It was finally time for the real adventure to begin. After a warm-up in Cardiff, I could safely say that most of my worries about travelling through Europe were very quickly floating out the window. I was now getting set for a three-hour train ride back through the misty countryside of Wales into the centre of London, where my Contiki tour would start in a few days - and before then, I would have some time to kill on my own. Despite having technically already been there, the only piece of London I’d seen so far on this trip was the inside of Gatwick Airport, which as you can imagine was hardly worth writing home about. But undoubtedly, as one of, if not the most important economic, social and cultural city on the globe, London would offer up an incredible number of exciting and potentially enlightening experiences for young travellers like myself - being home to the Commonwealth monarchy and having survived plague, war, terrorism and so much more, it’s history alone was enough to entice me. However, before I’d be able to enjoy the United Kingdom’s largest city, I’d first have to find my next hostel (which right now felt like finding a needle in a haystack)...
With a huge night of Welsh-level partying and drinking still under my belt from the previous night (my buddies and I didn’t hit the pillows until 4 am in the morning), I could barely keep my eyes open as I waited for my First Great Western train to pull into the station. It took me no time at all to pass out once I was on the train given that it was not only a particularly comfortable means of travel but, unlike my previous ride, there was no transfer - all I had to do was sit back and relax as it took me straight into London’s Paddington Station. With no friendly stranger to talk to on this stretch of the journey, I was able to fully appreciate the boundless green fields, rolling patchwork hills and quiet little hamlets whipping past my window - and now that the rain and fog plaguing my first few days in the UK had finally seemed to dissipate, the already enthralling view was now glowing gloriously in the bright sunlight. As our locomotive smoothly and comfortably rocked along the tracks and my headphones drowned out the sounds of the other passengers (which seemed to be increasing by the dozens with every stop), I had no trouble falling in-and-out of much-needed sleep - and when I finally came to, was excited to realize that the British countryside had now transformed into industrial smokestacks, rain-soaked brickwork, apartment blocks (or flats, as they call it), and graffiti-covered train containers. Though not necessarily an inspiring view, this meant that I had finally arrived in the outskirts of London.
As the conductor came onto the loudspeakers to tell us that Paddington Station was coming up as the next stop, I realized I should probably use some of the little time I had left to plan out my next steps once I got there. Using the train’s onboard Wi-Fi, I tried to figure out whether or not I'd be able to decipher the London Underground or if I should just cut my losses and take a taxi cab to the hostel - while the cab was easily the more expensive option, at least they’d know where they were going and could get me there far quicker (meaning I wouldn’t have to struggle under the weight of my backpack for however extra long the ride on the subway would take me). But even as my train very slowly pulled into the station, I still hadn’t made my decision. I lost my train of thought (no pun intended) however once I stepped off the train and onto the platform - an immense vaulted roof, covered end-to-end with windows, hung overtop rows of tracks and hundreds of frantic commuters heading off to their 9-to-5 jobs (the stress on their faces had me even more relieved that I had ten weeks away from my own office). I dodged the crowds and headed towards the exit, stalling for a moment between the doors that would lead me out to the street and the waiting taxis, and the tunnel that would take me beneath the city streets towards the subterranean labyrinth of the Underground (or the “Tube”, as it was commonly known).
In the end, however, it came down to cost. Even though at first glance the Tube map looked as confusing as a maze trapped inside a Rubik's Cube, I decided I needed to stick to my newfound philosophy of trying new things (while still saving money where I could) and went about buying myself a week-long Underground Oyster card from one of the automated kiosks (something I'd recommend for any traveller spending a significant amount of time in London). And despite the intricate network of concrete tunnels and endless escalators, all packed to the breaking point with people, the Underground’s colour-coded signs and easy-to-read maps at every turn eventually signalled to me that I had nothing to worry about - I was able to easily find my way from the train drop-off at Paddington to Swiss Cottage Station in South Hampstead (even considering the fact that I had to switch trains halfway through the trip, which had me working up a bit of a nervous sweat).
Anxiety wasn’t the only thing causing me to sweat either, since, at a burly 19 kilograms, my backpack was starting to weigh me down, especially during the uphill trek from the station to my next hostel - Palmers Lodge. As I escaped the Underground and walked up the staircase into the fresh air, I found myself in what appeared to be a quieter London neighbourhood, with small shops, tame traffic and barely any people around (meaning there was no one to ask for directions). I bit my lip as I tried to keep my shoulders from buckling and powered along down the main street for just a bit longer - typical of my luck, however, I unknowingly took the long way around to my destination. I finally discovered a small, narrow, extremely steep side street that led me through some rather expensive-looking suburban homes and schools before finally, out of breath, arriving at the front gate of Palmers Lodge. From the outside, the hostel looked like a haunted mansion out of a horror movie (not necessarily something you look for in the place you plan to sleep), with dark bricks and peeled-paint columns and shrouded by a walled-off perimeter and dozens of large, overhanging trees - but since this seemed like a fairly well-to-do neighbourhood, I wasn’t overly worried. I found an opening in wooden barrier out front and headed across the laneway, (passed a few loitering travellers sharing a smoke on the benches outside) up the massive front steps into the lobby - and I was even more impressed with this hostel than the one I’d stayed in Cardiff.
Palmers Lodge felt like a medieval manor pulled into modern times. Even standing in the front entrance had me in awe, considering every detail of the lobby was sophisticated and intricate in its design - a patterned ceiling mirroring the equally elaborate carpeting, complex stained-glass transoms on top of heavy wood doors, and ornate fireplaces sitting next to a grand staircase leading to the upper floors. Nothing was more impressive or added more to the ancient, manor-like atmosphere of this hostel though than what was standing at the top of the staircase - follow along the red carpet draped over the dark, wooden steps, past the elegant bannister posts, and you were met with a real-life suit of armour stationed in front of a colourful, diamond-patterned window. Add to this a sitting lounge on the main floor and a full bar in the basement, and it was clear this hostel knew precisely the kind of travellers they were marketing to. More excited than ever, I handled my business at the front desk (the whole time distracted by the clocks behind it showing the major time zones) and headed off to enjoy my temporary new home.
Once I was finally able to put my bag down in a cozy, four-person dorm (complete with bunk beds, lockers, outlets and an ensuite bathroom). I decided I was definitely in need of a shower given how much sweat I’d accumulated over the course of my walk - there was also a communal bathroom located just across the hall with individual shower stalls, but since I was paying a little extra for a room with fewer people, it would’ve been silly of me not to use the bathroom two feet from my bed. I also immediately realized that this would be the first time on the trip where I'd be rooming with perfect strangers - but I hoped for the best. I quickly introduced myself, but my three Spanish roommates neither spoke any English nor seemed interested in me at all (you win some, you lose some). Instead of sitting around quietly in my room and reading a book, I figured that the night was still young on my first day in London - I quickly showered off, packed up my day bag and headed back towards the Tube to do some exploring on my own.
Embarrassingly enough, my first stop was the McDonald’s right around the corner from my hostel (I’d only been overseas less than a week at this point, but I felt myself going through withdrawals). The smell of the restaurant already seemed pretty different from back home (not in a good way), and this was the first time I’d run into the automatic ordering systems, which was made even more complicated when I found out that the staff couldn’t even understand me when I spoke. Once I finally had my order in-hand, I excitedly took the first bite of my McChicken - and it was not what I expected at all. Maybe it was the fact that it wasn’t as greasy or fattening as the North American version, but it just did not taste any good at all. It looked as though I might lose some weight on this trip without McDonald’s to rely on...
Now that my belly was full and I was confident enough in using the Underground, I started to make my way from my new temporary home (or should I say stately manor) at Swiss Cottage to Westminster Station - the central stop for most of the major sightseeing attractions that London had to offer. With my trusty Oyster card still in hand and my headphones drowning out all of the ambient city noises with music, I headed beneath the streets and onto the next train taking me to my first real tourist experience. Once again though, I was both perplexed and amazed by the ease with which I was able to find my way through the many intersecting tunnels towards the correct, colour-coded platform - and luckily for me, I wouldn’t even have to change trains (if I’d read the map properly) since both my hostel and central London fell on the same lines (I could instead just sit back, relax and people watch).
Despite the pride I had in my navigation skills though, nothing could’ve prepared me for the maze that I found when I arrived at the bustling Westminster Station - the place seemed to extend at least twenty stories deep into the earth, meaning that I had to take a series of about five or six different escalators just to catch a bit of fresh air (and I could never be sure that I was getting on the right one either since they all seemed to be going in ten different directions like an Escher painting). Compared to the other relatively uncomplicated stations I’d come across so far, this station was a potential nightmare - truthfully, in my memory at least, it reminds me a bit of a futuristic subterranean bunker or even more appropriately, the crazy moving staircases from the Harry Potter movies. I honestly didn’t think I’d make it out alive, so I was more than relieved when I finally saw the signs leading me to the London landmarks at street level. This moment was easily the first time on this trip (and it definitely wouldn't be the last) that I was blown away by what I was seeing. As a history student, you spend years reading about these places and looking at pictures - even from watching TV and movies growing up, you see these places up close, and it just seems like fantasy (especially when it's so far from home). However, nothing can prepare you for actually being there - I wish I could describe what it feels like, but really it's something you have to experience first-hand.
The very first thing you see as you step out of the Underground station at Westminster is an incredible view at the base of Big Ben, the pearl of London. There's no way you don't picture this iconic clock tower when thinking of this city - also known as the "Great Bell" or "Elizabeth Tower" (in honour of the Queen herself), this golden brown spire is topped by an ornate clock and an impeccably designed, two-tiered, gold-embellished roof that can be seen from miles around (given the fact that these landmarks are fairly far removed from the city’s downtown core and its accompanying skyscrapers). The tower also flanks one end of the Palace of Westminster, which is the official meeting place for both houses of the UK Parliament and is widely known as the “heart of British politics.” And while Big Ben wasn’t quite as immense as I had initially imagined from seeing it in pictures, I still had to crane my neck upwards uncomfortably (all while fighting back the droves of other tourists that had surrounded me) to get a decent look at this British cultural staple from street level. In reality, though, the best views actually came from the opposite end of Westminster Bridge across the Rivers Thames - after crossing to the other side so I could see the massive clock tower in all its overwhelming glory (and grab an obligatory Instagram shot), I made my way down to the next, nearest landmark on my list of things to see, the London Eye.
Also known as the Millennium Wheel, the London Eye is Europe's tallest Ferris wheel (at a towering 135 metres above the ground) and the most popular tourist attraction in all of London (by far), with nearly four million people lining up and loading into one of the spacious glass pods for a chance to see the entire sprawling city from a single vantage point. I probably should've purchased a ticket myself to go up for a ride (I’ve only heard incredible things about the view), but the lineup was so ridiculously long that I wasn't mentally prepared to wait. Instead, I spent some time just casually walking around in the shadow of this gargantuan carnival ride before crossing back over to the other side of the river using the Golden Jubilee Bridges (which offer an incredible panoramic view of the entire area, despite it being aggressively windy) so I could make my way to the world-famous Buckingham Palace.
Along the way to this next landmark, as I yet again passed back in front of Big Ben, I got my first glimpse of the iconic red telephone booths that are plastered all over the city of London (these, along with the equally famous, bright red double-decker buses that packed the streets around this landmark-laden neighbourhood). I did my best to try and grab a decent shot, but there were so many tourists surrounding the booth and even lining up to take a picture of themselves inside that it was next to impossible. Regardless though, I don’t think many people actually use these booths to make phone calls nowadays… I kept on moving until I reached the edge of St. James Park, a vast green space that runs alongside the Mall (a lengthy, Union Jack-ridden roadway that sits in front of Buckingham Palace and that is most often used for ceremonial events) and that leads straight through to the royal gardens and the Palace itself. I could’ve easily cut across and used the street, but it felt like I’d be wasting the perfect opportunity for a picturesque stroll - these gardens were like something out of a fairy tale, with streams of sunlight peeking through the intricately woven, hanging branches, lighting up the park across the entire spectrum of green while a beautiful array of flowers were peppered throughout like multi-coloured stars. At the centre of the park was a self-contained lake, where tons of people soaked up the sun and watched as pelicans and even the Queen’s swans floated gracefully across the water.
Once I finally reached the other side of the park, the familiar outline of Buckingham Palace finally came into full view. As the most notable and recognizable residence of the UK's royal family since 1837, and the site of so many of this country's (and truthfully, the entire Commonwealth’s) most important historical moments, the Palace was a sight to behold (and a necessary one for anyone visiting London). The facade, though a tad grey and drab, was iconic and regal nonetheless - its intricate architecture, every square inch of which featured some sort of purposeful detail (including ornate columns, countless windows, expert brickwork of all shapes and sizes, and stone balconies that stretched the entire length of the exterior), stood out in high contrast against the juxtaposition of a stormy, doom-filled, black sky above. Altogether, these elements combined to create an air of immense gravitas and stature (though one that was yet still prim and proper) - all of which fit right in with my longstanding impressions of the British royal family.
Separating the Palace from plebs like myself by a front plaza made entirely of gravel and an incredibly tall wrought-iron fence lining the perimeter (the black rods of which were capped off with massive lamps and gold-plated embellishments, once again in stark contrast to the greyness of the Palace). Also stationed all over the expansive front entrance was the quintessential Queen’s Guard, with their bright red coats, pure black muskets and tall furry Simpson-esque hat. Though these well-known British symbols were seen mainly as a decorative tourist attraction, they were technically fully-fledged, fully trained British soldiers (hence why they were so good at staying still and stone-faced) - however, this prestige didn’t stop people from trying to take selfies with them or tricking them into cracking a smile). Finally, just in front of Buckingham sat a colossal traffic circle (currently closed off to the public) leading off into the ceremonial promenade of the Mall - and at the centre of the circle was the incomparable Victoria Memorial. Dedicated to its namesake Queen, the sculpture was incredibly realistic and elaborate, with fountains, staircases and lifelike figures of angels and lions stationed all over the grey marble. Sitting atop the Memorial was also complete recreation of the famed “Winged Victory” statue, cast all in shimmering bronze - a literal “cherry on top” of what was already a mesmerizing sight.
The day before I had arrived in London was actually the day that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge gave birth to a baby girl, so I expected more of a commotion to be going on around the palace - however, besides some pink decorations adorning the street lamps that surrounded it, I was pleasantly surprised by how relatively empty the area in front of the Palace was (though I'm pretty disappointed I still wasn't able to flag down one of the guards myself to grab a decent picture). That said, there's not much to do outside the Palace to last longer than twenty minutes or so, but considering the Queen is still plastered all over our Canadian money, I figured it was only right for me to come and pay her a visit (sadly no, I didn't even get invited in for tea). After a few hours of checking out the sights and picking my jaw up off the ground, I decided to retrace my steps to Westminster Station and head back to the hostel to call it a night. Plus, I was more than happy to get back indoors, since it seemed like every tree in London was hell-bent on ruining my eyes with copious amounts of pollen (I had never had issues with hay fever before, but London was proving that it could throw a wrench into that streak).
The next day, however, I woke up refreshed, bright-eyed and even more excited to see the sights around London – before the fun could begin though, I had to do my laundry. I went down into the basement, following along with the arrows directing me to the laundry room, hoping that they would be free when I got there. Maybe it was because it was so early on a weekday, or maybe Palmers Lodge didn’t have many tenants this week, but I happily was the only one in there - it was lucky too, considering there was only one washer and one dryer available for the entire hostel. I’ll warn you now though (and this will come up again over the course of the tour) that laundry facilities in hostels are by no means world-class, which was demonstrated by the fact that my clothes came out of this washer sopping wet (even a few cycles in the dryer couldn’t get them completely dry). Sadly, they had to lie out for the next two days to resemble wearable clothes again (though much to the dismay of my roommates I’m sure, I didn’t want to waste any more time or money on mindless chores when there was still so much of London left to see).
On a positive note, I had chosen a hostel located relatively close to other notable London sights like Abbey Road and Baker Street (where celebrated literary detective Sherlock Holmes made his fictional home). Since taking long solo walks is one of my favourite pastimes back in Toronto, I decided to just throw on my iPod and make the casual, hour-long hike over to see these attractions and perhaps discover more interesting sights along the way (I’d already mastered the Underground, and this would let me see a bit more of “real” London). It turned out that I had picked the perfect day for a stroll as well - the weather was beautiful, with the sun shining and the clouds nowhere to be found, while the streets were relatively calm and the only people around were either schoolchildren skipping down the sidewalk on their way to class or the frail elderly taking their every day, slow-moving jaunts to the market. Passing on either side of me was simple yet highly opulent reminders that this city was a place where people actually lived (and not just on big tourist attraction) - luxurious blocks of flats, exclusively gated townhouses, cozy farmers markets, and leafy, green trees reaching high above the street to only let slim bands of sunlight through to the ground (creating a mesmerizing patchwork pattern on the pavement). Even though the area was majestic, I figured the famous Abbey Road crossing would be a cinch to find given that it was one of the only notable sights around.
I continued along my way south towards the Holmes Museum before coming across the northwest corner of the massive Regent’s Park. As one of the Royal Parks of London (so expansive that it partially sat in the City of Westminster), this was somewhere I wished I’d been able to see more of (especially since it housed the London Zoo). However, judging by the sheer size, I figured that it wouldn’t leave me much chance to do anything else - instead, I stayed the course and headed around the outer perimeter of the park, until I finally came across 221B Baker Street. The museum was reminiscent of a small storefront, painted in slick black and red paint and emblazoned with bright yellow lettering over top of a large window, reading “The Sherlock Holmes Museum.” But despite its modest size, this attraction was well-labelled and far easier to locate than the Abbey Road crossing - this was confirmed by the line up of roughly 200 people waiting outside, just as eager as I was to learn more about Sherlock Holmes.
I yet again decided there were probably better ways to spend my time in London (nothing is appealing about standing in a line for hours, no matter how exciting the attraction on the other end might be). So instead, after a quick rest stop at a nearby Starbucks (I rarely go very long without a cup of coffee back home, so I needed to try and keep my addiction alive however I could while overseas), I headed to the nearby Baker Street Station, which I could use to get back to ol’ faithful Westminster Station where the sights were aplenty.
By this time in my visit, my fellow Contiki travellers - whom I had spent months and months getting to know virtually over our Facebook group - were finally beginning to arrive in London. The first person I met up with was Gaby from Melbourne - she had landed in London that day (her birthday, in fact) and since she couldn't check into her hostel for a few more hours, she wanted to see the sights. After receiving an unexpected message from Gaby as I once again looked out over the Thames from the Golden Jubilee Bridges (she’d seen my Instagram posts, so she knew I was out and about), we decided to meet up and do some sightseeing together (we’d be spending more than a month together, so no time like the present to get to know each other). Thanks in part to my handy Toronto Blue Jays hat, we found each other outside Westminster Station and, after only a short time (as you’ll see), I could already tell we were going to be good friends (#firstContikifriends to be exact). If this was any indication of how the rest of my Contiki crew would shape up to be, we were definitely going to have a great trip.
Gaby and I spent the next few hours walking around and redoing some of the sites I had seen the day before, all the while sharing stories (on everything from family to school to movies, and everything in between) and getting to know one another. Having already mastered this route from my previous day’s wanderings, I felt qualified to lead the way - and since I didn’t mind repeating some of the sights, we immediately headed back towards Buckingham Palace by means of another casual stroll through the still-picturesque St. James Park. We snapped a few shots through the Palace’s iron front gates (and watched as out-of-control children disgracefully climbed all over the exceptional Victoria Memorial) before heading straight down the Mall. I’d seen this street on television on several occasions, during events such as the Queen’s birthday or William and Kate’s wedding, when it was overflowing with people holding up colourful banners and Union Jack flags or when it was used as a throughway for the Royal Family’s extravagant cars and carriages - but today it looked much different. As the two of us traversed the half-kilometre-long promenade at a leisurely pace, the only things around us were flag-ridden lampposts and several small groups of tourists (which made the journey much more comfortable and enjoyable).
About halfway down the Mall, we found a large staircase that cut between two pearly white buildings and led through back streets towards Piccadilly Circus (a sight that I hadn’t been able to see the previous day). At its most basic level, the Circus was a uniquely British version of New York City’s Time Square, with hundreds of people, bright neon lights, multi-storey-tall LED screens and countless stores and restaurants - and though it was far less grand than its American counterpart, it was no less noteworthy once you found yourself standing inside it. Most people were assembled around the Shaftesbury memorial fountain at the centre, taking pictures, meeting friends or even reading books (though judging by the commotion around here, I can’t imagine I’d be very easy to focus).
Since we weren’t in the mood for any shopping or food just yet, we continued along our way, passing through the smaller Leicester Square Gardens and emerging in the expansive Trafalgar Square (all while ducking through the hoards of people who packed the sidewalks). This landmark Square, which commemorates the Napoleonic Battle of Trafalgar, has become a familiar spot for community gatherings and sometimes heated political demonstrations since the 13th century - but today, there was a much happier atmosphere at play. The Square was alive with hundreds of people laying on the steps of the National Gallery, enjoying the warm weather and mingling around the spire of Nelson’s Column at the centre. This was all topped off by an entire row of very mind-bending street performers (our brains were getting a serious workout trying to understand how the levitating snake charmers were able to float in mid-air).
We grabbed a few more photos of the historic square but decided to keep moving since eventually, even the most interesting of sights can become tiresome when all there is to do is stare at them. After a quick yet rather dull check-in at the massive, empty courtyard of the House Guards Parade (a ceremonial area which just happened to be something we passed on our way), Gaby and I completed our giant lap of the area by crossing Westminster Bridge (among the slimy grifters hustling their gambling games to the crowds in the shadow of Big Ben) and heading back around to the London Eye. Hoards of people were now gathered here, enjoying a huge outdoor street festival in the Jubilee Gardens and lining up for either a ride on the Ferris wheel or the London Dungeon (a dramatic, costumed walk through London’s vibrant and colourful history that at the moment was bursting at the seams with tourists).
By this point, however, with what felt like several miles of walking under our belts, Gaby and I had worked up an appetite. There must’ve been at least fifty street vendors set up as part of the festival (selling everything from shawarma to pulled pork to grilled cheese - there was even a beer garden), but too many options often present the same problem as too few. Unable to decide on a vendor that would satisfy both of us, we opted instead to rest our feet at a nearby Mediterranean café called Troia. As we enjoyed a light lunch of flatbread pizza, we enjoyed more hilarious chats (in particular, sharing stories about some of the stranger interactions from our Facebook page over the past few months, including the rapid rise and fall of an online couple). Once the food was gone though, we circled back around to Westminster Station to go our separate ways since Gaby would be checking into her hostel soon. Since it was still her birthday, however, we decided that we couldn't let the night go to waste. We decided to meet up with another group of Australian Contiki travellers who had also arrived in London a few days earlier and who were planning on having dinner later on that night at an Italian restaurant called The Spaghetti House - Alice (from Brisbane) and Jordan, Reece, Dan and Bastian (from Newcastle in New South Wales).
Until then, I figured I’d head back up to my hostel to relax for what was left of the afternoon. I laid back in my bunk bed with the curtain drawn, finally starting a new Dan Brown novel I’d downloaded specifically for this trip - but once I realized that I was still sharing space with roommates who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) speak English and having just realized the potential good that can come with making new friends, I wanted to check out what else was going on in Palmer’s Lodge. It didn’t take long for me to end up in the lounge on the main floor - the grand room boasted fifteen-foot, crown-moulded ceilings and was filled with mismatched couches of varying degrees of fanciness, scattered among horribly ancient computers (for what must be very slow Internet access) and a couple vending machines. I took a seat on one of the couches near a back window and started to read - but even with at least twenty other people around, it didn’t seem like anyone was interested in making connections (I’ll admit I probably could’ve put in more of an effort though). After less than half an hour of awkward silence and only half-reading, I was relieved once Gaby finally messaged me saying that she was ready to meet up and get the night started.
Gaby and I planned to meet up before dinner at her hostel so we would either be able to find our way or get lost together – but that meant I had to first not get lost on my own. I once again made my way to the Tube station at Swiss Cottage and was able to easily navigate my way to King’s Cross (although it was only located on the opposite end of Regent Park from where I was staying, taking the Underground to get there still required a couple of line changeovers). Given how central this station was to the plot of my beloved Harry Potter books, I felt like this might actually be an attraction all on its own - however, once I found my way to street level at the end of countless escalator rides, I noticed that it was quite a grimy little building (I didn’t realize it at the time, but I guess the rail station with the actual trains, the geometric domed ceilings, and the Platform 9 ¾ photo op was sitting separately on top of this one, underneath a dated clock tower).
It was already dusk when I got outside, so any of the sketchier elements in this part of the city (including the suspicious characters shuffling through the plaza out front of the station or the dilapidated buildings and abandoned cars lining the streets nearby) seemed far more worrisome as I set off towards Gaby’s hostel. I got turned around more than a few times on my walk from the station (even though Google Maps told me that I should’ve been able just to follow one large bending road), and there was plenty to raise my eyebrows at - not only was there plenty of dank alleyways and abandoned stores with graffiti-covered shutters along the way, but I also got a beautiful view of a fight inside the front windows of a McDonalds. Though the sign outside was in a somewhat difficult-to-read font, I was finally able to find the hostel, Clink78, thanks to the typical gathering of smelly-looking hippies sitting all over the front steps. After texting Gaby to let her know that I’d arrived, I took a seat in the front lobby while I waited for her to come down to meet me. Clink78 was quite hip and much edgier than Palmer’s Lodge - the decor was far more modern and colourful while the bright, white ceiling was covered in epic quotes like “The pain of partying is nothing to the joy of meeting again” or “Veni, Vidi, Dormivi - I came, I saw, I slept” (which I felt were quite appropriate for the kind of young travellers who made up this hostel’s clientele).
Gaby arrived a few moments later, but still with some time to kill before dinner, we headed down to the basement bar for a drink or two. The interesting decor continued here as well - a mixture of lampshades and disco balls hung overtop walls covered in pieces of old doors and colourful pleather booths and ottomans - but what interested me was the fully stocked bar top at the back. I grabbed myself a rum and coke while Gaby tried to rally a bit with a drink of her own, which was admirable given how tired she was from her days of travel. Since the bar lounge was empty, we took our drinks around the corner to the long picnic tables in the communal kitchen, where other hostel guests were preparing their dinners together - we even ended up chatting with some interesting travellers who were actually living in the hostel while they worked a handful of odd jobs (some for nearly ten months at that point).
After some enlightening conversations, we eventually started our short walk over to the restaurant, navigating through the dark back streets and deserted storefronts ripe with eerie, faceless mannequins (it was a Sunday evening, so most everything was already closed). It was on this walk that I first noticed the VERY helpful directional arrows painted on the pavement (indicating which way pedestrians should look when crossing the road, given that most tourists are used to looking in the opposite direction for oncoming traffic). Since I still wasn’t used to the shift, these directional signs are basically what kept me alive throughout my time in London. Before we knew it, we had landed outside at the Spaghetti House - located on the corner of a complex nestled deep within the streets of London, this long-standing chain had all of the traditional charm of an authentic Italian bistro, including the red awnings and small patio tables. I was a bit unsure if we were at the right place at first, however, we immediately recognized the familiar Facebook faces of our new friends as they waved at us through the front window. We cut around the outside hedges to the side door and headed into the restaurant (which was far more modern than the exterior, yet still with a rustic, candlelight charm) - after quickly making our introductions, we pulled over two extra chairs and caught up by putting in our orders with the waiter before diving into the “getting to know each other”.
For anyone doing a Contiki in the future, especially one of the lengthier trips, I cannot stress the importance of being able to connect with each other beforehand. Because of the Facebook group that one of the travellers had set up, we were able to chat before ever leaving home and it's almost like we weren't even meeting strangers anymore (though it was a bit of a strange sensation finally meeting the people in person whose profiles and pictures you’d been creeping for months).
And thanks to that amazingly helpful Facebook group, I was able to meet up with these six incredible Aussies (something I try not to tell them too often) early on in my adventure, who are now great friends I've continued to speak with for months after the trip has been over - something that I was pretty confident would happen, even on that first night. While enjoying our delicious bowls of pasta, we all traded stories and joked about pretty much anything and everything (like when Dan made a well-timed Friends reference to Alice, and I was able to pick up on it - nothing brings new friends together quite like Friends). And judging by some of the stories you'll be treated to throughout this travel journal (or at least the ones I can share publicly), you'll probably be able to see why. In fact, the picture to your right should do them justice (more on why they were dressed up as Power Rangers and pimps later on). In fact, Alice (who has her own epic travel website - check it out at alicepye.com) and Dan had actually both done Contikis in the past - they had first met while touring through South America and Dan had even already done this same European Adventurer tour once before. Needless to say, the fact that they were eager for another one boded very well for what was to come.
Our new friends were eager to continue their night - but even though it was her birthday and celebrations were in order, Gaby had only just arrived that day, so she didn’t have the stamina to keep going. Not wanting her to have to navigate her way back to the hostel late at night in an unknown part of London, I offered to walk her back, trusting that this would be only the first of many, MANY opportunities to party with the Contiki crew. We said goodbye to our new friends as they hopped into a cab and headed off in search of a bar to drink away the rest of the night, and we started our even darker walk back to Gaby’s hostel (only the sporadic street lamps were there to light our way). Finding Clink78 again was easy enough though, and from there I was able to retrace my steps back to King’s Cross so I could ride the Tube back to my hostel, now in a perma-good mood from what was a satisfying first day with my Contiki peeps.
Over the next several days, more and more Contiki travellers began to arrive in London, each one announcing their arrival online and eagerly trying to meet up with the rest of us who were already out and about in the city (making me feel like I definitely was not travelling alone anymore). The night after meeting the original crew of seven, we decided to keep the good times rolling and give all the new people a chance to take part in the pre-tour fun - since The Royal National Hotel was the Contiki hub for all tours starting out of London (and most people, including myself, would be staying there by the time our adventure began), we decided to use the London Pub (which was attached to the bottom of the hotel) as a meet-up point for drinks, dinner and possibly more drinks.
After another day of wandering, I headed over to the pub early in the evening to meet up with the original crew and see if anyone else would show up after throwing the idea up on the Facebook group. The London Pub was aptly named, given its stereotypical British feel - the whole place was constructed out of dark, shiny wood, including the floors, tables, chairs, banisters, bartop, ceiling (and even the entire front door), while scattered all over the various levels of the sizeable room were elderly regulars sipping their beers and quietly pondering life (so it seemed). And before I was even able to get through my first pint, at least fifteen of us had crammed closely around a set of tables near the kitchens (with most people standing up) as we chatted about where we were from and what we were most excited about on the tour (I even had a typical conversation about hockey with Travis, one of the other Canadians on the tour). At someone’s recommendation (I can’t quite remember who), we put back the last of our beers and made our way down the street to the nearby Chambeli Indian Restaurant for a quick dinner and to get to know each other even better before we continued with the night. Following what must have been a very loud, sloppy walk down the main street (I vaguely remember taking videos where you could hear nothing but laughing), we found the restaurant hiding underneath massive construction scaffolding with a dim neon sign as our only marker.
With so many of us in one group, the staff had quite a bit of trouble fitting us into their modest, narrow restaurant, but they made it work by pulling a bunch of tables together in a mirror-lined back room and cramming us in there. And even though some of the new Contiki crew had only made the trek to London that day (poor Mel from Melbourne could barely stay awake at the table), everyone seemed roaring for a good time. As we enjoyed more beers and a whole range of different varieties of curry (something I’d never tried before, but easily something I’d recommend from this moment on, especially if you like spicy food), the whole table broke out into excited conversation, once again demonstrating that this was a group who would have no trouble getting along. My personal favourite moment from this dinner, however, had to be Alice’s foot-in-mouth moment, awkwardly letting loose some pre-Contiki gossip just as the room went quiet.
The energy plummeted once dinner was over though. While jet lag and exhaustion took most people back to their respective hostels and hotels for the rest of the night, our trusty crew of seven was by no means ready call it a night - so, at Dan's insistence, we decided to venture over to Camden Town, where we were promised rows and rows of great bars, pubs and clubs. We split into two groups for convenience’s sake and hopped into a couple of the UK’s iconic black cabs, which were uniquely laid out almost like limousines (with seats lining the perimeter of the car instead of set up in rows like a standard car). Unfortunately, when we got to Camden and hopped out of the taxis, all we were met with was locked doors and dark windows (despite Dan’s certainty that we should expect the opposite) - after a quick walk around the area in which our hope for a fun night was quickly diminished, we saw lights and people halfway down a wide alley called the Inverness Street Market. It was here where we found a basement bar called The Jazz Cafe - with no other options, guarantees of two-for-one drinks and a slowly diminishing buzz, we decided to give it a shot. What we found down there had to easily be one of the strangest drinking experiences I've ever had...
The outside of the bar looked rather posh (the granite columns and arches made it almost look like an old-timey bank), but there was a much different feel once you descended the stairs - the space was very dark, with low ceilings hanging over most of it, while spotlight streamed through an opening over the centre bar that showed a second-floor balcony up top. But it wasn’t the metallic, hole-in-the-wall atmosphere that threw me - as probably should’ve been clear to us from the name, The Jazz Cafe was actually a music venue, with a stage underneath another, larger ceiling opening at the very back. And it seemed that, given the commotion coming from that end of that bar, we’d come just in the midst of a performance of some kind. After hearing only a few lines from the person on the stage, I could tell immediately what this was - we had just walked into a slam poetry night, with these baffling performers yelling and whining into a mic (about everything from Instagram to I don't know what) as a small crowd sat at their tiny, candlelit tables and snapped their fingers in “applause”. Thankfully, we were all equally uninterested in hearing what they were talking about - we headed straight to the bar for drinks and shots. Apparently, though, they could tell straight away that we didn't belong, since, within twenty minutes of rowdy drinking, we were told to quiet down. And though we all had a great time that night, it was safe to say that none of us would be taking up slam poetry as a hobby anytime soon.
We all stumbled out of the bar as closing time rolled around and, while everyone else flagged down some cabs and urged me to come with (for my own safety I’m sure), I used my drunken confidence to stumble over to the Underground and catch a train back to my hostel. I’m not going to lie and say this was the smartest idea, especially being in a deserted, relatively sketchy part of a genuinely unfamiliar city, miles away from home or help, but there was something about the ambitious travel mindset that I found myself taking on that have me feeling far braver than I should have. In the end, I lucked out though as I caught the very last train of the night as it prepared to pull out of the station. On my last overnight at Palmer’s Lodge, I was pleased to realize that I finally had decent roommates – one from Wales and one from Portugal, and both of whom had come to London for job interviews. And after chatting with both of these guys quite extensively the next morning, I also found myself a bit disappointed - even though my stay here had been mostly unproblematic, I probably would have enjoyed my time much more had these been the kind of roommates I had the entire time (people who were a pleasure to chat with and who actually seemed willing to interact - the type of people you EXPECT at a youth travel hostel). Despite this, however, I was more than happy to pack up my things and join everyone as we all started making our way over to the Royal National Hotel.
To get there though, I’d have to traverse the Underground, this time with a huge backpack on my shoulders. As I made my way from Swiss Cottage Station to Russell Square Station, I tried to rest my pack on the ground in order to make room for the hoards of people that apparently all of a sudden decided to take transit that afternoon (this was made extra difficult thanks to the long wait for an elevator at Russell Square station). Let’s just say that after this hell of a trek, I pledged that I would never again travel with a backpack - a suitcase with wheels is the way to go no matter what. Unfortunately for me though, I now had to suffer through my choice for the next two months…
With hours until I would be allowed to check into my room at the Royal National, I had initially planned to spend my day either wandering around or (if it happened to downpour like the sky was threatening to) reading on my iPad in a coffee shop somewhere nearby. However, since we were in the same boat with the room situation, Gaby and I decided to meet up and head over to Camden Market, a huge open-air market filled with hundreds of stalls selling food, trinkets and basically anything you could think of. After a few hours of people watching in a Starbucks across the street from the lavish Tavistock Square Gardens, Gaby messaged me to let me know that she’d arrived at the Royal National. I ran over and met her in the lobby so we could drop off our bags in the hotel’s secure luggage room (and give our sore muscles a break), after which the two of us jumped onto the Underground and navigated our way back up to Camden Town. It looked nearly unrecognizable from the place we partied at the previous night - instead of the damp pavement, dark windows and eerily deserted alleyways, Camden was now bright, lively and packed with people.
The streets were lined with colourful shops and market stalls, selling any and every souvenir or item a traveller could want or need (and many, like the countless unnecessary novelty t-shirts, that no sane person would ever want) - even the Inverness Street Market alleyway, which had looked essentially abandoned during the previous night’s activities, was lined entrance-to-exit with street vendors. As Gaby tried to explain “street trees” to me (she was in school for city planning), we continued our walk down the Camden High St. and over the Camden Lock (a wharf sitting on the Regent’s Canal, flowing out of the nearby Regent’s Park, which seemed to be a common element of my time in London despite never setting foot there) until we saw a massive green-and-yellow mural reading “Camden Lock” across the side of a railway overpass - and it was here where we finally found the official Camden Market.
Thankfully there were maps hanging around though because, once we got off the street and into the market itself, it was clear we were going to need them. There was no rhyme or reason to this place - pathways, staircases, bridges and tunnels led us through the massive, multi-storey bazaar, winding in every direction imaginable, while the shops spilled over and out into the walkways with everything from carpets to bags to clothes and much, MUCH more (including a whole section of what looked and smelled like some pretty delicious street food). But with relatively low prices all around, Camden Market is definitely worth a visit if you find yourself looking for something to do in London (there were even two giant, silver robots stationed outside a futuristic clothing store called Cyberdog). And even though I didn’t actually buy anything (Gaby, on the other hand, found some pieces of jewellery that she liked and almost tried to bring home a rug), it was great to spend the day hanging out with one of my new friends (who was now starting to feel like an old friend) instead of waiting out London’s traditionally overcast weather indoors.
Once we finally got back to the Royal National for check-in, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the rooms themselves were somewhat clean, comfortable and well-stocked (with large beds, a full private bathroom and plenty of storage) - particularly since the hotel itself, while not terrible-looking, was also nothing to write home about. I wasn’t alone when I arrived there either, as my roommate had already moved into the room - I ended up getting placed with Kristopher, an Australian who was doing the same Contiki as the rest of us but whose tour left about a week after ours did. Since I was already planning on once again heading down to the London Pub to meet up with Nathan and Sean (two top-notch Kiwis from my tour who I’d chatted with online a fair bit before London), I decided to invite him down instead of leaving him to be bored in the room all on his own.
Kris followed along as we headed through the lobby and across the hotel’s interior courtyard (which, despite the colours from the many flags hanging around the base, was so concrete, cold and bare that it reminded me of Soviet Russia) towards the back patio entrance to the London Pub. Nathan and Sean arrived a few moments later, already ready to party (which I absolutely appreciated) - and considering that both of them were built like linebackers at approximately 6-feet-tall each, I was going to have a hell of a time keeping up with them. But despite their stature and thunderous volume, however, these two dudes were some of the most welcoming and fun-filled people I’d ever met (giving New Zealanders everywhere a good name in my books). As others from my Contiki tour began joining us for beers and getting in on the hilarious antics, I couldn't help but pity (and agree with) poor Kris when he said to me, "wow, I really wish I was going on the tour with you guys - these people are awesome!" (I eventually met up with him again in Florence - I'll let you know then how his tour turned out).
Later on that evening, after even more of our Contiki mates touched down in London (and I had snuck away for a midday nap), we decided to once again meet up in the trusty London Pub for some pints to start the evening (there is seriously no better home base than this) and then head over to the Spaghetti House for what we already knew would be a delicious dinner (dragging whoever had enough energy in their system along with us, which wasn’t that many people). There were many more of us were here this time, but the restaurant was obviously still the same size, so we had to spread out over a few tables - this meant that our cross-table conversations with new Contiki mates like Kimberly (who’d landed from Melbourne earlier that evening) needed to be extra loud and obnoxious. After the pasta bowls were finished and the beer bottles were empty, the majority of the group unsurprisingly crashed as soon as we got back to the Royal National - but in true fashion, our crew who met that first night at the Spaghetti House were still amped and ready for a night out.
Dan again convinced us to make the trek over to Camden Town, but, as with the night before, we realized that everything was closed by the time our cabs had dropped us off on the sidewalk and sped away (even our beloved The Jazz Cafe was dark this time around). Not sure what to do, the guys suggested that we try to get back into their hostel, The Generator, given that they had a bar that would be open until 3 am. The only problem? You needed to flash a room key to get past the security guard – something we all thought was a bit strange for a hostel. Since the hostel was our last hope to party that night, Jordan spent the cab ride back that way devising a Mission Impossible-style plan to get us inside. As Gaby, Bastian, Alysha (thankfully another Canadian) and I waited around the corner from The Generator, Jordan and Dan went inside to gather up the room keys and meet us back outside. We must’ve been waiting there for at least half an hour, losing confidence that they were even coming back (and with no way of contacting them at the moment, Bastian was just about ready to give up and head inside without us). But just as we started to consider calling it quits for the night, Jordan suddenly appeared around the corner, hood up like a criminal, with all the extra key cards in hand - in separate groups, we all sneakily (and anxiously) flashed our cards to the security guard and made our way through the archway towards the hostel.
While I didn't hate anything about the hostel I had stayed at in the days prior, I could easily say I was jealous of these guys for booking The Generator. Not only were the taps open into the early hours of the morning (especially helpful on weeknights like this when everything else was closed), but both the common areas and the dorm rooms were set up with so many awesome amenities that it would be impossible not to have a good time while staying there - I would definitely recommend it to anyone staying a few days in London (and that's for sure where I'll be staying if I ever go back). The Generator proved to be a bit of a maze to get through though - after sneaking in like we had just infiltrated Area 51 or something, we had to walk through a dimly lit courtyard and around a sizeable cast-iron fence towards a narrow set of fire escape stairs leading up to a door on the second floor (which apparently was the grand entrance). I can’t say I remember many details of the walk from this door to the main area where the bar was located, but my blurry memory recalls dark, sterile hallways that reminded me of something you might expect from a military base or a mental hospital.
After a quick stop in at the sanitary hostel bathrooms (I had broken my seal earlier in the night in the Spaghetti House’s cramped basement bathroom), things got a little more vibrant and colourful once we found our way down to the Generator’s lobby - the place was a complete mishmash between the cosmopolitan, the industrial and the old-fashioned, with wood-panelled pillars over concrete floors, vivid colour-blocked furniture sitting next to antique pianos or underneath fancy-looking sconces, and walls covered in bold graphics, vibrant patterns and famous icons from British culture (with more than a few Union Jacks plastered in plain sight). This trendy atmosphere continued around the corner from the front desk through a large lounge area, where you could rest your feet and chill out on anything from a restaurant booth to a comfy couch to a cozy pillow on the lazy platforms near the back. Eventually we found our way to the bar across the lounge, which, for all intents and purposes, was just as good (or maybe even better) than any other bar we could’ve hoped to find in Camden Town - they was barely anyone there when we walked in, but with a fully stocked bar, an exclusive DJ (something I’d never before heard of in a hostel) and a sizeable dance floor, we had everything we needed to make a great night. And what was the first thing we did? Shots, of course!
It didn’t take long for the bar to finally fill up with other party animals staying at the Generator and before we knew it, we had overtaken the dance floor - as someone who appreciates dancing while drunk, I was happy to know that my fellow Contiki travellers felt the same way (judging by the fact that it took no convincing at all for everyone to just jump into the mix). As I would soon discover, Dan was by far the star of the show though - his jerky, awkward dance moves, brought about by copious amounts of alcohol, were like a moth to a flame, inexplicably reeling in tons of girls around him. But as soon as he got a little too weird for their liking (i.e., throwing his hands in their faces), they would disperse and he’d wander off to do it all over again (and judging by these first few nights, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that he turned out to be one of these more entertaining people on our Contiki tour, as you’ll soon see).
After hours of dancing, trays of shots and drink-after-drink, the night ended up with six of us piling into a photo booth in the main lobby, trying to take a decent picture - the result wasn't pretty (some of us even ended up laying on the floor). Once we’d picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off, and stopped laughing, we said our goodbyes for the night, hoping to hit the hay before the sun finally started rising - and surprisingly, Gaby, Alysha and I were able to quickly navigate the hostel’s labyrinth of hallways and staircases to find our way back outside to the entrance courtyard. We stumbled clumsily back to the Royal National (which thankfully turned out to be only just around the corner), Alysha thanked us for letting her tag along (which was completely unnecessary, since we were happy to have more fun people in the mix) and went our separate ways to pass out in our rooms.
With another late night under the belt, and no real plans for the day, sleeping in was a perfectly acceptable option for the next day. After an extremely casual wake-up around 11 am, my assigned hotel roommate Kris and I ended up grabbing a quick Subway breakfast slash lunch around the corner and then by chance met up with my new New Zealand buddies Nathan and Sean once again as they checked out some of the shops in the nearby area. There wasn’t much around the Russell Square tube station beside a few fast-food joints, coffee shops, convenience stores and corporate office buildings, as well as tons of residential apartment buildings, but there were enough small boutiques that there was plenty of window shopping possible. Above all though, the Kiwis wanted to hunt down a new roaming SIM card that they could use to access data via their phones while we travelled through Europe. From what we’d heard, 3 Mobile had the highest-value option, with a 15 Euro SIM card that worked across most of the countries we’d be checking out. Luckily enough, there was a store located right around the corner from the hotel where they could pick these up (throughout the tour, we’d find that picking up reception wasn’t as ideal or as easy as 3 Mobile made it out to be, unfortunately).
As we continued along our way, we decided that our next stop would be Oxford Street, a popular London high street that housed hundreds of popular retail stores, shopping centres, restaurants and bars, enough to keep us busy for at least the remainder of the afternoon. Thanks to the meetups we’d had so far and our Contiki Facebook group, we had no trouble coming across people we recognized in the streets around the Royal National - which is exactly how we found Mel (the Aussie who struggled to stay away during our Indian dinner) as we passed beside Russell Square Park. Since she was also eager to get some shopping done (we would find out shortly she was always ready to shop, no matter the situation) but unsure of where to go, she decided to join our small walking crew for the next couple hours so she wouldn’t have to navigate her way all by her lonesome.
Using Google Maps as our virtual guide, we headed down the main street in what we trusted was the right direction - however, even the best technology can sometimes lead you astray. My phone’s compass must’ve still been getting over its own bout of jet lag because it took us in the wrong direction at the very first fork in the road (something we only realized once we arrived outside the immaculately grand Rosewood Hotel) - but after getting lost a few more times, we finally seemed to get our bearings correct. I will say though that our wandering adventure brought us to some rather unusual places, like a store selling luxury walking sticks, topped with everything from ruby-red jewels to intricately designed metallic snakeheads - only in London!
As we made our way down Oxford St., we headed into the various shops and malls lining the sidewalk, thinking that we had finally arrived at the famous shopping area - but with only no-name brands and wholesale stores barely big enough to even fit our small group, I figured that this couldn’t be the right spot. It turned out that the real “Oxford Street” took up a section of the road a bit further down - and though there were no official signs or boundaries, we knew we had finally arrived at the shopping hub once the sidewalks became literally overloaded with people (from storefront to streetside) and colourful signs started popping up all over the place for big-name brands like Topshop, Forever 21 and Adidas. Amidst the massive crowds strolling from store-to-store or watching the dynamic street performers, we tried to see if anything would catch all of our eyes from the enormous glass windows out front of each shop (Mel was considerate enough to not drag four guys along through the countless boring clothing stores, though I’m sure she could’ve spent hours there if we’d let her). Funnily enough, I think the only store we went into altogether was the massive Disney Store, showing off our maturity as we played with superhero masks or fought each other with lightsabers.
Otherwise, there wasn’t much unique or exciting about the shops at Oxford Street (I much rather would’ve spent time with the walking sticks if I’m being entirely honest). In fact, never before had I seen a repeat of so many of the same stores within viewing distance of each other – there must have been three H&M's and three Zara's alone (I can’t imagine you would find much difference in the products available at any of these locations, so it just seemed like overkill, but hey, if you're looking for the same outfit in twelve different colours, this is your spot). And since most of us had done our pre-tour shopping prep before leaving home, there wasn’t anything left that we needed (as you’ll see, this would most definitely change after a few reckless stops on the Contiki tour).
In what would become a tradition on this trip when we felt like we needed a break from the long stretches of walking, we decided to grab some beers down a narrow side street at the Lamb & Flag, an English-style pub that, though tiny on the inside (it felt as though it had been shoved into the last remaining closet space available on the front side of the building), matched the rest of the bars and restaurants in the area with a sizeable patio out front for us to relax on. As we enjoyed the sunny London weather from the curb alongside dozens of like-minded midday drinkers, we downed a few pints of very expensive beer (though five pounds for 20 ounces may sound like a deal, I did start to realize that this actually means about $10 Canadian) and spent some time getting to know each other (in particular, discussing which crazy and exciting things we were looking forward to most on the upcoming Contiki tour).
Once our second round was finished though, we hopped to and began the hour-long walk back to the hotel by navigating through some of London’s more obscure backstreets. After passing by a professional barbershop (complete with a striped barber’s pole) and stopping in for a few moments for Nathan could get a quick beard trim, we traipsed through quiet and undoubtedly extravagant neighbourhoods until we reached the familiar and now lively Russell Square Park from where our “shopping” trip had started. Unbeknownst to us at the time, we had actually passed the palatial British Museum along the way - I would’ve killed to head inside for a peek at the treasures that lay within (including actual Egyptian mummies), but since we were just concerned with not getting lost as we had earlier in the day, we didn’t even realize how close we were.
By the point we returned to the Royal National, it was almost time for us to have our official Contiki meetup in the Contiki Basement (conveniently attached to the back of the hotel) where we would meet the rest of the travellers we'd be spending the next 38 days with. We had an hour or two to kill before then though, so it only seemed right to use our new home at the London Pub as pre-meetup spot (one where we could enjoy a few more beers). Slowly but surely, the new friends I’d made over the past several days filtered in (once again proving that these were my kind of people) and, once the time came, we took our beer buzz across the hotel courtyard, around back and down the stairs to the Contiki Basement. The Basement itself was a bit of a colourful clubhouse - it had WiFi, computer access, places to nap while you waited for your room, plus pool tables and other games down a staircase towards the back where you could pass the time. They even had lockers to keep your stuff should you find yourself with a bag that was over the weight limit for the coach. Finally, there were also Contiki staff members on-hand should you need to ask any questions or had any concerns about your upcoming trip. None of this applied to us at that moment though - we were corralled with everyone else into a large seating area where we signed some papers and got an orientation on what to expect for tomorrow’s departure day from our fearless leaders.
James, our Welsh/Australian tour manager, and Kate, our South African driver, seemed amped and ready to go as they gave us a rundown of what was to come over the coming days and weeks - and that excitement became contagious (though it was clear that, by the looks on everyone's faces, there was also some nervous anxiety in the air). Many of us, wrongly or not, assumed that James was the bus driver, particularly since Kate was a rather beautiful blonde woman and not precisely the type of person you usually see in the driver’s seat of a coach bus (truthfully, I was expected a balding, slightly overweight man instead), but as we would soon find out, Kate would prove to be a maverick behind the wheel. I couldn’t blame people for being a bit nervous though - had I not connected with the London crew early on, I’d be equally as anxious to be spending more than a month with a bunch of total strangers (so, understanding those feels but luckily not experiencing them, I’d try to be as nice and friendly as possible, at least for the time being). There were still tons of people here that I hadn’t met yet anyway - but thanks to our pre-trip Facebook group, I was at least able to recognize faces and names for the majority of them.
Once the meetup was done, we were let loose to find our last names on the forms lined up along the wall so we could sign all of the necessary paperwork to officially make us members of this Contiki crew. I had unintentionally made it more difficult for people to locate their names though - up until this point, people assumed my last name was “Frank” since I used this middle name on my Facebook profile, so other “Fs” like Reece were following me as a quick-and-easy way of finding their forms, but really they were just getting themselves further off the mark. It was also here in the Contiki Basement, just after our orientation meeting, where I was able to pick up my complimentary sleeping bag from the main desk - a perk that was only afforded to North Americans for some reason (the Australians had to fend for themselves). Whether you get it through Contiki or on your own, sleeping bags are a necessity on a trip like this - with so many different hotels, hostels and campsites along the way, you’ll always be safer sleeping in something you can be sure at least meets your own personal level of cleanliness. And, as many of my fellow travellers would find out later on in the tour, a sleeping bag was the only surefire way to avoid freezing your tail off during some of the colder nights in Europe...
We again found ourselves upstairs at the London Pub, getting to know the rest of our massive Contiki crew over more than a few beers (as much as you can get to know dozens of people all at once) and bonding over our mutual excitement for the upcoming adventure. After a couple of pints to start off the night’s festivities, a few of us did try out the Blooms Pizza Cafe (a sad-looking, window-lined restaurant attached to the opposite side of the hotel from the bar) for a quick bite to eat in between drinks, but I think most of us would rather not talk too much about the food we had to choke down in that place – it was safe to say that this pizza was greasier than anything I had ever eaten back in North America (and that’s saying a lot). There were plenty of better options around the Royal National for food, so my official opinion would be to avoid this place at all costs unless you’re looking to clog all of your major arteries just for a mediocre meal. At that moment at least, we were just happy to get back to the bar and wash down our unsatisfying dinner with some delicious English brew.
This was also the night we were treated to Jordan’s signature party trick once we got back to the London Pub after dinner, which involved him (seemingly through magic) being able to correctly guess - one hundred percent of the time - which glass someone had touched while he was out of view. Though we were all intoxicated, and therefore quite easy to fool, this was a pretty impressive trick – and something that clearly would help to break the ice with new acquaintances (particularly females) along the way. Jordan only JUST told me how the trick is done, but the first night would not be the only time that we were treated to this mindf*ck.
With an early morning ahead of us, people slowly started splintering off and heading back to their rooms to get some sleep. Dan, Jordan, Gaby, Bas and I shut down the London Pub from the patio picnic tables around midnight - and though an eager Dan and Gaby were floating the idea of keeping the party going and heading back to Camden Town for the third time, the rest of us kiboshed the idea (given how our last two adventures to that part of London had turned out). We decided to go our separate ways for the night - and though most of us headed to bed, as far as I understand, Dan continued the party on his own at the Generator bar until the wee hours of the morning (like a true champ). All-in-all, this was the moment when the excitement of what was to come really hit me - with 44 people on the tour (mostly Australians, with a few Canadians, a handful of Kiwis and one token South African), everyone seemed ready for a good time. And even though I'd only met most of them a few days before that, some of them were already starting to feel like people I'd known for years.
The next day, we all crawled out of bed before the break of dawn, got our bags down to the lobby to be weighed (thankfully I made the 20kg cut by a very narrow margin – some others like Mel weren’t so lucky and had to leave some items behind in the lockers conveniently located in the Contiki Basement). While we waited bleary-eyed in the Royal National’s dim courtyard for our ride to arrive, several of us headed around the corner to a small Tesco Express near the Russell Square Underground station to pick up coffee and some snacks for the ride ahead (my adrenaline may have been pumping, but nothing beat the morning pick-me-up a black coffee could provide). I got back just in time to see our brilliant blue, white and yellow Contiki coach pull into the hotel and open its doors, ready for us to board for the very first time. As we set off towards our first stop, Paris, and even with most of us half-asleep, it was clear that there was something life-altering about what we were all about to experience together…