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.

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2013: What a year

Its been a while since I blogged, I know. Thing is, its difficult spending 8 hours on each post I did about my Contiki tour last year; no I am not finished with that! I actually have about 6 days to write about (3 Contiki + 4 in London which I still don’t have all the photos for). But I’ll get to that as soon as I find enough time.

So, back to the point of this post. What has happened this year? Well, there were at least 2 lists that I remember creating this year: my 2013 To-Do List as well as the Places (I want) to Visit and Why list. I set out to do as many of the items on those lists that I possibly could, but travelling was certainly not one of them.

I bought my first house at the end of 2012 and by March this year I had moved in. There are a lot of things I still need to do like decorating etc., but its a long process and I have many things still left to do. The house was quite a set back for me but I managed to not go broke in the coming months. The one thing that was always on my mind though was the pile of things I wanted to do this year. I didn’t know in what order I’d do them but I looked for every opportunity to be able to cross off something from that list.

The year is practically at and end now, so here’s some stuff that I can tick off:

1. I redid some of my kitchen at home. It wasn’t practical for me to strip the whole thing down and redo it from scratch, so I had the counter tops replaced and an extra section added in.

2. I met up with 2 people that I hadn’t seen for 10 years. Both were high school friends – one of which I hadn’t seen for 11 years.

3. Gyming 3 times a week which was an on and off thing, but I’m proud to say that it happened more often than not.

4. I planned on attending a rugby match but that didn’t happen. I did attend a cricket match in its place though.

5. I saw several sunrises this year.

There were several things that I didn’t get to do such as the below:

  • Visit Cape Town
  • Watch a play
  • Feed a dolphin
  • Drive an Aston Martin
  • Finish at least 7 books
  • Do charity work
  • Pet a tiger
  • Fly in a helicopter
  • Ride in a hot air balloon
  • Eat sugarcane
  • Do a canopy tour

I am not disappointed that I didn’t get a chance to do these things. Why? Because I went to Switzerland. It was the quickest trip decision I have ever made all thanks to my relative, Dhamari, who lives just outside of Geneva in the town of Nyon. Within barely 5 minutes of her offering for me to stay at her place, I made up my mind to go. I’d never make such a quick decision for anywhere else. Its the only place I’d drop everything for and that’s exactly what I did.

It doesn’t matter to me that I didn’t get to do the other things that I set out to do this year because

1. I crossed out 2 places from my bucket list – Zurich and the CERN headquarters in Geneva.

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2. I went from never seeing snow in my life to going to the top of Europe: Mont Blanc.

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3. I saw my first glacier, Mer de Glace, a short mountain train trip away from Chamonix, France.

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4. I met my German penpal Melanie for the first time after we first started writing to each other in 1998. 15 years ago!

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5. I went to Heidelberg, the biggest town I’d ever been to in Germany.

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So, the moral of the story is that you should set goals that you know you can achieve comfortably if you put the effort in to it, and who knows, you might surprise yourself by doing something even bigger and better. I did not expect to cross off of any bucket list items this year, let alone two, but I did.

One thing I now know for sure is that dreams do come true. Dream them, and they’ll happen when they’re supposed to.

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.

Trip to Europe: Day 3 (part 1) – English Channel

6 June 2012. This was the day that my Contiki tour was going to start. We were told to meet in the lobby at 7am, so Tiffany and I did our best to be ready on time. We were also told that we had to have our bags weighed and that it cannot be more than 20kgs. Mine was already 20.2kgs, so technically I already failed. With the commotion of 49 other people (excluding Tiffany), it was actually easy to just not get our bags weighed. So of course, we didn’t. Who wants trouble like that before the trip has even started.

We casually made our way to the car park where the bus was to arrive. We began scouting around the place to see who was in our group. Some people were really quiet and standing by themselves, and the only couple I noticed was a Chinese girl and a guy that looked Indian. There were also a pair of twins, who were quite good looking, but too short – at least, for me, cos I’m taller than most girls my age…in South Africa at least. Here, however, I felt a little short because a handful of girls were really tall. Not abnormally tall of course, but at least 4-5cm taller than I am.

Anyway, after getting having our bags loaded, Tiffany and I found seats next to each other in the second row from the front, on the right hand side behind Tour Manager Steve. I say Tour Manager Steve because the bus driver’s name was also Steve, so we called him Driver Steve.

After a brief introduction by TM Steve, we were told about the plans ahead, and how paying for optional extras would work. We had about a 2.5 hour drive to Dover, where we were scheduled to catch the 11am ferry. He also told us about how punctual everyone has to be since Contiki runs on a tight schedule and how unfair it would be for so many people to wait for one person. Fair enough. We were all made extremely paranoid though as we were warned that we would be left behind and would have to find our own way back if we delayed others.

When we finally reached Dover, we had arrived a little early and so had to wait in quite a queue to board the ferry. Another Contiki bus had parked in front of us and we noticed that they were leaking oil. Both Steve’s got out the bus to assist, but eventually everyone decided that they could not proceed in that bus and had to request another one. Poor people, don’t know whatever happened with that.

Once we parked on the ferry, which was absolutely massive, we could go upstairs and kill some time. By then, we were starving. I had not had my morning coffee or anything, so when I came across a little shop that sold hot drinks, cakes and sandwiches, I was really happy. Then, I saw that they had a special for around €3 where you could get a slice of cake with any coffee. Woohoo! Cappuccino and carrot cake it is! And wasn’t it marvellous. What a big slice, and absolutely delicious. Tiffany went for a sandwich, but I can’t remember which.

After we had eaten, we decided to walk around for a bit and go see the White Cliffs. We made our way to the deck where it was freezing and windy as hell. Over there, we got to take some pictures of the cliffs and coincidentally we bumped into Mpho again. Even though they had left the hotel an hour before us, we were on the same ferry! Poor her. What a waste, she could have slept an hour longer had they let her! We also met a strange girl who we thought was a guy, and who could not get her cigarette lit because of the wind. The lighter stood no chance. After getting our hair well tangled and our faces sprayed with sea water, it was time to head back inside and make ourselves look more civilised before the end of the Channel crossing to Calais.

While we were almost at Calais, it was amazing to see what I thought was the shadow of clouds on the water, but what was actually a shoal of fish. Several actually. It was a massive grey area in the water and it was quite something seeing the entire thing change shape so quickly, and then merge with another. I had some time to admire the view of the French coast and enjoy the sea breeze from an area more sheltered than the upper deck before the announcement was made for us to head back to the exits in order to board our coach again.

 

 

The ferry was extremely busy, so it took a while to wait in the line for the loo (its a worldwide problem that there’s never enough toilets for the ladies because there’s always queue) and eventually head down to the bus. We did not have to wait long at all before Steve started up the bus and we found ourselves in France.

 

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.