Monthly Archives: January 2018

Wanderlust Part 3: Florence and Rome

Day 8: JANUARY 1ST 2018 Swiss Alps to Florence 

In the morning, it’s apparent that I’m about the only one not nursing a hangover. And we’re leaving for Italy at the crack of dawn too.
Nobody is happy to be up so early after such a crazy night. The stories filtering in of the escapades (stripping, projectile vomiting, etc) only confirm to me that I would have been very out of place at the party. I regret nothing.
Still, we all hate the accomodation in Switzerland and the less-than-accomodating, slightly kleptomaniac landlady. We’re keen to go somewhere a bit warmer and not having to traipse through the snow to take a shower you have to pay for.
Outside, the snow and ice has melted, making the ground a dance with death to take your suitcase to the coach. Several people stack it in a spectacular fashion.
Breakfast is a subdued affair, with many eating very little. As for me, I can’t get enough of the still warm, fresh baked bread.
On the coach, sick bags are handed out in bucket loads. They are definitely needed. It’s delightful.
Throughout the day, most people sleep or watch The Hangover. How fitting.
For lunch, I have a hot pita bread sandwich. I think I’m going to love the food in Italy.
At dusk, we reach the town of Pisa, famous for a certain tower. There’s a crowd of people all trying to take the same stupid photo. You know the one I’m talking about.
But it’s not just the Leaning Tower to gawk at here. There’s also a very beautiful church. Sadly photography isn’t allowed. It’s a shame. My grandfather would have loved to see this.
We’re in for a pleasant surprise with the hostel in Florence. The rooms are huge, the WiFi is excellent, there’s a pool, great laundry facilities and ensuites. Dinner is in true Italian style, with massive amounts of bread, cheese, pasta, florentine steak and gelato. After Switzerland this feels like five stars. And best of all, this hostel is part of a chain so we’ll be staying at more locations. I’m cool with that.

Day 9: JANUARY 2ND. Florence 

It’s official. I love Italy. When I head to the dining room for breakfast, I’ve never seen such a spread. They even have cake. Cake!!!
First on the agenda today is a walking tour of Florence. It’s a beautiful day and about 10 degrees celcius. No thermals needed here. I don’t even have to put on my winter boots.
Our guide is a wonderfully energetic local woman named Eleanor. She carries a flag so we’ll never lose her as she leads us through the streets of this beautiful city.
The cathedrals are gigantic,  the architecture absolutely exquisite. We see the copy of Michelangelo’s David and learn how he secretly bribed officials to study cadavers at night, which was highly illegal, in order to make the statue as realistic as possible.
Eleanor explains the history of each landmark and finally gives some tips on how to get the best gelato (avoid the stores that have the ice cream piled high in mountains. It looks pretty but it’s mainly ice and air). She finishes the tour in the leather district where Morgan is waiting for us.
We enter this beautiful leather and jewellery store to receive a leather demonstration and learn how to tell the real deal. Afterwards, we go around the store and many of the girls are keen to get puzzle rings. Puzzle rings are interlocking rings which fall apart when taken off and there’s only one way to put them back together. Historically they were created to help men catch cheating wives. Ever so slightly sexist, but they’re still pretty and I simply have to have one. I fall in love with the two-tone style, rose gold and silver.
The woman in the store takes one look at my hands. “They don’t make them that small, dear,” she says. “You’ll have to get the smallest one and wear it on another finger,”
A small price to pay for something so unique and lovely. My puzzle ring will live on my middle finger of my right hand. Now I just need to learn how to put it back together.
After this, we’re free to explore Florence and do whatever we like. A group of us are keen for shopping and gelato. I’m fine with this as I want to see as much of this place as I can. Walking is the best way to do so.
We’re all absolutely delighted with where we go for lunch. It’s a giant fresh food market, filled with Italian cheese, herbs, spices, pasta and other goodies. But upstairs is an array of food stalls with everything you can imagine. I select pasta. I’m in Italy after all. For 6 euros, I get a perfect sized serving of freshly cooked pasta and parmesan. It is without doubt the best pasta I have ever eaten. Sorry Mum.
The day ends all too quickly, but I head back to the hostel because there’s something highly important I need to do.
Laundry.

Day 10: JANUARY 3RD, Florence to Rome

I’m really going to miss Florence. But Rome is our next destination and I’m more than keen for that.
On the way, we stop in a lovely small town called Orvieto. It’s truly a hidden gem in Italy. Morgan tells us of a huge church that looks like a liquorice all sort and when licked, the stone actually tastes like mint. Well, we get there and after some people try this out, they realise it was a joke. I certainly got a laugh out of it.
We have the option to try a wild boar sandwich for lunch. I can’t do it. Not with the boar heads on the walls. We instead find a nice restaurant.
In Rome, a new group of people will be joining the tour, doing the Winter Rhapsody. And sadly, some will be leaving since the March To Rome ends here. But first, it’s time for a walking tour. Morgan leads us through the streets of Rome, starting at the Spanish Steps.
I’m struck by how much more crowded Rome is. Imagine how much worse it would be in summer.
Rome has gangs of gypsies and there’s pickpockets everywhere. I’m very grateful for my Pacsafe anti-theft bag. It’s one less thing to worry about. Thanks Mum. Although to be fair, if anyone tries my pockets, they’re only going to find tissues.
High above the Spanish Steps, you can see a glimpse of the Vatican, which we can visit tomorrow. Next stop is the sight I really want to see. The famous Trevi Fountain. It’s tucked away in a backstreet. On the way, Morgan buys everyone a gelato. I choose caramello.
Because the Trevi Fountain is so crowded, tour guides are forbidden to talk in front of it. We’re given the history of the fountain in a street next to one of many drinking fountains. They’re all over Italy. Some even dispense sparkling water.
The Trevi Fountain is absolutely stunning at dusk. But the crowds are something else altogether. I’m beginning to think I’ll never get a decent photo, let alone the chance to throw some coins in, when I spot the fence nearby, leading to a more empty spot in the corner.
I slide through the tourists towards the gap. I duck down and swing myself through the bars, jumping to the lowest section. This is one situation where aiming low was definitely the better option. My pictures are more than satisfactory from this angle. And yes, my coins find their way into the water. The equivalent of 3000 euros is thrown into the Trevi Fountain every day. And it’s all given to charity. Yay.
It’s time for dinner and quite honestly, this is where things went kind of wrong. Anybody who knows me is aware that I’m the size of a rake and have the appetite of a sparrow on a diet. It also doesn’t help that prior to Europe, I’ve somehow lost at least six kilos, making me look even worse. The bottom line is, I’m tiny. Very tiny.
Given that I’ve eaten a lot today, I’m really not that hungry so I go for something from the entree menu. Surely I can handle that, right? Wrong. The plate I’m given is the size of the Soviet Union with enough for two of me on it. I do my best, but there’s no way I can finish this all. And unfortunately for me, two of the waiters are VERY unhappy with me for my lack of appetite. They’re visibly annoyed and telling me off. My dinner companions assure me I’ve done nothing wrong but I can’t help feeling a little upset.
After dinner, the tour comtinues with the remnants of ancient Rome. I’m deeply impressed by the Forum, and the remains of an ancient 6 storey shopping centre. Yes, really. Of course, it all pales in comparison to the scale of the Colosseum.
We take the metro back to the coach, which then drives to the campsite where we’ll be staying. And I’ve really lucked out here, because we have odd numbers and I have a whole cabin to myself. Please and thankyou.

Wanderlust Part 2: Paris, Swiss Alps

DAY 4: DECEMBER 28th London to Paris 
The instant I wake up, I know I’ve failed in my quest to keep this sickness at bay. I feel absolutely hideous as I drag myself out of bed and into the shower.
Downstairs, a huge crowd of three Topdeck tours mills around, checking out of the hostel and chattering away.
Our trip leader Morgan admits this is her first winter in Europe. At least I’m not alone. As for our driver Lloyde, his facial hair can only be described as epic.
He gives the safety spiel. There’s seatbelts which we don’t have to wear since we’re all adults, but if there’s an accident we won’t be covered by insurance. Cue sound of everyone reaching for their seatbelts.
I like the coach. The seats recline, there’s a footrest and charging portals at every seat. There’s also WiFi, but we’re limited to 650mb for the whole trip. I resolve to only use it sparingly.
We drive down to the white cliffs of Dover and catch the ferry across to France. We start meeting members of the group. It seems nearly everyone is from Australia, although I’m one of the few from Sydney. There’s a couple of girls from New Zealand and two Americans.
I’m not a fan of sea travel since my experience on the Spirit of Tasmania at age 11, and a lot of other people are getting nauseous from the rocky boat. It’s a relief to get on dry land and start driving to Paris. On the way Morgan gives us a brief history of the French Revolution and Napoleon, all of which I remember from Modern History in high school and all the Horrible Histories I devoured in primary school. The fields of France fly past the windows of the coach.
Since Europe and Topdeck are very strict on limiting driving hours, the coach stops at a rest station.
Happy to find Sprite and mini baguettes, I head to the counter. Time to put my French to the test. I studied it for years, and I remember all the basic words/phrases. This shouldn’t be a problem.
Unfortunately, I haven’t counted on my head being fuzzy from the cold and flu tablets I’ve been shovelling down my throat. I go to say merci boucoup, or thankyou very much and what comes out is merci si vou plais, or thankyou if you please. A second later, I realise my mistake. But it’s too late. The cashier is already rolling her eyes at me. I’m off to a great start. Already managed to annoy the French and I’m feeling sicker than ever at this point.
Next on the agenda is a speed dating of sorts, where we have to spend three minutes with everyone on the bus. I last as long as I can, but I’m getting dizzy and the pressure to actually be interesting isn’t helping. Eventually I have to stop and thankfully everyone is understanding.
The outskirts of Paris aren’t exactly what I was expecting. It reminds me uncomfortably of Los Angeles, with the heavy graffiti, trash lining the streets and signs of squalor. As for the hostel room, it can only be described as a jail cell. The giant cages serving as lockers, the tiny space, the ladders out to the side resembling bars…even Mum comments on it when we video chat.
Dinner that night is in the hostel restaurant. There’s really delicious French cheese and herbs, an abundance of bread and….snails. Even the vegetarians in the group are brave enough to have a few. But I just can’t bring myself to eat them.
After dinner, it’s time to see the City of Light on a driving tour. And it does not disappoint. Paris is lit up like a Christmas tree. To be fair, there’s probably a few extra lights due to the holiday season, but regardless, it is beautiful.
The coach drives up the Champs Elysses, past the Eiffel Tower in all it’s glory, the Louvre (which would take 2000 hours to see everything), Napoleon’s tomb, a military building used by the Nazis still covered with bullet holes, the River Seine, Notre Dame, the Paris Opera….
People either seem to love Paris or hate it. You can count me among those who love it. If only I wasn’t sick….

FUN FACT: In World War 2, the French Resistance cut the cables to the Eiffel Tower elevator so Hitler would have to take the stairs. If you can’t get rid of Nazis, at least inconvenience the hell out of them.

Day 5: DECEMBER 29th. Paris, or Stop the World, I want to get better. 

There is absolutely no way I can leave the hostel today. I know it and anybody who glances in my direction knows it too. My head is spinning like the Rotor at Luna Park, I’m weaker than a kitten and I can barely string a sentence together.
It’s times like this I’m grateful for WiFi. I spend the day in bed, nibbling Cadbury chocolate, drinking water and bingeing on YouTube. I only leave the room to get lunch downstairs and bring it back up.
This is definitely not how I planned to spend my time in France. But there isn’t much choice for me though. It’s either miss this one day and get better, or force myself out in the freezing wind and rain of Paris and be sick for the rest of the trip.

Besides, I have an extra week in London after the tour. And Paris is only a train ride away…

Day 6: DECEMBER 30th. Paris to Swiss Alps

Even though I missed out on Paris, I know I did the right thing. One day in bed was all I needed. I’m so much better and will actually be able to enjoy the trip now.
After a nice French breakfast, it’s time to get on the coach to Switzerland. Today will be a long drive, but with 8 months of touring in 2016 under my belt, I don’t bat an eyelid.
To help pass the time, Morgan has each of us come up to the microphone and give the whole “who am I” spiel. Turns out there’s a lot of teachers on this trip and I’m not the only one from Western Sydney. Nearly everyone is most excited to see snow. For many Australians on the Winter Spirit, it will be their first time.
When it’s my turn, I say that I’m an actress/singer and predictably, everyone immediately shouts for me to sing. I really hate being put on the spot like this, but you only live once, so I sing an excerpt of Satisfied from Hamilton. Nobody seems to mind that I am white as Wonder Bread and therefore can’t rap like Reneé Elise Goldsberry. Before this trip is out, we will be playing Hamilton on this coach.
It’s dark when we finally arrive at Lauterbrunnen (“many waterfalls”) in Switzerland. Morgan promises this is the most beautiful place and just wait til we see it in the morning.
For now, it is FREEZING. The cabins are tiny, there’s only one key per room, one Swiss power adapter per room and the bathrooms are a cold, slippery walk away.
You have to pay for the showers too. And WiFi, if you want to use it for two hours.
I heard Switzerland was expensive but…wow.

Day 7: DECEMBER 31st Switzerland 

Morgan wasn’t kidding. Once the light hits Lauterbrunnen everyone is absolutely blown away by the natural beauty of this place. There’s waterfalls tumbling down the gigantic cliff faces, and snow everywhere. I haven’t seen snow since the school camp to Canberra when I was twelve and definitely not this much. The buildings remind me of gingerbread houses covered in icing sugar.
Today, New Year’s Eve, we have the option of either skydiving or going up the Jungfrau railway.
I chose the train.
Jungfrau is Europe’s highest train station. It’s a scenic route that takes about 90 minutes, changing at the town of Grindelwald (yes, really!) to get to the top. Us Topdeckers have a reserved train just for us.
Jungfrau is so high, we’re warned about altitude sickness. And at the top, I can definitely feel it. Once I get some water and Lindt into me though, I feel better. There’s also some good WiFi up here, so I call a few people at home. Everyone is staying up in Sydney.
We spend the day snapping pictures everywhere, despite the freezing sub zero temperatures. The mountains are more beautiful than anything I’ve ever seen. It seems cheesy, but their size makes me realise what a small place I occupy in this world.
We walk through a gigantic ice cave filled with sculptures. It’s a miracle nobody slips on the ice floor. We visit the highest Lindt shop in the world to stock up on Lindoor balls. At lunch time, one of the American girls discovers the joy of chicken salt. I sprinkle it on my chips too. It’s nice. It tastes of home.
It’s hours before we’re ready to stamp our special passports and head back down the mountain. Sorry to everyone who entered, but no New Year’s Eve will ever top this one.
It’s a ten minute walk back to the hostel, and we stop at a tiny store to look at Swiss Army knives and Pandora charms.
Before the night’s festivities begin,  there’s something I have been itching to do and I don’t care how lame it is.
I fill up my water bottle at the stream and take a sip. It is the cleanest water I’ve ever tasted and I love it.
At dinner, those who went skydiving are raving about their adrenaline inducing experience while the Jungfrau crowd compare Instagram pictures.
But what the crowd really wants is to get wasted for the New Year. I can see that the alcohol levels are rising fast and frankly it makes me nervous. Even in high school and uni, I was never a party animal. I’m out of place here.
By about 8pm, everyone has headed to the coach for a party like none before. And I really don’t want to be part of it. It’s just not me.
So I ring in the New Year on my own in the cabin, with Lindt chocolate. There’s a final few tears over the horrors of my life in 2017. I honestly can’t believe I’ve survived everything the year threw at me. But I have.
2018, watch out because I am coming for you.