Spring Break during study abroad is the ultimate opportunity to travel. Maddie and I had decided that this would be our one big trip to Europe, with a week to effectively explore the mainland. She, myself, and Becca had booked a Contiki bus tour to France and Spain in order to make logistics easier. With travel and accommodations (and some meals) taken care of for us, we could focus on enjoying the sights. After finagling joining the tour quite early in the morning on Friday, we began our bus ride to the ferry that would take us across the English Channel, giving us a view of the cliffs of Dover along the way. Unfortunately with the cloudiness and industrial background, they were a bit underwhelming.
This sense continued in France for a bit. We were in another country, but the weather and climate seemed very similar to England. This all changed upon entering Paris, where our fortunes turned as we were greeted by rainbow. After a quick bus tour that showed us the landmark highlights, followed by our first french dinner, we took a trip to view the Eiffel Tower at night. This icon is already incredible during the day, but lit up it is even more majestic.
The next morning we had a lovely breakfast, featuring archetypal croissants. Our first major excursion was to the top of the Arc de Triomphe, which granted beautiful panoramic views of the entire city. We went early enough that you could still see the faint tints of pink from the morning sunrise on the horizon.
We then walked down the Champs d’Elysees, a sumptuous road featuring all sorts of high end designers and shops. It’s so fancy that it even forced McDonalds to conform, as its trademark golden arches had to be converted to white in order to have a store on the street. One set of toilets here were two euros, and featured an attendant who escorted you to your stall, with a store selling toilet paper in every color you could imagine. This extravagance was complimented by the end of the street, where just past an Egyptian obelisk lies the Louvre.
We then walked in the direction of Notre Dame. After seeing the daunting line to enter, we decided to take a side detour to get some crepes. Once satiated we returned to the cathedral. The interior was dark, gothic, and somber. A statue of Joan of Arc in particular caught my eye. The design of the building created this sense of holiness and awe that is difficult to convey.
We ended our formal Paris exploration with a trip to the Shakespeare Company Bookstore, an atmospheric place with a deep literary history. After some trouble with the metro (only one ticket machine was functional) we opted to walk back to our hostel. We were lead by Renee, a delightfully positive member of our tour group from Quebec. You would think there are no hiking opportunities in Paris, but you’d be wrong. You can hike along the river Seine to then find a macaron shop on a street less traveled by. Then you can hike through the parks along the outskirts of Paris. It was a fun time, and we accumulated over 30,000 steps in the process.
Once we returned to the hostel we went to a fancy Parisian dinner. My courses included french onion soup and duck l’orange, followed by dessert, all of which was complimented by red wine, white wine, and champagne. We even tried escargot (surprisingly similar to shrimp/mushrooms in texture, with a fair amount of garlic sauce). The experience was incredible, but this was just a precursor to seeing a cabaret show at the Moulin Rouge. Here we saw sensational and exquisite dance numbers punctuated by incredible acts of acrobatics, all accompanied by champagne. It was a night to remember.
The next day was a travel day, and our tour guide Anne-Elyse informed us that she had selected the song Greenlight as our anthem. Our main hashtags for the tripwere the contiki staple #noregrets (the motto for the company) and #where’samanda? (Because one girl had simply not shown up for the tour and had not contacted the tour office, standing to lose thousands of dollars. What had happened to her? No one knew). The bus ride itself was surprisingly pleasant. Music was usually played, along with occasional movies, and we stopped often for refreshments and bathrooms. Our bus driver even nicknamed myself, Maddie, and Becca as the “small luggage brigade” (a fitting moniker considering I was literally living out of my backpack).
But on this bus ride Anne-Elyse informed us that some extraordinary circumstances had occurred. We had been double booked with another Contiki tour at our next destination, and thus had nowhere to sleep. The tour had been desperately trying to find a solution, but with Easter weekend, the hostels and hotels in town were booked up. The last minute arrangements ended up being a plot of land for camping (even though the campground wasn’t open yet). We would be divvying up tasks, such as cooking, cleaning, and constructing our tents. We would be sleeping two to a tent, so we would be keeping our same roommate assignments. A few of the boys were ecstatic, but many of the rest of us were not exactly pleased at the prospect of having to camp outside with no heating or wifi or showers or toilets on Easter.
But all of our worries were laid to rest when Anne-Elyse informed us that there would be no camping. Easter had overshadowed the fact that the day was April 1st, and this was simply an elaborate April Fool’s joke. And indeed, we did in fact have perfectly fine accommodations in Bordeaux.
Bordeaux was a beautiful city, with incredible architecture and an interesting tram system for transportation. But the highlight was something called the mirror d’eau, a reflecting pool imbetween impressive buildings and the water. It would occasionally create mist in dramatic fashion, and at night you could see the lights mirrored on its surface.
Dinner for me consisted of a sandwich ordered from a local shop accompanied by an eclair. We ended the day with two new friends we made from Australia, Becky and Jess. By contributing three euros each we were able to buy two bottles of the Bordeaux wine in red and white. After some finagling to try and find a corkscrew, we stayed in our Australian friends’ room to play cards and a rousing game of heads up (which attracted other members of our Contiki tour group).
While Bordeaux was gorgeous, we only spent one day there, and early the next morning we were on our way to Spain. But before crossing the border, we stopped at the Dune of Pilat, the largest sand dune in Europe. Upon arriving at the base of the dune, you could choose to take the stairs or a simple footpath. Maddie turned to me, saying, “Let’s go!” before proceeding to literally run up the sand dune. I was obliged to follow, and it was honestly the most fun I’ve had in a long while. We were like kids in a sand box, taking numerous fun pictures, and Maddie even did some spontaneous yoga. We ended our hour of exploration by sprinting down the sand dune. It was the kind of experience that was unique to going on this tour. I never would have thought to look for sand dunes in France, and yet it was one of the absolute highlights of the tour.
Our last pit stop before entering Spain was Saint-Jean-de-Luz, which featured a waterfront. We grabbed some lunch and sat by the beach to enjoy the view before going on a quest for something sweet. I completed my sequence of french desserts with a humongous apricot filled beignet, and we ended our time with a stroll around the town.
Our time in France was amazing. We saw many aspects of French culture, from food to architecture to music. I even had the chance to practice some of my rusty language skills. While I didn’t have as much vocabulary as I would have liked, I knew enough to get by with french menus, read signs, and attempt the proper french pronunciation of words. We were also able to see a diverse section of France, from the countryside, to cities, to the french coast. Incroyable.