Trip to Europe: Day 5 – Rhine Valley, Germany

8 June 2012. All packed and ready, I made my way to the dining area for breakfast. I saw a few people from my tour group sitting around but all their tables were full, so I made my way to an empty 4 seater table after getting some stuff to eat, expecting to be joined by either Tiffany or Alex, if they saw me. They didn’t. Ah well.

A little into my cereal, one of the girls came to me asking if she could sit with me. Obviously, why not? I wasn’t about to pass up on a new friend. I found out that it was Tina, one of the Australians. We chatted a little about where we were from and who we came with. Tina was from Melbourne and had come with one friend, but didn’t say her name. To my delight, it was Sam who plonked herself between Tina and I. That was the friend Tina came with. Cool, I met her before! Sam then asked me if I heard about one of the girls who was taken to hospital after having too much to drink. I was pretty horrified to hear that. Seriously?

Sam didn’t know the full story so went to inquire about the girl’s well-being from some other people. Word was that she was already throwing up on the canal cruise (there was a toilet at the back of the boat, thankfully), and then went for the pub crawl after that. Apparently it was the first time she had had alcohol. I was disgusted upon hearing this – how could anyone be that irresponsible? I mean really, you’re a girl in a foreign country, and you let some random local guy take you to the hospital? Thank goodness he actually took her to the hospital and did nothing else. But anyway, the important thing was that she was safe and Steve had made sure she had rejoined the group before we could leave for St Goar.

Once we were all done for breakfast, we rushed back to our rooms to gather our stuff and get to the bus so that we could load our bags onto it. I didn’t realize that I was actually one of the last people in the queue. Shit. This was going to suck in terms of seating. And it did – I was right in the back row against the window. The only good thing about that was that I had a bit of a “wall” to lean against if I wanted to sleep. Other than that, I would have to make at least one person stand up if I wanted to get out.

The bus had exactly 51 seats, so there was no room to move anywhere else. The back row had 5 seats, and 3 of them were taken by the Australians who I sat next to the previous night at dinner at the Sea Palace Restaurant. They were a couple and the second guy was the guy’s brother. I only caught the girl’s name though – Mel. There was still an empty seat between Mel and I though, and it was eventually filled by one of the American girls who I didn’t really meet before. I think all of us were the quiet ones, so we didn’t say much to each other.

As we got on the road, it was difficult not to enjoy the views. I had only seen the tip of the iceberg of Europe, but I was already in love with the landscape and the greenery. The thing about driving through Europe is that you don’t even notice when you pass through the border into the next country. I only realized that we were in Germany when I saw road signs that ended with “Hausen”. I used to have a German pen pal  who was from Rheinhausen, so the “hausen” bit always stuck in my head whenever I saw something associated with Germany.

Speaking of my German pen pal, Melanie, she knew that I was going to be in the country and asked if it would be possible for me to visit Freiburg, as that was where she was going to be. Unfortunately though, we did not have control of where the bus was going to go. I saw a sign that showed the direction of Freiburg, but I knew that we weren’t going to stop there. I was a little disappointed because I was right in her country, less than 100km from her, and we still could not meet each other. That sucked.

There was an awkward moment on the bus when the American girl next to me threw up on herself. She obviously had had too much to drink at the pub crawl the previous night. Mel and I were mildly horrified since we were right next to her. At least none of it went on the floor or on the seat, or more importantly, on either of us. Thankfully we were all asked to pack an overnight bag for that night, since there was going to be a lot of stairs in the hotel, so she was able to change into something clean in the bus’ toilet. I don’t even know how she managed to do that because you can barely fit in that toilet, it was smaller than an aircraft’s toilet. To disguise the smell, the friend who kept passing her kleenex tissues sprayed some perfume around Mel and I. Phew, that helped a lot. At least things were fine after that.

I wasn’t very happy about packing an overnight bag because I didn’t have a decent size hand luggage-type bag and generally us girls have lots of toiletries, so I literally squashed whatever I could into this small shoulder bag I had carried with me. I just hoped that the weather would not turn on me, forcing me to wear the next day’s clothes later that day.

After some time, Steve decided that each of us should introduce ourselves. He asked that we just said a little bit about ourselves – where we’re from, what we do, and maybe state a fun fact. I didn’t know how I was going to remember everyone’s names, but I decided to at least pay attention to where they were from. There were some interesting professions. One of the guys, Elliot, who I thought looks exactly like the Bollywood actor Imran Khan, was actually a butcher. He actually owns his own butchery. That was interesting because I don’t know any young guys who do that. In South Africa its not really something young guys would do.

There was another Australian couple on the bus and both of them were really short. They seemed like really cool people though, and both said that they work at a gym. You could tell from their physique too. They weren’t overly muscular, but one could see that they looked after themselves. I remembered their names because both started with R – Renae and Ronnie.

There were some students, and I was quite surprised that Felicia, one of the girls that I spent the morning with in Amsterdam, was actually a train driver! Who would have thought!

Because of my fantastic spot on the bus, I was the last person to introduce myself. I can’t remember what nonsense I said, but Steve gave a little cheer when I said that like him, I was from Durban. I stole a fun fact from my mother since she had been to Europe when she was my age. I mentioned how the entire trip cost her barely ZAR700, or roughly €70 (at the time it was a little over ZAR10 to €1). The main thing that I wanted to tell people was that because my mother went with a teacher’s group, when they got to the Royal Palace in Monaco, they requested an audience with Princess Grace. She was sweet enough to actually come out and meet them. The cherry on the top was that she invited them to have tea with her. So I can proudly say that my mother had tea with Priness Grace. I was sort of plotting to try the same thing when I got to Monaco, at least to gain entrance into the Royal Palace and have a look around, but what were the chances of that. I thought I could use the whole thing about “my mother was here with Princess Grace so I have to keep up the tradition” to get me through, but I knew that would never work. Oh well.

After a couple hours we got to the service stop where we had about 45 mins to grab a bite to eat before heading to the Rhine Valley.  I didn’t realize that in terms of altitude, we were actually quite high above the Rhine River. We had obviously been driving uphill since leaving Amsterdam. I was not expecting to be descending a rather high hill for that long before we could reach the valley itself. The landscape was very different to that of the Netherlands as well. The trees were taller and of a darker green, and the land was anything but flat. I wasn’t sure if I liked it as much as Holland, but it was still new and it didn’t reduce my excitement.

The weather was also looking up, and it was a welcome sight after the slightly depressing Dutch weather. It was turning out to be a great day for a cruise. At last, sun!

We drove through at least 2 towns, which were so small and cute. Both of them had their own church, which really stood out among all the other buildings.

Steve parked off the bus, and we had a little walk to do to get to our boat. The sun was coming out and we were thrilled to not have to wear a rain jacket. The surroundings were beautiful and spotlessly clean. The thing I loved was seeing flower boxes on nearly every building. We never get that back home.

The boat that was waiting for us was called the Liebenstein, and sat 420 people. That’s a big boat! There were a few other tourists on it, but our large group overshadowed them. I found a place right at the front, and was joined by Renae and Ronnie.

It was so great being able to sit back, look up and absorb the sunlight on my face. The weather could not have been more perfect. While seated, we had great protection from the wind as well. It was only when I stood up was I whacked with the strong draft that indicated the speed of the boat. I didn’t need to stand up though, since I already had a nearly 360 degree view.

After Steve grabbed himself a humongous beer, he needed to take some time out to create the day sheet. He sat himself down on the bench behind me, with 2 of the Australian guys, one of them being Adam, who I had met on the first day when we did the “speed dating” on the bus. We had a small debate about the colours of the German flag. At least, the order. I knew it was red, yellow and black, but I was confused whether red was at the top or the bottom. I think I told him that black was at the top, but red was at the bottom. He started colouring in the word Germany in those colours, until someone found out that the red is actually in the middle. Oops! What a fail. He said he’d never trust another South African again. Haha. Sorry Steve! He had to start all over again. That must have really taken a lot out of him.

There was a guide (I don’t know if was the driver of the boat), who was giving us a running commentary on the surroundings. There were many castles dotted all over the valley, and lots of grape trees planted along the steep valley sides. We were, after all, in a wine country. We were going to do some wine tasting after the cruise as well, which I was looking forward to. Steve had told us about Eiswein (Ice Wine) as well, which is a local specialty.

The cruise lasted a pleasant 1.5 hours or so, and was very refreshing after having spent a good 5 or 6 hours on the bus. Once we got back to the dock, we took a short walk into the town to one of the main shops that makes Beer Steins.

I have never seen that many beer steins in my life. The shop was literally packed with them, like a sardine tin. They were all over the place and were of every design you could think of. Some were shaped like animals like wolves or eagles, while others depicted a profession or hobby. There was a limited edition Contiki beer stein as well, but there was no way in hell I was going to pay over €80 for one, especially when I’m not a beer drinker. I really considered getting at least a souvenir beer stein, but I eventually walked out empty handed.

Across the street was a shop that sold excellent cork shoes, apparently, but after taking a look around I didn’t really find anything that I liked. Besides, I didn’t want to stuff another pair of shoes into my bag. There was also a shop that sold only cuckoo clocks. In fact, the only thing St Goar is really known for is having the largest wooden cuckoo clock in the world. Its actually in the Guiness Book of Records.

The town was really tiny and we had a chance to walk around a bit and get a snack. Some people found a local bakery and got a slice of cake and some coffee. I instead got some ice cream as it would allow me to eat something tasty and at the same time walk around.

It was already around 5pm and by 5:30 we had to make our way to the “rape dungeon”, as Steve called it (since it was underground so technically if someone were to be raped there, no one would hear them scream).

It was a little creepy when we got there, as there was a narrow door and we had to make our way down some steep steps into the darkness. There were some faint lanterns inside and it felt as though we were entering a cave. There seemed to be toilets there, but no one dared use them because it was so dark. It was also really cold, which we felt the second we stepped through the door. After walking a few metres, there was a short tunnel before we could enter a large, cave-like room in which the only source of natural light was a shoe-box size hole near the ceiling. On one side there were wine barrels, and in the middle of the room, from one end to the other, was a long wooden table with benches on either side. The room was lit with some coloured globes, and every metre or so stood an empty wine bottle with a candle in it, on the table. We all understood, then, why Steve referred to it as the Rape Dungeon.

For every 6-8 people, there was a bowl of cheese, cut up into cubes. Each of us were given, in “true Contiki style”, our own shot glass in which to taste the wine. The cheese was divine and we wiped the bowl clean as we sipped on the different wines we were made to taste and listened to Steve’s stories about his previous tour. He sat on the end of the table. I was between Adam and Tracy, which was 2 seats away from Steve. Tracy was next to her husband Travis who was next to Steve. Too much detail, I know, but that’s how we sat. So we all could hear him pretty well as he horrified us with the tales of how everyone got to know each other “very well” on his last tour, which was a camping one.

The last wine given to us was the Eiswein, which I loved instantly. I knew that I was definitely going to buy myself a bottle, especially after Steve said that he would keep it safely for us on the bus until the end of the trip, so we wouldn’t have to worry about carrying it around. It was also a fraction of the price since we were buying it directly from the manufacturer, so at €26, I think it was a bargain.

After the tasting, we lined up to buy our Eiswein – at least, those who wanted to. After paying we had to write our name down so that the lady would label the packet in order for Steve to know whose wine was whose. I was surprised that more people didn’t buy it, as Steve was able to carry a single box of about 10-12 bottles only.

When we got back to where driver Steve was waiting, Steve thought that he was somewhere else and made us make a detour. I was pretty sure that I saw our bus where it supposed to be, however, but Steve didn’t think it was our bus. When we got to the point where he thought driver Steve was, there was no one in sight. He called driver Steve, who said that he was actually where we had just come from. That sucked, I was actually right that that was our bus that I saw. Oh well, at least we hadn’t really walked all that far. 

The activities for the day had ended, so it was time to go to the hotel. When we got there I realized that it was a different one to the one I had received on the itinerary. I think we did get the updated hotel list, but the one I gave to my parents was the old one with another hotel on it. This didn’t go down too well with my parents as they tried calling me that evening and were freaking out because they called the wrong hotel and were told that I had taken a taxi and gone to some other hotel. Huh? Maybe the receptionist that they got hold of didn’t catch my name properly, because she was clearly talking about someone else. I’m not sure how my parents eventually got hold of me, but I think they must have mentioned Contiki and were redirected to the correct hotel. I didn’t want to be responsible for giving my parents a heart attack when I wasn’t even in the country!

The hotel was a family run house and Alex and I had a room on the 2nd floor. It was quite a large, spacious room and actually had 3 single beds, so we used the 3rd bed to dump all our stuff. We were starving by that point and so made our way down to the dining area for dinner. It wasn’t that great a dinner, but it was something.

It was still broad daylight when we were done so we decided to take a bit of a walk around. Some of the American girls came along with us and we were talking about what the local people must be doing for work. Alex thought they must be gardening for a living, seeing how beautiful their gardens were. She could have been right! We couldn’t see where they would really be going to work because the town was so small, and we didn’t think they would be travelling really far to work. Who knows.

After about 30 mins of walking, it started drizzling. Great. We had to run back to the hotel because the drizzle became a heavy downpour. We stopped in an alley way just outside someone’s house for shelter for a minute or 2, before making another quick dash. When we got back to the hotel we were pretty wet. When we eventually got there, we saw that everyone was sitting in the room next to the lobby with their laptops and cellphones out. That could only mean one thing – WiFi!

The WiFi wasn’t free, but for a pathetic €1.50 for unlimited use, I wasn’t about to say no. Alex and I rushed back to the room and tried drying ourselves off, when I noticed that it had stopped raining and there was actually a rainbow over the valley. Nice. I think God just wanted to watch us run in the rain.

We then went back downstairs to take advantage of the WiFi. It was then that my parents phoned me, panicking, wondering which other hotel I had gone to. Eish.

The guys were playing some card games and then decided to pull out some Gambit from the X-Men moves by throwing cards at each other. They were actually pretty good, but it got a little crazy at one point, with the girls being attacked too.

After chatting a little with Melissa, another Australian, and a couple other people, I decided to head to bed. We didn’t have a decent enough curtain so it was a while before it actually got dark. I was really happy that I didn’t need my travel adapter in order to charge my cellphone either, just like in Holland, as in Europe they use the same 2-pin plug points that we use in South Africa. It really saved me the hassle, and was one less thing to worry about misplacing since I knew I’d need my adapter when I got back to London.

Alex had already passed out, and I don’t think it was too long before I did, too.

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Trip to Europe: Day 4 – Edam and Amsterdam

7 June 2012. After my first night on tour, I was excited to get going with the rest of the group. The plan for the day was to visit a sleepy little town called Edam, which is just outside Amsterdam. We were going to do a bike ride through the town, visit a cheese and clog making factory with a really authentic name – Cheese & Clogs (or as I found out when we got there, Irene Hoeve) – and then head into town for our free day in Amsterdam.

After Steve drove us to Edam, we took a short stroll through part of the town, which seemed to be well maintained and gorgeous, but I could not see a single soul. It seemed as if we were the only people there; where were all the locals? For a few moments I thought I was dreaming or that it was some kind of museum where you can’t expect real people to step out of a shop or walking along a canal. It was very strange to me because it wasn’t that early in the morning (it was just before 9), so its not like people would be sleeping. I’d understand that the shopkeepers would obviously be in their shops, but how can there not be a single customer wandering about the town?

Anyway, I decided to ignore the loneliness of the place and just enjoy the beauty. It was a perfect blend of civilization with nature, because even though there were beautiful buildings everywhere, they did not mess with the natural beauty around it. The peace and quiet of the town was calming, and I loved being there and breathing in the crisp, fresh air.

We soon got to the little “hut”, if you could call it that, where the bikes were kept. We were all slightly nervous and reluctant as we were told that the bikes that we were supposed to ride were the “granny bikes”, i.e.: ones that don’t have brakes. You have to pedal backwards to brake. Great. As it is, I hadn’t ridden a bike for more than 10 years, now I’m supposed to remember how to balance as well as whether I’d be riding to my death by forgetting to pedal backwards.

There were 3 sizes – small, medium and large. I knew that I’d definitely go for the medium one, but the one I tried wasn’t quite right. It was a little tall for me and I could not keep either foot on the ground without leaning the bike over. It wasn’t comfortable and I knew it would be a disaster. So I thought I’d try one of the small ones. Bad idea – those were probably made for 8 year olds because without even pedalling, my knee practically got lodged onto the handle bar. Um, no. If the medium was slightly too big, and the small was for midgets, there’s no way in hell I could try the large. I decided I would have to go with the uncomfortable medium. Shit, this was going to be tragic, but I knew the only way I might get away with it was if I kept away from the rest of the group and if I kept pedalling. Once I could get both my feet off the ground, it should be fine. At least, that was my theory.

It took a while before I could even test my theory because I just couldn’t get going on that damn thing. I was more concerned about being able to stop than actually going, and at one point I had an epic fail moment when I had a double lane road in front of me, but I veered myself right into a light pole. Seriously, how lame could I be. I also almost knocked into a man, who even thought I was shouting at, did not even seem to hear me. I literally stopped just centimetres behind him. How embarrassing would that have been, especially having to attempt to apologise in Dutch. I’m sure I could have gotten away with Afrikaans, but I’m glad that encounter was avoided altogether. Driver Steve was riding near me (by this time the entire group had left me behind and I was playing catch up) so he found it very amusing that I almost crashed into someone. Thanks Steve.

Once I got into it, I was pedalling away and the faster I went, the better it got. The handle bars weren’t very steady so I couldn’t just keep my hands straight and expect the bike to go straight, so that was the only challenge, but it wasn’t a big deal. At least I wasn’t about to crash into anyone or anything. I knew that there was someone behind me too, other than Steve, but I had no idea who, so I felt much better not being the last one! As I was riding I had a good chance to admire the town of Edam even more. It was one of the cleanest places I had ever seen, and the green was amazing.

I eventually caught up with the group, who by now were standing on top of a small hill overlooking a canal with a large wooden gate, and a gatehouse with a sole gatekeeper standing in it, on the opposite side. There was a makeshift parking lot, created by the group, at the bottom of the hill. The guide told us a bit about the way the gate operates, and how all the gatekeeper does is walk back and forth looking for boats that need to pass through, as well as monitor the level of the water. As I stood there I decided that I was going to be one of the first people on the bike, and I was going to ride ahead, away from everyone else, so that I could both keep up with the guide, and keep a good speed without worrying about trying to steer away from a slower rider in front of me.

The next stop was a large windmill, which was now converted into a house. Most of the original windmills are not used as they were originally intended anymore, and those that are run by volunteers. It was a great opportunity to take a group photo. We gave the guide and driver Steve our camera (at least 10), and they had turns taking the photos. It was only then did we realize how big our group of 51 really was.

After the picture it was time to head back the same way we came in order to give our bikes back. We then headed back to the bus for the short drive to Cheese & Clogs in Katwoude, a place famous for their gouda cheese. As soon as we walked in we were greeted with a room full of clogs, not only on the shelves, but on the ceiling as well. All, we were told, we handmade and hand painted. We made our way into a mini workshop where a local guy gave us a demonstration on clog making. Apparently it takes a whopping 5 years to become a master clog maker, and you qualify when you can make yourself a pair.

We were then allowed to look around the shop and grab some souvenirs. Some of us tried on clogs (one girl even bought herself a pair, though I didn’t know how she was going to lug it around for the rest of the tour) while the rest of us went into the main gift shop in order to sample some cheese, wine, and stroopwafels. The cheese was amazingly creamy, nothing like the nonsense we get back in South Africa. It tasted like a combination of cream cheese and gouda, not just gouda alone. My favourite was the smoked pepper flavour, which was odd because I don’t usually like pepper, but it was so subtle in this case that it was heavenly. The sweet red wine that we were given was a perfect match for the cheese as well, and I made sure I finished it before I could have the little bite sized portion of stroopwafel, which was more delicious than I could have imagined. I knew this was a touristy shop, however, and I wasn’t about to pay €6.50 for a pack of 10. My plan was to find a grocery store and pick up a packet there as one of the dumbest things you can do is buy things like that in shops that the tour takes you on. That is, if you know you’ll be given the opportunity to venture out on your own. I did however pick up a little clogs key ring and a windmill snow dome, which I thought were quite cheap. I was desperate to buy some cheese, but I was reluctant as the packs were too big, and it was still the beginning of my tour and the last thing I wanted was to have cheese that had gone off in my bag. I took this opportunity to sneak in another piece or 2 of the smoked pepper flavour from the sample basket. Sigh, that was good.

After everyone was done with their shopping it was time to head into town for our free day. At one point Steve had to stop at an unusual spot as some boom gate type barriers came down to block the road. We then saw that it was because the road had to be raised in order to let a boat through. Fascinating!

I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do when I got into town, but I did want to try to see Anne Frank’s house and visit the Van Gogh Museum as he is one of my favourite artists ever since I was a kid.

Alex and some of the Australian girls (I think it was Felicia, Shauna and Kelsey) and I decided to head off together as we all wanted to see Anne Frank’s house. We realized that we’d need to take a tram to get closer as we were quite far from it. After locating the number 2 tram on the tram map, we looked around to find a stop. When we saw the tram passing us on the way to the stop, we literally ran behind it, laughing at ourselves for being typical tourists. When we got to Anne Frank’s house, we were put off after seeing the length of the queue and decided it would be a waste of valuable time to stand in it.

After discussing some alternatives, we thought of walking around the city a bit more and perhaps heading to the flower market where I was hoping I could pick up some tulips. On our way there, we came across a magnificent shopping mall that looked nothing like the shopping malls in SA. It was also directly across from Madam Tussaud’s (no, London’s Madam Tussaud’s is not the only one in the world). The Australian girls decided they wanted to check out the mall, so Alex and I were left to wander on our own. We both decided to head to the flower market.

On our way there, we decided to split up as Alex wanted to do more exploring, and some shopping, and I thought I should head out to the museum district. I caught another tram, and got off right outside the Van Gogh Museum. It was around €10 to enter and was pretty big. The only real painting, besides Starry Starry Night, that I was looking for was The Harvest. No matter how much I looked, I couldn’t find it. I don’t think it was in this museum at all. What a shame!

The great thing about the museum, also, was that it had free WiFi! I decided to rest my legs a bit as I sat down in the museum to catch up with friends, send a few emails, and update Facebook. At that point I was starving as it was approaching 2pm and I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast.

After browsing the gift shop for some sort of souvenir depicting The Harvest and failing at it, I decided to head out of the museum and wander around the area. It was a gorgeous district, surrounded by green parks, sleepy locals and picnic enthusiasts. I also stumbled upon the “I Amsterdam” sign and decided to sit myself down on one of the park benches and admire my surroundings. I fell in love with the charm of the place and although I probably wouldn’t want to live there in the prime of my life, I could see myself strolling about as an old, retired woman.

I decided to make my way back into town, after grabbing something to eat, as we were told to meet at the bus parking area near the Sea Palace Restaurant by 5, where we were to have dinner before going on our canal cruise. On my way there, I found my way back to the shopping centre that we had come across earlier, and decided to take a peak inside. Although there were some renovations going on and therefore scaffolding, it was still quite appealing. I didn’t intend on buying anything though, so I just walked around.

When I came outside, I noticed a supermarket just around the corner. Bonus – my plan to get lunch and cheap stroopwafels was going to work! As I walked in, I was astonished at the cheese section. It was bigger than anything I had seen before. I thought I’d look for some smoked pepper gouda, but again, the packages they had were too large and I decided against it. I found the perfect packet of 10 stroopwafels and the price was excellent – €3! Talk about bargain! I regret not having bought 2, but I limited myself only to 1 as I intended saving the pack for a while (I still had some 2 weeks after I got back to SA, which was 5 weeks later). Unfortunately I still couldn’t find something to have for lunch. 

Somewhere along the way I managed to grab a sandwich and a coke from a street vendor, and found myself going through a nursery school yard that was in the middle of everything. If I didn’t see or hear the kids playing, I never would have known. Anyone was free to walk through as all that separated it from the rest of the city were some metal poles that stuck vertically out of the ground. I loved that it was so safe for the kids even though they were literally playing the street. In South Africa, crime is such an issue that all the schools have fencing, some even with barbed wire. I sat on a bench beneath a tree and enjoyed my sandwich and the much-needed Coke, as I was thirsty as hell from all the walking. It also gave me time to watch some locals pass by on their bikes. One man even had a little bulldog sitting lazily in the basket on the front of the bike. I was hoping to see someone with flowers in their basket, so was thrilled to see a woman ride passed slowly with a basket full of pink and yellow ones.

I eventually decided to get back into central Amsterdam. I found a shop that had a whole lot of tulips for a mere €4 for a packet of 10 bulbs. How could I not, knowing how my mother loves tulips. I also came across a street vendor selling punnets of cherries for €2 each, so of course I couldn’t resist. They were the most delicious cherries I ever had and I was glad I listened to my mother’s advice about tasting the fruit in Europe.

I couldn’t really remember how to get back to the bus station and I wandered around a bit and at one point thought I was lost. It was also peak hour now and the traffic, both cars and bikes, as well as the number of pedestrians picked up. It was like a rush hour I had never experienced before. I stood on a bridge outside the Grand Central Station and enjoyed my cherries, but at the same time scouting the area in order to determine the direction I had to go in. Eventually my gut feeling told me to go to my right and continue straight.

I was right, as within 2 to 3 minutes I saw the purple Contiki bus and at least 75% of my group standing around it. I got there just in time too, as it had started to drizzle lightly. After some people got changed for dinner on the bus, we took a short, brisk walk to the Sea Palace Restaurant, where I rather good dinner awaited us. I don’t recall everything we had, besides the chicken kebabs and some yellow thing that those around my table made me taste first, since it was closest to me. I had no idea what the hell it was as it had the texture of a pudding, but was slightly slimy and quite shiny. It was almost tasteless when I tried it, so I still had no idea what it was so I made a random guess that it was chicken. I was dead wrong because we later found out that it was actually an omelette. I don’t know what kind of omelette that was cos it didn’t have anything in it except egg. We were allowed 3 drinks, so I decided that 2 of those would be red wine. The waiter seemed to like the American girl sitting opposite me, but he somehow thought that she was a major drinker. He made her chug an entire glass of red wine, which we applauded. I don’t know how she did it as the wine wasn’t all that great, but then again, I had never had much wine before so I did not have the taste for it. At least, not yet.

After dinner it was time for the cruise. We made our way out into a boat that was totally covered with a glass roof. It was perfect since it was still drizzling. We were allowed unlimited drinks on this one, but I choose to go for just 2 glasses of white wine this time. By the end of the second glass, even though I had prolonged the length of it as much as I could, I felt slightly giggly. I knew I wasn’t drunk but my eyes felt heavy. That was going to be my last one, thanks.

We got to admire the gorgeous sunset over Amsterdam, even though it was approaching 9:30pm. I was again astonished at how late the sun sets in Europe in summer. It was then that I realized I was having first hand experience on how the 23.5 degree tilt of the Earth comes into play in the Northern Hemisphere. It humbled me.

After this enjoyable cruise, Steve announced that we had a choice of either heading back to the hotel, or joining him on a pub crawl. I had no intention of going on the pub crawl as I had already drunken 4 glasses of wine in a span of 4 hours and I was feeling woozy. I was also dead tired and wanted to be fresh for the long drive into Germany the following morning.

I was shocked to find that there were barely 10-12 of us who decided to go back to the hotel. At least driver Steve was going to take us back, so we didn’t have to worry about finding our own way via the central station again.

I was so glad to be back in the hotel. The only thing I dreaded was having to wake up again to open the door for Alex, who decided to stay on for the pub crawl. It was annoying when everyone got back as they made such a huge noise. I bet they woke the whole hotel up. That was my wake up call for Alex though, and I found myself waiting for her. When she eventually came in, from the noises she made, I knew that she was rather tipsy, but not drunk enough to be falling all over the place.

I chuckled quietly to myself before falling asleep.

Trip To Europe: Day 3 (part 2) – Belgium to Amsterdam

6 June 2012. After “setting foot” in France, the real long drive of the day had begun. The plan was to drive right through Belgium, stop over for lunch, and then head into Amsterdam.

Steve went through the bus, starting from the front and working his way through to the back, chatting to everyone and asking them where they’re from and what they do, as well as who they came with. I didn’t really turn to look at the people behind me but I tried eavesdropping a little so I could also familiarize myself with those around me. I got to know that there were 2 married couples on the bus, both from Australia. I heard that one of the girls was a nurse, but I didn’t quite catch the profession of the others. Both couples were thrilled to not be the only married ones on the tour. I also heard that the girl behind me was the sister of the nurse, and that the guy next to her was not her boyfriend. She made it clear that they were not a couple and that they just traveled together. That made me curse my best friend, Rowan, cos he would have been the perfect company on this tour. Damn him for making me go alone!

While waiting for Steve, I was admiring the lush, flat, green Belgian countryside. It was exactly like all the stories I heard about it. I know a 76 year old man who comes from Belgium, and as we were driving through it, I remember thinking that I envied him for being from such a beautiful country. I loved their windmills too. They seemed to be right on the side of the road.

After what seemed like an hour, Steve was done chatting to everyone and then decided that he wanted us to get to know each other, so he said that we were gonna do a form of Speed Dating, where the people sitting on the aisle side of the bus would move one seat forward, and speak to whoever sat by the window. Yay, so I didn’t have to move, people would instead come to chat to me. I thought it would be a nice ice breaker, but I was a little nervous because what on earth do you say to a complete stranger who comes and plonks themselves next to you and who you actually have to make a conversation with.

I knew who was going to come chat to me first, although I didn’t catch his name, but I knew he was the one sitting next to the sister of the nurse. He came by and I found out that his name was Adam. He had a slightly mischievous look on his face, even though it was hidden by his slightly messy dark hair and facial hair,  and he was rather quiet. I think we both didn’t really know what to say except ask where the other was from and what we do. I remember him saying something about working with cars and in a workshop (I think). He had a heavy, typical Australian accent that we all know, so it was stupid of me to bother asking where he was from because I picked it up the second he said hello.

I don’t remember in what order the others came after him, but I met a sweet Canadian girl named Serena, who reminded me of Paige from Charmed. She was also a red head so that added to it, but her hair was tied back and it was very curly, unlike Paige’s.  She was from a place I’ve never heard of in Canada, so there’s no chance I’ll remember it now. I also met Sam, who had the cutest face I’ve ever seen in person. She had that babyish look like Jessica Alba, and was noticeably more tan than Serena, but about the same as Adam. She was from Melbourne, Australia, but there was something about her that made me think that her blood wasn’t Australian. I just couldn’t put my finger on it. I think I met at least 2 other people before Steve said that time was up. I was rather disappointed because none of us had met even half of the bus yet.

By around 4pm we reached our first service stop. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and was pleasantly surprised when I walked in. It was like a mini supermarket, with a deli, fruit bar, and cake counter. And the best part was that it had free WiFi. Yes! I could check in on Facebook at the Belgian/Netherlands border! Ha! How often do you get to do that?!

After we had a bite to eat and drew some money from the ATM, it was time for the final stretch before we got in to Amsterdam. The excitement had now really grown exponentially, and it was evident on the bus. There was a definite buzz as the clock approached 6pm and saw our first canal.

Steve had shocked us all with the news that we were going to be taken to a live sex show. I think I can safely say that at least 75% of the bus was speechless and in shock, and refused to believe him. I remember some of us at the front of the bus kept asking him if he was kidding or what, but he wasn’t. It was obvious why this wasn’t mentioned on the itinerary – no one’s parents would have let them come on the tour! This was definitely going to be an interesting tour, and I wasn’t sure if I was up for it. But then I thought come on, don’t be an idiot, God knows when I’ll ever come to Amsterdam again, I couldn’t miss this. As awkward as it would be. The thing that a lot of people don’t know is that it is actually an optional activity, meaning we had to pay extra money if we wanted to go see it. Every single person on the bus said yes, they’re gonna go. So my tour group was anything but boring!!

But more of that later (well, not really).

Our hotel was a little bit out of the centre of town, and we were pleasantly surprised at the location of it – it was called the Lakeside Hotel and was situated right next to where a whole lot of yachts parked. Too bad I didn’t get a decent picture of that scenery because we were all so exhausted from the long drive that all we wanted to do was just get our bags off the bus, dump them in our rooms, and head to the hotel restaurant for dinner. It was then that we found out who our room mates were – mine was Alexandra (Alex) from Savannah, Georgia in the USA. She was a little taller than me and very friendly. I was glad to have someone like her as a room mate. After we freshened up, we headed to the dining area. I can’t remember a thing that was on that dining table, except some chicken and the ice cream.

When we were done, we just had a few minutes to spare before we had to get back on the bus for the walking tour into town and the Red Light District. Steve explained to us where to get off the bus should we decide to stay out late – “as soon as you see the Texaco, press the button”.

After Steve dropped us off, Steve started the walking tour. We were told the difference between a Coffee Shop and a Cafe (very important to know the difference, especially if all you want is a genuine cup of coffee) and shown some of the  popular places to go like The Grasshopper. I was not expecting to see the Red Light District when I did, because everything looked so normal. I just remember finding the city as a whole so charming, but at the same time finding myself paranoid at the number of cyclists all over the place. Being hooted at by a cyclist that many times was extremely foreign to me, and it took a while getting used to the bicycle lanes, and knowing which way to look first when crossing the road, since it is on the opposite side to what we have in SA (we’re still running things the British way, I say).

Our first real encounter and eye opening moment of the Red Light District was when Steve took us through Skinny Lane. I didn’t know what to expect, but it suddenly dawned on me what was there – the rooms with glass doors where the girls would do their “work”. Not all the curtains were closed so some of the girls were posing right behind the door, all of them smiling, wearing the most stunning lingerie you’d ever see. I was so embarrassed to look at any of them because I heard that they get angry if women stare at them, so if I did look up, I gave the quickest smile I could and just scurried along trying to keep up with my group, who were also giggling in disbelief. Once we got out of there, the guys were red faced, and the girls were just giggling uncontrollably. I think it was more shocking for us girls than it was for the guys. They were probably more embarrassed than us though, but God knows what was going through their minds.

After we got over that welcome to Amsterdam, we walked on until we got to a church in the middle of the Red Light District, where Steve told us a little bit about the story behind it. He mentioned, in a much lower voice, that the girls from that particular area weren’t all that great. Glad they didn’t hear that, I wonder what they would have done.

We then made our way to the theatre where the sex show was to be held. No, I will not mention what I saw in there – some things are best kept to oneself! I will say though that it was probably the most awkward experience of my life, sitting in a theatre full of strangers, most of which I hadn’t even met yet, and watching stark naked people performing on stage. It was a good thing that 2 drinks were included in the price, so we had somewhere to look if it got a little too much for the eyes. It doesn’t help when 2 girls are performing and you’re a girl sitting between 2 girls – where else can you look if you need to turn away from the stage, other than the ceiling or those next to you to see if they are equally horrified?

After the show, some of us made our way back to the hotel. Steve took us to the bus station, which was absolutely massive. I think we would have totally been lost if we had to find out way around there ourselves. A lot of people stayed behind to do a pub crawl – I have no idea how they did that after such a long day! Especially the Australians – hello, where’s your jet lag?!

What a first day it was. As I reflected on the day’s events, though small in number, I remembered that Steve had explained to us on the bus where XXX came from and that it actually had nothing to do with what we think it has to do with today, but rather the 3 “hits” on Amsterdam, including the plague.

Only those who travel can get certain information that others can only guess. I can definitely call myself lucky.

Europe

So its been a lifelong dream of mine to tour Europe.  I wanted to go in 2011 but I didn’t have enough leave or money. I then decided that I would save both for the next year, and do it in 2012. The original (2011) plan was to go with my partner in crime, Rowan, since he also wanted to go. Then as time went on, another friend of mine also expressed interest. She’s also a travel nut like I am. I think I inherited it from my mother…definitely not something I’m ashamed of!

Anyway, back to the point…I started to gather a good few people who were interested in the trip. But slowly, as time went by, one by one they started falling away. I still did not lose interest though because I was wanting to go on this trip for so long. Eventually, it was back down to Rowan and no one else, since they either didn’t have enough money or they changed jobs. Then, after I opened Rowan’s eyes about not being paid enough at his company, he also changed jobs. So now, its just me! I also planned on changing jobs, just for the sake of career growth and diversity, but I had spent almost a year saving my leave days as well as money, so I didn’t want to cancel it just because of the possibility that I might go alone.

The original plan also consisted of a 12 day Contiki tour of Europe, followed by an additional 3 days in London. When it was decided that it was just me, I thought hey, what the hell, let me do the 16 day tour and still do the 3 days in London. I mean, who wouldn’t want to add 4 extra days that include Monaco, Pisa, and the French Riviera (Nice to be exact) into their trip if they could help it?

As if things couldn’t get any better…I’m staying with a friend in London. She was actually my neighbour from the time I was about 5 years old till I was 17ish. We’re like family. She’s a big Harry Potter fan like me. Once I told her about the Leavesden Studio tour, where all the Harry Potter films were made, she booked tickets for us! Its definitely a dream come true. I’ve been wanting to visit that place while the films were still being made. Can’t believe its actually happening.

The most difficult thing about travelling is waiting for the time between booking and checking in at the airport to pass. Other than that…all excitement.