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 12 – Florence

15 June 2012. I think this was the day when our group became closer. That morning, I could sense a different vibe with everyone. Spending everyday with each other had started to become like a normal thing for us, and I felt like everyone was much more comfortable with each other. It was also the day that we’d get our group photo taken.

I was eager to go back to Florence and there were only 3 things I was interested in: gelato, leather boots, and seeing Michelangelo’s David (again). Florence is the leather capital of the world, and the last time I was there, I got myself a wallet for €10, which I still use. What could be a better souvenir than something you can use everyday. My goal this time was to get leather boots, and I knew they’d be expensive so I thanked God for my credit card.

I was familiar with the drive from Rome to Florence, and looked out for things I had seen before. I can’t think of one word to describe the Tuscan countryside, but “enchanting” should do the trick. I was last there at the beginning of winter, and I remembered everything being those typical autumn colours of red, orange, brown, yellow, and the occasional green. Everywhere you looked was like a postcard image. This time though, it was much greener, but still as gorgeous.

Upon arriving in Florence, Driver Steve drove straight to the top of a hill that overlooked the whole city so that we could meet the photographer in order to have our group photo taken. We drove up winding roads surrounded by lush greenery, before finally reaching the top. There were many cars and a handful of busses parked there, on a wide open paved area. In the middle of it stood a replica of Michelangelo’s David, though it had turned green. I didn’t bother taking a photo of it because its nothing in comparison to the real one. And really, a green David? Oh hell no.

My eyes popped out in amazement when I stepped closer to the edge, as I marveled at the view of the city. You really could see the entire city, it was fantastic. The Duomo and the bell tower stood out just like the monuments they were meant to be, as well as the tower of Piazza Della Signoria. We had a 180° view. There was only one downside to it: the glare from the sun. It hit us the most when the photographer arrived and we had to face the midday sun in order to look at her. My eyes have always been sensitive so I have difficulty moving around outside without sunglasses on a sunny day. I can’t drive without my sunglasses either. Even though I have this issue, I know I wasn’t the only one struggling to look at the photographer, who was now balancing on a medieval lamp post so that she’d get a shot of us from above. We pleaded with her to let us wear our sunglasses but she insisted that we couldn’t, so we all looked down as she got herself ready and told a few people where to stand. On the count of 3, we all looked up as she clicked, and had to immediately look down again. 2 things are clear from the result: not everyone listened about the no-sunglasses rule, and nearly everyone had to squint their eyes.

Contiki group

After our photo we hopped back on the bus and headed for town. First stop, Leonardo Leather Works. Now, a few days before, we started taking notice of the accessories that Steve wore. One was the Nomination bracelet which had a charm for every country that he’d been to. The other was the Puzzle Ring. We could get both those items from Leonardo. I was pretty convinced that I was going to get the Nomination bracelet, but I wasn’t so sure about the puzzle ring. Even though I’m not too bad with solving puzzles, I felt a little intimidated with the way the puzzle ring worked. Steve could do it with such ease, but it was not without practice.

It wasn’t too long a walk before we got to Piazza Santa Croce, which is of course the piazza right in front of the Santa Croce church. It was not as empty as I remembered it to be. This time of the year was when Calcio Fiorentino, a form of soccer where the players use both their hands and feet, was to be held. We would be missing it by just a few days as there were dozens of people setting up the area and it seemed almost complete. Steve explained that we were to meet in Piazza Santa Croce after our free time, a few hours later.

Leonardo is located in a relatively wide street, and we gathered outside its large black gate which guarded a small courtyard. We walked through the gate and into a large room with an inadequate number of wooden benches to accommodate all of us. Nearly half of us had to remain standing (or had to sit on the floor). The room was very stuffy and we struggled to keep cool. It was not long before a quirky, but good looking man came into the room to give us a demonstration on leather. He also showed us how to tell the difference between real and fake leather. Although I paid attention at the time, I cannot remember a word he said now.

When he was done with the demonstration, we could go into the store and get whatever goodies we wanted. I desperately looked for boots but the selection wasn’t that great, so I figured I’d use my free time to find a specialist shoe store. There had to be a couple in the area. I didn’t want to get a handbag or another wallet, and walked around a little more when I saw some girls from my group looking at the jewelry. At the last moment I decided for sure that I was going to get the Nomination Bracelet.

Travis and Tracy were with me, as they were also interested in getting one. For Travis, at least. We waited patiently (well, reasonably patiently) for the brats from the other Contiki group to stop screaming like school kids and wasting the time of the lady who was to attend to us. She saw us waiting and eventually shooed them away because, from my point of view (and it seemed like hers, too) they were just there to be annoying, not to buy anything. We were genuinely interested and wanted to buy something.

Finally, when the lady got to us, Travis let me go first as he was still deciding on which charms he wanted. I had decided to get 10 flag charms because even though its 6 short of the number of countries I’ve been to, it was a significant number of charms to make the bracelet actually look like it was worth something. Also, the great thing was that we got all the charms tax free, and if you bought 5 then you’d get the bracelet for free. For those who don’t know, you get a plain silver bracelet of charms and you add charms to it, then you just get the excess plain ones removed so that it fits round your wrist.

I had never bothered to check the price of the Nomination charms in South Africa . At least, not as a serious buyer. One day when I did enquire, they were some amount that was so ridiculous to me for one charm that I purposely blocked the price out of my mind, never to speak of it again. Now I know that each flag, in South Africa, costs R350 (say €35 if  I used the then exchange rate of ZAR10 = €1). At Leonardo, they cost €20 each. But, because we got them tax free, I paid only €16, or R160 each. Not that cheap, but in comparison, its a damn bargain. Now I regret not buying those 6 that I’m missing. Anyone feeling generous? I’m missing Austria, Mauritius, Belgium, Monaco, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Don’t be shy!

Florentine gelataria

Travis had been to 22 countries but wanted to get a bracelet with all of them on one, which didn’t work out. I think he did get one in the end, though, even though it didn’t have all the flags. I don’t recall seeing anyone else from my group with one. We were the chosen ones!

Palazzo Vecchio

After we were done shopping, we had a few minutes to ourselves to wander around. I needed to get a gelato as it was our second to last day in Italy, and I was on a mission to get a gelato at every place that we stopped at. From experience, (and I think I mentioned this in my post about Rome), I know that it is foolish to buy anything from a busy, touristy area. Therefore, I walked a couple metres out of Piazza Santa Croce and found a fabulous gelataria. I paid about €3.50 for my ice cream.

When I got my ice cream I went back to Piazza Santa Croce and met up with Steve and a few other people. Steve asked me what I paid for my gelato and I told him, and he seemed impressed when I told him where I had bought it. When CC and Jose met up with us, they told us they paid about  €6 for theirs, as they had bought it somewhere in the middle of the piazza. What a difference!

After some time our guide met us there and handed us our audio guides. Finally, mine worked. One of the first places we stopped at was Piazza Della Signoria. On our way there, he showed us where to refill our water, which was on the side of a building. What was amazing to all of us was that you could get both still and sparkling water at that fountain. Only the Italians.

When I saw the tower (Palazzo Vecchio) in Piazza Della Signoria for the first time on 9 November 2009, I told my mother “that looks like a potential viewpoint for Assassin’s Creed”. Days later, when Assassin’s Creed 2 was released, I was proven right. I knew that the game would be set in Venice, but not that parts of it were set in Florence, too. I was quite chuffed with myself for being such an Assassin’s Creed geek.

The guide showed us the fake statue of David, which we got to see from the back due the way that we entered the piazza. When I had seen the real David, I was in complete awe. My mother had raved about it my whole life and I always admired pictures of it, but nothing prepared me for the real thing. In pictures, you always see it from the front, but when you go to the Akademia, you can walk all around it. I never knew that the sling went down his back, and it made me appreciate other things like the veins on his feet and hands even more. Meticulously carving a perfect figure from a single solid block of marble (not just any – Carrara Marble), making the head larger so that it would appear to be in proportion to the rest of the body since people would be looking up at it…I’d like to see how many people can get that right today! I really wanted to see David again but there wasn’t enough time.

After Piazza Della Signoria, we headed to the Medici Palace. I was excited to see it because, hello, who hasn’t heard of the Medici family? To be honest, I was slightly disappointed with what I saw. There was more significance in “being in the Medici Palace” than “seeing the Medici Palace”. The Fleur de Lis, the symbol of Florence, was all over the place too. Its probably my favourite symbol, so I loved it. Here’s a  fun fact too – Caterina Sforza, the Countess of Forli in the late 1400s, was married to a Medici (Giovanni de’ Medici il Popolano to be exact), and she is in fact the ancestor of Princess Diana (and hence Prince William and Prince Harry).

I didn’t know that after the Medici Palace, we’d be going to Ponte Vecchio. In fact, I had totally forgotten about it. On our way there, we passed some statues of prominent figures such as Niccolo Macchiavelli, Galileo, Amerigo Vespucci, Dante, and of course, Michelangelo. I explained to Renae that Michelangelo is my hero, so I was really happy to see his statue there.

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When I got to Ponte Vecchio, I felt like I was experiencing deja vu. I knew I hadn’t been there before but I still felt like I had. And then, the geek hit me again: Assassin’s Creed 2. I know, how lame am I. But seriously, I only realised where I was because of it. It still amazes me that  a game was made with such fantastic thought and detail that it can transport the mind there and make one recognise a real place. Assassin’s Creed 2 also taught me about the corrupt Borgia family – Rodrigo, a.k.a Pope Alexander VI; Cesare, Rodrigo’s pain-in-the-ass son; and Lucrezia, Cesare’s sister with whom he had an incestuous relationship with. Its fascinating that what we assume is fiction can actually teach you about history that really took place. Dylan, the only South African guy in my group other than Steve, found it quite amusing that I recognised the place from a game. Its true, Dylan!

At some point while on the bridge, we stopped to take photos with the Arno River behind us, but because space was limited, it took a while for everyone to get a photo. Hence, some of us got a little left behind. I saw which direction the tour guide and the majority of the group was going, but there were still at least 12 of us that were left behind. After we were done, we literally ran to catch up with the group. I could see Ally and Paul so I kept my eye on them as I ran. Eventually, we caught up with everyone. We were such typical tourists.

We ended our tour in Piazza Del Duomo, next to the beautiful Santa Maria del Fiore basilica and my second favourite bell tower (my first being the one in St Marks Square in Venice), Giotto’s Campinale. I had taken many pictures before so I didn’t waste my phone’s battery by taking any more. We then had some free time, so some of us chose to go to the Market District, as I figured it would be my best bet with finding my boots. Although, I remembered Steve saying that  you wouldn’t get genuine leather there.

I wandered around a bit with Elliot, Tijana and a couple other people. We stopped at some stores where the girls were going a little crazy, but the only thing on my mind were the shoes that I didn’t find yet. After walking a little more, we got to the market district, where, eventually Elliot and I lost everyone. I walked a few minutes with him before deciding to go off in search of a proper leather shoe shop. After all, even though I liked the company, I was in Florence to get leather boots, and since there wasn’t much time I couldn’t have myself worrying about whether I was alone or not!

I made my way back to the vicinity around Piazza Santa Croce (I had about a 1.5 hours to meet Steve and the group there) and went into a number of shops. I finally found a pair that I liked. They cost me a hefty €95, but they were genuine leather and a dark turquoise blue, which is very unusual. I didn’t want to get a typical brown or black pair, so those were perfect. However, they hurt like hell. Since they were leather, though, I knew I’d wear them in, so it didn’t concern me too much. As long as they weren’t tight. I now  had appropriate shoes for Monaco, too!

I had spent about 45 minutes looking for the shoes and I had no idea what to do with myself for the remainder of the time, so I went to Piazza Santa Croce and decided to look for some other kind of leather souvenir that I could take back with me. I wasn’t too interested though because I had already spent more than enough that day with the Nomination bracelet and the boots! It was not long before I decided that it may be a good idea to rest my feet. They were still sore from the galavanting in Rome, and I knew I still had many hours to go before the day could end. With this in mind, I sat in the shade on the side of Santa Croce church, watching some pigeons. I was pretty tired, and the shade was much needed after being in the blistering sun all day. After a couple of minutes, I spotted Renae walking towards the entrance of the church so I drew her attention to me to check what she was doing. We both decided then to go into the church, since we still had some time left and it didn’t cost much to go inside. Also, I didn’t realise that Michelangelo’s grave was there. I couldn’t miss seeing that.

Renae and I went inside, equipped with our little maps showing the layout of the church and what was where. Galileo was also buried there, so since we didn’t have much time, we made sure we stopped by his and Michelangelos’ graves. The church was beautiful like every other church I’ve been to, although probably also the smallest in comparison. I wished that there was no scaffolding above the main altar, but I guess that’s how the church’s are kept in such good condition.

I got goosebumps when I got to Michelangelo’s tomb, and Renae carried on to see something else so as to give me a few extra moments there. Yes I did shed a tear, as it was the closest I had ever been to the man himself.

Michelangelo's tomb, Santa Croce church

When we were done, Renae and I followed the signs towards the exit, and we stepped out into an enclosed but open courtyard that had the greenest grass I’d ever seen. There appeared to be a cross in the middle of it, made from the same grey (cement?) flooring that surrounded it. We walked to the other side, sheltered by the covered passageway that encircled the courtyard, and finally reached the door to the outside, right where our group had gathered. We still had to wait for some people so we took a few minutes to sit down and rest our feet a little, and catch up with the others. Eventually, Steve got tired of waiting and we had to leave as we still had to get dressed to go to the Tuscan dinner. Because of our tight schedule, we had to leave Jye behind. I can’t remember who he was with (I assume Sam and Coralie, since the three of them had become very close), but they were too far out to be able to catch up with us.  We therefore had to leave, after Jye’s reassurance that they’d take a taxi back. At least an international SIM came in handy!

We had a little bit of a walk to get to the bus, most of which was alongside the river with the sun on our backs. It was the hottest weather I had experienced on tour, and I felt like my back was cooking. It was beyond uncomfortable! I don’t think I wanted the comfort of the shaded, air-conditioned bus more than I did at that point. I was extremely relieved to be sitting back on my seat at the front, with some shelter of the top/front part of the bus above Driver Steve providing extra shade.

Driver Steve then took us back to the hotel, where we freshened up and got dressed for the Tuscan dinner. I was pretty excited about it because it was supposedly right inside the Tuscan Hills, and we all know how beautiful Tuscany is. Because we’d be heading straight for Space (the nightclub) after dinner, many people got dressed in something shiny. The shiniest thing I had was a pink top with some silver diamante’s on it, which was suitable enough (at least, I thought). Because I didn’t what the hassle of carrying anything with me, I didn’t take my phone. I just carried some cash for a drink or 2 at Space.

We drove for a little while through winding roads, all the time going uphill. The trees got more dense until eventually it was as if we were driving through a forest. On our way there, Steve warned us about Meatloaf. We wondered why.

After some time, we saw what appeared to be a sign for the restaurant that we were going to. Driver Steve had to go down a really steep, death-defying driveway in order to get to it. That man really has skill, and we cheered a sigh of relief once we reached flat ground. The white, vintage-looking building that was the restaurant was nestled right in the middle of hundreds of trees. It had a romantic look about it because of the dull lights that greeted us outside.

When we walked up some stairs, 2 long dining tables awaited us, one longer than the other. I sat towards the end of the table, in between Travis and Paul, the Australian who came with his brother Joe and Joe’s girlfriend, Mel. Mel sat at the head of the table, with Joe on her right. In front of me sat Renae and Ronnie. It wasn’t long before we were served with some entrees which consisted of cold meats and cheese. While we were whetting our appetites, it became clear what Steve meant by Meatloaf.

A large man with long, slightly disheveled dark hair walked in, and set himself up with a keyboard in the corner right behind Mel. Next to him was a little table with a bottle of wine and a glass, which a waiter had brought out shortly after his arrival. He poured himself a glass,  a gulped the whole thing down in one go. I looked around wide-eyed to the others, most of whom didn’t notice. I figured it wasn’t the last time he’d do that, so I didn’t say anything.

Then, he began to sing. He started off pretty good, and it was quite enjoyable. Then, Travis and I started noticing him drinking more and more wine, in the same way as he had the first time. It wasn’t long before he finished the bottle! By that time, he was sweating profusely and kept wiping his face with his handkerchief. His hair was drenched with sweat, and it was clear from his facial expressions that he was very passionate about his music. His closed eyes, head (and hair) bobbing, and painful-looking facial squeezing provided entertainment like no other. Mel and I occasionally exchanged “WTF” glances, and Travis (who had his camera out) and I could not contain our laughter at times. He was absolutely hilarious.

We ate so much and I enjoyed practically every item that was served to us. As we were getting towards the final serving, Meatloaf started to play a romantic song, and there was nothing to do but dance. Everyone’s eyes were on Steve because he looked very dashing in his black pants and white shirt and he was approaching us with his arms open as if to see who wanted to dance with him. At the back of my mind I thought “Please don’t pick me, I know you’re going to but don’t. I suck at dancing!”.

I guess its the law of attraction. Tell something not to happen to you and it will. Steve came up to me first with his hand out. I didn’t want to be a spoil sport and thought “Heck, when will I get to dance with a good looking guy in front of an entire tour group again”, so I went for it. He said to follow him, and I tried my best. I don’t think I’ve ever blushed that much in my life. I felt like a blithering idiot, but he was such a gentleman and laughed along with me, and not mockingly at all. When we were done, he hugged me tightly and I fumbled back to my seat, probably red-faced. I was relieved that I was out of the spotlight, but thrilled that I was the first girl he called up to dance. Maybe its a Durban South African thing!

After more people danced and finished eating, we took a quick bathroom break at the back of the restaurant before hopping back on to the bus. We were excited to get to Space.

Florence is not a place I associated with nightlife. I always thought of it as a historical, Renaissance city filled with beautiful buildings and colours. The last thing I thought of was what people do at night.

When we got back into town, Driver Steve put on some party music, and replaced the normal lights in the bus with blue, flashy ones. He really got us into the party mood. The locals must have been shaking their heads thinking “not those Contiki groups again” as Steve drove round one of the traffic circles a good 3 or 4 times. It wasn’t too long before we got to Space.

Steve explained that we’d each get a card for our drinks orders, which would be punched for every drink we bought. This was to save time and overcrowding at the bar. Nice idea. Also, our first drink was free. Ain’t nobody gonna turn down a free drink. The other reason for the card was to disallow people from spending more than €50, thereby reducing their alcohol intake.

When we got inside, we had to walk down a flight of stairs. The whole club was lit by a blue light, and when went round the corner, we saw the bar on the right and a karaoke bar on the left. There were a couple really young people there, and it was quite obvious that they were part of another Contiki group. Steve said that we’d be one of 4 Contiki groups there that night, so I expected it to be crazy, especially if the other groups were as big as ours.

I got my first drink, which was a vodka and Red Bull (a dangerous combination, I know, but I felt like having one), and joined some of the girls who were heading upstairs. I didn’t know there was an upstairs area until I was standing at the bar waiting for my drink and noticed some people ascending some stairs that disappeared into nowhere. When I got up there, it was clear that that was where the real club was. It was absolute mayhem because of the crowd. We didn’t really know where to go, until we looked up and saw some people dancing in what seemed to be a gallery-type area. We found the staircase and went up to “assess the situation”. It definitely was madness. From there, we got to see the entire club.

At the opposite end was a stage, and a curious looking shower in the middle of it. I hoped that it wasn’t going to be used, but I didn’t want to bet on it. At the top left corner of the room was a large screen, the top of which read “Wet T-Shirt Competition”. Uh oh. Underneath was a list of 10 girls names as well as the countries to which they belonged. I recognized 2 of the names – they were from my group! I died a little inside, as I knew both of them. One of them was probably the quietest girl you’d ever meet, and Tina and I stared wide-eyed as she was called up, along with the other girl from my group.

Some time passed after they were called up, and we used that time to dance and enjoy ourselves. It was only when I looked at my watch that I realized that at least an hour had passed since the girls were called up, and they were going to make their appearance again. I went back to the gallery area with Tina a few other people, so that we could watch from a vantage point. We had no idea what to expect, but I knew that if it was a wet t-shirt competition, they’d probably be wearing white shirts. And they were.

When the girls came out, all were wearing blue denim shorts and white shirts. They had obviously been given the clothes to wear. The guys in the club were going a little crazy with excitement, but it was nothing compared to the way they reacted when the girls went under the shower and began to dance. After seeing how slutty some of the girls behaved (I won’t go into details), Tina and I ended up covering our mouths in shock as the 10th girl, the quiet one from our group, had her turn. Since 9 out of the 10 girls took their tops completely off (a number of them took off their shorts, too), Tina and I prayed that the girl we knew wouldn’t take hers off. Thankfully, she didn’t. There is some decency left in this world! Needless to say, she didn’t win! The other girl from our group DID win though. Everyone’s reactions were mixed, as was mine. I was excited that someone I knew won a competition and did something as daring as that (and got so many guys’ tongues to hang), but I was also slightly mortified and shocked. Everyone became a little protective of her afterwards as some guys approached her thinking that because she had done that, she was “easy”. I suppose, in a small way, their thoughts were slightly justified! Don’t hate me, girl, I’m just stating facts!

After the madness, it turned out to be pretty late and I was exhausted. I decided to see who was getting a taxi home so that I’d be able to go with them. Sam and some of the others said that they’d be leaving soon, but I was quite thirsty and wanted one more drink. I wanted to avoid spending money and thought I’d just take the first free drink, but I thought that one more wouldn’t hurt. I quickly went back to the bar and ordered another vodka and Red Bull. I had barely taken a few sips when my leaving crew said that they were going to leave. Because of that, I practically gulped down my drink. The bartender wasn’t exactly mean with the vodka either, so at least a third of my glass was alcoholic, unlike in South Africa where they’re so mean with a single shot. I don’t think I need to explain the effects of having a drink too quickly.

After having my drink, I joined some of my leaving crew in the queue to pay for the drinks we’d had. I owed about €6.50 for my drink, which is about 1.5 times what you’d pay in South Africa for the same thing. Finally, when I was done, I waited for a couple more people and we went back upstairs to the where we had entered hours before. We had to wait a little for a taxi and during that time saw 2 guys practically carrying their friend out of the club. He was drunk beyond belief, and couldn’t stand. They sat him down on the sidewalk, and he leaned so far over with his head between his legs that I thought he was gonna rest his head on the road itself. I’m pretty sure he drank for the full €50!

By the time the taxi came, I was quite tipsy, riding on the strength of the vodka. So I don’t even remember who was in the taxi with me. We ended up having to pay about €4-5 each, which didn’t work out too bad (Steve said that we shouldn’t pay more than €30 for that particular journey). I didn’t take very long to get changed before crashing for the night, knowing that I’d finally be seeing the Leaning Tower of Pisa the following morning.

Trip to Europe: Day 11 – Rome

14 June 2012. We had a full day in Rome awaiting us. We were to start the day with a tour of the Vatican Museums, something I had done before. It was an optional extra and wasn’t included in the tour, but I loved it so much the last time that I just had to visit it again. Besides, by going with a group, you don’t have to wait hours in a long queue. Also, seeing the Sistine Chapel in person is priceless, so I couldn’t wait to see it again.

According to our day sheet, we were supposed to be at the Vatican museums at 10, so we actually had plenty of time. We were around 20km out of town, at the 4-star Park hotel. It was a great hotel and it was such a beautiful morning. We had to take a short walk outside the main reception area to get to breakfast.  Once we were done, we got onto our bus and driver Steve did some magical maneuvers to get out of the hotel’s driveway. He really is an excellent driver. He dropped us off at the train station, which was very close by, and Steve told us how to get back later that night. He advised us that it would be safer to take a taxi back, though, since that area is very quiet at night.

At the station, La Giustiniana, it was a bit of a mad rush for us all to get our tickets. Some people figured out that you can get a number of tickets at once, so we just gave our money to them and they got about 10 in one go. It made things a lot faster. The platform was rather empty, so most of the noise came from us. When the train arrived, it was quite a squeeze. It was really busy! I suppose we were, after all, using it during peak hour. I don’t think any of us got a seat and filled the aisle as a result. I heard stories about getting mugged in crowded trains, but I wasn’t worried at all about it here since I was near Alli and Paul, and of course the rest of my group. The locals that were seated were mostly elderly people and were more interested in sleeping than us.

The Vatican walls

We had to change trains at Valle Aurelia so that we could get onto the main line to get to the Cipro station, which is one of the closest stations to the Vatican. I never stopped at the Cipro station before, so I thought that Ottaviano was the closest one. Both are actually correct, its just that you end up entering the Vatican from a different direction. Cipro takes you closer to the Vatican Museums while Ottaviano takes you closer to St Peters Square.

After getting off at Cipro, Rome was my oyster. I became like a kid in a candy store again, and more so when I saw the high walls of the Vatican. I had to stop myself from skipping. And I never skip, let alone get the sudden urge to.

We walked around the Vatican walls and eventually came to the entrance of the Vatican Museum. There was already a line, but because we were the “privileged bunch”, we waited separately, a little further away from the actual entrance door. We got there early and had around 45 minutes to kill, so I went to grab some coffee from the Caffe Vaticano across the street, along with a couple other people.

The atmosphere around the Vatican is something else. I don’t know if it was just me, but I was really on a high. It was already quite hot and there wasn’t much shade to stand in, but I didn’t let that dampen my spirits. It was much better than rain. The excitement of going into the Vatican Museums again kept me going.

Eventually our guide came, with her blue handkerchief which we had to keep an eye on so that we wouldn’t get lost. Like most places, the tour guides either hold up an umbrella or something similar so that it stands up above the crowd, so that you can always find them. She stood to one side and handed each of us our tickets. The tickets have not changed since my 2009 trip. I know this because I still have my first ticket to the museums. There’s no way I’ll ever get rid of it. It has the image of the centre of the painting The School of Athens by Raphael, which sits in the Vatican Museum itself. The centre of the paining is actually Aristotle walking alongside Plato, although I think there is some debate as to whether it is them or Leonardo Da Vinci alongside Aristotle. Personally I think its Da Vinci on the left. Just cos I idolize him. The man was a legend.

Many people don’t know that Raphael painted himself in this painting too, and only if you actually do research on it or are lucky enough to have a guide to tell you, will you know. Michelangelo is also a prominent figure in the painting because Raphael greatly admired him (for obvious reasons).

With the dome of St Peters

Anyway, we had to have our bags scanned and remove any jackets (I don’t know if there were any mad people who had one on that boiling hot day) before going through the metal detector. The museum was crazily busy and we really had to keep an eye on our group so that no one would be left behind. This was quite a task when we went through the turnstiles which required us to slot out ticket in, just like how the metro turnstiles work where you put the ticket in on one side and it comes out the other.

Once everyone was through, we flooded the escalator which took us up to an open area where we could get our first glimpse of St Peters dome. 8 November 2009 was the first time I saw St Peters, and it was really a “wow, I’m actually here” moment. I had to get a photo of myself standing there then, but it was a crap photo cos it was in winter and it had rained and I was wearing a big, puffy, brown jacket that made me look more than double my size; so I just had to get a decent photo this time. In fact, I planned to correct a number of photos that I had taken upon my first trip, seeing as it was now mid-summer and the weather was beautiful rather than dull and dreary.

I had taken around 180 photos of the Vatican Museums on my first trip, so I didn’t want to waste my phone’s battery by going overboard again, especially taking ones that didn’t have me in it.

Because I had been before, I knew what was in the museums, so I was very disappointed when the tour ended suddenly. It was shocking to me how much was left out. We didn’t even see The School of Athens, nor one of the inner courtyards that has the huge, red marble bath that can fit at least 10 adults. I was very annoyed when before we knew it, we were at the entrance to the Sistine Chapel. I thought “what on earth happened to the rest of the museums that we’re already here?”, because the Sistine Chapel is the last thing you see before going into St Peters church.

The Sistine Chapel ceiling

I had to block out my frustration as we went through the short passageway and entered the Sistine Chapel. For those who haven’t been I can tell you one thing: its much bigger than you think. Pictures of it that you see on the internet just don’t do justice. It literally takes your breath away. The scale of it is awe inspiring, and what strikes you is how much work Michelangelo put into it. There are people out there (I have a marvelous word for them: idiots) who are so ignorant and oblivious to the fact that such a great person existed. In that time, people really worked hard. All of us are so lazy now, and I don’t know if there’ll ever be a man as great as Michelangelo. I idolize Da Vinci, but I worship Michelangelo. Greatness personified.

You aren’t allowed to take photos inside the Sistine Chapel, and the Swiss Guard are there to make sure of it. They’re all over the place shouting “No photo! No photo, please!”. I actually think those guards are more part of the Vatican Police because the Swiss Guard are there for the Pope’s protection specifically and there are very few of them, and they do not wear suits. They wear those colourful outfits. Clearly, I snuck in a photo (or 2) of the ceiling. I just had to. Thank God for the second camera on my phone, so I could just hold it out in front of me instead of aim upwards, therefore greatly reducing my chance of getting caught.

We had more time in the Sistine Chapel than the last time I had been there, so I took a few moments to admire the finer details. My favourite fresco is undoubtedly the Touch of Life, but you can’t ignore everything else, especially the Last Judgement which towers above you on the wall behind the altar. That was what surprised me the most in terms of size, because seeing images of it growing up did not prepare me for the enormity of it. Also, my mother had spoken of the fresco looking as if its in 3D, and it was hard to imagine a painting that can do that, but when you really look at it , the figures look more as if they are sculptures coming out of the ceiling. It can be very confusing to the eye, but a feast for them nonetheless.

We all gathered near the door to the exit when we were done absorbing as much as we could, and then left to St Peters church with the guide. The last time I had done that, I got my first glimpse of St Peters Square through the pillars, and became emotional immediately because I had wanted to see it for the longest time. This time however, I was prepared for it, so I concentrated more on the majestic ceilings and pillars that formed the entrance way to the church, as well as the gigantic doors, not to mention the golden door that only gets opened every 25 years.

I was in heaven once again upon entering St Peters church. There is simply nothing like it. Its also much bigger than you think and you only know when you’re actually there.

St Peters church

I didn’t follow the guide too much as I was more interested in admiring the La Pieta more than I could the last time. I separated from the group a number of times, though I maintained my proximity. I was too busy admiring the beauty of the church in the wonderful light that was filtering through the dome and the other little windows all over the roof. The last time I was there, the lighting was terrible for photos because of the dull weather, so I had ended up going back the following day on my own just to take it all in again and to get better photos, since it was a much sunnier day.

St Peters Square

We finished our tour in St Peters Square, where I found the sculpture for the West Wind near the obelisk. Angels and Demons fan, you’ll know what that is. We walked to the end of the square (or rather, the beginning) before going with Steve to the Vatican Museum shop. There were just so many things there that I wanted to buy but I didn’t want go crazy and get them all. If I could have, I definitely would have. I ended up buying myself a beautiful deep red rosarie. It was enough since I had gotten myself Vatican souvenirs before.

When everyone was done, we met Steve again outside the shop and walked with him to the Spanish Steps. We passed many gelato and pizza shops, and our mouths were watering. I couldn’t wait to get my gelato for the day, but it was still early. We were walking along the road that takes you directly to Ottaviano station, so I figured we were going there. Hence I was walking ahead of the whole group because I knew exactly where we were. I ended up crossing the road and leaving the lot of them behind.

The group

Steve and I spotted another suit of armor outside a shop, so he did a quick hop and skip to pose for a photo before someone came out screaming. We tried to do it at another shop the previous day, but I was having spastic moments with my camera and by then someone came to tell him to move away from it. I should have used my phone’s camera from day one. That Sony camera gave me hell at the best of times, even though it takes pretty good photos.

Steve

When we got to the Spanish steps, most of us split up. Some went nearby, around the corner, to a restaurant, while others disappeared altogether. I don’t know where they all ended up going. My 2-minute team from Venice, Alex, Kameron and bald Adam, went loafing around looking for a bite to eat. Adam managed to get something from a shop that seemed to have an endless supply of cheese and bread, so he concocted his own sandwich from there. I can’t remember where Kameron and Alex went or what they got, but I got myself a slice of pizza. I learned from previous experience never to get pizza from a restaurant because you’d miss out totally on the authentic Italian pizzas. At restaurants, you pay for the view, not the taste. We walked around for a bit then went back to the Spanish Steps to see if we could meet up with those who went for lunch nearby.

When we got there, I met the twins outside and we decided to walk around the vicinity rather than stand around waiting. Like me, they wanted to go to the Colosseum, but they knew of a few others who also wanted to and didn’t want to leave them behind. We checked up on them and they still had a way to go, so we took a stroll around. We came across an Indian street vendor who was selling some hats. The twins wanted to get one each since they were cooking in the sun. I was horrified when the vendor asked them for €20 per hat! What a rip off! They were ordinary straw hats, nothing special. I had bargained with Indian street vendors before and I know Hindi, so I thought that if push comes to shove, I’d haggle in Hindi instead. Being American (and therefore used to the not-so-bad exchange rate), the twins didn’t think that €20 was too much, but I chipped in and asked the vendor what his best price was, and he said €15. Even then, I thought it was too much, but I wasn’t the one buying, so I asked the twins if they were fine with that and they agreed.

The vendor tried selling me a hat too, but I wasn’t interested. He was grinning at me like a blithering idiot, and I kept saying no. Eventually he asked “Oh, you like hot?”. I glared at the twins and they laughed because the guy was clearly trying to hit on me. I just thought “pay up now and let’s get the hell out of here!”.

Insanely crowded train in Rome

When we got back to the restaurant, those who were eating there had just asked for the bill and were waiting to pay, so we sat with them for a few minutes discussing our plans for the rest of the day. When they were done, some wanted to go shopping but the rest of us wanted to go to the Colosseum. I actually wanted to go to Villa Borghese, but I thought it better to see the more obvious tourist attraction like the Colosseum first. I can always do Villa Borghese the next time I go to Rome.

About 12 of us walked to the nearby metro station to take the train to the Colosseum, and when we got there it was so insanely busy that we actually had to stay back on the platform because the train was so full. Tina wasn’t feeling so well so we had to look out for her.

We were relieved when we got off the train at the Colosseum, happy to be out of the crowded train. We got separated from most of the people we were with, and I ended up with the twins, Tina, Natalie, Kameron and bald Adam. We walked together, still watching out for Tina (who by then was pale and looked like she was about to fall over) as we went to the entrance where we could get our tickets. Our initial plan was to get a group of 10 so that we’d get a discount, but since we got separated, it didn’t work out.

I had another Indian guy hit on me as we walked there, much to the twins amusement since they had witnessed the first one only an hour earlier. This one was selling some random dumb item and was following tourists around. I kept the “carry on walking and don’t acknowledge” attitude. The twins gave me mischievous grins and I just shook my head, smiling.

We were so relieved to get into the shade at the ticket office. The queue was quite long, but moved at a steady pace. We waited for around 25 minutes which wasn’t too bad. The colour seemed to be coming back into Tina’s face too, and she looked fine.  There was a refreshing, cool breeze because of the stone and it was like a natural air conditioner.

We spent nearly an hour walking around, taking in as much as we could. There was a killer staircase that we had to go up and I thought I was going to die by the time I got to the top of it. After that one, none of us really wanted to go any higher. Its not an extremely pleasant building to look at, on the inside, but it is definitely impressive. Especially the fact that it was built over 2000 years ago and is still standing.

Admiring the Colosseum

By the time we were done, I was really craving for gelato. I had seen many vendors selling it right outside the Colosseum, but rule #1 about buying things in most countries is that you never buy from a busy tourist spot because you pay at least double the price that you’d normally pay. I was prepared to wait.

I walked a little more with my company in the direction of Piazza Venezia, the same road we had trodden on the day before. Hence, we got to the street vendor that owned the fruit jungle. I got myself a delicious nectarine, and had my third bout of being hit upon. What is it with the Indian men in Rome?! Why couldn’t it have been an Italian? Needless to say, the twins were right there in the middle of it once again. The man asked Kameron if I was with him, and Kameron didn’t know how to answer and it was such an awkward situation because I was with him, but not with him. We just walked away, pretending as if nothing happened.

We then decided to lose ourselves a little in the streets, taking some random turns here and there. Eventually, after around 30 minutes of exploring, I chose to head off on my own. I actually wasn’t sure what more I wanted to do, but in my heart I wanted to go back to St Peters Square. I had at least 2.5 hours to kill before I had to get back to Piazza Navona to meet Steve and the group to go to a nearby piazza to play beer pong.

Ponte Sant Angelo

When I was on my own, I had flashbacks of my time alone in Rome 3 years ago. It was the best feeling at the time, and I was reliving it. I headed north towards the Tiber River, and planned to walk along it as I had done previously, waiting for Castel Sant Angelo to peep out at me from between the trees.

I crossed Ponte Sant Angelo again, slower this time, and got lost in the beauty of the sculptures of the angels. I stopped a few times to look at St Peters from there, with the Tiber River in the foreground. If you go to the front of Castel Sant Angelo with St Peters on your left, you need only walk down one straight road to get to St Peters Square. That was my plan.

I took a leisurely walk from Castel Sant Angelo, turning around and seeing it from different angles, while watching other tourists haggling with more street vendors. The walk was much longer than I expected, and my feet were really sore by then. I was also pretty exhausted, but I kept going. I stopped at a shop about 200m away from the Basilica and got the gelato I had been craving all day, as well as some 2013 calendars that were going for a mere €2 each. They were small, sticky-note sized ones that had different themes like the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo’s works. Obviously, I got both.

Because of the road I had taken, when I got to St Peters Square, where I was standing seemed to be directly in the middle of the arms extending out from St Peters church. Its a sight everyone should see at least once in their lifetime. There’s nothing quite like it opening up in front of you.

I wandered around the square a bit before going inside. I didn’t bother joining the queue, as you can enter by walking alongside the guards by the metal detectors. No one stops you really, unless you look like some crazed villain I guess.

When I got inside the church, I moved in slow motion. I stood in one spot and looked 360°, at least twice. There really is nothing like St Peters church. I went to the back end of the church, passed the main altar, and sat on a section of pillar that was jutting out, for nearly 10 minutes, watching people go by, taking in deep breaths, and praying. It was the best this time because it was in the evening and there were probably only about 100 people in the whole church, so it was practically empty. Even though my feet were killing me, I realized that it was the fourth time I had been to St Peters church, and I had no regrets. I’ll go there every time I go to Rome.

When I was satisfied, I started making my way back to Piazza Navona. I took a different route this time, and crossed over another bridge which is technically right next to Ponte Sant Angelo. I knew that I needed to head south east from St Peters Square. On my way there, however, I got lost. The streets of Rome are very winding and narrow. I knew that I was in the general vicinity of Piazza Navona, but because of the narrowness of the streets, I couldn’t see the landmark that I was looking for – the dome of the church in the piazza itself. I asked a local man, who didn’t understand English, and he pointed me in the right direction, however it still didn’t help because of how twisted the roads are. Time was running out, and I knew I was going to miss meeting Steve. Yes, I had my map with me, but I knew that I wasn’t far off and I trusted my sense of direction, so I never looked at it.

Eventually, I got to Piazza Navona about 10 minutes after we were supposed to have met. I looked around and it was very obvious that the group had left, as we were supposed to meet at the fountain. Just before I could get out my map to find the place where Steve was going to take us (he made us draw a circle around it the day before), I spotted the twins. It was definitely luck. I caught up with them (they had clearly gone back to the hotel cos they had changed into nicer shirts) and we went together to the bar in the piazza where the rest of the group was.

There was a lot of excitement because of the Euro 2012. I think Italy was playing that day, too. When I went to the back, even more of the group was there, as Steve and Jose were playing beer pong against two local guys. I had never seen beer pong before, so it was quite entertaining for me. After the guys were done, two of the American girls, Taylor and Sarah, wanted to have a go. Taylor was epic and kicked those guys’ asses. They also had a game with the thinner guy’s girlfriend, who was, I thought, such a cheater! Before the ball could settle in the beer cup, if she was quick enough, she’d blow it out of the cup so that it didn’t count as a point. It was very impressive, but very unfair! All good fun, I guess.

It got dark, eventually, and we were all pretty tired. Most people left in groups so that we could share the cab fare. I got in the cab with Tiffany, Kelly, and I think Seeta and Chloe. We had a female cab driver who hardly spoke a word of English. Tiffany was trying to talk to her but she would just smile. She couldn’t understand where we wanted to go. Luckily I remembered Barbarano Romano, which I said to her, and she nodded and said “Si, ok”, and we left. It was very funny listening to Tiffany trying to speak to her. The driver was a very friendly lady but whatever she tried to answer with didn’t make sense at all. After some time we told Tiffany to just give it up (which worked, though not 100% cos she still wanted to talk) and we just admired the view on the way back to the hotel.

The cab cost us about €30, which was fine because it worked out about €6 each. Better than the hassle of taking other public transport. Alex had arrived just before us, and Alli, Rachel, Paul and Adam just after. They must have been right behind us, which made sense because we did leave at about the same time. I was glad Alex was back (she probably felt the same way about me) so that I wouldn’t have to open the door for her later. I’m pretty sure I passed out once I got into bed with my slightly swollen feet. I had Florence to look forward to the next day, and all I could think about was “I have to get a pair of leather boots”.

Trip to Europe: Day 9 – Venice

12 June 2012. To start off with, I must mention that seeing Venice before it sinks was one of the top things on my bucket list. So I was really excited that I was finally going to go there, even if it was only for one night.

We had quite a drive ahead of us (though I knew that the drive to Rome the next day would be much longer) so breakfast was at 7. By then I had formed the habit of packing my bags before going for breakfast so that I could make use of the full 30 mins allocated if I needed to. I’m pretty sure this was when the chocolate croissants started, which were amazing. At 7:30 we had to once again meet at the bus to get it loaded, and off we went.

We reached the service stop a little after 10am and spent around 45 minutes having a bite before hopping back on the bus for the final stretch. I was so thrilled to be back in Italy because I loved it when I went in 2009. I could not wait to have gelato again and, more importantly, to have proper pizza this time. On my first trip, I only spent 3 days in Italy, which comprised of two days  in Rome and one day-trip to Florence. So it was really rushed and I didn’t get to do everything I wanted to, like have proper pasta or pizza.

We got to the mainland around 12:30 and still had to cross the bridge which would take us to the port where we’d take the vaporetto into Venice. As we were crossing the bridge, we were behind a truck that was carrying some construction-type supplies. It was slightly annoying being behind that truck because it stopped several times to pick up guys in orange vests who were waiting for it. It must have been very frustrating for Driver Steve; it certainly was for us! On the bridge to Venice

I had never been on a bridge that spanned such a wide body of water before, so it was really interesting for me to see water on either side and of course Venice in front of me. After we crossed the bridge and Driver Steve parked the bus, we made our way to the vaporetto. We walked alongside the water where all the water taxis were docked and I was surprised to see so many Indian (as in from India) men trying to sell stuff on the side such as these blobs of rubber that would ‘splat’ on the ground when you throw them, then form back into a ball. Indians really are everywhere!

We boarded the boat, which was a little awkward because we had to descend a rather small staircase while trying not to hit our heads. I’m actually not sure how we fitted all 51 of us in there. It really was a squeeze. I found that it made the ride into Venice longer because we were so close together, and I felt a little weird because there wasn’t really any fresh air coming in, which is never a good thing if you want to avoid getting sea sick. Someone managed to get a picture of all of us (Tina, I’m sure it was you?) as we tried to admire the waterway. I was quite thrilled watching the boats alongside ours as it was as if it was a highway on water. I had never seen anything like it and was so glad that I was sitting next to a window so I could get a good view. Timing is everything when you get into a place with lots of people!

There were around 3 cruise liners there that day too. I thought it was a lot, but according to Steve, there are normally at least a dozen or so. I’d really like to see that one day because those cruise liners dwarf the city, and I think they may just completely block the city from view if there’s enough of them!

We also saw a mega yacht, the kind you see in those tv shows about super rich people. I wonder who it belongs to.

As we got closer I could see the Doges Palace and the bell tower that stands in St Marks Square. Now, for those of you who are gamers, you would have come across it in Assassins Creed 2 which was set in Venice. The bell tower was one of the viewpoints and Basilica San Marco was the venue for one of the assassination targets. Because of Assassins Creed, I knew the layout of the area around St Marks Basilica pretty well. Yeah yeah, I know how geeky that sounds and I’m sure you must be shaking your head, but its true.

I know that there is a bridge that you cross just before getting to the Libreria, which sits next to the Doges Palace, and that there’s a rather large building straight in front, behind a tall pillar with a lion at the top. I know that this building is next to the bell tower. At the bottom of the bell tower lies another little enclosed structure. I’m not sure what on earth is inside there, but I know its there. Most people who have been to or read about Venice would know the shape of the piazza and the white building that encloses it, so I can’t claim to know this from a game, but it did make it more familiar. Its very geeky to say that I was more familiar with it because of Assassins Creed, but its true! In a tiny way, I felt like I had been there before.

Go on, shake your head again.

When our vaporetto finally docked and we got out, I was overwhelmed with the crowd. It was like how shopping centres are during Christmas. Steve waited for us all to gather round before we could make our way through the crowd to the point where we were to meet our walking tour guide. By now I tried my best to stick as close to Steve as possible so that I wouldn’t get left behind and that I’d be able to stop for a few moments if I needed to take a picture. So by the time the rest of the group caught up, I’d be done and would have enough time to scurry to the front again.

Venice

We stopped for a few moments to take pictures of the Bridge of Sighs (and, technically, it was the first canal we saw) and about 50m on, we stopped outside the Doges Palace with the two towering poles in front of us, and the sea on our left. I got my first full view of the bell tower from there, as well as St Mark’s Basilica. I couldn’t wait to see St Mark’s from the front, but we had to wait a little while for the tour guide to arrive.

The Bridge of Sighs

When she eventually did, she asked us to grab an audio set from a guy with a box full of them. We had to test the headset to see if we could hear her. Mine worked, so I was good, but it didn’t last very long. My headset decided to die (at least by an 80% reduction in volume) barely 5 minutes into the tour. So, like with Steve, I had to try to walk as close as possible to the guide in order to pick up what she was saying. In some places it was really difficult because of the crowds, especially in the main piazza.

I took a minute or 2 to take it all in. I’d been wanting to go to St Mark’s Square for years, so being there filled me with happiness. It was a beautiful day, too, and the air was clean and fresh. There was a light breeze from the sea. I was told that Venice can get smelly, but I didn’t experience that at all. As we walked in the piazza, I watched as some people fed the pigeons. I’d never seen that many pigeons in my life, and the guide joked about being killed by one. They literally were everywhere, and it was so cute watching some toddlers chasing them.

Entertainment in St Mark's Square

In the background I could hear some live music being played, and when I turned around I saw some people sitting at a restaurant facing the piazza, sipping on some wine. Behind them was a small band consisting of a pianist, a violinist, and three men playing a clarinet, a double bass. and an accordion. The guide told us that only the richest people can afford to eat in the piazza as a glass of wine cost something ridiculous like €100 (if not more). After being told that, I just had to give those patrons another look. I had to wonder what kind of job they must be doing to be able to afford to sit in such a place. I also wondered if it was really necessary to spend that much on food when they could be putting that money to better use. Personally, if I had that much money, I’d travel. I’d leave behind the world that I know and spend months and months in different places. Wait a minute, maybe that’s what some of them were doing? Nah, I highly doubt it. God knows.

Piazza San Marco

The guide then took us through some narrow alleys and showed us things like the  level to which the water can rise on some days. It was fascinating. She also showed us how all the shops were raised a little above the ground and that you’d have to step up into them.

It was actually getting hot after some time and I regretted carrying a jacket. It was such a pain to carry around, and it didn’t even match my red T-shirt which I had to wear because Russia was playing that day in the Euro 2012 and Alex and I both had to wear red to show our support. I wasn’t thrilled about wearing a T-shirt in Venice because I wanted to get good photos taken, but in order to keep the tradition-of-supporting-your-Euro-country-that-lasted-only-a-few-days alive, I decided to just wear my Innsbruck shirt in any case.

As we walked, we passed some pizza shops and I then noticed the massive size of the pizza slices. The pizzas seemed to be at least 0.5m in diameter, so the slices that came off them were huge. There’s no way one could eat it with one hand unless it was folded. I tried to calculate the average price of them, too, because I knew that depending on where you buy it, the difference can be at least €2-€3. Eventually I came to the conclusion that it cost between €2.50 and €3.50 for a slice, and some places (not many) even included a cold drink. I was definitely going to get myself a slice after the tour.

Ponte di Rialto

When we came out of what I now know was the final alleyway of the tour, where we were was unmistakable. I immediately turned to the right and  said out loud, in a sigh, “Rialto”. The guide turned to me and said “Si, Ponte di Rialto!”, with the same twinkle in her eye that I think I must have had. We were walking alongside the Grand Canal. It was teaming with people, of which at least 80%, I’m pretty sure, were tourists. The crowd was more dense than Piazza San Marco because the area in which to walk was much smaller.

I couldn’t take my eyes off the bridge, and I couldn’t wait to get to it. The walk there was a bit of a blur because of the crowd, and I walked as if I had blinkers on because all I remember seeing clearly was the bridge. Flashes of Assassins Creed came to mind again, even though the bridge only slightly resembles the way it was done in the game (the version of it in the game was supposedly what it looked like in the 1400s). Even in the game, the area surrounding the bridge was filled with street vendors trying to sell typical Venetian souvenirs such as masks. My goal was to get a mask, in fact, even though I still have no idea when I’ll ever put it to use. I wanted one that fitted my face. I wished that I could have visited during Carnivale, even though I could only imagine how insane the crowds would be then.

Finally, we got to the foot of the bridge and started our short ascent. There were shops on either side of the bridge, including some very touristy ones. But my attention quickly went to my left so that I could face the Grand Canal. It was something else. I took a deep breath as I admired the beauty. I blocked the noise of the people around me out as I looked around. The afternoon sun hitting the water made it all the more beautiful.

The Grand Canal

The Rialto bridge marked the end of our tour through Venice, and the guide took us down another short street to get away from the hustle and bustle of the Grand Canal in order for us to hand back our audio sets. Steve was there waiting for us, too, because we had to go to a Murano glass factory.

We had roughly 30 minutes to ourselves before we could go, however, so Alex, Adam (the bald Australian), Kameron and I decided to go together to grab some pizza. We barely walked a few metres before I lost Alex, and the guys eventually split up shortly after that. I think the crowd played a part in that because it was just too crazy since we had walked back in the direction of the Rialto Bridge. I had seen some great pizza shops there so I went back. When I got there though, it was so confusing that I didn’t find the pizza shop that I had seen barely 20 minutes earlier. Really, its not like the Rialto Bridge is that big. I hadn’t even passed the half way mark. I feel disappointed now that I didn’t even cross the bridge. We simply didn’t have enough time.

Pizza!

I then decided just to walk around the vicinity and remembered that Steve was waiting for us and that I had only about 15 minutes to get pizza before he left for the glass factory. I started making my way back and saw some girls from my group hovering around, so I went with them and found a little shop nearby. We each got a slice (humongous, of course), and “mmm’d” and chomped our way back to Steve. I think the slice I got was about €3.50, which wasn’t too bad considering how big it was.

I finished my slice while waiting for the others to come back from their short galavanting. Steve showed us how to get back to St Mark’s Square, too,  as we had to meet him there later so that we could go together for the gondola ride and then supper.

The Hulk

When we got to the glass factory, I was disappointed that we couldn’t take photos, because it really was a sight to see. There was such a huge range of glass items ranging from tea sets to dragons, of every colour imaginable. It was a feast for the eyes. We went upstairs in order to get a demonstration on glass blowing. There were some steps for us to sit on, which I was glad to see because I was exhausted from standing nearly all day. An Italian man who resembled the Hulk was going to make some items for us. It was a little mind boggling seeing such a big man, with a huge chest and arms, handling such a delicate item and performing such detailed work so effortlessly. He said he had been doing it since he was about 15 years old (or was it for 15 years? I can’t remember which but anyway) which made him an expert. It was very obvious that he was, especially after he crafted a horse. There’s no way we could even tell that it was a horse until he was nearly done with it. The speed at which he did it (he had to while the glass was still hot enough) was astonishing too. His skill had to be admired. I  think people with raw skill like him are lacking these days.

When he was done, the guy who was talking us through the glass-blowing procedure asked us to follow him downstairs where he’d tell us more about the glass itself. Downstairs was actually the shop. My mother had told me about Murano glass before my trip, and I really wanted to pick up something but I was a bit unsure about carrying glass in my bag for the next 10-12 days. I figured even if I got something small, it would be ok because I’d at least have a souvenir.

What I remember most about the talk that we were given was that the glass is coloured with different minerals. Depending on the mineral you use, the glass would turn out a different colour. The most expensive coloured glass that you can get is the ruby red one. Why? The mineral they use is gold.

Unfortunately I left the shop with nothing. I really wanted a little cup or a glass, but it just felt wrong to buy only one and not the set, so I left it totally. Maybe I’ll get something the next time I go to Venice (if its still above water).

On my way out I bumped into Sam who was plotting to take a photo of a woven version of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper for her Yaya. Apparently she was told that photos of that weren’t allowed, but it seemed as though she was a professional at taking photos sneakily and made it look as if she was digging in her handbag when she actually had the camera part of her iPhone sticking out of the zip. Well played. Well played.

We sat outside the shop, on a bridge, for a few minutes waiting for the others to finish shopping. I wanted to go to St Marks Basilica and also get a mask so I made my way there. I actually don’t know how I found my way back there other than by using my general sense of direction, because I didn’t use the map at all. I was pleased with myself when I saw St Marks Baslica in front of me, and as I came out of the last narrow street before the piazza, I saw Tracy sitting on the open space next to the basilica, eating an ice cream. I asked her where she had bought it from and she pointed me in the direction of the shop. I think she was eating a rather peculiar flavour too, one which I never would have tried. I remember it being half pink and half green (Tracy, correct me if I’m wrong?). She told me what flavours it was but I’m not very good at trying outrageously new flavours myself so I decided to pass on those. I quickly went to the shop that she had pointed out and got myself an ice cream. It was most probably a cappuccino flavour since I was familiar with that one. I guess gelato of any flavour is good.

I came back to the piazza and met up with Tracy again. Travis had been scouting the area all that time so it wasn’t long before he joined us. We sat for a few minutes, people watching, until some women dressed in white came to chase us away, along with some other people who were resting their legs. We found it very strange because we were just sitting on a step, not on some sacred monument. There was nowhere else to sit either. We asked them where we were expected to go, and they just stubbornly replied that they didn’t know and that we must just not sit there. Some people went back but they were chased away again. I chuckled at those women. It seemed as though they had nothing better to do. I don’t know where they came from.

The three of us all wanted to go into the basilica and Travis had found out that entrance was free but that they weren’t allowing bags inside. Travis had one and decided to take a chance and join the queue with it. The queue got long very quickly, so we joined at the right time. Thankfully it moved quickly too, and we only stood in it for about 5 minutes, if even. No one stopped Travis when we got to the front, and we headed inside.

Like all the churches I’ve been to, even with so many people, it was very peaceful and quiet. It was however noisier than what I remembered of St Peters church in Rome, which is far bigger and can fit a lot more people. There was only one general path that everyone could walk in, and I didn’t find it as beautiful as St Peters church so I wasn’t as fascinated, but I took pictures nonetheless. I also saw some other girls from my group but we were all on our own mission so we didn’t really chat with each other.

When we got back outside, I only had about 30 minutes to find myself a mask before the rendezvous with Steve for the gondola ride. I knew that if I ventured beyond the piazza, the chances of me getting lost would be very high because Venice is notorious for its confusing layout. Its dozens and dozens of little bridges wouldn’t make it any easier. I actually wanted to get lost in Venice, but I simply didn’t have the time in which to do it. During the tour I had also checked out the prices of masks all over the place, and it seemed as though nearly everyone sold the big, face-fitting ones for €10, so I wasn’t going to pay more than that. Its not a bad price either.

After visiting a few vendors in the piazza, I finally found a mask that I liked. It was purple and pink, with little gold bells and some gold glitter on the face itself. After my purchase, I happily made my way back to the group. Of course people noticed my packet and were curious to know what was in it, because I was obviously not the only one who did a little bit of shopping. There was much delight when I pulled out my mask. I think it would have been cool if a couple more people bought one too, it would have been a very nice photo op! Nevermind, we got some photos anyway. We actually took several similar to the one below because whenever we were done taking one and split up, someone else whipped out their camera and we had to scramble back together again. We must have gotten at least 6 like these!

Some of us in St Mark's Square

While we were still waiting for the last few people, Steve asked if we could guess the number of lions in and around St Mark’s Square. No one came even close. Apparently there are around 1000 of them! God knows when we would ever had time to count all of them. Still, it was fascinating learning that fact.

When everyone had gathered, we followed Steve across the piazza (which was much more empty now) on our way to the gondolas. We all agreed earlier that we wanted to order champagne for the ride, so when we finally got to the gondoliers, we got ourselves into groups of 5-6 and decided among ourselves how many bottles we wanted. I was with Alex, Jose, CC, and the two Canadian girls Serena and Ariel. We decided that 2 bottles would be sufficient, and at about €10 per bottle, it would work out to barely €3 each.

While we were waiting for Steve to get the bottles, we became aware of another Contiki group a few metres away. This was only because we heard people cheering Jye, the 18 year old Australian boy from my group, as he was talking to one of the girls from the other group. I saw Sam run to give him a rose to give to her as well. It was very sweet seeing him give the girl the rose. I found out later that it was actually his girlfriend and that our tours crossed in Venice. How cute!

We then lined up and Steve handed us our bottles of champagne. There were two different ones available, so we got one of each. The gondolier held our hands in order to steady us as we stepped onto the gondola. In order to balance the weight, I sat at the bow, right in the middle.  Our gondolier wasn’t particularly friendly, neither was he as good looking as I’d hoped. The only check box I could tick on my imaginary list of what a typical gondolier should be like was that he wore the signature blue and white striped shirt and a little scarf. He hardly smiled and looked constipated. He didn’t even sing.

Elliot, forever ready for a photo

Besides the gondolier, the ride was very pleasant, except in some instances where the wind seemed to tilt the gondola to one side, which forced me to shift my weight to counter it. It was very awkward because the wind seemed to be winning, and I ended up trying not to slide in the direction in which it was tilting. I watched the other gondolas following ours, and we even bumped into one of them. We came really close to at least 2 other gondolas, so I took the opportunity to get a photo of one of them. I don’t know how Elliot is always ready for a photo; he didn’t even know that I was getting my camera out. Turned out to be a great shot.

The waterways fascinated me because even though I had seen Venice numerous times in movies, I still hadn’t seen the minor details. The only other place I had “seen” doors that lead straight onto the water was in Assassins Creed 2. It was as though people could park their boats right outside their homes, step onto a step, open a door, and voila!

Venice takes the idea of open air cafes to a different level. I love open air cafes, but here they sat alongside the waterway, with gondolas docked right next to them. There were flowers lining the railing of one. I even came across a restaurant that had an area protruding onto the waterway that was big enough just for a table for two. The only reason why I knew it was a restaurant was because I saw the menu propped up by the vase in the middle of the table. You could not even see the rest of the restaurant, which must have been inside the building. Could they get more romantic?

We finished off our ride in the Grand Canal. Seeing it from the water was amazing, and the sunset made it so dramatic. When we stepped off our gondolas, we gathered round Steve again so we could walk to dinner, which was one of our optional extras. I think everyone opted to do the dinner.

Gondolier in the Grand Canal

We got to our restaurant in an unsuspecting narrow street, and the dim lighting made for a great atmosphere. I found a table with Tiffany and Kelly, and we were greeted with awful red wine. I had only really tasted red wine twice before, many years ago, and I didn’t like it then. I didn’t like this one either, it was way too strong and bitter. It was at that moment that I realised that I prefer white over red. Semi-sweet, to be exact.

What we had for dinner that night was a blur. I remember getting an entree of cold meats, then something else, then a seafood platter, then pasta. By the time we got to the pasta, we were already full. We had forgotten that this was the dinner that had 7 courses! Just as we were about to tuck into the course we were on, the next one came. It was as if the food kept coming. I don’t even remember all the pastas we had, but I know there were 3. The best one, I thought, was the green one. I don’t even know what was in it, but it was basically tagliatelle (I think?) with some kind of green sauce.

We left the restaurant absolutely stuffed. Not to mention slightly tipsy from that horrid wine. Thankfully we did get some white wine too, so I had that instead. We walked back to a much larger boat to get back to the mainland, and had the opportunity to enjoy our last view of Venice. Most of us went upstairs because the view was better, but the staircase to the top was so steep and narrow that it felt more like a ladder. I had to be so careful walking up it because I had my huge green handbag from Austria, as well as my jacket, and the packet with the mask in my hands. I couldn’t wait to sit down when I got to the top because I was afraid that I was going to lose my balance.

The Bell Tower at dusk

Sam and Coralie hijacked the radio and put on their own music. So the two of them began dancing and provided us with some hilarious entertainment. Jye also joined in eventually. It was really funny watching them. The crazy music and laughter in the background was a great way to end the day and enjoy my last view of the Bell Tower and St Marks Basilica.

As it got darker, I knew that it would not be my last visit to Venice. I will definitely go back one day.

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.