In life’s travels, we often take side trips. Some side trips prove to be integral aspects of our life’s journey, as in higher education, career choices, marriage, or having children. Others prove to be enlightening and exciting diversions.
In this series, Passport to the World, I will help tell my own life story by revisiting the side trips I have made. The first stop is France.
If I were a more negative person, I probably would have run screaming from Newark, New Jersey on 1 October 1998. Instead, I optimistically looked forward to my upcoming trip to France.
Upon boarding the Air France Boeing 747, we were informed by the captain that we were to be delayed. At 6:00 p.m., more than half an hour past our scheduled departure, the captain once again made an announcement. This announcement, however, was not the one we expected. The plane was taxiing to a remote area of the airport, where we were to disembark with our carry-on luggage. A bomb threat had been made on an undisclosed Air France jet departing New York for Paris. All flights from Newark and JFK were being searched.
As we left the plane, I was surprised at the number of rescue vehicles and bomb-sniffing dogs that were present. We were escorted to seven buses, where we would wait until the luggage in the plane was thoroughly inspected by the dogs. Several hours later, we were released from the buses, our carry-on luggage checked, and our other luggage identified. Only then did we reboard the plane. After eating dinner at 10:30 p.m., I fell into an exhausted sleep.
Because of the bomb threat, the entire first day of our vacation had to be rearranged. Our group missed the TGV (high-speed) train we were to ride from Paris to Tours. So we had to wait several hours until the next train departed. Unfortunately, that train was detained at a prior stop, so it was an hour late.
Exhausted, we finally arrived in Tours, a city in the heart of the Loire Valley. While in Tours, I had the privilege of visiting many of the ancient castles and fortresses that have immortalized this area, including Amboise, Blois, Chambord, Châteaubriant, Chenonceau, Cheverny, and Chinon. I was even was lucky enough to watch the end of a leg of the Paris-Tours bicycle race. (Our hotel was a block from the finish line.)
From Tours, we traveled to St. Malo, located in the province of Brittany. Brittany, because of its rugged coastline, boasts long beaches and tempestuous weather. While in St. Malo, we stayed in a spa resort on the beach, where many indulge in massages, mud baths, mineral water cures, and sea salt scrubs. Needless to say, I had a very relaxing stay.
The highlight to our Brittany visit was an excursion to Mont Saint-Michel, an ancient monastery which looms out of the water. The monastery, built on the peak of this island, is one of the oldest Christian sites in Europe and was a primary place of pilgrimage for centuries. Ascending more than 400 steps to the entrance of the monastery was a great workout, and the history surrounding the site made the visit worthwhile.
Upon leaving Brittany, we journeyed to the Normandy province. We stayed in Deauville, the resort town where Paris’ wealthy and famous sojourn. Our hotel was beautiful, well-respected, and extremely elegant. The Deauville casino was easily accessible from our hotel via an underground tunnel. My spouse won both nights on the slot machines. (I know my strengths, and gambling is NOT one of them. In lieu of betting, I read romances. Hey, when in France, embrace romance, right?)
While in Normandy, we visited the D-Day beaches, the American Cemetery, the Mémorial de Caen, and the Bayeaux Tapestry. The D-Day beaches still contain all the bunkers and underground tunnels that housed the German army. Even the bomb craters and grenade markings remain. Many tears were shed at the Mémorial de Caen and the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. The Bayeaux Tapestry, almost 250 feet in length, was simply awe-inspiring. This immense tapestry, created at the end of 11th Century, tells the story of the Battle of Hastings in 1066, when William I (my three-times 28th great-grandfather, my three-times 29th great-grandfather, and my 31st great-grandfather) conquered England.
We departed Normandy for Paris to spend our final four days in the City of Light. Despite the coolness and dampness of the days, Paris was beautiful. Within an hour of arrival, we journeyed from the hotel, located two blocks from the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs-Elysées, to Notre-Dame de Paris, one of the most impressive cathedrals in the world. I was awestruck with the architecture and the grandeur of this church. At Notre-Dame, history has been made time and time again. It was here that Napoléon crowned himself Emperor, and it was here where Charles De Gaulle gave thanks when Germany surrendered. That evening, we went to the Trocédero to view the Eiffel Tower at nighttime. What a sight!
The second day, we ventured to the Louvre to take in the Mona Lisa and her enigmatic smile, Venus de Milo, Winged Victory, the Code of Hammurabi, the Three Graces, and thousands of other priceless works of art. The Louvre, one of the world’s most renowned museums, houses its collection within the walls of an immense palace. The palace, like most nobility holdings, was seized by the government during the French Revolution and was designated a public treasure afterward. At the entrance to the Louvre complex rises a 3,300-year-old Egyptian obelisk. The Louvre lies at the far end of the Champs-Elysées, with the Arc de Triomphe at the other end.
On the third day, we visited the Musée d’Orsay, a fabulous museum housed in the old Paris railroad station. All the great French Impressionists and Whistler’s Mother can be discovered here. We also visited the Arc de Triomphe and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
On our final day in Paris, I had planned to visit Château de Versailles, a short train ride from Paris; unfortunately, it turned that the train workers decided to strike that day. Whatever the reason for their strike, Versailles was a no-go for me. Bummer. Well, I thought, at least Paris did not lack sites to see. However, en route to see these many sites, I watched in wonder as my last day of vacation ended much like my first day began; a student protest broke out along the Champs-Elysée and more than 100 police officers in riot gear rushed by. We left that drama behind and headed to the American Cathedral, Lady’s Diana’s Memorial, Napoleon’s Tomb, and Les Invalides. We also passed Auguste Rodin’s residence where the famous sculpture, The Thinker, is housed.
Needless to say, my trip to France was wrought with memorable experiences, not all of them positive. Luckily, the sights and flavors of France clearly outweighed bomb threats, train delays, worker strikes, and student protests. Mont Saint-Michel, the Eiffel Tower, and the Loire Valley châteaux made a more lasting impression on me than any of the negatives. After sampling the rich flavor of French history and culture, the bitter experiences barely were tasted.