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August 7, 2023   

It’s finally time for my LE EPIC Europe road trip.

Flying to Paris

Finally, I am saying goodbye to this somewhat lackluster summer, but my real summer is just beginning. It’s still surreal to me that I am embarking on a 20-day self-driving trip across 10 European countries. The non-stop flight from RDU to Paris was delightful, complete with a decent dinner and breakfast provided by Delta. Despite the 8-hour flight, I couldn’t sleep due to excitement. It proved to be exactly the kind of excitement I needed.

Upon arriving at the airport and spending almost 2 hours passing through border control, I immediately headed over to the car rental office. When one of the staff members heard about my ambitious multi-country road-tripping plan, he promptly advised against my originally booked car, a small, manual Fiat 500. He suggested I would save more on gas if I upgraded to a larger automatic car, which I did. After getting a taste of the intense Paris traffic, I realized he was absolutely right.

Palace of Versailles

I’ve always heard about this epic palace somewhere in France. It appeared in our history textbook, Chinese memes, and so on, and it was great to actually be physically present in this palace and feel the vibe.

The roads in Paris are so narrow, and every lane is much narrower compared to the US. However, drivers are really aggressive here with absolutely no courtesy towards other drivers and pedestrians. I was trying to yield to pedestrians, and they stared at me for a while with a confused expression on their face. So, I had to not yield to them, which was really weird to me. Other than that, the streets are not clean at all, and road signs on the ground were confusing. For some parts of the main street, there weren’t even lines to differentiate lanes.

The most dramatic example would be the big roundabout near the Arc de Triomphe. It was so chaotic that I would call it a bumper car field. No lanes, no orders, cars and pedestrians trying to go different directions at the same time, wanting to go through the same spot. It was funny to me that this happened right in front of this world-famous monument of the whole nation.

Anyway, returning to Versailles, it was certainly beautiful but not as impressive as I had expected. The building’s front plaza was a chaotic parking lot, with cars parked right in front of the palace. The entire palace seemed as though it was built upon ruins.

Inside the palace, the grandeur was truly impressive with many large frame paintings depicting French history and the royal family. The most unforgettable part was definitely the grand gardens. They were so vast that we could not see the end of them. They looked exactly like those seen in movies. All the green grass was perfectly trimmed, and the boundary looked like a straight line from a distance.

However, aside from that, it was an average palace to me. I would say the Hearst Castle in California, although smaller, is better. It felt as though the French royals were desperately trying to show off their wealth by making everything look like gold and appear large.

Eiffel Tower

Of course, visiting the most famous building, probably in all of Europe, is on our agenda. It was absolutely gorgeous and well-deserving of this title. The tower was designed so well that it appears balanced and outstanding, located in the heart of Paris. I didn’t realize how large the base was, and that there were actually roads under the four corners. It looks astonishing both from afar and up close to the tower. The Eiffel Tower blends seamlessly into the vibe of this city. It’s hard to imagine any other city with an Eiffel Tower working out this well.

Arc de Triomphe

How can we discuss the Eiffel Tower without mentioning the Arc De Triomphe? The very roundabout I was referring to is so chaotic, with a constant stream of traffic flowing through it, that tourists simply navigate their way across this massive loop. In the midst of the chaos, there lies a flame in the center that seems to burn eternally. The monument itself is adorned with relief sculptures, each telling a tale of major French wars and the heroes who fought in them. Standing atop the Triomphe was an absolutely astonishing experience. Its sheer size is a testament to the remarkable achievements of the French throughout history, naturally inspiring awe in those who visit.

City night bus tour

Parking in the center of Paris was such a painful experience. It was either too expensive or too hard to find a spot. However, after we parked underground at the Louvre, the moment we emerged, I was amazed by how spectacular the entire Louvre building clusters were. It also happened to be the golden hour, during which the sunshine directly shone on the front of the museum. The golden hue added another layer of mystery and prestige to this world-renowned museum.

We came here on the first day for a tour bus ride around all the major attractions. It was astonishing to see the night view of the city, including the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe. I mean, it was so impressively beautiful that I was left speechless when I saw them again at sunset and night.

Louvre Museum

We came to the Louvre Museum for the actual visit inside the second day morning. Taking a direct metro from our hotel, we arrived at the pyramid at no time. The line was long and luckily we had a reserved timely entry which allowed us to come in without wasting time on the line.

My first impression of the museum was how modern it was despite the outside historical looking. The glasses pyramid and inside decoration really makes it looks unique with a combination of both ancient artifacts and modern presentation design.

Mona Lisa

We headed directly to Mona Lisa when we entered, which was probably the most famous paint in the world by Da Vinci. It surprised me when the paint was just presented within the same room with other paints which I thoguht was going to be a huge room dedicated to this single one. It actually feels surreal and magical when I stared at the eyes of Mona Lisa. I can actually feel like she gradually became smilling to me.

Then we went to multiple famous paints with an audio guide we bought at the entrence. The audio was nice because they had a Chinese option but was not that interesting in terms of the storytelling.

Winged Victory of Samothrace

The most unforgettable aspect of the entire museum for me was undoubtedly the Winged Victory of Samothrace. I’ve seen pictures of this female figure numerous times, but I never realized that she is actually mounted on the front part of a ship. This element surprisingly imbues the entire sculpture with an incredible sense of dynamism. It infuses the whole sculpture with power. Suddenly, the meaning of ‘Victory’ in this context became clear to me. It’s akin to the Chinese phrase ‘乘风破浪,’ which means ‘riding the wind and breaking the waves.’


This may not be a well-known tourist destination, but my desire to visit was driven by my interest in Rousseau. It’s a national monument where many renowned French individuals are interred. This place serves as a wonderful tribute to those historical heroes who made significant contributions not just to France, but to all of humanity.

Before descending to the subterranean area where the tombs are located, we ascended to the panorama, which provided us with a breathtaking view of the entire Parisian urban landscape. The day was simply incredible, with favorable weather and stunning views surrounding us.

Following that, we ventured into the underground. The first tomb we encountered was that of the philosopher Voltaire, with whom I am not very familiar. He is one of the first two individuals buried here, along with Rousseau. Intriguingly, Rousseau’s coffin was adorned with a torch, presumably symbolizing the enlightenment he brought to the world. Overall, it was an incredible experience seeing the final resting place of the philosopher I’ve been studying all semester.

Another renowned French figure I encountered here was quite surprising - Aime Cesaire. I had the opportunity to read a piece of his work on Negritude during my last semester and was intrigued by his ideas, particularly his proposal that European civilizations are savage due to their history of colonialism. I felt both excited and honored to visit the tomb of an author whose work I had previously read, and to have the opportunity to admire it.


This cathedral has the most extensive stained glass collection in the world, and it was simply amazing. The entire grand upper level was covered by that beautiful glass that leaves people in awe. It’s just that I don’t believe those beautiful stories depicted on the glass anymore.

I had a fantastic two-day journey in Paris. The city provoked both love and frustration in me simultaneously. Initially, driving in the city was a source of irritation, but gradually, I found myself falling in love with it, thanks to its historical wonders and rich history. I am eager to return.

Haojin Li
CompSci + PoliSci undergrad - because one major alone wasn’t enough to confuse me.