Turkey contradicts every other country we have visited so far. Predominantly Muslim, beautiful mosques dot every other street in Istanbul. Markets full of spices hit every one of your senses while the traditional Turkish baths take away some of the strains of the long trip so far. We start with a city tour flitting between Turkish delight tasting and historical sights. Soon we are reminded why Turkey isn’t as popular with visitors as it once was by our local guide. They went on to tell the story of the German tour group that was the focus of a terrorist attack. The city is still affected by this but the security is now tighter than ever and the locals make the extra effort to welcome any traveller coming through.
Making our way to the next eastern European city Sophia we spot more mesmerising mosques. In this part of the world the accommodation starts to get noticeably better, a welcome change from the cramped conditions of some of the Western European hotels we have been used to. We push on with one night stops in Struga in Macedonia and Tirana in Albania (the worst country to drive in yet), before cruising along the Dalmatian coast on the way in to Dubrovnik.
This week see’s us hitting 7 countries in 7 days, if we weren’t already exhausted now it’s getting full on and the enormity of what we have undertaken has started to sink in. Knowing every route, understanding every different countries procedures, planning fun filled days for 50+ people in countries where we don’t speak a word of the language and being able to do all of this whilst just trying to stay awake. But the other side of the job makes it all worthwhile. Driving into the picture perfect city of Dubrovnik while the sun sets makes me realise why I’m here; to see the world, and best of all show it to other people. We scoot around all of the Game Of Thrones sites in Dubrovnik and give the coach a good old clean top to bottom.
Montenegro, Bosnia Herzegovina and Zadar were all a bit of a blur, just catching glimpses from the coach between route notes. Next up the green capital of Europe; Ljubljana in the picturesque Slovenia. Known as the love child of Budapest and Prague, Ljubljana is full of vegans, muso’s and chic individual shops and restaurants. Nothing is mass market here and everything is recycled, contrastingly they are also well known for their horse burgers!
Back into the city tours we arrive in Budapest, from the old hilly Buda to the flat modern day Pest, we check the sights off one by one. A quick pit stop in Slovakia and Vienna and were on the way to one of my favourite cities in Europe. Prague is so full of history and gothic architecture it’s hard not to fall in love with the city at every turn. We sample a bike tour especially for Contiki, having a bit too much fun at our first taste of non-studying freedom for some time.
We push on to Berlin where we cram our brains with German history from WW1 through to WW2 to the cold war and the Berlin wall. We hear the stories from some local guides and go on a bar crawl – minus the alcohol of course! We got in to Berlin on labour day and the city is alive with music, celebrations and amazing food (including the best pie I have ever had – Jerk Chicken “Bob Marley” Pie!).
We head back to Vienna for yet more city tours before yoyo-ing back to Germany for a couple nights in Munich. Mike’s bike tours shows us what the city is all about with a ride through the beautiful English Garten, past the river surfers, and onto the beer gardens where we grab another (alcohol free) lunch. Every night we are catching up with all our notes and plans from the day, we work while everyone else is partying and go to bed at the same hour!
We finally get to another Contiki run site at Hopfgarten Austria. It’s like coming home as we step through the door and are greeted by all the amazing on site team members. We are let loose tonight at the white, bright and tight party. It’s the first time we have had a drink in over a month, but we are still acutely aware of watchful eyes from our trainers. Nothing goes unnoticed on this trip! The next morning we are all feeling worse for wear and off on a ”optional” 12k bike ride. At this point in the trip we are all physically and mentally exhausted. I’m sick but go on the bike ride anyway- I don’t make it past the 4k marker. Broken and deflated I head back to the hostel and hit the worst barrier of the trip so far. Everyone has thought at least once about giving up. Is anything worth the lack of sleep and sheer exhaustion this training is so well known for? But the thing you learn about the job is it’s all highs and lows, no day is ever ordinary or the same.
Back on the road we head through the Alps and the tiny country of Liechtenstein making a stop in the capital Vaduz (there is a castle and a kebab shop – I can’t tell you much else). We then visit Lucerne with Swiss army knives, watches and Swiss chocolate galore. As we arrive in our final Contiki run stop in Lauterbrunnen we are astounded by the beautiful mountain scenery. The next morning we head up by train into the mountains to the ‘Top of Europe’. Local guides give us some inside tips for the tour and we run about taking selfies –whilst working hard still of course… The afternoon takes us to and adventure park where we zip-line through the trees! The hard work starts to seem like it’s paying off.
From Switzerland the mood seems to change, we are nearing the end with just over a week left. Everyone left knows they are going to make it after living in fear of being kicked off for any mistake, a sense of achievement starts to kick in as well as an alarming realisation that soon we will be on our own with 50+ travellers to look after!
On to St Goar and back to where we all started together, some final paperwork to finish up and preparation for our final assessments. Onto Amsterdam and each driver has one hour to show all the skills we have learnt throughout training. Everyone smashes it and we become the first group of drivers to all successfully complete training without any drop outs. I have never been so proud of a group of people for coming so far. Drivers and trip managers pushing through the exhaustion, endless ham and cheese sandwiches and hard work all in the search of a dream job. Back to London for an office day, then we all head out to Paris for our first trial run of a trip. Paris is as chaotic as usual but I think it starts to set in that we might actually make it, not only that but we might actually be pretty good at it too!
Our final few days see’s seminars and meeting the teams behind the scenes in London. Contracts signed there’s no going back now. Our last night we all go out for a meal and one final exhausted drink together. We all get handed our envelopes containing the name and date of our first trip and everyone cheers for each other as they are handed out. I have never seen such pride and mutual respect in one room, we thank our amazing trainers that have put all of the hard work into giving us the best start for our new careers and make a toast to our futures, working together as a team to show people the sights of Europe.
Then we were on our own. Little did we know what was in store for our first trips out alone on the open road…