It always takes me forever to write about my big vacations, mostly because when I get back it’s usually straight back to my normal, busy life, and I’m left with little time to absorb my experiences.
But taking a few weeks to do so actually helps, I think, so here goes!
I had been waiting for months to take this vacation. I had to reschedule it after my accident, and the dates at the beginning of November were just about the last ones available for the year and before the weather turned.
I’ve done several COSMOS trips of single countries, but this year I decided to try a multi-country one.
I’d always wanted to cross the channel from England to Europe, so this was the trip to do it.
I added an extra day in England because I’ve been dreaming of going back since I first went in 2007. That year I went on a trip around England with my parents, and it really opened my eyes and heart to travel. I’d always been fascinated by history, but that really kicked off my love of travel and my obsession with all things British.
I arrived pretty early for my first day, and surprised myself with how long I lasted considering I don’t sleep on planes!
I dropped my stuff at the hotel, which was in the Hammersmith area, and walked over to the Tube where I figured it out pretty quickly.
I always do the Hop On Hop Off bus when I go to a new big city, so I found the nearest stop and rode it around to orient myself.
I saw everything from the London Eye to Westminster Abbey to the House of Parliament and Buckingham Palace, hopping off here and there to snap some photos.
I bought a ticket for The Shard, a new building that wasn’t there when I last visited, and went to the top for a really cool 360-degree view of the city.
My bus ticket included a Thames River cruise, so after getting a few snapshots of the Tower Bridge, I hopped on and had a lovely night time view. I was pretty exhausted by then, so I made my way to Victoria Station and grabbed a quick dinner before taking the Tube back to the hotel.
I had another full itinerary the next day, which started with a walk through the Tower Of London in the morning. It was a bit dreary, but not too bad. I’d done the Tower before, and I was surprised how familiar I was with everything. The museum in the White Tower was pretty cool with a collection of weapons and fake horses that the kings used to display their fancy armor.
I hopped on the bus again for to continue sightseeing, stopping off at Trafalgar Square, Picadilly Circus and Parliament before making my way to the British Museum before it closed. The only problem with visiting Europe this time of year is that the museums close early, so I only had about 2 hours at that point.
I’d done the museum back in 2007, but you could spend days in there! I love Roman and Greek history, so I spent some time in those galleries and the Egyptian rooms before doing some shopping at their fabulous gift shop.
The next day was technically the first day of my tour, but not with the group. You could sign up for one of several tours in and around London, but with other COSMOS travelers. I chose a full day to Windsor Castle, Stonehenge and Bath.
I’d done Bath and Stonehenge before, so I was excited to explore Windsor Castle. We had a picturesque drive through the Cotswolds, passing the spot where the Magna Carta was signed, and spent the morning wandering around the castle. Apparently the Queen was in residence. And now I can say I’ve seen where Harry and Megan will be married next year!
We drove for a couple of hours to the Salisbury plains to see windswept Stonehenge. A lot has changed since I was last there, like a new visitor center and the diversion of the highway away from the site. You had to take a bus about a mile to get to it. It was so, so cold and windy, but the sun was shining!
We made a quick lunch stop in the town of Lacock, which is known for being the quintessential English village. Apparently lots of TV shows and movies are filmed there.
We headed to Bath next, and I had hoped to explore a few parts of the city that I didn’t get a chance to last time I was there, but it was dark and raining by the time we got there, so it was straight to the Roman Baths.
I’d done those before too, but I really enjoyed seeing it a second time. Unfortunately we didn’t have a lot of free time before leaving, so that was unfortunate. It was Sunday too, so all the shops were either closed or closed early.
It was quite late when I got back, and my ankles were screaming at me, but it was a good day. London is such a big city that I know there’s so much more I can do next time. I didn’t even make it over to Kensington Palace or Greenwich Park!
I met up with the group the next morning, and it was off to Dover Port to cross the channel!
I spent my 31st birthday fulfilling a dream of seeing the white cliffs of Dover. After going through various passport screenings, the group got off the bus and onto the car ferry. It took about an hour to cross to Calais, France, and spent that time wandering the top deck of the ferry taking photos of the cliffs and Dover Castle in the distance and wandering inside the lounge area and eating lunch.
I’ve seen the cliffs in movies and TV shows, but to see them against the bright blue water in person was really striking.
We met our tour director at Calais and got on our bus to head for Brussels, Belgium. Unfortunately it was dark by the time we got to the city, and we basically had two hours to explore the main square, Grand Place.
Considering I chose this tour to hit a few countries I’d never been before, I felt extremely shortchanged. Maybe if it was summer and it was light until 9 p.m. I would have felt a little better, but seeing what many call the greatest square in Europe in the dark was really disappointing.
I literally had enough time to grab a waffle and some frites for dinner while I wandered the streets and hastily picked out a few souvenirs. That’s definitely a hazard of these group tours unfortunately. Now I know I’ll want to go back on my own someday at least. I literally got a taste of Belgium!
The next day we drove through a tiny sliver of the Netherlands and made our way to the Rhine River Valley. The fall colors were still on display, and we had a lovely drive through the forests and down a twisting mountain road to the town of Boppard. We had some time for lunch before hopping on a river boat to cruise for about an hour to St. Goar.
It was a bit chilly and brisk on deck, but it was so cool to see the adorably colorful villages and evocative castle ruins on the banks of the river. We made our way to our hotel for the night, and I turned on the TV to see some FEI show jumping on! A good day!
We made our way to the popular medieval town of Rothenburg next, and it was delightful! Colorful houses, Christmas spirit and tasty desserts galore. It was a photographer’s dream, so I spent lots of time wandering the side streets to find some good shots.
That night we made our way to Innsbruck, Austria, where yet again, it was dark and we only had a couple of hours to explore. We saw the town square and I wandered into some shops, but I really didn’t get a taste of the culture or the people sadly. I did see the Goldenes Dachl balcony, which is a famous landmark in the city, but that was about it!
We had quite a long drive the next day through the Austrian Alps and the Italian Dolomites, and I have to say, that was my favorite part of the trip. Just watching the towns and cities go by, looking at breathtaking vistas and seeing the scenery change as we passed through into Italy. From little Germanic villages to Italian villas and vineyards built into the hillsides, Austria had a lot of different cultures. I’ve never seen mountains and valleys so big and tunnels so long!
After making our way out of the Dolomites it was on to Venice. I’d been there on my Italy trip in 2014, and it felt very familiar. We had most of the afternoon to do what we wanted, and I was determined to get lost!
I didn’t get a chance to go in the Doge’s Palace last time, so I bought a ticket and wandered around. The art was seriously impressive and the dungeons were really cool with graffiti from prisoners still visible on the walls.
After that I walked through St. Mark’s Square and wandered the streets and alleys. I made my way to a few neighborhood squares away from the tourists, which was pretty cool to see how local Venetians spend their evenings. The weather was balmy, so it was great for a brisk walk. I also had a chance to buy some really nice Murano glass. It’s so expensive for the authentic stuff, but I splurged on a necklace for myself.
We stayed just outside of Venice overnight, then it was on to Verona, the city that made Romeo and Juliet famous. Juliet’s balcony was a huge touristy spot, so I took a couple of snapshots, then went wandering around the streets and shops. They had a nice market in the town square and a beautiful Roman amphitheater, but yet again, not much time!
We headed towards Switzerland next, passing through culturally Italian and German areas before reaching Lucerne by nightfall. I went on the train to town with a couple of people from my group, and we grabbed dinner by the river before tucking in for the night.
The next morning we took a short drive to Mt. Stanserhorn, and took an old fashioned train and lift up to the top. It was crazy how the climate changed right before my eyes from about 40 degrees to snowing and probably about 10 degrees! From the top of the mountain looking down, it was still quite green in the valley. I’ve been to a lot of high mountains in my life, but I’d say this one was right up there with Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio–my knees were definitely wobbling a bit!
After having a cup of hot chocolate on the peak, we went back down and headed back to Lucerne where we had some time to wander around the city. The picturesque Lake Lucerne was right there in the middle of town near the train station, and I wandered around the weekend market, over the medieval bridge and through the streets filled with luxury watchmakers and shops. I loaded up on Swiss chocolate at the gift shop, then it was time to head towards Dijon, France, for the night.
We only had a quick dinner and off to bed in Dijon…so much for that! Then it was off on a rainy drive to Paris.
Paris is fresh in my mind since I was there in 2015, and like London, there’s just too much to do. We only had the afternoon, so we took an orientation drive, went inside Notre Dame, had a photo op at the Eiffel Tower, then had the rest of the afternoon and evening at leisure.
The weather was pretty insane. First raining, then sunny, then windy and rainy, then sleet, then sunny again!
I took the Metro from the Louvre to the Arc de Triomphe and did a little bit of shopping. I made a stop in the Sephora flagship store, which was crazy busy, and took a few minutes to warm up with a cup of hot chocolate and a crepe.
Looking at my trip overall, I’m definitely glad I went, but it was just a little too fast forward. We only stayed in each hotel for one night, so I never felt like I could settle or unpack even a little. I felt rushed and not able to immerse myself in some of the cities, which is par for the course on many of these escorted trips. But I still like to take them to orient myself to new cities and hit the big sights so I can check them off and come back again to explore more in depth.
I’ve been doing a lot of travel reading and podcast listening this year, so maybe my expectations are getting higher for what I want in a vacation, but I’m not quite comfortable going completely solo and driving myself from city to city. I like the safety net of a group, and I like meeting new people. Of course I’d love to travel with friends, but haven’t had any that are seriously interested yet.
This last 18 months or so has really sparked a wanderlust in me that I can’t seem to shake. Despite the relatively shitty year I’ve had, I’ve also been able to go to some really cool places, and I’m grateful for it. I believe travel makes me a more well-rounded, understanding person, and I love exploring new cultures and discovering history.
My tentative plans next year would be a trip to Badminton with a day in London maybe, and I think the next country I want to check off my bucket list would be Germany, but we’ll see what life has in store. Here’s to a better 2018!
“We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.”