Why you should take a trip to the top of Europe, The Jungfraujoch

One of the optional excursions on the Europe Jewel tour when you are in Switzerland is a train trip to the Jungfraujoch where the Sphinx vantage terrace sits at 3571 metres above sea level, and where on a clear day you have spectacular panoramic views across the Alps. (Words and photos by Jo Castro.)

Jungfrau Map

So this is a map of where you go on the train. What a trip!

It’s an amazing trip, and although the holiday town of Interlaken, where we stayed, is drop-dead gorgeous, the Jungfrau rail trip really emphasises the majesty of the mountains, plus it’s an incredible engineering project too.

As an optional tour, it’s up to you whether you decide to book or not, but I know that despite adverse weather conditions, I would have had serious FOMO (fear of missing out!) had I not embarked on this amazing expedition to the very top of Switzerland.

On top of Europe
After a wow-a-minute 2 hour train journey (on three trains) the sign that greets you as you enter the Jungfraujoch station is “Welcome to the top of Europe” and you certainly feel on top of the world. You may also feel some effect of the high altitude – I found that fast walking suddenly became a bit more of an effort.

The train steadily climbs towards the top of the Jungfraujoch leaving picturesque Swiss towns and villages way down in the valleys below.

The train steadily climbs towards the top of the Jungfraujoch leaving picturesque Swiss towns and villages way down in the valleys below.

Permanent Snow Scenes
This Alpine tour offers much more than just a train ride to the top, although the train ride is itself part of the objective.

Far reaching snow filled views across France, Germany and Italy are your reward on a clear day, although you are pretty much guaranteed snow at any time of the year.

Snowy scenes on the way up to Jungfrau

The scenery became ever more snowy as the train wound its way higher.

We took the tour in late April on a cold day of mist, rain and snow. We hoped the weather forecast would be wrong, but it wasn’t and at the top the views we had anticipated consisted only of walls of white, and more white!

Did it worry us? No, not a bit because Expat Explorers from countries where no snow falls, quickly fell into snow angel poses in the powdery white stuff on the Sphinx Terrace and a snowball fight broke out between Colombia and Malaysia!

Alpine Sensation
Those of us who had seen snow before enjoyed being caught in a thick snow storm as we changed trains, and also enjoyed discovering the many exhibits at the summit – such as the Ice Palace, the Alpine Sensation, the Jungfrau-Panorama and the gift shops (think Lindt chocolate!) as well as learning about the construction of this amazing station and the research facility high up amongst the mountain tops.

Getting there
We witnessed swirling clouds, thick mist and high waterfalls as we rode up on a train which was not busy and had a distinct absence of skis and ski poles stacked in the baggage areas – because the winter ski season had just finished.

However, an air of expectation and excitement hung heavy in the air as rugged-up passengers contemplated a journey to the very top of Switzerland, and we began the steep awe-inspiring ascent with big smiles on our faces.

Jungfrau scenery

These are some of the scenes you might be able to see on a clear day. Our day consisted of snow and more snow, without the Alpine scenery you can see pictured behind me.

What to expect
On a clear day the Jungfraujoch is a fairy-tale world of ice and caves, and you could have a view of the Aletsch Glacier, the largest ice stream in the Alps which is around 22 kilometres in length and covers an area of around 80 square kilometres.

On days without clouds or snow you can also expect fantastic views over the borders of Swizerland to the Vosges Mountains in France and the Black Forest in Germany.

The Train Ride
From my journal: “We leave the beautiful town of Interlaken and pass forests, gushing rivers and tumbling waterfalls before changing trains at Lauterbrunnen for the first ascent, and then later we change trains again at Kleine Scheidegg.”

Tip: Kleine Scheidegg is at the foot of the Eiger’s North Wall. It’s the watershed between two Lutschinen Valleys and it’s a meeting point for Alpine herdsmen and climbers attempting the Eiger.

From my journal: “Long sheer drops and spectacular views of hillsides dotted with picturesque, picture postcard perfect houses and spring flowers are the first things we begin snapping photos of as we are able to pull down the windows on the train to take photos.

We are on the Wengernalp Railway which boasts the longest stretch of cogwheel railway in Switzerland (19.3 kilometres) and because of the snow, I’m glad of the cogs and the snow plough on front of the train :)

We wrap our jackets tight around us against the snow, and those of us in trainers wish, as we sink deep into the white stuff, that we had worn waterproof shoes!”

There are two picture stops as we pass through a tunnel hewn out of rock; at the Eiger Wall or Eigerwan and at the Sea of Ice or Eismeer. In good weather you can expect panoramic views of the Eiger North Wall and over the glaciers from large windows that have been cut into the tunnel walls and on clear days you can expect spectacular views. There are also toilets at these stops.

Temperature gauge, Jungfrau

Yes, it really was cold at the top! Take warm clothes, hats and gloves.

From my journal: “When we left Florence yesterday the temperature was 27 degrees Celcius, and now past Wengen it’s snowing and below zero. Big white flakes clump on the branches of pine trees as we climb higher and higher, and the fields have changed from deep green to white. We seem to be heading into a wonderland of cloud and snow, windows are snapped shut and jackets zipped up. Soft, shimmering, pastel hue’d Tuscany this is not! It’s white, bright and mysterious as we head upwards into the clouds.”

What is there to do?
The Jungfrau trip really consists of three main things:

1. The interesting and scenic train journey.

2. The exhibits, tunnels, ice sculptures and snow experience.

3. The incredible views (on a clear day).

Jungfrau train

3 trains, and two changes across snowy stations during our incredible journey to the top.

Alpine Sensation
This is a 250 metre long tunnel between the Sphinx Hall and the Ice Palace and it’s called the Alpine Sensation Round-Tour Subway.

In the Sphinx Hall a panoramic 360 degree audio visual takes visitors into the high Alpine world around the Jungfraujoch with a 4 minute audio cinematic journey through the world of ice, rocks and snow of the region.

Then you’ll walk through tunnels to a hall decorated with Edelweiss lights and a Little Switzerland display, before moving walkways take you past a mural illustrating the development of tourism in the Alps. There are historic photos telling you about the construction of the railway and information about the ground breaking vision of Adolf Guyer-Zeller the builder of the Jungfrau Railway. There’s also a bridge through Europe’s highest altitude karst cave.

Jungfrau ice cave

Ice Palace tunnels, like an underground labyrinth.

The Ice Palace
I really enjoyed the amazing ice tunnels and sculptures of the Ice Palace an enormous cavern hewn from ice in the glacier itself. It was begun in 1934 and now it’s like a maze, covering an area of over 1000 square metres with large and small passageways and ice sculptures; penguins, eagles and a sculpture of Sherlock Holmes are just a few.

Jungfrau ice sculptures

Ice Palace sculptures. The caverns and nooks and crannies in the ice palace are chilly but the sculptures are awesome.

Retail therapy and Food glorious Food!
Within the complex you’ll find 5 Restaurants, several shops and a post office – the highest in Europe! You can buy souvenirs, Swiss watches and Lindt chocolate under the ‘Top of Europe’ brand.

The Sphinx Terrace
The Sphinx Terrace is reached by a fast lift that takes you to the Sphinx Observatory in 27 seconds. The vantage terrace can, on clear days, give you a great view over the Aletsch Glacier, to Vosge in France and across to Germany’s Black Forest too.

Sphinx observation deck

This is a picture of one of the posters at the station of the set up at the top of the Jungfrau. As you can see, on a clear day the views would be incredible.

Snowballs and Snowmen
Have fun in the snow – throw a snowball, make snow angels, build a snowman! If you’ve never seen snow, you’ll be sure of finding some at Jungfraujoch.

Walks and Hikes
If the weather had been fine we would have liked to do the Jungfrau Eiger Walk – This is around 3 kilometres in length and the uphill walk will take you about 1 hour, downhill about 45 minutes. It’s a hiking trail from the Eigergletscher station to Klein Scheidegg. Apparently it gives you an insight into the tough conditions of the Eiger. One of the focal points of the Eiger legend, the historic Mittellegi Hut, which was erected on the northeast ridge of the Eiger in 1924 and was a refuge for generations of alpinists, gives today’s hikers an idea of what it was like for the generations of climbers who used it as a sanctuary.

Snow on the way to Jungfrau

Sheila our tour leader giving us a happy smile from the carriage behind us, during a snow storm.

What if it’s snowing?
If it’s cloudy and snowing you won’t have great views from the top, but it was cold and misty when we visited and we still managed to have a fun time and enjoyed the snowy journey on the train, just witnessing the incredible engineering of the railway, and the exhibits at the top.

Fast Facts
The Jungfrau Region is in the heart of the Bernese Oberland stretching from the town of Interlaken to the snow capped summits of the Jungfrau massif about 18 kilometres away.

First pencil sketches of the railway were drawn by Swiss industrial magnate Adolf Guyer-Zeller in 1893. He had an idea while on a hike to blast a tunnel through the rock of the Eiger and Monch and construct a cogwheel railway to the Jungfrau summit. Europe’s highest altitude railway at 3454 metres opened on 1 August 1912 after 16 years’ construction.

On peak days the Jungfrau Railway makes up to 110 journeys bween Klein Scheidegg and the Jungfrau in both directions and in summer the trains run to a half hourly schedule.
The Ice palace can move up to 15 centimetres per year and has to be constantly recut. Due to the warmth generated by thousands of visitors it has to be constantly cooled to minus three degrees.

The Sphinx ridge was named because of its similarity with the figure from Greek and Egyptian mythology. Between 1936 and 1937 a two storey building was erected on the Sphinx rock and after several additions the current vantage hall was added to the observatory in 1996 giving visitors panoramic views in all weathers, inside or outside.

Swiss Highland Single Malt whisky is matured in an ice grotto on the Jungfraujoch. Only around one thousand 50 cl bottles of this limited cask are available for sale per year.

Disclaimer: Jo’s trip to the Jungfraujoch was courtesy of Jungfrau Railways and Expat Explore.

Jo Castro is a freelance travel writer. She’s resident in Western Australia and she’s lived in 11 different countries on 4 continents with her geologist husband and two children. You can find her on her blogs Lifestyle Fifty (inspiration and lifestyle) and The ZigaZag Mag (travel and Western Australia) or on Twitter @johannaAcastro. Connect with her on Facebook at Lifestyle Fifty (http://www.facebook.com/lifestylefifty) or The ZigaZag Mag (http://www.facebook.com/thezigazagmag). Join her on Instagram at Lifestyle Fifty http://www.instagram.com/lifestylefifty

Interlaken

We were at Interlaken in Springtime and the flowers around the town were beautiful.

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Sailing the Maldives on a Sailing Safari

The Maldives is undeniably beautiful – everyone knows that. But if you’ve got an itch to see some of the world’s most beautiful tropical beaches, eat incredible seafood, dive some of the world’s most stunning reefs and even have a chance to learn about local life and customs… then there’s a new way to do all that with a Maldives Sailing Safari.

The Felicity at sunset, the Maldives

The Felicity at sunset, the Maldives

What is a Maldives Sailing Safari?

When you think of a Maldives holiday, you probably think of turquoise waters, dazzling coral reefs with abundant sea-life, palm trees swaying in the wind, lazy days spent on the beach soaking up the sun… and being largely confined to a resort. And you’d be right! Except for the last part that is. Now there’s an easier way to travel to the Maldives, and to see more of the islands and experience more of the culture than ever before.

Enjoying a meal on board the Felicity, the Maldives

Enjoying a meal on board the Felicity, the Maldives

A Maldives Sailing Safari is the ideal way to spend your holiday in the Maldives. Setting off from Male, the nation’s capital, you’ll set sail for North Male atoll, stopping in Himmafushi, the Goidhoo Atoll, Eydafushi and Mendhoo Island before returning to Male. Over 8 days, there’s simply no better way to relax, see the sights and appreciate the local culture.

Local Experiences

Learn to fish the traditional way on your Maldives Sailing Safari

Learn to fish the traditional way on your Maldives Sailing Safari

On your all-inclusive Maldives sailing tour you’ll have the chance to visit local villages, accompanied by a local guide. Learn about how the distinctive local boat – the dhoni – is built, get a feel for local life and sample local food too! Plus, you’ll have the chance to learn how to fish using traditional methods under the tutelage of local fisherman.

Sailing

Sunset from the foredeck of the Felicity

Sunset from the foredeck of the Felicity

Travelling between islands as we do on board the ‘Felicity’, you’ll have time to sun-bathe on deck and take in the incredible scenery. Look out for dolphins! What’s more, the Felicity is equipped with air-conditioned cabins, a PADI dive centre set up on a dhoni, windsurf / canoe / dinghy, and a TV & music library (just in case).

Island life

Diving in the Maldives

Diving in the Maldives

Of course, the Maldives is known for its pristine beaches. You’ll have more than enough time to relax and soak up the sun! For those with a little more energy, head into the water and go snorkelling, swimming or diving – the Felicity features a PADI dive centre. You also won’t need to compromise on comfort. The Felicity’s accommodation includes 4 double and 3 twin cabins – all air-conditioned and with en-suite bathrooms.

A double cabin on board the Felicity

A double cabin on board the Felicity

So if you thought that traveling to the Maldives was all about being confined to sanitised (boring) resorts – think again. There’s a new way to see the Maldives, with all of the sun, sea and relaxation, and loads more fun.

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Video of the Week: Barcelona GO!

Barcelona – the Catalan capital and an epicentre of cultural marvels, cuisine, history and hedonism – makes it into our Video of the Week with this unique look at the city by filmmaker Rob Whitworth. Have a peek and enjoy this fresh look at a city with soul!

Barcelona GO! from Rob Whitworth on Vimeo.

Whether you’ve been to Barcelona or not, this is one video that’s sure to inspire you to visit. Profiling some of the city’s most famous sites and managing to capture something of its frenetic pace, cultural riches and even the fascinating ambience of the winding alleyways, this is a brilliant introduction to one of our favourite places! Look out for the following attractions:

Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya
Gran Teater del Liceu
Sagrada Familia
Museu D’Historia De Barcelona
Palau de la Música
Santa Maria del Pi

Blessed with a fantastically warm and sunny climate, historical marvels (including striking architecture by the legendary Antoni Gaudi) a vibrant night-club culture, bustling boutiques and a cuisine all its own, Barcelona makes for a fascinating destination – and Whitworth’s film is a fitting tribute to the colour, creativity and culture of Barcelona.

Read more about Barcelona by clicking the Barcelona tag. And visit Barcelona on one of our coach tours of Europe!

 

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Living large: outdoor adventures in Switzerland

Switzerland is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise! Forget skyscapers – do some sky-scraping of your own with unforgettable adventures in one of the world’s most picturesque environments. Here’s a selection of activities to try on your coach tour of Switzerland.

Taking in the view at Jungfraujoch.

Taking in the view at Jungfraujoch.

Jungfraujoch – The Top of Europe

As the highest train station in all of Europe (standing at an incredible 3471m), Jungfrau offers just the kind of views that you’d expect – provided the weather is good. But on a clear day, you can see an incredible amount. From the weather station at the summit, cast your gaze towards the nearby valley, where a glacier carves its way slowly down the mountain. There are also the trademark Swiss villages nestled far below, and a glorious panorama of rocky peaks all around. At this height, there’s always snow on the ground, meaning you can enjoy snowball fights in the middle of summer!

But it’s not just the view from the top that deserves a mention. The train-ride to the top is just as memorable! Verdant green valleys give way to snowy peaks, and picture-perfect villages hug the mountain-side. If you’re heading up in the winter season, you’ll almost certainly spot skiers and snowboarders carving up the piste. Make sure you have your camera at the ready – this is one train-ride that you’ll want to remember for a long time to come.

Take the ride to Jungfraujoch on any of our tours of Switzerland!

River Rafting

River-rafting in Switzerland.

River-rafting in Switzerland. Photo courtesy of Outdoor Interlaken

If you prefer keeping things a little more down to earth, but with a little more of an adrenaline rush, you might want to try river rafting! With four different journeys to choose from (varying from tranquil river drifting to white-water rafting suitable for confident swimmers only) you’re sure to find a rafting journey to suit you! The Swiss countryside is an alpine paradise, and this is one of the best ways to experience it!

Canyoning

Canyoning in Switzerland

Canyoning in Switzerland. Photo courtesy of Outdoor Interlaken

Canyoning is hugely enjoyable and appeals to those looking for that heart-pounding adrenaline rush – but it’s not exclusively for the adrenaline junkies! With three courses on offer in Interlaken, Grimsel and Chli Schliere, there’s definitely something for everyone, ranging in length from half-day courses to full-day courses that really get the blood pumping. Test your limits with rappelling, jumps, slides and ziplines into crystal-clear pools. It’s a great way to get up close and personal with nature!

Skydiving

Skydiving, Switzerland

This could be you! (If you’re into that sort of thing.) Skydiving in Switzerland. Photo courtesy of Outdoor Interlaken

If you’ve ever been tempted to go skydiving, now is the time to do it! With a 20-minute scenic flight, a heart-stopping 45-second freefall and a short canopy flight, this will be an unforgettable experience! Especially since you’re doing it in one of the most beautiful alpine environments on earth! Choose from tandem airplane jumps from 4000m or 4600m, or do a helicopter jump from 3700m!

Paragliding

Paragliding in Switzerland

Soar above the pristine Swiss countryside and enjoy an unbeatable view! Paragliding, Switzerland. Photo courtesy of Outdoor Interlaken.

Enjoy panoramic views of the Swiss Alps as you soar above the treetops – definitely one of the best ways to experience the stunning scenery of the Jungfrau region. With experienced pilots to guide you, you’ll have a smooth ride from take-off to landing. If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to fly, this is about as close as you’ll get – an unforgettable experience!

Find out more about river rafting, canyoning, skydiving and paragliding in Switzerland with Outdoor Interlaken.

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Things to see on a guided tour of the Vatican City

Serving as the seat of papal power for centuries, The Vatican City is a must-see on any visit to Rome, packed with monuments, fascinating history and unforgettable sights. So what are some of the highlights to look out for? Expat Explore investigates…

St Peter's Square, The Vatican

St Peter’s Square, The Vatican.

Even though it’s the smallest country in the world (covering just over 100 acres), the Vatican City is one of the world’s most important religious sites, governed as an absolute monarchy with the pope at its head. But don’t be fooled by its small size. The history of the Vatican has left it with incredible artworks and religious monuments, worth seeing no matter what you believe. Here’s a guide to some of the most important parts to see:

St Peter’s Basilica

St Peter's Basilica, The Vatican City

St Peter’s Basilica, The Vatican City

After a catastrophic fire in 64AD, Emperor Nero blamed the blaze on the local Christians, who he then had burned at the stake, ravaged by wild animals and crucified. (One would have thought that just one of these would have been enough, right?) One of those executed was St Peter – a disciple of Jesus Christ, and the first official bishop of Rome. By the 4th century, things had changed significantly between the Roman emperors and the church, and Emperor Constantine began construction of the original basilica over the site where St Peter was believed to have been buried – which was also an ancient Roman necropolis. Today’s basilica, built in the 1500s, sits over a maze of catacombs and St Peter’s suspected tomb.

The largest church in the world, St Peter’s is considered one of the holiest of Catholic sites, and is hugely important historically and artistically.

The Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel, The Vatican City

The Sistine Chapel, The Vatican City

Commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV in the 15th Century, the chapel now welcomes around 25 000 people a day! The main attraction of course, is Michelangelo’s frescoes which adorn the interior. Commissioned by Pope Julius II, Michelangelo took four years to complete the work, starting in July 1508 and finishing in October 1512. Contrary to some theories, he wasn’t lying on his back when he painted the ceiling – instead, an enormous platform was erected at a height that would allow him to walk upright around while painting. Consider too that while painting, Michelangelo had no way of seeing the work he was doing from below. He somehow managed to paint these images on a vast scale from a distance of just a few inches. True genius!

This is also where the papal election takes place – a hugely important building in the Vatican complex.

The Obelisk in St Peter’s Square

The obelisk (see main image above) which doubles as an enormous sundial, was captured by the Emperor Caligula and transported from Heliopolis, Egypt, where it had been erected for an Egyptian pharaoh around 3000 years ago. Originally placed in the circus at the base of Vatican Hill (where Nero is believed to have executed those pesky Christians), it was moved to St Peter’s Square in 1586. Weighing more than 350 tons, that was no mean feat.

The Swiss Guard

The Swiss Guard in uniform, The Vatican City

The Swiss Guard in uniform, The Vatican City

Easily recognisable in their multi-coloured Renaissance-era garb, the Swiss Guard has been protecting popes since 1506 when Pope Julius hired one of the Swiss mercenary forces for his protection. And don’t be fooled by their strange outfits – the Swiss Guards are known for their marksmanship and extensive training.

INTERESTING FACT: The church of San Paolo fuori le Mura in Rome, built where St Paul was buried after his execution in AD 67, has images of all the popes since St Peter. According to legend, the world will come to an end when room for another portrait runs out. There are just seven spaces left after Pope Benedict XVI…

Have you been to The Vatican? What was your favourite part? Organise your tour of the Vatican City on any of our tours which visit Rome.

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Photo of the Day: The Cliffs of Moher, Ireland

The Cliffs of Moher are one of Ireland’s most famous attractions. And when you see our picture of the day it’s easy to see why!

Cliffs of Moher, Ireland

The incredible Cliffs of Moher on a beautiful day in Ireland.

Rising majestically from the churning sea below, the Cliffs of Moher on the west coast of Ireland stand about 120 meters high at Hag’s Head. Offering some of the most dramatic coastal views around, visitors can see the Aran Islands in Galway Bay, the Maumturks and Twelve Pins mountain ranges to the north in County Galway, and Loop Head to the south.

Taking their name from Fort Moher which once stood on Hag’s Head, the cliffs receive almost a million visitors each year. It’s also home to around 20 different bird species!

You may have seen the cliffs on screen too – including appearances in fantasy classic ‘The Princess Bride’ and ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’, and in two episodes of British comedy classic ‘Father Ted’.

Visit the Cliffs of Moher with us on our Irish Explorer tour!

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Ice-Wine and River Cruising in Germany’s Rhine Valley

Sticking with the ‘cruise’ theme, here’s a throwback to a visit to Boppard, Germany a few weeks ago on the Europe Jewel tour. Taking a Rhine River Cruise is one of the best ways to see the region!

Rhine Valley, Germany

Cruising the Rhine Valley. The Rhine has the highest concentration of medieval castles in Europe.

The Rhine River meanders through some of Germany’s most dramatic landscapes, and boarding a river cruise allows one to really see the best of it. Along with the craggy cliffs, hillside vineyards (the source of the region’s famous ice-wine) forests and idyllic villages, this stretch of the river is home to more medieval castles than any other region in Europe!

Cruising the Rhine Valley, Germany

Enjoy the view of the Rhine Valley on your river cruise. Look out for vineyards, and castles of course!

Although some stand in ruins, many of the castles have been lovingly restored, reminders of a time when cruising down the river was a far less tranquil experience. Back in the day, barons, bishops, knights and princes of the region extorted tolls from merchant ships, blocking the river with iron chains. Luckily you’ll have no such worries these days! The region was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002.

A few of our passengers enjoying the sunshine as we drift through the Rhine Valley.

A few of our passengers enjoying the sunshine as we drift through the Rhine Valley.

Admire the view of the castles, and keep a look-out for the terraced vineyards – later on you’ll have a chance to taste the region’s unique wine selection. The process of producing these wines is unique to the area, and there’s a good reason why it’s called ‘ice-wine’ (or ‘Eiswein’ in German): the grapes are left on the vines until the temperature is cold enough to freeze them; a process which alters the structure of the sugars in the grape, drastically changing the flavour profile too. So what one ends up with is a completely unique, sweet wine. Ideal as an aperitif or a dessert wine!

Enjoy a Rhine Valley Cruise on our coach tours of Europe!

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Cruising Amsterdam’s Canals

One of the best ways of seeing the charming city of Amsterdam is to catch a canal cruise. I recently spent an unforgettable evening messing about in boats on the canals of Amsterdam as part of our Europe Jewel tour, and discovered a whole new side to the city. Read on for details!

 

Amsterdam Canal Cruise

Tour leader Carly looks on as we drift along Amsterdam’s canals. The perfect way to see the city!

As the spring sunshine began to fade into twilight, we boarded our canal cruise in Amsterdam, near the famous Rijksmuseum. The day had been long and warm, the kind of afternoon that can easily drift by as you watch the world bustle past from a shady vantage point. With its glass roof and large windows, the canal cruiser gave us the best of the view as we threaded our way through the labyrinth of Amsterdam’s canal system, ably piloted by our captain, Paul.

Amsterdam Canal Cruise

Tour leader Aga chats to our travellers on the Amsterdam Canal Cruise. What a perfect afternoon!

One of the things that stood out to me most in Amsterdam was just how uniquely residents have adapted to moving around. The waterways are the lifeblood of the city, providing a tranquil counterpoint to the population’s comings and goings, as they buzz about on bicycles, mopeds and scooters. A Canal Cruise the ideal way to see a good chunk of the city, including some of its most memorable landmarks. Take note of your favourites and come back later to explore!

Amsterdam Canal Cruise

Locals use the canals as a fast way to get from place to place. What a way to travel!

The other great thing about the canal cruise is that it’s far easier to take in the architecture of the city than it is as a pedestrian. As anyone who has strolled Amsterdam’s streets and alleys knows, one really has to keep an eye on traffic! The canal cruise is the perfect way to relax and unwind after a day of pounding the pavement.

Amsterdam Canal Cruise

A family takes an afternoon boat ride on the canals.

I was so fortunate to take the cruise on a clear day, the sun slanting at just the right angle, illuminating the city for a moment before giving way to a typically vibrant evening in the city. The distinctive skinny buildings appeared even prettier than usual, and it was a real treat to see life unfold, with barges and cruisers floating past, and families nipping past us in their motorboats. We enjoyed pizza and ice-cream on board, the perfect way to round off the day!

Amsterdam Canal Cruise

As we disembarked, the sun began to set – what a great way to end a fabulous day!

Board an Amsterdam Canal Cruise with Expat Explore – including dinner! You’ll also learn about the history of the city and details about famous landmarks as you drift along. Click here for more information!

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10 Reasons to book an Expat Explore Tour

Freelance travel writer Jo Castro recently travelled with us on our Europe Jewel tour. Here are 10 reasons why she thinks we’re simply better…

You get to meet new friends and have lots of laughs on an Expat Explore trip. Sheila our wonderful Tour Leader is second from left guiding us up to Belvedere Fort in Florence after a lunch that included some Cianti :)

Before we picked Expat Explore we’d done quite a lot of research about other tours and companies. We’d been to the Perth Travel Expo in Australia to begin our research and came across companies offering tours for 18 – 35 year olds for keen for a bit of partying with some culture thrown in, and tours for older people which by comparison seemed a little too five star, or too sedate for us.

Nothing we discovered quite fitted our criteria. Some tours went to too many places, others didn’t tick the places we wanted to see, some were too short and some were too long.

Yes, it was a bit like trying to please Goldilocks and The Three Bears!

I didn't really need a guide book in Prague because the guided architectural city tour we went on  took in all the main sights. We had coffee at this pretty spot beneath towering old buildings. If you want to book a tour then check out the tour guides who stand with big colourful umbrellas under the Astronomical Clock.

I didn’t really need a guide book in Prague because the guided architectural city tour we went on took in all the main sights. We had coffee at this pretty spot beneath towering old buildings. If you want to book a tour then check out the tour guides who stand with big colourful umbrellas under the Astronomical Clock.

We were looking for certain specifics:
A tour that went to 90% of the places we wanted to visit in the time we had available.

A tour that catered to varied age ranges.

A tour that would include a little nightlife, but not all-out partying.

A tour company that looked stable and offered certain guarantees – such as guaranteed departures – important as our leave could not be changed.

Why we’re glad we booked with Expat Explore
As we’ve always been fairly intrepid travellers, we first thought that booking a coach tour was a bit of a cop-out. In one way perhaps it is, but with Expat Explore we were constantly surprised at how much the tour exceeded our expectations.

Here’s why …

It’s great value for money. We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the standard of hotels and the number of meals, guided tours, tram and metro tickets that have been included.

You get to stay in decent hotels. Our first night in Amsterdam (by our standards) was 4 Star and we’d been advised that 2 or 3 Star hotels were the norm. Since then hotels have been better than we expected and always clean and functional – sometimes quite small, but nothing to complain about. No dorms, no crazy booze fueled shenanigans coming from the next bedrooms.

The Strasbourg Palace in Vienna - we had a wonderful guided tour of beautiful Vienna on arrival which meant our few hours in the city were well spent.

The Strasbourg Palace in Vienna – we had a wonderful guided tour of beautiful Vienna on arrival which meant our few hours in the city were well spent.

Flavour of Europe
On the Europe Jewel Tour you get a real flavour of Europe. 12 countries in 14 days. It’s whistle stop, on the go, a WOW a day and the tour gives you a veritable smorgasbord of Europe. For instance, breakfast in Prague, lunch in Brataslava and then dinner in Budapest – all in a day!

One of our tour group said it was a “Touch and Go” experience! And she meant that in the best possible way!

Extensive Itinerary
Our trip compressed an extensive itinerary into a relatively short time, which often meant limited time at our stopping points. On the outset this looked constricting, but because of the well thought out itinerary and the orientation tours on arrival at each place, we were able to make the most of our stop overs.

We arrived at the leaning Tower of Pisa before the crowds and were able to get some memorable photographs. Sheila our Tour Leader organised a competition for the best picture - there were some truly creative pics! Mine wasn't one of them :(

We arrived at the leaning Tower of Pisa before the crowds and were able to get some memorable photographs. Sheila our Tour Leader organised a competition for the best picture – there were some truly creative pics! Mine wasn’t one of them :(

For example, even though we arrived in Budapest late in the afternoon and were on the road again early the next morning Expat Explore’s detailed plannng meant that we were still able to fit in a city tour, visit the castle, walk around Heroes Square, spend time soaking in the Thermal Baths, eat a traditional Hungarian dinner in a beautiful square and travel on the metro, so getting a flavour of being ‘local’.

Ideas for future trips
The Europe Jewel Tour gave us so much to think about – it gave us ideas on the places we’d like to return to on future visits, how to get around if we do return, and our tour guide passed on much valuable knowledge about the best ways of doing things – including what to see and what to do, along with ideas on extra places to visit if we return.

Meet new people, explore, read – no stress!
On the coach you get to meet new friends and interact with people of different nationalities and different age groups – not all of them couples.

A great spot for lunch in Graz, Austria. We had a few hours to walk around the city, climb up to the fort (or take the lift or funicular) and have lunch.

A great spot for lunch in Graz, Austria. We had a few hours to walk around the city, climb up to the fort (or take the lift or funicular) and have lunch.

You get plenty of time to read, write journals, research the next place you are going to, chat or catch up on sleep on the coach. We kept on relating this back to the stress of driving and the know-how required for finding our own way across several countries.

All the arrangements are done for you. We first began planning our tour of Europe independently but after a whole Sunday in February given up to the logistics of organising an extended adventure we soon gave up when we realised …

a) how much time and effort it would take to book everything and make sure our travel plans dove-tailed to make the best of our time and

b) that if we booked the trip independently it could potentially cost considerably more in the end.

Excellent Tour Guide and Coach Driver
Expat Explore take all the stress out of things – no driving stress, no need to find or book hotels (and no guesswork as to the standard), no need to worry about hire cars or train times, no worries about logistics, no thoughts required about booking tickets or getting across borders.

All done for you. Bliss!

We arrived at the leaning Tower of Pisa before the crowds and were able to get some memorable photographs. Sheila our Tour Leader organised a competition for the best picture - there were some truly creative pics! Mine wasn't one of them :(

We arrived at the leaning Tower of Pisa before the crowds and were able to get some memorable photographs. Sheila our Tour Leader organised a competition for the best picture – there were some truly creative pics! Mine wasn’t one of them :(

Our Tour guide, Sheila was well trained, well travelled, informative, level headed, easy to get on with, never ruffled and dealt with all our questions and concerns with the aplomb of a professional.

Andy, our driver was friendly, calm and dependable in the face of sometimes extreme traffic and only concerned with getting us to places on time and safely.

Prices
We found Expat Explore prices to be competitive and were pleasantly surprised with the number of dinners, lunches, trips and tours that were included in the package.

The trip exceeded my expectations in regard to experiencing a taste of Europe. Not only did we visit a wide range of places and sights but we were also able to take the time to create some really memorable experiences including an exciting musical concert in Vienna, enjoying a relaxing thermal spa in Budapest, a lazy ride on a gondola in Venice, visiting all the main sights of Paris, going to the top of Switzerland on a snowy day on a train, walking around the leaning tower of Pisa before the crowds arrived, and a wonderful guided architecural walk around Prague … just to name a few.

Expat Explore’s Europe Jewel has given me the overview of Europe I wanted, and also given me the insight to be able to plan more focused trips to Europe in the future if the opportunities arise.

Bio
Jo Castro is a freelance travel writer. She’s resident in Western Australia and she’s lived in 11 different countries on 4 continents with her geologist husband and two children. You can find her on her blogs Lifestyle Fifty (inspiration and lifestyle) and The ZigaZag Mag (travel and Western Australia) or on Twitter @johannaAcastro. Connect with her on Facebook at Lifestyle Fifty or The ZigaZag Mag. Find her on Instagram at Lifestyle Fifty.

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Venice in an afternoon

Jo Castro returns for another blog on Italy – this time the magical city of Venice! Visit Venice on our Europe Jewel tour and see the incredible sights of this charming city.

Venice, just like an oil painting.

Venice, just like an oil painting.

On the Europe Jewel tour you’ll get to Venice around lunchtime and have the rest of the day at leisure to explore.

We decided to walk, walk and walk some more to make the most of our time because rumour has it that Venice could be submerged in water in around 100 years – just think, your great grandchildren may not be able to see it at all!

Venice in springtime - you'll see many  window boxes filled with flowers around the small canals and waterways.

Venice in springtime – you’ll see many window boxes filled with flowers around the small canals and waterways.

It’s an amazing place. The colours, the light, the alleyways and canals combine to make a scene like a picture, that for me were completely unique, incomparable, and Venice was like nowhere else I’ve ever visited.

Venice dates back to 827 and for around the next 970 years prospered on trade and under the rule of a Roman-style Senate headed by the Doge. In 1797, the city was conquered by Napoleon, merged into Austria-Hungary, then volleyed back and forth between Austria and Italy. But Venice is like a living museum to the days of the Renaissance, and you’ll find historical culture alive and well everywhere you look.

Venice is likely to be bustling with people and boats at any time of year. Aim to take it easy if it's crowded and wait, like we did, until later in the afternoon to take photos.

Venice is likely to be bustling with people and boats at any time of year. Aim to take it easy if it’s crowded and wait, like we did, until later in the afternoon to take photos.

Don’t be put off by the crowds though, because when we first arrived the streets and alleyways were bustling with tourists but by late afternoon they had thinned and we were able to amble without being jostled.

Tip: If you’d like to go up in the lift at the bell tower of St Mark’s Campanile, which is just under 100 metres high in the Piazza San Marco near the beautiful Byzantine cathedral St Mark’s Basilica, then consider going up around dusk when the queu has diminished. You’ll be rewarded with fantatic views over the city.

5 Things to do in Venice

A gondola ride is almost compulsory in Venice, even if you only have a few hours to spare. It's worth it!

A gondola ride is almost compulsory in Venice, even if you only have a few hours to spare. It’s worth it!

  • Ride on a Gondola or perhaps choose to go on a speed boat. We found a Gondola just off the Piazza San Marco which could carry 6 people for 80 Euros, and we didn’t have to queue.
Have your picture taken on the famous Rialto Bridge - make sure you get in a gondola too!

Have your picture taken on the famous Rialto Bridge – make sure you get in a gondola too!

  • Have your photo taken on the Rialto Bridge with some of Venice’s most beautiful scenery behind you.
Loved this Spritz cocktail!

Loved this Spritz cocktail!

  • Enjoy a Spritz at sunset overlooking one of the canals. A Spritz is an orange coloured alcoholic cocktail consisting of Campari, Prosecco, Sparkling water and a slice of orange.
  • Keep a hand on your map, but get lost in the alleyways – that was half the fun for us! Just remember to follow the signs back to the main landmarks – Piazza san Marco and the Rialto Bridge – from where your Expat tour leader should have given you directions to get back to the coach station at Piazzele Roma.
Venetian masks are many and varied. They'd make wonderful pieces of art to hang on walls if you have space at home!

Venetian masks are many and varied. They’d make wonderful pieces of art to hang on walls if you have space at home!

  • Buy gifts: Glass is made and blown on an island near Venice, so too lace. Look out for beautiful glass platters, curios, bowls and jewellery as well as 7-stitch lace. Masks are for sale everywhere you look and don’t look – Venetian masks are varied and very beautiful.

Fast Facts

  • At night Venice transforms into a watery wonderland of twinkling lights and bustling restaurants serving traditional Italian food. Walking around takes on a whole new ambience as the alleyways darken and the street lights lend an eerie yellow glow to perfectly arched ancient bridges.
  • Venice has been the same for the last 600 years and there are 150 or more canals.
  • Very few Venetians live in Venice because it’s so expensive. Many live in nearby Mestre.
  • Venice floods many times each year and the tide rises and falls every day to a high water line. The sea literally invades the city and when it does people will sell you plastic boots to put over your shoes and they’ll also erect tables for you to walk over!
On a gondola ride you'll get to cruise down the smallest of canals through really old buildings. Note the green line on the wall - that's the high water mark.

On a gondola ride you’ll get to cruise down the smallest of canals through really old buildings. Note the green line on the wall – that’s the high water mark.

  • There are no cars in Venice – only boats, gondolas and lots of tourists.
  • Gondola drivers apparently earn the best salaries in Venice but only 3 or 4 new licenses are issued each year as the position often goes from father down to son.
  • The great lover, Casanova came from Venice.Have you been to Venice? What tips would you give future Expaters?

Jo Castro is a freelance travel writer. She’s resident in Western Australia and she’s lived in 11 different countries on 4 continents with her geologist husband and two children. You can find her on her blogs Lifestyle Fifty (inspiration and lifestyle) and The ZigaZag Mag (travel and Western Australia) or on Twitter @johannaAcastro. Connect with her on Facebook at Lifestyle Fifty or The ZigaZag Mag or on Instagram at Lifestyle Fifty.

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