If it's your first time in Europe, a group tour is one of the easiest ways to maximise your time and experiences, says Chris Bullen.
An organised coach tour through a number of countries may seem old-fashioned, but it has a lot going for it.
My wife and I have returned from Trafalgar's aptly-named European Whirl, whizzing through eight countries in 12 days. It was my choice - rather than a rental car and a string of motels and holiday parks.
In a car, the driver doesn't see much - eyes are, or should be, on the road. Coach passengers are up higher and see a lot more, and a tour run by a reputable firm will have a dedicated tour director as well as a driver.
When travelling independently you have to arrange for your own tickets to all the attractions (which can usually be done online) then join the queues to gain admittance. Major tour companies have arrangements to bypass the queues: they can't afford to have a bus-load of passengers waiting two or three hours to get in.
The drawbacks? A hectic tour such as European Whirl means leaving your comfortable hotel bed around 6am each day, luggage out for collection, breakfasted and in the coach usually by 8am or earlier. But look on it as an experience rather than a holiday with the goal of visiting and seeing as much as possible.
Unfortunately, one of the sad features of modern travel is very tight security. At places like the Eiffel Tower and the Vatican, there were often not just one but several x-ray machines - and heavily armed police everywhere. Don't even think about taking pictures of them.
Our tour set off from St Pancras Station in London on the Eurostar high-speed train, under the English Channel and quickly across Northern France into Belgium where the coach was waiting at Brussels station. Then it was a drive through Belgium, past the World War II battlegrounds, and into the Netherlands, stopping in Amsterdam. The evening finished with dinner aboard a boat cruising the city's famous canals.
We were in Germany on the second day, with a short cruise, passing vineyards and castles, in a region known as the Romantic Rhine, and on to the old city of Heidelberg.
Day three took us through Munich, where the famous glockenspiel, or carillon, was actually working - something that doesn't always happen, according to our travel director. We went past the 1972 Olympic Stadium, remembered for the kidnap and slaughter of Israeli athletes. Surprisingly our travel director told our 45 passengers from half a dozen countries that the Munich Games were also remembered for the famous victory by the New Zealand rowing eight. See, we're not an insignificant country after all.
Then it was through the Alps into Innsbruck, Austria, and a stroll through the old town.
The next day saw us travelling through the Brenner Pass into Italy, and our overnight destination, Venice.
We were taken by boat to the "islands" that are the historic part of the city and those who chose to had a gondola ride. The most interesting observation following this was how smelly the gondolas were.
From Venice, it was on to Rome, the Vatican, including St Peter's Basilica and the Sistine Chapel where Michelangelo painted his famous ceiling, and the Colosseum and Trevi Fountain, where the hopeful toss coins over their shoulders and make a wish. Trafalgar supplemented our travel director with a local expert overflowing with knowledge.
Preservation of the ancient Colosseum seemed a challenge, especially as a new rail line is being built underneath.
In Rome, we encountered one of the hazards of touring Europe - hordes of beggars, pickpockets and scammers. Fortunately we all came through this unscathed but a passenger on another Trafalgar bus had her handbag stolen. Our helpful travel director gave a run-down on the various tricks and kept reminding us to stay alert. Fake gladiators, grifting to get coins in return for having their photos taken, were a real turn-off.
After two nights, it was on to Florence, and particularly Michelangelo's statue of David, the Duomo (cathedral) and Ponte Vecchio bridge with its very old shops. Then came one of the highlights, albeit unexpected, travelling across the Swiss Alps into Switzerland via the St Gotthard Pass. We were due to travel through the 17km tunnel, part of a fairly new motorway, but a combination of roadworks, heavy traffic, and the procedure of only letting a few vehicles at a time meant we faced a three-to-four-hour delay at the tunnel.
Instead, we took a detour using the old route, up and over the pass, nearly 2100m above sea level, with spectacular views as we crossed into Switzerland, and Lake Lucerne. There was more mountaineering here as we rode Europe's steepest cog railway, even higher than the pass, up Mt Pilatus. The downward journey was via a recently opened gondola, carrying 50 people at a time, changing to a more conventional four-person gondola to ground level.
We finished in Paris, but not before ascending halfway up the Eiffel Tower, visiting the Arc de Triomphe and touring the city.
There was also a visit to the Palace of Versailles, the extravagant creation of Louis XIV and also remembered as the place where the treaty that ended World War I was signed. You can see the table that was used.
The final night culminated in a farewell dinner followed by a night cruise of the River Seine. Due to some clever plotting by our director, our boat was parked right alongside the tower when its spectacular light show began, shortly before 10pm.
Value for money? Definitely. Especially if - like us - it's your first sampling of Europe.
Explore Europe's countries and cities while experiencing the best of its history on Trafalgar's 12-day European Whirl guided holiday starting and finishing in London. Priced from $3995 per person twin share with departure dates year round. Includes sightseeing, guides, accommodation, many meals, transport, airport transfers and the services of a travel director. Save up to 10 per cent for travel from April 2018 for bookings and payments prior to December 14. Phone 0800 484 333.
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