For this post, and several more to come, I am going to talk a little bit about my employer, Grand European Tours, and the tours Jim & I have experienced with them. Yes, this is a bit of a deviation from the normal content, but never fear, I’ll still be talking travel!
I started with Grand European Tours in 1997 and have been with them since that time, except for the two year period when we were on our RTW trip. Many of my fellow employees are also good friends and, being a small company, a type of family.
All who know us and follow this blog know we are huge proponents of independent travel, throwing on a backpack or taking off on a road trip to see where the road leads you. And, it’s true, we are never happier than arriving in a new country where we don’t speak the language, aren’t familiar with the customs and are, for all intensive purposes, lost.
The thrills of our preferred mode of travel, however, are occasionally tempered by the work involved in finding lodging, transportation, food, etc. For us, the benefits outweigh the difficulties, however, shockingly enough..not everyone is looking for quite that much “adventure” on their vacation.
Most travel is best in the anticipation and the remembering; the reality has more to do with losing your luggage – Regina Nadelson
This is where Grand European Tours comes in. We offer escorted, group touring all over the world, specializing in Europe. Scoff if you will, but we have found that it can be exceedingly pleasant to occasionally go on holiday and have someone else have to deal with all those the pesky details such as lost luggage and rooms with no view while we trot off to the welcome reception!
We’ve been on eight GET tours over the years covering many regions of Europe, as well as destinations as diverse as China, Thailand, South Africa and Egypt, and have thoroughly enjoyed each and every one. For myself it’s a relaxing break from having to plan and research all the details myself and Jim has come to appreciate having his bags handled while he enjoys the amazing buffet breakfasts and know that he doesn’t have to spend hours visiting a dozen hotels to negotiate the best room.
Our first two tours with GET were both in Europe but otherwise extremely different in style. The year was 1998 when we headed off to do a tour called Holland, Belgium, and the Rhine. Note, I state the year here so not to shock you, dear reader, by our youthful appearance!
The tour itinerary began in Frankfurt, Germany, included several days cruising the Rhine & Moselle rivers, and visited many World War II sites in Luxembourg region before enjoying the food and drink of Belgium and the canals and museums of the Netherlands. Because of the WWII history surrounding us, it was no surprise that our group included many veterans who were visiting the area for the first time since the war. Our tour became a living history lesson as we explored the battlefields of Bastogne, the ruins along the Rhine, and the Luxembourg Cemetery. These sites, which would have been meaningful under any circumstances, came to life as memories were being relived by the men who had fought there. We looked at a bridge and saw an old bridge, scarred with age. They looked at that same bridge and recalled the Germans bombing it in an attempt to cease river traffic between the Rhine and the Moselle and suddenly the gashes and mortar holes had a completely different meaning.
One gentleman, George, and fought in the Battle of the Bulge under General Patton and there was not a dry eye in the group when he was allowed behind the gate to place flowers on General Patton’s grave and stood back to give a salute.
Along with all they history, we visited a wonderful selection of sites; from gorgeous Heidelburg castle to the lovely town of Bruges to the impeccable canal houses of Amsterdam. When we weren’t cruising the Rhine & Moselle, the balance of our time was traveling by motor coach and staying in first class hotels. Our tour director, Marc, was not only an excellent guide but showed us the best local pubs each evening.
Belgium was a surprise.
While we expected to enjoy the lovely small town of Bruges, we didn’t anticipate something else; this country has THE best beer and chocolate in the world, along with the amazing mussels served with pommes frites with homemade mayonnaise and Belgium waffles served on the street with fresh fruit compote. Who knew it was a foodie paradise! We ended our tour in super clean and efficient Holland, wandering the canals, touring world class artwork at the Rijksmuseum, and visiting Anne Frank’s house.
With our first tour being so enjoyable, we were eager the next year to take off on a completely different experience on the Greece & Turkey Cruise. We had gotten smart by this point and realized the perfect combination was to go several days early on our own and get acclimated and then join the group. Arriving early in Athens we headed for the Peloponnese Peninsula and the delightful town of Naufplion. Set on the bay and overshadowed by the ruins of the Palamidi castle, it’s an incredibly scenic place to work off your jet lag! We stayed at the enchanting Hotel Byron hotel, with amazing views of the 999 steps to the castle (which we counted on our way up!) and the city center. We spent several days luxuriating in small town life in Greece and stuffing ourselves on calamari, Greek salads, hummus and lamb.
Back in Athens, we joined our group for several days of sightseeing that included the Acropolis, National Museum, and Plaka before heading out of town to get a Greek history lesson at Mycenae and Epidaraus.
Athens is a fantastic city, brimming with history, but we were ready for the islands. Images of crystal clear water, hidden bays, brightly painted houses and great food haunted our dreams and we were not disappointed.
Our cruise ship, the MTS Triton, was very pleasant. Clean, comfortable, with good food, a great staff and nice amenities- it wasn’t luxurious but that wasn’t what we were looking for. This ship, and most that sail the Aegean, we came to find out, are considered destination ships, not focusing on over the top Las Vegas entertainment and round the clock buffets, but instead on being a safe and comfortable home while you cruise the Greek Islands and really, isn’t time on the islands the reason you’re there?!
We visited five islands, starting with small town charm on the island of Patmos, most notably known as being the location where St. John wrote the book of Revelations. We chose to spend our time enjoying coffee with some locals before some children took us on a walking tour of the area to show us their kittens.
Beautiful Mykonos with it’s iconic cafe scene along the bay in Little Italy and famous windmills on the hill, was a favorite. After renting a scooter we went in search of Shirley Valentine’s idyllic beach hotel to find our little piece of heaven.
At Rhodes we stood in awe at the massive old city walls, built during the time of the Crusades.
On Crete we toured the ruins of Knossos before mingling with locals at the market while sampling the diverse types of olive oil and cheese made on the island and Santorini offered the expected, and glorious, views from the hilltop village of Fira.
As inspiring as each island was, the port of Kusadasi, gateway to the ruined city of Ephesus, was a favorite. Remarkably, many remnants of the city remain you can truly imagine yourself being there when it was a thriving city of 250,000. The walk along the colorfully mosaic-ed streets, viewing partially standing homes and public areas on the way to the library which was built nearly 1900 years ago. The front facade still stands as it originally did all those years ago and is truly astonishing. We’ve seen many ancient sites over the years and this is still one of our favorites.
Istanbul was the last port of call on our itinerary and we weren’t quite sure what to expect. Turkey hadn’t really been in our bucket list but we came to learn how misguided we had been and Istanbul absolutely ranks among our top five cities in the world. We sailed into Istanbul at dusk, with that incredible skyline of mosques and minarets turning purple and pink with the sunset. We stood in awe at the bow of the boat while the call to prayer reverberated in the air around us, goosebumps pimpling our flesh at that magical moment.
We, again, headed out on our own and had one of our best travel days ever. We, of course, saw the sights everyone goes to see, and rightly so; Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and the Grand Bazaar.
All outstanding and attention worthy. But what really “made” Istanbul for us were the people we met wandering the side streets. There was the tiny restaurant set in some ancient building bordering the harbor. Our waiter charmingly told us we must have the seafood platter and then we watched as he ran across the street to purchase our catch of the day. We felt incredibly romanced by the entire scene but had to laugh when, after he cleared our plates, he pulled out a handi-vac to vacuum the crumbs off the table….so much for feeling transported back in time!
We spent hours walking the back streets and getting well and truly lost when lunchtime came upon us. We chose a local, self serve restaurant and paused for moment, attempting to figure out the correct procedure when two local workers spotted us. They got up from their table and one carried Jim’s tray while the other carried mine as they walked us through the process. They spoke no English and yet communicated with us in a language as old as man, using gestures and a few internationally known words.
After sailing back to Athens we spent one final night, with a view of the Acropolis lit up at night from our room and another journey was coming to an end. Overall, it was a magical couple of weeks. We found out I do, indeed, get sea-sick, and that cruise ship travel isn’t our favored form of transportation, but as a means of visiting multiple islands, as well as stunning Istanbul, it was perfection.
Although GET no longer sells the exact Holland, Belgium, Rhine tour we originally traveled on, we do sell a large number of similar tours both as river cruises and motor coach tours. The Greek Islands & Turkey cruise is still going strong and you can view the full itinerary at Grand European Tours.
In some upcoming posts I’ll amuse and enlighten you with more stories from the road of tours interspersed among our regular travel entries. Keep in mind, even if you’ve never entertained the notion of an escorted tour- think about it. They may have benefits you have never imagined!