My story of traveling abroad for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic and what I learned about myself.
Who could ever forget the start of the coronavirus pandemic of 2020? When it hit Ireland, I was just a couple of weeks away from my 24th birthday. I had plans to go out to a dance club with my friends but of course, that never happened. Instead, I spent the day with my family. They made my birthday as special as possible, even making a wonderful chocolate cake that tasted amazing. This occurred on my next birthday as well, as the virus showed no signs of going away.
By the time my 26th birthday came around, it looked like the virus was finally beginning to ease off. I wanted to make sure that this birthday would be different. I wanted to do something so after thinking for a while, I decided that I would go traveling in France. It wasn’t my first time traveling in France, but there were places in the country that I’d never been to before. A certain Netflix show called Emily in Paris also fuelled my desire to go back. I decided to take the chance and go to another country for the first time in two years. I booked my flights, and accommodation and prepared to go.
Preparations for flights nowadays never run smoothly. There always has to be proof that you have received your COVID vaccination and have not contracted the virus within two weeks. I had to have all of this ready by the time I touched down on French soil. There’s always the worry that you may have forgotten an important document or have the wrong content. But thankfully, I got through the customs with no problems. Once I was out of there, I knew I was going to be okay.
Another thing that I was nervous about was that I was making the trip to France alone. It’s very rare for me to travel by myself. I traveled to Germany by myself but that wasn’t for a holiday, that was for Erasmus. That was a bit nerve-wracking, but in life, you sometimes have to take the risk and do things that you never thought you’d be able to do. I never thought that I’d take a solo trip to France, but that is exactly what I did. My mother told me that it was a true sign of strength and independence.
I was staying in France for four days. My plans were as such; have a look around, travel to Versailles, and then go down to a small part of the country called Arcachon. I’d never heard of it, but when I messaged a friend named Gina, who I had met when I went on Erasmus in Germany, she suggested that we meet there and spend time together there. We’d stayed in touch throughout the years and she’d moved to France to work as a teacher. When she heard that I was coming over, we both knew that we had to see each other. So we arranged to meet in Bordeaux and travel down and stay in Arcachon. I was so excited to see her again.
My little holiday began at 4am in the morning on 31st March, trying to stay awake with coffee at Dublin Airport. I needed to stay awake until I boarded the plane. I managed to doze for a little while before the plane touched down on French soil. I had booked myself a seat on the coach to central Paris. After arriving, I spent some time browsing the different shops, allowing myself to indulge in makeup and jewelry. As my birthday had just passed, I had the right to spoil myself.
When I checked into my little hotel, I took some time to freshen up before grabbing my camera and going for a walk. As already mentioned, a certain Netflix show encouraged me to return to Paris, and I decided to try and find a few of the places where the show was filmed. I was very lucky in the places I did find.
It was amazing; to think that in these little side streets that a show like Emily In Paris was filmed and shown all over the world. I know people have their own opinions on the show but I enjoyed watching it. I actually thought Lily Collins was perfect for the role. She’s grown on me; in fairness, she’s definitely not the worst actress I’ve ever watched. (I am naming nobody, but all I will say is that one actress I despise is extremely overrated and very bland and another is notorious for being a diva.)
Another unexpected treasure I found was the Parc de Luxembourg. It was quite cold, the winter weather hadn’t completely gone away but it was still alright to have a walk around the place. People were milling about, taking pictures, admiring the ponds, the statues that gazed out at the view and enjoying themselves. It’s places such as these that capture my imagination and allow me to create stories in my head. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I’m always finding something in statues and ponds that serve as ideas. As I clicked the shutter on my camera, my mind was whirling with different ideas.
Eventually, as it started to get dark, I decided to call it a night and return to my hotel. The following day, I booked myself a ticket to visit the Palace of Versailles. My mother had been there herself, and she had warned me that she’d been disappointed with what she saw. I wanted to go anyway because of my fascination with the story of the last Queen of France, Marie Antoinette. She had commissioned a small secret garden that I was desperate to see, so I traveled to Versailles and see the Queen’s Hamlet.
It wasn’t too long a journey from Paris to Versailles, about half an hour on the tram. When I spotted the palace, I was in awe of how big it was. Only then did it hit me that this was a place where the kings and queens of France had lived for centuries until the French Revolution of the 18th century. When Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and their family were forced to leave, they had to go out of the golden gates, leaving this palace behind. I don’t know if it was down to the cold or something else entirely, but I could feel a shiver down my spine as I entered through the gate.
Many rooms were filled with thousands of portraits of the kings and queens of old. I really didn’t believe that France could have such a fixation with art but the Palace of Versailles showed this to me. France uses art to tell their history and the battles of the past.
I was able to see the bed quarters of Marie Antoinette – to know that a queen had slept in here, gave birth to her children here and used this room to prepare for her day. During the French Revolution, a mob broke into the palace with the intent on killing the queen. This room was destroyed in the process but has since been restored to represent the feminine and artistic personality of the last queen of France.
There was also the Hall of Mirrors, a monument to Louis XIV. There are 357 mirrors (I’m not joking!) all down the hallway and it was here that the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919, which put an end to the First World War. People were milling about, taking pictures, and admiring the glittering chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.
I will be upfront and honest when I say that I can understand why Mum was disappointed in her visit to Versailles. With the size of the palace, you would expect quite a lot to be on display, but that was not the case. Don’t get me wrong, I was really happy with what I did see in the palace, but I feel that I could have seen more.
The weather didn’t help things either though, I will admit that. The whole time that I was in Versailles, I was constantly being attacked by sleet showers! It was freezing and I didn’t have the right type of protective clothing from the cold! I was determined though that I was going to see the Petit Trianon, rain or shine. As far as the gardens and the Petit Trianon were concerned, I was captivated by their beauty and was amazed at knowing that Marie Antoinette spent her days here before the French Revolution. But admittedly, I came at the wrong time of the year to see its full beauty. Maybe if it hadn’t been so cold and the weather had been better, it would have been different.
When I found the Queen’s Hamlet, I had a good walk around, staring up at all the little buildings. During her time as queen, Marie Antoinette had this little village created under her instruction. She wanted nothing more than to live a peaceful life in this little hidden village, having fun. As happy as I was to finally have an opportunity to see a queen’s lost dream, again I came at the wrong time of the year. The lakes had been completely drained for renovations and it was really, really cold! Still, I’m really glad that I managed to see this little hidden Versailles. Marie Antoinette is long dead but this hamlet is a reminder of the life that she desired had she never been a queen.
Another thing I didn’t expect about Versailles was how big the grounds actually were. Versailles is a very easy place to get lost; it took me ages to find my way out of the grounds. By the time I found my way out, at last, it was near 6 in the evening. I was freezing, and tired and my phone was on its last 5% of battery. But I wasn’t finished with Paris just yet.
After giving my phone a much-needed charge, I decided to challenge the cold weather further and view some more of the sights of Paris. From reading Google Maps, I discovered that there was a very famous landmark only a ten-minute walk away from my hotel; Notre Dame. Obviously, due to the terrible fire in 2019, the cathedral is closed to the public, but I didn’t get the chance to go there on my first visit so I decided to go now.
Had there not been a fire, I would have loved to have taken a tour of Notre Dame and see the interior. If you’re familiar with the famous Victor Hugo classic, it would been interesting to learn about the background of the hunchback. But given the circumstances, I’m happy to have at least seen the exterior of this beautiful cathedral. I’m grateful that not all of its beauty was lost in the horrific event. And when renovations are finally finished and it can reopen… I’ll be back.
When I returned to the hotel, I packed up everything because in the morning, I had to get up and get the train to Bordeaux, where I would finally get to see Gina.
As I previously mentioned, Gina and I first met each other on Erasmus in Germany in 2016. She came from a farm in England, I came from a small town in Ireland. We connected right away and we have stayed friends ever since. I went back to Ireland at the end of my Erasmus, knowing that I’d made a wonderful, caring friend in Gina.
We met up again three years ago for our friend Emily’s wedding in Carlisle, and later, I went to visit her in her new hometown of Agen. When I told her that I was coming to France again, she suggested going to a place called Arcachon. I instantly agreed to this idea.
Up until Gina mentioned it, I had never heard of Arcachon. It is a seaside resort on the south of Bordeaux and is the home of the largest sand dunes in Europe, the Dune du Pilat. Before I traveled to France, Gina and I video-called and made plans of what we were going to do. She had done some research and said that you could hire bicycles and cycle to the dunes. When I heard about this, I thought to myself ‘Could we really do this?’ But then I decided that you only live once and sometimes, you have to try new things. Besides, we’d tried bouldering in Germany before, what was to stop us from cycling in France? We decided to go for it.
I was really excited to see Gina; I could feel myself buzzing while I waited for her to arrive at Bordeaux. When I finally saw her…it was like no time had passed since we last saw each other. I didn’t realize how much I had missed her until we ran into each other’s arms. When we settled on the train to go to Arcachon, the two of us caught up with each other’s lives. It was so easy for us to do that, that’s the type of friendship that we have. She also surprised me with a little gift of butterfly earrings for my birthday; she really didn’t have to do that but I was so touched. I, in turn, gave her a gift of an Irish friendship fairy, which she loved.
It didn’t take too long for us to arrive in Arcachon. We were both a little taken aback by how picturesque the town was. It was so amazingly clean, it felt a little too good to be true. The tourist office that we visited didn’t even look like a tourist office. You were almost scared to touch anything for fear of breaking something.
After leaving our bags at the hotel, Gina and I went to the hire station to collect the bicycles. Up until that point, I couldn’t remember the last time I had ridden a bike and I was a little nervous about going on the road. Taking the helmets offered was certainly a great idea!
We took off down the road. Once I got used to the feeling, I found it to be amazing. We cycled past bright green trees, the sparkling blue ocean, and the little hills all around. The wind was blowing through my hair, everything passing by so fast, I felt alive, I felt free.
At last, we arrived at La Dune du Pilat; I knew they were the biggest sand dunes in Europe, but I didn’t anticipate how big they actually were! I’m certainly grateful that a staircase was provided for those who wanted to climb up there. Gina and I admittedly wore the wrong type of footwear for climbing though because by the time we were all finished at the dunes, our shoes were completely full of sand! Had it not been for the staircase, the two of us would have struggled even more!
Gina and I climbed up and up and up. We didn’t give up until we got right to the very top of La Dune du Pilat. We were lucky to be blessed with such a beautiful day. It was amazing to see the green forest on one side and the blue ocean on the other. The view was just breathtaking.
It was quite a windy day to be up there, we faced the danger of being blown away but we stayed up there, watching braver people than we were, actually sledding down the dunes! Gina and I were stunned that people were brave enough to do that, considering the size of the dunes. We weren’t brave enough to try!
The two of us began the journey back to the hiring centre to return our bikes before the place closed. Gina and I managed to get back down the dunes without tumbling down the way; once we had emptied our shoes of sand, we got our bikes and took off. They say that the way back is the easier part; that is ridiculous. By the time we returned to the hiring centre, our muscles were screaming, our throats were parched and I’m sure that our backsides were bruised from the bumping that we took! My shins also took a bit of a bang when I lost control and crashed into a bush on the way. It made for a good laugh though! I have to say though, all the physical pain that we felt at the end of it all, was worth it. It was such an amazing experience to cycle all the way to largest sand dunes in Europe. It was something I never expected to do and I’m really glad to have done it.
We weren’t quite ready to go back to the hotel. You know what we decided to do? We went to a little supermarket, bought little cubes of cheese and Magnum ice creams and ate them all on the beach! Of all the things to snack on, we chose cheese cubes and ice cream! It must be remembered that the weather was freezing; we stayed on the beach for a little while until it became way too cold for us to handle. It was time to go back to the hotel and rest a little bit before going out for dinner in the evening.
After a brief rest and freshening up, the two of us went for a walk around the town, trying to find a good place to eat. Eventually, we found a lovely little restaurant that accommodated my allergies really well. I enjoyed a wonderful meal of roast duck with green vegetables while Gina had paella. And we both had to indulge in a lovely glass of French rosé! We caught up even further with our lives and talked about our plans for the future as we enjoyed our dinner.
When we finished dinner, we had a little exploration of the place. At the time we were in Arcachon, there was a live art exhibition, with statues all over the town. What we didn’t expect was for them to light up at night. I’ll be covering the exhibition in a new article, which I’ll explain further at the end of this piece.
The following morning, myself and Gina enjoyed a buffet breakfast at the hotel before having one last walk around the town. A little tourist shop offered certificate-style postcards confirming that one had climbed to the top of La Dune du Pilat! It was a cute little souvenir and we bought one each, as well as other little trinkets to bring home with us.
Home…at the end of that day, we had to go home. I felt so sad saying goodbye to Gina at the Bordeaux train station. We were going our separate ways once again; she would be returning to Agen, and I’d be heading back to Paris to get the plane home to Dublin. I had such a wonderful time in Arcachon with Gina and having to say goodbye was really hard. She said that next year, she hoped to come over to Ireland; I will be there and I’ll be showing her all around. It will be great.
Returning to Paris and getting the coach to the airport, I couldn’t help but think about the last few days. I learned a couple of things about myself. One thing I learned from my visit to Versailles, is that sometimes things don’t turn out the way that you expected. Sometimes, things may not live up to the expectations that you have. And that’s okay. Disappointment is always a lingering aspect of our lives.
Another thing I learned about myself is that I am more happier doing things with people than on my own. In the past, I was happy in my own company, thinking that I didn’t need anybody. But as I got older, and I made friends, I realized that wasn’t the case. The more time I spent with others, the more I realized that being with others made me happier.
There is an interesting quote that I found from a wilderness explorer that I find very appropriate.
You only experience true happiness when you are with the people that you love and care for. From my trip to France, I realized that this was true. I enjoyed my days visiting Paris and Versailles, but it wasn’t until I met with Gina and we spent time together in Arcachon, that I was really happy and truly enjoyed my holiday.
It was late at night, that I finally touched down on Irish soil again. I returned home, exhausted but exhilarated. My first time abroad since the pandemic and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
I’m not quite talking about France yet though. There is a theme that I noticed all over the country that I used as part of a college project. But that is a story for another time.
Jusqu’à la prochaine fois!