My journey to London, Paris, and Rome
May 14 2013

London, Paris, and Rome

It took me 37 years to travel outside of the United States, but thanks to Go Ahead Tours I made the most of my first opportunity — a sweeping 11-day adventure across London, Paris, and Rome. I'm writing this recap not because I think people need to read it, but because I want to re-live it.

Day 1: Travel to London

I departed from SeaTac via British Airways for an overnight flight. Prior to this 9-hour trip the longest stretch I'd spent in a plane was 5 hours to Hawaii. The meals were surprisingly good by airline standards, but the leg room was disappointing for an international flight.

Day 2: Arrival in London

Feeling the jet's wheels touch down in Heathrow was a personal victory, but I couldn't savor it for long. Heathrow was a bit daunting to navigate, particularly since the immigration/passport hoops were all new to me. Go Ahead pre-scheduled a bus from Heathrow to the hotel, and let me tell you, the bus ride was an adventure unto itself. It seemed like we took six different exits just to escape Heathrow's gravitational pull and my disorientation was compounded by everyone driving on the wrong side of the road.

I checked in at H10 London Waterloo, and while it was nice to claim a "home base" I'll confess I was a little overwhelmed. The stress of unfamiliar territory, amplified by jet lag, had me wondering if it was a mistake to go solo. But later that evening I met the rest of my tour group, and though the dinner/orientation had its share of awkward moments (I was the only solo traveler) it also brought a sense of calm. Tour director Marcellus Miglioranzi put us all at ease immediately by addressing our newbie questions/concerns. His sense of humor and approachability was an added bonus.

Random observations
  • The Waterloo section of London was pretty close to what I expected — a lot of gray, beige, and brown buildings. When you're stressed and jet-lagged this is not a soothing combination of colors, but after some sleep, caffeine, and company, those drab colors suddenly become part of London's charm.
  • European bathrooms are weird, at least the ones in the hotels I stayed in. In this case I actually mean "bathrooms," as in Europe you should be careful to differentiate between a "bathroom" (where there's actually a bath) versus a "toilet" or "water closet." Anyway, in the hotel bathrooms there was no shower curtain, only a glass panel shielding half of the tub.
  • I appreciated how nearly every crosswalk was painted with "LOOK LEFT" or "LOOK RIGHT." I never did get the hang of the London traffic flow so it was surprisingly helpful.
Day 3: London Sightseeing

In each city there was a block of time set aside for sightseeing via a traditional bus tour, and the London tour was fantastic. Our local guide was a spunky British gal with a wicked sense of humor, and we covered nearly every major attraction you can think of — Picadilly Circus, Big Ben, Trafalgar Square, Tower Bridge, and so on. But the grand finale was grand indeed; we arrived at Buckingham Palace in time for a front-row view of the changing of the guard. The ceremony was so over-the-top (in a good way) that I found myself swelling with British pride, until I remembered I wasn't British.

From there it was off to Windsor Castle, which gave this castle fanatic the fix he sorely needed. The chances were excellent that the Queen was indeed somewhere on-premise (she doesn't reside in Buckingham Palace), but alas, she didn't come out to greet me as I'd hoped.

In the evening I'd mustered the courage to explore on my own, walking from the hotel to Westminster Bridge to catch Big Ben announcing the hour and stunning late-evening views of the downtown area. Despite the bustle of people all around the bridge, there was a very peaceful vibe as I watched the Eye get bathed in alternating colors.

Day 4: Free Day In London

For my "free day" I explored the Tower of London, which was simultaneously beautiful and chilling. After walking through various towers and courtyards I got to see the Crown Jewels — a nicely done exhibit with atmospheric music and videos projected against the walls. Already a bit worn out, I walked back across the Tower Bridge to meet a friend in-person for the first time. The plan was to get me some fish 'n chips but when I saw the huge portion sizes I decided I was happy just to see it up close.

Day 5: Travel to Paris

Off we went to the London train station (supposedly the largest brick building in the world), where we soon boarded the Eurostar to Paris. I'm happy to say that going under the English Channel was drama-free; it felt like any other tunnel in any other context. Truth be told, the train station in Paris was an eyesore and didn't do the city any favors in terms of first impressions. But once we got to the Mercure Montmartre hotel it was smooth sailing. The hotel was very comfortable (loved the room decor of red, black, and brown) and I felt at home almost immediately.

Our group walked to a local restaurant for a welcome dinner, making a brief stop at the Sacré-Cœur Basilica along the way. I had a view of the Basilica from my hotel room, and I made a point to stare at it for a while before turning in each night.

Day 6: Paris Sightseeing

I told friends and family before the trip, "If I can have just one conversation in French, the whole trip is a success." Well, it was more of an "exchange" than a "conversation," but at the hotel breakfast I spoke to the greeter exclusively in French and she didn't switch me to English. It was an awesome feeling, a reward for the work I'd put into studying French the past year and a half.

I was so thrilled with the exchange that, on the way back to my table, I stopped by and thanked her (in English) for being my first French conversation. She was very sweet and laughed as she said, "Oh, good, good!" A bit later I caught another glimpse of her and she was still grinning from ear to ear. I'd like to think it was because I made her day too... so that's what I'll continue to think :)

Late morning brought occasional threats of rain but we didn't miss a beat. The bus tour hit all the major sights along the Seine and beyond, and while I was in awe of the architecture and views from Champs-Elysees to Notre Dame, I didn't snap many photos as I knew they wouldn't translate.

The highlight of the tour came a few hours later. Brimming with confidence after conquering the Metro solo, I headed over to Champ de Mars, the grassy area at the base of the Eiffel Tower. The sun set behind the mammoth structure, which took on a life of its own as it was slowly illuminated. It was a sense of serenity I can't really describe and an evening I'll never forget.

Day 7: Free Day in Paris

I walked at least six miles throughout the day, starting at The Louvre (of which I only saw a tiny fraction in a couple hours) and meandering throughout the city the rest of the day. A few of us splintered off to have lunch (crepes! finally!) before we headed to Luxembourg Gardens. Quite the peaceful oasis in the midst of an energetic city, with flowers and statues galore and a a fountain/pond area where little kids pushed their boats across the water.

Day 8: Travel to Rome

This was the only "meh" day of the entire trip, spent almost exclusively on buses, planes, and holding patterns. When we finally arrived at Mercure Piazza Bologna I was exhausted, so I walked one lap around the block and then crashed.

Day 9: Free Day in Rome

We were off to Vatican City early in the morning; a good thing considering it was jam-packed with tourists even at that hour. I'm not Catholic so I probably wasn't affected as deeply as others, but I still enjoyed the splendor of the Sistine Chapel and all areas leading up to it. And hey, it was great to stand under that balcony I've seen so many times on television, the place where the Pope has stood and waved to the masses on many occasions.

The highlight of the day was the impromptu walking tour that followed. Marcellus lead us through the streets of Rome, with stops at Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish Steps. While I enjoyed each of those locations, my enjoyment was slightly diminished by the sheer number of tourists choking every sight and bumping into me every few seconds.

Random observations
  • Three times I tried to get authentic gelato, each time the vendors assured me I was looking at gelato, and each time it tasted exactly like ice cream. I'd been told that gelato was a different type of texture, almost string-like, so I have no idea if I scored gelato or not. It was tasty, whatever it was, and it helped combat the heat.
  • Rome doesn't have many sprawling views. At times I felt boxed in, almost like a rat in a maze. A very aesthetically pleasing maze.
Day 10: Rome Sightseeing

The bus tour was essentially a trip to The Colosseum and Forum Romanum. I was prepared to be blown away by these sights, expecting my imagination to go into overdrive. But if I'm being honest with myself, the suffocating presence of tourists prevented any semblance of true immersion. Don't get me wrong, I was truly impressed, but this felt more like a "check the item off the list" phase of the tour. In fairness to Rome, I think the whole group was fatigued at this point and looking ahead to the finish line.

The highlight of the day was the farewell dinner, capped off with an impromptu stop at a scenic park overlooking the city. I sensed it was a bittersweet moment for the group, knowing this would be our last evening in each other's company. I couldn't help but reflect on how much we'd experienced together, how so many moments were accentuated by laughter and side conversations. I realized that connecting with my fellow adventurers was just as vital to the overall experience as anything else. It was a different type of discovery that can't be prepared, planned, or bought.

Day 11: Departure

My head was swimming during the flights to Heathrow and Seattle, and I knew I'd soon be combating the post-adventure blues. I suppose the best remedy is to start the groundwork for the next trip, which will almost certainly be an extended stay in France. Something that'll take my immersion in the language and culture to the next level.

I'm not sure I can describe how important this trip was for me, and maybe that's a good thing. Suffice to say it was personal, something that pulled me out of my comfort zone and challenged me on many different levels. My perspective of the world has been forever changed, and as a bonus I made a few friends along the way. Sad as I am that it's over, I'm more invigorated than ever to push myself further, to see what's next.

An interactive walkthrough

Click the image below for a walkthrough of the trip:

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