Our expert International Tour Consultants, Paula and Brian, recently joined a student tour headed to Paris & Normandy. Now, they're sharing their experiences so you can get a feel for a Brightspark Travel international student trip.
Originally from Bogotá, Colombia, Paula has lived in Chicago for 10 years. An avid traveler — she has visited 27 countries and counting — her favorite destinations are France, Perú, and Iceland.
Originally from Southern California, Brian has been travelling internationally since he was 11 years old. His favorite places to visit are Costa Rica, France, and Thailand.
Follow along as you hear about their journey through France, learn about their favorite destinations, and even find out their favorite French snacks!
Brian: We finally arrived in Paris after our long flights. As we waited to meet our group, we enjoyed a coffee and a pain au chocolat, which would end up being a breakfast staple throughout our trip.
Paula: We were 20 excited travelers ready to start discovering the history, culture, and cuisine of France. Exiting Paris and heading toward Normandy, we saw the tip of the Eiffel Tower and the astonishing white stone dome of the Sacré-Cœur — we were breathing and living France!
Brian: Our first stop included the beautiful cliffs of Étretat. I had never seen anything like these huge white faced cliffs — they even formed beautiful arches that extend out into the ocean. A very quaint little French beach town sits just behind the cliffs as well. Our next stop was Honfleur, which looked as though it hadn’t changed for hundreds of years. Beautiful timber-framed houses surrounded us as we sat and enjoyed our seafood lunch.
Paula: This was a picture perfect town! A vintage carousel was right at the corner of the old port, followed by small boutiques and local restaurants along the seaside.
We hit the road again and arrived in Deauville, which is connected to Trouville by a bridge — makes sense why they are called “twin cities”. We walked by many upscale boutiques, coastal resorts, and seafront villas, plus a fisher’s port and a fish market.
Paula: We started the day with a wonderful breakfast comprised of fresh croissants, a variety of cheeses, jams, fruit juices, hot drinks, pastries, and of course, baguettes! The butter, oh the butter.. It was hard to stop spreading more and more on the baguette. When in France, do as the French do!
Brian: We were on to our first tour of the day at the Caen Memorial. The group was a little tired from the time adjustment, but the excitement level hadn’t dipped in the slightest.
Paula: The memorial took us back in time and reminded us of the importance of the sites we were about to visit. Stepping on Omaha Beach, Pointe du Hoc and the American Cemetery gave us multiple opportunities to think about how learning about the past can help us make better choices for our future.
Brian: We were led by a guide who was just incredible. Mario had an energy about him that would get even the most disinterested students raising their hands and answering questions. We saw the large indentations that the different mortars had made from the allied ships and planes, and we got to explore the German bunkers that actual soldiers would spend their days and nights in.
Brian: This day was one that I had been anticipating the most. We were off to see the incredible fortified city of Mont Saint-Michel. I remember we were about 5 miles away, and you could see what looked like a castle in the distance. The only thing that was strange was that it looked as though it was surrounded completely by water. As we got closer and the fortified village got bigger, you could see that it was out in the middle of the water and the only way to get there was a long, beautiful bridge over land that looked like quicksand. We walked into the island village and began our ascent to the top. Small skinny “roads” that looked like they were out of a Harry Potter movie were our only path. Small shops and restaurants lined the roads, and it seemed as though each one invited you in with a small, handmade, painted wooden sign. The views at the top were incredible and we even got to see a ceremony being put on by the church.
Paula: Pictures and posters do not do any justice to the beauty of this dreamlike island — no wonder it has been designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. We felt as if we were part of a movie while walking toward the astonishing abbey. Strolling along its cobbled streets and visiting the monastery seemed unreal. It was incredible to feel so much peace and freedom in a place that was once a prison, one of many uses that the island had back in the day.
In the afternoon, we arrived at the fortified city of Saint-Malo. After our city tour, we got to the beach at the right moment to see the sun disappearing in the ocean. The walls of the city on one side and the beach sunset on the other; we could have not asked for more!
Brian: We had one of the most incredible meals that night. Sometimes I close my eyes and imagine myself back in the restaurant with the group, three fish on a buttered risotto with the sunset creeping lower and lower and the colors of the sky becoming more and more vibrant. What an amazing day!
Paula: When we thought that it could not get any better, we arrived in Versailles! We started exploring the market in the center of the town where many vendors were offering their produce, cheeses, meats, and many other things. This was one of the best places to practice our French and learn so many new words!
Brian: Food from all parts of the world, but we had our sights set on some French cuisine. We went with a meal that some of the locals had suggested, but without knowing exactly what it was, all I can say is that it was delicious!
Paula: It was finally time to visit the Palace of Versailles. Just looking at it from the outside, we understood why its construction led to the French Revolution. We visited rooms full of gold and marvel. Each space had so much detail, ceiling paintings, marvel busts, and of course, mirrors. The elaborate gardens, with fountains and statues, were another example of the opulence of the palace. We really enjoyed watching the fountains flow to the rhythm of the music that was being played in the background.
Brian: We got to witness the beauty of one of the vastest palaces in the world. I could only describe it as a small city. Guided by a small audio player with an ear piece, you were taken through the history of the palace, exploring the many paintings and art installations that line the walls. We could have spent the entire day in there and still not seen everything, but after a couple of hours it was time to head to one of the highlights of the tour...Paris!
Brian: Today we say goodbye to our touring bus and hello to public transportation! We were able to see how efficient the public rail system was and how it could take you anywhere you wanted to go in this amazing city. But first we hopped on another bus for a 3 hour guided tour with another step on guide. This is where we had our first full glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, and let me say, it did not disappoint. The looks on the kids' faces as we admired the city and this incredible structure is something that I will never forget.
Paula: It seemed like we were in the middle of an open air museum. We passed so many monuments, historical buildings, charming cafés, and the amazing river that divides the city in two.
We all knew about Van Gogh and Monet, but what we didn’t know is that their art was displayed in a beautiful former train station facing the river, at the Musée d'Orsay. The building itself is an amazing piece of art and we made sure to take enough pictures to remember it.
Brian: After our tour and after lunch, it was on to museums, the Champs-Élysées, the Arc de Triomphe and the fashionable Avenue Montaigne for some shopping. We spent all day exploring and enjoying Paris for what it is….a museum in itself!
Brian: Today we saw the Musée Louvre! Every turn brought you into a new century or era of art.
Paula: Our visit to the Louvre was incredible! It was hard to stop staring at the Venus de Milo, so much perfection. The Winged Victory of Samothrace made us feel some ocean breeze, although we were miles away from the ocean. And when we finally made it to da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, one of the most famous paintings in the entire world, we were all smiling along with her.
Brian: We were lucky enough that it was not too busy, and everyone got their opportunity for a photo with the painting. After exploring the Louvre, it was time to walk along the Seine to the garden of the Tuileries. We walked along La Coulée verte Rene-Dumont, a former railway track, to see Paris from a different point of view.
Paula: Parisian streets are filled with stories and surprises, and the one we were about to discover was a big one. While walking the Latin Quarter, our Tour Director guided us through a big green door that led us to an ancient Gallo-Roman arena. How could this big arena be hidden behind all the buildings? The magic of Paris.
Brian: We got to play a traditional bowling game, pétanque, in the arena. The students absolutely loved this, as it allowed for a little friendly competition to break up the museums. From there, we headed to Montmartre, the highest hill in Paris, and watched the sunset. Here, we enjoyed another incredible French meal. After dinner, we hopped back on the metro to the hotel.
Paula: After a short walk from the hotel, we arrived at Notre-Dame. Over eight centuries of history were right in front of our eyes. As soon as we stepped out of the Metro station, we saw another architectural marvel, the Opera Garnier. The building's front steps were the perfect stage to taste the best macarons we had ever tried.
We were finally at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. It was raining, but we didn’t let that stop us. We made it to the top! Seeing the city from up high was very unique. We were able to point out many of the sites visited hours or days ago. We didn’t want this moment to end!
Brian: Some spent a little extra to take the elevator, but a few of us chose to trek up one of the legs as high as we could go. It was raining slightly, but that was nice after the thousands of steps that we had to ascend. The views from the top were breathtaking, and we had so much fun pointing out all of the places that the group had already been to. It was as if we were reliving the trip day-by-day, on our last day. After dinner, we were off on our open-air cruise on the Seine. Afterward, we pulled up to our docking spot, and almost as if the city council of Paris was thanking us for our time there, the Eiffel Tower started a light show so incredible, that everyone on the boat fell silent. We just sat there and watched this marvelous show knowing that this would be a trip we would all remember for a lifetime.
Paula: Seeing the Eiffel Tower glowing at night was surreal. So much charm in front of us. This was the best "au revoir" we could have gotten from the city.
Brian: We headed back to the hotel, where we didn't say our good-byes. Instead, we all fell into a chorus of, "'Til next time!" An incredible trip with an incredible group of people. One I will never forget.
Join us on your own unforgettable international student tour!