On his first visit to the Northern Hemisphere, Josh Price finds Europe lives up to its history and its hype.
I'm the type to try and fight stereotypes, I like to prove them wrong out of the stubbornness of being different. I wanted to believe I wouldn't be wooed by the basilicas, the street music, the food. After all, it's just a building? Just a sound? Just food? Isn't it?
It seems it is not. The more I tried to fight it, the more I loved everything my first Europe experience — a guided holiday from Madrid to Rome; five countries, 13 days — had to offer.
It was hectic, but amazing.
Our group came from all over the US, Canada, Australia and our own backyard in search of a great time and a cultural infusion of European sights, sounds, tastes and smells.
With the exception of the odd marginal political conversation, everyone was fun, keen for a laugh and as interested in me as the cities we visited.
We started in Madrid and, gathering late on the first day, tired from our respective travels to the Spanish capital, we enjoyed a much-needed relaxed first evening.
Heading from our hotel down one of the main drags, Paseo de la Castellana, past Real Madrid's home turf, the Bernabeu, we relaxed into a quiet little restaurant for our first taste of local tapas. It's always awkward sharing a meal with people you don't know, but the Spanish know a sharing plate — supported by some local wine and beer — helps break the ice.
Here are some of my highlights from the many stops on our jam-packed itinerary.
Don't miss the Plaza Mayor, a former bullfighting ring that is now the main square of the city.
Walking through at dusk with buskers playing left, right and centre you can't help but smile. I'm not sure I've had a more pleasant walk.
Zaragoza is cleverly situated between Madrid and Barcelona and prevents a whole day of coach travel. While the city doesn't have much, its basilica is worth a visit. I was fortunate enough to hear a children's choir sing when I visited and later enjoyed the impressive lighting from the comforts of the hotel rooftop pool as the sun set.
Catalan flags flying outside of windows meant we had arrived in Barcelona. Our first stop was at Montjuic, a hill where the city built a grand museum for the World Trade Fair in 1929, and also hosted the Olympics in 1992. The views from the top were fantastic, you could see the sea off into the distance, the sprawling city below and even the Basilica Sagrada de Familia. We saw it up close, too, and it's jaw-dropping. The detail in the work is so precise that the closer you get the more impressed you become.
An evening flamenco show was like nothing I'd ever seen. Picture hundreds of us jammed into a small room to watch the dancers accompanied by some talented guitarists and singers, whose voices I can only liken to a long groan. The combination created a truly unique show.
Maybe it was my own naivety but I was hoping for a bit more fanfare as I crossed the border into France. I soon learned that most border crossings in Western Europe are rather discreet.
Our first stop was at the Pont du Gard, a Unesco World Heritage site that was once an aqueduct, then a bridge, and now a postcard picture. The fresh, clean water flowing below was perfect for an afternoon dip to escape the soaring summer temperatures.
Avignon has a castle wall still surrounding the old town, having protected the former Papal palace, where popes lived in the 14th century after leaving Rome for security purposes. It is well worth a visit, as is the Avignon Bridge. While it's famously known for going nowhere, it is picturesque, and on our summer visit, was surrounded by lavender in full bloom.
Nostalgia was aplenty in Monaco, where I had the thrill of driving along the streets I once raced on my Formula One game on PlayStation. Of course, our coach wasn't quite as sleek and fast as the other vehicles frequenting the hillside, however, it did manage to work its way up to the famous Rock of Monaco. There we enjoyed marvellous views from the palace, from where you can see the multi-million dollar boats in the harbour, the city's famous casino and the luxurious apartments oozing wealth.
Doubling back to Nice for the night, I headed straight for the famous Esplanade, where I discovered a hive of activity — two weddings, thousands of sunbathers, cyclists galore and a number of water's edge restaurants. Perhaps the best appreciation of the Esplanade, however, is from Colline du Chateau at the eastern end. It's worth the hike up the steep hillside to see the Esplanade stretching out for kilometres, more multi-million dollar boats docked in the marina, and a chance to grasp the true size of the city and the bank accounts of those based there.
Visiting Europe in peak season amazed and heightened each and every sense. I loved the experience, getting caught up in the beautiful architecture, the great food, the wonderful views and the rich history. I wondered if I would be wooed by Europe, and I certainly was. My next trip is already in the making, because Europe really does live up to the hype.
Having seen the Colosseum in countless photos, standing inside the arena looking down was incredible and my imagination went into overdrive. I could easily imagine tens of thousands of people screaming down at the gladiators on the sand.
The Vatican however, disappointed. An endless maze of pushing and shoving through crowds to look for seconds at an incredible piece of art hardly did it justice. I found it better to look up. The roof of the gold-tinted hallway leading to the Sistine Chapel was covered in jaw-dropping artwork, cleverly joined together like a jigsaw, and to me, was more impressive than the Sistine Chapel itself where the guards were kept busy screaming "No pictures!" despite clear signage. Hordes of people in confined spaces are clearly not my thing.
Florence and Pisa
The border crossing into Italy was nondescript. We were in Pisa to see one thing, and my first thought at seeing the building that I had seen a thousand times in pictures before was: "Well that's going to fall over." The Leaning Tower is truly mesmerising. It took a good 15 minutes to comprehend, and then before long I found myself questioning if there is a lean at all.
From Pisa to pizza, I learned quickly that waiting for food in Italy while others eat around you is tough going. Hunger is amplified, and your sense of smell becomes heightened, detecting the food before you can see it. Then the taste — simple flavours done so, so well. It's enough to make you question how fast-food "pizza" can even be categorised that way in NZ.
Picture martial arts mixed with football and fireworks at sunset on the river's edge, and you've got a pretty good picture of how spectacular our first night in Florence was. With our arrival coinciding with the final of the Firenze Football tournament, I got caught up in the crowds as they gathered around the river's edge, curiously waiting around under the impression that the beautiful sunset reflecting off the water was the attraction. That is, until the moment it became dark and a 25-minute fireworks display erupted into life, cheered on by the thousands.
The city of Florence continued to impress. The basilica is a gorgeous building made of red, green and white marble that, despite being due a restoration, was stunning.
The famous Florence bridge, the only one not destroyed by the Nazis as they retreated north during World War II, has former homes turned into gold shops from start to finish.
It's very pretty and unusual. Finally, cross the river to the main lookout over the city. The hill will take it out of you, but it's worth it to stare out at the terracotta city.
Our last night in Florence also happened to be the best of the trip. Nestled in the Tuscan hillside, summer smells all around, we enjoyed an exclusive dinner at a local winery.
We were served blue Prosecco that tasted better than any French Champagne I've ever tried, all while being serenaded by two fantastic guitarists and a woman with a stunning operatic voice. Spirits were so high we drank deep into the evening.
's 13-day Madrid to Rome itinerary, priced from $3550pp, twin share.