A Literary Tour of Europe
Since early this year, I’ve been planning for my dream, European adventure. For some reason, going to Europe is the kind of thing we Americans dream of. Even though we ourselves are very, very un-European, there’s something about being in a land that’s old, much older than the civilization that’s grown up around us, with written history that has had a greater impact on us than we have even had, in turn, on the rest of the world, that we Americans just adore.
Many of you have been to Europe yourselves. My wife went to Europe when she was eighteen and lived there for several months. She saw just about every European city there was to see, and that’s great.
However, traveling as a grown-up (I’m twenty-five, that’s a grown-up age, right?) is different than traveling as a young, broke, college student. In some ways, it’s even more intense as you get older. You are constrained by more mature expectations, and time. We Americans, great though we are, don’t get a ton of vacation time. So we have to use it very, very wisely. Where will you go on your European adventure? What areas will you compromise on? Will you take that extra nap, or get in another sight? Will you climb to the top of the Eiffel tower, or eat out at that idyllic French restaurant.
As it so happens, European travel is all about compromise. You can’t do it all. But you can still have a dream vacation.
What’s more, the things that you will discover in Europe will not only be something to put under that “new life experiences” category that you know so well — along with things like getting married, graduating college, having a family — it will also connect you with things and experiences that are familiar. For Americans, traveling to Europe is a fulfillment of things we learned about long ago, might have forgotten, and rediscover all over again.
The Trip and Destination(s)
For this trip, I wanted to go see the key areas that mattered most to me. These destinations were London, Oxford, Stratford-upon-Avon and Paris.
Why these destinations exactly? As someone who has read too much English literature, I have felt for a long time simpatico with these key literary locations. London is home to so many famous writers and poets, Oxford was where so many great writers and thinkers were educated, including Oscar Wilde, CS Lewis and Tolkien to name a few. Stratford upon Avon, of course, is home to the world’s greatest playwright, The Bard Himself. And Paris, although I did not go there purely for the literary ties, actually has an incredible American literary history. Some of our greatest writers lived in Paris as members of the famed “lost generation.”
All of these sites and more I visited and visited thoroughly in just a little under two weeks. Here’s how it went.
London in a Weekend
We bought the London Pass before we got to London because we figured we’d either break even or save some money in the long run. It was cool because we ended up doing some things that we probably normally wouldn’t have done. For example, we got to take a city sightseeing bus which ended up being not only really fun, but also convenient. You’ve probably heard about London’s Tube – it’s great in terms of getting around but you don’t see the city in the process because the routes are all underground. The first thing we did after arriving jet lagged and dazzled in Kensington and Chelsea was to simply get used to where we would be staying up front. We got a nice little rental right off the high street in Kensington near a Starbucks and a Saintsbury (that’s one of the grocery stores in England and it’s pretty nice with great sandwiches).
I went and bought a nice warm beanie for myself because it was colder than I imagined and I’d forgot to bring a beanie with me. We bought it from this store called Tk Max which I’m pretty sure is the British version of “TJ Max”. The very next day we woke up bright and early to well made chocolate croissants and walked all the way along Hyde Park to try and find where our bus was. We also made a stop in Harrods after not finding our bus, and finally gave up and went to the Tower of London on the Tube instead.
By the way, you may already know this, but the Tower of London is not actually just a “tower.” In England, the word “tower” is used interchangeably with “castle.” So the “Tower of London” is actually the “Castle of London.” And a lot more went on there than just torturing and killing prisoners. In fact, it was once the center of power in London, used to intimidate the kingdom, house the royal family, and even drive innovation, mint coins and defend against enemies! There’s so much history here that you can easily spend half a day just in the tower itself, and there’s a nice cafe there, too, in case you get hungry.
Afterwards, we went for a walk along tower bridge, took the elevator to the top, and then even took a trip down into the engine room to learn more about the inner workings of London’s most famous bridge.
Afterwards, we went for a historic walk along the Thames that included walking by Shakespeare’s Globe and St. Paul’s Cathedral, before taking the bus back home and getting ready for a night out at the theater in the West End.
Before leaving London, we also visited Westminster Abbey (home to the poets’ corner), the Churchill War Rooms and Kensington Palace. After all that, we were on our way to Paddington station to catch a high speed train to Oxford.
The Next Leg of the Journey — Onwards to Oxford!
With London behind us, it was time to go to Oxford. Oxford is definitely worth a day trip or two. We arrived on the scene a little after noon and were still able to see the Bodleian library, climb to the top of the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, tour Christ Church (where scenes from Harry Potter were filmed, you’ll recognize the dinning hall as well), and settle in for an evening dinner at the pub where CS Lewis, Tolkien and the other Inklings hung out and shared their stories with one another.
We stayed that night at the George Street Hotel, an affordable and nice hotel, and used that as the launching pad for the next two days of adventure since it was so close to the Oxford train station.
I bought tickets to see the Bard’s home before even leaving for England. You can take a direct train straight from Oxford to Stratford, however, I opted for the cheaper and less direct train route. It’s a bit longer, but I liked seeing the English countryside and saving money. In Stratford, we walked through Shakespeare’s childhood home, saw the very spot where Shakespeare was born, and even visited Shakespeare’s grave.
Another region of England, perhaps lesser known, is the Cotswolds. It’s also a reasonable distance away from Oxford so since we were in the area we figured we’d check it out. If you are a BBC fan, you might recognize the Cotswolds from the hit TV show, Father Brown.
A designated area of natural beauty, the Cotswolds are protected by various laws that keep massive stores and development out, and cute, quaint cottages with thatched roofs and built of limestone, in. We took the Go Cotswold’s tour in order to see the sites without having to deal with driving and finding them on our own. The tour took us to some great locations, and we got an insight into the tour from our local guide, Collin. If you love the look of the old English village, the Cotswolds are the place for you.
Also part of our literary tour, the cotswolds played a huge role in inspiring Tolkien in his stories. In fact, he often went there to write.
The City of Love — A Train Ride Away
The final leg of our journey was Paris. We had to take a relatively short train ride back into London before we could get on the Eurostar train that takes you under the channel and into France. Don’t worry — the underwater part of the journey is actually really quick — just twenty minutes. It’s probably the best way to go from London to Paris and make sure you upgrade to premier seats — you get a more comfortable and enjoyable experience, excellent service, and meals plus tea and drinks!
Once in Paris, we hopped on a sightseeing bus and took in the sights before getting off at the Eiffel tower. We stayed at the Hotel de la Tour, a charming little hotel with an elevator (which are rare in Paris) and rooms located on a quiet city street. It doesn’t have a lot of frills (no refrigerator or coffee maker), but it certainly has everything you need and the folks that work there speak English and do a good job cleaning your room. There’s also a lot of great restaurants nearby and the Rue Clur is around the corner.
In Paris, we toured the Eiffel Tower, visited the Shakespeare and Company bookshop where notable American writers Hemingway, James Joyce, Fitzgerald, among others, used to hangout, toured the Louvre for free (we’re under 26 years old), and walked about the Palace Versailles. We also woke up early in the morning to take pictures at the Trocadero — the best place to get a good view of the tower itself. We had french food, french bread, and scootered our way through the liveliest parts of Paris at night.
Once back in London, we treated ourselves to a phenomenal dinner, saw the Christmas lights, and said goodbye to one memorable trip.