Last year, 21-year-old Jordan Lea Hart, embarked on a once-in-her-young-lifetime trip abroad. While she’d enjoyed a holiday or two closer to home and with family, this was her first significant trip overseas – just she and her best friend, Rachael. We’d spoken to the girls a few times about travel and life abroad, and were very excited to hear when they took the massive step to book and confirm it all.
Jordan Lea and Rachael enjoyed the same tour of Europe with Expat Explore that we did in 2011 (on just the second 26-day itinerary since the group launched it), and I was keen to find out more about the experience, their tips and stories of travel and friendship. Most importantly, I was keen for insights into why they too, advocate taking the chance to travel, live and learn!
When did you travel to Europe?
In July and August 2015, European summer time.
This was your first major overseas trip – how did the decision come about to do it?
Throughout high school, my best friend and I always talked about travelling to Europe, specifically London, because we love historical buildings and English boys! Once we finally had enough coin we booked it.
When did you decide what type of travel option to pursue?
I wanted to do a coach tour as it just seemed like the most cost-effective way to get a taste of each country. Originally the plan was to go on a month tour, then rent a car and road trip around Ireland, Scotland and Wales, however that didn’t end up on the agenda due to work and study commitments.
We decided on Expat Explore’s 26 Day Ultimate Europe Tour because it is great value for money (even considering the conversion from Aussie dollars).
One of the first things our tour guide, Will, said was, “You guys are travellers, not tourists, we are not going to hold your hand everywhere you go, it’s up to you. YOU create your journey, we just guide.”
It was awesome because that’s exactly what he did – told us the way to our hotel, how to get home, and what time we would be leaving for the next trip. We never considered a party-type tour, we really wanted to make the most of our travels, not spend the time in bars 24/7 and hung-over every day! Not to say we didn’t have a few cheeky drinks.
Was there anything you were worried about prior to taking this big trip so far away from home?
I was worried about missing home too much; I was in a brand new relationship so this trip was a massive test on us. I missed him terribly but we survived it, thank God for Viber.
Do you think you were well prepared for the trip, or did you learn along the way?
Prior to us leaving I quit my job! I was treating this trip as a fresh start for me, to get perspective on what I really want. I had to be very careful with my money, budgeted a lot, made trips to the local supermarkets to get fresh fruit and snacks for the long coach journeys.
Clothing was something I was not prepared for. I was under the impression Europe would have cold days, and I would only need so many shoes or pairs of socks. The little things ran out fast, and I packed about 10 jumpers and no summer clothes. That was a massive wake-up and I spent a lot of money buying summer basics (most of Europe is hot in summer!). But I learned little tricks after a few weeks, like washing delicates in the sink then rolling them up in the bathroom mat so they dried a lot faster.
I also thought this would be a great best friend trip, just myself and Rachael the whole time! But we met some lifelong friends, we created ‘the squad’ after two days on tour – myself, Rachael and three rowdy British girls – we were inseparable.
What were three highlights of Europe?
The whole trip was a highlight but I do recall a few special moments.
Our first stop was Amsterdam, and Expat scheduled an optional activity for day one on the road. Everyone else on the bus went except Rachael and I; We ditched it. Woke up late, caught the train into the city centre, wandered around just taking it all in for six hours. We walked away from all the tourist areas and went local. We found all these amazing hidden cafes and lunch hot-spots. It was beautiful and so peaceful to just wander and soak up all the culture. Once we got back to tourist-central, we naturally tested the devil’s lettuce from the local coffee shop (not to be confused with cafe) and ended up having the wildest night of our lives.
Sneaking into random hotels, running along the canals and eating the best yogurt and fruit anyone could ever have – our first day was done right.
The second highlight for me was meeting the squad, Alice, Anya and Sara. Here are five girls with completely different backgrounds and we clicked instantly as if we were long-lost soul-mates. We had one night in the Rhine Valley where we all had too much wine, ended up smashing karaoke with a Spice Girls comeback, and we were almost as good as the real thing. So many nights were unforgettable with these girls!
Barcelona was an absolute highlight for me personally; the culture of that place blows my mind! Oh and the sangria!
The last highlight, even though bitter-sweet, was our final night of the tour in France, sitting under the Eiffel Tower and its 9pm light show, drinking mini bottles of wine, with our cheese dips and chocolate.
Some England highlights?
The UK was a short but sweet stay, four days in total, but so full of life. We went to the markets, Harry Potter studio tour and stayed walking-distance from Oxford Street. Also spent a night drinking cocktails with some of my favourite people. It was the perfect end to our trip.
What did you learn about yourself through this experience?
That if I set a goal to do something it will be achieved. And, that I can successfully catch public transport in any country! It helped me also appreciate how lucky I am to have had the chance to do this at 21. Most people don’t get that chance, even couples on our tour said this was their first holiday overseas and they were well over 50.
How has such a significant travel experience shaped the way you are now planning for your future?
It only makes me want to plan for more! I have the thirst for travel, the way it opens your eyes is something else. The world is a fascinating place.
What’s your advice for anyone planning to travel or tour Europe in the summer?
You need a reliable water bottle, sunscreen and good walking shoes.
Be warned of the crowds in Italy, it will have you feeling like you’re suffocating, so go see all the major sights in the afternoon, because in summer the sun doesn’t set until 9pm so it’s nowhere near as hot then.
Learn the underground in European cities. Local trains usually work like clockwork and will take you anywhere you need to go. It all works in colour lines so don’t worry about not knowing the language if you need to get around.
In France, buy souvenirs from the salespeople on the street, not stalls; the sellers are lovely and you get the same thing but for half the price!
What are your essential travel planning websites and apps?
In Europe, always search for the city metro map and have a screen copy on your phone for reference. In London, download the app Kabbie. I would have been lost without this – it’s like Uber but cheap. Another helpful tip is to buy your food and alcohol for your trip. This saves you so much money; the supermarkets have everything you could ever need! Don’t get stuck buying supplies at expensive bars or corner stores.
Would you recommend a tour and why?
Yes! Especially if you have never travelled to that country before, it helps you get your bearings and you have a whole coach support system; a tour guide who you can bother with a thousand questions as they know all the good spots, and you meet amazing people. Once you have done a tour, you can go back the places you enjoyed and you’ll already have knowledge to get around like (nearly) a local!
What does travel mean to you now?
A world of opportunities! I have found what I want to do: work, save, travel.
Once upon a time, in lands far far away, travellers from Australia, New Zealand, UK, America, Canada, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, South Africa, Thailand, Malaysia prepared for the Europe trip of a lifetime: 14 countries across 26 days – 2011 being the first year Expat Explore has offered such an itinerary, and our journey just the second on this route!
Reasonably timid at first, we politely greeted each other by the coach at Expat Explore’s Canada Water (London) meeting spot in early August. So much ahead − travel discoveries and many new friends who by now are comfortable around each other – dirty jokes, no make-up and singing presently part of our daily repertoire.
We’re back on the ferry that runs between Calais and Dover, where we met Sarah and Amy for the first time, strangers, but now we are friends.
Amanda and Phil, and Evan and Leann now cross back to the UK as engaged couples! Phil, Rose, Brad, Alex, Cassie and Ash head back to resume life as Aussie expats in the UK. Amy’s off to live in Paris for a year; sadly mother and daughter teams Lindsay and Shawna, and Grace and Caroline part ways again to live in separate countries. Davin will meet up again with his lovely sister, Sarah, who was on the first half of our trip, while Will and Ann continue through Europe for a little while longer before moving back to NZ. Hector may meet up with fellow Espanol-speaker Julio (who left alongside Sarah in Rome) for a drink in London. Tash and Frank will continue to travel for a while, like us. Sapna and her lovely family will get back to life and work in Johannesburg, and Isaac (our birthday boy yesterday) is heading up to Scotland for a week to party with some old friends.
It was extremely sad to say goodbye to our fellow travellers this morning who were staying in Paris for varying reasons, and especially to farewell Ali, our tour guide who has given us so much over the past 26-days – information, inspiration, friendship and leadership.
We’re all unsure about how to resume a normal routine after this, but as with everything in life, we’ll just get on with it. Thank God for Facebook and its ease of staying in touch!
Last night we each said goodbye to the experience in our own way: Tash, Frank, Evan and Leann among a few others spent some time down by the Eiffel Tower with wine, sparklers and cameras, of course. Will and Ann met up with some local mates, cruised around Paris and took a moment to pay tribute to Diana at the spot where she passed – would you believe yesterday evening marked the 14th year anniversary of her tragic death.
A crew of us went out in the Latin Quarter to indulge in ‘happy hour’ cocktails at the ‘sexy time’ Latin Quarter lounge bar and the fabulous pub/club/karaoke spot diagonally opposite Notre Dame Cathedral, Bar St Michel for singing and dancing.
Paris is divine and I’m glad to have had another chance to explore its beautiful boulevards and especially to have had another look at (and inside) one of my favourite buildings in the world, Notre Dame Cathedral. Of course everyone’s day included different sites, and much of the group explored as one during two walking tours of the city. A fitting final day and night on what has been a truly fabulous trip which we initially embarked upon for the sake of ‘travel’, but which I’d also recommend for the surprise element – the people, friends, that you meet and bond with along the way.
To Ali, Steve our lovely, professional coach driver, and all the group who I may or may not have mentioned in this particular post, it’s been brilliant, and just as each place we have visited has its own charm, you all have your own gorgeous personalities and have each contributed in your own way to make the experience extra special. We hope to see you all again online and in person soon.
Travel safe and thanks for the memories x
PS if you are in Paris and located near the Jaures metro stop (as we were), be sure to indulge in a meal at Les Delices d’Amour (3 Avenue Jen Jaures 75019). I told them I’d give them a ‘shout out’ (hi guys!), but I think the fact we ate there four times in 24 hours is testament to how good the food is (and inexpensive too). The line out the door at lunchtime somewhat resembles that of The Soup Nazi’s on Seinfeld so don’t miss out if you’re in the neighbourhood.
It’s late afternoon, I’m happily fed (thanks to Ali, our fabulous Expat Explore tour guide who made a delicious pot of pasta for anyone who happened to wander by her chalet); champagne is chilling in the freezer and it’s time now to reflect on our wonderful experience in Rome.
We’ve spent three nights and two days in this incredible city and it’s definitely a place I’d like to come back to because there are just so many areas to be explored. Yesterday I did in fact throw my coin into the Trevi Fountain (or ‘The Fontana di Trevi’), right hand over left shoulder – because as legend has it, this means I will return to Rome one day.
Travel through Rome with Expat Explore
We’ve been staying at a terrific little place called Camping Village Roma which offers tent and caravan facilities, as well as cabins and chalets which made up our Expat Explore accommodation. The complex features a restaurant, bar and pool area as well as laundry facilities and supermarkets, but the best part about it is that the chalets are positioned in such a way that we’re essentially ‘neighbours’ with our coach-mates. Consequently, afternoons and evenings are spent together by the pool and on our front decks enjoying dinner, drinks and laughs. Some, of course, enjoy later nights than others, but what happens on tour stays on tour, you know…
As with all of our stops on this Expat Explore adventure, we were introduced to the city via a walking tour which took us by famous landmarks including The Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, Piazza Venezia as well as the grand Il Vittoriano building which dominates its precinct; plus the awe inspiring ‘symbol of Rome’, the Colosseum, originally nicknamed as such because of its ‘colossal size’.
We learned that during World War II the Pope ‘struck a deal’ with ‘both sides’ which meant that the city of Rome was left out of any major battles, and so the ancient centre remained undisturbed throughout this turbulent time. I’ve also discovered that the construction of new train lines takes years to complete because of artifacts which are continuously unearthed! The buildings and ruins in Rome must be seen to be believed. Evidently this society was industrious, intelligent and ambitious and the remains of its fascinating civilisation leave so many interesting clues as to how our predecessors lived here.
Today we had several options: a trip back in time to Pompeii, a guided tour to a whole other country within the walls of Rome – The Vatican City; or the option we pursued, which was further ‘free time’ to explore the city.
I’d read about a popular meeting place called Piazzo Novano which is accessible via a ‘number 40 express’ bus from Termini train station. We found the stop without too much hassle, but actually had no idea where to get off. After about 15-minutes drive in a very hot, sweaty and crowded bus, we decided to jump off at a point where it looked like something exciting was going on. Turned out we were right near the enchanting Castel Sant Angelo on the banks of the river Tiber.
We explored this area for a while and followed our city map across the delightful Ponte Sant Angelo Bridge a few minutes up the road (and through some very romantic, and importantly, uncrowded Roman streets) to discover Piazzo Navona! On a sightseeing roll, we strolled through back streets towards the Pantheon, where we stopped at a quaint local restaurant, Pantharei, tucked subtly down a side street away from all the crowds. Here, for just €7 each, we enjoyed a buffet of local Italian vegetarian dishes which proved to be substantial, delicious and healthy.
We meandered towards the imposing Il Vittoriano which today we entered and discovered it’s fantastic for a brilliant view of the city. There’s also a free, interesting cultural and military ‘museum’ to browse. Before home we popped back over to the ever-impressive Colosseum. On the way ‘home’ to our campsite we also alighted at Ottaviana and walked around the outskirts of The Vatican City. The line to get in was looooong but it was nice to be able to see the elegant architecture and art, and there is nice shopping in the area too.
The city is contemporary and engaging; easy to navigate by foot and public transport (which is actually quite inexpensive, in my opinion), although the tiring August heat has hindered our adventures in a small way. If you’re visiting, keep a map handy at all times and just see where you end up! Also be wary of entertainers on trains and anyone dressed up in Gladiator attire – while they are amusing, they are most definitely after some of your purse change, so don’t assume anything is for free.
I must comment on the spectacular trip into Rome, which is such a worthwhile experience by road. We cruised through gorgeous green Italian countryside, over mountainous ranges, by grape vines and sunflowers, in and out of tunnels, and past little towns dotted in the valleys below, cliff-side castles and houses of orange shades perched on the hills above. Can’t wait to see what Florence offers next!
Travel tip (thanks Frank from Cairns): Trying to cool alcohol quickly in the freezer? Wrap bottles in a wet towel before freezing – they’ll chill faster!
Expat Explorers: Basically everyone did something different but fun today – add your comments, suggestions and tips for other travellers to enjoy.
The deal was that I would write honestly, so, in the spirit of such a virtue I will let you know that I’m currently sitting at our campsite in Venice, sipping on something called an Ottweiler Pils beer (pretty nice actually, especially for €1!); Jessie J is playing on the iPod and I’m attempting to catch up on my blogging activities, madly editing a zillion photos from Vienna, Ljubljana and Venice, and procrastinating on this next post because to be honest, I’m a little tired. It’s been hot, and the days long, but as I say to everyone – it’s better than work!
Travel through Venice and Ljubljana with Expat Explore
We’ve arrived in Italy, and isn’t it beautiful. Sleepy as I may be on any bus trip (planes and buses put me to sleep – too bad my parents didn’t know this when I was a baby…). I was wide awake as we drove through the border into Italy. Who doesn’t want to visit this country?
There’s so much history, and despite any recent conflicts or issues, Italy to someone like me represents food, beauty, divine language, various Shakespearian scenes, gorgeous people and fashion. Venice itself is completely charming – canals, gondolas, Renaissance masks all over the place, aged churches, public spaces like the stunning St. Mark’s Square, classical musicians positioned around the restaurants, and people of all demographics. I was interested to learn on our walking tour that traditionally Venice welcomes a melting pot of nationalities and cultures, and aside from certain periods when various groups (religious, political) chose to stamp their authority, the region generally catered to the needs of ‘anyone and everyone who was in the business of making money’. The Merchant of Venice sprung to mind at this point, and I realised that my high school Modern History and literature classes are all only now starting to make sense after actually having the opportunity to visit Europe.
It is indeed very easy to get lost in the unmarked streets of Venice, but the advice we were given was to simply enjoy the experience (however leave lots of time to get from one side to the other if you need to be anywhere at any given time). A beautiful, but expensive city, so save your dollars if planning an extended stay – and whatever you do, don’t forget your camera!
Throughout Italy we’re staying at a series of camp sites, and our accommodation in Venice was basic but fine, and most of us shared with another pair – we had the pleasure of being room mates for the night with the delightful Martin and Gayle (South Africans who currently reside in London). The upside to such a set up is the social aspect, and our group enjoyed some fun by the pool and bar this evening.
Prior to arriving in Venice yesterday we made another romantic stop, in the picturesque town of Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia (pictured above). Ljubljana means ‘beloved’, and it’s certainly obvious that the townsfolk here are fiercely proud of their little piece of the world. Formerly part of Yugoslavia, the country gained independence in 1991. It is surrounded by the Alps, and several European nations including Austria, Croatia and Italy. Slovenia itself is actually 60% forest (which makes for a scenic drive throughout the country), and uniquely the region hosts a series of more than 8000 underground caves! Consequently there are many little rivers and streams as well as quaint bridges in Slovenia’s towns and cities. Long ago, people in the region thought that the Salamanders that lived in the caves resembled dragons, and they became a little obsessed by the creatures – evident in the numerous dragon sculptures and figurines that appear on the streets, in flags and on other local merchandise.
This idyllic little spot is a beautiful place to visit, and I’m so glad to have had the chance to discover it on this tour because on my own I probably wouldn’t have even thought to stop. The cafes and restaurants that line the old streets offer affordable, high quality, fresh cuisine and produce. One amusing venue is the Cafe del Moro (Cafe of death) or Pr’skelet (translated to Cafe by skeletons) – an underground bar that features, as you may have guessed, bones and skeletons all over the walls. Pretty creepy, but totally cool!
I’m loving this part of the world so far – such natural beauty, intriguing history and gelato, delicious gelato – everyone is eating it… “when in Rome“ (well, almost – it’s tomorrow’s destination)! The trip will be one of our ‘long hauls’, but to be fair, our coach journeys have been comfortable, and Steve does a fab job of keeping us all safe and getting us to each destination in a timely manner. Ally also organises movies, quizzes and games to keep us amused – most recently we teamed up to entertain each other with some songs – here is a video snippet of the entertaining offering from Hector (Ecuador) and Julio (Mexico)…
Just passed a weird large graveyard with loads of commemorative stones crammed in side by side, seemingly on a concrete base, in front of a shopping centre and placed by the busy highway we’re on between Calais and Bruges (Belgium). Of course, this odd sight prompted me to make some on- the-road notes… As you may have guessed, we made it to the coach, on time even! A glass of bubbles awaited us on arrival to Canada Water this morning – a good start! We met Ali and Steve (our fab guide and coach driver) as the coach was loaded, and by 8am we had set off towards Dover.
I was excited to see the famous White Cliffs as we sailed off from the docks, although had to strategically manage my summer dress in the wind on the deck as I madly snapped some pics.
It is inspiring to gaze out through the coach window as we drive through new lands (new to me at least), spotting cute old French farm houses, French animals grazing, little local churches and cathedral steeples in the distance, street signs in a foreign language… and of course unusually, graveyards.
Even though the skies outside are turning rainy, I figure I am pretty lucky right now.
On that note, I fell asleep.
We hit the pretty (and busy) Medieval town of Bruges around 3.30pm, stopped for a quick wander, coffee and photos before moving on our way toward the Netherlands. The town centre comprises of many tall old colourful buildings, fountains, cafes with people spilling out of them into the streets, and tourists enjoying horse + buggy rides.
So far the coach ride has been fairly quiet. We’ve met Aussies (Queenslanders, we’re everywhere), Brits, Kiwis, South Africans and Americans. There are a few who speak English as a second language too, so hopefully we’ll get to know them over time – maybe learn a few new foreign phrases. This group is terrific in that it’s varied in age and nationalities – it isn’t all loud 25-year-old Aussies ;-)
Tour guide Ali tip: Water in most of Europe (on this tour anyway) is good to drink, so if on a budget just refill your water bottle. In fact, the water in Rome’s fountains is quite pure! Perhaps buy bottled water in Barcelona though.
Also, Europe is lacking in public toilet facilities, so drop in to a coffee shop for a dirnk and hope for the best in using their toilets.
Welcome to Travel Live learn, where we are passionate about living a life full of great adventures. We are Sarah + Cooper: we know life's short, and we're here to encourage you to make the most of it! We have worked in media, communication and creative roles for many years, and have spent over 10 years living and working abroad. Our hottest content topics here are pet friendly travel, house + pet sitting, and designing a life as expats or digital nomads wherever in the world you want to be. Join our community of over 11,000 like-minded adventurers - find out more by signing up for the mailing list and our Facebook Group. Find us on YouTube too. NEW podcast now live: search 'Freedom and Four Paws' on Apple podcasts, Spotify, Google podcasts or your fave podcast service provider.