15 August 2016
One Voyage of Discovery at a Time...
18 days, 11 destinations and 52 new friends- my Contiki European Whirl tour was by far the most rewarding experience of my life. I have no idea how I am going to condense every memory and accomplishment into this post, as I enjoyed every single second! Meeting new people, seeing the highlights of Europe and proving to myself just how far I have come in terms of my recovery, the smile that adorned my face during day one is still engrained right to this very moment.
After checking in with the tour manager-Adam- in London at 6am on 27th July, I found myself waiting nervously amongst a group of fellow travellers for the coach to arrive. As the cases were loaded I embarked the vehicle and scanned the seats to decide where I would place myself. My gut instinct was to sit next to the female traveller just in front of the door; consequently, this was the best decision that I think I made throughout the entire trip! Chatting to this lovely Australian lady completely put me at ease, as I soon came to realise that I was not the only solo traveller on the trip. Crossing over to France on the ferry, I had a further opportunity to meet a few of the other group members and the nerves seemed to completely drift away. My mind was completely clear of negative thoughts- no compulsions to restrict my eating, no doubts about my capabilities, just excitement and anticipation of the adventures that lie ahead.
Following a round of speed dating on the way into Amsterdam, I quickly came to realise that not only was I part of a minority group in terms of being a non-drinker, but I was also the only British traveller! This could not have turned out any better- it enhanced my travelling experience so much more, as I learned about the Australian lifestyle as well as that of mainland Europe. They were all incredibly friendly, relaxed and made my time on the tour a league above what I could have ever expected. I genuinely think that having a good bunch of people on a group tour could literally make or break your entire trip, so I was extremely fortunate to have found myself travelling with this fantastic crowd.
Amsterdam was the first stop on our tour and after visiting here last year, I was intrigued to explore the city from a new perspective. The experience was entirely different- pacing the streets with friends that I had only known for 6 hours, finding out new places from other knowledgeable travellers and thinking about how best to plan your time in order to prepare for the next activities that were lined up. I had already decided that I was not going to waste a single opportunity that I was given on this trip, so I did all of the included and optional activities. Therefore, in Amsterdam I did a canal cruise, a bike ride around Edam, learnt how clogs and cheese are made, developed new friendships over a dinner in Volendam and something that I definitely did not expect to be doing- watching a ‘cultural’ show. Now I have heard of a few icebreaker activities in my time, but this was on a whole different level. I will leave it up to your imagination as to what the evening’s activity was, but it was definitely a good conversation starter for the next few days.
Berlin was destination number 2! As we all seated ourselves on the coach it was time to hear our ‘wake up song’ for the first time- HandClap. At first I thought there was no way I was going to be able to listen to the same song every morning for 18 days, but the uplifting impact it had on the group was brilliant. Even the biggest drinkers would somehow find the strength at 7am to clap along. It became the highlight of every morning and you needed it if you knew you had a long day of travelling ahead. In Berlin we had the option to do a 3 hour walking tour, which I thoroughly enjoyed. We saw so many of the iconic structures and learnt so much about Berlin’s history. The tour guide was fantastic and so incredibly knowledgeable that it was hard not to be interested in the facts and information she was giving. I think it is admirable how the German’s are so open about their history and willing to expose all aspects of their actions through memorials and preservations in order to learn from them.
Prague was next on the list. I wish I had have spent more time exploring the city, but as I mentioned earlier, I wanted to do all of the optional extras. I do not regret doing the canal cruise or the bunker tour, but I would have liked to see more of the beautiful architecture, cobbled streets and learnt more about their culture. I suppose that is just the nature of the tour though and now I know that Prague would be somewhere that I would like to visit again in the future. However, in contrast to that seemingly negative statement about the tour, the positive aspects are that you end up doing and seeing things that you may not have necessarily thought of taking the time to see. For example, one of the highlights of my trip was spray painting on the John Lennon Wall, and I know that this was an opportunity that was only brought about because of our fantastic trip manager-Adam.
Next stop was Munich. This city was beautiful and had an amazing atmosphere; I was so upset that we only had the chance to spend one afternoon here. As soon as we arrived it was time to head into the city centre for a bike ride with Mike’s Bike’s. Cycling through the streets with everybody was a brilliant experience and another chance to make more memories. My favourite area of Munich was the Chinesischer Turm in one of the parks. The setting was incredible and the food was unreal. I devoured a half roast chicken and a pretzel with some salad and it was amazing. It was quite expensive, but for the amount you got it was so worth it. We all ate our meals on picnic benches, the majority with a stein full of beer and if I am honest, I think this was the point when it hit me how far I had come in terms of my recovery. To be enjoying a spontaneous, huge meal, with a group of people I had known for a week, and not experience the negative force of my eating disorder- it was an incredibly rewarding feeling. As we cycled back to the starting point of our adventure I felt completely elated and could have burst with pride. A few of my roommates were aware of my mental illness, but there was nothing that I wanted to do more than share my happiness with my family. I was having the time of my life and I could not wait to tell them about it all.
Austria was by far one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. After a short drive from Munich, we once again took to the bicycles and headed for the hills. This was most definitely the day that tested my fitness and I have to admit I struggled. The constant heat with little breeze did not work in my favour, but there was no way that I was not going to complete the bike ride and I am so glad I endured it. The views were absolutely exceptional. The scenery was so picturesque that it did not feel real. Every home was in pristine condition and there was nothing at all to spoil the landscape. I tried to capture as many photos as I could, but was continually frustrated as not one single image portrayed the beauty just as I had witnessed. Lunch was a jacket potato, coleslaw and sausages- not a meal I was entirely thrilled about. However, this was when I noticed a change in my mindset- I needed to eat to live. I had exhausted my body from the bike ride and I knew that I needed to refuel, particularly as I was about to paraglide off the edge of a cliff. That afternoon was probably the most standout moment of my entire trip. Stepping into the cable car to the top of the mountain, it had not quite registered what I was about to do. As I watched the paragliding equipment being laid out on the side of the mountain, it still had not quite registered as to what I was about to do. Only when I was buckled in and the guy yelled, “RUN!” did it suddenly dawn on me what I was about to do. Gliding through the air, mesmorised by the magnitude of the views I was observing, the whole experience did not feel real. This time last year I was sat in a wheelchair gazing out of a window in Grimsby hospital, now I was paragliding- soaring above Austria. If that does not encourage anybody suffering with a mental illness to fight for recovery every single day, I do not know what will.
The following day we headed to the start of the whitewater rafting! Again, another activity I have never done before and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The weather was lovely which consequently made the scenery look stunning. When we reached the bottom we had to take off our wetsuits, meaning I had to strip down to my bikini. This really did not affect me at all, after coming to know everybody in the group, I knew that there was not going to be one single person that was going to be scrutinising my body or making any remarks if they saw my tattoo. I am proud of how far I have come and would have been more than happy to discuss my tattoo should it have been mentioned- I am not ashamed of my journey, it has made me the person that I am today.
After another 5 hours on the road, we arrived at the campsite in Venice. This was the day that I completely lost my voice and the ‘Contiki Cough’ started to make an appearance. I had heard of this allusive illness, but I did not realise the scale of the epidemic once it hit. Fortunately, I got off lightly in terms of it having an impact on my trip, although, I did use it as an excuse to have plenty of gelato whilst in Italy! Our first activity was a gondola ride and this was something that I really enjoyed. It was so relaxing and even though we did not have a singing gondolier, it was still a lovely experience. We then did a walking tour past all of the iconic Venetian sights such as the Bell Tower, St. Mark’s Square and the Doge’s Palace. I was in no way disappointed with any of the Italian cities that we visited, but I was definitely surprised at how busy they all were. I would definitely return to all of them but at a different time of year, but again that is the beauty of doing a tour like this, as I managed to see all of the highlights and take note of where I would like to go back. I vowed that I was not going to leave Italy without having a pizza dish, a pasta dish and some gelato- they did not disappoint and I have no regrets for indulging in these regional delicacies. We also decided to go to the top of the Bell Tower during some of our free time and the views were incredible. Unfortunately, we made it up there just as a storm approached, but ever the optimist, I managed to get some beautiful photos as the black clouds came rolling in. However, it then dawned on us that we had to run back through Venice to catch the boat back to the campsite whilst the rain absolutely saturated us.
Rome was our next destination and if I am honest, I did not quite know what to expect. I was hoping that the Colosseum would be everything that I wanted, but besides that I did not really know what Rome had to offer. As we spent time exploring the city, I was very pleasantly surprised. Every street led to an unexpected piece of architecture or a lovely square housing a beautiful statue. The scale of the buildings was extraordinary and the attention to detail was fascinating. Again it was a shame that the city was so busy, however, I can now see why everybody visits. We also had the amazing opportunity to watch the Pope read a blessing in St. Peter’s Square. People from all around the world had come to listen to the event and although the heat was exhausting, the atmosphere was surreal.
Our final Italian city was Florence, which to my disappointment, we only had the pleasure of staying for one evening. We did a walking tour in the afternoon and managed to experience just a snippet of what this beautiful city had to offer. The architecture was exceptional, the statues were remarkable and the cleanliness of the city was impressive. Unfortunately though, it seemed that as soon as we arrived we had to leave again, but all the more reason to return! That evening we attended a traditional Tuscan dinner, which although the food was not great, it was again another opportunity to socialise with the group. This was what I loved about this style of tour, was that like-minded people- people that want to travel surrounded me. It was exciting to hear of their adventures and future plans, it has given me a lot to think about in terms of where I want to visit in the future. Unsurprisingly, Australia is right at the top of the list!
From Florence we visited the stunning Swiss Alps. Due to the weather, I decided not to participate in the train ride up to the top of Jungfrau Mountain. Therefore I had the perfect chance to walk around the town and absorb the striking backdrop. With delicate waterfalls and snow topped mountains, the scenery so picturesque and a world away from the bustling Italian cities. Being from the countryside myself, I found that Austria and the Swiss Alps were a particular highlight of my tour. I loved exploring the cities, however, there is something incredibly comforting and relaxing about being surrounded by nature and greenery. After a morning of discovery, I headed to the Adventure Park to have some fun on the high ropes, wooden obstacles and zip wires threaded through the forest. As somebody that has continually suffered with a fear of heights and lack of control, I think it would be fair to say that this tour has changed me. I have done activities that I would have never done before and this high ropes course was no exception. Perched on a wooden pallet amongst the trees and latching my harness onto the wires, I was not really aware of the enormity of what I was doing in terms of challenging my fears. The activity was fantastic and was the perfect way to finish off my time in the Swiss Alps.
Paris- our final destination of the tour! After an entire day on the coach, we did a drive around of the city and saw the majority of the iconic buildings. Knowing that we had a free day coming up, I was excited to spend more time at each of the legendary hotspots. Venturing into the city centre we decided on a few of the landmarks that we wanted to explore. We started off at the Sainte Chapelle- a gothic building embellished with kaleidoscopic stained glass windows. Moving further down the street we headed into the Notre Dame- a peaceful setting filled with religious decorations and tales. At the other side of the river we walked through the lesser-known areas until we arrived at the Eiffel Tower. I wish I had have taken the time to see this structure on an evening, as I am sure it would have looked far more captivating. As a child I remember this area to be clean and well cared for, however, this time I was not as impressed. I suppose this is just one of the downsides of tourism, but I know that it cannot be helped. On the other hand, I was still pleased with the time that I spent in Paris and as I have mentioned before, I did not want to waste a single opportunity on this trip. That evening we all attended a traditional Parisian meal then headed to a cabaret show. It was sad knowing it was our last night together, but after reminiscing about all of the notable moments of the trip, it made me realise just how much of a great time we all had together.
The 13th August was by far the worst day of the tour. As some of us embarked the coach, we waved goodbye to those that were staying behind to either fly home or continue on with their travels. It was only at this point when I realised just how quickly the tour had flown by. Now that I think back, it was as though as soon as we hit Italy, everything seemed to run at 100mph. I cannot even pick one moment that was a highlight- every single second was a new and notable experience. I am incredibly sad that it has all come to an end, but the friends and memories I have taken away from the past 18 days will be something to treasure forever.
For those that were with me on the tour, I cannot thank you enough for making my entire experience everything I could have dreamed of and more. I do not think any of you will realise just how much this trip meant to me in terms of my motivations and recovery journey, but you have made the past couple of weeks the most rewarding and memorable of my life.