A Tour of Western Europe

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Gregg and sue faulkner share the highlights of their tour of western europe. Gregg’s tip for trouble-free travel? let your computer mouse do most of the work before-hand. The internet is truly a tool for travellers …

Travel location: A tour of Western Europe, followed by a self-drive visit to Ireland.

This was my first trip to Europe and Sue’s return after a 26 year absence. I have previously travelled extensively in Asia and Australasia, while Sue lived in London and travelled around Europe and the USA before we met. We chose to take a packaged coach tour of key European locations – as a ‘taster’ for a proposed future more leisurely trip – followed by a few days exploring the south-western corner of Ireland.

We wanted to undertake a ‘highlights’ trip, aware that we would be packing a huge amount of travel and activity into a limited time. Neither of us is a ‘city’ person, as we generally prefer the more relaxed pace and gentility of regional life. We recognised, however, that the principal historic and cultural sites tend to be located in the major cities.

We did take special note of regions of interest (in particular Tuscany, Provence and rural Ireland) for a more leisurely future visit. We would love to base ourselves in a regional village and spend some time immersing in the local culture.

Flights with: Qantas. For the long flight we decided to splurge, and paid the extra for Premium Economy class fares. We’re glad we did. On the Sydney to London flights, we travelled on an Airbus 380 (no, nothing blew up, or fell off) and our seats were as comfortable as any seat can be for stretches of 9 and 16 hours. Premium gave us the huge benefit of stretching room, and we had the entrance doorway to have some walk-around space.

On our return London to Sydney flights, we scored the old faithful Boeing 747 but, again, the Premium seating and service was a blessing.

The tour was organised by:

We chose a Trafalgar European Horizons Tour, arranged by Travelworld Settlement City.

We chose well! In every possible way, Trafalgar met and exceeded their promises. Our tour was flawlessly managed, and our Tour Director was an exceedingly personable, knowledgeable and helpful multi-lingual British woman, Alison Leach.

Local guides escorted us in several locations, and they also proved personable, helpful and highly knowledgeable. A valuable bonus was the use of little personal radio receivers with ear-plugs in several cities. With these devices, it was possible to wander up to hundreds of metres from the group while still hearing the guides’ commentary and instructions. The radios also demonstrated a special value when the guide was able to warn us of a known pick-pocket in Rome, who suddenly found himself the attention of 50 pairs of staring eyes. He quickly remembered another appointment …

Our TD, Alison, appeared to work at least 23 hours per day to ensure that every box was ticked for us. Every activity was ready, organised and waiting for us, so we experienced no delays and no queuing. We got full value from every moment on tour.

This is not a paid (or unpaid) commercial for Trafalgar. As a part-time customer service consultant myself, I look for quality customer service and, with Trafalgar, I found it, and I appreciate it.

We recognised the value of an escorted holiday during the second part of our trip; driving ourselves around the south-western corner of Ireland, from Cork to Galway, and then across to Dublin. Spending more than 90 minutes driving around within 1km of the hotel we sought in Killarney, while trapped in a maze of recently changed one-way streets, I wished I had an expert tour driver with me.

While the driving was mostly a fun experience (Irish roads have to be experienced to be believed), navigation – even with the GPS I had carried from home, loaded with European maps – was a real challenge. We discovered that the Irish have the charming habit of spelling any given town name three or four different ways – and that’s not counting the Gaelic version.

We stayed at: On the European tour, a series of 4 to 5 star hotels that we could not have afforded at rack rate. The hotels ranged from very comfortable to exceptional. Notable among them were Hotel Admiral in Zermatt (an alpine village on the flanks of the Matterhorn), Hotel Beau Rivage on the beachfront in Nice, and the Park Plaza Riverbank, which became our base of operations, on the bank of the Thames in central London. Considering the quality of the hotels, the tour package offered excellent value.

While in Ireland we stayed in hotels I selected and booked on-line well before our trip. I relied heavily on recommendations from previous travellers, reported on the Trip Advisor website. In each instance we found the hotel to be more than adequate and, because I had used Google Earth to view their location, central to the attractions we wanted to see.

The most amazing experience on my trip was: hard to decide. Several experiences stand out. Riding in the cable cars to the top of the Kleine Matterhorn near Zermatt and savouring the spectacular 360 degree vista of mountaintops was exhilarating. Dragging my hand along the old, stained marble walls deep in the Colosseum – and imagining all the hands that had preceded me – was an amazing experience. Spending an hour or more walking in awe around and studying Michelangelo’s David taught me the true meaning of awesome. Exploring the cobble-stone streets and lanes of Brussels, Cologne, Rome, Florence and Paris was a life’s dream come true. Finally, experiencing sites and places I have read about and studied for more than 50 years made me realise how insular our daily lives really are.

The food was: varied, but always interesting. Chocolate and waffles in Brussels; nougat-pretzel in Cologne; white sausage in Munich; strudel in Austria; gelato in Italy; croissants in France; even pork pie in London. For me, the gastronomic highlight was the seafood chowder I enjoyed in both Galway and Dublin. Different, but equally sensational. We enjoyed it all and washed it down with the national beer. Of course, we also tried the local wine, but wine is quite expensive in the cities. Beer is much more affordable.

A big surprise on our holiday was: discovering that 50 Euro cents is also called One P. That’s because it buys you … you guessed it, in most public toilets all over Europe. Interestingly, though, many public toilets are now free and are generally very clean and well maintained (sadly, unlike a lot of our Australian equivalents).

Stand-out moments on our trip: Ambling around the Poulnabrone Dolmen, a simple 6,000 year old stone portal tomb in the middle of a stark fractured limestone plateau called The Burren, in western Ireland, pondering the tenacity of the human spirit and the progress we’ve made in a geological eye-blink.

Wandering through the extravagant and ostentatious wealth and excess – fabulously beautiful though it may be – of the Vatican, while thinking about the grinding lethal poverty of so many of its ‘subjects’ around the world, caused me to wonder whether we have really made so much progress after all.

But then, isn’t that why we travel? To open our eyes to reality, rather than the pre-digested, artificially flavoured and safety-certified fantasy we are presented by Hollywood. Travel makes you think. That’s good!

If I could give one tip to anyone travelling to Europe, it would be: It’s a long way. The travel there and back is the major expense, so don’t scrimp on your holiday. Use the services of a good travel agent –

Travelworld at Settlement City looked after us superbly well (thanks Lauren!). Be prepared to spend a few dollars extra to have a really great time while you’re there, and don’t run your time too short. Don’t try to save a few dollars by staying ‘out of town’. The wasted time and cost of travel to the major attractions will more than cover the extra cost of a central hotel within walking distance.

And, finally, use the internet. Google Earth enabled me to be quite familiar with the layout of places weeks before arriving. Walking around London, for my first time, felt quite comfortable after many hours exploring it ‘virtually’.

Trip Advisor is a fantastic website, where you can learn first-hand from other travellers what was good, bad and just plain awful – what should be avoided and what to be sure not to miss. Have fun!

Thank you Gregg.

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