A couple of weeks ago, the University of Chester had their personal development week. While students here do not get fall break or, understandably, Thanksgiving break, they do receive a week off during the fall semester which is commonly referred to as reading week. Most students take this as an opportunity to go home or to catch up on school work, but my roommate and I took it as a chance to travel. We spent two days in London and then three days in Paris.
We took the train from Chester to London Euston on Halloween. The first thing that we did was walk over to Kings Cross Station to get a picture in front of the trolley cart under the sign of Platform 9 ¾ from the Harry Potter books and movies. On the way, we passed the British Library. Despite seeing tons of historic sites in London, that was one of the places that I was the most impressed by (it was way bigger than I thought it would be). We waited in line for a long time, and then a worker from the Platform 9 ¾ store let us choose which scarf we wanted to wear and flipped it while we had our pictures taken by a professional photographer. We were then funneled into the store and had the option to buy our pictures on a keychain (I stuck with the cell phone pictures). We took the taxi from there to our hostel.
It was the first hostel I have ever stayed in and it was pretty much as nice as I anticipated hostels to be. It was very clean, but very small. The room we were in housed six girls and had a number keypad on the door to get inside. The first thing we saw were two stacks of three bunk beds with a girl sitting on the top bunk working on her laptop. Each bed had a UK plug-in, a European plug-in, and a light. The only thing that really bothered me was that the closest I could get to sitting straight up was almost doubled over with my head bowed.
That night, we passed Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament on our way to see the London Eye. We had fish and chips right off of the Thames and then saw the outside of Westminster Abbey, 10 Downing Street (through the police and metal dividers), and we visited Trafalgar Square. My favorite part of London was when I visited Westminster Abbey with a friend I hadn’t seen in a few years and his family. When we were going through, I had to slowly realize that yes, it probably is THAT Fill-in-the-blank-with-a-famous-name buried there. I also had not realized that Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and other prominent scientists were buried there. I loved Poet’s Corner, but I also really enjoyed seeing where Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I were buried together (I hadn’t realized that they were buried together before seeing it firsthand). After the Abbey, we visited the Natural History Museum and I got to see the archeology exhibits we are studying right now in class which was really cool. We had just watched some videos about the making of their mannequins that week in class.
We took the early morning train to France and arrived before the check in time, so we decided to go sightseeing. We walked around our hostel until we found a Boulangerie/Patisserie where we got baguette sandwiches and talked with a couple of great ladies from Paris. (Everyone we ran into in Paris speaks very good English, and when I would say “bonjour,” they would just look at me and tell me that they could speak English. It was helpful so I didn’t have to struggle to remember my French from four years ago.) The ladies told us to buy day passes so we could save money on the Metro, so we headed over there and took the train to the Arc de Triomphe. On the way back, we visited the Eiffel Tower. It was beautiful when we just sat in the park right next to it and watched the leaves fall. All around Paris, there are men who carry around rings of small Eiffel Tower figurines and selfie sticks to sell to tourists. That night we visited Pont Neuf, Notre Dame, and Sacre Coeur. We got to Sacre Coeur at sunset and it was an amazing view of the city.
The next day, we visited the Louvre. I loved wandering around the museum and seeing all of the amazing pieces of art. The building that houses the collections is almost as beautiful as the pieces of art it contains, and the part I liked the most was the Apollon gallery dedicated to Apollo and the sun. My favorite collections were the French sculptures and the Coptic artwork from Egypt, but the most emotional part was when I visited the room with the Mona Lisa. I had been walking down a long hall of Italian paintings and I decided to go into a small side gallery when I noticed some huge crowds inside it. Half of them were staring at the wall with the doorway I had just come through and half of them were staring on another wall opposite. I glanced at the wall nearest me just long enough to see that it was a giant painting and then noticed that the other wall held the Mona Lisa. As soon as I realized that, I looked behind me at the large painting again because it was the spot my dad had described to me a thousand times as where his favorite painting is. When I realized that it was indeed the painting he liked, I started tearing up because it sank in that this was where my father had visited when he was my age and that probably millions of visitors have walked by that spot since then. I wasn’t as impressed by the Mona Lisa as I was by other pieces of art I saw in the Louvre. I had always thought that it would be bigger and possibly brighter, but there were also crowds of tourists taking selfies in front of it so I couldn’t examine it very long.
Later that day, we visited the catacombs. There was no line, just two men standing outside a small doorway which had the name above it in a very non-obvious location. We had our bags checked (like everywhere in Paris), showed our tickets, and started walking down a very long set of spiral stairs. We walked for a long time through the old mine shafts until we reached a doorway which said overhead that we were about to enter the empire of the dead (as close as I could tell from my translation skills). We had not seen any bones before that, but as soon as we walked through the door, there were stacks of bones to about my shoulder height. There was no barrier between the visitors and the bones, just signs saying not to touch or take any of the bones. It was really weird because I could identify some of them. A majority of what we could see were bones of the arms and legs forming the bulk of the base with skulls and other bones on the top. At one point, there was a scapula just resting on top of the others like there had been no other place to put it. There were different areas which contained shapes like hearts and crosses made of the craniums. There were also inscriptions periodically to denote which cemeteries the remains were from. As I was walking through, it started to sink in just how many remains had been moved under the city. The whole experience seemed surreal, and I have still not fully realized the whole extent of the catacombs. Before I went through, I was a little worried that it would seem sinister, but it just seemed more bittersweet than anything. After we left the catacombs, we visited the pillar where Bastille had been, Pont Alexandre, le Grand Palais, and le Petit Palais.
The next day, we visited Versailles. It was impressive and my favorite parts were the ceilings. They featured different murals and paintings along a different theme each time. The Hall of Mirrors definitely lived up to all of the hype it gets, but there were a lot of rooms that I loved which usually get overlooked. One of those was the Hall of Battles. It contained huge paintings of influential battles of France dating back to medieval times. One of the most shocking to me was when I looked up and saw George Washington and the Battle of Yorktown. Fans of the musical Hamilton will know about the importance of the French to the colonies during the battle, but I had not connected the dots that it had been monumental for France. In the audio commentary, it mentioned that the painting showcased the French dedication to fighting for liberty. I am accustomed to hearing that phrase from Americans, but I also love hearing it in other countries around the world because it reminds me that we are not by any means alone in that aim and that we have shared that goal for a long time. It was a cold and rainy day, but we walked around the gardens and saw the Petit Trianon and the Grand Trianon. We did not visit the Queen’s Hamlet because we were frozen all the way through, but I enjoyed seeing all of the buildings we did see. The gardens were filled with beautiful sculptures, like the one in the picture above (that fountain also contained some really pretty but grumpy swans). It was amazing because I studied the history of France in high school French, and it was like all of my textbooks came to life with gold covering everything.
I loved seeing all of the areas throughout Paris which I have wanted to visit for years. Paris was my favorite city of the two we visited. It reminded me of Chicago and Washington, D.C. mixed together with a very long history, and all of the people I met were very friendly and proud of their city. I would love to visit both London and Paris again sometime to revisit some sites and see lots of new ones.