Saturday, August 7
Pics. This is day 2 in Corfu. This is the midpoint of the trip,
so this seems like a logical place to split the already longish travel journal.
If you've gotten this far, I commend you :) What does day 15 bring us? Why
George's boat Caique Cruise of course! Now what is that exactly? Well if you've
downloaded the movie, it starts around 36:08. George is quite a character;
you'll be able to identify him quite easily if you watch the movie. The cruise
itself starts off at one of the ports in Corfu and meanders to some unknown
destination (no, I did not bring a GPS unit with me). The final destination is
perhaps a 30-40 minute - or maybe an hour - ride on the boat and we end up at a
launch dock for all sorts for water activites. There's parasailing, ski jets
and the like. A complete description is covered in the
optionals section. This is definitely a nice change of pace from being
couped up in a bus every second day. Nice time to unwind and recover. If you're
not into all the water or parasailing stuff, you could always chill out on the
beach or take pics of others. There will be plenty of cameras being passed
around of those wanting to capture their Kodak moments. Here's a
pic of how NOT to take off. Can you say
rug burn? Yeh, that's gotta hurt ... On a side note, there might be a
Contiki budget/camping tour you might bump into. Yippee, more playmates :)
You'll notice that happens a few times, that you'll encounter other Contikiers
for various excursions, and especially at the highway pitstops !!! Europe is a
small world ... After lunch, which was probably something like a buffet of cold
cut sandwiches fruit dish, there was more aqua fun to be had. A group pic
before heading off for the cruise back home. Ahh, but it's not a straight line
back to Corfu town, there are 2 stops along the way for nice swimming holes.
George may ask the group to go skinny dipping - or he may not. It all depends
on whether a regional Contiki rep is there (in which case, George will be on
his *better* behavior) and how fun and risqué your tour group is.
After a long day of fun in the sun, most people
are completely beat. An included dinner at the hotel this evening and perhaps
some lounging by the pool or heading off to town for an evening stroll ... or
recuperating if you are still sick. That Contiki Cough spreads like wildfire on
the bus and many got bogged down with it. Face it, yer gonna get it so deal
with it ... nuff said, but don't let it stop you from having an amazing time.
My pet dragon is alive !!! optical illusion video (3.65 MB)
Sunday, August 8
'tis our 3rd day in Corfu, the first free day to explore. Day one was just resting since we vacated our ship cabins at 5 am - basically walking around the day in a zombie state of mind. Maybe it's just me getting old? A quick trip into town after breakfast since we can't check-in to our rooms yet and we were all shot. Day 2 on the island was a full day on George's Boat. And now day 3 - we get to relax at our own leisurely pace and explore town. Alyson was not a happy camper today (or was it tomorrow?) Misplaced her cell/mobile, never to be seen again. I wonder how many back up their mobile's contacts list? I know that I would lose some contacts permanently if I were to lose my cell. I better go do that this weekend! More vegging by the pool back at the resort and we were ready for the traditional Greek Dinner at at Taverna Gloupos (€30) later that evening. I think everyone went to this one. And there was 1 or 2 other Contiki groups there as well, just like the dinner in Florence. Good food, you get to dance with a potato?!!?!?!? Some fire dancing and plate smashing. Did I get your attention? see it in the ... you guessed it - movie :P U should know where to find the link by now.
Headphones mandatory !!! This sound clip not only goes from left to right, but up and down too !!! Holophonic Sound clip
Monday, August 9
Today we have a late departure from Corfu,
leaving the hotel around 3pm. Checkout time is 11 am, so after vacating the
rooms, some lounge by the pool, and many head into town one last time. Don't
miss out on the breakfast since this is one of the good ones. The first ferry
we catch is a 90 minute ride on a tiny ferry from Corfu to Igoumenitsa. The
next ferry is an overnight trip from Igoumenitsa to Ancona, Italy, and it's a
serious ferry known as the
Superfast Ferry. This ferry line inspires much confidence, with the
whole fleet being ultra modern built between 2001 & 2002. We are on the
Superfast XII and as the name suggests, the boat is fast (57 kph) !!! The
cabins we get are nicer than the hotel rooms in Venice !!! Nice restaurant, has
a few slot machines, gift store, *disco*, etc. you get the idea. One person who
had done a Caribbean cruise mentioned that this ferry was nicer than some
cruise ships. Well this is a short entry since all we do mostly is kill time in
town and hop on 2 ferries. Suggestion: on the Superfast ferry, try to be on the
top deck at sunset. It's a beautiful sight ... but make sure you use a flash if
taking people pics with the sunset in the background.
Tuesday, August 10
Marino, Verona, Venice Pics. Today is a short travelling day -
so short that we can even stop over at San Marino. My North American impression
of what and where San Marino is that it is some marina in California. OK ..
googling time, am I correct? Hummm, actually, there is a
San Marino in California; it's NE of Los Angeles - so I learn something
new everyday. But the real San
Marino at issue here is in Italy. It is also known as the world's
oldest republic. Quite small too at less than 61 square km (or 7.8 km x 7.8
km). On this tour, other tiny independant states we visit is the Holy See
(Vatican City) at 0.44 km square (0.6 x 0.6) and Monaco at 2 km square (1.4 x
1.4). We have yet to arrive at Liechtenstein, which is relatively massive at
160 km square (12.6 x 12.6). So what is San Marino? It's an old fortified town
on top of a hill dating back from 300 AD, but it not really on our tour,
but it did make for a nice lunch stop.
After San Marino, an actual stop on our tour is
a quick visit to Verona,
which is due west from Venice. This is not a very large city, but perhaps a
smallish-large city. It consists of 3 main attractions: the mini
Coliseum, 3rd largest in Italy; a lot of
shopping; and finally, it is also the backdrop of Shakespeare's Romeo
and Juliet. Along the way, there is a passage plastered with Post-Its and
heart-shaped paper pieces with messages of probably the amorous kind. At the
end of the passage way is the
fabled balcony as well as a bronze statue of Juliet. There are probably
many other things to see in Verona, but as always, this in not an indepth stop,
but more of a quickie. I wish we had more time, but alas, it was time to make
our way to Venice after a short stop here ... perhaps not more than 2 hours, if
Our final and permanent stop of the day is the
worst hotel for the whole tour. Worst in the sense that it was pretty run down.
The beds mattress sank to the bottom, broken and dangling light fixtures. No
elevator - so those that didn't travel light surely got some excercise.
Flickering lights, and light bulbs thats were of useless wattage. And once
again, those useless mini table cloths that they try to pass off as bath
towels. The hotel was not in Venice but on the main land. I think if we looked
for an equally run down place, we could've found one in Venice itself, but it
would've been logistically quite difficult. 1) There was probably no place in
Venice to accomodate us all. 2) The coach drops us off in front of the hotel,
and there are no motorized vehicles on the islands - definitely no space for a
Contiki coach. 3) No vehicles in Venice would mean that we would be lugging our
luggage with us. I supposed we could day-bag it. 4) It floods quite often in
Venice. A mixture of points 3 & 4 do not gel well together. But it sure
would've been nice to have accomodations in Venice. Tomorrow we are off
for a whole day in Venice, but tonight, we have the included hotel dinner (not
bad) and chilling out for the rest of the evening at the hotel ... which is
situated close to nowhere.
Wednesday, August 11
Venice (Venezia in Italian) is awesome (the city that is, not the
accomodations) ... well at least in my humble opinion. It's just as you imagine
it in the movies ... many canals, bridges, gondolas, crooked walkways and NO
cars anywhere (for obvious reasons). If you have a map of Venice, let's say
it's more of a guess of where streets *might* be, but many street corners have
directional arrows to the main landmarks such as the
Rialto Bridge, or Piazza San Marco. Speaking of Piazzo San Marco, it
means St. Mark's Square, and the history behind it is that St. Mark's body was
stolen from Egypt and buried in here, and this story is depicted in the frescos
of the 3 half dome arches to the basilica. As many of you know, it is true that
Venice is sinking, but in our time frame, what should impact you more is
probably when does it flood? Venice does flood, and it floods often, but most
flooding occurs in November and December.
This morning, breakfast at the hotel was fast -
nothing thrilling ... some cereal and bread. Hop on the coach for a quick bus
ride to the water taxi dock. Upon landing, we see the the famous Bridge of Sighs which connects the Dogo's palace to the
prison where condemn convicts were lead off to execution. Here's a trip planner
that is NOT included in this tour, nor is it mentioned by the TM:
The Bridge of Sighs is included in the guided Itinerari Segreti ("Secret Itinerary") tour of the Doge's Palace, which you
can book by appointment. This 90-minute tour is conducted in Italian; it also
includes the prisons, torture chambers, and other rooms that normally aren't
open to visitors. From June through September, tours are scheduled daily except
Wednesdays at 10 a.m. and noon. Reserve at least a day in advance, since the
number of visitors is limited.So what is Doge's Palace? As the
name suggests this was a palace and if you take the tour, the ceiling is as
ornate as in the Vatican Museum, and it has one of the world's largest
- so large (74 ft x 30 ft) infact that the original painter died before it was
ever finished and was completed by his son (poor kid). The
Doge was an elected ruler of Venice for life - kinda like an elected
king, but theirs heirs are not automaticaly crowned afterwards. I guess for the
most part, they did an OK job save for one - who was beheaded. Seems as
performance was not up to par for him. Too bad same isn't applied to the likes
of Enron and Worldcom or other corrupt executives. This is something I just
found out about while writing this up, but if you've gotten this far in the
Travelog, lucky you! I suspect there are English tours available as well. There
are probably more interesting tidbits in the rest of my ramblings ... so read
on ... Upon arrival at the main square,
Piazza San Marco, you will probably notice some birds ... (she just happed to be there). Here they are stretching their wings. I think they do these bombing
runs once every 20 minutes or so and it is quite the sight to behold. If you
remember the school of tuna in
Finding Nemo, then you get the idea. I wonder if they are all related?
A quick €6 elevator ride up the bell tower (not included) will
provide you with the nice views of Venice. Then we are off to the 2 included
glass blowing and lace demonstrations. More kickbacks for Contiki here. The
glass blowing is quite interesting - we watched one of the master craftsmen
cranks this glass horse another angle in under a minute (or else the
molten glass hardens). The lace demonstration was OK. Yadda yadda yadda ...
hand made ... blah blah blah. Looks machine made to me but what ever floats
your boat. The lace was one of those things where you just had to get a table
cloth or something for mom. And yes, I did get a table cloth set. If you do
intend on buying something, ask your TM if you can leave it at the shop and
pick it up before the gondola ride later in the day - this is what our group
did. At this point, you are free on your own. You will find that you will get
lost in this maze of a city. Somehow, Steve, Allen and myself ended up in the
hospital . Not because someone had an accident, but rather, we just got lost
and ended up there !!! Nice hospital though so you will be in good hands should
anything happen in Venice. As for the gondola ride - it's the thing to do in
Venice so you just have to do it - and as I mentioned, you can purchase
some drinks to take along for the ride (champagne perhaps?). Seeing Venice from
the gondola lets you see the ornate entrances to many old buildings since
gondolas used to be the only method of transportation. The dinner later that
evening has good food and 2 musicians (and if you are curious, you can see our
singing abilities - or lack thereof - on the
movie). After dinner en route back the the water taxi, Piazza San Marco
seems oddly strange at this time of evening; you will not see a single bird!!! BTW, if you do see a
bird, please leave me a message - I think I photoshopped out all the birds!!!
(just kidding). The evening concludes with some chillin' back at the hotel ...
the worst hotel in terms of quality (or lack there off) of the rooms; beds
mattresses that sank to the floor, musty smell, dangling light fixtures and exposed wires. Here's a
question: why do all the hotels in Italy seem to use table cloth-thin materials
for bath towels - heck, I felt like using toilet paper instead since it was
more absorbent!! Did we have toilet paper? I don't remember ... (jk). But I
enjoyed Venice (the city that is).
Thursday, August 12
Pics. Today we are heading up the road to Vienna, which is
almost at the eastern tip of Austria. Our lodging there is the
Eventhotel Pyramide which is quite a nice hotel. There was a
professional soccer team staying there at the same time so it's one of the
better hotels. Here are 2 pics of their pool:
Pic 1 (bottom left) and Pic 2. What else? They even have a
telephone beside the can! Now whether I'd place that phone
beside my ear is another question. There's a badminton court, table tennis,
squash court and after you're done doing that, there's 2-4-1 happy hour at the
bar. In the evening, you could head over to the club or play billiards across
the street in the mall. Hey, maybe buy something at the
freakishly large vending machine? I'm guessing this is one machine you
won't be able tilt if the machine doesn't spit out your food sustenance.
This evening we head into to town for the
optional classical concert and dinner. As mentioned in the
optionals section, if you do this optional, the concert is held in a
small oval hall in an old classical building. See the
pics. Afterwards, we take a stroll to another classical building for
dinner, which is very good - a sit down affair in an
old hall called
Wiener Rathauskeller. Upon returning back to the hotel which is quite
far from Vienna, some drinks at the pool hall in the large mall across the
street, as well as a massive tilt-proof
vending machine. That's it for this evening.
Friday, August 13
This morning we were met
with a large buffet seletion for breakfast before heading into town for a
walking tour of Vienna. Today continues your enlightment about classical music
- some Mozart
and the Strauss's (Jr & Sr) among others; the
Habsburg dynasty; the
Hofburg Palace; the Ringstrasse (or Ring Boulevard); and St.
Stephansdom Cathedral, the humble abode of the Archbishop of Vienna. One thing
to note, there's an interesting tour of the
Crypt about 10 meters below St. Stephansdom Cathedral which your TM
might point out that you can explore during our free time. I do recommend it
and it costs less than €7. I think they have 2 or 3 tours a day. Quite
fascinating - you see the resting place for all the Habsburg, past cardinals,
as well as massive caverns and wells full of bones since it was were everyone
was buried, as well as a mass grave for those who died during the
Black Death which killed 1/3 of Europe's population. On another note,
during the summer, you will probably see many
marching bands. Before heading off the the hotel, we visit the
Schnaps Museum. For €5, this was completely worth it and the Schnaps
range from sweet caramel flavoured for desert to potent Absinthe, and along the
way, you are shown how it is made and the history behind it. They sell Schnaps
and T-shirts of which I got both. The t-shirt was pretty funny, here's the
front ... and the
Back at the hotel, some lounged by the pool -
and i tried my hand at squash, kinda rusty after not playing competitvely or at
all for the last 10 years. 2 for 1 drinks during
happy hour afterwards at the hotel bar should NOT be missed. Very
happening place. A night-cap at McDonald's (or Mickey D's) later that evening
... Did you ever see
Pulp Fiction? Well this
menu might ring a bell...
Saturday, August 14
Pics. We depart Austria for Munich or
Germany today. Enroute, there is a stop at
Mauthausen, a World War II Nazi concentration camp. A very stirring
moment of the horrors and antrocities that were carried out on a massive scale
targeting population genocide. We enter a museum area of various letters and
artifacts housed in a modern building. We also watched a movie with another
Contiki group in a hall, but during the silent moments, the lack of sound was
almost absolute, only to be punctuated by occasional deep sighs & cringing
gasps from the shock of it all. Afterwards we are alotted 1 hour (NOT ENOUGH
TIME !!!) to tour the the actual concentration grounds beyond the
erected memorials; past thru the main doors from whence 60 years ago, most
never exited alive. If they were allowed to leave the camp, it was only as
prison labour for the local rock quarry. There were the bunkers where people
were placed like sardines until they were called. There was the gas chamber,
and the many furnaces whose cremation smokestacks never rested. It definitely
is a surreal place being there. You can read all the books and watch all
the movies, but until you are fully immersed in the surroundings, knowing that
this place or that place is where such and such happened imbues a solemn
sadness. I do have photos, but somehow they didn't make it to the web page, but
(which contains a variety of stills and small movie clips mixed with music)
does bring forth some of the emotion I am attempting to convey here. As a final
thought, I wish we had more time there, perhaps 2 hours instead of 1 hour, it
took about 12 minutes just to make the round trip walk from the museum to the
concentration camp. Do browse the
Mauthausen website. It is very good. May we never forget ...
We are now off to Munich, and for the first 1/2
hour, the ride is obviously very quiet as many pause in reflection. A little
about Germany. First off, it consists of 16 federal states or Bundesländer,
of which 3 are known as a free state or Freistaat. Actually, they are
all free states, but 3 of them decided to keep Freistaat as part of
their formal name. So what exactly is a Freistaat? It refers to a state
that is no longer ruled by nobility. Munich resides in on of these Free States,
the Free State of Bavaria or Freistaat Bayern. Actually, all the states
are no longer ruled by nobility and are all Free States, but the 3 "Freistaat"s
simply decided to keep that part of their name. The hotel of choice for this
single night is the
Dorint Novotel. Wow, what a nice hotel!!! Recently built in 2004, the
rooms were very modern, the
bathroom had a separate bathtub AND shower. A stocked mini fridge with
clear glass door. I think you're allowed to take 2 chocolate bars before they
charge you ... so I took both chocolate bars :) Orchids lined the lobby and
there was a free foosball machine, free PS2 and free internet
access. Yup, I think Contiki was trying to make amends for the hotel in Venice
or something. At €70/pp double occupancy including breakfast, Contiki could
afford to hole us up here for only 1 night. I not finished talking about
this hotel, but I'll describe more later on. We are here for a VERY short time
- infact there are only 3 other locations (aside from ferry rides) where we
only stay for the evening, that being Bordeaux, Tyrol/Hopftgarten, and St.
Goar. Referring back to the Contiki itinerary, there is the Marienplatz &
Glockenspeil and a Bavarian Beerhall. One of those things makes sense to me!! A
bunch of us decide to go straight to the Beerhall with our driver
Spooge skipping the
Marianplatz. so what did I miss by not walking with the TM and rest of
the group? What is this Marianplatz? Essentially it's the main market square,
Glockenspiel has at "17 o'clock each day, visitors can watch the
famous Glockenspiel or carillon. The figurines perform the Schläffertanz or
cooper's dance, which was originally performed in 1517 at the Marienplatz to
commemmorate the end of the plague." So there you have it ... I missed
something cute. Oh well. But the
Hofbräuhaus beer hall is really the main attraction in Munich. How can
I describe this? This is one HUGE beer hall, and regulars can leave their
beer Steins, and they have their
regular reservation(s). I suppose this is a place where you can fancy a BEvERage
of sorts and
everyone partook. BTW, the steins that they served come in a nice size: 1
Liter , so if you do go, know your limits, you don't want to end up in
the hospital - that just gets the TM & driver team really pissed
off at you!! And when you delay the coach the next morning, you get EVERYONE
PO'ed at you! So they serve beer here, anything else? Yes indeed, and the
specialty here is
pork knuckle which is the best I've ever tried - simply deliciously
sumptuous. A €5 cab ride back to the hotel, the bar was still open and
I had a night cap & chat with Alyson & Steve. The mixed drinks at the
hotel costo mucho dinero ... ouch.
Sunday, August 15
Pics. So in continuing about this hotel, breakfast here is an
optional €15, but since brekkie (as
the Aussie would say) is included everyday, we didn't have to pay. What
can I say about breakfast, the usual fare might be a breakfast buffets of
toast, croissants, or cereals and coffee or juice - continental style. But this
buffet was 5 star. Hey if I can give it 6 starts out of 5, I would !!! It is
that good. All sorts of fruits, every imaginable
salmon, shrimp cocktail, every type of deli meat,
fresh cut strawberries, a waffle maker,
orange juice squeezer, every cereal. A veritable smorgasboard of
gastronomic delights, fit for royalty or heads of state entertaining other
dignitaries!! €15 almost seems too cheap. Do not miss breakfast if you are staying at the
Dorint Novotel in Munich.
I've already mentioned not to end up in the hospital because of too much drinking - this usually means that you are gonna be late for the bus the next day. Watch the movie, the commentary is funny. But the individual in question seemed to be a veritable s**t magnet where everything happened to him; dislocating his kneecap just by walking in Barcelona, being the only person to get pickpocketted in Rome; that happens if you are on the subway carrying 2 bags - one in each hand, wearing a hat emblazoned with pins from all over the world and donning on a florescent rugby jersey with Australia printed in big block letters. Although he was amongst 35 Contikiers in a crowded Roman subway, he still got hit. Sheesh, his outfit was screaming "TOURIST here, and my hands are full, pickpocket me!!" I guess he didn't understand the term "to blend in". There's more stuff about this individual, but I'll leave it at that. Oh, suggestion #12 in the suggestions section was because of him. Yeah, his roommate was none too thrilled either trying to get his insurance papers out, or the TM being at the hospital at 3 am. GRRRR!!!! Onwards to our next destination ... Austria.
Wait a sec, back up the truck there grasshopper, weren't we in Austria just 2 days a go? Yes indeed - as in France(3x), and Italy, we enter these countries twice (as well as Germany)!! Hopfgarten is our destination today with a small stop at the Swarovski Museum. Ummm lotsa crystal. There's even a 10 ft crystal Christmas tree. Wanna bring some home? The gift shop has a few €30k+ pieces if you're so inclined. Onwards to Tyrol or Hopfgarten ... which is it? Here's a little geography lesson about Austria. There are 9 states within Austria, and Vienna is both a city and a state, as well as being the capitol of Austria. Ironically, it's also the smallest state as well, consisting of city center and the outlying suburban areas and is completely surrounded by another state: Lower Austria or Niederösterreich ... similar to Washington DC, which is surrounded by the states of Maryland and Virginia. Hopfgarten is a small town in the Kitzbühel district nestled in the eastern Tyrol state. So there you have it; Hopfgarten is a town in the Tyrol state. This is by far the shortest bus ride of the tour. Munich to Hopfgarten is only 70 km, and that gives us time to do stuff like parapenting that afternoon. What a helluva ride !!!! Better than any rollercoaster I've ever been on. Kinda expensive for 12 minutes but everyone who went didn't regret it at all. I took a few video clips while we were doing loops - kinda crazy. Oh ... don't forget to bring a windbreaker. It's windy and cold up there. If it weren't for parapenting, perhaps the transportation there and back to the hotel was another adventure thru the curved and undulating roads in the mountains. Maybe the driver had to go to the bathroom really bad ... twice. Maybe she didn't like us? Or maybe she used to be a Formula 1 driver before, and forgot she was driving a passenger van?
Back at base camp, our shelter today is Haus Lukas (the name probably means Lucas House for those of the English speaking crowd); a small bed and breakfast joint 3 stories high. Most Bed and Breakfast places do not have elevators, and this is no exception. You'll have to lug that suitcase up the steps. Nothing fancy at Haus Lucas except don't bother with the only coin-operated internet station. The connection completely sucks and you'll have to perpetually feed it puppy treats for minimal results. Sorry Hauslukas, I call it as I see it, and the truth hurts sometimes. After dinner, we are asked to help with returning our plates to the kitchen ... No biggie, this is the probably the closest we come to sampling the lifestyle of those on a Contiki Camping Experience. Have you tried the Wiener Shnitzel yet? You must - it's part of the Austrian culture, like pizza in Italy, Fish and Chips in the UK, beer in Germany, Ouzo in Greece, or poutine in Québec. Wait, how did Québec get on this list? Well being from there, I do have my biases.
Monday, August 16
Pics. Something Odd here? What's up with the 2 Wunderground weather stickers? I have a beef with Wunderground here. No sticker or mention of Lucerne (more info), but they do have a sticker for the likes of Southend Saskatchewan. I'm from Canada and I've never heard of Southend (full wikipedia entry [24 words]: Southend is a small village in Northeastern Saskatchewan, Canada. It sits at the southern end of Reindeer Lake, the ninth largest lake in Canada.) Population? Maybe 1? Nice, a village gets a sticker but Lucerne didn't make it, although GM thought it worthy enough to name a car after it. Since Lucerne is almost between Bern & Zurich - they are seperated by only 100 km from each other, take an average of the 2 weather stickers above and voilà, that should give you a ballpark idea of weather in Lucerne.
This morning we pack 2 days worth of stuff since we're staying atop Mt. Pilatus for the next 2 evenings. We won't be seeing our suitcases for our duration here and some will need more clothes on the side because we're making a white water rafting stop before Lucerne. As I've mentioned before in the optionals section, I'd skip this because it was FREAKIN' FREEZING !! Being under the spell of the dreaded Contiki Cough didn't help matters much either. I think water is colder than ice up here - no kidding. If you've done a class 5 rapid, save your €€€€'s. Infact if you've done a 3 or 4, I'd say skip this - the rapids were a 2 ... maybe it reached a 3 for 1/100 of a second.
What's in store for today ... oh oh oh oh ... we get to see 2 new countries - one of them during a 45 minute pitstop. And what country is this (so that Contiki can inflate the country count on this tour)? Why it's none other than Liechtenstein, all 12.5km x 12.5km !!! Run a lap around the country and it's a little more than the distance of a marathon. I suppose we could've driven around the place and skipped it all together, but in reality, I think it's just part of Switzerland since they use the Swiss franc, and we did pass the Swiss boarder before arriving here!!! Supposedly there are 34,000 inhabitants. Mail a postcard, get your passport stamped and grab some grub on the run and that's your 45 minute pitstop. I did manage to take a picture of a Chateau w/ scaffolding all around it. I think the king of this city ... err ... country lives there. Time to leave this country and onwards to Switzerland. Oh wait, my bad, we are in Switzerland. hehehe.
OK, here's what I learned about Switzerland. They are a neutral country, but that just means they are armed to the teeth with military weapons hidden everywhere. Every able-bodied male must serve in the army or the airforce from the age of 19 until they are 41. The navy is not an option. As well, everyone brings their military-issued weapons home (unless you are part of the airforce). Now there's a good deterent against home invasion violence, no? What else, there are many tank traps and all the tunnels are lined with explosives to repel an invading force. As well, there are enough shelters (containing hospitals and commmand and control centers) to house every Swiss citizen. Pretty impresssive for a neutral country, eh? Looks like joining the military is a sweet job, unlike joining the weekend reserves in the USA, all of them got stuck in Irag/Iran for more than a year! Oh, and the Swiss Guard also protects the pope. On the matter of Banking, this is where the Über-well-to-do place their $$ if they want complete privacy. Rumour has that this land produces a few watches, some chocolates, and multi-purpose knives.
Our arrival at the base of Mt. Pilatus was just in time considering we encountered tons of traffic due to construction and the general european holiday season. Apparently if you don't catch the last gondola rides up, game over, either you hike up the mountain (the hotel is at almost 7000ft above sea level) or you wait until the next ride the next morning. And some tours have missed to last ride unfortunately. As the 2 stage gondola disappears into the clouds, the air gets thinner and it does become a little chillier. My roommate Allen, travelling by the sacred creed of travelling light needed a sweater, so off to the gift shop. How about a sweatshirt with "Swiss Made" printed in front (but made in India nonetheless according the label :P )? Time to get settled in ... There was another Contiki Group (Vista) already at Mt. Pilatus and here's were it gets interesting. There are 2 hotels atop Mt. Pilatus; one is an antique building Pilatus-Kulm, while the nice shiny metallic round hotel you see in the brochure is the Bellevue. So what's the diff you may ask?
From the website:
"Step back into the last century: the Hotel Pilatus-Kulm, built in 1900, enchants guests with its very special ambience. In 1999, the building was placed under protection order as a monument in Canton Obwalden worthy of preservation."
Translation - There's a key phrase "last century"!!! It has a nice interior but the bathrooms situation is a little different. There is only 1 bathroom per floor ... or 44 people divided by 3 bathrooms. I guess that what you get for the special "protection order as a monument in Canton Obwalden worthy of preservation" as well as "very special ambiance". Sorry, but I prefer modern ambiance - like a bathroom in my own room.
... and since there was a schedule mix-up, our group got the nice Bellevue with a bathroom in each room!! That Vista group was PISSED !!!! But FYI, all Panorama tours are scheduled to stay at the antique shack. As the Contiki brochure says on Day 25: "... For the next two nights stay atop Mt. Pilatus in the Victorian section of the resort complex." Last time I checked, there was nothing modern associated with the word Victorian. After the included dinner in the Victorian Complex,
a bunch of us went for a stroll. There are 3 lookouts; 2 of which are essentially beside our humble metallic abode, whilst the highest peak is a 1/2 hour hike to the far side of the mountain. Naturally, the goal of our stroll was to get to the highest peak, and we were not disappointed, the view is awesome here. Our TM warned us that most of us will probably take alot of photos, and my how those words ring true.
Local Time - Lucerne, Switzerland:
23:43 April 25 2015
Real time weather camera image from Mt. Pilatus (yes where your hotel is).
Weather Camera Installation (Pic 1, Pic 2)
Larger (4450 x 550) real time version from webtuning GmbH can be found here.
Back at the bar, we chilled and introduced ourselves to the Vista group til many called it a night. I, on the other hand, decided to scope the lookout behind the hotel with camera and LED flashlight in hand. At midnight, the non-moonlit side is literally pitch dark, but you get unbelievable photos - no light polution from street lamps. You can scan thru the photos, but the movie really brings it to life. An apropos adage about the movie: the whole is WAY more than the sum of its parts. And perhaps consider this travelogue and the rest of this website as a potpourri of Coles Notes, Cliff Notes, Schaum's Outline, or Contiki Panorama Guide For Dummies.
Tuesday, August 17
Now isn't that a treat, eh? You probably thought this travelogue would be just a buncha words, but NO!!! That Panoramic above is a real time view from just above the hotel, so drop by often and see what it's like from Mount Pilatus. My how time flies, seriously. When you are on the trip and are thinking "Ugggh, did I screw up chose a trip that is too long?" And by the end of week one, yer thinking that this will be a long trip. But now we are almost at the conclusion - day 25 and it seems like this trip only started! Today's breakfast was the regular offering buffet of toast, juice coffee and cereal. Maybe a fruit on the side? After brekke, we take a 2 stage 1/2 hour gondola ride to the bottom of the mountain. The upper gondola is one of those massive ones that can a bucket of ppl (~20 ppl).
One thing about Switzerland, is that this place is very clean. A 5 minute walk from the Gondola base station to the bus stop and I could probably count the number of cigar butts on one hand!! Maybe a street sweeper had recently passed by? But I think not. This place is Cleansville, Planet Earth. A walking tour before we were eventually herded into a tourist trap; a Swiss watch and pocket knife shop. Does anyone still buy a watch these days? I've only worn a watch twice this millenium - while going Greek Island Hopping 5 years ago and for the European Panorama, and Spain & Portugal for this go around. Otherwise, that's what a cell/mobile is for. It's got a flippin clock so lose the watch - although it is a fashion accessory that serves a redundant purpose. Some free time on our own before catching the scenic boat ride along Lake Lucerne. Free time consisted of eating at Stadt Bistro which had very good food. There are many places to see in Lucerne, but tow really do stand out; the Dying Lion tribute to the fallen Swiss Guard, and the Chapel Bridge (Kapellbrücke) which was partially destroyed in 1993 (actual fire, burnt out section) The bridge has since been restored. Looking back at the restored bridge, the question comes to mind: Why was this bridge crossing the river in a diagonal? It's not the most efficient route. Oh well, this is Europe and things are not strange - just different. Same applies for Florida drivers ... all the %$T@#$@#$ slow drivers parked in the passing lane. MOVE DAMMIT !!! No wonder Miami, Florida tops the list for road rage. As for the Swiss Guard, this was a tribute to their sacrifices and steadfast loyalty. Two examples are cited often; the defense Tuileries Palace during the 1792 French Revolution where 600 of 900 perished when the mob stormed the palace. Another honour, although not engraved on the Dying Lion monument is protecting Pope Clement VII in 1527 during the sacking of Rome when 147 of the 189 Guards perished. Enough history for you ... we take a Lake cruise - nothing spectacular, quite a big yawn in my opinion. It's just a way to get to the Cog Train side of Mt. Pilatus. A pretty disgusting dinner ontap at the hotel. Seriously, this seemed like a completely different chef!!! Last night was edible - infact pretty good, but tonight, the staff took just as much back to the kitchen as they brought out - just in a different form-factor; all stirred up my us. This was followed by a lame disco night at the hotel's main lobby. OK, I'm peeved here, why didn't they hold this disco night last night when the other Contiki Vista group was here ?!?!?! They had some cuties !!! Michelle from Canada (she did mention she visits Florida quite often), 2 sisters from Miami ...
Wednesday, August 18
St.Goar Pics. Along the banks of the Rhine river 80 km east of Franfurt resides the small town of St. Goar (or Sankt Goar am Rhein. It's about midway from Lucerne to Amsterdam, hence a perfect place to set up shop for the night. As mentioned before, Europe has very strict driving laws and you will never see the coach's speedometer ever crack 100 kph. Another rule is that driver can only drive for X hours per day. This is probably monitored by a) GPS tracking unit (Contiki coaches have been broken into before, but in Russia, the whole coach disappeared !!!), and more so, b) if you ever sit in the front, you'll notive the driver occasionally inserting a disk into the dash board. All the telemetry for the day is written to the disk, ie: distance, avg speed, max speed, how long the coach was driven for, duration of rest stop etc. Another new twist in Europe as of May 2006, is that all occupants in any moving vehicle must wear seatbelts except for public buses. Don't know how they're gonna enforce that one??? Oh and the best view is at the front of the bus.
Whew ... I little off topic there, but let's get back to St. Goar; it is quite picturesque as it sits in a valley immediately flanked by steep hills. Our first stop is a the Montag Beer Stein tourist trap. You get a nice description of how beer steins are made and the different types. I will admit, the beer steins are very unique and intricate works of art. I bought one myself!! Actually, I bought 2. A nice way they increase the perception of value is by making certain steins limited edition. The one that will catch everyone's attention is the stein with a piece of the Berlin wall attached on top. At Montag, it costs €149 (select Berlin Wall Steins top right) + shipping since you really don't wanna carry this thing around with you. If you live in the US, buy the same thing online for US$190 including shipping and you'll save yourself a few bucks ... Next up is the optional Wine Tasting Weingut Schloss Rheinfels €8 as described in the optionals section. A short movie, some cheese, and 4 samplings of different wines ranging from dry to sweet including a house specialty - ice wine. We get to keep the shot glass as souvenir. A scenic boat cruise down the Rhine river as we see some castles and the the famouse (never heard about it 'til now) Loreley Statue. St. Goar is a nice little town I'm thinking. We can surely make a night out of it as we did in Bordeaux. The hotel shouldn't be too far. Eash was I mistaken ... we drove and drove and drove. Our final destination was Urbar (maybe that's German for in-the-middle-of-nowhere)? So a St.Goar outing was out of the question. We were in a village with 1 bar and *restaurant*. That said, guess where we had dinner? This place place was quaint but not interesting. Judging by the signs (pic1, pic2) posted on our room doors, English is not their forté. Next stop ... Amsterdam.
Thursday, August 19
Amsterdam Pics. Amsterdam in a nutshell. So what is Amsterdam famous for? If you've downloaded the movie, the answer is ... obvious, no? Well our first stop is a cheese & clog factory. All sorts of cheeses and how they are made ... there was even a smoked and some spiced cheeses. Next door, there are many wooden clogs of all shapes colors and sizes, and even one you can sit in! A quick demo of how a clog is carved out and an opportunity to buy a pair. By the way, I think that these things are machine made, but the demo is a nice show 'n tell of traditional methods. Time to go borrow some granny bikes from Dijk's Bikes and check out some dykes ... Off to the hotel before we are educated in some of Amsterdam's cultural offerings. At the hotel we see that this is really a small Contiki world since who's the bartender? Why it's none other than the guy who was carving out the clogs. Guess carving clogs doesn't pay much. I think Contiki is this hotel's largest customer since I counted no fewer than 3 other Contiki couches at various stages of their tour ... arriving ... leaving ... beginning the tour ... ending the tour ... etc. Contiki's bus maintenance garage isn't too far from here either. A little rest, a few drinks before dinner and then an early dinner before heading out to town. The included hotel buffet is not that bad. Actually, the meals here are pretty good and diverse.
Now for a bus ride into town. The hotel is what ... 40 km from town? Maybe 50? You get the idea, we are not excactly situated close to the action, but more so, in tulip/canal/windmill-ville. Nice and clean and censored. Time to break all that. If your TM hasn't mentioned hasn't mentioned it by now, it's time to go smoke up and watch some live porn - in that order. Enough of the bikes and dykes. Wandering thru the camera free zone of the Red Light District, our first stop is Cheech & Chong's favorite recreational pastime. How funny would it be if we could actually get to one of these "coffee houses" by 4:20 pm ?!?!?! SWEEEEET But as the summary goes, the Bulldog & Grasshopper are more touristy whilst the other places *might* have better quality. The muffin and joint had almost no effect. You get what you pay for - the 3 or 4 joints in a plastic bag we shared sucked. I had to keep on lighting up that useless stick I had after every puff. Next time I'll just get the big joint. Ahhh, afterwards was the live sex show at Casa Rosso. I thought it was funny and tasteful, as far as 2 people copulating on a rotating stage. You might even be selected to be a participant, so I'll leave it at that. Go see it. This was actually worth it since we did get a group rate and 2 drinks are included. I like Amsterdam ... I plan on returning for a 3rd time.
Friday, August 20
Today is a free day to explore. After a quick breakfast buffet, a bunch of us head over to Anne Frank's House / Museum for €7.50 .
Get there 20 minutes before it opens (9AM) to avoid the crowds. And just who is Ms Frank? She probably wrote the most famous diary of the WW2 era whilst in hiding from the Nazi. Afterwards, there 's the must-do (even though I dislike the taste of the beer) Heineken (details bottom). You'll probably have some free time so check out other things? Maybe the Sex Museum or venture thru the 5 fun-filled floors of the Erotic Museum. Don't forget to get a t-shirt in Amsterdam ... of which many are quite interesting. By now, it's almost time to rendez-vous for the trip to the hotel and changing before our final dinner together at the van den Hogen Restaurant located in a seaside village of Volendam. I never had any real complaints about the food - even in the crappy hotel in Venice, so this food was pretty good I suppose. Well it'd better be for €30. Last stop ... the Amsterdam open boat (pic1, pic2) cruise w/ another Contiki group just starting their tour!!! Before the festivities begin, we were all served some Toppertje which was not that bad - a shot of some sweet syrupy alcoholic red drink. Afterwards, All U can drink and on tap was beer, one type of red and one type of white. A very memorable cruise ... And back at the hotel, more drinking before everyone was worn out. Apparently we need to get up tomorrow since we are leaving for our last destination ... London.
Wednesday, August 21
London Farewell Pics. So this is it ... our last official day on tour together. All good things must come to an end. Apparently, we are passing thru Belgium. Yes, that's right, it's the country that is mentioned on just about every Contiki European tour, but no one ever sees. Kinda like the Red-Headed stepchild country in Europe. Luckily for Liechtenstein, we were able to bless it with a bathroom break. Oh, speaking of pit stops, the driver strongly begs you NOT to piss and especially NOT TO POOP in the lavoratory. Think of it as use only in life & death emergency situations, since the driver is the one who cleans it out. Maybe I should've mentioned that at the very beginning? Nah, fuggit !!! I have more suggestions for Contiki, from Venice to Vienna, we could've swung down a teenie little bit and touched on Slovenia and Vienna is basically right beside Slovakia. I've just increased the country count from 12 to 14 countries. That there is marketing baby!! Hey Contiki, are you listening?? As we make our way back to London, our TM hands out a contact list containing any contact info that people volunteered a few days before the end of the tour. Standard fare is email at least, and my suggestion, use your hotmail or yahoo account - chances are you'll have that longer than your present email at work. Or maybe some folks didn't want to be contacted ... ever again. Fine by me, there are 5 billion other people on this planet I have yet to meet. Who knows. Some left only addresses. What can I say about home addresses? Well I'm not snail-mailing anything so too bad, get with the program. EMAIL dammit! Oh and one last thing - is it really that tough and too much to ask to write legibly? Some of that crap look like Hieroglyphics so I lost those contacts as well. Or perhaps, what if they intentially wrote a wrong email address? Eh, their loss. More beer in London. More photos. Final goodbyes.
|ps: || some closing thoughts ... why did I chose this 28 day Panorama First of all, I wanted to see as many countries as possible. There were longer tours available such as
European Explorer 31 days
and a 3 other budget tours. Since I wanted my own bathroom in a hotel room (ie: Superior tour), that left me with 2 options; the Panorama or Explorer. I really wanted to go to Corfu and had already previously done Greek Island Hopping in 2000, that effectively eliminated the Exporer. Oh, and yes, I am still in contact with people from that Greek Island Hopping Tour from 2000. They had better hand writing (see Day 29 for explanation)!!! What else, 2 days stops were a welcome relief instead of the hectic 1 day stops on the shorter tours. I don't think I could ever do I rush tour spending a night at each location. Here's the general picture: you are at city X eating breakfast, get on the bus for "x" hours, arrive at next destination. Now by the next morning, you are already leaving this place? But you just got there a little after say 1 pm ... tour ... eat dinner - maybe hit a bar /go clubbing, sleep wake up, rush to eat and catch the bus. Nah, that's something I couldn't do. 28 day Panorama will go by very quickly. This tour would be more accurately titled, "A Taste of Europe". Now that I've been introduced to the various places, I can visit my favorite stops later on in life. Next year 2007, I wonder if I can fit in the Egypt & Nile, Turkey, Greece, Scandi & Russia, Aussie Explorer, Kiwi Explorer. Kinda optimistic agenda. We'll see what happens. Maybe the stock market will be nice to me ... Fingers crossed. I'm probably dreaming ...|
Oh and by the way, if you're wondering if it'll be fun. Yes, you'll have a boatload of fun. Worried about travelling solo for the first time? More than half the bus (60%-66%) are solo adventurers like yourself. Should you get a single room? Eh, save your $$$ for something else. Chances are yer gonna be good buddies with your roommate. And if things don't work out with your roommate, your TM will do their best to fix the situation. I've seen it happen and there is a solution for every problem. Any medical conditions? gluten intolerant, diabetic, penicillin allergy, etc - just make sure you let your TM know during the pretour meeting. Special meals can be arranged ahead of time. Bon voyage !!!