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Casting a watchful gaze over the City of Light, the Eiffel Tower is an ambassador to France and welcomes visitors from far and wide to Paris. Constructed in the late 1880s for the 1889 World’s Fair, the wrought- iron lattice tower was initially rejected by French artists and architects — it was deemed unworthy of representing the intrinsic nature of engineering and architecture within France. Today, the iconic monument is one of the most widely known pieces of structural art.
The observation decks offer unobstructed views of Paris from the 7th arrondissement along the Seine River, two miles west of Notre Dame and the Île de la Cité. The first observation deck stands 187 feet above the ground and is home to an immersion gallery, the restaurant 58 Tour Eiffel and a glass, see-through floor. The first observation deck is only accessible via a 300-plus staircase and is often overlooked by visitors who head directly for the elevator. From the 377-foot-high second floor, you can see all of Paris’ monuments and feast on gourmet cuisine at the Jules Verne. The elevators from the esplanade ride directly to the second floor, or the more adventurous can climb the 704 stairs. Last, but most certainly not least, the 906-foot-high third floor is the highest observation deck in the European Union and leaves Paris beneath your feet. The two-story observation deck — one indoor and one outdoor — offers unforgettable views that can be enjoyed with a glass of champagne from the sky-high champagne bar.
The shining example of regal splendor, the Palace of Versailles is the architectural embodiment of Louis XIV’s famous exclamation, “I am the state!” Originally a two-story hunting chalet in a bourgeois Paris suburb, Louis XIV upended the French monarchic system and moved the government and court into its increasingly expansive hallways and courtyards. Versailles’ growth, from a chalet to the palace we know today, is a visual lesson in French architecture through the 17th and early 18th centuries and recalls an era during which France was the leading European power. UNESCO inscribed the Palace and Park of Versailles into the list of World Heritage Sites in 1979, noting that generations of artists, architects, landscape architects, gardeners and more have provided Europe with an image for the quintessential royal residence.
Today, the palace contains 2,300 rooms, including the opulent Hall of Mirrors, King’s State Apartments and Gallery of Great Battles. The opulent Hall of Mirrors — designed to overlook and reflect the elaborate gardens to the chateau's west — is among the most well-known rooms in the château. While the Hall of Mirrors was exclusively reserved for Louis XIV, the seven rooms of the King’s State Apartments are adorned with all of the monarch’s admiration of Italian Renaissance and Baroque stylings for hosting official events. The longest room in the palace, the Gallery of Great Battles boasts French artistic masterfulness and has remained unchanged since the hall's completion in 1845.
The estate grounds are as much of a destination as the chambers and hallways within. Designed to illustrate the king’s dominion over nature, the French formal gardens occupy a majority of Versailles’ 800 hectares and follow the sun’s daily journey across the sky from East to West. The gardens were designed under the Sun King’s direct orders and were designed with canals, fountains and hydraulics that remain to this day. The Park of Versailles, segmented by the cross-shaped Grand Canal, is home to Marie Antoinette's estate and Louis XIV’s Grand Trianon. If Versailles was built with all the elaborate grandeur meant for a god, the Grand Trianon is home to the marble intricacies meant for man.
Sitting in the shallow bay fed by the Couesnon River, the abbey of Mont Saint-Michel rises towards the sky from between the tides. The water level of the silty bay ebbs and flows with the tides, creating a natural mirror that fog rolls off of and envelops all but the highest reaches of the island. Monks first came to the rocky, secluded island in the late-seventh century in search of solitude and began to build a church atop the island after having a vision of Archangel Michael. The massive undertaking was supported by local dukes and the French kings as crypts were built to support the church above since the island’s peak was too narrow to support a cloister of such magnitude. Ramparts and fortifications were added to the bay’s natural barrier to protect the center of learning from hostile adversaries. The surrounding waters and mudflats pin Mont Saint-Michel against the horizon and provide a changing landscape that captures the imagination of all who visit. Often seen in popular culture, Mont Saint-Michel was the inspiration for several Disney movies, including the castle in The Little Mermaid.
Adhering to the forces of nature, Mont Saint-Michel is accessible via an elevated causeway that allows the Couesnon River to flow freely into the bay and preserve the island’s maritime character. Crossing the bridge provides one of the most enchanting views of the abbey and visitors are welcomed by daunting ramparts and stone steps that wrap around the rocky isle. The town below — home to 50 residents — has remained unchanged through the centuries and is connected to the church and cloister above by narrow pathways and garden terraces. The highlights of Mont Saint-Michel are the monastic structures capping the island. The Church of Saint Michel is an awe-inspiring example of Romanesque architecture dating to the 11th century, with Gothic features added through the centuries as the abbey grew in size and wealth.
Utah. Omaha. Gold. Juno. Sword. These five beaches will forever go down as some of the most consequential beaches in the world. On December 6, 1944, the largest seaborne invasion in history took place as 156,000 American, British and Canadian troops landed on the five beaches in Normandy. Initially delayed due to inclement weather, a lull in the storm provided the perfect opening for the Allied forces to land at the fortified beaches; the Americans landed in the west at Omaha and Utah, the Canadians landed in the center at Juno, the British landed to the east at Sword and Gold. The cliffs at Omaha Beach presented the greatest obstacle for the American forces and logistical errors failed to cripple the German forces protecting the broad beach. Fighting here proved to be the most devastating as the Americans had to overcome the sloping beaches and heavily fortified Pointe du Hoc.
The D-Day landings have been immortalized in history as stretches of the battered Normandy coastline remain as they stood in 1944 with artillery craters dotting the shore. Memorials are erected to those who stormed the beaches. From atop the coastal cliffs, one can see where the original German fortifications stand in memoriam of the challenges and difficulties faced by the landing troops. At Omaha Beach, German fortifications are scattered across the clifftop at the Pointe du Hoc and a museum outlines the decisive campaign. The troops who lost their lives lay in rest at the Normandy American Cemetery, Memorial and Visitor Centre, overlooking Omaha Beach. The Cemetery, Walls of the Missing, Museum and Memorial preserve the story of those who made the ultimate sacrifice. There are individual crosses for the 9,387 American soldiers who lost their lives in the Normandy Campaign. Omaha Beach remains the most well-known of the five beaches, in part due to the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. Utah Beach, the second beach where American troops landed, is known for the paratrooper whose parachute got stuck on the church's steeple in Sainte-Mère-Eglise. The museums at Utah Beach are dedicated to planning behind D-Day and the American paratroopers who helped capture the westernmost of the beaches.
If castles inspire you, there is no better destination in the world than the valley of the Loire River and its tributaries. The 200-mile-long UNESCO World Heritage Site along the Loire Valley is home to more than 300 châteaux. Gazing upon the elaborate towers, turrets, gables, chimneys and walls built of yellow-hued tuffeau stone is like walking into a fairytale. When the French kings began constructing fortified castles along the Loire — France’s longest river — in the 10th century, noble families quickly followed suit. Centuries of conflict and showmanship led these early castles to evolve into the elaborate châteaux that we see today. The royal châteaux were home to some of Medieval France’s pivotal moments; marriages, assassinations, international treaties, and political and religious sanctuary all took place within their ornate halls. The Château de Loches was home to Richard the Lionheart in the 12th century and Joan of Arc met with King Charles VII at Château de Chinon in 1429. The Loire Valley enjoyed a golden age from the late 1400s to the mid-1500s when the wars subsided and the kings preferred to spend their time along the river’s banks. Even when the royal court returned back to Paris and ultimately Versailles, countless dukes and nobles stayed in the Loire and continue to build and renovate their châteaux and summer homes.
One of the finest examples of the French Renaissance, the châteaux of the Loire Valley inspired everyone from Leonardo da Vinci to Walt Disney. King François I is considered the most important monarch for the valley’s development, building and renovating châteaux across the region. He built Château de Chambord — the largest in the Loire — as his hunting residence and brought artists to France, including Leonardo da Vinci. Its distinctive French Renaissance architecture is the centerpiece of a massive estate with finely manicured gardens and decorative towers, walls and a moat. One of the Loire’s most famous châteaux is Chenonceau, spanning the River Cher. The castle was home to many powerful women, including Catherine de Medici, who is responsible for the famous wing seen today. In the east is the town of Saumur and one of the country’s oldest châteaux. The Château de Saumur is situated high on a hill overlooking the Loire River and town for which it was named and is believed to have been one of the castles that inspired Walt Disney for his Sleeping Beauty castle.
“Anyone with an interest in WW I would benefit from this program. It had a wonderful combination of in-depth field trips to the battle fields and war memorials as well as less somber tours of the champagne area. The barge was sublime in all ways: the crew, the food, the routes and the ease of movement.”
— Beatrice, Road Scholar Class of 2005, from Peacham, Vt. —