Reading Week Road-trip

This is a post that I have been looking forward to writing for a while but between travelling, school and family visiting I’ve put it off until I could really take my time writing it (yes, that means it’s going to be long). I finally get to write about visiting one of my favourite places in the world with one of my favourite people in the world! In October, Xavier (my wonderful boyfriend, for anyone who doesn’t already know) came over to visit me on his University reading week and after spending a few days in Rotterdam, we set out on a road trip to France. I never thought that I would have someone that would want to come back to Normandy with me, let alone be more excited about it than I was. After a very, very long planning process, we managed to make an itinerary which squeezed in as many possible historical sites as we could in out short time on the French coast before heading off to be tourists in Paris. Xavier arrived just in time to celebrate Canadian thanksgiving, in the Netherlands of course. It was great timing because it meant he could bring over pumpkin purée for me which was something that was getting me some very strange looks whenever I asked for it in the Dutch grocery stores. My roommates and I planned a big Canadian Thanksgiving dinner for all of our exchange friends in the Cube which was quite an experience and it meant that Xavier was able to meet all of my exchange friends.

The next day, we went to pick up our rental car and start our trip. We got on the road at the nice early hour of 3pm, after buying the most important road trip snack, donuts of course. We were almost out of Rotterdam when, confession time, I realized I had forgotten my passport. After being so concerned that we had everything else, it completely slipped my mind. Not my most ‘Wanderful Student’ moment but hey, it happens to everyone. I know that Europe has open borders so they don’t check it when you cross the border into another country like they do between Canada and the US, but I thought that it really wasn’t a good idea to risk travelling without it. So, of course, we headed back to the Cube to pick it up and then, finally, we were on the road to our first destination: Dunkirk.

Xavier and I had originally planned on being on the road much earlier in the day so were going to stop in Dunkirk for lunch, before continuing onto our Airb Bnb in Dieppe. But we ended up doing dinner in Dunkirk instead. We arrived just in time to get the last of the daylight, as well as a stunning sunset over the beach. It was so surreal to be standing on what is now a beautiful public beach full of tourists and locals, with hardly any trace, apart from part of the docks, that the war effected them at all. I got to introduce him to his first French food by ordering moules frites for dinner, and they were fantastic as always. After enjoying a very peaceful walk on the beach, we got back into the car and drove to Dieppe. It ended up being a much later night than I expected and we arrived at our Air Bnb shortly after midnight, but our host was more than accommodating and left the door unlocked for us, with the keys inside the house. It was the cutest little farm house apartment that was attached to her main house. It would have been really nice to have been able to enjoy the cottage a little more but we were so exhausted by the time we got there that we fell asleep before we even had a chance to properly look around. 

It was an early morning the next day as we wanted to make the most of the day in Dieppe before leaving for Bayeux. We drove down to the coast from our little cottage, and parked up before walking down the pier to take in the sights. There’s a reason to Normandy coast is one of my favourite places in the world, it’s truly stunning. The coast is dotted with little towns and the cliffs and beaches are even more stunning. We didn’t really know what we wanted to do in Dieppe apart from see the beach where the Canadians landed during the Battle of Dieppe and visit the museums that was established in the town to commemorate this. Once we got out onto the beach we realized that there was actually a castle, so we walked through the town, towards the museum, and up to the castle. Of course, just our luck, the museum was closed so we kept walking up to the castle and stumbled across a beautiful memorial garden to the Canadians who lost their lives in Dieppe. One of the intriguing things about the Norman coast is that you can drive (or walk) around for hours and stumble across any number of monuments, or cemeteries which don’t even appear on the ‘tourist’ maps. Each of them tells a unique story and while they are quite harrowing, I like to think that by paying my respects at each and everyone of them that I am helping to keep that history alive. the garden had been done beautifully and had quite a few wreaths laid out as well. It was right at the base of Dieppe Castle, over looking the beach where the soldiers landed. We had to climb up quite a steep path to get to the castle, only to find that it had been turned into an art museum (thankfully our student cards got us in for free). While neither of us are particularly artsy people, we walked around anyway to see the features of the old castle and, though I hate to admit it, quite enjoyed the artwork inside it. We really enjoyed our time in Dieppe but all in all, there wasn’t a whole lot to do once you walked along the beaches and did the castle. It was the perfect place to stop on the way to somewhere else, but I didn’t think it warranted longer than a day.

Château de Dieppe – Dieppe

We had a few more hours to drive to Bayeux after we left, and we made it quite late in the evening (yet again). We checked into the most stunning apartment in the old town, where you could see the bells and the church steeple rising up above the neighbouring houses. We were using Bayeux as our ‘home base’ for two days to drive out to all the landing beaches. We were determined to do all five (Utah, Omaha, Juno, Sword and Gold) as well as Point du Hoc and Pegasus Bridge. Admittedly it was quite an ambitious itinerary for the amount of time we had there, but somehow we made it work and visited everywhere we wanted to visit PLUS Beny-Sur-Mer the Juno Beach (Canadian) War Cemetery. As I mentioned before, I have already written about Normandy so I won’t go into too much detail about each of the beaches because if I did, this post would really never end. It was really nice to be able to take someone else who has such a passion for history to all these places and to share the beauty of the region, and not just the history of conflict. 

This time, we did a few things that I didn’t do during my last trip. Mainly swimming in the English Channel and horseback riding on Sword Beach. We really lucked out with the weather and even though it was October, it was very warm and sunny the whole time (global warming for you I guess), so of course we went swimming…in our clothes. We were on our final beach before setting off to Paris and had talked about swimming but left out bathing suits in the car, but that wasn’t going to stop us. Yes, the water was freezing, if you’re wondering but we didn’t care. Our riding was equally as amazing. I found a place which would take us down for a ride on one of the beaches but it worked out so much better than I ever could have imagines. After running disastrously late, we arrived at the the riding stable to find that we actually needed to go to their beach front location, something they had neglected to tell us. Luckily, they held the ride for us until we got there. We parked, mounted up and within 5 minutes had set off on the ride with a group of other tourists. Generally on hacks with multiple riding abilities, you go at the pace of the least experienced rider but since they knew the two of us were quite experienced, they broke us off from the rest of the group to go for a gallop. So yeah, we got to go galloping on Sword Beach. I never thought that would be something I could say I did! 

Our drive to Paris was pretty painless (I say ‘our’ but I did none of the driving, oops!) as we managed to avoid the craziness of downtown Paris. In all fairness, the outskirts of the city are bad enough to drive but we arrived quite late so we missed rush hour and the roads weren’t very busy. We checked into another apartment between downtown Paris and Disneyland. It was the perfect location because we actually had somewhere to park the car, we were right by the RER station and it was only 30 minutes on the RER (train) to get into the centre of Paris. Now, this might be an unpopular opinion but I am not a massive fan of Paris. I have nothing against Paris specifically but I really just don’t like cities. I also feel like once you’ve done all the touristy stuff the novelty wears off a little bit and there are SO many tourists and the city is always packed. I do, however, always love an opportunity to work on my French and I mean come on, it’s Paris with my boyfriend, I really can’t complain about that.

We had very ambitious plans for our first day but we were so exhausted from how much we did in Normandy that we ended up just relaxing and watching movies for the first half of the day. When we finally made it out of the house, we wanted to do the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triumph. The Arc the Triumph was stunning and even though I’d visited Paris twice before that, I had never been up it. It’s really cool because all the streets just spread out like a sun with the Arc at the very centre. Once we did that we hopped on the metro to the Eiffel Tower and arrived just after sunset. We, quite contently, waited in line for a good thirty minutes before we realized that they won’t actually let you take the stairs after sunset, DUH! I feel like part of the experience is actually climbing it so we decided to come back the next day and walk up it. Instead, we found a carousel right under the Eiffel Tower which was just too cute not to go on. Overall we didn’t do much tourism on our first day but just walking around and seeing the city was nice enough, and we headed back to the apartment. 

Day Two in Paris, we did a MUCH better job of being tourists. We started off with the Eiffel Tower: attempt two. We still didn’t make it up (don’t worry there is a happy ending) because we booked into a wine tasting and it would’ve been too much of a rush to try and walk up the Tower and then rush all the way across the city to the wine tasting. Instead, we went to Notre Dame Cathedral and walked to the wine tasting from there. The wine tasting was very close to the Louvre because it was actually where the wine used to be kept for the Royal Palace, when the Louvre was the Palace. They used to role the barrels of wine through the tunnels and into the Palace hundreds of years ago. The whole experience was just really pleasant. The guide took us through a few different tastings and explained how the different wine regions in France work. At the end of the tour you had the option to buy some of the wines that you tasted so we bought the most beautiful bottle of red wine (thanks Mum!). After the tasting, we went to the Louvre and, just our luck, it had literally just closed. Instead, we went up to Sacré Coeur with our wine to watch the sunset over the city. It really is beautiful up there and there is always live music and just a buzz of young people hanging around. There was one busker who was singing at the bottom of the steps who let Xav get up and sing which was AMAZING and just a once in a life time thing to say you’ve done.

On our next day in Paris we went to Versailles, I finally made it! It really was absolutely stunning. Luckily we booked our tickets ahead of time which meant we could skip the line to get into the palace quickly. It really is the most beautiful palace I’ve ever seen. The tour of the palace takes just as long as they say (an hour and a half) partially because of the tourists but mainly because of the sheer size of the palace. Every part of it was so eccentrically lavish and really was what you would picture a King living in. The gardens are just stunning and they had the ‘musical fountain shows’ while we were there as well which was lovely (but they don’t let you sit on the grass by the fountains to watch?). We ran out of time to go to the house of Marie Antoinette which on on the very opposite side of the garden from the palace. Though this wasn’t for lack of trying. We decided to jog there, got halfway and realized we just wouldn’t make it before we had to leave, so we decided to stop, get an ice-cream and walk back to the car. We both would have loved to spend more time in Versailles but we had to drive back to our apartment to get ready for our evening at Moulin Rouge.

The Hall of Mirrors – Palais de Versailles

Moulin Rouge wasn’t cheap, but honestly we both LOVED it. It was one of those experiences where I’m going to look back 50 years from now and still be telling people about it. The show was absolutely fantastic and it really was magical. It had it all, dancing, singing, ponies and my personal favourite; a woman swimming in a tank of real snakes. Apart from the show, the entire atmosphere was just buzzing. When you arrive, you’re shown to your seats which are these classy little individual tables where they serve you your champagne. Since there was only two of us, we had to share the table with another couple but we were so enthralled with the show that none of us minded. Unfortunately, I don’t have many pictures of the night since we couldn’t take pictures during the show. I can truly only speak highly of the show. Sure, it might be touristy and some might think it’s tacky but I genuinely enjoyed that night so much and it was well worth the money in my view.

Moulin Rouge – Paris

On our last day in Paris, we FINALLY made it up the Eiffel Tower. It was the first time that we were able to walk up to the top and had time to do it properly and it was amazing. I’ve done the Eiffel Tower before but it was so nice to watch someone else experience it for the first time. Then we had probably the quickest trip to the Louvre in history. Neither of us are particularly arty people and while we can both appreciate nice artwork, we had to make a decision on if it was worth it to push through all the tourists at the Louvre to see some of the most famous works. We decided that Xav probably wouldn’t be back in Paris for a while so we should do it while we could. We were in, out and had seen the Mona Lisa in 20 minutes. I have to say, we were quite impressed with ourselves. We saw a few other pieces and left feeling quite happy that we’d seen all we needed to see. One of the reasons for the rush was that we had to drive to Luxembourg to get to another Airbnb that night, and we didn’t want to be leaving too late.

We checked into probably the coolest apartment I have ever seen, just outside Luxembourg City and just had a relaxing night it, cooked for ourselves and then slept in the next day. One of the reasons that we went to Luxembourg was that it split up drive back to Rotterdam nicely. On our way home the next day, we stopped into the city which was lovely. It wasn’t quite what we were expecting, well we really didn’t know what to expect, but it wasn’t that. It was pretty tiny, especially compared to where we had been before. But it was really nice and there were a few older parts of the city that we really enjoyed. We grabbed coffees and just walked around for a while before heading back to the car and back to Rotterdam.

We had such a wonderful time on our road trip and saw some really incredible places. France is such an easy place to drive around and we were so thankful that we had a car for while we were down in Normandy. It’s one of those places where you really do need a car to get everywhere you want to go. This was definitely one of those trips I’m going to be looking back on for the rest of my life.

Visiting Historical Krakow

I recently finished my second term at Erasmus University and realized that the way my exams fell, I had an entire week off before my classes started again. So, of course, I quickly sent a message to my friends and we decided to organize a trip to Poland. We are all history majors on exchange in the Netherlands so, naturally, we all wanted to go to Krakow medieval Old Town and see the effects of the Second World War on the city and its surrounding areas.

We left on February 2nd and flew out of Eindhoven airport, which was a first for me. It was a little more inconvenient to get to compared to Schiphol Airport but the flights were SO much cheaper so it was worth it. We flew into Krakow Airport and landed around 4pm in the evening, taking a cab to our Airbnb because the train wasn’t running from the airport. Brief tangent, but cabs are so unbelievably cheap in Poland. We were apprehensive about taking one, since it was supposed to be a 30 minute drive into the city, but it ended up being 5 euros each! For a Canadian, who basically has to sell their soul every time they want to take a cab, it was a very exciting experience. Our Airbnb was super nice, and was everything that we could’ve wanted, with a nice little kitchen and two beds for the four of us.

Our first day in Poland we decided to go to the Wieliczka Salt Mines, about 20 minutes on the train outside of the city. We really didn’t know what to expect but had heard that it was a ‘must visit’ site in Poland. We arrived and were taken down 54 flights of stairs by our tour guide to the entrance of the mine and began walking around the large caverns and hallways of the mines. It really was beautiful. The area used to be mined for rock salt so all the rooms were completely carved out of salt which, of course, meant that you could lick everything. It might sound a little gross but we all felt like it was one of those things that you just needed to do. Many of the rooms had been converted with sculptures, explaining the history of the mines and how they were discovered. The most fantastic part of the whole experience was the large chapel which was created for the miners. It was absolutely massive, with rock salt chandeliers hanging from the vaulted ceiling, religious motifs and sculptures carved out of the rock and intricate floor tilings designed out of the rock salt as well. All in all, it was a wonderful experience, but you can really only look at salt for so long before it becomes a bit repetitive. After eating lunch and doing the tour, it took us most of the day to do the mines but it was a day well spent. We went back to the apartment that evening where we planned our next day when we would be going to visit arguably the most infamous concentration camp, Auschwitz.

We knew that we wanted to visit Auschwitz while we were in Krakow because it is an extremely important part of world history and is important for people to witness the atrocities that were committed there. I’m not going to go into too much detail about what exactly occurred there but I am going to talk a little bit about the experience of visiting and the history of the camps, so if that is something that is difficult for you to hear then just skip this section. Auschwitz is just under an hour and a half drive outside of the city, purposely placed there in an attempt to keep the public oblivious to what was really happening there. We started the day by visiting Auschwitz II – Birkenau, which is the part of the camp which is known as the ‘death camp.’ You walk through the ‘gate of death’ into the camp, where you do a self-guided tour of what remains, a few barracks, monuments and the harrowing train tracks which moved millions of people into this camp. I think the most surreal part of the whole thing was the sheer size of the camp. We spent 2 hours walking around and we didn’t come close to walking the whole perimeter of the camp. You can see as many pictures as you want, but I don’t think until you’re standing there for yourself, are you able to really take in just how big it is. It was emotionally overwhelming to be there and I honestly don’t think it’s hit me yet that I actually went to Auschwitz, to such a site of horrors. We did the memorial in the opposite order from usual, so we went to Auschwitz I next. This was the original camp and has now been turned into a museum and memorial site. Each group of people that were sent to Auschwitz has a building where there is a memorial or exhibition dedicated to them, along with other buildings where there is further information about the atrocities which occurred there. We were all very glad that we went to this historic site, but it definitely wasn’t easy. It was very hard to stand and hear about everything that happened there, but like I said earlier, it’s extremely important to learn it.

We knew that we were all going to be very emotionally drained after visiting Auschwitz, so we wanted our final day in Krakow to be a little more positive, so we saved the Old Town and the Castle for the last day. We set out in the morning for the castle and, as soon as we rounded the corner into the Old Town we were not disappointed! The castle had the most fantastic walls surrounding it and was massive. We decided to start there, so we walked up to the top of the hill where the castle was and started with the Wawel Cathedral. It turns out, you were supposed to pay to go into the Cathedral but we accidentally went through it without paying. It didn’t say on the door that you needed to pay and we assumed that a church would be free to enter, and it wasn’t until the very end that we realized we were supposed to buy tickets in order to visit. Oops! The castle was run in a very interesting way because unlike most museums, you had to pay to visit each individual part of the castle and it was quite expensive. We decided to only see the estate rooms and then walk around the grounds ourselves, for free! The estate rooms were lovely but very different from what I have seen in comparison to other European palaces. There wasn’t the same type of gold detailing as the palaces in France but it was beautiful in its own way.

After visiting the castle, we walked down to the market square, stopping for lunch on the way. We ended up in a really cute little restaurant with skylights and delicious, traditional Polish food which somehow met all of our MANY dietary requirements. We ended up sitting in here for almost two hours before going back out to the square. My favourite part was all the carriage horses lined up around the square to take people out on rides. We all thought that would be a fantastic way to see the Old Town so we went on a 15-minute ride. The horses were so well looked after and happy and the driver was more than happy to chat with me about her horses and let me spend as much time as I wanted petting them.

We ended the day by visiting the Jewish Museum which was really nicely done. They had arranged it as a photography exhibit about Jewish life in Krakow, followed by a photo display about the aftermaths of the Second World War on the Jewish community in Poland. We followed this up by going to get Latkes, which are potato pancakes and were AMAZING. Yet again, we managed to find a place that met all our dietary needs and had a great final night, chatting over delicious food in the cutest little vegetarian café. We ended the trip there, since we had a very early morning flight the next day.

Krakow was absolutely fantastic and we all had a wonderful time. It is a beautiful city with so much more to do than just what we saw. I think I could easily have spent 2-3 more days there, without running out of things to do. I highly recommend visiting this historic city, especially if you’re travelling on a budget. Our Airbnb came out to €8 a night each, the food was all very reasonable and transport was unbelievably cheap, even for Europe! Travelling on a student budget isn’t always easy, but we felt like Krakow was a place where we didn’t need to constantly be worrying about how much we were spending.