By Janice Strong
The summer Olympic, the Royal Jubilee celebrations, it seems Britain is top of mind for travellers right now. And it got me thinking about my first visit five years ago.
Our trip coincided with the opening of the movie version of The Da Vinci Code and on our first day in London we were hot on the trail of The Da Vinci Code sights and locations in the city.
“Come on fellas, hurry up. Let’s go fellas,” urged David, our guide, and we were off on a vigorous walking tour of the sights of London. We began at Middle Temple, where the law inns are located. The nearby Temple Church plays a major role in the book and is a beautiful old church, from which Crusaders departed for the Holy Land. King Richard I built an addition to the original round structure when he returned from the Crusades.
From here we hopped aboard a double-decker bus and headed up Fleet Street to St. Paul’s Cathedral for a quick look, then back on the bus and back down Fleet Street to the National Gallery to de Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks. The majority of art galleries in London offer free admission, which means many great works of art are on display for everyone.
From the National Gallery and Trafalgar Square it was back to walking. We went on to Our Lady of Paris and a visit to the mural and altar created by Jean Cocteau, then wandered through Leicester Square, around Picadilly Circus, past St. James Palace, Clarence House and Buckingham Palace and finally cam to a stop at Westminster Abbey. Founded in the 10th century, the Abbey boasts 1,000 years of history. The current church was begun in 1245 and was completed in the 16th century and houses the tombs of kings, queens, authors, scientists and other famous and great people. The Abbey offers verger-led tours as well as audio guides.
The next day we headed out to the pretty town of Windsor and Windsor Castle, the official residence of Her Majesty The Queen. Windsor is the largest and the oldest occupied castle in the world and the State Apartments, Drawings Gallery, St. George’s Chapel and Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House are all open to the public An audio guide and guided tours are included in the price of admission.
Our last day in London started with a ride on the tube to the Houses of Parliament. A quick walk over Westminster Bridge and we boarded a flight on the EDF Energy London Eye and enjoyed a truly bird’s eye-view of the city.
Back on the ground, a walking tour of London’s South Bank area took us past theatres, galleries, even a replica of the Golden Hind, Sir Francis Drake’s ship and down alleys where “Jack The Ripper” tours are advertised. Other area attractions include Vinopolis, a museum and gallery dedicated to wine, and the Borough Market, a foodie’s paradise.
A quick, and I mean quick, ride on the Eurostar and we found ourselves in Paris that afternoon. The carriages were comfortable with side windows for viewing the countryside and we arrived in downtown Paris in less than three hours after we left downtown London.
Back on the trail of the Da Vinci Code in Paris, we visited the Louvre, Paris’ massive and renowned art institution. To call it a gallery just doesn’t do it justice. We viewed Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Madonna of the Rocks, an alternative version of his Virgin of the Rocks hanging in London’s National Gallery.
The Louvre’s holdings are divided into 10 departments that represent art through the ages from around the world. Oriental antiquities; Egyptian antiquities; Greek, Etruscan and Roman antiquities; painting; sculptures; objets d’art; arts of Islam; prints and drawings; history of the Louvre and medieval Louvre; and arts of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas make up a collection so vast, it has been estimated that if you spend two minutes looking at every piece on display it would take three months to get through it all.
The next two stops in our Da Vinci Trail were Notre Dame de Paris and Saint Sulpice, two lovely houses of worship. Notre Dame is a grand example of Gothic architecture that was designed by the Bishop of Paris and was built between the 12th and 13th centuries. French road distances are established from the 0 km point in the square in front of the cathedral entrance. Saint Sulpice is more recent having been built in the 17th-century French style. It boasts mural paintings by Delacroix.
Day two in France and we headed for the country, specifically to Vaux le Vicomte, an architectural masterpiece created by Nicolas Fouquet, the Lord High treasurer of France under Louis XIV, surrounded by gardens designed by André Le Nôtre, who went on to design the gardens at Versailles. You can tour the furnished state apartments and private cabinets, the dining room on the main floor, the bedrooms and private apartments on the first floor, and the kitchens and cellars in the basement as well as the extensive and beautiful gardens.
There is also a Horse-Driven Carriages Museum on site that houses a unique, private collection of 18th- and 19th-century carriages. The André le Nôtre exhibition in the vaulted cellars of the château gives you the illusion of strolling along the paths of the garden.
Our last day in Paris started with a cruise down the tree-lined Canal Saint-Martin. The two-and-a-half-hour narrated cruise floated through four double locks, two swing bridges and under the vaults of the Bastille, while the narration covered the history and colourful legends linked to the passing sites.
It finished with some shopping at French mega-department stores Printemps and Galleries Lafayette. When in Paris, one must shop!