My magical Christmas journey through France
More than a year ago, I shared some tips on how to improvise a cosy Christmas dinner when you are away from your family. Yet this time, there were no bubbling beans and simmering sour cabbage on my stove because my Erasmus semester opened up a new opportunity – a Tour de France! (without the cycling part…) It sounded like the perfect end of the semester – a nine-day-long journey through the most popular cities in northern and eastern France: Paris, Versailles, Strasbourg and Lyon.
It was interesting to see one of the most popular travel destinations in the world so deserted and calm – many of the citizens had already returned home for the holidays, leaving the entire city at the tourists’ disposal. Similar to the German Rathaus and Dom, the Hôtel de Ville (town hall) and Cathédrale (usually dedicated to and thus named Notre Dame) are the first obligatory sights to be visited in every French city. A preferred spot to enjoy the vastness of the capital is upon the hill Montparnasse, the site of Basilique du Sacré-Cœur (Sacred Heart Basilica).
Both the cathedral and the basilica are impressively enormous and beautifully ornamented, yet the constant tourist flow decreases their spiritual energy. It would take a praying person a lot of concentration to isolate themselves from the constant movement and chatter, not to mention the rattling of Eiffel Tower keychains and waving of selfie sticks that now pollute every popular spot. For me, the exorbitant amount of souvenirs sold in Paris seems to turn the city into a cliché, and after a while, you realise that if you’ve seen one souvenir stand, you’ve seen them all – until you reach the Champs-Élysées and receive a mild shock after seeing the same souvenirs now being peddled at thrice the price.
Apart from the well-known monuments of the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower, another astounding aspect of Paris is the museums, many of which grant free entry for EU-citizens aged 25 and under. To enter the Louvre, I used the convenient underground entrance and ended up walking all alone at the Richelieu wing, since the whole visitor stream was rushing towards the Mona Lisa at the opposite wing Denon. Due to the high security restrictions, it is rather difficult to observe La Gioconda, yet one can still adore it from afar and experience a feeling of fulfillment. The extremely detailed works of Panini and other stunning Italian paintings (by Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio, etc.) also feel sublime together with the Spanish and British collections. The eye-catching exhibits from other continents are also intriguing with their alternative perspectives of the world.
After having relaxed at the Tuileries gardens, it is a great idea to visit Musée d’Orsay, which houses an impressive collection of paintings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including works by van Gogh, Cézanne, Degas, Monet, Renoir and many others. If you are interested in a charming, yet less popular destination, I would recommend the Gustave Moreau museum, which I found entirely by chance but thoroughly enjoyed. Despite the gloomy weather, Paris was an amazing cultural experience, and I would love to have had a couple more days to explore more of the city’s heritage. However, to get an insight into the opulent lives of the French monarchs, I had to travel to the city of Versailles.
About 20 km from Paris lies the city of Versailles, which is mostly famous for the Château de Versailles – a palace whose very architecture tells a tale of how six French monarchs strove towards grandeur, lavishness and… security. This was one of the main reasons why in 1623 Louis XIII decided to move his residence to the remote site, and to build a palace for his son Louis XIV, which was gradually extended by him and his descendants. Apart from historical paintings of royals and significant battles, the château displays a large number of authentic interior pieces. The most stunning hall, however, is the Hall of Mirrors, the costly mirrors and chandeliers of which signify immense wealth.
The only regret I would have about this palace is visiting it during the winter season – the amazing gardens surrounding it would have been many times more impressive had the marble statues been uncovered and had the water features been functioning (one of them was, in fact, a musical fountain). Nevertheless, the main palace and the surrounding gardens are worth visiting year round.
- Strasbourg – Capitale de Noёl
The seasonal slogan says it all – Strasbourg is possibly the best city where you could spend Christmas! Each of the charming Alsatian houses at the city centre was richly garnished with garlands, lights, toys and plush teddy bears, and although each of them was unique, the overall decoration of the whole city was nicely balanced and thematically united. The eleven Christmas markets were all diverse and revealed interesting local and foreign products. Just like the bilingually labelled city itself, the markets are designed both in French and German style.
A surprisingly entertaining part of the city was the Historical Museum, which caught my attention with its interactive games, amusing audio guide and the opportunity to try on warrior helmets and traditional costume. The Alsatian Museum also displays the local folklore – the house interior, art, objects and attire typical for the region. Facing the Elsässerditsch dialect was a fun experience, since I had the chance to read jokes and sayings like: “Die wu meine sie hàn e rein G’wisse hàn màngmol nur e schlàcht Gedàchtnis!”
Walking along the desolate streets of Strasbourg on Christmas Eve was a truly magical experience. Even though we did not exactly spend the holiday as we would do at home, the whole city just had this aesthetically pleasing ambiance. There was not a moment when I would not be surprised by discovering a new piece of someone’s creative spirit. Departing from Strasbourg on early on Christmas Day was the most difficult part of our journey, and my colleagues and I craved having a few more days to explore the Christmas capital.
The great number of hills and hundreds of stairs in Lyon turn travelling into a physical endurance test, yet when climbed, they reveal a gorgeous panorama of the city and its surroundings. Also, they lead to the magnificent Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière and the impressively vast and acoustic Gallo-Romanic theatre. The charming neighbourhood of Old Lyon is chock-full of restaurants – dubbed Bouchon Lyonnaise – which are perfect for gourmands who enjoy wine tasting and degustation of regional dishes.
I was surprised to find that one of the Top 10 museums in France is situated in Lyon, namely the Museum of Miniatures and Cinema. It exhibits original props used in famous productions such as the letter received by Harry in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Mrs Doubtfire’s mask and the ant from Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. The museum also gives an insight into scriptwriting, special effects and the creation of elaborately detailed miniatures. I found the concept of the museum interesting and different, just like the city of Lyon itself, parts of which are covered in spectacular street art. The friezes are so realistic that at one point you start questioning the reality of every other building’s appearance. A noteworthy spot in Lyon is the famous Hard Rock Café where I got the chance to enjoy the vibes of a lovely blues band, which was the perfect finale of a long and exhausting, yet satisfying journey.
I hope the New Year brings each one of you many chances to travel, learn and live life to the fullest!
(Bachelor English & American Studies, 5th semester)
 Those who say that they have a clear conscience sometimes only have poor memory.