GRAVES COUNTY, KY (KFVS) - Graves County High School Future Business Leaders of America adviser Mechelle Gattis over spring break 2016 led a group of 35 to Europe.
Some 24 students and 11 adults departed from the Nashville, Tenn., airport and two flights later landed in beautiful, historic, and sunny Rome, Italy.
They were greeted at the Rome airport by their EF Tours director who remained with them for the entire adventure. The group had been planning and raising money for almost two years and expectations were very high. In the end, Gattis said, no one was disappointed.
"When we landed in Rome, after a whole day of traveling and a seven-hour time change, we were tired, but so excited to be in Europe," said freshman Faith Elder. "Two hours later, we went to St. Peter's Square, where Pope Francis was giving a blessing to the audience because it was Divine Mercy Sunday. As a Catholic, I have always dreamed of seeing the pope, but never thought I would, much less get his blessing. It was honestly one of the best moments of my life. There was such a diversity of people, which opened my eyes to see there is so much we have in common with them. In this world where there is so much violence and you almost never see peace in large groups of people, I saw and felt peace in that moment. I was moved, knowing that there is still love and kindness in the world. This will forever be one of my favorite memories."
The tour continued with stops at Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, Piazza Venezia, and an authentic lasagna dinner at Pala Garden Roma.
The second day in Rome included a guided tour of the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. Next was a walk to Palantine Hills, one of the famed Seven Hills of Rome. After lunch, there was a walk down the Spanish Steps and a short detour to Mamertinum, the Roman prison that once held Saints Peter and Paul.
The evening highlight was visiting the Trevi Fountain, where everyone in the group threw a coin in the fountain, which according to the legend, means that they will return to Rome one day.
The tourist attraction has been pictured in several motion pictures, including "Three Coins in the Fountain."
The last day in Rome began with an extensive guided tour of Vatican City and the Sistine Chapel.
"Both were simply amazing," Gattis said, "and seeing Michelangelo's masterpiece on the ceiling of the chapel was an experience that cannot be measured or expressed with words. It's just priceless."
The group traveled by train to Milan, Italy, and then boarded a night train to Paris, France. The first stop in Paris was at the most famous and largest museum in the world, the Louvre.
"While the museum itself is a sight to behold, the treasures inside are even more impressive," Gattis explained. "Of course, its most famous work of art is the 'Mona Lisa' by Leonardo da Vinci. Seeing this iconic painting was a dream come true for many and an experience they will never forget. Other amazing works of art in the Louvre were the Venus de Milo, Winged Victory of Somathrace, and the largest painting in the Louvre, 'The Wedding at Cana' by Paolo Veronese."
The group made its way down the Seine River to Notre Dame Cathedral to admire the architectural marvel with its flying buttresses and gargoyles keeping watch.
Just across the street is the famous bookstore, Shakespeare and Company that has served as the preferred hang-out of generations of writers, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, D.H. Lawrence, and James Joyce. That evening, the group made its way to Montmartre, an historic art district in Paris, where Vincent Van Gogh once lived. Salvador Dali and Claude Monet once worked there.
A guided tour of the Palace of Versailles was first on the itinerary the next day. This vast and luxurious property began as Louis XIII's hunting lodge and was transformed in 1682 by Louis XIV into the grand royal residence it is today.
Notable features include the famous Hall of Mirrors, the King and Queen's Grand Apartments, and the expansive gardens that boast many fountains, topiaries, and mazes.
After touring Versailles, the group enjoyed a dinner of "flammekeuche," called "flam" for short. It is a traditional French creation that is thinly-spread bread dough, covered with a mixture of cheese and spices.
"The place where I most want to return is definitely Paris," said senior Melissa LaClair. "I was probably the most excited to see the Palace of Versailles, after learning about its history in school and, let me tell you, it lived up to my expectations. Just standing outside and looking at the huge golden gate was enough to take my breath away. Then, I was able to go inside and be blown away all over again! Room after room, everything, from the walls to the ceiling to the views from the windows, was absolutely magnificent. The thing that made the palace even better, however, was the knowledge that it wasn't simply gorgeous for the purpose of being gorgeous. No, every detail was carefully planned out. All the exquisite finery had a functional purpose."
"After dinner, the group took a boat down the Seine River to get a different view of the beautiful sites of the city," Gattis noted. "Then we saw what most of the students had been waiting for – the Eiffel Tower. Constructed in 1889 as the entrance to the World's Fair the next year, this wrought- iron lattice tower was the highlight of the visit to Paris. Many students climbed the 704 steps to reach the second level to enjoy the amazing view. As the evening became darker, the lights of the tower came on, making it seem even more magical. More magic happened when the lights of the Eiffel Tower began to twinkle. The lights twinkle at 9 and 10 o'clock each night for five minutes each time. It truly is a magnificent sight and a bittersweet ending to the group's time in Paris but...London was calling."
The next morning, a short train ride that included going under the English Channel brought the group to London, England. The first stop was Covent Garden, a bustling shopping and dining area, complete with street performers.
Here, the group exchanged their remaining Euros for pounds, enjoyed lunch, shopping, and a walking tour of London, taking in sights such as the London Eye, Westminster Abbey, and Trafalgar Square.
"I had a wonderful time in Paris and Rome, but going to London was the experience of a lifetime," said senior Jillian Winn. "We got to see plenty of wonderful things, like Big Ben and Buckingham Palace. We even took a Harry Potter tour where they actually filmed the movies. Plus, the atmosphere, people, and food were amazing. Visiting London has made me decide I want to study abroad there, and I never would have considered it if it hadn't been for this trip."
On the last day in Great Britain and of the trip, the group enjoyed a guided tour that included Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, London Bridge, and Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.
They then made their way to Buckingham Palace, where they enjoyed a front row view of the Changing of the Guard. This royal and colorful ceremony, which lasts about 45 minutes, has been in place since 1660. The group then took a short bus ride to Windsor Castle, where they enjoyed a tour of the grounds. The queen's flag was flying, which meant she was in the castle.
For the final evening in London, the dinner menu included fish and chips.
"This traditional British fare was long-awaited and delicious," Gattis said. "After dinner, the group split--one group went to see the musical 'Wicked' at the Apollo Victoria Theatre, while the other group rushed to buy their final souvenirs at Piccadilly Circus."
"What can you say in one paragraph about a trip that changed your life? This trip opened our eyes to a world bigger than the one in Mayfield – a world full of culture and excitement and history and adventure," said senior Audrie Lamb. "The places we saw encouraged education in its purest form. We weren't forced to remember what people taught us; we remembered because it was interesting. We were challenged with the currency exchanges and the language gaps to see people and places outside our comfort zones. We learned that a smile and effort go a long way with people you have never met. We learned that London, Rome, and Paris were places that breathed life into us... places that changed who we were. Although the trip has ended, it is the beginning of a new life for many of us – a life that is rich with the desire to always be discovering."