Monday, 30 June 2014

Outfit of the Day - French Flair

     I always feel a little bit French when I wear this dress for some reason. Anyone who's seen my other OOTD posts knows that I'm a fan of stripes, so this dress should come as no surprise. It's lightweight and summery, and I think the simple colours make it seem quite classy - hence the French-ness perhaps? Flat pumps are not generally my favourite sort of shoes, but they're comfortable and practical and go with just about anything. I also got this silver ring recently, and now wear it daily, and the necklace was also a recent purchase from Camden market, although for the life of me I can't seem to change it to the right time!

Dress - H&M, Shoes - H&M, Earrings - George at Asda
Necklace - Market stall, Ring - Boutique, name unknown

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Musings From A Park In Spring

     The sun beams down from overhead, illuminating the world and touching all with its warmth. The sky is a brilliant shade of blue, signalling the start of the summer months, and only a few wispy clouds drift lazily through it's never ending expanse. The fresh green grass is coated white sprinkles, as thousands of daisies burst into bloom and stretch towards the sky. The natural scents of the flowers and grass mingle with the mouth-watering aromas exuding from the food stalls. A gentle breeze softly stirs the trees. A fountain gurgles and laughs to itself, whilst glimmering in the sunlight. Bees hop from plant to plant, busy with their work as the world around them relaxes, and somewhere in the distance a cockerel crows. The air is filled with the sounds of the techno music of the dodgems and the idle chatter of the city's population taking a day in the sun.

     Above these sounds however, are the voices of the children, laughing, crying and shouting. They are the embodiment of spring; young, alive, bright and bursting with energy. They are pure and innocent, traits which should be appreciated and cherished while they last. Everything is fleeting and temporary, and just as the seasons will change and the leaves will fall from the trees, the children will grow up and lose their naïveté and innocence. The world is still a place of magic and wonder for them though, and today, in this moment, it feels like a perfect day.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

European Escapade Day 25 - Amsterdam to London

     So that's it then. Twenty five days travelling through Europe to come full circle and finish back where it all began in London. Nothing eventful happened today, but I thought I'd write one last post to sum up my trip. It's been an amazing experience, which I will most definitely never forget.

     Europe is a fantastic place to travel through, as every country is so different and has its own unique culture and customs. You can see so many different places in a short space of time. We didn't get very long in each place of course, so I'd love to go back and visit some of them again to see the things I missed, but overall I think I made pretty good use of my time and got around the major sights I wanted to see. My favourite stops were Venice, for its beautiful canals, buildings, masks and glass, and the Swiss Alps, for the stunning scenery and getting to play in the snow.

     However, while I loved the travel and seeing new places, what made this trip special was the people. There were over 40 of us on the trip, and back at the start I never thought I'd get to know them all. And while I definitely got closer to some people than others, every person in the group was amazing and we all became one big family. I have so many great memories because of them and saying goodbye to them today was quite emotional. We're going to try to stay in touch though, especially the group of girls I spent most of my time with, and hopefully I'll get to travel some more to visit them around the world.

     I don't know if I'd do another Contiki again, as there was far more drinking and partying than I'd anticipated, which I enjoyed a lot, but this isn't really my priority when travelling. I may look into other tour companies in the future though, as I loved getting to meet all these new people and the fact that I didn't have to organise everything myself. I would definitely recommend Contiki to other people though, as it was an incredible trip that I will never forget.

Monday, 23 June 2014

European Escapade Day 24 - Amsterdam

     Amsterdam is another very unique city in Europe. The canals and buildings make it look very pretty, but it also has a quirkiness and an energy to it, especially at night. Our first stop this morning was the I Amsterdam sign for some classic tourist photos, and it was fun watching everyone scale the letters to pose.

     We then took a leisurely stroll along a canal, and coincidentally wound up following the members of our group who'd opted to do the canal pedal boats.  We all finished up at the Anne Frank house, which we'd hoped to go inside but the queue was a million miles long so we decided against it. We did go for some brunch pancakes in a nearby cafe though.

     Later we went to visit the Heineken Experience, which was excellent. I've never been much of a beer drinker before, but this trip has certainly changed that. The tour is self guided and there's a mix of things to read and watch, staff giving talks and interactive things like a 4D film and printing your name on a bottle. And of course, there was plenty of beer to taste!

     In the evening, part of the group went on the optional canal cruise. We drifted through the city and had a few drinks onboard. We also started to get a bit emotional when our tour manager made a final speech to us. Afterwards the entire group went to the Sea Palace for dinner. It was great to have everyone together for it, and the meal was really good too. We then headed out into Amsterdam's nightlife again for one last night all together.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

European Escapade Day 23 - Rhine Valley to Amsterdam

     The Netherlands are so different to the scenery we've been travelling through recently - swapping mountains for the lowlands. Still very pretty though! We didn't have a long drive day, so there was plenty of time to experience some Dutch culture once we got close to Amsterdam.

     Before reaching the city we stopped in the small town of Edam. First, we had an included bike tour of the town. I had to get used to pedal brakes, instead of hand ones, but it was a pleasant ride alongside the canals. It didn't last very long, but we saw the highest point in Edam and an old water mill.

     We then went to visit a cheese and clog factory. We had talks on how both are made, and a clog demonstration, which were interesting, and the speakers made them amusing. We also got to taste a lot of the cheeses, and everyone loved the Dutch caramel stroopwaffles available!

    We arrived in Amsterdam late in the afternoon, and had dinner at the hotel. For the evening, our tour manager took us to see the famous Red Light District, unlike anything we had seen before, and we got our first taste of Amsterdam's nightlife.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

European Escapade Day 22 - Swiss Alps to Rhine Valley

     Another driving day with a few interesting stops on the way. We passed into Germany again and made a stop in Heidelberg. It seemed like quite a pretty little town, but we only had enough time there to grab a quick lunch, before piling back on the coach. We've also left the Alps now, so the scenery is still nice, but less spectacular.

    We arrived in the town of St Goar later in the afternoon, where the first thing we did was visit a beer stein shop. We had a talk about how they're made, which was pretty interesting, and the designs the shop had were very detailed. I particularly liked the special Contiki design they had, but they were all a bit expensive. We also had a look in the cuckoo clock shop across the road, which had some great stuff too, including the world's largest free-standing cuckoo clock.

    After dinner we went to the optional wine tasting, which was held in a 17th century cellar, a very cool location! I usually quite like wine, but these were a bit too sweet for me. It was still fun though and put us in a good mood for the evening. It was a quiet night in for everyone though, just a few drinks at the hotel bar - we all want to be well rested for Amsterdam tomorrow!

Friday, 20 June 2014

European Escapade Day 21 - Swiss Alps

     One of my favourite things about Europe has to be its diversity. Last week we were sunbathing in Italy - today we were playing in the snow atop a mountain in the Swiss Alps. After breakfast we took the train to the top of Jungfrau, the highest railway station in Europe. The journey up has some spectacular views over the valley below and the mountain itself.

     There's heaps to do at the top of the mountain, and we spent the best part of the day up there. We went up to the viewing platform to get photos and some people ventured out to the plateau in fierce winds and slippery ice - I gave that one a miss! We also walked through the ice palace, which was amazing. There's lots of narrow passages to explore and detailed sculptures of snowy wildlife.

    Later on we ventured outside to the snow park, which was a blast. We opted to do sledging and tubing, but there was also skiing and snowboarding available. We had several turns down each run and it was so much fun! It was like being a kid again for a while, and even though I get snow at home (unlike many others) I loved every moment of it.

     We headed back down the mountain later in the afternoon, and had a snooze on the way. Dinner was at camp, then we had another party night onsite. However, only around a dozen of group made it (not including myself) because a nasty stomach bug ripped through the group. Hopefully things take a better turn for them all in the morning!

Thursday, 19 June 2014

European Escapade Day 20 - Austrian Tyrol to Swiss Alps

     Today was another coach day where we crammed in plenty of other things on the same day. First of all, we stopped off at Swarovski Crystal World. Their collection of artworks made of crystals is both amazing and very, very weird. Things like the the crystal dome are stunning, while others like the zebra riding inside a shoe are a bit more unusual. The jewellery shop at the end is beautiful though.

     We stopped off for lunch in Vaduz, the capital of the tiny country of Liechtenstein. We didn't have time to see much of the city, but it's still pretty cool that we can now say we've visited yet another country. The mountain scenery throughout our drive today was also stunning.

    Our third stop was in the Swiss town of Lucerne, which sits around a beautiful lake. We went to see the lion monument first, then visited a Swiss watch and army knife shop, where they gave us a talk about the history of them. I thought the watches were nice, but a bit out if my price range. We got a bit of free time in the city, which we mostly just spent sitting in a cafe.

    We arrived at our campsite in the evening, where we're staying in chalet-style loft. Dinner was onsite and afterwards some of the group headed to the bar, but I ended up falling asleep early. I'm really enjoying the trip, but it's exhausting sometimes!

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

European Escapade Day 19 - Austrian Tyrol

     I think today has been the laziest day of this trip so far for me. I didn't sign up for the optional mountain biking or paragliding, so I had the day entirely free, and as we're out in the Alps instead of a city, there aren't any sights to see.

     We started off by having a lie-in for a couple of hours after breakfast. We then took a lazy stroll into the town to get some lunch, where I tried Austrian cheese dumplings in soup. We had a little look around the town and stopped at the supermarket to pick up some drinks and snacks. When we returned to the Gasthof we sat outside and had a picnic with what we'd bought.

     Dinner was onsite, and involved cake & singing, as we have 3 birthdays in a row in the group, yesterday, today and tomorrow. At night, we had a UV/neon party, so everyone was dressed up very brightly, and was even more keen to party to celebrate these birthdays.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

European Escapade Day 18 - Munich to Austrian Tyrol

    Whoo, what a hectic day! We left Munich this morning to travel to our special stopover in an Austrian Gasthof in Hopfgarten. The scenery here is absolutely stunning, towering mountains and lush valleys below, which makes for a nice drive.

     We had a few stops on the way so, which included some of our most exciting activities on the trip. First up was white water rafting, which I was a little nervous about at first, but ended up really enjoying. The rapids were fun but not too extreme, and our guide (a Glaswegian!) was a good laugh and got us to do some games in the raft too.

     Immediately afterwards we went bobsledding. Since it's June, there was no ice so we used a summer bobsled on a wooden track. I was more nervous about this one, as I don't like rollercoasters or going downhill fast, but I'm really glad I did it. Your head gets pretty sore from bouncing off the sides, but other than that it was a lot of fun.

     We arrived in Hopfgarten, where we're staying in a Contiki guesthouse. It's a nice place, and hopefully will give us a little time to relax. We had an Austrian dinner of goulash soup, schnitzel and strudel, then had a very chilled out evening, doing not very much.

Monday, 16 June 2014

European Escapade Day 17 - Vienna to Munich

     The drive from Vienna to Munich isn't as long as some of our other coach days, so we managed to fit some other activities in too. Before reaching Munich we stopped at Dachau concentration camp. I've heard stories before from others who've visited camps, but you can't really understand what it's like until you go yourself. It was very intense and emotional, and left me feeling pretty somber afterwards.

     In Munich we had a few hours to look around the city in the evening. We went to the main square, the Marienplatz, to see the city's iconic buildings, such as the church and town hall with the Glockenspiel on its side. We also had a dinner of curry wurst and beer sitting outside.

     Finally, we went to a huge beer hall where we got our drinks in huge 1L steins. It all felt very German and was pretty fun, apart from how rude our waiter was. Some of the group went out afterwards, but I headed back early as we have a big day coming up tomorrow!

Sunday, 15 June 2014

European Escapade Day 16 - Vienna

     Having visited parts of Austria earlier this year, I was looking forward to Vienna.  I liked it there, but not as much as the other towns I've seen there. We started the day with a coach and walking tour from our tour manager, to see the city's amazing architecture in buildings like the opera, parliament and palace.

     Once left on our own, we headed to St Stephen's Cathedral, which is a beautiful building. I love how diverse the architecture throughout Europe is. We also climbed the bell tower for views over the city. We visited a crypt in another church nearby too, which housed some very elaborate coffins. We had lunch in the Sky Restaurant, where we got a great view of the cathedral from the terrace. We then spent an hour or so lazing in the park beside the palace.

      The coach picked us up again to go visit a Schnaps museum. It was a really cool tour, as the place has been around for a really long time and the man giving the tour was really funny. We also got to try shots at the end, and the flavours were everything from butterscotch to chilli. We also stopped off at the summer palace for a few quick photos.

     We had a walkabout dinner in the evening, at a place just round the corner from our hostel, and I had a Viennese goulash which was pretty good. We went out to a nearby bar for drinks later, where we did karaoke (again!) and a bunch of us had fire shots, where they literally light the alcohol in your mouth on fire!

Saturday, 14 June 2014

European Escapade Day 15 - Venice to Vienna

     Oh coach days, how fun you are. They're all starting to blend together at this point, especially when we sleep through most of them. Our drive today did take us through some stunning scenery though, as we climbed up into the Austrian Alps. We also got to watch Cool Runnings on the bus, since we're going bobsledding in a few days.

     After arriving in Vienna we went out for a Viennese dinner, in a tiny restaurant outside in the city, hidden in a forest. The main dish we tried was schnitzel, rather tasty, but what made the evening memorable was our hosts. They sang songs and played games with us between courses, such as giving one guy  paper schnitzel instead of meat, getting everyone up to waltz and conducting a pretend wedding. On returning to the hostel we carried on drinking in the bar, where we also got to play with water pistols.

Friday, 13 June 2014

European Escapade Day 14 - Venice

     Venice is definitely my favourite city so far on this trip. It's so different to anywhere else, with all the canals and narrow streets, and so beautiful. We took the ferry over first thing in the morning, and the ride was a nice way to start the day. We started in the Piazza San Marco, where the city's main sights are. We didn't go in any, but got to see the Palazzo Ducale and the Basilica.

     Our tour manager told us Venice is a city to get lost in, which is exactly what we did. It was nice to just stroll through the streets and look in all the shops full of beautiful masks, jewellery and Venetian glass. I bought a couple of masks and pieces of jewellery, and had to restrain myself from getting any more after that!

     We made it up to the Rialto Bridge, where there are even more shops and markets, and we stopped near there for lunch. It was the best meal we've had in Italy so far, dining on pasta and drinking bellinis. We also went for a gondola ride later as well, which was really nice, if a little shorter than expected. It was another thing unique to Venice though, so I'm glad I did it.

     We had a barbecue dinner back at camp, which was definitely one of our best on-site meals. We then got dressed up for a masquerade party that evening, and everyone looked really cool with their masks. Sadly the nightclub bar wouldn't open for us, so we had to stay in the other one, which wasn't ideal but we managed to have some fun anyway.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

European Escapade Day 13 - Rome to Venice

     Not a very exciting day to report I'm afraid. We drove from Rome back to Florence to pick up our driver, who has to take a day off, so we were all really excited to see him again. The bus was a very hungover affair, involving trying to piece together the previous night.

    We arrived at our campsite around dinner time, but it's on the mainland so we didn't get to see Venice itself. Our dinner was at camp then we had a pretty quiet evening. It was nice to have a night off and just hang out with the girls in our cabin.

European Escapade Day 12 - Rome

     There's so much to see in Rome that it's impossible to yet round it all in the space of time we were there, but we made a damn good go of it. As it was a Wednesday, the Pope gave his address at the Vatican in the morning, do we went along to see that. We didn't stay for the whole thing, but it was pretty cool to see the Pope in person (if from far away).

     Next, we grabbed some pizza on the go as we zipped around a couple of sights on the metro. We went back to the Trevi Fountain to throw our coins in. Unfortunately, it's undergoing restoration, so there was no water in it but we could still see the statues. We then went down to see the Mouth of Truth. The legend goes that if you put your hand inside and tell a lie, it cuts your hand off. The line was too long for us to try this, but we saw others try.

     We had signed up for a Gladiators & Emperors tour which took us around the Roman Forum and the Colosseum. Rome has so much history and I think it's amazing that we can still see the remains of structures so old. The Colosseum was especially good, for the sheer size of it, and I still find it weird to be standing inside such iconic monuments while on this trip.

     We also went to the Museum & Crypt of Capuchins, which was both creepy and amazing. Each tomb is made up of an elaborate display of bones, arranged in patterns all over the walls and ceiling. It was unlike anything I've seen before. That evening we had dinner at the campsite, then a party where we all wore "I Heart Roma" shirts and wrote on each other's.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

European Escapade Day 11 - Florence to Rome

     So much for uneventful travel days! The drive from Florence to Rome is far shorter than any other we've done so far, so we arrived there in the early afternoon. We weren't warned of this though, so everyone was a bit hungover and unprepared.

     First of all, we went on a tour of the Vatican City. I still find it strange that such a small place is an independent country. Due to our lack of notice of the day's plans, there were lots of t-shirts and scarves bought at the last minute, as you have to have your shoulders and knees covered inside the churches. 

     Our tour guide took is through the main sights, although it was hard to hear her commentary all the time. We saw the Sistine Chapel and the Basilica, which are both stunning pieces of architecture. She also showed us many pieces of artwork that are housed there. We had a little time to ourselves after the tour, so we climbed up the dome and got an amazing view over the rest of Rome.

      Our tour manager then took us on a bus and walking tour of the main sights of the city, including the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps and the Pantheon. They were mostly fleeting stops though, so I'm planning to go to some of them tomorrow.

     Dinner was a walkabout dinner, where our tour manager takes us to a good area and we can choose to eat where we like there. We continued with traditional Italian options, having bruschetta followed by gnocchi. I am certainly enjoying all the European cuisine so far! The last few nights have been pretty big ones, so things were a lot quieter this time, with most people opting for an early night.

Monday, 9 June 2014

European Escapade Day 10 - Florence

     Florence is a beautiful city, and I'm expecting that the rest of Italy will be the same. It's also been really hot here, which makes things nicer. We started the day with a leather demonstration at Leonardo's, since Italy is famous for it. It was pretty interesting, although the woman spoke at a million miles an hour!

     We then had a walking tour included, led by a local lady who was very knowledgeable. She showed us the main sights such as the Piazza della Signoria, Ponte Vecchio and Duomo Cathedral and told us heaps about the history. Afterwards, we went out to get pizza for lunch, which was very tasty!

      We spent the afternoon wandering the streets for the most part and checking out the markets. I picked up a few things, including a mask necklace and a leather bound journal. We also went for a look round the inside of the cathedral, which was nice but seemed rather plain compared to the outside of it. We also got gelato again because that's always a good idea!

     In the evening we first of all went to get out group photo taken with this stunning view of Florence behind us. We then had the optional extra Tuscan meal for dinner, with plenty of wine and pasta, and limoncello at the end. It was delicious but very filling, since there were 4 courses. Finally we headed to Space Electronic Disco, another optional extra, which was a very cool club. We got to do karaoke again, our new favourite activity after last night, and I got excited when I realised there was an aquarium built into the bar.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

European Escapade Day 9 - French Riviera to Florence

      Hey there Italy! On to a new country today. It was another driving day, but we did get to make an exciting stop to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It was a bit surreal to see something so iconic in person, especially when it seems impossible that it stays up! We took the usual holding up the tower photos, then had a look around the markets nearby and found some Italian gelato.

     Later we arrived at our campsite just outside Florence and it was absolutely boiling! Definitely the hottest day of the trip so far, so we spent an hour or two lazing around and frying in the heat.

     After dinner our tour manager took us out to a karaoke bar. A few of us were a little skeptical, but it turned out to be an amazing night! Once everyone had a few drinks in them they were fighting to get a turn on stage, and the whole room was singing along to everything anyway. And when we got back to camp we were able to get pizza from the bar, which was an excellent way to end the night!

Saturday, 7 June 2014

European Escapade Day 8 - French Riviera

     The French Riviera is a lovely stretch of coast, especially on a day as nice as we had. In the morning we went to the Fragonda perfumery, and got some stunning views out to sea on the drive. We had a tour of the perfumery and smelled plenty of samples. It was interesting, and probably not something I'd have thought to do myself.

     We spent the rest of the day in Nice, which I've been to before. We had lunch in the old town, a cafe called Atmosphere. In true French fashion we spent well over an hour there, eating some amazing salads and drinking cocktails. We then went up the lift to the top of the hill to get some fantastic views over the town and out to sea.

     We then spent the rest of the afternoon down on the beach. The pebbles aren't the most comfortable things to lie on but we managed well enough. A few of the girls I was with tried parasailing and said it was a lot of fun, but I opted not to since I've got a horrible fear of heights. We tried going in the sea too but it was far too cold!

     In the evening we all got dressed up and went over to Monaco. We went up the hillside first to get a great view over the port. Then we headed to the Monte Carlo casino. The building was lovely, but inside it was smaller than expected and pretty quiet, so we all got a little bored. A few people managed to win some money though, the best being an €800 win on the slot manchines. Afterwards we headed back to camp and had a pretty fun night in the bar there.

Friday, 6 June 2014

European Escapade Day 7 - Barcelona to French Riviera

     Today was one of our more interesting coach days, as we stopped off in Arles for an hour or two. It was really interesting to just wander through it, as there are lots of Roman remains throughout, including this big amphitheatre. It was a really sunny afternoon too, so it was nice to get off the coach for a while. We also stopped in a tiny, typically French cafe for tea and coffee.

     The place we're staying is a campsite near Antibes, although we're in cabins not tents. We arrived in the evening and has dinner there, which included frogs legs. I'd already tried them in Paris and concluded they taste like chicken, but I had another.

     Most people were ready for a quiet night after the madness of Barcelona, but  we did head up the road to a fairground our tour manager told us about. It was much bigger than we'd expected and made a nice change from the nights of partying. It was really fun to just act like a bunch of kids again for an evening, and even those who didn't go on rides had a fun time watching everyone else.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

European Escapade Day 6 - Barcelona

     Barcelona is such an interesting city! It's definitely got that fun summer Spanish vibe to it, but is also totally unique compared to any other city I've been to. There's so many buildings with really unusual architectural designs and lots of little streets and open markets.

     We started the day with a bus tour around the city, which was a great way to feel like you'd covered as much as possible in our limited time frame. We went up Montjuic, the hill overlooking the city to get a great view of it all. We also stopped at the Sangrada Familia which is stunning. I've never seen any building like it ever before, and the intricacy of the details is amazing. It's just a shame it's taken so long to build, and still won't be finished during my lifetime.

     I spent the rest of the afternoon just strolling around the city, since we'd covered the main sights. We did a bit of shopping and exploring the streets, and stopped off to have tapas for lunch. I think it's a great way of eating, where you get to try a little bit of everything. I came back to the hostel a little early, since we're all knackered, before our night out.

     I went to the optional extra Flamenco dance show this evening and I really enjoyed it. Europe has so many diverse cultures, so I like seeing what makes each one unique. I even got pulled on stage to dance a little, then we all did some dancing there afterwards. Most of us had dinner together after too, a feast of tapas, paella & sangria that was delicious but very filling!

     Our tour manager set up a great night out for us. We started in a bar called Jagerbomb, where we got discounted drinks and all had a great time on the dance floor. Then we got free entry to a club called Opium, which was very fancy and expensive, but we all drank enough beforehand anyway. We got a bit separated which was annoying, but had a good time though, with all the dancers, strobe lights, confetti and a mad hatter on stilts, and my favourite moment was definitely when a live violinist appeared on stage.
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