European Misdaventures of a Travelling Zimbabwean – France, Italy, Germany, Netherlands

European Misdaventures of a Travelling Zimbabwean

France, Italy, Germany, Netherlands

I probably started planning to take this trip from the very moment I was conceived – it felt like I had waited that long to do it! Travelling alone is always rather terrifying, especially if you come from a small town where the most exciting thing that happens is a new TV show.

I had booked a two-week tour around seven European countries and was going it alone, so that night was very restless in anticipation of what the next fourteen days had in store for me.

It felt like I had been sleeping for only a few minutes when my alarm clock buzzed in my ear. I jumped out of bed and rushed around the room, gathering my scattered clothes from the floor where I had dumped them the night before, stuffing them into various bags. I could hardly contain my excitement as I rushed down the stairs to the hotel lobby. It was crammed with young people, some standing and chatting, some looking frantically for a mysterious object that seemed to be at the bottom of their bag and others who leaned against whatever they could to hold them up while they finished last night’s dream. This was where the tour left from, so I had been lucky to get a room there and then not have to worry about trying to find the place.

I walked into the courtyard after checking out of the hotel where there were more people milling about and five large tour buses parked. We had about 20 minutes to spare, but I wanted to make sure I secured a window seat so I could have a view, even if it was only for the first part of the trip. A few more people were on the bus as I stepped up and found a seat in the middle. I got to chatting to some of them and when a guy asked if I was excited about going to Spain I thought, “Hmm?” Not that I have anything against Spain, but I didn’t remember it being on my itinerary! I had got on the wrong bus and been on the wrong bus for around 15 minutes so I had no time to waste. Pity, he was rather hot actually!

I found my right place just in time and before I knew it we were in Dover and waiting to board the ferry across the English Channel and into France. The last words from our tour guide before we left British soil were – “Have fun, get laid, but always be on time because we will leave you behind!” This was going to be fun!

Our first night in Paris was great. The chef met us at the camp, all dressed up like an authentic Frenchman (complete with twirling moustache), and we feasted on champage and snails in a little pre-tour get together. My first sight of the Eiffel Tower was just amazing. It was everything I expected and more – the sun was just slinking down in the Paris sky, purple and blue hues tinting the wispy clouds and the dark silhouette of the famous monument standing tall and proud against it. I was in love!
As we were on a budget tour, when we stayed in the campsites we had to take turns doing chores around the place. My duty on our first day was dishwashing which meant I had to be up bright and early. After that we were off on our first grand adventure – Bastille Day in Paris! If you happen to be in Paris on the 14th July, count yourself lucky – you will be in for the most spectacular day of your life.

The first stop was a service in Notre Dame Cathedral. We took a peek at Quasimodo clambering up the steps of one of the towers on roof before entering the packed church. It was dark inside and I could hear voices chanting from the front, echoing around the room, bouncing off the walls in a truly hypnotic sound. I inched my way around the side and started to head up to the top, taking time to look at the amazing stained glass windows that lined the walls. It was amazingly quiet for a place with so many people and I was mesmerised as I reached the front. The rose window above the altar was alight with more colours than I knew existed. Three priests clad in green cloaks moved around the altar which was the only place cast in light in the whole church. Incense curled up around them creating a dreamlike effect and their voices sang in a haunting tone – it was an amazing experience.

When I managed to tear myself away I headed out the doors and back into the bright sunshine of Paris. Hundreds of people were around, taking pictures and laughing and joking, such a contrast from what I had seen inside.

I wandered up through town to stand on a bridge over the Seine and take time for everything to sink in. Here I was standing in the most romantic city in the world, staring out at the Eiffel Tower as it peeked up above the trees ahead of me – it was still unbelievable. My body shook with fright as I was brought back to reality by five screaming jets roaring overhead, trails of coloured smoke painting the French flag in the sky above the city. The rest of the day was spent taking in the Champs Elysées, Arc de Triomphe, Louvre and every other magical place around Paris. There is so much to see and do all crammed into one city, it’s impossible to only spend a day there, but, alas, that was all we had.

Bastille Day fireworks in Paris
Bastille Day fireworks in Paris
As the sun began to sink in the sky we headed for the Eiffel Tower where the celebrations for Bastille Day were to begin. The day was rounded off by the most amazing pyrotechnics display I have ever witnessed. The sky was lit up by various coloured laser lights dancing to loud music as a French voice boomed out the history of Bastille Day. It finished with a massive fireworks display which had me so captivated that when it ended I noticed that I had managed to get separated from my group. This was a small problem as there were close to a million people around me and we were about a 3/4 hour train ride from our campsite outside of Paris. Fear began to take hold in the pit of my stomach but I forced myself not to allow the hysteria to take over. I eventually found a subway which was closed and by the time I found one that was open the last train for the night was just pulling out. I jumped on, thinking it was the right one, but realised too late that it was going somewhere I didn’t want to go to! I was headed in the wrong direction and since it was the last one I had no chance of finding my way back. I ended up getting off at the next station to find it deserted and the lady about to close the ticket office and the gates of the station door! I was left standing outside in a dark street in a foreign place with no one around me and a call box that only took call cards and no coins! I was terrified. A Holiday Inn sign blinked a short way ahead and I ran up to its closed doors, hoping someone would be able to help, but, alas, no. I ended up sleeping in the doorway until the sun started rising the next morning and I could get the first train back to our campsite. This was not starting off very well.

Our second night in France was spent in a quaint little town. We went to the most bizarre club that had a huge wooden door which seemed to belong to some Medievel Castle from the 1300s. Once inside, werewolves dangled from the ceiling and faces in apparent agony appeared from the walls. It was a little freaky but unique.

On day three I woke up in a very comfy bed with the sound of rain falling outside. We headed to Avignon that day. With the backdrop of the Palace of Popes, which towers over the city, there were loads of little cafés to sit at and festival fever had hit, so street performers were everywhere. The best was a person in a tube of stretchy material on the stone steps that led up to the huge church. With the dusty stone walls of this impressive bit of architecture as a stage and a small tape player as the orchestra, this alien-like creature gyrated under the material, creating weird and wonderful shapes, just with the use of body movement. There wasn’t enough time to stand and watch for too long, as we were headed to the French Riviera – playground for the rich and famous. It was still raining as we arrived in Antibes where we were staying.

That night we headed into Monaco and the famous Monte Carlo Casino. To get there, you have to head up a winding mountain road that overlooks the sea below – the water was just incredible. Luminous blue water lapped gently onto the shores and expensive boats bobbed up and down on the tiny waves. This was a lifetsyle I would love to get used to. Monaco is an amazing little place. The houses are absolute mansions but, according to our guide, hardly anyone lives there. And looking at them it seemed true. No one moved around the town except the tourists and all the windows were dark and closed up. The best place to view the harbour is at the doors of the Palace that overlook it from high on its mountainside perch. The lights started twinkling down below as the sun sunk into the warm sea in the distance. We had one more adventure before we arrived at the eccentric casino – the Grand Prix track! The markings are visible on the tar and as luck would have it the traffic light was red as we pulled up. An excited hush fell over the bus as the driver started up the Michael Schumacher dance track and revved the engine as we waited for the lights to go green and the flag to fall. The sounds of the screeching cars from the song bellowed out around us from the bus’ speakers and the vibrations of the bus rattled through us as it revved in anticipation – and we were off! Probably not as fast as the race cars, but I reckon we could give them a good run for their money.

The casino itself is spectacular and the amount of money flowing inside its walls would sustain a small country for a year. Take the time out to have a good look around.

Day four was a free day to wander around the French Riviera and mingle with the rich and famous. The rain clouds had disappeared leaving a perfect blue sky and water so clear it appeared to glow against the beach. I decided to head into Nice which is just beautiful. Small cobblestoned streets wind through the town, bringing something completely different into view around every corner. If you want a quiet day strolling carelessly then that’s the place to be!

On day five we waved goodbye to France and headed into the mountains of Italy. The Alps are amazing! Italy is very different to what I had expected. Shanty towns cram onto the mountainside everywhere you look. I didn’t realise it was such a poor country – just goes to show how you have such a glamourized picture in your mind of somewhere. Nonetheless its a richly beautiful country. Pisa was our first stop, obviously famous for its Tower. Hawkers line the streets and market stalls selling cheap souvenirs lead up to the entrance gates of the cathedral. After our fix of Pisa we headed into Florence which would be our stop for the night. Deciding to have an authentic Italian dinner, we chose a quiet restaurant down one of the many side streets. The problem was that our waiter didn’t appear to understand English and the menu was not very helpful in explaining the dishes on offer. Eventually we just pointed to something and waited to see what we ended up with. What I thought was a glass of wine turned out to be a bottle (no complaints there!) and one girl ended up with what we guessed to be rice boiled in strawberries. It’s good to do something different now and again, even if you don’t know what you are eating.

Florence is also the home to the statue of David. I had to see it, so I arose early and headed out to find it. I had organised to leave my luggage at reception the night before and the tour guide would pick it up as they headed out. No one else was interested in seeing David so I embarked on my journey alone, planning to meet up with everyone later that day. On the way I stopped at the Duomo, a truly massive cathedral in Florence. It is made up of green, red and white marble and definitely a must-see. The Galleria dell’Accademia houses the famous statue of David. It is an amazing piece of work, even the veins in his hands and legs have been carved out of the marble. Florence is a little on the dirty side and home to a lot of poor people but there is so much beauty that it adds to the whole ambience of the place.

I met up later that day with everyone else in the middle of town and we hopped on the bus to head off to Rome. As soon as the tour guide saw me I could see by her face that something was wrong – yes, she had forgotten to pack my luggage. Here I was in the stifling Italian heat with no more luggage until we met up with another bus who could bring it along with them. I wasn’t happy!

A day spent wondering around Rome will leave any traveller happy no matter what. Starting off with the Spanish Steps, then making a wish at the Trevi Fountain and marvelling at the beauty of the Piazza Navona is enough of a fix for any culture vulture. We ended our evening in Rome with dinner at a tiny street restaurant at the Pantheon surrounded by accordian playing Italian men and the moon casting its gentle light above the famous building.

Our campsite in Rome was nice and comfy, except for the toilets and showers. It seemed that they had never been cleaned. After a very sweaty day tramping through Rome I had to jump in the shower and then get straight back into my same smelly clothes I had worn all day. This combined with the fact that the showers weren’t really clean left me feeling very unsatisfied, but hey, I was in Italy, it could be worse right? Yes! And it did get worse a couple of days later, but I jump ahead.

That day we headed to the much anticipated Vatican Museum which houses the Sistine Chapel. Up and out of the campsite early we were soon crowded under the massive stone walls that surround the city and waiting patiently with hundreds of other people to enter. Before you actually get to the Sistine Chapel itself you go through arched halls that are lined from floor to ceiling with the most intricately-painted scenes I have ever seen. Gold paint and frames add to make it one of the most amazing buildings I have ever been in to. Finally at the end of all these hallways you are ushered into the Sistine Chapel which is watched closely by guards who demand silence at all times. The room is packed from shoulder to shoulder by people all staring upwards at the marvelous work on the famous ceiling and no one is allowed to utter a word. Finally we headed out into St. Peter’s Basilica which is truly amazing, too. Words cannot describe what you see in there or how high its walls are. A must-do is to climb the dome and have a bird’s-eye view over the city of Rome. Its a little challenging if you are claustrophobic but it is quite an experience. A tiny stone passageway heads upwards, there are no windows and as you climb higher the walls narrow until you actually have to bend your body slightly with the angle of the curve. As you have people behind you and in front of you its can get a bit tight and feel airless and you have absolutely no idea where you are, how high you are or how far you have still to go. However, when you get to the top it’s well worth it as you get to see the city and its surroundings from what seems like an airplane height.

Finally, my clothes arrived that night with the next busload of people so I could get cleaned and changed and generally feel much better. The next day we were off to Venice and gondolas and the aforementioned disaster!

To get to the legendary city we hopped on board a water taxi and headed across the sea. As you come nearer to the city the buildings come into view which are just as romantic in real life as they are in the pictures you see. Gondolas bob in the waves and the gondoliers stand proud and tall as they swish the water with their long paddles. St. Mark’s Square houses more pigeons than you would see at Trafalgar Square in London. Surrounding the square are lines of small shops where you can see lace-making displays, glass-blowing displays and go into the Doge’s Palace. However, Venice is more popular for its flooded streets where gondolas carry lovers and tourists alike under bridges and past crowds of shoppers and day vistors who walk the drier parts. Water literally laps at some of the entrance ways into various buildings. We asked our gondolier to sing to us but he refused to! With all the waterways naturally come lots of bridges, the most famous being the Bridge of Sighs where Casanova is said to have stood wooing his many women lovers.

Just after the sun had set we started to make our way across the water back to our campsite. Everyone was buzzing with excitement from the day’s activities (although perhaps the champagne we had on our gondola ride also had something to do with it!) and there was much banter as we stepped ashore and took a short stroll back to dinner. A grim couple of faces greeted us at the dining door and we were all ushered into the room and waited for the news to be delivered. Sadly, a young man who had been travelling with us had passed away the night before from a mysterious illness. As we had all eaten the same food and been in regular contact with him we were all put in quarantine until they could figure out what had been wrong with him. The next night was a terrifying one. No one could sleep as we waited for the news about out fate. As the morning dawned and everyone started coming out of their rooms a single truck drove around the area where we were staying pumping huge clouds of spray into the air around us. The entire campsite had been evacuated the night before, leaving only us there, no one allowed to leave or enter the area. By lunchtime there still was no news, and by now a lot of people had broken down and were sitting crying with friends, arms draped around their necks. Some of us wandered up to the showers to see a news van and camera crew setting up at the campsite entrance – obviously news had leaked out to the local TV station and we were about to be broadcast around the world. Eventually a man in a dark suit called us all together and announced that the man had suffered from meningitis. This is a highly contagious disease and because we had been in contact with him we were all at risk of catching it. A doctor from Rome was flown in to administer strong antibiotics to those of us who wanted them as a precaution. I shoved mine down my throat as quickly as possible and headed back out to the lawn to a group of others. We had a long ten days ahead of us, as that was when the symptoms would start to show. We had missed a day of travel while we had been in quarantine so we headed out of the campsite at sunset to try and make up for lost time after getting permission from the Italian and German governments to travel.


Cuckoo clocks in Germany
Cuckoo clocks in Germany
We arrived in Munich at about 2 a.m. and fell into our beds exhausted. It had been an incredibly long 36 hours, mentally and physically. For the next couple of days there was a solemn silence among all of us. The antibiotics had made everyone feel a little ill and made our skin go slightly yellow. We had been through the Hofbrauhaus, not allowed to taste any of the German beer, cancelled our wine tasting tour and missed a few stops here and there on the interim. Spirits started to lift slightly when we reached St. Goar. A beautiful little town where we stayed in a quaint wooden inn with multi-coloured flower boxes at the windows. Cuckoo clocks, beer steins and teddy bears lined the shelves by the dozens in the small shops on the cobblestoned streets. It was just what everyone needed to get back into the swing of things.

One of the locals in Amsterdam
One of the locals in Amsterdam
This was to be our final destination before heading back to the UK. Of course there are your normal things to do in Amsterdam, things probably best left in Amsterdam! However, there are also some other activities worth mentioning. Naturally, the house of Anne Frank is a must-see. Haunting tales and black and white movie reels tell her story as you walk through the preserved walls of her house. It is a chilling experience as the realities of that era are brought to life before your eyes. Boom Chicago is a great comedy club to visit. We had our last tour dinner there and the show was fantastic. Another must-see is the Heineken Museum where you can go on a tour of the beer-making industry and stop off along the way at pubs for free drinks or to indulge in interactive rides – call it a fun fair for adults. By this time everyone had forgotten about the antibiotics – it was our last night on tour, we were in Amsterdam and it was party time!