to enjoy. We did have heaps of fun however, first we went to Old Town which was absolutely gorgeous, we wound through the narrow streets and eventually found our way up the big hill for some fantastic views of the city. We had lunch in the markets and then as it was so hot we decided to head back to camp on the train. This next bit was a bit crap, we walked over 15 minutes in the searing heat to the train station and once we'd finally sorted a ticket we realized that it left too late and we'd never get back to camp in time to catch our bus to Monaco. Disgruntled, feeling ripped off, hot and tired, we walked back towards town and stopped at a mall which had no air conditioning or seats. We sat in a cafe and paid 4.90 euros for an orange juice. We then made our way back to the pick up point which had grass and shade. We relaxed there for the remaining time until our bus came.

Our little night excursion was to Monaco, we drove up windy roads with views of huge houses, super yachts and general richness. Arriving in Monaco our trip leader told us that we wouldn't have to get off to scan our passports but because Monaco is rich you are just required to hold them against the window while we drive past a big white scanner and we'll be sorted. As unofficial as this looked we did all fall for it.

Next up we visited the castle district where Prince Albert lives, then we went to the Monte Carlo casino where a few of the boys lost some money and the girls spent far too much on drinks. Pip and I just had a wander around and took some sneaky photos of the amazing building. It was much quieter than any other casino that I've ever been to with not many tables but it was really amazing. Now we are traveling through Italy on our way to Venice via Verona.

Our stop in Verona was brief, possibly an hour or so. We went for a walk past the old arena and on to where there is some kind of Romeo and Juliet statue. We didn't go in as there was a fair wack of tourists all pushing to get in. Pip and I just wandered and made our way back to the bus.
We arrived at our Venetian campsite which is more of a resort than a camp site, apparently Italians camp quite different to other countries. For some reason we decided that we would have a bit of a knees up so after dinner it was drinkies. We probably should have stopped before the shots but we didn't. It was fun drinking with the other kiwi couple (Ross and Amylee), but when our alarm went off the next morning it was not so fun.

We headed into Venice which was quite a trek. Pip especially didn't feel well and the sun was extremely fiery. We wound our way through Venice towards the canals and when we reached St Marks square the heat, flu and hangover combined to become too much for Pip. My poor honey had to sit down for a while to avoid fainting and she began to dry reach. We managed to get her feeling well enough by the time we got to the gondolas. The gondola ride was the best part of Venice for us and we got some fantastic photos. Next up was the lace factory. After the perfumery Pip and I decided we'd not go on these sales pitches dressed up as tours so we went and got a snack instead.

The bus was to pick us up from the city at 5:30pm but five more hours in the heat was not so appealing so we headed back to camp with Grainge. This took close to two hours of walking and busing which included a 45 minutes walk with no shade. Back at camp Pip had a nap in the sauna of a tent while I went for a swim, once she did get up we both went back to the pool where we cooled off for a few hours. There was an extremely cute Italian kid at the pools who could not speak English and this frustrated him quite a bit (Well more like he was annoyed that we couldn't speak Italian). He was extremely expressive and almost acted like an adult, that was rather cute. We had dinner at the restaurant as part of our included trip meals which consisted of penne pasta with sauce, salad then a few pizzas. It was really nice and I hear we get another one tonight when we get to Florence. Pip and I had a decent sleep as we tried to cure our ailments although there was a trumpet player who decided to practice for half an hour while we were trying to sleep after sundown, seriously?

We arrived into a sweltering hot and sticky Florence at around three in the afternoon, set our tents for the final time (Rome will house us in luxury tents). My silly stomach was playing up and rather painful while Pips cold was at its peak. Our walking tour began and they took us down to the leather factory, we went along solely to take advantage of the wonderful air conditioning. After the silly leather demo I decided (In a action movie kind of way) that I couldn't go on but as we were told our restaurant dinner was in town we decided to stay on for the walking tour. I'm glad we stayed at the little robotic lady that took us around was quite good. We learnt all sorts about Florence as we walked about including the place where Leonardo Da Vinci painted Mona Lisa, where Galileo made the first telescope and various places where Michelengelo painted including a great fact at how the Sistine Chapel is just a bigger version of the Duomo in Florence and by the same architect.

Dinner was atrocious. It was nice of them to provide us with a restaurant dinner but it was at a tacky Australianized steakhouse with terrible food and service. Pip and I left soon after dinner and went back to camp to sort a few things and turn in for the night.

The next morning we packed up and wandered into Florence to do things on our own terms. We stopped into a bakery/restaurant/coffee shop and had nice but weak Latte Macchiatos at the bar, it is strange that the Italians stand up to drink coffee and they drink it super fast. If you were to sit down they charge you almost twice the price. We then admired the jewelry shops along the old bridge and sussed out a Pizzeria for lunch. The Pizza was good but the service was odd and the stale bread the they gave us to snack on was a bit strange in the sense that I ate half a piece and put it back in the basket, then when our Pizzas came out she moved them to another table to be their starters... My half eaten piece and all...

The last stop on our Topdeck adventure was Rome. We left Florence mid morning and arrived at our campsite late afternoon. We were all upgraded to these permanent tents which are more like hostel rooms with walls made of tarpaulin. We took the metro into the centre of Rome as a group. When we got to our stop the carriage was packed and it was quite difficult to get off. The two Korean girls had more trouble than the rest of us. They had never been camping before nor it seemed had they ever been in a busy urban area where people steal things. Someone tried to rip off one of their bags as it was only hung loosely over her shoulder. Our tour leader had told us many times to keep bags zipped and secured on our bodies but I guess common sense doesn't always prevail. So while she didn't end up losing her bag she did get quite a fright and so upset than her and her friend went back to the campsite alone, on the same metro.

Grainge took us on a walking tour around central Rome although he did have to be discrete as while it is perfectly legal to take people around and tell them things, he could get a fine from the police because he's not a qualified local (Not sure if they legally fine people or if they just fine people). We went past the Spanish steps, some monument where the pope used to climb up each year to change a wreath until they got lazy and now get the fire service to help. We had pizza and gelato for dinner before heading down to the Colosseum where we watch a bird eat another bird.

Our last official night with Topdeck was marred by the sound of parties outside our tent. This went on until a camp official came and told them off, finally we got some sleep. In the morning we enjoyed our last breakfast and got taken into the Vatican City where we got lead around on a tour by an eccentric, Italian/French dude who swore throughout the tour (In a holy place) although he was quite good. The Sistine chapel was supposed the highlight of the tour but was a bit of a let down if I'm honest, I think it's because we were expecting large grand paintings instead of tens of small ones.

Next we hit the Coliseum which we were advised about getting tickets the night before but managed to get in within ten or so minutes. We got audio guides which Pip didn't enjoy and I only found mildly interesting, took lots of photos and just sort of admired the building and its history.
We went back to camp and checked in to our air conditioned bungalow which was absolute heaven for us. We joined the Topdeck team for one last dinner and saw them off as they welcomed new people on the tour.

That is pretty much the end of that trip. Right now we are on a train headed for Benicassim in Spain. We both enjoyed all the ups and downs of the trip and would do it again although I think we got lucky that our group was small and reasonably easy to get along with.

The end