It’s been a month since I arrived from my spontaneous European trip. I say « spontaneous » because before embarking on this journey, I had no way of comprehending that a trip to my favourite continent in the world would actually be possible. I mean, I had just gotten back from my Asia travels and also the fact that I still need to find a career-related job. So it was truly a big deal for me. Nevertheless, I am ever so grateful for my family and God for making everything align.
My sister (who after days of convincing, I was able to finally encourage to come with me) and I booked a return ticket to Gatwick, London back in June. We thought this would be practical for us as we have family friends there whom we haven’t seen in 16 years (well, we ‘virtually’ see each other on Facebook and Instagram). Then, we would take the train to Paris, where my aunt’s family will be be meeting with us. After Paris, we would fly to Rome and then back to London. We had two months of planning and sorting everything out, but it wasn’t until two weeks before departure that I started reading articles about the Metro trains in Paris, buses in Rome and the famous Tube in London. I was worried a bit about our luggage when we travel within Europe, especially when we were planning to take the 2-hour Eurostar ride from London to Paris as they had weight limits. But anyway, my sister and I managed and needless to say, I was quite impressed.
A return ticket to London let us see 10 cities and 3 countries in 14 days. In total, we visited 5 countries around 16 days (including stopovers and flight hours). Oh, and what made this trip all the more fun was the fact that we embarked on the world’s second longest flight that is Dubai-Auckland.
THE UNITED KINGDOM
Brighton & Hove:
After arriving in Gatwick Airport, our family friends drove us straight away to one of the sunniest places in the country, Brighton & Hove Beach. Famously known for its seaside funfair, the Brighton & Hove beach is the perfect family getaway. It’s like traditional Britain revamped with a twist and splash of bright and neon colours. We strolled along the esplanade overlooking the Brighton Palace Pier, a fantastic 4-storey arcade full of games for all ages and food stalls. Though, strolling in the heat became unbearable so we decided to stop at one of the food stalls inside the Pier and munched on some churros.
As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to visit this quirky English city. It’s always been the place I used in my short stories during my creative writing classes from way back. So being there physically was a day to remember.
We then drove to Arundel in West Sussex to see the Arundel Castle. Situated in magnificent grounds overlooking the River Arun, this great castle has more than 1000 years of history. It was my first time to see a real life castle (*squeal!) so I made sure I ticked that one off on my bucket list.
The following day, we hit the ground running. We caught the train from Brighton Station to St. Pancras International Station to catch the Eurostar to Paris. It was a 2 hour ride and it was lovely to see the English countryside as well as the typical British homes; it was like a scene straight out of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist.
Once at St. Pancras International, we boarded another train, Eurostar which took us straight to Gare du Nord in Paris. The journey to the City of Lights was approximately two and a half hours and I’ll never forget my excitement when we traversed through the English Channel. There wasn’t much to see but to think that we were travelling at 375 km/h 75m below sea level was truly amazing and memorable – another item ticked off the bucket list!
It was late in the afternoon when we arrived in Gare du Nord. Excitement and trepidation both raced through me as I stepped out of the train and gawked at one of Paris’ largest terminus stations. Excitement, because finally I was in the city I truly love. Trepidation, because my sister and I were both unfamiliar with the place and how the French public transport works, and we needed to catch the Metro train to our hotel, which was only about 12-minute walk from the station. But because of the scorching heat (37 degrees), we decided a short train ride would be much better. Nevertheless, thanks to my French-speaking skills, we managed to find our train’s platform.
Our first day in France was spent in the Palace of Versailles, a striking seventeenth century palace used to accommodate French royals. The 800-hectare estate was once a seat of power, and its magnificent facade and enormous rooms will make you wonder how the French managed to build a giant structure in a time when technology didn’t even exist.
Highlight of the day was walking through the Hall of Mirrors, The Gardens and King Louis XIV’s bedchamber. I am a sucker for the TV show Versailles so being in the same room where the actors would film was a big deal for me. Also, what made it extra cool is the fact that his bedchamber was situated at the very centre of the palace, facing east. This is because King Louis XIV’s referred to him as the ‘Sun King.’ (Side note: I should probably place my bedroom in the centre of my home then). Another highlight: I got to eat Mille Feuille inside the Palace’s cafe (*internally screaming!).
After visiting King Louis XIV’s crib, being the adventurers that we are, we caught the RER train back to central Paris and dined at an Italian cafe along the Avenue des Champs–Élysées and waited there til dark so that we could catch a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower at night. Of course, the tower did not disappoint. The Eiffel Tower will always be precious to me.
I absolutely loved the Metro system in Paris and wish we had something quite similar in Auckland. It’s very easy to get lost underground but it’s also quite easy to find your way out.
The next day, after climbing up to the Eiffel Tower, we caught a Hop On, Hop Off Bus, which took us around famous attractions, namely, Arc de Triomphe, The Obélisque in Place de la Concorde, Madeleine at the end of the Royale street and of course Le Louvre.
Apart from the attractions we saw, one major highlight of the day was when I got lost in the Louvre Museum. It took me an hour and a half to find my family. I ended up in the south wing while my family was patiently waiting for me in the north wing. How ever I managed to get on the other side, I will never know. Luckily, I met an Australian who was happy to let me use his WIFI pocket so I could contact my family. (Side note: WIFI pockets are a must when travelling to Europe!). Anyway, it was in La Joconde that I met up with my family again. After Le Louvre, our last stop was The Notre-Dame Cathedral.
Fun fact: Even the workers at Louvre get lost every single day!
Below photo: This is the nearest I could get to La Joconde.
Walking is the best way to visit Rome because there is always something of interest in every street corner – be it a Roman monument or a fountain. So we did a LOT of walking, from its twisting alleys to cobbled roads. Naturally, I was in awe when I first saw Altare della Patria or Vittoriano, a giant mountain of white marble towering over Piazza Venezia, built to honour Italy’s first king. It was such a magnificent structure and I was completely in awe. After that, we then strolled along to the famous Colosseum and of course, took a several Instagram-worthy photos. A highlight of Rome was actually having dinner by the banks of Tivere River, which is Italy’s third largest river. A mate of my father who currently resides in Italy treated us in this ‘world-away-from-the-touristy-crowd’ place. I ordered authentic Italian seafood pasta, and the evening ambiance was definitely Roman and refreshing.
We also got to see The Pantheon, The Spanish Steps, The Trevi Fountain and many more sculptures and fountains and monuments the following day! And of course, when in Rome, eat like the Romans do! So there we were, dolce vita-ing our way down some Italian cobbled street with a gelato we bought from one of Italia’s finest gelaterias, Giolitti.
Rome was definitely the best!
The next day, after a bone-rattling bus ride to the Vatican, we arrived at St. Peter’s Basilica just in time for Pope Francis’ Papal mass. Inside the City State are a collection of unique artistic and architectural masterpieces. And I spent most of our time there just gawking at the vast expanse of St. Peter’s Square. A highlight of the day was actually being inside the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museums. Despite being told not to take photos of the chapel, I did manage to take a few sneaky snaps here and there.
After indulging ourselves in Roman gelatos, we took the TreniItalia train to Florence to, well, to eat more gelatos. It was a 2-hour ride and it was mesmerizing to see how the urban landscape subsided as the beautiful and picturesque countryside of Tuscany whipped by us. Photo-wise, I was living in the moment too much that I had forgotten to take a few snaps. But then again, I don’t think any photo will ever do it justice.
Anyway, Florence was absolutely incredible and I thought I have seen everything by the time we got there, but I am not kidding you. The Cattedrale di Santa Maria, a gigantic cathedral, decorated in white and green intricate patterns, was something to be gazed upon. The exterior was just as impressive as the interior and I was just in plain awe. We visited Galleria dell’Accademia, home of Michelangelo’s famous statue David and other art pieces made by the famous artist. Food-wise, we went to dine at a little cafe inside the museum and once again, it did not disappoint. In the museum, we also saw art collections from the Medici family, who controlled much of Florence throughout the Renaissance age. We also visited Santa Croce, a basilica in Piazza Santa Croce where Michelangelo, Galileo Galilei and other famous Italian individuals are buried. There was a mass when we got there and although not a Roman Catholic, it was interesting to listen to their gospel songs in Italian.
What really drew me to this place is its pretty streetscape. I felt like I was walking in a movie set, a place where I can oscillate from a dream to reality. After Florence, we flew back to the UK but before I left The Boot, I made a mental note that I will definitely be coming back!
BACK TO THE UNITED KINGDOM
Salisbury and Portsmouth:
Back to the United Kingdom and next thing on our ‘Places To See’ list is The Stonehenge in Salisbury, Wiltshire. It was a gloomy day in London but despite the weather, we made the 1 hour and a half trip from Littlehampton to Salisbury. We were greeted by friendly staff, and not far from the entrance were the builders’ huts and inside were some prehistoric cooking utensils. We bought an all-in-one ticket which included bus tour, Stonehenge admission and a free entry into Salisbury Cathedral. The best way to experience the most sophisticated pile of rocks is to catch a 2-minute bus ride, which will take you to back in time to the magnificent stone circle. The whole place was just mysterious. To this day, nobody really knows what the rocks were used for, or why there are no other stones like it in the surrounding area. Nonetheless, our trip to The Stonehenge was something I will cherish for years to come.
Just 8 miles from the Stonehenge is the Salisbury Cathedral, one of England’s earliest architecture. The surrounding neighbourhood called the Malmesbury House is reported to be the country’s oldest borough, and with its 12th century streetscape, I felt like I was walking the scenes of Hot Fuzz. Cobbled streets, buildings and churches with spires, I also felt like I was travelling back in time.
We then drove to Portsmouth, a port city on England’s south coast, and saw the Emirates Spinnaker Tower. If there’s a town in the UK that I am in love with, it’s Portsmouth. I love the smell of the ocean and what drew me to it is the Cascades Shopping Centre, a modern retail area with over 50 branded stores. Not to mention that the BBC Portsmouth Studio is just around the corner. So really, I don’t mind coming back here to live for good (*wink).
We spent our last few days in Europe in central London. Once again, we caught the 2-hour train ride from Littlehampton to central London Victoria Station via Southern Thames Link. It was my first time to catch the Tube. At first, I was actually terrified to experience the underground trains because there were so many lines going in different directions. So you really have to plan ahead where you’re going as it’s easy to get lost. But the more we travelled from platform to platform, I soon realized that it’s actually very easy and convenient once you got the hang of it. Madame Tussauds London was our first destination and after seeing life-size wax replicas of famous celebrities, we then ventured off to the Abbey Road crossing to, well, cross the famous crossing in the world. I was particularly impressed by how the locals were so accepting of tourists wanting to take a couple of snaps of the road. Some of the passing cars even stopped and allowed us to cross and take photos.
We then spent the rest of the afternoon cruising up and down the River Thames. Apparently, the best way to get your sightseeing done is to take a river cruise along the famous river. So we did that; we started in Westminster Pier and made our way across London Eye. Although it was still summer, it was a cold day in London (Yeah, I know right?) but this didn’t put me off. I was just excited throughout the cruise because really, where in central London would you get a view like this:
Highlight of the day was seeing the famous Platform 9 3/4 in King’s Cross Station. Surprisingly, there was no huge queue that day and the photographers were so friendly, they let me choose my own scarf and wand for the pictorial.
By the time we got to the Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square, it was already dark (and colder). Nevertheless, I was still overjoyed to see in person Her Majesty’s residence at night. It was also amazing to see the London nightlife and at some point, I did get jealous because Auckland has no nightlife and it really made me think about moving here.
Overall, it was the trip of a lifetime and I learned so many valuable lessons. Each memory was built to last beyond a lifetime, and I will always be so grateful for our family and friends who looked after us in Europe. From the warmest of welcomes to the fondest of farewells, I want to thank everyone and especially God who made this adventure possible.
I can’t wait to go back!