In April, I took a bus tour around six European countries in less than two weeks. The entire experience was a blur, yet it was a great way to get an initial impression of many cities in Europe.
We started the bus trip in Paris where we regrouped outside the train station. With 77 kids (ages 15-17), it was evident it was going to be an energetic group. We were the largest group ever on the same bus trip, and I could tell the chaperones were anxious.
We left from Paris, drove past Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower on a five-hour journey to Strasbourg in the east of France and on the border with Germany. There were pretzel vendors in the streets and I noticed some signs were written in both German and French. My friends and I had fun trying to pronounce the street names in German — we’re lucky to be learning French.
We split into smaller groups to eat lunch before a guided tour of the city. It was raining as we were searching for food, so we made a quick decision to get warm and dry in a McDonald’s. You can’t go wrong with some MacDo as they say in France.
We regrouped in front of the Strasbourg Cathedral to take a tour on a small train that drives around downtown. We were an obnoxious group, waving at everyone we passed on the streets. Other tourists waved back at us, and some even took pictures. The locals didn’t pay us any attention. Then it was back on the bus — the theme of the trip.
I think we passed more time on the bus than in any city, but we didn’t mind. We played music and sang so much that half of us lost our voices. Our group drove to a hotel in Baden-Baden, Germany, en route to Munich. The hotel has a McDonald’s in it, so yes, that’s what we chose to eat for dinner — not changing the stereotype for Americans by eating burgers twice a day.
Every day we started early, breakfast at 7 a.m. to get on the road to the next stop. In Munich, we had a tour guide who joined us in the bus to talk about the history of the city before we arrived. German was her first language, but she talked to us in fluent French. At each destination, the tour guides had remarkably different accents in French. In Venice, Italy, it was the most complicated to understand, with a very strong Italian tone.
The first thing on our agenda was the BMW Museum where we took pictures on motorcycles, drove golf balls and a car in virtual reality. After our visit, I noticed on the highway, or Autobahn, most of the cars passing the bus were BMWs, Volkswagens and Mercedes-Benzs, all made in Germany.
Next, we walked around downtown Munich and gawked at the store windows of Gucci and Louis Vuitton. The rendezvous at the bus came sooner than we expected, and we found ourselves sprinting through downtown following our phones and Google Maps, not wanting to be the last ones to arrive. Anyone who was late had to clean the bus at the end of the day.
Once on the bus, someone asked how everyone was feeling. All 77 kids responded, “It was great, but we need the toilets!” We walked around again with our huge group, looking for a restaurant that would accept so many people using their toilets. Half an hour later, we were all back on the bus ready to go to Prague.
Prague exceeded our expectations. We stayed two days, and got a lot of free time to explore the streets and tourist traps. My favorite local attractions were the John Lennon Wall, the Wallenstein Palace and the Old Town Square in the heart of old Prague.
In the Czech Republic, my English skills came in handy for ordering Trdelniks, the street food of Prague. It’s a pastry in a cone shape, filled with sweet fruit, ice cream or savory flavors like macaroni and cheese. Certain restaurants specialized in these treats, but made them with charcoal — perfect to take pictures with.
At the hotel that night, we saw the news that the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris caught on fire, just a few days after we saw it in person. The entire group was shocked and saddened to see such an important national monument get partially destroyed. Throughout the rest of the trip, we followed the news for updates about the cathedral.
We hit the road again, driving toward Vienna, Austria. Every morning we had to repack our suitcases because we rarely spent two nights in the same place. The chaperones always passed through our rooms after we had checked out to collect any forgotten items. They took any goodies they found and displayed them at the front of the bus — dirty socks, a sweatshirt, a toothbrush. Most of the time they weren’t claimed until no one was looking to see who it belonged to.
We didn’t stay very long in Vienna, just enough to go to a carnival, do some rides, and visit the Schonbrunn Castle and its gardens. It was really beautiful, a lot different from the French castles and architecture I’m more used to seeing.
Our next stop was Italy. After spending two days eating gelato, pizza and pasta, my friends and I decided that we want to do another exchange in Italy. We stayed in a hotel in the town of Lido di Jesolo, 30 minutes from Venice. It’s next to the beach, so we were able to put our feet in the water, play games and hang out with friends in the sand. For some, it was the first time seeing the ocean since arriving in France.
Venice and Milan were like Juneau in the summer — swarming with tourists. My friends and I made our way through the crowded streets, and eventually found a gondola to take the iconic ride under bridges in the canals. It was like the movies, with our gondolier shouting in Italian and navigating the canals with a long oar.
On the ride back to France, we stopped in Chamonix to visit the Ice Sea (La mer de Glace). We took a little train to the top of a mountain, but when we got there, the wind was too strong to descend to the ice caves. Instead, we took pictures with our flags and had a giant snowball fight.
Hinkal, a girl from India on the trip, had never seen snow before. Being the expert from Alaska, I showed her the technique — throwing little clumps of snow at her. She caught on quickly, and pretty soon everyone joined in. It was a drastic difference from Italy where we were dehydrated and sunburnt. Now we were in the mountains and covered in snow.
We kept going in the direction of Paris, and our final stop was the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. The building is beautiful, and we had a great tour that of course ended in the gift shop. We only spent a couple hours in Switzerland, but we can say that we went to another country.
All in all, the European tour was an amazing experience — six countries in two weeks and memories for life.
• Bridget McTague is a Juneau-Douglas High School student who is spending her junior year abroad in Cholet, France, as part of the Rotary Youth Exchange. Follow along with her travel adventures by reading her bimonthly column “Bridget Abroad” in the Juneau Empire.