Two of Travel and Sport’s operational team recently returned from Europe. Here is a condensed version of what they experienced:
We departed Johannesburg on 19 September, on a day flight to Berlin via Abu Dhabi. Etihad is a stunning airline; however the stopovers are often very long. If you prefer to travel cheap, this is the way to do it as long uncomfortable stopovers mean cheaper flights. After a 6 hour flight to Abu Dhabi, a six hour stopover and another 5 hour flight we made our way to Berlin. Anél and I purchased Berlin Welcome card, which included Zones A, B, C and Potsdam transport, both underground and trams. All busses are also included in this travel card. For individuals this is the best way to travel and there are various cost options. The Welcome Card also entitles you to discounts of various sites in Berlin. http://www.visitberlin.de/en/welcomecard.
We made our way to the youth Aletto Jugendhotels Schoneberg which is easy accessible by underground (U7). The youth hostel has various types of rooms from multi bedded rooms to twin rooms with en suite bathrooms.
After meeting our local agents Max and Mareile, we spent the day with them looking at a few other youth hostels as well as a few of the attractions that Berlin has to offer. They also assisted us with the purchase of two overnight train tickets – without them we would not be able to do this. For some reason, the average Berliner does not speak English very well.
By the end of the day 1 the two of us were completely tired and went to bed early.
Breakfast in Germany usually consists of cereals, cheese, bread and cold meats. Coffee and tea is also included and some youth hostels include yogurt, cream cheese, juice, milk and even salad.
We spent day 2 on a hop on hop of city tour bus, and we even got a little discount with the Berlin Welcome Card. In my opinion this is the best way to enjoy the sites of a big city. Most cities have this service and if you have only a little time, you get to see the most important sites.
On day 3 we travelled to Potsdam before we made our way to the train station to catch the first of 2 overnight trains. This is a well preserved cultural area and shows traditional architecture, instead of the modern post war buildings in Berlin. Again, we used a hop on hop off tour to familiarise us with this town. It is well worth one full day, especially if you plan to visit all the palaces in the area.
The train system in Germany is of a very high quality. Trains are always on time and there is most of the time somebody to help you if you are unsure. The friendly staff that booked our tickets reserved seats as well as beds which meant we knew exactly on which wagon we should be and which seats were allocated for us. The first few hours was spent in a 6 seater, sharing with 2 other people. Our Chinese friends left us in Dresden and we continued onto Prague. In Prague we had to catch another train to Krakow, stopping in Bohumin to change to an overnight train. At first the conductor seemed to understand that we needed to get off at Bohumin at 02:17 but when the time came she merely moved us to another car. So, be sure you know the facts and ask a few people. We got off on time, pulled our bags to yet another platform and made it to the sleeper wagon. We could sleep for about 4 hours, sharing with 2 other gentlemen. The wagon is uncomfortable for luggage but if you are as tired as we were, the small bed was heaven.
You will find that you almost always share with other people, multi nationalities and different sexes, unless you are 6 in the travelling party.
We arrived in Krakow and then searched for a train to Oswiecim or Auschwitz. It took us a while because even fewer people speak English in Poland. We found a train to Oswiecim and on arrival realised that there would be no bus to the Museum. We had to walk with our luggage for almost 2 km to the museum where we could luckily store our luggage for the day for about €2 or €3. But do remember that Poland does not use the Euro currency; however, some tourist attractions will accept Euros.
The Auschwitz Museum is a must! Millions of visitors go through the gates each year. The museum is comprised of two properties, one of which, Birkenau, is a shuttle bus away. The most important thing to remember is to wear comfortable shoes. You will be doing a lot of walking. The first part of the tour is around 2 ½ to 3 hours long. Then, after a break, you have the option to go to Birkenau.
After a long day at the museum we walked back, luggage and all and needed to kill some time before the final overnight train trip. Oswiecim has a shopping mall with a large grocery store and a good idea is to get a few snacks if you can. Usually our groups travel by bus and the journey is always much nicer with refreshments.
Our overnight train departed at 22:50, and thank goodness we were able to sleep for around 6 hours. Arriving in Prague, we purchased a 72 hour travel pass which included underground, trams and buses. Don’t try to change money at the station. You will pay a very high rate. Change money in the city at a bank. But again, some tourist attractions will accept Euros.
We made our way from the main station to the AE Youth Hostel Prague. A short walk from an underground station we found the building. From the outside a little run down but there is definitely construction and repairs in progress. The hostel inside is of a high standard and the staff is friendly and helpful.
Luckily the room was ready and we could have a long overdue shower. Our room was private but with a shared bathroom with 1 other twin room. This is often the setup in a youth hostel. We spent the rest of the day walking through the old town of Prague, orientating ourselves and having a light meal. The next day we enjoyed a breakfast much the same as the breakfast in Germany. We gathered with hundreds of other tourists in the town square and joined a so called free walking city tour. Don’t let this fool you – they expect a tip at the end of the trip. The walking tour takes you through the old town, explaining a few interesting facts and a few funny stories. There is a stop at a local restaurant/take away for lunch and then the tour end at a convenient spot near the Charles Bridge. The 3 hour walking tour is absolutely worth tipping for. We each gave the guide €5… which is the standard amount most participants gave.
We spent the rest of the day crossing the Charles Bridge, enjoying a coffee and pastry at a local spot and viewed some of the many shops.
The next morning we had some free time before travelling to Prague airport to catch our flight to Venice.
On arrival in Venice, we were met by the local guide and we travelled to the hotel by Water Taxi. A sudden downpour meant that we could not enjoy the trip on the outside of the boat, but it was a really fun welcome!
The Hotel Salute is used by most of our groups. It is centrally situated but of course with any of the Venice hotels, a considerable amount of boat transfer is needed. Therefore, for an individual it is ideal to walk, and groups have easy access to Vaparetto transfers. We enjoyed a pizza and a glass of wine and went to bed early.
After breakfast (which usually in Italy consists of more sweet things than savoury) Ciara met us for site inspections in Venice. We visited various hotels and the youth hostel and also saw the main sites in Venice. She told us that our groups enjoy the shopping and usually do not have enough time for this during their stay – which is probably not bad, seeing that parents usually feel the gap in the budget later.
The next morning we travelled by water taxi to the train station to catch our short train journey to Florence. The station is very busy and there are hundreds of people arriving and departing each day.
In Florence we walked a short way to the Hotel Corona which is very centrally located but not always used for our groups. The hotel Leonardo da Vinci is mostly used and this is still very central. We were met by the local guide Paula, who escorted us to a few hotels and the main sites of Florence. There are many leather shops and stalls and you will get very good prices for genuine leather products. We enjoyed another pizza and wine dinner after enjoying the warm weather outside.
The next morning we climbed the stairs to the top of the Duomo. We realised after the first 50 stairs that a group would not be able to do this activity. The passage is very narrow and dark. However, this was certainly the 436 stairs worth it.
We also discovered the fresh produce market where you really get the sense of Italy. It is well worth while to spend some time here, taste the food and enjoy the atmosphere.
From Florence we travelled by train to Rome. The Rome station is once again very busy as it connects Rome with many cities and modes of transport. We checked in at the centrally located Hotel Nord. Also, popular with American groups what not usually used for Travel and Sport groups. We checked in and had a late stroll not far from the hotel.
The next morning we were met by our local guide, Loredana, who gave us the usual city tour that our groups partake in.
When visiting any cathedral or holy site, your shoulders and knees should be covered. It is always a good idea to carry a scarf with you, just in case your attire is not customary. Locals sell scarves and umbrellas and to avoid spending unnecessary money, carry your own scarf and umbrella.
Our last day before departure was spent by visiting various hotels and youth hostels that are all used by our groups. After the site visit I went to visit the Vatican Museum which is a must when travelling to Rome. Just remember that you are not allowed to take a back pack or large luggage into the museum. Student cards offer discount on entrance fees and head sets are on offer. This is recommended as the museum is very extensive and one needs some extra information. September/October is very busy so try to keep in mind that the visit will take a lot of time.
After a long day of walking our last day ended with take away Lasagne.
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We would like to thank Steven van Zyl and Travel and Sport for giving staff the opportunity to visit agents and hotels. Looking forward to sending you many groups, Italy!