It’s been two weeks since Louis and I arrived back in Auckland from our big Europe trip. I say ‘big’ even though in total, we were only in Europe for 23 days (which is short compared to most gap years) because to be honest, I had no way of actually comprehending back in April that a trip to Europe would be possible anytime soon! So it was a big deal, and to say it early on, I am so, so, so thankful for Louis who organized the trip and thankful as well to circumstances and to the universe for making everything align!
We booked our tour (a 12 day express tour to see ‘essential’ Europe) on the 1st of April. I had to make sure and ask Louis, ‘this isn’t an April fools’ joke right?’. We had a month to prepare everything, and it was only until a week before departure that I started watching YouTube videos and reading articles that gave travel tips, advice, and wardrobe guidelines. I was really stressed out, especially about going to Paris and Italy because I knew I couldn’t bring a lot of clothes as we only had backpacks (it had a lot of space in it…but still, I thought it wasn’t enough for me to ensure that I brought the right clothes/shoes for a proper fashionista look… but I was never a fashionista to begin with). Anyway, I managed, and Louis was impressed… to be honest, I was impressed with myself as well!
In every country we visited, I always had to remind myself that I was actually in it. ‘I’m in London’, I would quietly tell myself in a sing-song voice. ‘I’m in Paris!’.
The tour let us see 6 countries in 12 days. In addition, we planned to stay in London for a few days before the tour started, and also we decided to spend a few days in Dubai before going back to Auckland. So in total, we visited 8 countries in around 20 days (including the flight hours).
Starting with London– We spent a few days in London before and after the tour. I felt like a little kid whose dream was finally coming true! I probably dreamt of going to London ever since the Harry Potter movies came out. I was 12 and I had (have) a huge crush on Daniel Radcliffe. So.
I loved the tubes! It was intimidating at first, but Louis and I managed to get to our hotel from the airport without too much of a hassle. The signs on the stations and all the little maps were so iconic, I was internally freaking out as a tourist (my London postcard ended up being a map of London Underground). We met up with friends as well which made it so much easier seeing the sights. I loved all the brick buildings, narrow apartments and large rectangular windows. The Buckingham Palace was cool, and seeing the changing of the guards was something (even if we had arrived late and I mostly had to watch the guards through the camera because I was too short). I had the best strawberry cream cake ever for afternoon tea (it wasn’t quite The Ritz but it checked off my ‘have cake and afternoon tea’ item on my mental bucket list), went to Notting Hill to see the famous bookshop, the colorful houses, and Portobello Market, and finally crossed off another item on my mental bucket list, which was to visit King’s Cross station and have a photo in Platform 9 3/4.
Amsterdam was the first leg of the tour, and we went via ferry from Dover to France. Amsterdam was one of our favorite cities- it was clean, again public transport was great (we got to try out the trains, ferries and buses) and seeing how people mainly commuted with their bicycles was something. If you’re going to ask me about things I did in Amsterdam, I’d probably say yes, yes and yes! It was eye-opening, and exciting. We had time to go to Lisse as well to see the famous Keukenhof Garden for tulips, and we also had a little adventure travelling to Zaanse Schans in Zandaam where we saw historic and preserved wind-mills and houses from the 18th and 19th century. It was a lovely town smelling of cacao, because the it also had its own chocolate factory (of course I tried a hot chocolate…it was divine!). Our quick stop in Amsterdam included a stop in a family farm that made traditional clogs and cheese! We bought 5 cheese wheels which we had to cram into our backpacks…
From Amsterdam, it was off to Germany- Rhine Valley and Munich. In Rhine Valley, we were swept away and fell in love with these handcrafted cuckoo clocks that we just had to get one for our home. It was a pain to carry to and from the coach, let me tell you, but we just couldn’t resist the idea of having an authentic, German piece of history and craftsmanship hanging on our wall!
In Munich we went to see the BMW museum, and had a go at the Hofbräuhaus München for dinner. I have to say, I was filled with excitement and trepidation as we entered the huge dining hall with tables fully packed, a traditional German band playing in the background, happy people singing with their beers, beer maids yelling at you from all directions to get out of their way (how they manage to carry that many beer mugs at a time, I’ll never know!), and men in their traditional lederhosens handing out giant, salty pretzels! I managed to find us free seats, because you are meant to sit wherever there are free chairs and share a table with a group of people. We met a friendly German local who told us all about his scuba diving adventures, and we were also amazed by our beer maid’s ability to know who was new at the table and to perfectly recall what everyone ordered. Giant pretzel and sausages happily filling our tummies, we ventured out into the evening to explore the city. We walked through the lively Marienplatz, and stopped on the way to listen to very talented and energetic buskers. It felt like a mini-concert in the open evening air, and I felt quite alive and elated.
Italy and Vatican City
The following days, as our tour guide had said, were to be even more hectic, as we started the Italian part of our tour- Venice, Rome, Vatican City, and Florence.
It was a rainy day in Venice, but in a way, the rain had made everything look magical. I was in awe when we first walked into Piazza San Marco. We rode the gondolas and were impressed by the our gondolier’s skills in navigating the canals. We ate seafood pasta and drank wine, and in the early evening we had the chance to climb up St. Mark’s Campanile for an incredible 360-degree view of the historical and romantic city rooftops. A highlight of Venice was actually racing back to meet with our tour group as evening fell- Louis and I raced through narrow streets and alleyways, at the mercy of our flaky GPS. I vividly recall this happy group of men singing merrily and celebrating (sounded like they were celebrating the win of a sports team?), their voices echoing through the alleyways. Finally when we reached the end of the maze and walked through the open streets, we were able to rejoin our group just before they crossed the street to the Tronchetto. Everyone was amazed that we managed to navigate the Venetian streets on our own, and despite being totally soaked from the rain, we were quite happy with ourselves as well. Props to my boyfriend for excellent navigation skills!
Rome and Vatican City were intense as it was filled with nothing but walking tours. Our tour guide was amazing all throughout the trip, but particularly in Rome because not only did he fill our time with amazing and engaging history lessons, but he also managed to keep a group of 40 from being separated in heavily crowded areas and crazy traffic! We got to see the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Spanish Steps, Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica (where we were able to hear mass!), the Pantheon, and many, many more ancient buildings and sculptures, and fountains than I could recall. I was especially happy to see the Trevi Fountain though, despite the crowds. My uncle had sent me a postcard when I was younger of the Trevi Fountain, and I thought to myself, one day I will see this with my own eyes. We threw our coins and wished to be back in Rome someday. We ate gelatos, pasta, pizza (the traditional sandwiched ones), mozzarella and a ton of prosciutto that Louis and I were actually quite sick of it by the time we left Italy! But I especially loved the bolognese pasta I had (with an aperol spritz!) in a random restaurant that we had ducked into when it started raining. Our feet were sore by the evening but we managed to do some laundry… yup, in Rome.
I thought I’ve seen everything by the time we got to Florence, but I kid you not, there was not another cathedral in the entire trip that made me go ‘wow!!!’ as much as the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore did. It is a massive cathedral covered in marble and decorated in green and white patterns, with intricate details and religious statues decorating the exterior. The interior was just as impressive- the floor is also beautifully patterned, and the painting on the ceiling of the dome was something to behold. I lit candles and said my prayers, and then we were off. We saw replicas of the David, and also of the Baptistry’s Gates of Paradise (which my Art Historian of a brother passionately told me was a must see). Food-wise, we went to a small sandwich take-away shop that was highly recommended and it did not disappoint. I asked the person working there at the time what sandwich he would recommend, and he whipped up something for me that was not on the menu… I don’t remember exactly what was in it, but it was delicious (if you’re curious, the sandwich shop was called Pane e Toscana)! We were offered seats, probably because we looked like tourists; we noticed that most of the customers seemed friendly and familiar with the person in charge, and everyone basically just came in to order, chat for a bit, ate while standing and then went. It was the same with coffee. I had been trying several cappuccinos during the trip, and was not as impressed, but when I finally tried the espresso local-style (read: standing up and drinking on a marble counter… and let’s not forget, it costs one euro, anytime, anywhere!), I finally understood the cultural differences in the way Italians have their coffees (in Auckland we drink to relax, and I think in Italy, people drink and go…which explains why the cappuccinos are always lukewarm and not hot like I’m used to). Shopping for leather goods capped off our afternoon, and in the evening we settled in our hotel room while a concert played just outside.
After our hectic but definitely fun time in Italy, we had a bit of a break when we reached Lucerne, Switzerland. We had quite a bit of luck- it started when our tour company accidentally booked us in a better hotel- free upgrade! We spent the afternoon in a walking tour with our group, and walked through the Chapel Bridge (or the Kapellbrücke), saw the Water Tower and the Lion of Lucerne, among other things. Of course no visit in a Swiss city is complete without visiting a shop that sells watches and Swiss knives (bought myself my first one too!).
As we were looking for a place to have dinner (by the way, everything is expensive in Switzerland), I mentioned to Louis that I may have seen a burger shop during our walking tour. A quick search brought up the name Burgerstube, and without further research, we decided to follow our map to the restaurant. Little did we know that we had entered a restaurant that was part of a hotel, celebrating 500 years! Burgerstube was one of their restaurants that specialized in traditional Swiss food. To quote their website, ‘We serve just the right dishes to match: local, traditional, home-style fare – prepared with great fondness. Here you will experience Lucerne at its most authentic – the way our ancestors knew it.’
We were hesitant because of the price, but we decided anyway to just enjoy ourselves. How lucky was it to stumble upon a historic location for dinner? And to top it off, we got free champagne and a delicious free starter! Louis and I both tried veal-dishes, and I was absolutely satisfied with my veal pie.
Finally, finally we were headed to Paris, France! I had to tell myself several times, ‘I am in Paris!’ just to be sure that the moment did not escape me. To be honest, we were all quite tired (and sick) by the time we got to Paris. As with all things that I am excited about, I tend to have mixed feelings once the moment finally arrives because it is that moment when I find out if my expectations meet reality. Say for example the Eiffel Tower- I was underwhelmed at first. But it was also a gloomy afternoon when we arrived. When Louis and I went back during the evening to try our luck at climbing the Eiffel Tower’s summit, it finally sank in, and I was able to appreciate (and actually let myself be amazed) at the magnificent structure…it was definitely lovelier when it was lit up and sparkling! We were lucky that it wasn’t so busy when we purchased our elevator tickets to the summit. The view was great and we both felt a mix of anxiety because we were so high up, and at the same time amazement because we were so high up!
Our luck continued into the next day when we visited the Louvre Museum. I didn’t think it was that massive! We explored the outer grounds, and decided to find the underground entrance that we read about online. We did not intend to go in as we only had half of the day to explore Paris, but when we got to the upside-down pyramid and saw that there were no lines, we decided we might as well try and see the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo. We were pleasantly surprised with the Mona Lisa as we expected it to be smaller. And you can definitely feel her looking and smiling at you! We did a brief look around the exhibitions, and also had the chance to see the beautiful Apollo Gallery with its high ceilings covered in paintings and artwork.
We carried on walking through Avenue des Champs-Élysées, and making a detour for macarons from the famous Ladurée , ticking off yet another item on my bucket list. After making it to the Arc De Triomphe and taking a few photos, we had lunch in this busy cafe called Carette, which also sold good macarons (of course we bought some from there as well).I learned my lesson and ordered an espresso (I was not disappointed), as well as a baguette with ham and cheese, which I loved. Taking the trains was a tad stressful, but we managed to make our way to the Notre-Dame Cathedral and admire the stained glass windows and all the artworks inside the cathedral. On the way back for a brief rest in our hotel, I managed to exchange a few pleasantries with a local selling books in the street and purchase myself a book by Freud (it is in French, but I’m still proud of it).
In the early evening we had a picnic dinner with our tour group by the Eiffel Tower, where we finally tried escargot and frog legs (yes it did taste like chicken). To cap off our Paris visit, we danced our final hours away with our tour group in a Parisian night club, and I ordered a beer that was ridiculously expensive (I had forgotten that it was a no-no to order beer in Paris!). It was a whirlwind romance in Paris, and we hope we get to visit again in the future!
United Arab Emirates
From Paris, we spent a few more days in London, before heading off to Dubai. Fortunately Louis has family there so we were able to save up on accommodations. Dubai was exciting, hot, and sandy! We mostly spent our afternoons in Dubai Mall (it was a massive mall and quite a change from the ancient and historic monuments that we had been visiting in the past days). I felt like a little kid with all of the food chains and restaurants that were there which couldn’t be found in Auckland. We were stoked to find out that our visit coincided with a 3-day sale in Dubai Mall, so of course we did some shopping (finally bought a handbag that I had been eyeing for a year).
Louis’ aunt and uncle also took as around to see the gold souks in the older areas of Dubai, as well as to Souk Madinat Jumeirah which had beautiful traditional Middle Eastern interiors, and was also a souvenir heaven!
Possibly the highlight of our Dubai trip was the evening sand safari we had through the Red Desert where we rode a quad-bike and a camel (it’s probably the last time I’m ever riding a camel, the poor thing), and watched traditional belly dancing and fire-dancing while we had our dinner in the desert camp. The ‘dune-bashing’ was intense- we rode an SUV and completely entrusted our life to the local driver who basically took us on a roller-coaster ride across the dunes. Many times I thought we were going to topple over because I swear, our vehicle was being driven sideways across a dune. The ride would have been less scary as well if I hadn’t fallen off the quad bike prior to the ‘dune-bashing’ because I kept bouncing on my hip which was already painful from the fall. Yep that’s right, I fell off the quad bike that Louis was driving because he drove down a steep dune without warning. My brain instinctively let go as it had played out the worst scenario in my head- I did not want to get squashed by the quad bike so I let go, literally flew off, and landed on my side. I was still able to enjoy the rest of the evening, thank goodness, and currently my side still hurts, but I am walking all right, and in the end, the quad-bike experience was worth it.
Back in Auckland
Currently, I feel like my body has returned to its regular programming schedule, and as I’ve stated at work, I was beginning to feel like a proper functioning human being again after battling with the jet lag. I still have a ton of photos and videos to look at and to upload, but all the little trinkets (and our cuckoo clock) that we bought along the trip have now found their respective places in our home.
Louis asked me one time during dinner if I felt ‘changed’ in any way after the trip, and it made me think. I told him I felt like I’m still the same person, only now, hungrier for more travel. There is so much culture and history to be experienced, that I can’t wait to visit new countries and new cities again. I’m also very eager to re-visit the places we’ve been to, and be able to spend more time getting to know it.
The trip had changed me in subtle ways, but I think it had an even greater (positive) impact on our relationship. I am thankful beyond words that we had the chance to explore Europe at this point in our lives. A friend had asked me if I grew tired of being with Louis all the time, and I said no, I didn’t. On the contrary, it was great being with him throughout the trip and discovering new places and going through wonderful experiences together. Of course there were times when we were grumpy and irritated, because either we couldn’t find the proper train station in Paris, or we didn’t get to eat that waffle in Munich, or we fell off a quad bike… but I think we did pretty well in terms of knowing when one stressed out and the other just had to be a little more patient.
On the whole, I believe that this Europe trip is something we will both cherish and hold dear for a very long time.
And to you my dear reader, if you’ve patiently stayed with me as I recounted my experiences, then I am grateful to have had the chance to share our stories, adventures, and misadventures with you.