A daylong coach ride sounds like the world’s biggest buzzkill. But within just the first hour after leaving London on our way to the French capital of Paris (on the Contiki coach that would serve as our home-away-from-home for the next 38 days), it was evident that it would be anything BUT that. I had gone on long coach journeys before – and I can safely say that being crammed up next to strangers for hours on end was not my idea of a good time (making me very wary of our new ride). However, after days of getting to know each other in London (and partying like champions), these people weren’t feeling much like strangers anymore. Before even leaving the UK, we were exchanging travel tales and stories from back home; learning about each other’s home countries and cultures; we even had a laugh or two at the expense of each other’s accents. Apparently, Canadians say things like “WAH-ter” and “SAUW-ce” (which, we don’t), but it was interesting to learn that the Kiwis and Aussies said “eh” far more often than any of the Canadians. I guess the stereotypes aren’t true! A lot of my questions for the Aussies came in the form of “how do you guys survive the heat down there?” or “why does everything in Australia want to kill you?” I tried not to hassle them too much though – we were easily outnumbered by a nearly 4 to 1 ratio – I didn’t want to get hit with a boomerang or something…
For most of us, the main concern about the coach was finding a comfortable way to rest and sleep – without resorting to laying your head on the person’s shoulder next to you. For anyone planning on doing a Contiki that involves a coach, spring for a neck pillow – I regretted it every day that I didn’t have one. Throughout the trip, you’d have thought we were all international yoga champions, coming up with new and increasingly painful-looking sleeping positions – but hey, when you were out until 4 am the night before and expected to be on the coach by 7 am, you did what you had to. I didn’t have to worry much on this first trip when it came to sleeping, however – my seatmate was Nathan, and it was becoming pretty clear that the New Zealander would not be able to contain his characteristic excitement (even at 6 am in the morning). Thankfully, his boisterous personality was getting everyone else pumped up (including myself).
The energy currently radiating through the coach was enough to keep me alert Kate took us through the densely confusing London streets until the buildings began falling away and the city views slowly transformed into quaint villages and endless farmer’s fields (while the narrow roads opened up into a fast-moving highway). Once we started hitting full speed out of London, the picturesque images on the other side of the window began blurring together, leaving little left to look at - which made it the perfect opportunity for James to give us some background on the company we’d just entrusted with the success or failure of our entire adventure. Contiki Holidays was first started by a New Zealander named John Anderson in 1961 - after spending a summer traversing Europe in a minibus and picking up other wandering travellers along the way, he realized that he had a million-dollar idea on his hands. Slowly but surely, as the trip became more popular and started expanding its reach to more and more places, that minibus turned into an entire fleet of coaches like the one we were currently riding in - and now, Contiki provides young travellers (like the fifty of us) with the opportunity to build adventures and create lasting memories of their own with hundreds of tours across five continents. Fun fact - the name “Contiki” comes from a combination of the words ‘continent’ and ‘tiki’ (a Maori good luck charm).
It took only a couple of hours for the coach to make it to the coastal town of Dover, where we got a glimpse of the White Cliffs – a true marvel of nature that towered over us at a maximum (and massive) height of nearly 350 ft. The cliff face, which is well-known for its uniquely bright white colour thanks to an over-accumulation of chalk, stretches across the narrowest section of the English Channel and has long served both as a symbolic guard against foreign attack from Continental Europe as well as the first and final thing travellers would see of the UK (at least before air travel became more common). It was here at the Port of Dover where we would board a short ferry across the Channel and land in Calais, France on the other side before continuing our long drive to our first Contiki stop in Paris. After waiting in a very slow-moving lineup of vehicles passing through the customs checkpoint (and passing some time by asking Reece and Bastian about the horrors of Australian spiders and snakes), our driver parked the coach in the loading zone and James led us through the narrow pedestrian walkways between rows-and-rows of traffic over to the visitor food court for a quick bite to eat (and non-coach bathroom break) before boarding. And though we were then stuck on the coach for nearly an hour afterwards while we waited for the hundreds of other cars, trucks and buses to load in (apparently everyone else was more important than our Contiki coach), we were finally able to move around and stretch our legs onboard.
Fortunately, this ferry had a restaurant, an arcade, shops and much more to keep us busy for the hour-and-a-half journey we had in front of us. We even made our way to the ship’s top deck to catch a panoramic view of England on one side (including a now-full panoramic view of the White Cliffs of Dover that we’d left in our wake) and France on the other (not to mention the dozens of passenger ships and freighters scattered all across the English Channel as they rode alongside us) – the magic of this moment was a little bit, shall I say, diminished, with the arrival of what seemed like dozens of seagulls overhead, following the ferry in hopes of getting something to eat. Alice, on the other hand, took the opportunity to snap what she thought were some pretty magical photos - for me, however, this was only the start of my complicated relationship with birds across Europe…
No longer confined to our coach seats all facing in the same direction, most of us also used this ferry ride as an opportunity to get to know each other a bit more (especially since our previous night at the Contiki meetup and in the London Pub afterwards was pretty splintered and ended relatively early). With the majority of the crew now propped up and running on very little energy from the early wake-up (but at least vegging out all in the same general vicinity in the main mid-deck seating area), I moved from table-to-table in the ferry’s sprawling main dining hall introducing myself to some of the people I had yet had the pleasure of meeting during our initial adventures in London (some people didn’t arrive until the morning before the Contiki departure while other hadn’t joined the Facebook group at all). It was all fairly typical small talk for the most part - except for one guy who I didn’t get the chance to chat with since he was busy very loudly Skyping with a buddy back home in the corner by the window (more on this interesting individual later on).
Finally on the other side and now in a completely different country, our tour manager James once again took to the mic to give us a bit of a “brief” history lesson on France. I put brief in quotations marks only because, although it was impressive how much information James was able to relay just from sheer memory, he was seemingly trying to cover French history all the way back to the beginning of time. After about twenty minutes with no end in sight, and with everyone starting to doze off to sleep, including myself (someone who spent four years getting his history degree and listening to lectures just like this), our tour manager finally got the hint and cut his lesson short. We honestly meant no offence to him, but it shouldn’t have been a surprise that a group of 20-somethings on a trip through Europe typically wouldn’t be built long attention spans.
If I have nothing else to say about our fearless leader, I’ll say this – James knew his stuff and was 100 percent committed to making sure that we got the most out of our experience in Europe. It’s always great to see someone who clearly enjoys his job so much and, while I’m sure every Contiki feels as though their tour manager is the best, I think it’s safe to say that ours was, in fact, the best (even if we didn’t know it just yet – I’ll definitely have more to say about James in future journals). I also can’t mention James without talking about Kate, our coach driver (that’s coach, not bus – she was very clear about that and took the distinction very seriously). I first found myself impressed with Kate when she seamlessly manoeuvred from the left side of the road (in the UK) to the right side (in France) – and until the end of the trip, she kept us safe day-after-day on the roads of Europe (even when it got a bit hairy). Not only that, if you ever needed someone to chat with on any of the longer trips, she was more than happy for you to come up to the front and chill with her for a bit – and when everyone else was sleeping, you were definitely glad that she was there to chat with.
We’d only been on French soil for a few minutes when we started passing some interesting sights, two of which still stand out in my mind: the Calais Jungle and Vimy Ridge. The Calais Jungle is a nickname for the makeshift camp located in the shadow of Calais where migrants live for months (or sometimes years) at the time in an attempt to enter the United Kingdom. These asylum seekers and refugees stow away on boats (or even cars) crossing back through the Port of Calais or the Eurotunnel - but very rarely are they successful (usually ending up being arrested or deported). Though we only got a fleeting glimpse of the camp from our coach windows, the decaying patchwork tents, scattered trash piles and general misery of the setup drummed up feelings of pity and empathy for what these people were going through (while our only concern was finding what we’d be drinking that night). It was a blip of reality in an otherwise surreal experience…
The other landmark we passed was Vimy Ridge - something mildly interesting for most people but a location of supreme historical importance and pride for us Canadians. The ridge was a strategically valuable vantage point prized by both sides during World War I - but during the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the Canadian Corps, through their tactical and technical prowess (including the “creeping barrage” approach), drove back the German forces from the escarpment and led the Allies to success. Unfortunately, a stop here wasn’t on our itinerary, so we had to settle for a quick view out the window of the epic memorial now sitting atop the ridge - but when James took to the mic to share with everyone what happened here, the ten or so of us Canadians wasted no time in cheering on the memory of one of our country’s most proud moments.
Before getting into Paris for our three-day stop, James passed along our day sheet – a treasure trove of info that listed everything we needed to know about our next stop (we’d get one of these in every place we went – you can thank Kate for all of the great artwork at the top). Most everyone on the trip will tell you that these things were lifesavers when you could barely remember what was coming up next (which was often). They would also send back a rooming sign-up sheet before each stop – and while it might seem like who you’re sharing a room with is the most important thing in the world at the time, everyone doing this type of Contiki should know that it doesn’t really matter. You’re barely ever in the rooms because you’re usually off doing something incredible – don’t stress too much about it.
We stopped once along the way to Paris for a quick snack/meal opportunity and bathroom break at one of the typical roadside rest stops along the highway - these places would quickly become a staple for the Contiki tour as a whole (and with a coach bathroom that couldn’t always be emptied at convenient times, they were quite welcome on some of the longer stretches of coach travel). In our excitement over the trip now officially being underway, Mel, Nathan, Sean and I tried to grab some beers from one of the restaurants, but were told that any alcohol could only be purchased with food - and since we weren’t willing to drop much-needed Euros on a full meal right then, we sadly dropped our beers and decided the party would have to wait until later that night. The excitement really started to hit me as James jumped on the coach’s microphone and announced that we were driving into Paris – we hadn’t been able to see much of anything on our drive in, but with everything I'd seen of “The City of Lights” in pictures, it had to be something special, right?. Well, not all of it - the highway we were on took us from the countryside into a somewhat rundown, industrial section of the city, which (as you can imagine) didn’t provide a very magical view.
Nothing was more terrifying though than what was waiting for us as we drove up to the Ibis Budget Hotel. Literally covering every square inch of street and sidewalk in front of the hotel was a “flea market” rammed with people bickering and picking through piles of what I could only assume was garbage and stolen goods (my parents’ main concern about Europe was pickpockets, so I definitely wasn’t telling them about this – I will say, however, just to calm anyone’s nerves, that we had ZERO problems with pickpockets of any kind throughout the course of the entire trip). As Kate inched through the crowds of people and laid on the horn, slowly but surely you could see the shoppers getting visibly upset with us – with one guy even taking out a knife and waving it in our direction (something that I accidentally brought to the attention of the entire bus when I yelled it out in fear). Thankfully, our tour manager rallied us together to very quickly (and calmly) grab all of the bags off the coach and drag them into the lobby.
Once we finally made it into our rooms – my first roommate was Michael, an exceptionally laid-back Aussie from Perth – there were a few…peculiarities with the layout. Not only were the beds jammed so close together that you’d think it was a double, but the toilet and the sink were on opposite sides of the room – and to top it off, the only partially frosted glass shower was positioned right in front of a full-length mirror, meaning the whole room would be treated to a show. Michael and I wasted no time getting ready and heading downstairs to Le Sultan (a restaurant attached to the hotel where everyone else would soon be meeting up) with Nathan and Sean to grab a few pre-dinner beers – the perfect way to get to know new friends (and something the Kiwis liked to insist upon nearly everywhere we went). For being located on such a potentially dangerous and extremely narrow roadway (luckily the market had shut down for the night), the interior of Le Sultan actually looked quite high-end and was surprisingly spacious - the restaurant not only had tons of perfectly set tables with pristinely white clothes and expensive-looking china and cutlery, but the now-empty space also looked to be capable of more than just hosting meals, with a stage and dance floor located just off the bar.
Speaking of the bar though, that’s where we headed first - after taking advantage of what we thought was a pretty sick deal on large servings of beer, the four of us headed over to the end of a long table and waited for the rest of our Contiki crew to make their way down. As dinner began a short while later after the group had filed into the restaurant, we found out that we were going to be treated to a well-known French delicacy – escargot, or common garden snails. After struggling like hell to get the snail out of the shell (it nearly flew across the room), I was finally able to taste it – though it didn’t taste bad (simply like garlic and butter), the rubbery, slimy texture was too much for me to handle and I’m fairly certain my vigorous shucking efforts put ground pieces of shell into the mix (making for a slightly gritty, dirt-like taste that made me believe these snails had been pulled right from the actual garden). Most of the other guys, however, couldn’t get enough – they even spent the next few days searching down more!
Once dinner was done, we boarded the coach for a quick, half-hour driving tour through the city, finally getting to lay our eyes on the sights we were dying to see in Paris (albeit from a distance) – James railed off interesting tidbits of knowledge as we crawled through the core traffic past places like the Palais Garnier, the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre Museum and Notre Dame Cathedral (all while trying to snap as many decent photos as possible, even though we would have plenty of opportunities to see these marvels close up in the coming days). This initial glimpse, however, was definitely enough to erase the poor first impression I had had of Paris from the drive in (given the grandiose solemnity that swept over this central part of the city) - Kate even thrilled us with more than a few harrowing revolutions around the Arc’s famous traffic circle, which actually sees hundreds of accidents each month (Parisians often take an alternate “junker” car into the city and leave their nicer cars at home for this very reason). That said, expert driver Kate was still able to get us off the circle unscathed after a dizzying dozen trips around.
The driving tour was topped off with a stop in full view of the awe-inspiring the Eiffel Tower – probably the most well-known symbol of Europe and the undisputed crown jewel of Paris, this marvel of the Industrial Revolution continues to amaze travellers to this day (including all of us). As we stepped out into an expansive square nestled between the two ends of the resplendent Palais de Chaillot museum complex to take our first pictures of the attraction, we also got our first experience with the European gypsies – these panhandlers, able to recognize a group of tourists from a mile away, swarmed us as they tried to sell everything from selfie sticks to sunglasses to trinkets and toys. Some of us bartered them down in price (never take the first offer from a gypsy) while others spent 20 Euros on laser pointers. It was an interesting first interaction, but (as you’ll see in future journals) it definitely would not be our last.
These peddlers were easy enough to ignore however once you stepped out towards the balcony at the front end of the square - the stately, stone-columned barrier stood just in front of the Trocadero Gardens, a sprawling, well-manicured green space that was home to main attraction of the Fountain of Warsaw (a long basin, or water mirror, with twelve fountains creating a mesmerizing ballet of water towers and arches high above the ground). Beyond this was the clearest, most spectacular view of the Eiffel Tower - the iron giant stood exceptionally taller than anything else around it, nestled squarely in front of the brilliant evening sky, which now painted Paris in a dim yet powerful glow of yellow, red and pink (colours that shone through the many gaps between the tower’s ironwork). And while no doubt a sight to behold from a distance, I most definitely would need to plan a visit up to the top of the tower at some point over the next couple of days.
From this point on, however, the official Contiki part of the evening was over – we were free to do what we wanted, whether that meant staying out and exploring or heading back to the hotel for the night. The catch was that we only had a few minutes to make that call, given that Kate had to park the coach for the night. At that moment, I knew I was in good company when a solid group of about fifteen of us made the call to stay out and enjoy the first night in Paris. This meant however that we would need to try our luck on the Paris subway system – and in a group where only the Canadians could even pretend to get by with French, this was going to be interesting. James pointed us in the direction of Bastille, an area of the city that was home to a whole host of bars and hangouts where the beer and booze would be free-flowing, but with only a vague idea of where this was on the map, we would take help anywhere we got it. Given that everything from the maps to the barriers on the Paris subway was a thousand times more complicated than the unbelievable ease of the London Underground (we could barely even figure out how to purchase tickets), we were relieved when an English-speaking Frenchman came over to see if we needed assistance.
With a bit of help from this friendly local, TJ, an eccentric Aussie who bore a striking resemblance to Trevor from Grand Theft Auto V (and in fact, was the mystery Contiki tour mate who was hilariously shouting into his cell phone back on the ferry from England to France), offered to purchase everyone’s ticket (meaning that he’d be getting plenty of drinks at whatever bar we landed in). What happened next though would solidify TJ’s spot as a Contiki legend and would teach us that some of the best Contiki memories happen when you least expect.
As we raced down the steps towards our train, we could hear as it got ready to leave the station – some of us sped up and made it through the doors while others didn’t think it was worth the risk and hung back. Stuck in the middle of these two groups was TJ – and yes, I mean that literally. TJ, believing that he could make it through the doors in time before they had the chance to close, hopped into the opening only to have the doors snap shut on his left shoulder. In most other cities, the doors will bounce back when they sense something in the door, but not in Paris apparently – reacting with a mix of laughter and panic (the train had started its move toward the tunnel ahead), TJ was pulled through the door at the last second by those of us waiting on the train (he was left with a bruise and sore shoulder, but at least he still had his arm). I guess this explained why the tracks themselves were encased in plexiglass barriers, though judging by the hilarious yet utterly dangerous situation we’d just experienced, extra safety measures in the Paris subway might be in order. Interestingly enough, it was here that I learned that TJ wasn’t even supposed to be on our tour – he had initially booked a different 45-day tour, but thanks to an appendix removal, he was stuck with us – and almost anyone will tell you that they wouldn’t have had it any other way (as you’ll learn through some of the outrageous, hilarious and heartwarming stories to come).
Once we were all able to catch our breath and the uncontrollable laughter was finally under control, we decided the best option was to get off at the next station and wait for the other group to pass by before continuing our journey to Bastille. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait long - the rest of the crew caught up on the very next train and we very quickly found ourselves walking out of a rather foul-smelling, graffiti-covered Bastille Station (the tangy venom in the air told me that these hallways were probably used as a bathroom for homeless people). We climbed the last set of stairs into the fresh air and were met by a massive square called the “Place de la Bastille.” Though there were little to nothing left of it in the present day, this square actually had a rich, violent history - this had been where the notorious Bastille prison was located until its complete destruction during the “Storming of the Bastille” in 1789 as part of Napoleon’s first French Revolution (an event now celebrated as the national public holiday of Bastille Day). At the centre, though barely visible through the darkness (the sun had now set completely) and the haze created by the many headlights roaring around the traffic circle surrounding the square, a stone spire rose high above the pavement in commemoration of the July Revolution (or let’s call it the more well-known second French Revolution).
Just beyond the square was a narrow entrance towards a collection of cobblestone streets, with the tall buildings on either side encasing a symphony of bright lights, loud music and jubilant voices (a clear indication of where we needed to be - but even from the subway entrance, we could see most of the bars and cafes in the area were now jam-packed with people. We realized almost immediately that it might be difficult to find a spot that could fit all of us comfortably given the fact that Paris nightlife was alive and well for tourists and locals alike. But after walking through the densely packed walkways (the bikes and random car or two made me question that term) for only a few minutes, we stumbled upon a nearly empty joint nearly hidden behind a thick coat of black paint – Kabanito.
This smoky, “hole-in-the-wall” style bar was dark and dingy, stretching back a modest distance and revealing dank stone buttresses, low, head-brushing ceilings and chalkboard painted walls - we passed through the narrow, stool-lined entryway and headed into a back room that had enough space and cushioned couches lining the walls for all of us to pile in and sit comfortably (in this dire situation, with Bastille’s extreme lack of space, it was like our very own Room of Requirement, for all the Harry Potter fans out there). And wasting no time at all, we quickly hopped up to the bar in small groups to grab the first of what would be many drinks (while overcoming just a bit of a language barrier with the bartender, who responded better to us merely pointing out what we wanted on the back shelf).
The lack of a crowd at Kabanito wasn’t a problem though since we were a big enough group to make our own party, and by this point in the journey, we were all just happy to be able to get a drink and have a good time. And have a good time we did – we played pinball, watched football, shared laughs and even tried one or two unusual drinks, including one with dry ice sitting on top (which I’m sure helped to put some people over the edge). It was also the perfect opportunity to get to know some more of my Contiki crew members - though I had met most people briefly, I hadn’t really gotten the chance to interact with and get to know the majority of them outside of the awesome people I had spent time with over my first few days in London. Moral of the story though – the ice had finally started to break with more and more people from the Contiki group. And you may say that “you shouldn’t have to drink to have fun” – which is true, considering several people didn’t drink much or even at all – but you at least had to put in the effort. Contiki isn’t a school trip – everyone has paid to be there, and it’s your responsibility and ONLY your responsibility to make sure that you get the most out of your experience. It’s easy to fall into a habit of staying on your own, but coming from someone who doesn’t always feel like being social, I’m glad that I said “to hell with it” – my experience would’ve been something else completely had I not.
Early on in the night, Mel (with a lot more bravado than perhaps was wise) challenged Kiwis Nathan and Sean that she could keep up with whatever they were drinking. However, judging by the sheer size of them (not to mention the reputation for drinking that New Zealanders bring with them), it was no surprise that she wasn’t able to hack it (well, technically she did, but she just so happened to be face down in a toilet when she did). We actually thought we’d lost her at one point - after making a run for the bathroom to get sick, she hadn’t returned for at least 20 minutes, so I took it upon myself to head down and see if she was alright. The bathroom was located at the base of a medieval-looking, spiral stone staircase and made up of a very simple chamber with two small toilets and a single sink - that said, it was fairly easy to see that Mel wasn’t in there anymore. A little concerned now that she’d wandered off (or worse), I ran back upstairs to get some help from the rest of the crew - and no sooner had I arrived back in my seat and let people in on the potential situation did Mel thankfully pop up on the other end of the bar.
The night raged on and, after choking on what seemed to be gallons of machine-fed smoke coming from almost every direction, the group slowly splintered off, got themselves late-night crepes, found cabs and headed home for the night (save for a few late-night warriors who were nowhere close to calling it quits). It was also this night that I realized just how stand-up these new friends were. Even though we were only on day one, people were more than willing to drop everything and help out if one of their Contiki peeps had had too much to drink or needed to find their way home - which was fortunate, since our brave warrior Mel found herself in a pretty sorry state by the end and needed some help getting back to the hotel (surprisingly though, she still managed to pay her share of the cab once we got back to the hotel).
To be completely honest, I was more than happy to finally be back at the hotel after a long day of travelling and what had surprisingly turned into a very long and eventful evening (my roommate Mike had taken the opposite approach and was already dead asleep when I walked into the room). The rest I was about to get would be absolutely necessary though, because tomorrow was going to be a long and exciting day on the streets of Paris as we took part in the extreme cardio workout known as sightseeing. The next morning, we would be given our first block of free time – the one thing I wished there had been more of over the course of the Contiki tour (not that there was a real lack of it, but given the incredible experiences that resulted from these slices of flexibility from the relatively regimented schedule). It was time for us to decide what we wanted to see and what we didn’t care if we missed – and in such a big group, there was no trouble finding others who had similar plans.
After an early wake-up and another uncomfortably conspicuous shower which put me in full view of the entire hotel room thanks to that terribly aligned mirror, the group slowly filtered down into the main-floor cafeteria a quick continental breakfast. The setting wasn’t exactly the kind of romantic atmosphere you might expect from somewhere like Paris (even this far out from the city centre as our Ibis hotel was) - a very sanitary look, with metal rod chairs, stark wallpaper and deteriorating synthetic fabrics - while the food itself was definitely not something I’d be writing a postcard home about (stale cereals, nearly expiring fruit and toast that resembled cardboard). Nonetheless, I’m sure the food was a relief for Mel, who was suffering hard from the previous night’s activities and was struggling to slide small morsels of food into her mouth as she sat face down next to me at the table.
Once again, we then boarded the coach and made our way into the heart of Paris, with our first stop being the iconic Arc de Triomphe. One of the city’s most famous monuments, the Arc was built in 1836 to commemorate the soldiers who lost their lives fighting for their country in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars - and it's considered the linchpin of Paris’ historical axis, which is a string of monuments that stretch across the city in a single line. After a few more high-octane revolutions around the terrifying and thrilling roundabout that circled the monument, Kate pulled over on the outer edge where we piled out into the intense Parisian sun, sweating but now full of energy and excitement for the day ahead - our first REAL day of Contiki. Since we couldn’t just dart across the road towards the Arc without getting clipped or maimed by a vehicle (though some locals seemed fully confident playing this game of Frogger), we instead walked around the circle towards the entrance of a tunnel that would take us underground beneath the traffic circle and drop us right beneath this staple symbol of French history and culture.
As the crew emerged from the staircase on the other end of the tunnel, we were immediately gobsmacked and awestruck. Though imposing from far away, the Arc de Triomphe was nothing short of colossal - and from our vantage point on the vast circular platform at the base of the monument, we could see every detail of the grey-white Arc, from the smooth, elaborate texture on the surface of the giant stone blocks that made up the structure, to the names of countless battles and brave soldiers immaculately etched into the surface of the columns, to the elaborately carved embellishments, realistic sculptures and fine artistic details that stretched from the structure’s base all the way to the summit. If all these elements weren’t incredible enough already, they were topped off by an enormous three-storey tall French flag hanging in the centre of the Arc above an eternal flame display representing the emotional Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. After a few photo opportunities from the edge of the traffic circle, the crew decided to take advantage of a relatively short line and head up to the top (especially given how already epic the sight was to see from the ground).
A small group of us found our way back into the underground tunnel where we could buy our entry - we were then led up a separate opening and ushered through a door at the base of the monument. Through a series of interconnected spiral staircases and low-ceilinged, cavernous concrete rooms, our crew finally found our way into the fresh air, and unstoppable sunshine atop the Arc - and this vantage point was an experience not to be missed. Given the lack of skyscrapers or tall buildings (except in the city’s downtown area) obstructing our line of vision, the view of Paris stretched on for miles and miles, and from that high up even otherwise gargantuan sights like the Eiffel Tower seemed like they were small enough to be made of Lego. It was also interesting to see the juxtaposition from up here between old Paris on one side and new Paris on the other. One direction showed the Paris you see in postcards, with little, antique buildings lining narrow streets and punctuated with the city's most notable landmarks, while the other showed a more typical city landscape, with sleek modern buildings that were unfortunately far less exceptional. Add to this the fact that admission was less than ten Euros and you had yourself a world-class encounter on a dime.
The Arc conveniently flanked one end of the Champs d'Elysees, one of the most extravagant and expensive shopping avenues in the world, where everything felt far too fancy for us even to be looking at - even places that are typically not so ritzy, like Abercrombie & Fitch and McDonald’s, had stepped up their game (with the generally golden arches taking on a pristine white colour to match the rest of the shops on the boulevard). Despite all this, a large group of us decided to take a stroll from one end to the other (taking more than an hour almost) - along the way, we dropped some cash on some deliciously fancy macaroons (after being unable to resist the ones set up in the window as we walked past) and even contemplated taking a spin in one of the prestige luxury cars driving up and down the boulevard (also not cheap).
About halfway down the Champs d’Elysees, the Place de la Concorde (a massive public square with one of the city’s ancient Egyptian obelisks at the centre) comes into view, just as the shop-lined sidewalks give way to long, tree-thick parkettes on either side. Our group had no real itinerary until our pick up time in a few hours, so we decided to just go with the flow - and though we initially hoped to make it to the end of the street, we changed course as we passed the statue of General de Gaulle out front of Grand Palais (an exhibition hall built back in 1900 that was notable for its immense size and the large, glass dome that sat at its zenith). Around the corner from the Statue and in the distance beyond, we could make out the immense Musee de l’Armee, a former military hospital for war veterans and now a French military museum, which just so happened to be one of the landmarks we passed during our driving tour of Paris the previous night. At the time, Contiki tour manager James had mentioned that this was where iconic French military leader Napoleon Bonaparte was buried, so it was a stop we didn’t want to miss.
On our way there, we walked over the Pont Alexandre III, an arched bridge named after the Russian Tsar that was ornately decorated like something out of a fairy tale - the sides were embellished with every manner of statue and sculpture (gold-plated or otherwise) between four massive columns at the corners (each topped with a giant gold statue) while the bridge itself was ideally situated to provide an epic view of the Eiffel Tower. Add on top of all this the classic Parisian black lamps that dotted the entire length of the bridge, and it was no doubt a magical sight to behold (funnily enough, it would’ve been even better in black-and-white). After crossing the bridge, we still had some ground to cover before arriving at the Musee de l’Armee, given that the Esplanade des Invalides sat in front of it - this unimaginably large and empty green lawn, sitting in the heart of Paris surrounded by many of the city’s historically and culturally significant landmarks, evidently served as a recreational meeting spot for locals and tourists alike (given that it was filled with people lounging on the grass in the intense sun or even playing a round of bicycle polo). The lawn directly in front of the Musee was far more impressive though - behind low, stone walls along the perimeter was perfectly manicured grass, geometrically trimmed trees and dozens of small rabbits running around, free and unafraid (interesting since there were so many tourists around).
Since it was free to enter, the lot of us headed up the long driveway towards the museum’s arched entryway - once inside, we were met with a grand, two-storey, open-air columned courtyard from which you could see all corners of the impressively decorated building (including the Musee’s massive gold-encrusted, domed roof overhead and the blue sky above that). We walked around the outside of the courtyard (the interior was not part of the “free” section) to get towards the back of the building - and after emerging outside once again, we found ourselves walking through powdery white stones in front of a towering, marble facade along the building’s rear side, which was happened to be the entrance to Napoleon’s tomb. Given that we had come all this way just to see Napoleon’s tomb, we raced up the steps and towards the entrance - however, we didn’t realize that it would cost us money to get inside (and with more than thirty days ahead of us, we perhaps stupidly weren’t willing to part our cash in case we needed it for something even more exciting down the line). So instead, we congregated against the fence opposite trying to figure out what we wanted to do next and, since we’d been walking around sightseeing for a couple of hours, we decided that it was time for a break - we were in desperate need of food and beer.
We found our way down a nearby side street towards a burger joint, Au Pied de Fouet, which was one of the only places able to fit all of us - though “fit” might be a generous word to describe how they ended up seating us. The staff set up a long table in the loft above the main restaurant, but with Sean and Brenno (another Aussie) in our group, both who were well above six feet tall, the low ceilings weren’t necessarily making things comfortable - not to mention that I was sitting at the very end of a long bench that only had one exit, meaning that my bladder was getting the workout of a lifetime (not wanting to have twelve people get up and move just so I could take a leak). As we were planning what to order, I also took this opportunity to try out the Google Translate app on my phone, which promised to translate any words in view of the camera without hassle. I recommend trying it out - but be warned, while you might be able to get a general understanding of what something might say, if you’re looking for an exact translation, it doesn’t do the job (wait and see what it had to say in Pisa as Jordan, Dan and I tried to take out money from an Italian ATM).
With our stomachs finally full from what turned out to be delicious, made-to-order burgers, we decided to make the long trek over to Notre Dame Cathedral. Along the way, our group slowly but surely whittled down to fewer than five or six people as people splintered off to shop or pick up libations for the night ahead. This did however mean that we could move at a bit of a brisker pace, emerging from the tight labyrinth of inner-city streets out onto a traffic-heavy boulevard only a short while later, with the iconic, two-towered, Gothic-style church revealing itself just on the other side of the river against the sapphire blue of the sky (the checkered flag at the end of our sightseeing marathon). Unfortunately, we couldn’t enter the famous cathedral since it was under construction, but it was still quite the sight to behold from the outside. This medieval Catholic church, whose name means “Our Lady of Paris”, is by far one of the largest and most widely known in the world, making it one of the main sights I wanted to see most during our time here - so it was a bit disappointing that we had to settle for only a quick glimpse of the impressive exterior (the sheer volume of pigeons swarming out front though was enough to keep us moving). Running up quickly on our meeting time outside the Musee d’Orsay anyways though, we decided that we should probably start figuring out how to make our way back - luckily for the Canadians, Rogers offered a great deal on roaming, so I was able to use my phone to navigate on Google Maps and take us right where we needed to be.
To get there, however, we first chose to walk along La Seine River, which we thought might be nice - in reality, it reeked of urine and sewage. I had heard people say that Paris was a bit dirty, but to be honest, besides these waterways, the tourist areas were pretty pristine. To escape the smell, we headed back up to the street, passing hundreds of street vendors (selling everything from trinkets and souvenirs to clothes and sunglasses to artwork, both reprinted and originally painted) and even The Great Canadian Pub (a nice taste of home - I didn’t have time to head inside, so I’ll have to get back here on my next trip to Paris). Thankfully we changed course because we landed right in front of the Love Lock Bridge - the famous crossing where couples go to hang their locks and signify the eternity of their love. Ironically, the locks were removed just over a week after we left Paris (due to structural damage) - and while most of us didn’t hang a lock, I am forever grateful that we got the chance to see it before it was gone.
We met up with the rest of the group a short time later outside the Musee d’Orsay and boarded the coach back to the hotel (the same couldn’t be said for the four Newcastle boys, however, who had gotten delayed enough that they’d have to take a cab back). As most people know, it doesn’t take most guys that long to get ready for a night out so, once again (after a quick lie down and a hot shower), Nathan, Sean, Michael and I headed down to Le Sultan a few hours before dinner to enjoy the last of the day’s great weather grab some drinks on the large terrace around back (something we didn’t realize had been there on the first night as well) - and this time, an even larger group of Contiki folks took part (clearly people were excited for the night ahead - my first clue should have been the fact that everyone was stocking up on pre-game materials as we headed from stop-to-stop earlier that day). Basically, what I’m getting at is that I was about to find out just how big of a crew of party animals I had joined…
This time around, we took over the opposite end of the restaurant on top of a small platform near the patio exit (there was another group there that had taken our spots from the previous night), but given that we were now closer to the bar, we weren’t about to complain. I was relieved to find out that there were no more snails on the menu for that night’s dinner either - instead of prying my food out of its shell and struggling to keep it down, I got to enjoy the company of my fellow Contiki travellers over something as simple and safe as chicken. A typical “get-to-know-you” chat promptly transformed into a Canada versus Australia conversation, going over all of the differences and, more importantly, the similarities between our two great countries (and at least I had backup from some of the other Canadians at the table, Rachel and Maddie from Cambridge, Ontario).
Our second evening in the City of Lights signalled the first of many Contiki Me Time Optional Activities - on our way to Paris, James ran down the list of nearly 30 activities and left us to decide which ones we wanted to drop a little bit of extra cash on. Though some seemed more exciting than others (easy to see when it comes to walking tours versus paragliding), my advice is to budget that little bit extra and do absolutely all of them - I’m sure most would agree with me when I say that this is one area where Contiki’s “no regrets” motto rings true. The very first Contiki Me-Time Optional Activity of the tour was a cabaret show called Nouvelle Eve, a genuinely Parisian tradition, which promised singing, dancing, drinks and a few topless French women (tastefully, of course). This was something very similar to what you might expect out of a night at the world-famous Moulin Rouge as well, but James assured us that we’d be getting more value and an equally exciting experience at Nouvelle Eve. I can’t say for sure whether that was true or not since I only had the chance to experience one of them, but I’d come to trust our fearless leader (especially given the good times that, as we’d soon learn, would be waiting for us once we arrived).
Having dressed up in our most respectable “going out” clothes before meeting at Le Sultan earlier that night for dinner, the crew piled into the coach waiting outside the Ibis Budget Hotel, and we made our way to the Pigalle district of Paris. Apparently another hub of the Paris nightlife, we exited onto a boulevard bustling with people who, like us, were gearing up for a big night out on the town. James led us past the Moulin Rouge (which was lit up in so much red neon you’d have thought we were walking down the Las Vegas) towards the side street opposite - and waiting for us at the end of several bends and turns through the complicated streets was a glowing sign that read “Eve”. Maybe it was the lights, the levity in the atmosphere, or perhaps just the copious amounts of alcohol we drank during dinner, but the excitement and anticipation for this night were now at an all-time high as we took our place in the line-up outside.
As we waited, it became obvious that people were struggling with how much they’d drank before we left the hotel - a few pairs, including Alice and Gaby, snuck into a busy corner cafe across the street to use the bathroom, but since the owners naturally required them to buy something if they wanted to relieve themselves, they used the opportunity to get themselves a drink and keep their buzz alive (no doubt a respectable decision). It was also here where we experienced the first of what would eventually become many rose-selling gypsies. Though he tried to pressure me into buying one for the girls standing around me, I didn’t give in - the same, however, could not be said of Dan, who bought several after bartering down the price (even more interesting was the fact that he did nothing with them except destroy them, leaving a trail of rose petals behind him). Eventually, this would become something Dan was known for until the end of the trip.
After about twenty minutes of waiting (James had kept people entertained by blowing their minds with a mystery puzzle ring he’d bought during one of his stopovers in Florence), an usher came outside to direct us inside the theatre. In a single-file line, we headed up the stairs, through a velvet-lined lobby, passed an archaic-looking box office and between the two heavy red curtains into the main area - and needless to say, it was a spectacle. The grand theatre was awash in a rich, pink glow radiating from the sparkling stage curtain and the ornate second-floor balconies, while small lamps lit the intimate tables and booths that lined a multi-coloured stage floor. To our surprise, the usher directed us to take our seats in the very front row of tables, an exciting prospect which meant that we’d now have the best view in the house once the house lights dimmed and the curtain was raised.
Everything at Nouvelle Eve, from the songs to the dancing to the magic tricks to the comedy, was a treat to watch - I’m not even exaggerating when I say that I could take my eyes off of the performances. Especially memorable was when two members of our Contiki crew, Michal from Victoria, Australia and Travis from Vancouver, Canada volunteered to head up on stage to take part (Mike left with a new nickname, Marco, while we discovered just how good of a dancer Travis was). Michal had tried to get the performers to pull me up on stage as well but, having only known me for a couple of days, he wasn’t aware that volunteering for these kinds of things was not my style. As he tried to raise my hand and pointed to me while they looked for volunteers, I may or may not have snapped at him in a full-on rage blackout (I apologized to him after, but hopefully that made it clear that I’d much rather just be a spectator for these kinds of experiences, for now). The real joy of the cabaret show was the seemingly endless free champagne that we were able to enjoy. Even though there were six people at our table, it was only myself, Sean and fellow Canadian Rachel taking part - meaning that we got more than our fair share of the bubbly. And though we all were a tad shaky when we stood up (I myself made a rather clumsy trip upstairs to the bathroom), I’m glad I had them there to share in the fun with me, because I figured it was too early in this adventure to stand out as a cheap drunk.
Once the show was over, and the raucous applause had finally died down, it was time to follow James to a nearby pub, O'Sullivan’s, where the rest of our night would play out. Being the first official party night with the entire group all in one spot, none of us were ready to hold back, meaning there was to be no shortage of drinks, shots, dancing and fun. And even though my memory of this bar blurs in and out, I’ve seen some of the photos that came after and it’s easy to see just how epic of a time we had that night. The pub, which was more affectionately referred to as Sully’s, was located only a stone’s throw away from the cabaret, literally in the shadow of the Moulin Rouge and its iconic illuminated red windmill. Our status as Contiki travellers got us past the lineup outside (which is a perk you’ll enjoy throughout the tour) and we headed inside - the front house seemed fairly typical of a high-end pub/lounge, with a bar top and a mix of tables and booths stationed along the perimeter. But it was as you follow the bar around the corner and deeper into the building that the real appeal of Sully’s comes into view.
The entrance may have been modest and chill, but the same could not be said of the back, which opened down into a massive dance floor crammed to the bursting point with people and almost vibrating under the heavy bass beneath our feet and the laser lights beaming down from all directions. We wasted no time in joining the party - as a closeted dance floor maniac myself, I was happy to know that my new friends equally had no shame about busting a move and looking a bit ridiculous (copious amounts of alcohol tend to give people that kind of courage anyways). This included tour manager James, who, after a few drinks of his own jumped in the middle of a group of us and starting throwing himself around like he was in a mosh pit (it was definitely a treat to see the guy let loose a bit, since he definitely had one hell of a stressful job).
As the night came to an end a few fuzzy hours later, Jordan, Dan, Bastian, Angie (from South Africa) and I brought James up to the bar to share a final shot (Bas wasn’t too keen, but I learned that night that he’ll do pretty much anything if you call him out for being a “little bitch”) before finding separate cabs back to the hotel at around 2am. Despite the long day we had and all the drinking we did (plus the early rise we had to look forward to tomorrow), no one seemed to be the least bit tired, with some twenty or so people still hanging out in the hallway until the early hours of the morning - Reece and I even exchanged a few war stories from the bar standing in our door frames while a few people down the hall tried to drag a particularly drunk and nauseous member of our crew into their bed after being face down in the toilet for an hour. By-and-large, it was becoming clear that this crew knew how to party, and I for one was glad to be a part of it all.
With some people still holding their heads up from the night before, we started the next day early with another quick and somewhat unsatisfying continental breakfast in the hotel’s sterile cafeteria before heading to the Palace of Versailles, French king Louis XIV’s unbelievably extravagant home on the outskirts of the city. Nestled in one of Paris’ most wealthy and luxurious suburbs, the Palace is not only famous for its rich architecture and magnificently unique design, but also as a lasting symbol of the country’s historic royal monarchy and, given its prominent place in many of the more gruesome events of the time, of the late-1700’s French Revolution that definitively overthrew that power.
Though it was only a short drive away (the time flew by as Jordan, James, Kate and I debriefed the previous night), when we got there, I almost couldn’t believe my eyes - and I’m not even talking about the palace. Judging by the sheer number of tour buses already in the parking lot, we weren’t the only ones looking to see this famous piece of French history today - in fact, we were quite late to the game. The line-up to purchase tickets weaved around and around like a snake across the Palace’s massive front square for what looked like miles, with nearly a thousand people eagerly waiting to get inside. I could see what all the fuss was about though - Versailles was the living embodiment of extravagance, with every inch of the golden sand-coloured structure intricately and meticulously designed down to the very last detail, and an unbelievable amount of gold leaf cresting the Palace’s roof and shining brilliantly in the sunlight. And while the palace was indeed a sight to behold, most of us agreed that there was no way in hell we would be waiting that long to see it.
Instead, we headed to the gardens, which had no line at all and were just as marvellous as the palace itself. With perfect geometry and exceptionally detailed upkeep, the gardens of Versailles went on and on - you can even rent a golf cart if you want, something Mel and I definitely considered once we finally saw just how expansive the grounds were (we didn’t end up doing it, but part of me thinks it still would’ve been a good time). But instead, we took our time and had a comfortable stroll through the towering hedges, across the several massive canals and wading pools, and in between the rows and rows of perfectly shaped trees and shrubs. After joining up with Travis, Dan and Gaby (who was in her element here as an aspiring professional city planner), we finished our walk along an overlook on the Palace’s south side, where you could see off into the distance towards even more colourful and intricate gardens, still untouched by tourists and in near-perfect condition (probably the most breathtaking view in the whole place)..
Once we had taken all the photos we could (and our exhaustion from the previous night started to show), we decided to walk into nearby Old Versaille for a bit and hopefully grab a bite to eat (we’d only seen a small sliver of the gardens by this point, but judging by the size on the map, there was no way we’d see the whole thing in the short time we had). A small group of us started our walk through the sprawling parking lot into the more contemporary village, past a slightly annoying, silver-painted street performer, but when all we came across were convenience stores and souvenir shops, I took to the Internet to see what else we found find - and almost immediately, I spotted a spot around the corner that would easily satisfy everyone. Though we had just spent the morning at one of Europe’s most regal properties, one that had no doubt hosted its share of opulent dinner parties, we decided to slum it and grab McDonald's - what else could you possibly want after a night of drinking though than some greasy Chicken McNuggets and French fries from the Golden Arches (it sounds fancier when you refer to it like that, right)?
With our bellies full, we headed back to meet the rest of the crew at the coach, which would take us back into Paris for the afternoon and another few hours of free time. This might be a good point in the story to mention the upcoming “P” Party. In my London travel journal, when I was introducing my new friends from Australia, I posted a picture of them dressed up as Power Rangers and pimps - that’s because we were told our first night at our next stop would be a party night where everyone had to dress up as something beginning with the letter “P” (from speaking with others who’ve done European Contikis, this is something I now know to be standard for that stop). Needless to say, people were excited, spending this extra free time in Paris searching out ideas for costumes - I luckily already had something in my backpack that would work for this very occasion, but I’ll leave that until my next post.
Only a few hours were remaining in the day, so a small group of us broke off (consisting of myself, Angie Mel, Josh and Emma) to see if we could speed through the Louvre and see Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Mona Lisa. To get there, we first walked through The Place de la Concorde, the massive public square and traffic circle that we had meant to reach during our walk down the Champs d'Elysees the previous day. Though the square was now filled with smiling tourists enjoying the obelisk-adorned sculptures and fountains at the centre, this place actually has quite a violent and dangerous history - during the French Revolution, it had actually been renamed the Place de la Revolution and served as one of the city’s main public execution spots, with notable people like Marie Antoinette and Maximilien Robespierre losing their heads to the guillotine here. We were headed east of the square, however, through a large entryway that led through the expansive Jardin des Tulleries towards the Louvre in the distance (you could just make out the glimmering glass pyramid that sat atop the museum’s entrance from here). These gardens, though quite a bit smaller than the ones back at Versailles, were filled with people enjoying the increasingly warm Parisian summer weather, just chilling out by the massive wading pool, laying on the grass or taking their dogs out for a jog - there was also a minefield of gypsies that we had to get through, peddling everything from hats to sunglasses to selfie sticks.
Once we finally found ourselves standing across from the museum in the Place du Carrousel, underneath a much smaller Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, it really felt like we were living a movie or something - all I could think of was The Da Vinci Code as a looked over at artist I.M. Pei’s Louvre Pyramid, a modern crown on a traditional landmark which sat in the middle of the museum’s colossal courtyard. Given that the Louvre Museum was also itself once a royal palace, it bore many similarities to Versailles - both were adorned with countless windows, exhaustive sculptures and rustic blue rooftops, with the only Louvre distinguishing itself thanks to the two wings jutted out at either end (like two arms welcoming us in to see the priceless art that called this building home). And with the glass pyramid serving as an intriguing juxtaposition against this more classic backdrop, the Louvre was a captivating crossroad between the new and old worlds.
But from this vantage point, we could also see that this entrance had a sizeable lineup that, while shorter than the one from Versailles earlier in the day, we were in no mood to deal with - instead, taking tour manager James’ advice from the previous day, we used one of the staircases on our side of the street to head down into the underground shopping concourse (called the “Carrousel du Louvre”) where another, less busy and well-known museum entrance was located (a great tip that any tourist should take advantage of during their time in Paris). Before we headed inside though, nature was calling - it was this moment that I experienced my first pay-per-use toilet, but it was so much more than just that. This first-class toilet lets you choose what kind of toilet you want (whether standard or Japanese spa) and even let you purchase your favourite colour of toilet paper. Unfortunately for them, women have to pay about 50 cent Euro more than I did as a man, but I assume this must be because they think women take longer in the bathroom (a notion that, while will likely earn me a smack, most definitely has some basis in fact). Let’s just say Europeans take the bathroom far more seriously than the rest of the world…
James’ advice about the alternate Louvre entrance has proven true though, with a non-existent line of people waiting at the security checkpoint. Sailing through unscathed in only a matter of minutes, we first came face-to-face with La Pyramide Inversee - this skylight, which sat at the centre of an open marble waypoint in the shopping mall, represented the exact mirror image of its sister pyramid above ground, with an upside-down glass pyramid descending from the ceiling and meeting up with the peak of a smaller stone pyramid resting on the floor. And this was only a precursor to the Louvre’s actual lobby a few feet away, which sat a few stories beneath the main Louvre Pyramid - and thanks to this high glass ceiling (which was a work of art all its own), the whole lobby was lit up without an ounce of artificial light. With any lines standing in our way, we quickly grabbed our tickets and started our self-guided tour.
The inside of the museum itself was just as packed as I expected it would be (given that it houses one of the world’s most impressive and massive collections of art), but we were able to navigate the many long, art-filled corridors in just under an hour. After ascending the main staircase, which was topped with the haunting Winged Victory of Samothrace statue (an unquestionable masterpiece of a sculpture), we followed the crowds through the elegant galleries and hallways, all of which were covered floor-to-ceiling in gold-framed paintings from some of history’s most celebrated artists (an excited Mel, clearly hoping not to miss a single canvas, spent her time taking snapshots of every single painting we passed). All of this was leading to Leonardo da Vinci’s notorious painting, the Mona Lisa, the Louvre’s piece de resistance which I can safely call underwhelming now that I’ve spent some time standing in front of it. Not only does it seem to be smaller than the size of your typical bedroom movie poster, but there were enough people to populate a small city standing in front of it, meaning that unless you wanted to fight your way through to the front, you wouldn’t get a very good view.
Unsurprisingly then, we didn’t stay very long - we started to make our back to the meeting spot at the Musee d’Orsay, first quickly stopping on the Pont du Carrousel bridge so Mel could flex her shopping muscles once again and check out a street vendor who was selling some charming Parisian paintings of her own. Despite what was slowly turning into a scorcher of a day (my forehead was already burnt), we ended up playing around on some giant painted hopscotch maps down by the Seine River while waiting for the coach to arrive. Most of us were dying to use the restroom by this time, but only good ol’ TJ couldn’t hold it - in full view of all of us, plus dozens of other tourists, he happily relieved himself up against a wall just behind us. With a couple of minutes still to kill, we walked over to a nearby cafe and enjoyed some delicious chocolate crepes (a staple if you’re in Paris) before having to board the coach back to the hotel. Since they were made fresh through, they were taking a bit longer than previously expected - worried that we might be late for pick up and would have to take a cab, I ran back to the meeting spot to stall. But it turned out that I didn’t have to do much to hold up the coach - just as I arrived, the streets were immediately blocked off by the police to make way for what must’ve been hundreds of people on rollerblades. Needless to say, this strange yet convenient turn of events bought the crew the extra time they needed to get back with their crepes and join everyone else on the ride back to the hotel.
That night was our next optional activity, a traditional Parisian dinner. Since this was a far more casual, chill kind of evening than our extravaganza at Sully’s, we used the next couple hours of downtime to catch a few zees before meeting up in the hotel lobby and boarding the coach for our final adventure through Paris. As Kate once again took us through the gorgeous city streets, my seatmate Gaby and I had an in-depth conversation about school and careers back home, which was a topic that involves everyone no matter where you’re from or even what age you might be (and demonstrating once again how quickly my new travel mates were becoming very real friends, well beyond the confines of this 38-day tour). We arrived at a very inconspicuous-looking building and were lead up a very narrow, steep set of stairs before finally being seated in a large dining area across several round tables, each set with what felt like 20 forks, knives and spoons per person, The atmosphere of the restaurant was dated, yet quite elegant, and the food, which comprised several courses (including duck and even more escargot, much to Nathan’s delight and my disgust), was extraordinarily fancy and far beyond my every day each - overall though, this was far more authentically Paris than any meal we’d experienced here so far.
That being said, our good friend TJ managed to find a way to make us all feel a little less uptight - and this story is one of the many that make it clear why we love TJ and why he was the undisputed star of our time in Paris. Within the first ten minutes of dinner, the poor guy fell off of his chair and, thanks to a few too many glasses of wine, almost brought his dinner back up onto the plate. The cherry on top though was when the accordion player came into the room - though he initially questioned why she wasn’t “playing the low notes,” he was so impressed with her accordion skills that he insisted on tipping her to the tune of only about 30 cent Euro. Thankfully, we were able to talk him out of what would undoubtedly have been seen as an insult. By the time dinner was through, our table was all laughed out.
Our last night in Paris culminated appropriately with a speedy drive over to the city’s most famous landmark, the Eiffel Tower, which most of us had surprisingly not yet visited close-up during the previous days (likely because we knew we’d have time here at the end). While some of the crew decided to stay down on the lawn, grab some wine from the gypsies and chill out under the stars (it seemed that, no matter the time of day, this grassy area was literally covered in people just soaking in this amazing city), most of us took the opportunity to head up (I can’t speak for everyone, but since I didn’t know when if ever I’d be back to Paris, there was no way I could pass up these opportunities, no matter how “touristy” they seemed).
Given that the line-up for the elevator was so long, we decided to bite the bullet and take the stairs to the second floor (the highest place you could get to without taking an elevator) - we’d been eating and drinking so much lately that the exercise would do us good (who doesn’t want calves of steel?). The ascent was briefly interrupted at the security gate when Dan tried to bring a soccer ball with him up the tower, but once he finally agreed to leave it behind, we started making our way up the 324m-tall structure. By the time I got to the second level and caught my breath, it was taken away again by the insane 360-degree view of Paris - as the sun went down, the lights all started to come on, making the city, which appeared to stretch on for ages, seem even more magical than it already was. It was easy to see now why this structure was the most-paid to see landmark in the entire world - and as incredible as this view was, I knew that it would only get better at the very top of the tower.
This view had already proven itself to be epic, so we had no real choice but to spend the little bit extra to head to the tower’s apex - after a nerve-wracking elevator ride, where we were crammed in the car like sardines next to full-length windows that had me nervously staring down from our rapidly increasing altitude, we finally reached the summit. I can’t even put into words what it was like to stand on top of the Eiffel Tower and look down on the constellations of street lamps and headlights (now burning bright as the last bit of sunlight disappeared and the black of the night got even deeper) - let’s just say it was unbelievable (a glass of champagne would’ve been great at that moment, but it cost nearly 20 Euro).
As I finally came back to reality, I suddenly realized that we were coming up on our meet up time and it was going to take a while to get down to the bottom. But along with Jordan, Alysha and the two other Vancouverites Kirsten and Tiana, we were up to the challenge - even with waiting in the massive elevator line to get back down to the second level, by heading down the stairs two or three steps-at-a-time (despite nearly tumbling over on multiple occasions and almost breaking all my bones), we got from the top of the structure to the bottom in an impressive time of ten minutes (meaning we even had three minutes to spare, giving Alysha time to snap a picture of Squirt, her Instagramming turtle). This rushing had all been for naught though since when we got back to the coach, the group who’d stayed down on the grass didn’t even show up for another ten or so minutes. To be honest, we shouldn’t have been so worried - even if the Contiki coach leaves you behind on one of these excursions, there is always a cab as an option, so if you’re busy enjoying yourself for any reason, don’t stress too much about keeping to a schedule (you can always find your way back later).
On the coach once again and heading back to the hotel to pack up and call it a night, Kate took us for a few more hair-raising turns around the Arc de Triomphe and then strategically brought us in view of the Eiffel Tower one last time, just at the very moment it sparkled up the night sky - making for a perfect end to a perfect three days in Paris. Though we didn’t go overboard with the drinking this night (a very rare occurrence on this tour), we were exhausted enough from our three full days of sightseeing that most of us passed out immediately, as soon as our heads hit the pillow. The next morning, we dragged our bags down the elevators, loaded them into the lobby and regrouped for another simple cafeteria breakfast before we eagerly boarded the coach and set sail (so to say) on the next leg of this amazing journey. At the time we arrived in Paris, some of us knew each other better than others, but now, as we prepared to head to Contiki’s Chateau de Cruix in the Beaujolais Wine Region near Lyon, this was starting to change. And little did we know, it definitely wouldn’t be the same after the “P” Party…