There is a reason the medieval town of Senlis, a mere 25 miles North of Paris, has traditionally been a favorite of French royalty. It has winding cobbled streets, restaurants with cellars where you dine beneath vaulted arches, and gallo-roman ramparts, which protect its centre-ville. It comes as no surprise that it is a coveted set location for film-makers (anyone seen "La Reine Margot?").
It is also the home of the Lycée Saint Vincent, where 11 GCS juniors and sophomores travelled to reunite with the students they hosted last year. The school grounds are in the 12th century Abbeye Saint Vincent ("looks like Hogwarts or Downton Abbey" my group said.) This majestic place could not possibly be a high school that has 700 students and is constantly juggling exchanges with over 20 locations worldwide. Once inside, the familiar and healthy mayhem of a bustling high school hits you. This place might be centuries old, but it is alive.
Discovering this region, as the week progressed, I felt one with the royals - this is where I want to live. On day 2, we all headed out to the racetrack in the nearby Foret de Chantilly. "The most beautiful racetrack in the world," says Mme Barbe, mother of student Henri. She offered us a back-stage tour of the racing world, including introduction to the jockeys including the winner of last year's Prix de L'Arc de Triomphe race. We were privy to a private view of the horses before they went out on the track. As we headed over to the racetrack itself, all of us were struck by the scenery. Behind the track is the gleaming white Chateau de Chantilly and it's equally massive, sprawling stables built by the Duc de Conde in 1719.
Besides our days near Senlis, we covered a lot of ground. Funnily enough, I kept yearning for the serenity and majesty of home base, where Mr. Mahabir and I were put up by Julia Howes, English teacher extraordinaire at Saint Vincent. She lives in a rambling and beautiful converted water mill. In contrast, Paris, the metropole, seemed more bustling than ever. Tour buses clogged the avenues, lines for museums were endless and there were always hurried footsteps behind you.
It was a revelation to the students that we could hop over to another country for the day. We took a bus to Brussels and got a taste of what the "new" and evolving Europe looks and feels like. As we crossed from France to Belgium there was barely a mention of the border, much less a stop to verify papers. This is the Europe where borders are fluid and you can practically commute to another country to work.
Our final two-day jaunt through Chartes and the Loire Valley was a fit end to our trip. The grand Chartres cathedral was being re-polished and when we went in during a Sunday mass, the brilliance of the colors was unexpected - is this what medieval Europe could look like? Not at all dark or depressing?
We travelled back to Senlis in a mini-bus filled with sleeping teenagers and dozing chaperones. Our faithful driver got us back to the Lycée by the afternoon. Our final dinner with the families was a potluck affair in the ancient meeting room where speeches were made, champagne glasses were raised (by parents and teachers), and students played the piano to accompany dinner. All agreed that Grace Church School and the Lycée Saint Vincent are headed for a long partnership.
-Claire Nalley, French Teacher
Excerpts from the Travel Blog
Day 1- L’arrivée en France!
We arrived at Paris Charles De Gaulle two hours late, and our host families were eagerly awaiting us behind the glass partition. It seemed that everyone had turned out. Quite a reunion. GCS students scattered to have a day recuperating with their families.
Day 2 – Lycée Saint Vincent
The Lycée Saint Vincent is a majestic and serene place with an inner courtyard garden, reminiscent of the Cloisters. The building is very, very old, and we feel it as we have our introductory breakfast in a room with carved stone moldings. We are led out to our first tour of the Lycée, and it is finally clear that it is indeed a noisy, active place with students racing to classes. Kids head off to classes with their host after the tour and we all meet up in the outside gate for a 2-hour guided tour of the medieval city of Senlis.
A highlight was our visit of a Gothic cellar, where craftspeople once loomed linen by candlelight. Students descended two dark sets of stairs to discover a vast underground network of rooms. Our visit of the gothic Cathedral brought back memories of the gothic style of our own Grace Church, albeit built several centuries later.
Day 3 – Chantilly – Chateau and racetrack
The day began for students with a history lesson about the Chateaux de la Loire, which we would visit later. Grace students then gave a presentation to the class of seconde (10th grade) about GCS and took questions about our school. French students were floored by the 3 classes we have a day (as opposed to their 8) and groaned in self-pity as Ava told them we do not have a baccalaureate. After a visit to the local market and lunch, we all headed out to the racetrack at Chantilly
Day 4 – Brussels & European Parliament
We started the day at a fast clip, leaving Senlis early to head to the site of the Battle of Waterloo in Belgium. We poured out onto the historic site to climb the endless stairs to the top of a grassy mount, which commemorates the Allies defeat of Napoleon. It was interesting to hear some French students grumble that a visit of the site of Wellington’s victory was une trahison – a betrayal! We then had a gastronomic lunch en route to Brussels at a cooking/hotel school. It was a 3-course lunch with dishes that were more “Flamand” than French. Students loved the sweet cheese tarte for desert.
Back on the bus we headed to the European Parliament in Brussels. We were given a half hour explanation of the function of the European Parliament and European Commission and the 28-country membership of the EU. We then got a tour of the impressive plenary chamber where EU representatives meet and debate policy while interpreters work in visible glass chambers overhead translating in the 24 languages of the EU.
Day 5 – Paris
How were we going to cover Paris in one day? Arriving in Paris, we took a bus tour of the main sites. Starting from the Trocadero, we saw the sprawling panorama of Paris with the Tour Eiffel in the foreground. After that we drove by L’arc de Triomphe, Place de la Concorde and Notre Dame.
We made it to the Louvre by 11:30 and entered La Grande Pyramide. Freedom! Students headed into the Danton wing on their own with just one obligation – find 5 works that impressed you and be prepared to write about them. The hour we had was certainly not enough. After meeting up again in the Pyramid, we all headed over to the left Bank. Walking in single file through the small streets in the Saint Germain area, we took the most direct route to Sevres Babylon through streets like “Rue du Four” and “Rue du Dragon”
Day 6 – Saturday with families.
Journée libre avec les familles – Each student spent the day with their host families who had organized activities for the day. Some went in to Paris, others to Versailles and others to EuroDisney.
Day 7 – Chartres & the Chateau de Chambord
We set off on this grey Sunday morning. We had a half hour before meeting our guide to wander in the Cathedral. For the first time since being built in the 12th century, it was being restored, and the renovation was revealing the white facade and brilliant colored interior. Mr. Mahabir and I agreed that is was not what we remembered of Chartes in notre jeunesse. Later, were off to the first chateau of our trip – the massive Chateau de Chambord, which had been the King’s hunting grounds. We learned that the grounds themselves are the size of the city of Paris.
Day 8 – Chenonceau and Clos de Luce
We awoke to a dazzling day for a change and headed for our first stop, Chenonceau. It is the jewel of the Loire – also called the “chateau des dames” as women have traditionally owned it from Catherine de Medici to present day heiress of the Menier chocolate family.
Off to Amboise for lunch. We visited the red brick chateau with a panoramic view of the ville d’Amboise and a large circular ramp inside where the king could ride his horse all the way up the chateau to the top terrace and thus make a grand entrance. Finally, we concluded the day by visiting Leonardo da Vinci’s final home, le Clos de Luce. It was an eye-opening experience because we learned about Leonardo the man, who left his native Italy and spent his final years in France at the request of French king Francois Premier.
We returned to Senlis under grey skies for lunch in the old town. There was a French class for all exchange students taught by veteran teacher, Monsieur Gravé. Every student was called upon to give his/her impressions of the trip and aspects of the French culture they enjoyed. Conversational French seemed a lot easier. In the evening, we returned to the meeting room at Saint Vincent for a pot luck supper with all families.
Departure from Senlis and headed off to the airport. Return to NYC