Continuing from Part 1, where we ended on day 12, leaving Venice.
DAY 12 – Our next destination is Geneva, Switzerland, an overnight stop on the long journey to Paris. To get there, we traveled through the Alps.
In Part 1 of this post, I mentioned that traveling Europe by train is amazing, and this route was the best, without a doubt. The Alps were like a fairytale: lakes and waterfalls and snow and mountains, villages and vineyards and farms and castles. The only difference between the Alps and a fairytale is that the Alps are real.
It was difficult to capture the beauty of the Swiss Alps from the train, but we felt it.
Lake Geneva, a huge lake we rode by on our way to Geneva. Small castle-like buildings periodically lined its shores. It was amazing.
We arrived in Geneva in the evening, our original plan being to leave our luggage at the train station, spend the night on the town, and then head out the next day without ever sleeping. Upon arrival, however, we realized that was not the best idea, so we found a hotel to stay in for the night.
Also, it just so happened that tonight was the 4th of July. And Geneva is an international city with an American influence, making it the perfect place in Europe to spend America’s Independence Day.
Except Geneva is expensive! Really expensive, actually. We couldn’t find a burger for less than twenty-five bucks (plus sides, plus drinks), too much for us. We ended up at the only affordable place we could find: a Lebanese restaurant.
Lebanese food. Not very Fourth of July, but delicious!
Lake Geneva at night
DAY 13 – We wanted to spend today hiking the Alps, but as we learned from locals you can’t really do that from Geneva. So instead we explored the city: watches, chocolate, the Red Cross and UN buildings, lots of Swiss culture, with some French and American in there too.
Flower Clock, a working clock made of flowers, shrubs, and grass. The design is changed every season; this is what it looked like in the summer of 2007.
Lake Geneva in the daytime, with Jet d’Eau shooting high. Four-hundred sixty feet to be exact, the water at the base shooting up at 125 mph.
Getting soaked under the fountain. Not the smartest thing to do, since it was cold out, but it was fun!
The UN. We couldn’t go in or even approach the building because they were setting up for a meeting the following day.
By evening we went back to the train station and left for Paris.
DAY 14 – Paris was the main event of our trip, so we gave ourselves more time. Five days to be exact, not nearly enough, but hey, we’re backpacking, you can only stay in one place so long.
First up: the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe.
Having just been to Rome, it was natural to compare this city to that one. And they couldn’t be more different. While Paris is walkable and has an unbelievable amount to see and do, it is also somewhat spread out; everything isn’t on top of each other the way Rome (and London, and New York) is. Add to this the relaxed nature of the locals (no aggressive beggars or vendors, no one seeing us as dollar signs), much more greenery and cooler weather, and Paris was a much more relaxing experience than Rome. It was also super-beautiful and fun. We enjoyed it a lot.
The symbol of Paris and the most visited ticketed monument in the world. Built in 1889 as the entrance to the World’s Fair, the Eiffel Tower was the tallest structure in the world for 41 years. The design was originally criticized for placing aesthetics above function, even though engineering, not appearance, was the driving force behind the design. It is a beautiful monument, amazing in every regard, and completely lives up to the hype.
The view from the top. That’s the Arc de Triomphe near the center, where we are headed next.
Another view from the top. I’m still amazed at how great this place was. It took us hours to get up here (due to lines and overcrowding and an elevator malfunction) but even so, we were all laughter and smiles the entire time.
Commissioned by Napoleon in 1806 and built as a tribute to the citizens who died in the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars, the Arc de Triomphe was the largest triumphal arch in the world for over 100 years. It is located on a roundabout where twelve(!) streets converge.
After finishing at the Arc de Triomphe, we walked down Champs-Elysees, a French street known for its theaters, cafes, and also as the location of the New York Herald Tribune scene in Breathless. It is the route for France’s annual Bastille Day parade and is considered by the French to be the most beautiful avenue in the world.
After Champs-Elysees, we made our way back to our hotel, where we prepared for our evening activity: Sacre-Coeur.
Sacre-Coeur is located atop the highest hill in Paris, its nearest metro station located at the bottom. Just outside the metro was this.
Sacre-Coeur, one of the grandest churches in Paris, was built from 1875 to 1914 as penance for both France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war and the Paris Commune, a radical left wing government that briefly ruled Paris following the defeat. Today the building is dedicated to the fallen French soldiers of the war.
Sacre-Coeur was an amazing place to spend the evening. Located at the highest point in Paris, it provided great views of the city. Crowds formed outside the church, where everyone watched the sunset and listened to the street musicians who performed here nightly. And if all that wasn’t enough, nearby was a quaint bar/cafe district, where we drank and relaxed and chatted into the night.
DAY 15 – On our second day, we explored central Paris. We saw:
- Notre-Dame, the famous 800 year old church, one of the greatest examples of French Gothic architecture in the world
- The Pantheon, a 250 year old tribute to the ancient Roman building we saw earlier on our trip
- The Luxembourg Palace and Gardens, a 400 year old palace now used by the French Senate
- Hotel de Ville, a 400 year old government building, former city hall, former location of public executions, and current city administration building
- Bazar de l’Hotel de Ville, a seven-story department store and one of the most famous shopping locales in Paris
- The Pompidou, the largest modern art museum in Europe
We also had lunch with one of my travel companion’s uncles, who was living in Paris at the time.
The Notre-Dame Cathedral. Built between 1163 and 1250, the church is currently owned by the French government (who ensure no entry fees), while the Catholic Church has the exclusive right to use it for religious purposes in perpetuity.
Inside Notre-Dame. We didn’t enter too many churches on our trip, both to save money and also to not get too churched out (difficult to do when traveling through Europe, especially this trip, which took us to four of the ten grandest churches in the world). But Notre-Dame was free and is one of the grandest, so inside we went.
France’s Pantheon. Formerly a Catholic church and currently a mausoleum for France’s greatest secular citizens.
Inside the Pompidou. There are actually four breasts here, two pictured and two more on the back. A motorized pulley would release these breasts, causing them to plummet several stories, to just above a bunch of cylindrical pillow type things. The pulley would then re-motorize, haul the breasts back up, and drop them again. While this was happening, one cylindrical pillow was dragged by a machine around the perimeter of the floor, cutting a path through the other cylindrical pillows. Modern art is weird.
A band rocking out outside Hotel de Ville, in the square where they used to execute people.
For our evening activity we went back to Sacre Coeur, where we picnicked on crepes, listed to music, and watched the sunset.
DAY 16 – Today was a random day: we spent the first half at the Orsay, then went underground to check out the catacombs.
Inside the Orsay, France’s greatest modern art museum. Put simply, the Louvre (France’s greatest museum) covers ancient times to the 1800s, and this museum picks up where that museum leaves off.
When I was in high school, I took a Renaissance-to-present art history class at my local community college. Now, when I go to art museums, I specifically look for the paintings we studied in that class. The Orsay had three (clockwise, from upper left): Waterlilies by Claude Monet, Self-Portrait by Vincent Van Gogh, and Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette by Auguste Renoir.
For the record, the museum I’ve visited with the most artwork from that class is the National Gallery in London, with nine.
Human remains in the catacombs. Originally limestone mines, the catacombs were created when Paris’s cemeteries began to overflow in the late 1700s. Entire graveyards were moved here, and dead bodies from the French Revolution (the Reign of Terror in particular) were deposited here too. Today there are about six million skeletons in the catacombs, making it the largest graveyard in the world.
After the catacombs we felt like death, so I got a banana-nutella crepe near the exit. It was the best thing I’ve ever eaten (actually, all the food in Paris was the best I’ve ever eaten, especially the French bread. How can it be so good? I know it is cliche, but Paris really does have the best food in the world).
After finishing at the catacombs, we made our way back to our hotel, where we spent the night.
DAY 17 – Today we went to the Louvre, the grandest and most visited museum in the world. You can spend days here but our time was limited (plus, between this, the Orsay, and the Vatican Museum, we were getting museumed out), so we kept our visit to half a day.
The Louvre, one of the largest and most impressive buildings in Paris, was built as a fortress more than 800 years ago. In the mid 1500s it was replaced by a palace, serving as home for the King of France until Versailles was finished in 1682. At this point the Louvre became an artist residence, showcasing the royal family’s art collection, and during the French Revolution, it was converted to a museum. The iconic glass pyramid (seen in the center of the picture above) was added in 1993.
Some of the Louvre’s most famous works, all studied in my previously mentioned art history class. They are (clockwise from upper left): Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci (the most famous painting in the world), Venus de Milo* by Alexandros of Antioch, Hammurabi’s Code*, The Raft of Medusa by Theodore Gericault, Virgin on the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci, and Liberty Leading the People by Eugene Delacroix. Raphael’s Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione was on loan during our visit, so we didn’t get to see that one.
* studied in an ancient European history class I took alongside my art history class
We left the Louvre around mid-day, following Axe Historique (a line of monuments that connect the Louvre, Arc de Triomphe, and La Defense) and walking by the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel (smaller and less famous than the Arc de Triomphe), Tuileries Gardens, Place de la Concorde (the largest public square in Paris), a 3000 year old Luxor obelisk, and many of Paris’s grandest hotels. When we reached Champs Elysees, we left Axe Historique and headed to Palais Garnier, Paris’s former opera house. From here, we walked through Paris’s red light district, ending up at the 800 year old Church of Saint-Leu-Saint-Gilles. At this point, we headed back to our hotel, where we called it a night.
DAY 18 – Day-trip day. Normally we would have gone to Versailles, but today we had different plans: the small town of Compiegne, the finish line for a leg of the Tour de France. (Versailles will always be there; we’ll visit it on another trip.)
We arrived early to get a spot near the finish line, then we waited. About three hours before the riders were scheduled to come, we saw the pre-race sponsor parade and after that, the cars and helicopters that led the riders, radioing back about route and weather conditions. The riders themselves arrived forty-five minutes late, forcing us to run to the train station and change our reservations out of town; we lost our place near the finish line doing this. Our new spot, as close as we could get, was about two miles out. The bikers came about ten minutes after we found our new spot.
Three bikers came first, on a breakaway. They flew by, from beginning to end we saw them for about fifteen seconds. It was one of the most exciting fifteen seconds of my life. A couple minutes later the peloton came. It took about two minutes for them to travel by. Not as exciting as the breakaway, but still pretty fun.
And that was it. Hours of waiting, a parade, some cars and helicopters, fifteen seconds of crazy excitement, and two minutes of fun. Was it worth it? I’d say yes, worth it to have done it, but I don’t think I’d do it again.
Compiegne, a small city an hour north of France. I doubt tourists ever come here, but the city does have a castle (used by Louis XV and Napoleon), a fancy town hall, and the nearby forest is where Germany signed the armistice that ended WWI and France signed the armistice that ended the Battle of France in WWII. A lot of cool stuff for just some small city outside of Paris.
Simpsons entry in the pre-race parade.
The riders on the breakaway. They rode right by us!
The peloton. We heard from spectators near the finish line that the peloton caught up with the breakaway riders before the finish. Turns out that two miles out was the perfect spot to watch them. Lucky us!
Once the Compiegne leg of the Tour de France was over, we went back to the train station and took the train back to Paris, then took a night train (not planned, taken because of the delayed Tour de France finish) to the heart of France’s wine country: Bordeaux.
DAY 19 – We only had one day in Bordeaux but that was plenty: we are from California and the wineries in France and California are exactly the same (California modeled their wine after the French, except now California wine is better). We spent our day visiting a winery, going to wine shops and exhibits, and exploring Bordeaux and St. Emilion, a small neighboring wine village.
No matter where you go, vineyards are beautiful.
DAY 20 – Today is another train day, Bordeaux to Barcelona. Our train left in the afternoon and went surprisingly slow, so the trip took all day.
A sunflower farm we rode through on our way to Barcelona. Riding the train through Europe is the best!
Some final thoughts on France:
Amazing! We loved it! So much to see and do, so much art, culture, so much delicious food. We spent eleven days here, and while we got a good taste of the country, we missed so much: Versailles, Saint Chapelle, Pont du Gard, the entire north (Normandy, Mont Saint-Michel, Reims and Metz Cathedral), looks like we’ll have to come back here too!
Lastly, and this will be shocking to some: except for getting kicked out of our hostel in Paris (we stayed at a nearby hotel instead), we didn’t meet a single rude person or have a single negative experience the entire time we were here. France was great.
And now, onto the last leg of our trip: Spain!
DAY 21 – We spent a couple days in Madrid at the beginning of our trip, and now we have two days in Barcelona, then two more days in Madrid, then home.
First stop in Barcelona: Sagrada Familia. We were churched out by this point (I think that’s why we missed Saint Chapelle in Paris) but Sagrada Familia is one of the greatest churches in the world, so we made ourselves go. We’re glad we did.
Designed by Gaudi, the Sagrada Familia has been under construction for the last 130 years. Construction has taken so long because it is funded solely by private donations and tourist ticketing fees, with no support from the Church or Spanish government. We did not purchase entry tickets (too many churches, too many entrance fees), so we did not contribute to the church’s completion, which is scheduled for 2026.
Next up, Barcelona’s other most famous attraction: La Rambla. La Rambla is a tree lined pedestrian mall filled with vendors, shops, cafes, artists, dancers, street performers, and more. It extends from Placa de Catalunya (Barcelona’s city center, although it isn’t literally in the center of the city) to the seafront.
La Rambla, blocks and blocks like this.
A vendor selling caged squirrels, pigeons, chickens, turkeys, and more. This is illegal as of 2010 (we went in 2007).
Neighboring La Rambla is La Boqueria, the most amazing fruit/meat market I’ve ever seen. In addition to beautiful and delicious produce, they also had tons of meats, tapas, cheeses, and even some weird stuff, like goat heads, hooves, and brains.
After reaching the seafront we walked through the harbor to Parc de la Ciutadella, Barcelona’s oldest park, home to the Parliament of Catalonia. For decades this park was the only greenspace in Barcelona.
The harbor near La Rambla.
The Arc de Triomf, the main entrance to Parc de la Ciutadella, also the entrance to the 1888 World’s Fair. This’s the third triumphal arch we saw on this trip.
For our evening activities, we cooked at our hostel (Spanish food, almost all ham and strange crustaceans, wasn’t very good, although Barcelona’s was better than Madrid’s). Then we went to Montjuic, home to Placa d’Espanya, the National Palace, the 1992 Olympic grounds, and the Magic Fountain.
The Magic Fountain of Montjuic is the most amazing fountain I’ve ever seen (yes, I’ve been to the Bellagio). This is because not only does the fountain sync to music, but the colors do too, constantly changing to reflect the song’s mood. It was very beautiful.
Also, you can stand in front and get cool silhouettes of yourself.
The National Palace, built as the main site for the 1929 World’s Fair. It now houses the National Art Museum of Catalonia.
DAY 22 – For our last day in Barcelona, we started out back in Montjuic, at the Montjuic Castle.
While this wasn’t the first castle we visited on our trip, this was the first one that really felt like one. With its hilltop position, a moat, a drawbridge, and numerous other medieval features, this castle is just how we picture castles, minus the battlements.
The entrance to the castle. Built as a fortress in 1640, it was converted to a castle 50 years later. The moat and drawbridge are also pictured, the moat now drained, the water replaced with a garden.
View from the castle. Sagrada Familia is far left, Torre Agbar is center left, and the Mediterrenean coast is far right.
After the castle, we headed to Barceloneta Beach, the main beach in Barcelona. Unlike the beaches in France, this was a sandy beach, but it was gross sand, very coarse and dirty. The sun was nice, as was the water (minus the jellyfish), but even so, we didn’t stay long.
Barceloneta Beach. Other than the sand, it was a very nice beach (according to Wikipedia, the World Health Organization opened an investigation into the sand here less than a year after we visited).
After the beach, we hopped on our train back to Madrid. We stayed in Puerto del Sol again, at the same hostel as the first two nights of our trip. And this time, one of my old friends was there, someone I played Maccabi soccer with back in high school. What are the odds?
My old Maccabi friend. We joined him and his friends for a night out, where we drank and danced and partied through the night.
DAY 23 – We saw most of Madrid at the beginning of our trip, but there is still plenty more to do. First we went to the Prado, Spain’s greatest art museum, which had more than 140 paintings by Francisco Goya and two paintings that were studied in my art history class: The Third of May by Goya and Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez.
After the Prado, we went to Plaza del Toros, where we watched a bullfight.
Unfortunately, unlike the other art museums we visited on this trip, the Prado didn’t let us take pictures inside.
Plaza del Toros. We have no idea what we are getting ourselves into.
They kill the bull everytime! We couldn’t believe it. It’s supposed to be painless: the better the matador is the less pain the bull feels, but one of the matadors we watched wasn’t very good, after his kill stroke it took minutes for the bull to collapse, minutes in which the bull suffered tremendously. It was horrible to watch and we didn’t stay long after that.
After a rough time at the bullfight and a night of partying last night, we took tonight easy, staying in our hostel and hanging out with our hostelmates.
DAY 24 – The last day of our Eurotrip. We’ve already done most of what Madrid has to offer, so we relaxed today; we followed a Rick Steves walk, had some churros, and enjoyed all we’d experienced our last month in Europe.
Plaza Mayor, a 400 year old plaza we visited on our Rick Steves walk. Rick Steves is the best, unfortunately we didn’t learn this until the end of our trip.
Churros con chocolate. Yuuuuummmmm
DAY 25 – We flew home!
Final thoughts on Spain: it’s amazing, but difficult. Difficult because the food isn’t too good and the Spanish schedule is crazy (up at 7, lunch at 3, dinner at 9, party all night and never sleep), amazing because of the culture and people, both of which are great! We only got a small taste of Spain, so, like France and Italy, I want to go back!
An approximate map of our trip (approximate because the routes shown are by car; Google Maps does not support Eurail routes): 3250 miles by train, 22 miles by bus (not counting intercity buses), and another 390 miles driving. Looking at the map, it would have been more efficient to do Barcelona at the beginning of our trip, then go from Bordeaux to San Sebastian/Bilbao to Madrid at the end. I think the train from Barcelona to Nice being less than once per day is what prevented us from doing this. Also, if we didn’t go the way we did, we wouldn’t have rode through the sunflower farm in southwestern France!
I’ll finish this post by noting that this was my first time in Europe, my first backpacking trip, and also my first time outside North America other than on a guided tour. As such, I learned so much! Things like:
- Be flexible, but also know what you want. Things will come up, like sometimes you have to rent a car rather than take the train
- Reserve high speed train tickets ahead of time, especially in Spain
- Rick Steves is better than Lonely Planet
- When it comes to beach quality, sand is as important as water (Southern California has great sand, the Mediterranean has great water)
- Three days in Rome is plenty, but watch out for Vatican only holidays
- Switzerland is expensive, and Geneva is the cleanest place ever
- You don’t need to be at the Tour de France all day, just arrive for the parade and stand a mile or two from the finish line
- Paris really does have the best food in the world
- Spanish food is not Mexican food, not even close. It also isn’t very good
- Bullfighting sucks
- Don’t use roller suitcases when backpacking
- When traveling abroad, don’t do things you can do at home (like wine country, it’s the same everywhere)
- You can’t hike the Alps from Geneva, but taking the train through them is awesome
- Sometimes it’s better to travel with friends, sometimes it’s better to travel alone. Likewise for traveling with guys vs girls
- When traveling through Europe, it’s hard not to get churched and museumed out
- Pretty much everything lives up to the hype, Italy and Paris especially
- No matter how long your Eurotrip is, it’s not long enough
Alright! That’s the end of this post. Bye!