In June 2010, I embarked on the adventure of a lifetime with my brother. We set off on the “Ultimate European (plus Egypt)” Contiki tour – forty nine days of travelling, 3 continents, 17 countries, and countless life-changing experiences. I kept a journal during the tour, and I’ve decided to transcribe it here as a kind of nostalgic account of my most intense travel experience to date. So, here’s an insider look into travelling Europe with Contiki!
05/06/2010 Saturday & Sunday
The journey has started! On the plane to London after the flight to Joburg, feeling surprisingly comfortable and happy. At present there are 10 hours remaining, so plenty of time for movies, planning, and (of course) writing! Watching the tiny plane icon inching across the map of Africa is both exhilarating and comforting.
Currently flying over the Sahara… unreal! Four hours to go now – have begun to feel quite irritable. Tempted to do some yoga but not sure whether that is appropriate on a plane.
We were in London for a week before the tour started as our flight was booked using frequent flier miles, and it was the nearest possible date we could get. We had been to London once before with our parents and seen the most important sights (Tower of London, etc), so we had lots of time to explore and relax instead of doing manic sightseeing. We also had a severely limited budget, so we took advantage of free entrances to museums and mostly just walked around London Town!
First day in London! After a very long time spent travelling, we are finally in the Royal National Hotel, ready for a well-deserved night’s sleep. Had the most amazing lunch today – came across an organic shop with amazing rolls and sandwiches – and we ate in the charming little park in Russel Square. After some exploring and lots of resting, we have just had a great pizza at a place next to our hotel. Looking forward to a new day of exploring, fun, and photographs!
Spent most of the day in the British Museum – there’s surprisingly little original British content! There are amazing collections of Egyptian, Greek, Indian, Chinese, and Japanese art and artifacts from British colonies and expeditions. And something quite funny – an exhibit outdoors of South African plants! Very strange feeling of home-away-from-home. We also explored some book stores – I almost hoped we’d stumble across Black Books! We also found a lovely shop with rubber stamps, and we spent ages looking at ink, cards, and stamp designs. I then bought my Contiki sleeping bag from the Contiki base in Russel Square, I keep forgetting we have 6 weeks of travelling after this week!
It’s just after 3 pm, and we are back at the hotel room. Had quite an eventful day – first had to buy a plug adapter for my chargers (UK plugs are different to SA plugs), then set off to find the Freud Museum, but sadly it was closed. After this anti-climax we decided to go to Piccadilly Circus, and we got caught in the rain in Soho! This potential downer was remedied by finding a Pret store for lunch, and then a very fun look around the Rainforest Cafe, a shop that sells the most amazing stuffed animals. I ended up buying a small hamster, after much deliberation and mind-changing surrounded by many eager furry faces.
After walking through China Town, we stopped off at Covent Garden and wandered around the craft markets and shops. The weather has been temperamental – rain, then sun, then clouds, etc. I’m looking forward to the bus tour, which we are planning to do tomorrow. London is very efficient and busy, which is exciting, but I miss the sun and laid-back atmosphere of South Africa. I am enjoying the British TV adverts though!
It’s exactly 6 pm, and it’s been another very busy day in London! We did the bus tour today, starting with the route that goes past Big Ben, Tower Bridge, and the Tower of London. We sat at the top of the red double-decker tour bus and enjoyed seeing all the amazing sights close up. My favourites were Fleet Street (think Sweeney Todd and the narrow alleyways), Tower Bridge, and the general ambiance of the city. After we got off the bus, we got lost trying to get to Trafalgar Square. We found Westminster Abbey, and then entered St. James Park. Shortly after, it began to rain. Typical.
It was quite magical to see the rain in the beautiful park, with ducks, geese, and pelicans swimming in the lakes. I love the parks in London, with their lush greenery and respite from the busy, noisy city. Eventually, much to our surprise, we ended up at Buckingham Palace! Quite tired and rained-upon, we caught a bus back to Russel Square and rested for a bit.
Enjoying the evening sun (the sun only sets around 9:15 pm) and daydreaming about travel and life. I’m surprised to see how little I need to survive and be happy. I keep thinking of this quote: “You are stronger than you believe yourself to be”.
Visited the Freud Museum today – it was really worth the wait. I felt like Sigmund Freud became real for me today – like a bit of how he thought and lived was revealed in his house. I learned that he spent the final year of his life in that house – he fled from Austria in WWII to escape Nazi persecution (he was Jewish). Everything from his study and home in Vienna was moved to the house in London. Walking around the house was very special – the furniture, photographs, collection of antiques (and of course the famous chaise longue sofa couch) were all preserved as if Freud and his family still lived there.
Freud explained his interest in collecting ancient items as a natural extension of his interest in things that have been buried, lost, and then uncovered – a great analogy for his psychodynamic theories of repression and the unconscious. The Freud museum shop was great fun – bought some “After Therapy” mints and a quirky Freud finger puppet!
The next stop was Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery. Spent some time among the artworks of Renoir, Van Gogh, Monet and Turner. Felt myself transported back to high school art class, on a different continent, in awe of famous men long dead.
I’ve just watched the opening ceremony for the soccer world cup 2010 – it was phenomenal! I feel a strong pang of homesickness, a longing for Africa. To see the amount of joy and and hope in that amazing display of creativity was quite emotional. I am proud to be South African, and to feel that I belong to such a special place. Today will be spent watching soccer, doing laundry, and exchanging currency. Preparations for the Euro-trip! I’m starting to get very excited!
Today we watched the Trooping of the Colour parade for the Queen’s birthday – it was so exciting! There were six groups of guards (foot soldiers, horseback brass band, etc) that proceeded from the horse guard’s parade to Buckingham Palace, and the Queen and the royal family waved from the balcony as jets flew overhead. It was all very grand and spectacular to watch.
Just got back from having a drink with our new Contiki buds – feeling very excited and, quite frankly, scared! A huge adventure awaits and I’m jumping in feet first. Everyone seems really interesting and friendly, and I’m looking forward to spending time with them. Will try to sleep, relax, and prepare myself.
The first day of the tour was spent travelling to Paris, and we enjoyed an evening in the City of Lights – a magical start to a 49 day long adventure. We traversed France, stopping off in wine country, popping into Barcelona, and ending off in the French Riviera.
After a long day on the bus, we have arrived in Paris! We drove from London to Dover (2 hrs), saw the White Cliffs! After about an hour and a half on the ferry, we landed at Calais, France, and within four hours of leaving London we were in Paris.. After dinner at our campsite just outside of Paris, we had a short tour of the city, and stopped off for champagne and escargots. It was quite amazing to sit in Paris in the evening, soaking up the beauty and the subtly magical atmosphere.
A crazy-busy day spent exploring Paris! Lots of walking along the Seine, photos and souvenir hunting, and attempting to regain my basic French. Had a Camembert baguette for lunch, with a small pain au chocolat for dessert. Then had a walk around the stunning Jardins de Tuileries, enjoying the lush flower beds, manicured lawns, and trimmed hedges. After a random thunder-shower the sun came out, and it was amazing to sit among beautiful rain-dusted flowers and ornate fountains. I really “felt” Paris today – a combination of buzz and relaxation; crazy traffic and idyllic green spaces.
We also visited Notre Dame, and went up the Eiffel Tower in the evening. Only one word can describe viewing the sunset from Le Tour D’Eiffel – magical. We finished off with a ‘tour of illuminations” – Paris by night! Our bus driver Flash (Gordon) spun us around the Arc de Triomphe, which was quite a scary yet awesome experience.
Visited the Chateau Versailles today. After waiting for two hours in a queue and finding ourselves nowhere near the entrance, we decided to just see the gardens instead of rushing through the interiors. It was entirely worth it. Louis XIV was a man with a massive ego – the gardens are spectacular on a grand scale! Manicured lawns, vast ponds and lakes, hedgerow mazes, and striking symmetry. Fountains were everywhere, and one in particular “danced” to the classical music that played throughout the gardens. It was quite mesmerizing.
After this (and back in Paris) Wes and I walked along the Champs-Élysées, me happily munching on a baguette. Tonight was the “Parisian Dinner” in town at the beautiful restaurant Les Noces de Jeannette. I loved the traditional French decor and the delicious food. There was an accordion player who performed a piece from the movie Amélie, which was quite special. After dinner, a friend and I had a mini adventure that included jumping over Metro barriers, enjoying the sunset at the Louvre, and walking back to our campsite in the dark.
Travelled from Paris to the Beaujolais region today, stopping off at Fontainebleau, a cute little French town with a chateau as its main feature. It was nice to experience French life at a relaxed pace, and I enjoyed ordering a croissant at a friendly local boulangerie. After a very long bus ride, we arrived at Chateau Cruix after 5 pm. We had a meeting about the Egypt leg almost immediately (with tons of info!) before going for a wine tasting. The Beaujolais wine is lovely, and I enjoyed a glass before dinner. Wes and I bought two bottles for our father too.
Tonight was party night in “the cave”, a nightclub in the basement of the chateau. The theme was 80’s, so we all dressed up in bright colours and danced with our new friends. Exhaustion soon set in, unfortunately, and I crawled into bed after about an hour.
After oversleeping and missing breakfast, I joined the others and walked up to the “Top of the World” (a nearby hill with amazing views) for a French picnic. The walk up was quite challenging, and we got lost a few times, but it was fully worth it. We feasted on baguettes (obviously), Camembert, fruit, and chocolate. The scenery was breathtaking – endless green hills draped with mist and dotted with the red-roofed buildings of tiny towns. The flowers are beautiful too – lavender, poppies, and little yellow flowers I didn’t recognize. I could see myself living here. It is amazingly peaceful and fresh, and a great hiking/hill-walking spot. Today is a resting day, and I’m taking full advantage as it’s onwards to Barcelona tomorrow!
SPAIN – BARCELONA
We crossed the Pyrenees, the mountain range forming a natural border between France and Spain, and spent two nights in Barcelona. It was a lovely taste of Spanish culture – sangria, street performers, Flamenco, and Paella.
Sitting in the laundry room at our Barcelona hostel at the moment, looking forward to clean underwear! Almost everyone else is out on a pub crawl, so the few of us left have been using the free internet and doing laundry (fun times). We had a very long travelling day today, from Lyon to Barcelona – about 9 hours on the bus. I coped surprisingly well (Note: I used to get panic attacks and I still struggle with anxiety), but it’s certainly not an experience I enjoyed. We stopped off at Pont du Gard, which was quite cool. It’s a huge Roman aqueduct spanning the Gard river, and it’s lovely to walk across.
I can’t believe I’m in Spain! Tomorrow is a big sightseeing day, which I’m really looking forward to. Barcelona is uncharted territory for me – or as our tour song says, Destination Unknown! We finally felt the European summer today as the sun came out – hoping for more of the same tomorrow!
Spent a whole day in Barcelona – lots of sun and walking! We started off with a walking tour of the city. Of particular interest to me was the Gothic quarter. I loved the narrow streets, edgy architecture, and the eerie silence. Then it was off to the Dali museum – quite a bizarre and fun experience, and I enjoyed every second. I’ve adored Dali since high school, and the museum was somewhat like the interior of his mind – strange, brilliant, and at times scary!
After that I had a goat’s cheese sandwich for lunch with friends at a small cafe, and then we did souvenir shopping before taking a trip up the Christopher Columbus column, the latter of which was slightly traumatizing but worth it for the fantastic views. Then we grabbed some ice-cream, had a slightly dodgy look around a sex shop, and curiosity got the better of us when we decided to see a peep show. It’s quite horrible – leering at a naked woman in a tiny box. Never again, thank you very much! Afterwards we went shopping, got caught in the rain, and then reconvened with the group for a Flamenco evening.
It was great fun – the dancers were intense, talented, and so passionate. I also tasted real Spanish sangria (a delicious and strong red wine and fruit based drink), and we had a dance class afterwards. We then set off for a “walkabout dinner” of our choice, and I enjoyed a meal of prawns, olives, and a sneaky taste of a friend’s Paella. Back at the hostel, I finally managed to get some sleep despite the noisy neighbours and their trespassing (they were from our tour but drunk and high and climbing between balconies), and the creepy critter noises outside.
After popping into Spain, it was back into France and onwards to the French Riviera! A Mediterranean summer in all its glory.
We had a very long journey today, left just after 8 am and arrived after 5 pm, stopping only twice. I felt like I was going insane after only 4 hours. We stopped off in Arles, and had a coffee at the real “Cafe la nuit” that inspired Van Gogh, which was pretty cool. It was also quite strange – before approaching Arles, I recognized the landscape – the pastel blue sky with white clouds, yellow grass, and row after row of tall, dark cyprus trees. It was like being in a Van Gogh painting.
Anyway, we are in Antibes now, close to Nice, Cannes, and Monaco in the French Riviera. Just had dinner, with a starter of frog’s legs (which do actually taste like squishy chicken) and a dessert of watermelon. Ready for bed now after a walk down to the sea – the first glimpse of the Med on this trip! The beach consists of pebbles, and the sea is warmer and softer than at home. Feels like summer!
Great beach day today! We went for a tour of Fragonard, a French perfume factory, in the morning. It was very interesting – we learned how perfume is made, and bought some too. Then it was a free day in Nice. Our first stop was lunch at a seaside cafe, and I had a delicious Nicoise sandwich (tuna, tomato, anchovies, and egg). Then it was beach time! We lay completely relaxed on the pebbles in the gorgeous sun, took a dip in the Med, and I devoured an amazing dark chocolate and pistachio ice-cream.
We walked around the town for a bit, and one of the guys on the tour decided to buy a smart “pimp” shirt for a night out in Monaco. We went to see the Monte Carlo casino in the evening, and the drive there was pretty terrifying, especially as we passed the place where Grace Kelly lost control of her car and plunged over the cliffs to her eventual death. Wes and I decided to stay outside the casino as entrance alone was 10 EUR! We checked out the super-yachts and sports cars, and had a great chat sitting outside in the gardens.
This was one of my favourite legs of the trip. I adore Italy – it simply resonates with everything I love in life. Passion for life, good food, outdoor living, afternoon naps, wine at lunch, family values, and a rich history.
Longest travelling day yet! On the bus at 9 am, and at the Venice campsite after 7 pm… Our coach’s windscreen got smashed by a rock that fell off the back of a construction vehicle that was driving in front of us! So we had a longer stop in Verona than originally planned while the windscreen was replaced, but I was very pleased to be able to see Juliet’s balcony! I am beyond excited to be in Italy.
The amount of hours on the bus really got to me, but I am proud to say that I survived! Had pasta for supper today – the Contiki food is actually very good, and I feel like I’m eating well. The food at the Contiki camping sites always reflects the region, which is awesome. I can’t wait for more Italian food! Pizza, pasta, gelato. I’m also keen to practice my Italian; I feel like it is slowly slipping away, from disuse. It’s lovely to have successful conversation in a foreign language in a new city – it definitely motivates me to practice more.
The campsite is right on the lagoon near Venice, and it’s swarming with mosquitoes! I bought insect repellent spray in the hope of not getting chowed. I’m sitting at the beer garden now, the Canadians are playing cards and the other tour members are drinking, as usual. I realised today that I have adapted to living out of a suitcase, and so far, it’s been okay. I’ve gotten used to roommates, cold showers, running out of toilet paper, changing clothes for dinner on the bus, and struggling to fit a money belt under a LBD. Good times!
A full day in Venice today. We took a private boat from the campsite to the main island (San Marco), and then visited a lace shop. I bought some real Venetian lace for my mother. We then saw a glass-blowing demonstration at the Murano glass shop. Both were very interesting, but sad to note that such skill and talent is not pursued by young Venetians these days. Ancient trades are slowly dying out as the city sinks.
After the walking tour I wandered off by myself, and actually did get lost, as is always recommended. One of my favourite moments was when walking down a narrow, tunnel-like alley and I heard classical music – as if someone in an apartment above were practicing the piano. I love the old, forgotten corners of Venice that are free of filth and cheap souvenirs. I also had some really good gelato, and paid 1.50 EUR to use a public bathroom! I bought some delicious cherries and a piece of coconut from a street vendor, and then sat by a canal to people-watch.
Later, the rest of the Contiki crew went off for gondola rides with champagne, which is when I lost Wes. We parted to see separate things, and he missed the boat back to the campsite. By the time I got back, I was freaking out. Luckily he turned up safe a few hours later, having taken a later boat. I was rather impressed, and very relieved! We leave for Florence tomorrow, and I’m looking forward to more new experiences.
Another long travelling day, with unexpected delays. We had a different driver as Flash was on a break, and it was a bit scary for me as I’d come to trust Flash on the long drives. We stopped off at Pisa on the way to Florence, and did the token “holding up the tower” photos. We then got stuck in major traffic on the way into Florence, with over half an hour at a complete standstill due to an apparent accident further along the highway. We had a good dinner at least – pasta, salad, garlic bread, and tiramisu ice-cream! I’ve been eating an unreal amount of ice-cream in Italy, it’s just so good.
We have finally experienced the landscape of Toscana – it’s even more stunning than the postcards. When we drove past a vast field of sunflowers, it was a surprise that made me smile. The amount of tunnels in Italy is staggering! Every time we entered a tunnel, it reminded me of my mom telling me how I’d shout “tunnel, lights!” in every tunnel when I was in Italy as a toddler.
I have decided that Firenze is my favourite city so far! I feel I just need more time – I’d love to come back here to explore the city and countryside, and to discover and enjoy all the art. As we were sightseeing today, I felt myself fall in love with the city. It has multiple layers of history – Etruscan, Roman, Baroque, Renaissance, Gothic – thousands of years of civilization, architecture, and art. I get a special feeling from the city, a kind of warmth and depth that draws one in. As we wandered through the Duomo and Santa Croce, the sunny piazzas, narrow streets, and colourful markets, you could feel the city all around you. Not so much a bustle as a reassuring hum.
Florence holds so many treasures to be discovered, and I wish I could live here for a few months. I’m lying on the top bunk in our cabin now, back from our Tuscan feast. It was phenomenal! Red wine, bread, cheese and bruschetta for antipasti, three kinds of pasta for primi piatti, an eggplant dish as the vegetarian main, tiramisu for dessert, and then a shot of limoncello to end off an amazing meal. Most of the tour went on to Space Electronic Disco, but I was too tired and needing to repack before heading off to Rome tomorrow. So far I have really enjoyed myself, and I feel that I have been coping well. I do often feel tired, scared, or sick, but that soon passes. I am getting better at adapting to new situations and taking each day as it comes.
Very long, tiring day today. We left Florence for Rome, with only one service stop along the way. At least I had a good lunch of a mozzarella, anchovy, tomato, and olive salad, plus a bread roll and fruit. Upon arriving in Rome, we went straight into the walking tour! It was super hot, and thankfully there was a slightly cool breeze that provided relief. I felt the tour was too rushed, as we walked fast from sight to sight, stopped for a minute or two for pictures, and then pushed ahead without much time to take it all in. I would have liked more time to soak up the city’s atmosphere.
We managed to see the Capitoline Hill, Piazza Navona, the Pantheon (still a favourite!), the Trevi Fountain, and the Roman Forum from a distance. It was good to be back in Rome, yet incomparable to the very first time. The magic is gone. It used to seem huge back then, ancient and mysterious, but now it seems overcrowded with tourists. I suppose that’s the down-fall of packaged tours – you only see the facade, and not the true heart of a place. After this whirlwind tour, we finally arrived at the campsite. We have really awesome cabins, and I’m sharing mine with three good friends. We got caught in an unexpected rainstorm on our way back from the campsite store, and ended up soaked to the skin. We still had a great night in our cabin playing MadLibs, laughing until we cried. It’s an early night tonight, as we have to be up very early tomorrow to visit the Vatican!
Standing in the line for entrance to the Vatican City right now… really! Since it is the last Sunday of the month, entrance is free – and the line to get in is LONG. We got here before 9 am (opening time) and it’s already uncomfortably hot. I can’t believe that we will be in Egypt so soon! I’m so nervous, but also very excited. It’s going to be a LOT hotter than here.
Sitting right outside the Colosseum now, in its shade. Just had lunch across the road, it’s unreal! The rest of the group has gone for a walking tour, so I’m just relaxing until they get back. The Vatican City was amazing, and so worth the wait. I finally understand the scale and the power of the Catholic church – it is simply overwhelming. The decor inside the Vatican Museum is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The attention to detail is meticulous, with every inch of wall, floor, and ceiling intricately and beautifully adorned. It is of course overly extravagant – you walk in and then just stop and stare.
The Sistine Chapel was very special, yet I expected more… it is quite small, and very far overhead! The paintings have an eerie three-dimensional quality that tricks the mind and delights the eyes. My favourite was St. Peter’s, however. It is the most beautiful church I have ever seen, and the sheer scale and grandeur of it is stunning. We got to see the end of the Sunday service, and they had incense, organ playing, and hymns. Perhaps the most exciting was seeing the Pope himself, up in a window, giving a speech! There were hundreds of people gathered in the square listening to him, and he addressed them in several different languages. Today has definitely been better than yesterday!
Had a great supper tonight – chicken parmigiano with pasta and salad, with a “flag of Italy” starter – green olives, mini mozzarella balls, and tomatoes. Then did laundry, and met two South African guys getting drunk on cheap champagne and orange juice while they waited for their clothes to dry. I’m am getting more and more nervous about Egypt – it’s only a week and a bit to go! I just want to survive, and I’m almost ready to take on the challenge.
On the overnight ferry at the moment, and surprisingly I feel okay. I’m naturally terrified of sea-sickness, but I’ve taken anti-nausea meds and I’ll just have to see what happens. I was very uncomfortable travelling today – tired, restless, and feeling sick. But I survived! It’s certainly exhausting travelling with lingering phobias and anxiety, but so far I feel I’m coping amazingly well.
We had a very rushed tour of Pompeii (the ancient ruins part), which while it was interesting, it did not quite fulfill my expectations. I think we were hurried along as we needed to make the ferry at a certain time, which was unfortunate. Anyhow – the countryside of Southern Italy is lovely, and it reminds me of home a bit with its low hills of yellow grass and empty blue skies. Of course there are unique things too, like the giant wind turbines, interesting mountain ranges, and beautiful trees. I really can’t wait for Corfu!
I need time to relax and prepare for Egypt. I got some good advice from a tour friend who has been before, so I feel a bit less anxious. Here on the ferry, I’m sharing a room with 3 good friends, and we have actual beds! It has been just over two weeks on tour, and I feel as if it has taken forever, and yet also gone so quickly. An amazing amount of experience has been packed into a short time.
My soul belongs in Greece! I visited Greece for the first time with my family in 2006, for a two week vacation spent Greek island-hopping <3 We visited Athens, Mykonos, Delos, Santorini, and Crete – days spent swimming, eating fresh fish and seafood, sunbathing, and exploring Ancient Greek ruins. The second visit with Contiki was fantastic – brief, but relaxing and soul-soothing.
We are now in Greece, approaching Corfu island. It is really beautiful! I’m so glad I slept the whole night – a friend gave me half a sleeping tablet and I guess it worked. Last night the flag on the ferry was Italian, but this morning it’s Greek!
It’s quite a hike up to our hotel room, but the view is gorgeous, and it’s lovely and sunny. We went shopping after the mission of a hike up to our hotel room, and then had lunch at the “Big Apple”, an American style diner with Greek food. Then after braving the long, windy bus ride back (and walking in the blazing heat after missing our stop), it was beach time. I was in heaven – clear blue warm water, Greek sun, soft mild breeze. This is what a holiday is meant to be! Corfu is definitely a come-back-to destination.
Later I went on a walk with Wes to a local supermarket and bought random things like Nutella, a souvenir beach bag, postcards, and alcohol. Then, it was the toga party! We were each given a sheet and wrapped ourselves up in different styles. I couldn’t afford alcohol, so had a very sober but fun night dancing and partying with the Contiki peeps.
Today was absolutely awesome. We spent the day on George’s Boat, island cruising, swimming, sunning, and eating his delicious homemade tzatziki and pita bread. Legend has it that back in the day, George’s Boat was known for its orgies and crazy parties, and it’s not hard to imagine, seeing the man himself (around 60+) flirting with the ladies and letting them steer the boat in exchange for a kiss on the cheek.
I have to admit that I was nervous about being on a boat all day, due to my motion sickness, but my meds worked well and I was perfectly fine. I till in awe of the clear blue water. Visibility is amazing, and I managed to do some snorkelling off the boat. I’m also getting the famed Greek tan – it was so amazing just to sit in the sun on the boat, relaxing and watching the island go by. Next up is a traditional Greek dinner and dancing – more dolmades, tzatziki, olives, and gyros!
Currently on the ferry from Corfu to mainland Greece – we had a 5:00 am wake-up! So only about 5 hours of sleep after our Greek evening out, but it was loads of fun. It was easily the loudest dinner I have ever attended, with live traditional Greek music, singing, and dancing throughout. We got to participate in some of the dances, which was fun, and even though it was very touristy, I really enjoyed the whole evening.
The ride back was slightly harrowing, however, in a double-decker charter bus, driving really fast at night along the windy coastal roads. I managed to survive without my anxiety medication, and we arrived safely (me shaking and white-knuckled) at the hotel.
In our hotel room in Athens, finally! I kind of want to stay in Greece – the sunrise over the sea was so beautiful this morning – but I know Egypt will be an adventure. Today’s travelling was tough, with way too many hours in the bus. I think I’ve caught the dreaded “Contiki cough”, and I felt so awful and weird today when I took two different kinds of anti-nausea pills and an anti-anxiety pill. Very strange results when you are also sleep deprived! I simply cannot sleep on buses (or in cars, planes, boats), and so I sat there for 6 hours feeling crazy.
We stopped off at the Corinth canal, which was awesome – other than that, we were just on the road. Leaving for Egypt tomorrow!
Currently waiting at Athens aiport for our flight to Cairo… Greek “ish” time, meaning that it could actually depart whenever. We did a tour of the Acropolis and a short tour of Athens this morning. There are so many dogs at the Parthenon – lots of barking and dog fights! It was extremely hot even at 8 am, and around 32 degrees at 10 am! Waiting is not helping my excited nerves.
The week we spent in Egypt was one of the most exciting, challenging, and memorable travel experiences of my life thus far. Culture shock, experiencing utterly foreign ways of life, seeing ancient Egyptian wonders with my own eyes, nearly evaporating in the sweltering summer sun, and soaking up the history, culture, and life-force of the Nile valley.
We are in Egypt! We arrived at about 5 pm yesterday, and flew over the yellow-ochre hued, hazy city below to Cairo airport. My first impressions were mixed. My expectations were both unmet and completely overwhelmed. Everything is just so different – a whole new way of life, of being. I am just in awe as a foreign observer.
We have an Egyptian guide, Saba, who will be with us for the whole week in Egypt. I was relieved to not have melted upon stepping outside – it is incredibly hot, but not quite hot enough to evaporate people (yet). We realised immediately that Cairo is truly “the city that never sleeps” – the pace of life is fast and relentless, always moving and vibrant and chaotic. Once at the hotel we got ready for dinner – a buffet on a cruise boat on the Nile. Having only arrived a few hours prior, it was surreal to see Cairo from the Nile at sunset. It’s a lot to take in, and I find myself just staring, trying to soak up all the strange and wonderful new things in front of me.
Dinner was great, and there was entertainment in the form of a scantily-clad belly-dancer and very loud music in Arabic. Following that, the tour bus took us back to our hotel, weaving through the craziest traffic I have ever seen. Ever. At 10:30 pm the city merely gets more crazy, with goats and children running across streets, cars driving without even the pretense of lanes or road rules, and near-collisions all part of the fun. Arriving at our hotel, we applauded the driver and jumped off gratefully.
On the overnight train now, and slightly traumatized from using the on-board bathroom (i.e., metal hole with questionable things in the sink). Our tickets may be “First Class”, but that only makes me horrified thinking about what the other classes might be like. It is truly basic – hard seats and Arctic-force air-con.
As for today – we visited the Egyptian Museum in the morning, with Saba as our guide. It was absolutely fascinating, and packed full of ancient sculpture, jewellery, artworks, and artefacts that date back thousands of years. It was unreal to see Tutankhamun’s funerary mask and coffins (sarcophagi), after first learning about them in school books and on National Geographic documentaries. I was especially struck by the beauty and craftsmanship of Egyptian jewellery. The intricately designed gold and lapis lazuli necklaces and other pieces of burial jewellery were just stunning.
It was incredibly hot and airless in the museum, as it has no air-con. I was so scared that I would pass out from lack of fresh air! Which was a pity, as there is so much to see in the museum. We saw mummified animals – cats, dogs, even crocodiles! – and some famous mummies of Egyptian royalty.
(Right now, we are jiggling along in the overnight train on our way to Aswan, in Upper Egypt. This part of the tour is incredibly intense – we only get to shower tomorrow after sweating and melting all day in Cairo. Hardcore).
After the Egyptian museum it was off to see the pyramids and the Sphinx (the stairways to the house of the sun god!). Seeing the pyramids for the first time is unbelievable as they literally pop out of nowhere, and we were all surprised to see that they are so close to the city. We jumped off the bus in the midday heat, and after a quick lunch of chicken schwarma, went closer to take pictures and stand in awe.
Although the majority of the stone remains, I still wonder what the full impact of the intact structures would have been. Blindingly white limestone finishes and temple complexes… For once the heat was forgotten as we were each lost in awe at these gargantuan monuments.
Next up was camel riding, as you do when being a tourist in Egypt. And I have to admit, it’s possibly the highlight of my tour so far! We were each allocated a camel, and told only “lean back!” as the beasts lurched forwards. I had been on a camel twice before, and so I knew what it was like, but I was still very excited. As I rolled from side to side on the back of my camel, I finally realised why they are called “ships of the desert”. I was positively seasick! I clung on tightly while trying to take pictures as my camel (Michael Jackson) rolled unpredictably from side to side as he walked.
We stopped for a photo opportunity, and even though the whole experience was only about 20 minutes, it was truly amazing. On the way back, our camel minder went ahead to chat with another camel man, and told us to kick the camels a bit to get them to run. My camel was tied to two ahead of him, and the two guys kicked their camels gently, sending them galloping off with mine in tow. I clung on for dear life as we sped across the sand to the other camels.
After this, it was time to enter the second pyramid. Being warned that it was unsuitable for people with claustrophobia or asthma, I was apprehensive but determined to go in. This soon turned to terror when we saw the entrance – a 1 x 1m wide hole, 45 degree slope, and a tunnel seemingly disappearing into darkness. After some encouragement from Wes and the others, I went for it. Once we started moving, it was ok, but as we went deeper I could feel stale air entering my lungs, and there seemed to be less and less oxygen and light. I made it all the way to the tomb chamber, but a rising panic kicked in and started back up almost immediately. I’m extremely glad that I conquered my fear, as being in there was a once in a lifetime experience.
Next stop – the Sphinx! One certainly gets the feeling that these ancient wonders still hold much power and many secrets, even if they appear dormant and weather-beaten. By now we were feeling the heat, sweating, and smelling like camel, and we informed that we would be visiting a perfume factory in a traditional Bedouin home. Once seated inside the tent, we were offered drinks, as per Bedouin hospitality traditions. As I sipped my mint tea, the host explained to us how they extracted essential oils from flowers and plants to make pure, alcohol-free fragrances. We bought a few bottles, and were soon bundled back into the bus.
Our relentless Cairo day tour pushed us onwards to a papyrus factory, where we learned about how the first paper was made, and a little bit about Egyptian mythology. Dinner was had across from the pyramids, and we arrived at Giza station just in time to make our overnight train.
Still on the train, and it’s just after 7 am. It’s like a never-ending moving hell, but at least now it’s daylight. We’ve been bumping along for more than 12 hours, and I am desperate for a shower. I feel filthy, with camel-scent clinging to me. Breakfast in Egypt seems to be cake and yoghurt, which is not bad.
We made it, barely! I was feeling better after a shower and lunch, but was later struck down by the dreaded “Egyptian stomach illness” everyone warned us of. I have been so careful, especially with water and fresh fruit/vegetables, but it seems I couldn’t escape it. I’ve taken some local medication and I feel a lot better. Right now I’m sitting by the pool, and it’s warm and breezy. It truly is paradise – a desert oasis.
I have come to realise that most unpleasant things do pass, and that trying to enjoy things no matter what is a good way to be happy. Our felucca ride up the Nile was lovely, even though I felt so ill at the time. I’m going to try to rest now, and recover for tomorrow. I can hear the mosque from my hotel room, the chanting echoing off the mountains. Hopefully tomorrow will be better, with more amazing experiences.
Slept late today, and relaxed by the pool as most of the group has gone off to Abu Simbel. I would have LOVED to go, but it was simply too expensive. We have just passed the half-way mark of the tour, as there are 22 days left.
We are in Luxor now after a long bus ride. We went shopping at a local market tonight – it was quite an experience! We were bombarded by offers on souvenirs, clothes, spices – even marriage! I bought a camel-leather bag and a small scarab stone carving. Bartering is standard, and as a woman, you attract a lot of attention when unaccompanied by a man. My friends and I stayed in a group and wore “wedding” rings in the hope that we would attract less attention, but we still got harassed and flirted with to the point that it was quite overwhelming.
I really enjoyed walking through Luxor at night, as it felt a bit more like authentic Egypt with the markets and locals milling about. I love this country, although it is somewhat uncomfortable for visitors. We have a very long day of sightseeing tomorrow, so it’s off to bed now.
Today, we visited the Valley of Kings in Luxor. We arrived at 8:30 am, just as it was starting to get very hot. I dread what it would have been like at midday! We saw three tombs, complete with decorations, hieroglyphs, and wall murals. It’s amazing to see how death was an integral part of Egyptian life. Unfortunately photography is not allowed in the tombs, and so I have very few images of the area. Next was the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, which we were allowed to photograph. It was quite amazing, a massive structure carved into the stone cliffs, still intact after thousands of years.
Afterwards, we crossed the Nile by boat and visited the Temples of Luxor and Karnak. Both sites were fascinating, but the intense and unbearable heat (around 45 degrees at midday) took away from my concentration and enjoyment of the history and mythology behind the ruins. Nevertheless, I managed to take a few pictures, and I fully intend on visiting again in the near future!
After lunch at a nearby restaurant, we started the long drive to Hurghada, a resort on the Red Sea. We drove through the desert for around 4 hours, and it was completely surreal. Most people slept, yet (as always) I was awake and in awe of the rocky, dry, yellow-ochre tinted landscape that stretches on for hundreds of kilometres.
Finally arrived at the “Sunny Days” resort in Hurghada, tired and ready to relax after hectic day. We had a buffet dinner (feeding time at the zoo! massive lines of lobster-red tourists with plates piled high) and then explored the giant resort. It has multiple bars, lounges, restaurants, as well as a big pool, an outdoor entertainment area, and access to the sea. Time for sleep – the Red Sea cruise is tomorrow!
I had the best day today! 🙂 We left for our Red Sea cruise around 8:30 am, with a boat to ourselves (about 26 of us from Contiki) and lots of snorkelling gear.I’d brought my own mask and snorkel from home, so I only needed fins. It was quite windy, and the sea was heaving in the warm breeze, making me nervous about sea-sickness. But once we started moving it was fine, and my anti-nausea medication did its job. It was a gorgeous day, incredibly warm but the wind and water cooled us down. We stopped at three snorkelling spots throughout the day, and saw some truly spectacular marine life.
The first time I jumped off the boat into the water, I was pretty scared as the sea was heaving and we were in the middle of the sea! But as soon as I swam around a bit I felt right at home.
The water was impossibly blue – unlike anything I have ever seen, even in the Mediterranean. The visibility was phenomenal, with crystal clarity of several metres in all directions. The fish were everywhere, in all shapes and colours and sizes. We swam around little coral outcrops, returning to the boat for a rest whenever we got tired. At one stop, we followed a guide quite far out, and he showed us a sea-cucumber as big as a banana! We also saw two stingrays with blue tails, which were beautiful. After an encounter with an Egyptian lady environmental activist (shouting at us about anchoring near the coral – and she had a point), we had our final snorkelling session and then headed back to the hotel. It’s a LONG drive back to Cairo tomorrow, and then we’re flying back to Athens.
Click here for Contiki Eurotrip Part 2!