By Matthew Breazeale
The Star Herald
Twenty-five travelers from Kosciusko, myself included, jet-set across the Atlantic Ocean for a ten-day European excursion with local high school biology teacher Jamie Sample serving as group leader. Arranged by EF Tours of Boston, Massachusetts, 18 students and seven chaperones traveled with Jamie and her husband Sam on their fifth tour abroad. The students were: Austin Arnold, Jonathan Chadick, Kaitlan Cobb, Aaron Cockroft, Paul Dodd, Malik Estes, Blaine Frank, Nicholas Frank, Haley Madison, Brooke Lawrence, Jenni Miles, Dillion Myrick, Kelly Peeler, Zach Quillin, Juan Rodriguez, Jennifer Rule, Evan Thomas and Lyndsey Williams.
Chaperones on tour were: Matthew Breazeale, of Durant, Pam Chadick, Scott Cockroft, Amanda Frank, and Eddie Thomas, all of Kosciusko.
From Monday, June 18, to Wednesday, June 27, us travelers from the South were at the mercy of the elements, pickpockets and the mean streets of Europe.
We departed from the Memphis airport on time and arrived at London-Heathrow after a roughly eight-hour flight. Meeting our charming EF tour guide Alissa, who stayed with the group for the trip's duration, at our hotel for check-in, we hopped a train to central London and getting off at Big Ben and the House of Parliament for our first photo opportunity. The group enjoyed a guided walking tour of Westminster, Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus and Covet Garden. It was also exciting to see the church where Prince William and Kate Middleton were married.
Still adjusting to the jet-lag, our group ate our first traditional English fare of battered white fish and chips (french fries) with lots of vinegar and tartar sauce. We ended our evening with a view of St. Paul's Cathedral, a walk along the Wobbly Bridge and got to see the replica of Shakespeare's Globe Theater on the River Thames. The school where famed British actor Daniel Radcliffe, star of the Harry Potter film series, attended could be seen next to the bridge.
On an early morning coach tour we passed famed British streets Baker, of Sherlock Holmes renown, and Fleet, where legendary Barber Sweeny Todd lured his victims. Signs of Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee could still be seen around London with large British flags and jubilee banners hanging on various buildings and above streets.
We soon made it to Buckingham Palace in time for some pomp and circumstance as different regiments of royal guards were preparing for their daily shift change. Horses and guards alike were adorned with gold armor and plating during this event. The weather gave way to cool breezes and plenty of sun.
After Buckingham the group hustled on to the Tower of London, a world heritage site, where the crown jewels are protected and once housed the royal zoo which eventually became the London Zoo. Beefeaters lead hourly tours through the grounds or you could "rough" it on a self-guided tour. The crown jewels were magnificent, no photographs allowed, with baseball sized diamonds, sapphires, emeralds and rubies. Mrs. Sample called the display "very awesome!"
Later that evening the group visited the Apple Market at Covet Garden, an open air market with street performers and different boutiques. Nicholas Frank became a magician's assistant during one street performance with the magician poking lighthearted fun at the Mississippians.
That night the group enjoyed a theater performance of Michael Jackson's "Thriller." The show highlighted Jackson's career and most memorable concerts with many colored lighting and smoke effects.
Day three was spent traveling on the coach to the town of Bath outside of London. On the way the views of the English countryside were breathtaking. The weather this day was cloudy, cool and a little misty. The emerald greens on the hill sides, red poppies in the meadows and quaint stone cottages dot the landscape. Churches could be seen off in the distance making for quality sightseeing. Bath, an ancient site suited as a spa town for the rich and elite, was very beautiful. The ruins of the Romans bath established here are well intact and fun to tour. Visitors even have a chance to sample the mineral water that springs through the grounds. Although it tastes a lot like thick medicine than water.
After Bath our group traveled back toward London to visit Windsor Castle, Queen Elizabeth's second residence. On our tour the Queen's Royal Standard Flag was flying above the castle signifying she was at home! Indeed, the entire royal family was present to attend the royal horse races at Ascot.
Windsor Castle houses Queen Mary's extravagant doll house with real running water and electricity, an extensive armory and banquet hall.
That evening before heading back for some much needed rest the group went on a Jack the Ripper tour at sunset. The local guide, wearing a dark blue trench coat and carrying a gas lantern, was named Fred. Taking the group through dark back alleys and secluded walks, Fred told of the many places where Ripper victims were found and how the mystery remains unsolved today. Many of our teens remarked how the Ripper tour was the highlight of the whole trip.
Boarding a morning train to Paris we traveled with other EF Tour groups from the US. Our first site stop was Notre Dame Cathedral, located on an island in the River Seine. The Gothic style church tells the stories of the Bible using statuary and stained glass windows. We even caught a glimpse of the hunchback. On the way to supper boarding the Metro (subway), some of us were targeted by pickpockets crowding around us. Alissa warned us to be on the lookout for these gypsy looking people, though some looked like ordinary people. Scott Cockroft had one woman trying to unbutton his cargo pocket to peek inside. He was able to swat her hand away and alert people nearby what she was doing. Scott said if only she had been a man things would have gotten more interesting!
After supper we took a river boat cruise on the Seine around Paris enjoying the beautiful architecture and lights while listening to native music.
We ended the evening watching the Eiffel Tower light up the night sky sparkling like diamonds for seven short minutes just after the sun went down at 11 p.m.
Back on the coach for a panoramic tour of Paris, over half the students were conked out after 15 minutes of driving. While on the way to Versailles Palace outside of Paris, we drove past many remarkable sites. The Champs-Elysees, Arc de Triomphe, an Egyptian Obelisk, National Music Academy, Royal Opera House and the Louvre Museum were all en route to Versailles. Our group even had an opportunity to take pictures in front of the Eiffel Tower.
Visiting Versailles was like being in another world. The gardens were so extensive and ornate we did not have enough time to see it all. Flowers of every color, statues of the Greek Gods, hidden grottos and fountains paid tribute to the former French royalty that once inhabited the palace.
Inside, the palace was laid out in a square with the royal apartments in the back. The Hall of Mirrors was the group's favorite room with decor inlaid in silver and gold while chandeliers hang every few feet.
That evening after supper we traveled to Montmartre where the Church of the Sacred Heart sits on top of a hill overlooking Paris. Some street vendors tried to grab at some of the students but Alissa ran interference.
Our next experience was boarding a night train to Barcelona, Spain at 7 p.m. We had to tote our luggage onto the tiny compartments which slept four to a compartment. Arriving in Spain brought great relief until we realized it was just as hot there as it was back in Mississippi. During the trip our group adopted the motto "fake it til you make it" in efforts to curb any complaining.
We first drove by the shipping port and back above the city to take in the view of the Mediterranean Sea.
The next stop was at Parc Guell, another world heritage site, the work of Spanish artist Antoni Gaudi. Beautiful and colorful mosaic designs center the parks main attractions. Originally designed as a private neighborhood the area was transformed into a public park.
Riding back through town we saw many locals driving motorcycles and mopeds as a standard form of transportation in Barcelona.
That morning we continued on to the Sagrada Familia Church, the highlighted work of Gaudi. We walked outside of the church observing its unique architecture and continued state incompleteness. The church structure is said to resemble dripping mud or wet sand.
The next morning we visited the Gothic area on the city were many churches and cathedrals were built. The Church of Saint Anna, Mother of Mary, held a large number of crucifies and reliquaries. The historic district would seem as an endless labyrinth of churches and building if not for Alissa who is a native of Barcelona.
In the evening we enjoyed some free time to walk along Las Ramblas, an energized and great open air market to buy gelato, paintings, hand fans, drinks, small animals, clothes and other sundries.
Meeting back at sunset we went to Flamenco dancing show off of Las Ramblas. The performers were fantastic with the women twirling multi-colored dresses and the men stomping their feet and singing stories in Spanish.
Our last day in Europe was at a much more relaxed pace. After visitng a few more churches in the morning travelers could enjoy the beach and Las Ramblas at leisure in the afternoon.
The sun drenched port city was very friendly to the twenty-five trekkers from the South.
Under dimly lit streets extremely early the next day we packed our coach for the last time and headed the Barcelona airport for home.
Mrs. Sample's next summer tour is scheduled for Germany, Switzerland and Venice in June 2013.