I am SO glad that I went. What a beautiful part of our planet it is! With tiny villages nestled in valleys between peaks towering 3000m into the sky, and a blanket of snow at least 60cm deep, it was like a whole different world to me. I stayed in a guest house run by a wonderful couple, Stephanie and Laurent. They speak English and they are pretty much the only ones who do. So there I am, a citizen of the Southern Hemisphere, alone in snow country where no one speaks English. Kind of funny really… but with a view like I had, my book, a pair of snow shoes and Stephanie cooking, I was very happy! I arrived early evening when it was already dark, so you know that surprise when you wake up in the morning and see where you are. That first day was Sunday and there was a big cross country ski race finishing on the door step of the guest house. So plenty of entertainment for the day, aside from watching the skiers and the their last spurt of competitive spirit before they cross the finish line, a race is a race no matter the sport and there are always plenty of colourful bystanders to watch. The guest house dining room/bar was extended with a marquee and all participants and supporters where served a hearty lunch. I found myself caught up in the buzz and having to smile politely once or twice in response to friendly Frenchies trying to strike up a conversation, shjoe… what an experience! My plan to go for a long walk and explore that afternoon abruptly ended when I put my nose out the door and realised there was white fluff falling from the sky, a lot of it, and it was wet! Who knew… so instead I stayed inside and read in between watching the snow.
Undiscovered Alps is a 5 year old company and very successful, but its only made up of a British lady, Sally, and her French Husband, Bernard, just for clarification. Anyway, so the two of them took myself and another British couple ice climbing for the afternoon. I think it’s safe to say that those were the by far the best six hours of my entire trip. They drove us to a different valley, parked the car, and after gearing up we had a short walk up to a frozen waterfall. Bernard rigged up three leading ropes and we spent the afternoon taking turns on them. You have an axe in each hand which you slam into the ice, and crampons on your feet which you dig in toe first as you go up. It took me a few minutes to get used to the weight of the axes and get over the idea that the whole waterfall may crumble under me. But once I got the hang of it, it really was so much fun. On Tuesday I attempted cross country skiing, which is very different from the widely known downhill skiing. It was less fun but probably because you need more than a day to learn to stay upright. I had a two hour lesson with an instructor. Her name was Sophie and she was great, I think I enjoyed her more than the skiing. My last day in the Alps I spent with Bernard, he took me snow shoeing up a hill and this too was an incredible experience. As I said before, it is all so different to anything I have ever seen before, and walking uphill in the snow obviously has completely different dynamics to it. My senses were completely overloaded with natural magnificence and I was in awe that whole afternoon. The wind creates pretty patterns on the snow slopes, the same way it does in the desert. Bernard has lived his whole life in the area and so is a wealth of knowledge. He told me so much about the mountain range and the different peaks, knows all their names and altitudes. He told me about the wolf packs in the area and pointed out spoor and droppings of Hare and Foxes, also about the weather and the risk of avalanches. I had a running commentary all the way. All this was again in Frenglish… but still, it was all so interesting. After our walk he dropped me in Gap where I spent the night, and the next day took four trains in twelve hours back to London. It really is a spectacular part of the world, and with 300 days of sunshine a year and summer temperatures between 28 and 30, I can only dream of going back at a different time in the year with a pair of hiking boots and a mountain bike. Hmmm… perhaps one day.
The bulk of the trip was obviously the Contiki tour that I did, and quite different from everything that I have just described. It was a dash through some of the best cities in Europe and jam packed with attractions, tours, lots of good food and night life. There is simply too much to describe. It was all so wonderful. Doing a big bus tour like that has its advantages and disadvantages. The down side is that you are always part of a big group, which tested my sanity at times. Your schedule is pretty much planned for you, and you feel a lot like a tourist and less like a traveler. Having said that, there is absolutely no way that I could have done even half of what we did on my own, or for the amount of money that I did it on. It really is value for money. There are so many things that I would never even have known about, let alone had the resources to do them. So I am very glad that I did it. Let me tell you that the Australians are wonderful people and very similar to South Africans in many ways. But they are EVERYWHERE. My incorrect perception was that if I booked with a British based company like Contiki rather than the rival company Top Deck, I would have an opportunity for more variety. Clearly, a moment of naivety. We were a group of 44, more than half were Aussies, including the tour manager. Lucky for me, they were a great bunch of people to travel with. The tour manager, Jason, was absolutely outstanding as well and made the trip all the more wonderful. He has been doing this job for 5 years and carries around a stuffed Meerkat as a mascot. It was given to him by a South African girl on his very first trip because she said he reminded her of a Meerkat. This is the best way to describe this guy. He is like a Meerkat on a sugar high with an Aussie accent, wearing a psychedelic collar shirt. Behind all that though, he has a wealth of knowledge on every city we visited, from Prussian history in Berlin to the closest public toilet in Rome, it was both interesting and handy to have him as a tour manager.
We did so much and saw so much and ate so much, it would take ten pages to tell you one tenth of it, but here is the just of it. We spent a very unique Christmas eve and Christmas day in Amsterdam. My second visit to Amsterdam, and how I love that city! Berlin blew me away, it is such a great city. The highlight of the visit was most certainly a walking tour that we did with a local guide. I’m sure you know this city has a colourful history, from ancient Prussia to WW1, the fall of Germany and her rearmament, WW2 and eventually the Berlin wall. All this leading to Germany’s current democracy and policy of transparency. And oh my, the food in Germany! From there we went to pretty little Prague, again indulged in some amazing food and took full advantage of the Christmas markets. From Prague to the Beer capital of world, Munich! A beer hall in Munich is a marvelous experience and has an atmosphere that cannot be described, but can only be experienced. We saw the New Year in in Munich, which turns into little Baghdad with all the fireworks… I’m serious! It’s completely crazy, I couldn’t help thinking of all the emergency nurses working in Munich that night. From there we left Germania and drove to Venice… well, drove to nearby Venice and then took a boat to Venice the next day. It poured all day, as if the city needs more water??! But when you have an umbrella and good shoes, who cares! It certainly didn’t ruin the day. This crumbling Italian City is wonderful to visit! From Venice to ROMA! Wow, talk about a window into the ancient world. If I had to pick only one place to go back to, to see more of it would most certainly be Rome. From to Rome to the affluent north, a quick stop on a Tuscan wine farm for some cheese, wine and olives, and on to Florence. My highlight in Florence, Michelangelo’s statue of David carved out of a single block of marble. Cliché I know, but I feel like I never have to look at another sculpture in my life again. From Florence we headed back to the Germanic region of Lucerne Switzerland. If Rome is the city I would chose to go back to visit, Lucerne is the city I would choose to live in, if I had a lot more money of course. The tour ended in Paris and with Moulin Rouge on our last night, it was certainly a spectacular ending. And that, dear friends, was my Month in Europe.
Wow, what an amazing time. Thanks for sharing, Megan. Where will your nursing skills take you? Find out today by visiting the Continental Travelnurse website.