European Vacation

European Vacation

 

By Doc Souza

 

Our family just got back from a European vacation. It was something we had been talking about for a few years and finally planned a year ago.  My wife did all the planning. She had been to Europe several times with a good friend.  She booked it with a travel agent and used Trafalgar Tours.  We thought for a family of 4 that it would be easier and better to be on a tour and not worry about trying to arrange where to go.  After completing this trip, I have no doubt that it was the best way for us to see to Europe.  I can’t imagine trying to set all this up, get the tickets, find places to stay, arrange travel.  We had one main tour guide that was with us on the coach/bus all the time and also on on our walking tours of the city.  In a few places we had “local” guides that gave us more detailed information.  Our Trafalgar guide, Emile, was awesome.  He gave us just enough information, didn’t overload it, and was very funny.  Dry sense of humor that kept us on our toes. I would recommend something like this for first time visitors to Europe. Next time we will maybe focus on one country and see more of that. Something like Italy, Ireland or England. There is a lot we didn’t see this trip.

 

I kept a daily log of where we went and what we did. Glad I did. After 14 days, you forget some of what you did and when you did it. Some of the cities run together or we saw multiple cities in one day.

 

 

14 days, 16 cities, 7 countries.

 

First time going to Europe. First time on a flight longer than 5-6 hours.  Farthest east I have been is the US east coast.  Farthest west is Hawaii. This should be interesting.  

The flight from San Francisco to London is only 9.5 hours. I thought it was 12-13 hours. The return trip home is longer.

Landed around noon London time. Had to go through customs. That took some time. Then we were supposed to look for a driver with a red sign with our name on it. Didn’t see him. So we had to call the travel company in charge of our tour. The guy was there. Holding up a white sign with red writing but the name was the first and middle name of one of our kids so we didn’t notice. Took one look at our bags and said he didn’t have room. So then he called in a backup. That took 45 minutes. The backup driver arrives with a car that wasn’t big enough so we had to keep a suitcase on our lap.

 

So the driver said he was told to take us to the Tower Hotel. We said no our itinerary says Park Plaza. Got to the Park Plaza and had no reservations. Showed them our itinerary and they couldn’t find. Finally after 30 minutes they booked us a room. So by now it’s 4 pm and we were exhausted and decided to take a nap. 30 minutes later the phone rings and they tell us we are at the wrong hotel. So we pack our stuff and head to the right hotel. 15 minute wait for a taxi and then 45 minute drive to go 3 miles. First hotel was nicer. Second one was in a better location, right by the Tower Bridge in London.

 

Got the chance to eat dinner and then take a little walk around town. Very beautiful city. So much history and so many historic old buildings.

 

Day 2. Got up early and took walk 2 mile walk around 5:30 am. We are right by the Thames River.  Had breakfast and then booked our activities for the day. Our actual tour doesn’t start until day 3 so we had a free day.

We booked a tour of the Tower Bridge and London bus tour, where you get on and off as you please.  Got to see the major sites. Buckingham Palace and the changing of the guard. Drove by the House of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and saw part of Big Ben. It’s being renovated until 2021.

Also took a short boat ride on the Thames and saw the London Eye. One of the worlds most famous Ferris wheels. The ride takes 30 minutes to compete. If moves very slowly. I told my family that I’ve seen that thing destroyed in quite a few movies so I wasn’t going on it. 🙂  Actually it didn’t look like much fun so we skipped it.

We toured the Tower Bridge and got to go across the very top. They have a glass floor on part of it and you can look down to the lower level of the bridge and the water. Kind of freaky. Also got to tour the engine room. The draw bridge is raised about 3 times a day. We did get to see that go up.

Did a lot of walking today, over 17,000 steps

 

Photos from London

 

Day 3. Met our tour this morning. Had to be ready to go by 5:30 am to meet the rest of our tour. 47 people total. 3000 miles in 12 days.

We left London around 7 am for Dover, England. It was a two hour bus ride. The bus or coach as they call it, will be our main form of transportation for the next 12 days. From there we took the ferry to Calais, France. We went through French customs at Dover. The ferry is more like a cruise ship. It’s about a 90 minute ride. They have a food court and a shopping area on the boat. Also lounge seating for all the riders.

 

Outside of Calais, there are tall fences and walls.  The tour guide said this is a recent development due to immigration issues in Europe.

Once the ferry docked, we got back on the bus to exit the ferry. We drove along the coast of France, past the city of Dunkirk, to Belgium, about a 45 minute drive.  Interesting difference between England and France and Belgium, they drive on the right side of the road in France and Belgium. London drivers use the left side. The only country we saw that did that.

Stopped in the town of Brugge in Belgium. Took a walk into the town. Saw older buildings from the 11th century. Shopping and dining there too. Amazing architecture. Huge open town square, where people gather and hang out.

After leaving Brugge, we drove to Brussels, the capital of Belgium. We walked to another beautiful town square, surrounded by ornate buildings.

We ate dinner as a group at a little restaurant. It was very warm. According to the guide and several locals, it is very warm this summer in Europe.

Interesting note about Belgium, this is where the Smurfs were created. This year is the 60th anniversary of the cartoon and they have a year long celebration.  

Belgium has three main languages, Dutch, French and German. Over the years, the country and been under the control of different countries.

We stayed in a very nice hotel in Brussels, the Sofitel. Our guide said this will be the nicest place we stay.  Breakfast is included with our stay.

13,000 steps today. That’s about 6+ miles.

 

 

Day 4

Breakfast at 6:30 am. Not too early. First really good sleep last night. A good solid 7 hours. Got on the bus at 7:30 am to drive to Germany. We drove through the Netherlands to get there. Took a 30 minute break after a two hour drive. That’s kind of a pattern. Drive for around two hours and then stop either for a break or as part of the tour. The tour guide advises us to use the restrooms at the stops. The bus has a bathroom for emergencies but it’s not recommended. So his code phrase for telling people to use the restroom is “accomplish your mission.”  He thought that was better than saying use the bathroom. That ends up being something we are told to do throughout the tour. It became an inside joke with all of us.  You wouldn’t think it would be necessary, but I can see where it is.  Our family joked that after it was done, we wouldn’t know when to use the bathroom anymore. 

 

After the break another 2 hour drive to the town of Boppard. From there we took a one hour cruise on the Rhine River. Beautiful trip where we saw several medieval castles.

Driving from city to city is very similar to driving in California. Some areas have farm land, like the Central Valley. Some have more trees and hills like driving to the ocean or the mountains.

After the cruise, we hit the road again for two hours to Heidelberg, Germany.

Arrived in Heidelberg and had the option to take a little hike up to a castle. Quite a few steps up. The view from the top was beautiful.  A common theme in the European cities so far is large town squares. They are huge open areas, maybe 3 city blocks square. People go to the squares to gather and hang out. Several local restaurants extend their seating into the square are. Today the World Cup was on TV and several businesses had big screen TV’s set up.

 

Photos from Germany

 

Day 5. One night in Heidelberg and we hit the road to Munich. It’s a 5 1/2 hour drive. Lots of traffic since it’s a Monday I guess.

We take breaks every 2 to 2 1/2 hours to get something to eat or accomplish our “missions”. The restrooms are not free in most places.  It costs .50 – .70 Euros. In some places you get a voucher to use at the store. 1 Euro is worth about $1.15 US dollars at this point.  Some places only take Euros. No cash or credit cards. We are trying not to get too many Euros.

We stopped in Munich for lunch. Most of us ate at a hof brau. This one was huge! Lunch was really good.  

We’ve learned to use the Google translate App. Works really well. Great for the menus. Most of the places speak some English.  Some more than others so that has helped.  Everyone is very nice so far at the various towns.  

Made our way to Innsbruck Austria, known to many as the host of two Winter Olympics games. Innsbruck is nestled in a valley between two mountain ranges. There was almost no snow on the mountains but you could see the outlines of the ski runs and even the ski jump.

Many of the meals are included on the trip. Usually breakfast and dinner on most days. Breakfast is a buffet. I’m not a big breakfast guy. Usually I eat cereal, so that part of it is getting old. I’m pretty much sausaged out at this point.

Tonight we had the chance to go to a small restaurant on a farm. Very quaint. We got a quick tour of the farm. One of our better meals. We’ve been trying new things at each stop.

 

 

Day 6, on the road again. Heading to Vienna Austria for two nights! Yes, finally spending more than one night in a city.  Two hour drive to our stop in Salzburg, known as the home of the Sound of Music in the movie and birthplace of Mozart.

Another interesting thing is crossing from one country to another is like going from state to state at home.  There are no border check points.  They sometimes do spot checks but we haven’t had any yet. Today we traveled from Innsbruck to Vienna, but had to go

through Germany.

In Salzburg we stopped for a tour and met a local tour guide. Salzburg is the birthplace of Mozart.  The guide took us on 45 minute walking tour of the village. It’s older buildings with modern shops. We saw where Mozart was born. We had our best meal yet at a steak house called Maredo, for lunch. Fairly inexpensive too. They had an incredible salad bar. I’ve been craving a nice salad. Everything is meat and potatoes here so far. The ribeye and salad was really good.

After lunch it’s a 4 hour drive to Vienna.

Countryside is similar to the rest of Europe.   

Interesting thing we have noticed.  Ice is a precious commodity here. None of the hotels so far have had ice. The bar and restaurants do. If you get a drink, they give you 2-3 cubes of ice. A couple of times we have asked for ice and they say they don’t have any.

Another thing we have noticed on our trip through Europe is that there is no wasted land. Every inch of land is used. There is no unused farm land like you see along some of our freeways.

Last night we had dinner as a group at a place called Marchfelderhof. It is well known for celebrities to dine there. Lots of photos of celebrities on the walls. They had musicians there to play music while we ate. Two dancers came in and taught some of our group to Waltz.

After dinner we had a 30 minute drive to the hotel and our tour guide played some 70’s to current time dance music. Everyone was singing and having a great time. Highlight of the trip so far. After getting back to the hotel about 10 of us went to the hotel bar to have some drinks.  

 

 

Day 7

First day we got to sleep in. Since we are staying around Vienna, we skipped The optional early morning tour. I went for a 3 mile walk around town before breakfast and meeting with our tour to see Vienna.  

It is a beautiful city. Incredible architecture. So many old buildings, that you have to see to believe. We did a driving tour then a walking tour of the downtown area. The good thing was we got 3 hours downtown to eat and shop.  Found a cool downtown cafe 7 floors up on a shopping center that had a nice view of the city. The tops of Vienna’s many churches were visible.  

As we walked back to our bus after the city tour, a police motorcade drove by with the President of Iran. He was meeting with Austria’s President. We just happened to be by the street as they drove by.

Later in the evening we went to dinner and had the opportunity to see a concert that featured the music of Strauss and Mozart.  There was also some singing and dancing to a few of the songs.

 

 

Day 8

We leave Vienna and Austria to head to Venice Italy. Really looking forward to this last part of the trip with Italy and France. It’s a 6+ hour drive. Not looking forward to that part of it.

Stopped a few times to complete our “mission”. Had lunch at a nice little place right next a lake. Beautiful view.

Made it to Venice in the late afternoon. We took a water taxi that holds about 8-10 people to the inner city. We went through the main canal to the city. Absolutely amazing and the highlight of the trip so far. After we arrived in the city we then took a gondola ride through inner canals of the city. It was just like the movies. Very beautiful.

The canals are very narrow. Less than 10 feet wide in most spots. There are no cars, bikes or scooters in the interior. You either walk through the interior or have a boat.

After the gondola we had a little free time to walk around. Then had dinner at the hotel as a group. The food was excellent and plentiful. They starter was lasagna and we got seconds. Then salad. Just when we thought that was it they brought the main course, sliced turkey with little potatoes and gravy.  So much food!

 

 

 

Day 9

Spent the whole day in the Venice area. Left the hotel at 8 am. Boat ride into Venice and a one hour walking tour. We went through the interior streets, some areas are 3 feet wide. There were shops and places to eat. There are over 350 bridges in Venice.  You can easily get lost in the interior. It was really hot too. Probably high 70’s. Low 80’s but felt hotter. Then we had free time to shop and get a snack and shop

After that we went across the water to a little island to a glass blowing shop. We saw a demonstration. Pretty incredible. They made a glass pitcher and then a horse.  

After that we went to the island of Burano. About 30 minutes away by boat. While there we had a late lunch, early dinner at a cafe where we once again had too much food. We had some time to walk around and shop.  Then a boat ride back to catch our bus. It ended up being a long day. Being gone from the hotel from 8 am to close to 7 pm. No joint dinner plans. Most people went to their rooms to rest I think.

 

 

Day 10

Traveling to Varese Italy today. Short drive to Verona. We saw what is reportedly Juliet’s balcony from Romeo and Juliet. Saw an old Roman arena. They also had a really nice shopping area, with high end retailers. We’ve gotten quite fond of the gelato here. The boys and I love the mango.

Next stop was in Milan. One of the fashion capitals of the world.  They have a huge mall area next to another one of the many incredible churches in Europe.  It was very crowded though. They were having sales this weekend. Spent a couple of hours there. More gelato!

Ended our day at our hotel in Varese which was in the foothills of the Italian alps. Spectacular view from our hotel. It was an older hotel but had a nice patio area. Too bad we only spend one night here. It was very relaxing.

 

 

Day 11

Onto to Lucerne Switzerland this morning. Country number 6 on our tour. Only one night there.

Arrived in town mid morning. Took a quick walk to see what our tour guide said is one of the most famous monuments in the world, the Lion of Lucerne.  There’s a back story to the monument. The Swiss were known throughout history for their mercenary soldiers that provided security to other countries.  This monument is for the Swiss guards killed in the French Revolution in the 1790’s.  The sculpture made in the wall of nearby hill depicts a lion killed by a spear with its paw on the coat of arms of the French monarchy.

Took a short boat trip on Lake Lucerne. Then a funicular (it’s like a train car on tracks that goes up hills) to connect to a double deck gondola that is open on the top. Up 6000 feet to the top of Mt. Stanserhorn. Incredible views of the area. Had a nice lunch at the top.

For dinner we went to a Swiss restaurant where we heard and participated in Swiss folk music and dancing. I was part of a yodeling demonstration. Very fun night. Then a quick walk through town which was next to a river. At night the city was beautifully lit up.

 

 

Day 12

Onto France and our final destination of Paris. It’s a 6+ hour ride.  

Some are continuing on after this back to London. That’s another 5-6 hours by bus. Glad we are not doing that.

Finally arrived in France just before 6 pm. We took in a cabaret show that included dinner.

 

Day 13

Off to the Eiffel Tower.  My first time seeing it in person. Pretty amazing.  We took the elevator to the second level and some amazing views of the city. We took the stairs down, over 600 steps.

There are 2 million people in the city of Paris and over 12 million in the metropolitan area. There’s a lot of traffic. We saw the famous traffic circle. It’s pretty crazy. We did a driving tour of the city. Saw the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs de Elseyes, and other sites. Then we took a walking tour and saw the Cathedral at Notre Dame. Took a tour inside. Very beautiful. Throughout Europe there are amazing architectural buildings built hundreds of years ago. It’s incredible to think how they built these without the use of modern equipment like we see today.

We had our farewell dinner as a group. It was bitter sweet. When you spend 12 days together on a bus tour you meet some great people and make new friends. They become your family. You look out for each other. A woman was there with her 14 year old granddaughter. They got lost one day and luckily they had my phone number and so we helped get them to our meeting point. They also didn’t have adapters for the European outlets. I gave them one of ours.

After dinner we took a cruise on the Seine River.  Saw more sites. After the cruise we took another driving tour to see the lights of the city. Just so happens that France was playing in the World Cup and won their semi final game. The city was celebrating and that caused some traffic jams. We got to stop and get more pictures of the Eiffel Tour. At night time it is all lit up and at 11 pm they turn on the twinkling lights. So here we are in front of one of the most famous landmarks in the world, part of a city celebration. Pretty cool. Definitely a an awesome end to a wonderful trip

 

 

Day 14

Today we head back home. Our flight leaves at 4 pm Paris time and we fly non stop to San Francisco. About an 11 hour flight. Hope we can sleep some. Looking forward to being home but grateful for what has been the trip of a life time.  Highlight of the trip for me was Venice and Paris at night.  The thing that struck me most was the architecture on the old buildings.  Hard to imagine how they got all that done in a time when there was no modern building equipment. Some of the buildings took centuries to complete.  Another thing is that many of the cities have a town square.  Sort of like Union Square in San Francisco. It’s usually a huge open area with tall buildings on the all 4 sides and people just congregate there.  I also liked that every place had so much outdoor dining.  Most all restaurants in the old areas have outdoor seating. 

 

Traveling Tips

Bring outlet adapters for European outlets. We got a two 3 packs from Amazon. $10.99 for a 3 pack. Very cheap. You’ll need more than one adapter for your rooms with phone chargers and other accessories you may have.

Download the Google Translate app.  You choose the language to translate from and to. Then use your phone camera and hover over the words and it translates it. Came in handy at restaurants and for signs.

Get enough currency for your trip. Most places take credit cards but some only take currency. London is the pound and the rest take Euros. You can also stop at an ATM. We bought them as we went. Not a great idea. Most public bathrooms are not free. A couple of times we were caught with not enough and had to scramble to get change to use the bathrooms. We used our credit cart a lot. If you do, make sure to call the bank or the credit card company before you leave. Otherwise they may flag your account. 

Security and safety. I never felt unsafe. We stayed in touristy areas. They told us to watch for pick pockets. I kept my wallet in my front pocket. There were usually local police around in most cities. For the most part everyone was friendly, but some areas are really crowded so you just have to be aware.  

For our phones, we bit the bullet and added a plan that allows us to use our phones as we do back home.  The bus had free WiFi and hotels do too. It was just more convenient to have cell coverage. I had to work off and on and using the bus rides was a perfect time to get stuff done for me.  

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