Thirty-nine years ago, I took a part time job as a travel agent while going to college, and I always dreamed of someday going to Paris, France. I studied the history, the artists that were inspired by the city and I fell in love with the elegant romance of the Eiffel Tower. Through the years I have had the privilege of traveling to almost every island in the Caribbean, Hawaii many times, Mexico, and almost every state throughout the United States. But my dream of seeing Paris remained just that, a dream. Until a month ago when I found out that I was going to Paris and Barcelona with Rail Europe!
Arriving in Paris, I walked outside to a misty gloomy day, just as I hoped, just as I pictured. I took in a deep breath and began my amazing adventure. Arriving at 10:30 in the morning, I wanted to make my way to the first bakery or cafe to have a croissant and some coffee. I checked in at the Mercure Paris, Paspail Hotel in Montparnasse, took my luggage to my Parisian boutique room and strolled the streets of Paris with a smile and found the perfect little pastry shop with its window filled with croissants and French pastries.
Our group of 10 met in the lobby of the hotel and went across the street to have lunch and get to know each other. From there, we toured a total of four train stations in Paris. The trains are their main mode of transportation and they make it very easy to get across the city.
Each train station is filled with people going to work, going on vacation, or just a weekend getaway to the many cities that are just a short train ride away. On the way back to our hotel we walked through an old historical cemetery. The gravestones were as extravagant as the architecture in the buildings. That night we dined on fondue at the restaurant next to our hotel. It was fabulous!
The next morning, we took the hop on hop off bus throughout the city seeing all the sights that make Paris famous. As the bus turned the corner, we were told to look to the right and slowly the Eiffel Tower came into sight. The bus stopped in front of it and I found myself holding my breath and tears flowing. The emotions took me by surprise but there in front of me was this monument that until now I had only seen in photos and in movies. I couldn’t stop staring at it and realized a lifetime dream had just been fulfilled. I had no idea that the next 6 days were going to exceed any expectation I had of this trip starting with the next journey to the Musee d'Orsay.
After a few minutes of walking through this two-story architectural masterpiece, I found myself standing in the doorway of a room that was dimly lit except for the spotlights on some paintings. I looked at the sign beside the door and it read “Van Gogh and Gauguin”. I walked in and staring at me was Van Gogh’s self-portrait. Studying art in college did not prepare me for the up-close viewing of this masters artwork. I walked around, slowly taking in each one of his paintings and I imagined him painting them and thought about what his own eyes saw. I continued thinking about how while he was creating them, how he had no idea how special they would someday become to so many people like myself. I left there with a new-found inspiration of my own art that was yet to be created.
The rest of the day was spent exploring the city with my new group of friends. We visited the Lindt Chocolate shop where I enjoyed a brownie and chocolate espresso. We went shopping at the Gallerie Vivienne and continued with a visit to the square surrounded by the Louvre.
We then baked macaroons with a pastry chef and that evening took a dinner cruise on the Seine River. The majestic Eiffel Tower was now lit up in the night sky and as we rode down the river she began to sparkle as everyone cheered and watched her show. Down the river was the Statue of Liberty with the Eiffel Tower in the background. The views were beautiful beyond words.
Day 3 was a day on our own to explore anywhere we wanted to go on the train within 2 hours from Paris. Wendy and I decided to take a trip to Brussels, Belgium. The train was quiet and relaxing with scenery so breathtaking. We arrived in Brussels and went to the Grand Place Square with cathedrals and chocolate shops and people walking the cobblestone streets. We passed windows of waffles covered in whipped cream and chocolate and fruit. We found the Manneken Pis (the small statue of a child peeing in the fountain). It has been the statues home since 1388 and after seeing the amount of people gathered around him, we soon realized that he is quite a famous little guy. The statue was dressed in carnival attire since it is carnival season in Brussels. After, we went on to purchase some chocolate to take home and then stopped at a quaint little restaurant to enjoy some ale and pasta with cheese and ham, it was wonderful. We then took the train back to Paris and got ready for the Lido show that night. The Lido was great, the food amazing, and the entertainment was spectacular. It was truly a great night.
On day 4 we packed our bags for our six-hour train ride to Barcelona. It was so easy and relaxing. We ate, played cards, read books and even napped! We could get up and walk around the train and the views were just unbelievable. From the train, we could see the snowcapped Piton Mountains that separate France from Spain, as well as views of the Mediterranean Sea all right outside our windows!
We arrived in Barcelona and checked into Hotel Claris which is located in the heart of the shopping district. They showed us to our rooms, and I was immediately blown away. My room was two levels with a spiral staircase going up to a loft with a couch and a TV, and waiting for me was a bottle of chilled wine and chocolates welcoming me to Barcelona. We dined at the hotel in a private dining room and a meal prepared by a Michelin Chef. It was so good and I tried foods I would have never tried before, including escargot and octopus. We took in the views of Barcelona from the rooftop at night and looked forward to seeing the architectural masterpieces of the city tomorrow.
Day 5 was a day filled with a walking tour of La Rambla Boulevard, the Gothic Quarter, La Boqueria Market, La Manuel Alpargatera - an original espadrille shop where they still handmake espadrilles. We were able to watch them work and purchased our very own espadrilles.
We went on to the Lupo design office and had a chance to meet the designer of some of the most beautiful leather purses. The leather was the softest I have ever touched and to see how they prototype the designs to send to the factory and then to visit the store that they are sold was wild. The actual designer herself took us through and you could tell she was so proud to show us her products. Sadly, none of us left there with a purse as they start at $1,200.00.
We then went on to a cooking class with a Chef at BCN Kitchen where we prepared Spanish omelets, paella (a rice and seafood dish), garlic bread and crème catalona (like crème Brule). This was such a treat! That evening we dined at Caso Leopldo, a restaurant that is over 90 years old that has had patrons such as Picasso dine there.
Day 6 was another day on our own and some of us decided to stay in Barcelona since there was so much to see and do. I so wanted to go to the Picasso Museum and so I headed out early on my adventure. I took a taxi and then walked through the Gothic District going in and out of art galleries on my way to the museum. To my disappointment, the museum was closed due to International Women’s Day and there were to be thousands in the square marching for women’s rights. I found myself amidst the peaceful march of thousands of women dressed in purple. It was incredible being a woman traveling to a country I had never been and exploring on my own for the day. I ended my adventure at the Barcelona Beach overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. I have been to many beaches over the years but this one was special. The rocks instead of sand looked like gems reflecting the water and the sun. I took off my shoes and rolled up my jeans and stood in the ice-cold water and just stared out to the sea with gratitude and excitement to be here. That evening, we dined at an authentic Spanish restaurant and had the delicacy of onions that had been grilled to a burnt black. You peel the outside of the onions off and dip them in what I think tasted like a chipotle sauce and it was delicious!
Day 6 we were all picked up at the hotel by a private limousine bus and a private tour guide took us to the Sagrada Familia. This was just another emotional experience for me. As I got closer and witnessed the beautiful architectural mastery of Gaudi I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to just stand there and take it all in. The inside was even more beautiful than the outside, with all of the stained glass and arches to hold up the massive towers above. Hearing how Gaudi came to design this and then build this work of art, made it all that more treasured and a blessing to be standing within its walls. We then went to San Pau Art Nouveau, an historic hospital complex that closed in the 1960's. It became a UNESCO World Heritage in 1997 and is a place not to be missed when in Barcelona.
We then traveled to Montjuic Hill for a bird’s eye view of Barcelona. It was breathtakingly beautiful. That evening, we attended a flamingo dinner show in the Spanish Village and then back to the hotel it was to pack for our flights home the following day.
As I was riding to the airport, a sadness came over me and I realized that I now want to see as much of Europe as I possibly can. It was a trip that I have longed for and I never dreamed that I would get to have this experience. Well, it finally happened, and I absolutely loved every single second of it. I can’t wait to go back!
Contact Leigh Cardwell at 314.439.5700 ext. 131
or email her to begin planning your trip to Paris & Barcelona!
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