My Contiki trip of Europe – “A rite of passage for young travellers”: Part 1

By Carl Coetzee

I always wanted to travel around Europe and visit many different countries at once. I wanted to experience a world that was totally different to life in South Africa. Europe has many wonderful sights and sounds that one only saw in travel shows and in magazines. The rich history and the tasty food that Europe has to offer was a major drawcard for someone like myself.

Then I discovered Contiki, a tour operator who’s products that were sold in major travel agencies. Contiki did bus tours with experienced tour guides around Europe, Asia, North America and South America. I had decided to get a Contiki European brochure from a travel agency called Mocarmi Travel based in Amanzimtoti. I had decide to go in 2012 after I had finished my studies at college in which I studied Travel and Tourism Management. This was a great way for me to do an educational trip and have a holiday at the same time. 

I had chosen a trip called European Discovery, a 12 day tour that started in London, England, went through Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland and France then finished again in London, England. The trip start on the 21st March and finished on the 2nd April 2012, which was perfect for me as it cheaper than trips in European Summer and timing coincided with the European spring.

Fortunately for me, my father had lots of BA Air Miles, frequent flyer miles program on British Airways, so my flights to London from Durban were sorted out. I had to pay for the actual trip, my visas (British and Schengen) and travel insurance. Getting the visas were a hassle and a nerve racking experience involving numerous sleepless nights stressing over whether your application gets approved or not.

When I finally got everything in order, I was extremely excited to go and I was planning my luggage and what clothes to take. 

On the day that I was starting my trip, I left my home in Amanzimtoti around 14:00pm in the afternoon and started flying from King Shaka International Airport to London Heathrow International Airport. It was a brutal trip on the mind and body. It took nearly 24 hours to get to London airport before I could get off the plane and onto a London Underground train to my hotel, which took another hour. I stayed in the Imperial hotel which was a lovely four star hotel but I was so jetlagged that I slept until about seven pm that night. I only woke up because I was hungry and I went to a local Pizza Hut to eat dinner.

The next day was the official start of the trip and I had to make it to the Russell Hotel which was close to the Imperial Hotel, which is where I met the tour guide, bus driver and members of my tour group. We had to organise all the paperwork like emergency contact details and check that the passports had the right visas. 

Afterwards the tour guide suggested to the group to either meet and socialise in the hotel bar or go back to our hotels until we actually leave on the bus for our journey. There were 50 of us in the group and half of them were Australian. There were a few Americans, Canadians, New Zealanders and five South Africans in the group. The following day, we all met at the Russell hotel foyer with our luggage. 

Then we drove through London all the way to Dover on the coast of England to board the ferry to go to Calais in France. We had some time to take photos of the famous White Cliffs of Dover. The ferry trip took two hours to cross the English Channel to Calais. The ferry resembled a mini cruise ship with many restaurants for the tour group to eat at and several places to socialise.

We then check in at the border control at the port of Calais in France and proceed to drive through the countryside of France then through Belgium (which is very flat but beautiful) then into the first destination of our tour, The Netherlands or Holland as most called it. We had some leisure time after we arrived in Amsterdam to refresh ourselves. At night, we went on a canal cruise and then we went through the famous Red Light District of Amsterdam. This is where most of the brothels and “coffee shops” are situated (prostitution and marijuana are legal in Amsterdam and the whole of The Netherlands).

I also saw a live sex show in one of the theatres. Afterwards, most of my group wanted to smoke marijuana and I decided to go back to my hotel room as it was 2am in the morning. Contiki booked the group into the Best Western Blue Square Hotel in Amsterdam. The next day, I went to see Anne Frank’s house as part of the tour. In the afternoon, we travelled to St Goar in Bavaria in Germany.

St Goar is a small but typical German town on the banks of the Rhine River. The town is famous for making beer mugs out of the clay found in the banks of the river. There are also lots of castles along the Rhine River. I had decided to buy a beer mug for my father as he likes German beer and Germany. The hotel was called Hotel Montag St Goar. The next day, we travelled to Munich.

In Munich, the famous city for Oktoberfest, we did a city tour on bicycles but cut short by a sudden rainstorm. We all decide to visit the famous beer halls and had decided to have the famous beers and Schnitzels. The hotel where we stayed was called Azimut Hotel Munich City Ost situated in an industrial area on the outskirts of Munich.

My Contiki trip of Europe – “A rite of passage for young travellers”: Part 2

By Carl Coetzee

After Munich, we went to a concentration camp in Dachau, the first such concentration camp created by the Nazis during World War 2 before we went to Tyrol in Austria. In the camp, there was a gas chamber on the site but it was never used because the Nazis worked the prisoners to death. There were many memorials from different churches, synagogues and countries on the campsite. 

Later, we arrived in the Tyrol region of Austria, where the main city is Innsbruck. We visited the Swarovski Crystal Factory and Headquarters. We did a tour of the factory and went to the gift shop where I brought my mom a small Swarovski crystal necklace. We had a local ham sandwich which was a traditional Austrian meal in one of the local diners. The hotel we stayed in was called Pension Lukas KG.

Then we travelled over the Brendan Pass from Austria into Italy where there was some snow (which is very beautiful and more scenic than Van Reenen’s Pass in KZN) and we stayed in Venice on the Adriatic coast. We saw some old castles along the way to Venice going back to the Renaissance period. We had tried the wonderful gelato (similar to ice cream in South Africa but much taster) and did a gondola tour around Venice. We also visited St Mark’s Square which is famous for its well decorated churches and clock towers. The hotel we stayed in Venice, was called Eurhotel Mirano.

The next day we started our journey to Rome, the capital city of Italy also known as The Eternal City. We spent two days in Rome and visited the Coliseum, the Forum, various ancient Roman Temples dedicated to various Roman Gods like Mars and Venus (Our planets in the Solar System are named after several Roman Gods). The next day we did a full tour of The Vatican City, a separate city state within Rome and head of the Roman Catholic Church (Number of Catholic followers are 1.2 billion out of 2 billion Christians and the ruling seat of the Pope and the Catholic Church. The tour group also visited Michelangelo’s fascinating Sistine Chapel. We had some free time and I decided to see the Trevi Fountain in central Rome. Local legend states if you throw one coin into the fountain, you will get married and two coins, you will return to Italy someday and three coins, you will be unlucky and get divorced. The tour group stayed at the Park Roma Cassia Hotel. 

The following day, we travelled to Florence in northern Italy and did a full day tour of the city and we saw the Duomo, Basilica Santa Croce, Giotto’s Bell Tower, the Baptistery and the famous Piazza. We also had a group photo near The Duomo, one of the famous churches in Florence. Some of the group went to do a separate excursion to see a leather craft demonstration. The Contiki group stayed at Auto Park Hotel in Florence.

The following day, we travelled to Lucerne in Switzerland where the group could taste famous Swiss chocolate. The tour group also went up Mount Pilatus where I saw lots of snow on the mountain top, and we had a chance to explore Lake Lucerne and the Lion Monument. I also saw the Chapel Bridge in Lucerne.  Contiki booked the tour group into the Lowengraben Jail Hotel which was a feature hotel of the tour because it was a former jailhouse before it was transformed into a hotel.

The final destination was Paris, capital city of France and famously known as the City of Lights. We visited the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre Museum where I mainly explored the Ancient Egyptian History section and also managed to see the Mona Lisa painting by Leonardo da Vinci. I decided to try French cuisine and have some snails. It was very different to the snails done in South Africa as the snails in France were served still in their shells. At night, some of the group did an optional tour to the Moulin Rouge to a cabaret show. The tour group stayed at the Ibis Hotel Paris Berthier Porte de Clichy. 

After two days in France, we left Paris but some flew back home from Charles Du Gaulle but some of us like myself went to back to London via the ferry from Calais to Dover. I spent the final day in London where I went to the Museum of Natural History.

I flew back to South Africa from London. I enjoyed the experience of travelling around Europe and if I had the money, I would go and do another tour of Europe and possibly explore different regions of the Continent. I would recommend everyone who can afford to go on a Contiki trip to go on one, even if it is just once as it certainly was an eye-opener and a rite of passage for young travellers. Contiki has an office in South Africa and also have lots of offices around the world.  Contiki offers various discounts for people travelling on Contiki tours like 5% for repeat customers.

Contiki is also a part of a bigger company called The Travel Corporation which owns other bus tour operators like Trafalgar and Insight Vacations. The offices for these companies are also in South Africa in the major cities.