Travel Questions I Get Asked a Lot

In the past couple of weeks I came to know that several of my friends have never travelled overseas. Learning this fact was most surprising to me when I heard it from one particular friend with whom I share a 16 year friendship. I realised that we had both gotten so busy with our lives since we left school that I actually didn’t really pay attention to that fact.

I was 9 years old when I first went on a trip outside of South Africa; it was with my parents to Mauritius. I had never been on a plane before and I couldn’t have been more excited. It was the most thrilling thing for me to wake up knowing that I’d be flying later that day to a place I had never been to before. I was more excited about the fact that I’d be flying; the destination didn’t matter.

Over the years I’ve been to 16 different countries and the excitement of travelling never died. I had the same enthusiasm as I did all those years ago when I first stepped on that plane to Mauritius. The process of wheeling my bag to through the airport, checking in, boarding the plane and then my ultimate favourite, take off, are equally thrilling every time I do it.

16 countries, compared to some people, isn’t a lot, but that number makes me the most travelled person in my family, as well as my friend circle. It definitely feels good!

I get asked similar questions quite often and so, at the request of one of those friends whose never left the country, I have decided to put the answers, as well as tips, in writing.

The Best Time to Travel

This depends entirely on you. Personally, I prefer travelling in the middle of summer to ensure good weather all round. If you’re planning to go to India, mid summer is a bad idea since it is monsoon season. Because India isn’t much north of the equator, its better to go in winter when its slightly cooler. I can’t really speak for the far east or the west since I’ve been to neither, but from what I’ve heard, places like Malaysia are hot all year round in any case, so it makes no difference when you choose to go.

I’ve been to Europe in mid summer, autumn and early winter, and I would choose mid summer any day. I’d love to do a white Christmas one day, but I’m not ready to face that kind of cold just yet.

St Peters Square. Nov 11, 2009

What to Pack

I am the worst person to ask that question because I always over pack. In terms of how to pack, it helps rolling up  your clothes rather than folding them. Its less bulky hence takes up far less space. Put toiletries including creams and a bit of washing powder in small zip-lock bags so you don’t need to carry around bulky, hard bottles that also take unnecessary room. It not only helps with saving space, but allows for more valuable weight that you’d need for all your shopping.

I’d say pack one pair of jeans for every week of travel. More than 7 or 8 pairs of socks for a 2 week trip is excessive, so don’t be a lazy bum – use some of that washing powder to wash 2 or 3 pairs of socks at a time in a place where you have at least 2 nights of stay, since it will allow enough time to dry even in a room with no direct sunlight.

Don’t pack something you haven’t worn before, especially shoes. Travelling is about exploring, and if you’re going to pack brand new shoes you’re probably going to end up with blisters from wearing them in with all the walking you’ll be doing. In terms of clothes, you’re going to end up wearing what you’re most comfortable in, which isn’t necessarily that new shirt or jacket. Also, if you hate to wear something at home, you’re going to hate it even more on your trip. Don’t think that by packing it you will force yourself to wear it because trust me, it will just sit there.

How the Schengen Visa Works

I take this for granted now since I’ve been to Europe thrice, however I still get asked what type of visa to get and how it works.

The Schengen visa covers pretty much all of Europe. If you intend on travelling to more than one country, you need to get only one Schengen visa, either 1) for your first point of entry or 2) the country you’ll be staying in the longest. In 2009 I went to Greece and Italy, each for 4 days. Since my point of entry into the Schengen area was Greece, I had to get a Greek Schengen visa.

When I did the Contiki tour to Europe in 2012, my point of entry was Calais in France, and I spent the longest number of days in France, so had to apply for a French Schengen because the same country met both conditions.

Once you have the visa, you can travel anywhere in the Schengen area. Except for Switzerland, there are no physical borders in Europe, though I can only speak for central Europe. You won’t realise when you pass into the next country until you see that the language of the road signs have changed. For around €4, you can get your passport stamped in Liechtenstein. Liechtenstein is so small that its extremely easy to find a place that can stamp your passport for you.

You can find pretty much all information about the Schengen Visa here.

Your Passport

With any country, it is important to keep your passport with you at all times. I was not questioned upon leaving Switzerland, however upon my re-entry from Germany, I was asked to produce both my ticket and passport to security officials on the train. I was also asked to show my passport on a local bus in Nyon, just outside of Geneva. Switzerland was the only country where I was ever asked to show my documents, but it does not mean that other countries won’t.

For safety sake, make copies of your passport and other travel documents. If you have a tablet, scan your documents and email them to yourself so you can retrieve them quickly and easily in case something goes wrong.

Money

Pick pocketing is a global problem hence cannot be isolated to one country or city. No matter where you go, you should be careful with how you carry your money i.e. do not carry too much and do not put your wallet in your back pocket.

Never carry all your money around with you. If your hotel room doesn’t have a safe, keep the bulk of your money away in your bag and keep it locked. Only carry enough cash for the day. Rather use your credit card for larger items when shopping.

In places like Paris, Geneva and Zurich, cities known to be amongst the most expensive places in Europe, you’d need roughly €50 a day for all 3 meals. Don’t waste money going to fancy restaurants because you can get decent, tasty street food for much more reasonable prices. Street food, a lot of the time, is tastier than the restaurants since the restaurants charge more for the views they provide rather than the quality of their food.

Usually shops don’t allow for the use of a credit card if the purchase is less than €10, so if you intend on buying very small souvenirs, take cash.

Getting Around

EuropeFreiberg HBF, Germany

All I can say is that public transport in Europe is a dream. Personally, I like walking as much as possible since I can’t walk at all in South Africa. Most countries have travel passes that covers most if not all public transport. You can get a Swiss Pass in Switzerland that covers all public transport as well as entrance into most museums. You can get it for a minimum of 4 days and a maximum of 1 month. The pass can be bought for either first or second class transport so it is up to you which one you prefer. The second class transport is decent enough for a single female traveller so I think it unnecessary to pay double the price for a first class ticket. If you sit in the wrong class, chances are you’ll be asked to relocate to the correct one!

Never try to get onto a public bus or train without buying a ticket as the fines are hefty should you get caught – between €200-€400 worth!

UK

Like Europe, travelling around the UK, especially London, is fantastic. If you’re going to be in London, depending on how long, get the Oyster card. If you’re only going to be there for a couple of days, you can get one ticket that will last you all day – just ensure that you get it for all the zones that you intend on travelling within so that you don’t end up buying more than one ticket a day.

Do not underestimate the proximity of places in London – people tend to be lazy by taking the Underground when they might just need to walk one block.

India

Auto rickshaws are the best way to travel around any Indian city. They are cheap, fast, and can weave around traffic. Their horns make an extremely amusing quacking-type sound too. Initially, you might feel like you’re going to die, but learn to enjoy the ride and accept the craziness that is the auto rickshaw, and it will be the most fun ride you’ll ever have.

If you have large bags and are travelling with more than one person, avoid being driven around in an Ambassador. The space inside that car is inversely proportional to the look of it on the outside. It has extremely small trunk space so having more than one big bag is a problem since all but the one will have to fit in the back seat.

Other Random Stuff

Gelato in Rome

Airplane seating rules: Window seat gets the window and something to lean the head on when sleeping; middle seat gets both arm rests; aisle seat gets first access to the bathroom and aisle armrest only.

Its never acceptable to sleep in while travelling. If you’re travelling with people who don’t want to wake up early, leave them behind and just go out on your own. You would have paid good money for your trip so don’t let someone else ruin it by not wanting to step outside the hotel room early enough to see as much as you could have if they had woken up early.

Always have a map of the area with you so you know exactly where you are in relation to everything else. It not only serves to help with navigation, but will make you streetwise should you encounter a dishonest taxi driver that takes the long way round just so he can charge you more.

Never buy anything, including food, from the main tourist areas. They are always significantly more expensive than the quiet side streets located just around the corner.

Trip Advisor is your friend.

 

Trip to Europe: Day 15 – Avignon to Chateau de Fontager, Valence

18 June 2012. I was really looking forward to this day because we were going to be staying at one of Contiki’s feature hotels: Chateau de Fontager, which is something I saw in their brochure. It looked like a medieval castle, and I had never stayed in something like that before, so it was extremely exciting for me. That morning, we left around 8, heading first towards Fragonard, the French perfumery, en route to Avignon, where we’d be stopping for a quick lunch.

We didn’t have much of the French Riviera to drive along, since we were now heading north, so I tried catching whatever final glimpses of the Mediterranean that I could get. It wasn’t too long before we got to Fragonard,

The moment we walked through the doors we were hit with a wonderful scent, and we all became a little mellow. It was a subtle aroma, anything but overpowering, which I loved because one might expect that when walking into a perfumery. We were given a brief introduction to what actually goes on in the perfumery as well as some of the ingredients that are used to make perfumes.

We were given a behind-the-scenes tour of the perfumery and watched as the workers went about their business filling up the perfume bottles (by hand) and making soap. The awesome thing about the soap they make is that the entire thing is scented, unlike the cheap rubbish you get where there’s no scent left after you get through the thin surface layer. The bottles that are used which are golden in colour are made from aluminium; this keeps light from penetrating through, which allows the perfume to retain its original scent for much longer than normal as a result.

After the tour, we all stood around one of the ladies who spoke to us about the different perfumes that were for sale. Some were fruity, some were floral, some for the day and some for the night. I’ve never really liked “citrusy”-smelling perfumes, and I’ve got Lancome’s Midnight Rose already which is generally something you’d use at night, so I knew I was going to probably go for the French floral perfume, Emilie, which would be more practical for daytime use. It was confirmed that that was my favourite after we were given a strip on which to smell each sample.

We then had some time to shop in the gift shop. There were some specials where you could get a box of 4 or 5 perfumes of a particular size bottle, and divide the bottles among several people. I got together with a couple girls and bought a box of the medium-sized bottles, after each of us chose which perfume we wanted. I got 2 bottles of Emilie – one for myself and another for my mother.CC and Jose

I waited for some people and we walked together back to the bus. Driver Steve immediately picked up how good all of us smelled. While we waited for the others, I was watching Jose and CC trying to take selfies with CC’s hair over Jose’s head. It was just too funny.

Once everyone was satisfied with their purchases, Steve did his usual head count and we were off for a 3 hour drive to Avignon. I didn’t really know what to expect other than a small town in which I could get some lunch.

While on the bus, Steve asked us to team up with others that were in our country and come up with questions about our respective countries as there would be a quiz later. Thankfully, Tiffany was right behind me so it was easy to chat with her about it. It also made it easy for Steve to contribute since he could just lean over from his usual spot by the step, next to Driver Steve. I typed the questions as fast as I could onto my phone, and called it SA questions. The mistakes were quite obvious as Steve and Tiffany were firing away so it was crazy keeping up.

I managed to sneak a glance at the surroundings as Steve and Tiffany thought of more questions to ask, and it just got more beautiful the further we went, and we were driving alongside a river. We passed some old, impressive bridges that matched the outer walls of Avignon that eventually rose up in front of us.

Driver Steve parked as close as possible for us to be able to walk into the town, under some trees in an outdoor parking area which had a nice view of a Ferris wheel nearby. We hopped off and walked together towards the beige, towering walls, part of which was built into the stone. It felt as though I were walking into a secret.

The town didn’t open up the way I expected it to. Instead, it became more intriguing. It was like I was transported back to the back-streets of Rome with its narrow, cobbled roads with tiny cars parked to the side. It was a gentle uphill walk and after a few turns we came upon a huge open area with a gigantic building that looked like a very old palace.

Avignon town

By now we were so used to stopping and waiting for Steve to tell us how much time we had to do x and y, that I think we knew about how far we could walk before it was necessary for us to stop. Steve gave us the quick timelines and directions, and we were off again on our own little missions.

The majority of us headed towards the town centre, which was a large courtyard-like area with restaurants and other little buildings. We were rather hungry since it was already quite late, so we decided to check out some of the restaurants, most of which had their menus on display outside.

Avignon restaurant menu

Kelly, Tiffany and I were all confused about what we wanted to eat, so I think we chose the restaurant that we did purely because of the size of the menu. While we were still deciding, we were given a bread basket, much to Tiffany’s delight. “Mmm, I just love bread!”, I remember Tiffany saying.

I eventually settled on a seafood pasta, since I hadn’t really had one before. It cost about €9, and I wasn’t disappointed. It looked so mouth watering that I just had to take a photo before touching it.

Shaghetti aux fruits de merWe savoured our lunch and admired the general splendour and atmosphere surrounding us. There’s nothing like having lunch outside, especially when you’re in a beautiful French town such as Avignon. It was nice having some of the Austailian crowd which included Ally and Paul, at the next table. We found ourselves eavesdropping and then contributing to each others’ conversations.

About an hour had passed since we chose a restaurant and finished our food. Most of the others had finished, too, and we had some time to kill so spent a few moments deciding what to do with the time. I was game for anything, so I just waited to see what the others were gonna suggest. As we proceeded forward rather aimlessly, we noticed the merry-go-round that grew larger in front of us. Someone, Kiara if I’m not mistaken, suggested we all go for a ride. A few of us thought it was rather ridiculous but then as quickly as we had decided against it, we changed our minds. After all, when would we get that chance again.

Avignon's merry-go-round

When we went to check how much it cost, we saw that it was €2 per person, but only €1 each if you got 12 people. Hell, there were 51 of us, so surely it would be super easy to get 12! It certainly was. We shouted at whoever came within hearing range and practically every single one of them was keen. We felt like children again as we walked around the merry-go-round, looking for something that would hopefully carry our weight.

Ally had sat herself down on one of the horses, so asked me to sit on the one next to her. It was so amusing to do that as I remembered sitting on one as a child. I told Ally what a difference it was sitting on it as an adult, as we didn’t have any reason to hold on to the handles.

On the merry-go-round

When the ride started, we were all laughing hysterically. I’m not sure if it was because of the outrageousness of it, or the fact that the locals were staring at a bunch of overgrown children in obvious disapproval. For me, it was both. I think it was Paul, walking in the ride itself, who caught a shot of me laughing like a crazy person – thanks for that! As if his presence wasn’t enough, we also had Travis standing outside the ride laughing and taking photos of our shenanigans.

It was the best time ever.

After laughing ourselves off the ride, I realised I had found the child in me again. Sometimes you need to do stupid things like that to take you back to the times when all you cared about was that innocent fun you could have, whether it was by yourself or with friends. In this case, I definitely wouldn’t have felt the same if those very same people weren’t around me in my time of happiness. There’s no place else I would have rather been. Thanks to all you others for sharing that moment!

Still basking in the mild adrenaline, if you can call it that, we waddled away from our temporary friend back towards the palais. We were actually early as there was a significant number of people who hadn’t yet arrived. It was brilliant for me because I wanted to make a quick visit to the church next to the palais, if not the palais itself. There wasn’t going to be enough time for me to pay €10 to go into the palais and see it properly, so I decided to take a brisk walk to the church in the 15-20 minutes that were left.

Avignon's Palais

It was a little church that was rather dark. I expected it to be that way, however, since it was a Gothic church. In fact, the Palais is one of the largest Gothic buildings in Europe, and actually played host to several conclaves. This only increased my interest in it because of my love for anything having to do the Pope or the Vatican. I took a quick walk around it while at the same time consulting with my watch. Unfortunately no one is allowed to take photos inside the church, so I absorbed whatever I could before making my way back down to my group which seemed to have grown significantly since I had left. I think I got back to them just in time, as it was only a few moments before Steve requested us to follow him back to the bus.Zorro

It was enough time to watch the Zorro wannabe who was parked off next to us, hoping for money. I managed to grab a quick ice cream on the way back to the bus, reminiscing about the day that had just passed.

We had another long drive of nearly 3 hours ahead of us before we reached our hotel, or rather, our castle – Chateau de Fontager. I had seen pictures of it in the Contiki catalogue, so I couldn’t wait to see it in person. I had never been inside a castle before, let alone stayed  in one.

I didn’t know how close we were to the Chateau until I saw a road sign that pointed in its direction, because we were driving along a river for a while, with no landmarks worth mentioning. It was as though we were in the middle of nowhere. I realised then that the Chateau was probably not even visible from the road, or that many people even knew about it. That’s expected, I guess, as the other Chateaux that I did hear about had rather large gardens and appeared to be in a secluded area because of it in any case.

The road sign

Driver Steve took the turn that the sign recommended, and had to drive along a gravel road for what seemed like 10-15 minutes before we could see anything that resembled the Chateau. I’m sure it was not even a minute. Either the road was long and winding, or I was just impatient. It was probably the latter.

When the bus eventually stopped, I took a few moments to gaze upon the Chateau. It was exactly like the pictures. I knew there was plenty of time to look at it so I didn’t waste much time in retrieving my bag and making my way up to the room. Alex took a little longer to get her bag so I had a few moments to survey the room before she got there. It was the first time we had one double bed for both of us, rather than 2 singles, but the size of the room was like no other. We had a rather large bathroom, too. I was pleasantly surprised, other than the fact that there was no air conditioner which was really needed in this case. But I could worry about that later.

There was nothing to do in the castle except relax and have fun. So after dumping my bags in the room and freshening up a little, I began to head back downstairs to see what the others were doing. I also visited the twins on the way down, whose room I didn’t realise I was walking passed until I saw Aadam standing by their open door. I popped my head in to say hello because I noticed how huge their room was. It was insane, they each had their own double bed! How did that happen?! They told me they were on their way to the pool, so it was pretty obvious where everyone else would be.

I met a couple people in the lobby, who weren’t in bathing suits, so I mentally high-fived them. We walked down to the pool together, through a beautiful, green garden. The pool was a lower than the castle, and I noticed that the guys and some of the girls like Alex were playing their own version of water polo already.

Chateau de Fontager

I went under one of the few gazebos and sat with Tracy, Travis and some other non-swimmers, Rachel included. It was nice having Ally and Paul join us too. Neither of them swam, initially, but I think Paul eventually took a quick dip as Ally looked on.

It drizzled for a few minutes but that didn’t bother anyone. We were either already wet or sheltered under a gazebo. We spoke a few things about the upcoming quiz, and I let Travis in on a little secret – that the answer to “What is a braai?” is in fact a BBQ. I kept a mental note to either not ask that question (which was practically impossible cos we’re the only ones that call a BBQ a “braai”), or make sure that Travis didn’t answer (somehow). The rest of the time I spent at the pool was just watching everyone and thinking back of what we had gotten up to over the past 14 days, realising that we had just 3 nights more with each other and that after this I may never see some of them again. It saddened me.

After leaving the pool, it was time to go eat. I sat outside the front entrance under a wooden awning with wooden chairs with Rachel, Adam and a couple more people while those who were in the pool showered and changed. We made mindless chatter about where we were sitting, the castle, the pool, and Fragonard. We didn’t have to wait long before it was time to go to the dining room. When I got to the dining room, I sat with Renae, Tracy and Travis, among others, waiting for the food to arrive. Ours was the only table with a free seat or 2, so Sam, being late, joined us later on. 

Towards the end of dinner, Steve came to me asking if I had come up with any more questions for the quiz, and suggested a few more. He also gave me a pen and paper to scribble them down on to. Sam and I, even though we came from totally different countries, teamed up as the others left the table, done with their dinner. So I shared a handful of answers with her. What brought us together was the fact that Steve said that the Australians and South Africans would be teaming up against the Americans and Canadians, so we forgot about the fact that we were from different countries hence plotted together as if we were from the same place. It was awesome. For a few moments I had forgotten that we live half way across the world from each other. Travelling is a marvellous thing.

When we were done, we joined the others in the next room where we could get some chairs together and form our teams. I gave my questions list to Steve and found myself a spot amongst the Australians. After all this time, I realised how similar Australians are to South Africans, and this lot that I was with had become like family to me. I looked upon them fondly as we waited for Steve to start asking the questions. Too bad I couldn’t get a photo of them all at once, but its pretty obvious that we totally outnumbered our opponents. There wasn’t a table big enough to accommodate all of us.

Some of the Aussies with the Americans and Canadians in the background

Steve began with the Australians’ questions, if I remember correctly. They pretty much nailed the others. I was glad to be on their team because I didn’t have to feel bad about not knowing some of the answers. The Americans really had me stumped with some  of their questions though – they had come up with some brilliant ones.

Steve left the South African questions to last and, since there were only 4 of us in the whole group, asked Tiffany, Dylan and I to come up and help him ask some of the questions since he couldn’t read some of my writing. Normally I would have been a little shy, but these people were no strangers to me now.

When we got to the braai question, I immediately pointed at Travis and asked him to be quiet. Poor guy, I had shut him up the moment he had started to open his mouth. One of our questions, “what is a koeksister”, was given the funniest answer I ever thought possible, thanks to CC. “Is it a pig’s stomach?”. No CC, no. I nearly collapsed with laughter – she had made our evening.

After the last question, just like the others, we had to sing our national anthem. I thought “I’ve already yodelled in front of this lot, so singing in my ‘own’ language with 3 other people is nothing”. That’s the only thing that gave me the confidence to stand up and sing to them. From the look on their faces when we changed languages, I think they were impressed with us.

We had nothing to do but mess around afterwards. Some people wanted to play cards, some wanted to play pool, and others wanted to play hide and seek. We all wandered about the area together, not really sure of who to join. Steve showed us where the pool table was, and in the adjoining room was a long table fit for a banquet. I’m sure it could have sat at least 20 people.

I had pretty much made up my mind about what I wanted to do – hide and seek of course. After all, we had the entire castle to ourselves. I got together with a bunch of Aussies that included Renae, Ronnie, Travis, Tracy, Ally, Shauna, Kelsey and Felicia, as well as Alex. We had the entire bottom floor to hide in. We actually were playing reverse hide and seek, which I had never heard of before, but one of the brilliant Aussies suggested it. Bless her! The way it works is – one person hides while everyone else seeks. When you find the person, you hide with them. Eventually only one seeker is left, and that is the person that must hide next.

Now, the problem with this castle is that its pretty creepy at night, and some rooms are so pitch dark that you cannot even see your hand in front of you. Other rooms can convince you that its haunted because of the lighting and creaking sounds. Because of this, I knew the game would be brilliant.

It was Ronnie who hid first, if I remember correctly. We searched until we thought we could search no more – under the tables in the dining room, a large chest, the reception desk, behind curtains, and extremely dark rooms where you couldn’t hear a sound or see a thing. I remember some of the girls screaming with fright when they entered a dark room and another seeker entered the same room through another door. It was crazily funny.

I noticed that Kelsey had disappeared, so I knew that she had found Ronnie. Eventually, when walking passed the female toilets, my gut feeling told me to check behind the door. It was a very unlikely place for a guy to hide in, which is exactly what made it so perfect for hiding. I also sensed that there was someone there, so after making sure that no one saw where I was, I quietly went in and peeked behind the door. Sure enough, there was Ronnie in an almost foetal position in the little corner behind the door that was adjacent to the sink. Kelsey was also there, somehow tucked into what little space she could find. I quietly laughed at the two faces smiling up at me, and positioned myself over them and a little over the sink, so as not to disturb the door. One by one, though very slowly, the others found us. At one point I heard Alex say “I don’t see Aradhna anymore, she must have found him”. It was really difficult to not laugh; we tried our best to be silent, especially when another seeker was just outside the door. Eventually all but one were completely squashed in this little corner behind a door. Getting out of it was a relief for all of us. Poor Ronnie, I don’t know how he found an air pocket with the 8 or 9 of us practically on top of him.

We were actually chased outside by the staff after our shenanigans inside, but we weren’t done yet. This was our day of feeling like kids, and we weren’t about to give it up so easily. Besides, it was only about 11pm – way too early for us now. We then decided to take our game outside, in the pitch darkness, in a garden we had only seen for a few minutes, if even.

We surveyed the area to see what we could make of it, and decided that we couldn’t play reverse hide and seek any more because of the layout of the garden. The only place we could hide in was the area that was directly in front of the castle. It was pretty much oval in shape, with a tall hedge on the left, 2 or 3 very large, old trees, and a handful of white statues dotted around. The right and back side of the garden had a short, white fence which separated the garden from a small embankment. The problem was that we couldn’t really see the back of the garden. I was wearing a white top, which really wasn’t going to help when it came to hiding in the dark.

We agreed on a particular tree as being the “den”, and the single seeker would be given the torch that someone happened to have. Why they brought a torch on a European trip, God knows, but I’m glad they did.

The seeker, who I think was Travis first, looked towards the castle as the rest of us ran into the garden to try to find a suitable place to hide. Since I was wearing a white top, I thought it would be a bright idea to hide behind one of the statues and make my way forward towards the tree from there. I managed to inch my way forward, but it wasn’t too long before Travis caught me. He had a pretty quick eye, considering the fact that we couldn’t really see much.

I think there were only about 2 people who had made it safely without Travis seeing them. It was very exciting to watch, but not as exciting as when Tracy was the seeker. Shauna and I ran right to the back of the garden, and hide on the embankment on the other side of the little fence. There was no way we could be seen. It was simply too far, too dark, and we were below ground level. Shauna got over the fence and went forward, but I decided that I wasn’t going to go head first, but rather on the outer side of the hedge, knowing that I’d be walking along the road we had driven over when we arrived at the castle on the bus earlier.

Looking behind me, I was actually pretty petrified. I saw a house of some sort, but couldn’t quite make out whether there were people in it or not. It looked cold and grey, and I couldn’t see anything beyond it. On my left side was the hedge, and on the right was a very high bank with trees that came all the way down it. It was like I had a forest on my right. Because I was out of hearing range, I walked at a normal pace towards Tracy who was on the other side of the hedge. But it was so deadly quiet, that I didn’t waste much time in slowing down to the point where I was actually at a creeping pace. The gravel road certainly didn’t muffle my footsteps, so I had to be extra careful with every step I took.

As I inched closer, Tracy’s voice grew louder. Her comments were hilarious, and more so when she heard a crack, which was actually me stepping on a twig on the gravel, and thought that it was someone “hiding in the bloody tree”. I had to quickly cover my mouth to stop myself from bursting into audible laughter. Eventually, I got all the way round the hedge to where the people who had been caught were standing, as well as Ally, Paul and the twins who were now spectators. Ally saw me and smiled, and I put my finger over my mouth to indicate that she should be quiet.

After what seems like hours, I got to the edge of the hedge where I could see Tracy once again. I was also trying to see if there were any obstacles that might prevent me from making a final sprint and lunge at the tree (it was barely 3m away). Even though I tried my best, I still tripped on something that was loud enough to alert Tracy and she got to the tree before I could. All that effort was in vain.

Travis was still nowhere to be seen though, but it wasn’t long after I was caught that we heard a thump – Travis was on the other side of the fence too, only much closer than we thought. He tried jumping over the fence but landed flat on his stomach. Lying still didn’t work for him because we all heard it. I don’t know which was funnier – seeing him lying flat hoping we didn’t see him, or Tracy’s comments when she did.

Ronnie was the last seeker, and I did my round-the-hedge tactic yet again. This time it had worked. I think Kelsey was the one who should get a back on the back for her stealth skills though. Ronnie, who hardly left the tree, made it extremely difficult for anyone to get to it before he did. A few of us saw Kelsey moving without Ronnie seeing, so it was really a game of suspense. I think he eventually caught her in the end, but she definitely lasted the longest.

After that third round of garden hide and seek, we decided to call it a night. It was certainly the most fun night I had had on tour to date, and I wished we could continue the next day, but I knew a day like that would probably never happen again.

Sad, I walked back to my room where Alex was already asleep. The walk there was rather creepy because of the pitch black corridor. Thankfully I found a switch but even though I had turned the lights on, they had automatically switched off by the time I had unlocked the room door. Creepy.

I had difficulty sleeping that night, not only because of the thoughts of what had transpired that day, but because of the sheer heat. That place could really use an aircon! There was one more good thing that could come from sleeping though: I’d was going to be in Paris the next day.

Trip to Europe: Day 14 – Nice, The French Riviera

17 June 2012. This day was going to be our chill day. Most of the people planned to spend it on the beach, but I wanted to see the place. I actually had no plans on what to do or where to go, and took my time waking up (for a change) and getting dressed. As long as I was on time for breakfast, I knew I’d be good. Besides, the chances of me meeting my fellow tour people in the breakfast area was very high.

After breakfast I went back to the room to get my bag, and met with Alex who had decided that she was going to use her day to chill on the beach. Before I could go I took more advantage of the free WiFi and caught up with some Facebook and Whatsapp. I love Europe for offering free WiFi in such a large number of places.

I met up with Felicia, Shauna and Kelsey, the 3 Australian girls that came together, at reception, along with Alli, Paul and Driver Steve. Rachel and Adam were also there and Rachel made it clear that she had no intention of swimming that day as she didn’t like to. I thought that was odd for an Australian, but was amused by it more because of the way she said it rather than the strangeness of it. Guess I unintentionally stereotyped there. Sorry, Rach!

We spoke a little with Driver Steve and asked him what there was to do in the area, and he suggested us meeting at the Parc du Chateau for a picnic lunch. That sounded great to all of us, especially since it was a Sunday, and we agreed to meet back at the hotel at about 1:30pm so that we could all leave together.

I didn’t know what I was really gonna do, so I left the hotel with Kelsey, Shauna and Felicia and we decided to walk along the promenade and see what was happening. It was such a beautiful day, and I remembered Steve saying the previous night that Nice gets 360 days of sun a year, so the chances of the weather turning bad was extremely unlikely.

What a gorgeous day it was, and it was evident the moment we stepped out of the hotel. We walked for barely 2 minutes and there was Port de Nice where all the yachts were docked.

Port de Nice

The girls and I were marvelling at the beauty of the place. It was almost surreal. Since we were at the start of the promenade, we already saw some people jogging and cycling, and I thought to myself that they were so lucky to have a lifestyle such as that. What a beautiful place to go for a run, and at the same time, to call it home.

The promenade

We stopped occasionally to take photos and it was not long at all before we got a close-up view of the ocean. I had never seen the Mediterranean before, and then I knew exactly what my mother had constantly gone on about. Mediterranean blue….wow.

After about 25 minutes of walking, while constantly looking at what people were getting up to on the beach, we spotted a significant number of people from our group. They were clearly enjoying themselves, but we were wondering why they appeared to be “falling” while in the water. It didn’t take us long to realise that the beaches are not made of sand, but rather pebbles. So obviously if you’re in the water standing on pebbles, its not stable. It was funny watching them trying to find their footing.

Frolicking in the Mediterranean

Shauna, Felicia and Kelsey wanted to swim but not just yet, so we left the group and continued walking for a bit. We walked quite far along the promenade before coming to a whole lot of umbrellas and deck chairs. We saw a sign advertising for a chair, towel, and umbrella for €14. That was pretty steep, I thought. Even if it was for an entire day, how many people actually spend an entire day lying on the beach that makes €14 worth it? French Riviera prices, I guess. For the girls, however, that price wasn’t that bad since (at the time) the Australian Dollar was almost equivalent to the Euro. I don’t remember if they decided to opt for that, but I think that was about the time I decided to head off on my own.

I still had no idea how to pass my time, so I continued walking for a bit, until I saw it: a hop-on-hop-off bus. The last thing I wanted to do was be a typical tourist and get on a bus like that. However, in this case, since I couldn’t make a better decision on my own and I didn’t know Nice well enough (or rather, at all) to know where to go and what to see, I swallowed my pride and approached the bus after studying the pricing that was marked on its side. At €20, it seemed like an okay price considering you could hop on and off as often as you liked. And for the French Riviera, you just have to suck it up really.

As I got closer, I observed as much of the bus as I could to see if there was a fair number of people on it already. But the closer I got, the less I cared, and eventually I was at the door. There were 2 guys there, the driver, and another rather good-looking guy chatting to him. He made way for me to pass, and I paid the driver the money. The good-looking guy winked at me as he gave me an audio device with a headset and told me to “enjoy”. I grinned and ascended the short staircase so that I could sit on the top, open deck.

There were 2 old couples sitting there, and a youngish guy probably in his late 30s. I greeted everyone as I walked passed them, and sat near the back. I noticed on the side of the bus, just below the railing, was a sort of guide showing which channel to tune in to on the audio device depending on the language of your choice – English, French, German, Chinese, Japanese, Italian or Dutch. After fidgeting a bit with my audio device, curios to see what the other channels would sound like, I set it back to English just as the driver started driving.

I’ll never forget what a glorious day it was, and I couldn’t help but feel a little jealous of the residents of this place that belonged on a postcard.

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I continued to take in everything around me, and took a fair number of photos. At times I was reminded of Cape Town and I actually felt quite proud that we have a place almost equally as beautiful as Nice back home.

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I saw some rather odd architecture as we drove around, and I figured that it was probably the entrance to some museum or something. But there was no indication that that was the case. Then again, its not like I can understand French other than the odd word or two. So unless I saw the word musée, I wouldn’t have known what it was for.

Strange structure in Nice

There were a fair number of people on the bus by now, as some people joined us along the way. There were more that joined than left, but as the journey progressed, more and more people hopped off the bus.

I still had no idea where to go and I just stayed on the bus, enjoying my time basking in the wonderful sun and breathing in the clean, refreshing air. I hardly listened to the guide, and was more in my own world just absorbing the sights around me. I didn’t want the bus ride to end, and the thought of threatening the driver to carry on driving around the entire French Riviera crossed my mind. I remember grinning to myself.

The bus journey was a generous 3 hours long, which I was quite impressed by. Even though I didn’t actually hop on and off at all, I thought it was €20 well spent. Not only did I see breathtaking views of the Mediterranean, but I also got a glimpse into people’s everyday lives there. A simple thing like people watching as they waited at a robot (sorry, we South Africans refer to traffic lights as “robots”) or crossed the road was so fascinating, and I looked at it as though I had never seen it before. When you go to a new place, I think its best to look at everyday things you’ve even seen before with a fresh pair of eyes. We take a lot of things for granted, but I should tell you that its equally satisfying to see the way other people do things. Most times you’ll find that they do those things the same way as you do. In other instances, it may be the total opposite.

Something that Steve said to us that I’ll never forget was “Its not wrong, its just different”. That is something very important to keep in mind when travelling and especially when tasting the foods of other cultures. You can’t expect the way you do things to be the same globally. That’s what makes the world so diverse, doesn’t it? It would be so boring if everyone did everything the same way.

When the bus stopped a couple hundred metres from where it had started, my only option was to jump off. Since it was only midday, I had some time to kill. I knew I had quite a walk to get back to the hotel to meet the group for the picnic up at the Chateau, so I didn’t want to waste too much time. With this in mind, I walked in the direction of the hotel, which was back east (so the ocean was on my right). I thought of taking one of the side roads and get lost a bit. I have a decent sense of direction so I knew that as long as I knew where I was in relation to the ocean, I wouldn’t get lost.

I walked for about 5 minutes when I came across a little shop on the side of the road, and went in to get a bottle of water. It was actually like a little cafe as it had a few small tables here and there, and there were a few people relaxing with their coffee and newspaper. I walked in and greeted a friendly-looking woman at the counter. I guess she was more friendly because I said “bonjour” and not “hello”. It helps to greet locals in their own language as a sign of respect; they usually treat you better when you do. I had no idea if the proper French word for water is “aqua” or not, but that’s what I asked for and she pointed to it and said “oui”. I paid her about €3 for it and nodded as I said “merci”. It helps knowing those few essential French  words. Its all you need, really.

After leaving the shop I continued heading east and I think I hit the jackpot with the turn that I took off the main road, as I stumbled upon a market. It was just what I needed because I was feeling a little peckish, so I knew I’d get something to nibble on. In fact, it wasn’t the real reason I was happy to see it. I mean, look at this place.

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The aromas of the stalls were beautiful, and it started with the scented soap shop that is visible in the photo above. You’d expect the smells to be overwhelming in a place like this with so many things to offer, but it was pleasant everywhere I walked.

The smell I enjoyed the most was when I got to the olive stand. I love olives, so it really was a feast for my nose. I knew that as much as I love olives, it would be pointless me buying some when there was so much of my holiday still to go. I thought it would be more practical to get something that I could eat immediately.  I wandered around lazily, people watching in the process, until I finally came to the cherries stand. I had eaten awesome cherries in Amsterdam, and I knew that the quality of them in Nice would be equally good. I wasn’t disappointed when I took my first bite, and my energy was renewed.

Around 30 minutes had passed at the market and I chose to continue walking back to the hotel. The reason I bought cherries was mainly for sustenance as we were going to the chateaux for lunch after all, so it would have been silly of me to buy a big lunch.

When I got back to the hotel, there were a few people there, including Driver Steve, and I let him know that he should wait for me. I got to my room as quickly as I could, freshened up (and realised how sunburned I had gotten) and quickly went back to the lobby. Kelsey, Shauna, Felicia, Ally, Paul, Adam, Rachel, Tracy and Travis had gathered together and I was happy that that was the little group I’d be spending the afternoon with.

I knew that the chateaux wasn’t far away, but I had no idea where we’d be getting lunch from. Driver Steve said he knew of a supermarket in town, nearby, that we could go grab some things, We didn’t have much choice but to agree cos we were all hungry and of course, didn’t know the town at all. I hoped that it wasn’t going to be a very far walk because my feet were quite sore from the walking I had just done on the back of the walking I had done the previous night in Monaco with my new leather boots which I’d worn for the first time. As it is, my feet were already sore when I wore those because of all the walking I did in Rome just 2 days before that.

No matter what I was feeling though, my mind was in overdrive and what kept me going was the prospect of seeing new places and people. So at the end of the day, I didn’t care where Driver Steve was taking us.

We walked for about 20-30 minutes through the beautiful town, and I forgot that the reason why the streets were extra quiet was because it was a Sunday. Then I started thinking…are shops open in Nice on a Sunday? My question was soon answered when we got to the entrance of the supermarket. No, they aren’t open on a Sunday. Driver Steve felt so bad cos he had made us walk all that way for nothing, and wasn’t sure what to do. Then a few of us remembered that we had passed a little shop on the way, which was very close to the hotel. It wasn’t a cafe or anything, but rather a tearoom, as we call them in South Africa i.e.  a pokey little shop that sells odd grocery items, snacks and non-alcoholic drinks. I didn’t really look into the shop when we first walked passed it, but I saw enough to gather that it was a tearoom-type place, so I knew there was food there.

Since it was the only place we knew of, we headed back along the same way that we had just come from.  We walked in one-by-one and there was an awkward silence as we looked around. The only people in the shop were a woman and a boy of about 14 who appeared to be her son. We greeted the both of them and gathered quickly that the woman, unlike her son, spoke no English whatsoever. There wasn’t much choice to eat and drink, but there was a little deli with some hot food. Some of the guys got a beer however I chose to get a bottle of water since I knew it would last me much longer. Besides, I still wasn’t a beer drinker (I only had 2 in my whole life, both of which happened in the previous week) and I felt very awkward even considering buying one.

We gathered round the glass that covered the hot food and one by one pointed at what we wanted so that the woman could serve us. I got myself a piece of chicken, a weird-looking omelette and a piece of baklava. It was an odd combination but I thought what the hell, that’s all that was available to eat in any case. When everyone got what they wanted, it was finally time to get to the Chateau.

Steve had told us that the Chateau was actually at the top of a hill (another name for it is actually Castle Hill), and if we wanted to get there we could either walk up the hundreds of stairs, or pay a small fee of around €1 to take the lift. It is a very prominent hill in Nice and it was obvious that we were there when it rose up in front of us. We walked around it for some time, looking for the entrance. We all thought that we were going to find the lift, but Driver Steve had an evil master plan already underway: he was going to make us take the stairs. I think Rachel and I were the least thrilled when we discovered that the stairs that we were climbing just kept going on and on in a zigzag fashion, and there seemed no end in sight.

Now, I am anything but fit, and my feet were already sore, so I felt like I was going to die at one point because my throat became so dry (after passing what I hoped was half way), that a sharp pain developed in my throat. The sips of water I took to try to sooth it didn’t help, and my knees began to feel like jelly. I knew that I wasn’t the last one, and in a weird way it comforted me a bit knowing that Rachel was pretty exhausted too, since she’s half my size!

After what seemed like an eternity, we reached the top. Even though I was in desperate need of an air conditioner and an oxygen mask, the view made it all worth it.

View from the top of Castle Hill

We walked around a little, looking for a spot to sit. The park was beautiful, and there were a number of people having picnics, jogging, and playing games. We needed to find Driver Steve, Travis and Tracy too. I really wondered whether they had downed a couple of cans of Red Bull because when we found them, they were happily strolling about as if they’d been there for ages.

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We finally found a shady place to sit which overlooked the central part of the park. There were some guys, whose nationality I couldn’t quite put my finger on, who were practising some rather odd somersaults. They were clearly athletes or dancers of some sort, and watching them was fascinating. We teased Rachel for the spot that she chose to sit at, which was outside our circle. It seemed like a prime spot to watch the shirtless performers.

Clearly no one can sit cross-legged

Each of us gradually took out our lunches as we spoke about some random things. Travis, who was sitting behind me with his back against a tree, moved his legs around uncomfortably, and the topic of being able to sit cross-legged came about. All of us complained that we cannot sit for long periods with our legs crossed. Its been an issue for me since childhood. Travis said something that I’ll never forget: “I have the flexibility of a rhinoceros”. That made my day.

It was already 4pm by the time we decided to leave. I realised that most of the time had gone climbing all those steps. Then it hit me: we had to go down those very same steps now. When we started the descent, however, it became clear that the stairs we were walking on were different to the ones we had climbed up. I guess it made no difference though, its not like we’d get lost.

Somewhere along the way, Ally, Paul, Adam, Rachel and I got separated from the others; but there were so many of us that it didn’t bother us, especially because we knew that the others also have each other. We stopped here and there to take in some of the views, and I was constantly relieved that we were going down and not up. The stairs were uneven and rather steep at times so we had to watch our footing, but at least we were in the shade because there is so much greenery along the staircase.

View from the top of Castle HillWhen we got to the bottom, the others were as clueless of what to do as I was. Adam and Paul wanted to swim though, so we decided to take a stroll along the promenade until we found a spot where Rachel and I could sit, since Ally decided that she’d like to swim too. I really enjoyed the walk I had done earlier that day, and it was nice doing it again with some company. It was absolutely hot though, and Ally realised that I was wearing jeans and asked how I was managing, but I told her that it was actually planned because I knew how hot it would be and it would prevent at least my legs from being sun burned.

We walked for a while, and eventually got to what looked like a restaurant type of place, if you can call it that. There were a lot of tables, chairs, and umbrellas, and it was the perfect place for us to relax and rest in the shade. The only thing was that people are only allowed in there if they purchase something from there. We thought ah what the heck, a drink is a small price to pay for being able to sit in comfort and enjoy the wonderful sea air.

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Adam had taken his shirt off by then (while we were still walking down from the Chateau actually), and when we found a table, him and Paul went inside to order a drink. Ally went to put on her bathing suit, I think, while Rachel and I sat down in the covered area. We knew that the guys were ordering something, so when the waiter came to us, we told him that we were with the guys and he didn’t need to take a separate order from us. He asked “Which guy, the naked one?”. We were very amused and were smiling at Adam when he joined us again.

When they came back to us we thought it was actually silly of us to sit in the covered area because we couldn’t see much, so we moved closer to the water in an equally shaded spot. The guys had their beers and Ally went with the both of them to take a dip. I don’t recall if Rachel had something to drink, but I didn’t, purely because I knew how expensive everything would be. However, I had to have something, and when the waiter handed us a menu which had ice cream on it, I just couldn’t refuse. Even though it was €9 on average for all the ice creams on the menu, I chose one. I am an ice cream queen, after all, and sometimes when you travel you have to forget about what some things cost in order to not regret it later. The last thing I wanted was to regret not having that ice cream on the beach, so I ordered the one with 3 scoops – chocolate, mint, and vanilla. Rachel ordered something with more vanilla than anything else, if I remember correctly. Hers looked just as good as mine.

While we were on the topic of cost, I explained to Rachel how bad the exchange rate was for us South Africans. The price that I paid for the ice cream was actually ridiculous. You pay less for a tub of Haagen Daz, and I’m pretty sure the ice cream I was eating there wasn’t that.

Once the trio got back from their swim, they looked so happy and refreshed. Ally had put on her dress on top of her bathing suit, and she sat down with it on. So when we were walking back to the hotel, we made fun of the damp impression it left on her “chair area”. Adam had also gotten Paul to draw a smiley face on his back with the sun tan lotion while we were descending the chateau, so by now, he had a red smiley face burned onto his back. Crazy guy.

Walking with my 4 new friends felt liberating, and really good. I had actually grown quite fond of them and their crazy but simple nature. They’re genuinely good-hearted people, and I couldn’t imagine spending the afternoon with anyone else.

When we got back to the hotel, we were exhausted. A lot of the people were going to Wayne’s Bar afterwards, but I had no interest and chose to stay in the hotel chatting with the few people who didn’t go. I don’t think I ate supper that night, but I wasn’t really hungry. I went to bed rather early, more concerned about resting my feet after all that walking than anything else. I closed my eyes thinking of the day that had just passed – the beautiful weather, the people, the green Parc Du Chateau, and of course, the blue Mediterranean. It dawned on me that now that we had just finished our first destination in France, it was only downhill from there in terms of the time left on tour. France was the last country we’d be visiting. It was time to make every last minute count and have as much fun with the people I was with as I possibly could.

Trip to Europe: Day 13 – Pisa and Monaco

16 June 2012. I was super excited for the drive as I’d finally be seeing the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the French Riviera, and, most importantly, Monaco. They were 3 things that my mother had spoken of for years, and I couldn’t believe that I’d finally be seeing them in person.

We left pretty late compared to usual – at about 9. We had quite a long drive to go, at least until we got to Nice. Pisa isn’t far from Florence at all, and we reached there around 10:30am.

Pisa is a sleepy little town that seems to be hidden away from civilisation. I don’t think we saw the actual town centre at all, because we just got there, parked, and had to walk for about 15 minutes along a quiet, dusty road through a little residential area until we got to a flea market type place that was the entrance to the Leaning Tower. The flea market area was on either side of the road, and again, there were so many Indian men selling stuff. They’re everywhere! We walked through them until we got to a large white arch built into a high brick wall that marked the entrance of the area where the tower was. The wall seemed to

We had to wait a little while as Steve organised our tickets. I have no idea how much it cost because it was part of our tour. In the meantime we loitered in the vicinity. I was feeling a little peckish and since it was our last stop in Italy, only one thing lingered on my mind: gelato. I knew we’d get time to grab a  bite later so I quickly cast it out of my mind and waited a few more moments for Steve. It wasn’t long before he appeared and we followed him through the white arch and into the wide open area where the Leaning Tower sat.

Whenever I saw the Leaning Tower in pictures, I always thought it was alone, wherever it stood. I don’t know how I missed the other large, round building next to it. Perhaps I didn’t take as much notice of it because it wasn’t the Leaning Tower.

It was really funny seeing all the tourists trying to do the typical pose of appearing to hold up the tower. I knew I had to get one of myself taken in that position, too, as cheesy as it was. Its just one of those things you have to do. I waited a little for Renae and Ronnie to take their photos before I asked Renae to take the photo of me. The first couple were good, but I also wanted to take one where I was doing something stupid, like “kicking” the tower over. Needless to say, that photo was a total and utter disaster. So  I ended up choosing this one as my favourite:

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

We didn’t have much time to linger around the area (an hour from the time we entered through the white arch), so I decided to was time to go and get a bite to eat. My group was scattered all over the place but I could see some of them trying some strange things when taking photos. Jye, probably the youngest person on the tour, was trying to do a handstand with his legs apart as 2 girls (Coralie and Kiara?) held his feet, but he struggled getting the timing right as so many other tourists kept walking passed and disrupting his efforts. I’m not sure how that photo eventually turned out, but I think he got the result he wanted, in the end.

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to eat and I knew I couldn’t have just gelato for lunch, so I ended up going with a slice of pizza since it was also the last time I’d get to have real Italian pizza. I hung out a little with Elliot, Tijana and a couple other people, who were also eating. When I was done, I knew I had to rush to get some gelato. Some people had already gotten theirs. Obviously, I didn’t regret it. I was still eating my gelato when it was time to go. I took one long last look at the tower before following Steve back to the bus.

I was looking forward to the drive because I knew we’d be going along the coast, and I had an advantage because we were behind Driver Steve, as usual, on the left side of the bus i.e.: the side that the ocean would be on. It was such a beautiful day and we were about to enter the sunny French Riviera that hugs the Mediterranean. I couldn’t sleep, and was enjoying the open road in front of me. I decided to sit myself down on the step between Steve and Driver Steve, so that I could enjoy the view that they were seeing.

We made a service stop after about 2 hours, before making the final stretch to Nice, which we reached around 5 pm. After arriving at the Kyriad Hotel, we had a little time to fetch our keys and get changed for dinner in Monaco. There was real excitement in the air. I couldn’t wait to go to Monaco, even though I was already battling to walk in the new leather boots that I had bought in Florence.

We had a little less than an hour’s drive to Monaco, most of which appeared to be uphill. We were actually going back east, the direction from which we had come from earlier when travelling from Pisa. As we got higher, we got glimpses of the French Riviera in between the trees and rocks. We really were high up.

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When we were almost there, Steve was up to his old tricks again of making us look like complete idiots. He had told us before arriving in Nice that when we go to Monaco, we must take our passports with us because we may need them, so of course, not wanting to get into any trouble, all of us made sure we had ours.

Steve said that Monaco has a very sophisticated border control. Monaco is its own independent state, so I guess we thought of treating it like Switzerland (at least, I did) since Switzerland also has its own border control unlike the rest of Europe.

When we were about 10 minutes away, he asked us all to get our passports out, and explained how border control was going to work. According to genius Steve, all we had to do was hold our passports against the window, and the hidden cameras (that should have been the warning light) on either side of the border entrance would take the photo of our passports. All of us were skeptical, naturally, but after he made such a big deal of it, and when we saw him taking out his own passport, we all finally did it since it was our passports and we didn’t want to risk getting into trouble. The whole time I watched Driver Steve though, and he was just merrily driving without bothering to take his out, which confirmed my suspicion that something wasn’t right. I also closely watched the interaction between Steve and Driver Steve, but didn’t really see any kind of grinning or mischief.

As we approached the corner that supposedly had the cameras, Steve shouted “Now! Now!”, and off went the whole busload of dumbasses holding their passports against the window. Steve was in stitches, and gave us this “You’re all bloody idiots” look. I’ve never seen that many people look as stupid as they felt. I’m sure some people wanted to smack him. It was definitely well played though – that he managed to con so many people in one go. Never again, Steve!

Within minutes of passing the “border”, we started to see all the expensive cars – Ferraris, Aston Martins, Bugatti Veyrons. Monaco was already exactly what I had heard it was like. We went through some narrow, winding, spotlessly clean roads with beautiful, well-maintained buildings. It was like a scene from a movie. I was in awe. Its so small that I forget that we were specifically in Monte Carlo.

The first thing on our itinerary for Monte Carlo was dinner, so Driver Steve took us as close as he could, which was an undercover parking lot. We could either take the lift or the escalator up. I chose the lift, since I was one of the first people to get to it. When the lift opened, we just a had a few metres walk before we were outside.

I was dying in my shoes because it was the first day I was wearing them and they needed to be broken in to. My slightly swollen feet from my galavanting in Rome didn’t help ease the pain, either. It got worse when we had to walk uphill. I ignored the pain a little when we approached the Monaco Cathedral, the church in which Princess Grace got married. It was beautiful and serene, but we couldn’t stop and really admire it as we had to go to dinner.

We walked another agonizing 150m or so through a narrow street until we got to the restaurant. While we were waiting outside, I was looking around and to the right of the restaurant, a little further down the road, stood the unmistakable Royal Palace. I began to get jumpy and was confused as to whether to go there immediately or wait until I got a table. I decided to wait for the table instead, since the palace wasn’t going to be going anywhere.

I got a table with Seeta, Shelley, Chloe, and two of the American girls Emily and Jenny, right next to the window. There were 2 levels, and the restaurant was quite small so it was a little bit of a squeeze. I guess the restaurant had to be patriotic towards the small country that it was in in some way!

Outside the Royal Palace, Monaco

Each of us had 4 glasses in front of us, and the first thing that was given to us was some champagne, which was delightful. Before we could really finish it, we were given a choice of red or white wine. I was never much of a wine drinker before this trip, but by this point I had had so much that I knew that I preferred white over red, unless it was rosé, which technically isn’t red wine (I don’t think). To make sure, I tasted the red, and it just confirmed my dislike for it. Too bitter for my liking! I decided to savour the champagne.

We had a choice of a few dishes, and at least 3 of the girls at my table went for the salmon. I chose the chicken. After our entree and main, some of us decided to go outside to see the Royal Palace and take some photos. On my way there, I passed a little souvenir shop and I knew I just had to stop by there before leaving to get some sort of souvenir. I had made a pledge to get at least one thing from every place I went to, so I kept that shop at the back of my mind.

When I came out of the narrow street, the palazzo, if you can call it that, opened up in front of me. What struck me was that even though this w__utma=214977736.2006115678.13622C there were no security guards arounds. Neither was there a tall fence. It was all open, and it looked as if you could go as close as you wanted to. I got Renae to take some photos of me (since Travis, my new designated photographer, wasn’t around).

Dessert could wait a bit, so I went to the right of the palace where there was a balcony. In the middle stood a few piles of canon balls, and an old canon. The view from there was breathtaking. Elliot stood on top of the canon balls to take the photo – his balancing act caused some amusement.

The view of the yacht club, Monte Carlo

After taking a few group photos with the girls, everyone went back to get dessert. I first stopped at the little shop I had seen a few minutes before to see what I could get, and found the perfect little souvenir that represented Monaco so well. It even had a little red Ferrari on it.

After dessert, we had to walk back down the hill we had come up earlier to the undercover parking lot to where the bus was parked. I have never felt that much pain in my feet before, and I think it only made the swelling worse. I thought I wasn’t going to make it to the bus without being forced to take off my boots, but I pushed myself forward until I finally reached it. I was so relieved after sitting down.

Our next stop was the casino, and it was not long before we got close enough to jump off the bus. The problem was that there aren’t any (legal) places for a bus to stop, at least, after a certain time, and there were cops around, so Driver Steve took a big risk by stopping where he did. He only did it because all the girls had heels on and he knew that a lot of us were in pain, so he wanted to minimise our walking distance as much as possible. What a sweet guy.

We disembarked as quickly as possible because there were cops very close by, and they could see everything. We practically ran into the park next to the Tourism building, even though trying to remain hidden was a futile effort. Some of us stayed and watched as the cops went up to Driver Steve to reprimand him for his stop, and we got quite worried about it and hoped he wouldn’t be getting arrested or something, but thankfully, all was ok. After our few minutes of anxious waiting, Steve joined us and lead us to the casino. It was a relief to hear that Driver Steve was ok and that he’d be joining us soon.

The cars outside the Monte Carlo casino

The casino was a grand building and the path leading down to it had 2 large fountains in the centre. Everything was so well lit and beautiful, everywhere I looked. The fountains added to the grandeur of the place, and the closer we got, the more stylish the people seemed to become, and the more expensive cars we saw. All the men entering the casino were in black suits, and many were young guys between 18 and 26 or so. Steve told the girls that if they want to find a rich husband, the casino was the place to go! I had no interest though, and didn’t want to spend €10 just to go inside (I definitely wasn’t going to gamble) when my time in Monaco was limited as it is.

Rachel, Alli and I separated from everyone and decided to walk around the area. Steve told us where the bus was going to be so we headed in that general direction so that we wouldn’t have to walk too much. I couldn’t, anyway.

We walked alongside the casino towards the waterfront, taking in the sights and the richness of the place. When we got  to the “bottom”, we were next to the long staircase that lead up to Buddha Bar, which was clearly an exclusive hot spot. On our left, however, was the famous Grand Prix bend.

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As we walked alongside it, we saw so many expensive cars going passed, but we didn’t linger. We carried on walking further down to where there appeared to be some sort of club. It was strange that no one was there though so it wasn’t 100% clear that it even was a club.  Also, the entrance was below ground level.

We came to a long walkway that allowed one to have a spectacular  180° view of Monaco and the waterfront. My feet were killing me by then, but I tried my best to forget it, though I did mention it to Alli once or twice. There was a very long staircase next to that walkway which would take you all the way down to the waterfront. Rachel decided she wanted to go down, but Alli and I thought about the walk back up, so we didn’t go. Alli and I spoke while waiting for Rachel to get back.

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When she did get back, we went back to the Grand Prix bend and sat down on the little wall outside Fairmont Monte Carlo, a rather lavish-looking hotel with multiple Ferraris parked outside it. Some of the other girls had also come down there and chose the same wall to rest on.

We sat not to people-watch, but to car-watch. I’ve never seen that many luxury vehicles in such a short span of time. We sat there for at least 15-20 minutes, and in that time I saw at least 5 Ferraris, 4 Bugatti Veyrons, 5-6 Aston Martins, top-of-the-range Mercedes Benzes, and a good number of Jaguars and Porsches. In fact, Mercedes Benz seems to be the poor man’s car in Monte Carlo, and so is a Porsche. There’s just too many of them. Must be for those poor souls who earn less than €1m a year.

The Monaco Grand Prix bend

We saw a lot of our group along the staircase of Buddha Bar, and some of them told us to come there, but we knew it would be pointless since we’d be coming back to that exact spot; so we waited for them instead.

Finally, we saw Steve leading them down to where we were. Once they caught up with us, we had to go down that tremendously long staircase that Alli, Rachel and I had seen earlier. Thankfully, it wasn’t too long a walk to the bus. My feet were pretty dead by then, though. It was time to say goodbye to Monaco.

Even though Paris was still on the way, I felt fulfilled that I had seen one of the places that I always wanted to see. Its too bad I couldn’t have tea with Prince Albert as my mother did with Princess Grace, but hey, being that close to the Royal Palace was good enough.

I’m sure my feet thanked me when I took those boots off and went to bed.