Days 1 & 2
Our intrepid travelers started their journey at noon in New York and finally touched down in Madrid at about noon Central European Summer Time, after two flights and an early morning layover in Amsterdam. All travel into Europe was smooth and comfortable. Our tour guide for the week, Andréanne, greeted us at the gate and wasted no time in introducing herself and injecting the group with enthusiasm. Bellies empty and heads full of excited fatigue, we started our visit in sunny, warm Spain with a visit to Madrid’s Mercado (a bustling food vendor’s paradise) for some local treats to try for lunch. Refreshed from our repast, we met with a local tour guide, Beatriz, who led us on a healthy walking tour through the winding streets of Madrid to explore the sights of the capital palace, the cathedral, Plaza Mayor, and the original site of Cervantes’ home (where he penned his world-renowned novel, “Don Quixote”). With tired feet and hunger mounting, we shuffled ourselves to the Taberna del Chapo, where we were treated to a spectacular dinner of tapas, featuring classical local selections, including Spanish tortillas, partridge paté and prawns’ nests, among other delicious delights. After two long days of traveling and touristing, our weary voyagers finally headed to their hotel for some much-needed rest and relaxation, where we enjoyed the benefits of an entire night of sleep.
What a day! We could not have asked for nicer weather—warm, dry temperatures and bluebird skies as far as the eye can see. We started our morning with a fabulous breakfast buffet at the hotel, and then set out via the Madrid metro to visit the Palacio Royal de Madrid, where we were treated to an audio tour through the spacious and opulent rooms of Spain’s historic capital edifice. The architecture, art, and tales of royal gatherings were a feast for eyes and imaginations. We walked into town to lunch at some local cafés, and then hopped back on the subway to head to Spain’s most famous art museum, El Prado. We viewed famous works by Velazquez, El Greco, and Goya (among others). Having spent the better part of our day enriching our minds, we then lightened our wallets a bit on the Gran Via, where all of the most fashionable Spaniards find the classiest threads. A few members of the group headed back to the hotel for a freshening-up before the evening event, while a few of us continued our spending spree. Later, we all met up at the ‘Taberna de Mister Pinkleton’ for an evening of Flamenco music and dance while we dined on tapas and postres (desserts) before taking the metro one last time to our fabulous hotel for a night of well-earned rest.
It was another stunning day—warm, sunny skies with a lovely breeze to refresh spirits as we took in the sights for our last day in España. We spent the morning in Madrid’s neighboring hamlet, Toledo (the capital of La Mancha). We were reunited with our city guide from Monday, Beatriz, who led us through the narrow cobblestone streets of this historic city. With picturesque hills surrounding the town, the views of Toledo from the roadside are spectacular, as are the views inside the town. We took in the Gothic architecture of ancient cathedrals, and were treated to a visit of the Iglesia de San Tomé, which houses one of El Greco’s most famous works, “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz”. An unexpected and special treat was a tour of Toledo’s historic synagogue, Sinagoga de Santa María La Blanca, which was built in the Arabian tradition, featuring a Catholic coat of arms on its main wall. After lunching in the town square, we headed back to Madrid for a bicycle tour of “El Parque de Buen Retiro,” where we were dazzled by the luxurious gardens, statues, ‘crystal palace’, and wandering peacocks. To celebrate our victorious cycling excursion, we visited some Madrid souvenir shops and then dined on Tapas and delicious cakes at La Taberna Más al Sur before heading back to the hotel for a night of restful sleep.
Wow, what a day! We rose at dawn for early breakfast in order to be on time for our flight to Paris. We had a real “travel adaptation” experience when our charter bus was sent to the wrong hotel, but Madrid’s Taxi services stepped in and whisked us in groups to the airport to catch our flight to the City of Lights. After checking into our hotel, we lunched on classic French baguette sandwiches before taking the metro to the Louvre museum to explore the magnificent palatial architecture and to view a few rather well-known pieces (you may have heard of a little thing called the Mona Lisa…?) Another metro ride brought us within walking distance to our restaurant for the evening—we managed to arrive just as the skies opened up and showered the city with a refreshing deluge. Happy to be under a roof, we dined on a delicious three-course meal, complete with chocolate mousse pie for dessert. Finally, we strolled right around the corner to Paris’ most breathtaking landmark, the Eiffel Tower, just as the sun was beginning to set over the city. The rain had cleared, leaving us with postcard-perfect pink clouds and a cool breeze to bask in the tower’s beauty in twilight. After a healthy session of picture-snapping, everyone took the elevator to the second landing, and many of our students dared to go all the way to the top, where we were treated to an aerial view of the Paris at night, lights gleaming from below. Tired feet and a late hour gave us reason to take another taxi caravan back to Hotel Ohm for a night of well-earned rest.
It was another jam-packed day of intense touristing for our world travelers today! Our morning was spent entirely in Versailles, where we strolled through the magnificent gardens and stunning palace. We lunched on café fare in the quaint village surrounding the castle, and then headed back to Paris to view the Arc de Triomphe and stroll along the Champs-Élysées, where we contributed mightily to the French economy. In the late afternoon, we took the metro to Montmartre, where we rode the funicular up to town for a view of Paris from above. After a bit more souvenir shopping (and a few éclairs and crêpes), we sat down to dinner at the Frenchest French restaurant in France: La Crémaillère. While we were treated to the dulcet tones of live piano and singing, the country’s most accommodating waitstaff treated us all to a delicious meal of various main dishes, and many of our students were brave enough to taste some traditional French foods: bœuf bourguignon, escargot, and frogs’ legs! The sun having finally set at its late solstice hour, we took our last metro ride back to the hotel for a night of rest.
This morning we bid ‘adieu’ to Beau Paris and set off toward the Normandy coast in a luxurious and speedy coach bus, which carried us directly to the Caen Memorial Museum, where we were treated to a guided tour. Our tour guide delivered a thorough and captivating explanation of World War II, particularly from the French perspective, and the events leading up to and following D-Day. We examined artifacts and explored a replica underground bunker. After lunching at the museum café, we hopped back on the motorcoach for a tour of some of the coastline’s memorials, including the cemetery where the American soldiers are interred. It was a solemn and moving experience for students and chaperones alike, and we’re grateful to have had the chance to pay homage to those who gave the ultimate sacrifice in the name of liberty and humanity. A short bus ride brought us into the town of Caen, which was booming with the town’s annual summer solstice music festival. The streets were filled with street musicians and revelers cheering the late sun, providing us with a festive atmosphere as we strolled a short distance to our evening restaurant, Le Caen Grill, where we were treated to traditional French cuisine and a local specialty for dessert: caramelized apples.
For our final day in Europe, we visited one of France’s most picturesque landmarks, Le Mont-Saint-Michel. This historic monastery was constructed in the 8th century and is surrounded by a bay whose tide rises and falls by 15 meters on a daily basis. It is still operational as a monastery and an abbey (although it experienced time as a prison during the Ancien Régime), and has a population of about 20 people. We made our pilgrimage by shuttle to the entrance and enjoyed an informational guided tour through the alternating Romanesque and Gothic architecture. With a bit of free time in the tourist village, we bought some souvenirs and lunched on various Normandy fare, including crêpes, omelettes, and oysters. For our final activity, we put our lunch to good work by hiking 4 1/2 miles across the bay at low tide through the mud, quicksand, and shallow rivers, while learning about the local ecology along the way from our knowledgeable guide. We all enjoyed sinking in the quicksand (including Dr. Juhel!) and skating along the slippery packed earth as we trundled along to the bus awaiting us on the other side of the bay. Finally, we dined at a quaint local restaurant, La Petite Marmite, whose specialties include what our guide referred to as “French guacamole” and lemon meringue pie!
The next day, we flew back home, exhausted but with beautiful memories from our European tour.