Back in March of 2020, I boarded a cruise ship headed across the Atlantic. You might have heard the story from a prayer letter back then. At the time I boarded, it looked like Covid wasn’t very widespread, but when we arrived in Europe the whole world had shut down. Not only that, but the ship experienced an outbreak. and we were quarantined in our tiny cabins for several days. That unfortunately experience resulted in a credit from the cruise line for another go at a cruise, and the time seemed right to use that credit on my way back to Togo in September. I’m glad to report the second attempt at a cruise went exponentially better than the first one! I toured the western Mediterranean and France with two of my best missionary friends. What fun to experience God’s creation and the richness of some of the older cultures in different parts of Europe!
Barcelona held some fun surprises, since we hadn’t done much research in advance. We just hopped on a tourist bus and picked where we wanted to get off. Barcelona has its own Arc de Triomf, much smaller than the one in Paris, but without the crazy traffic circle surrounding it. It would have been just another monument if it wasn’t for a man creating bubbles of all sizes (including some bigger than a person) all over the sidewalk. Made us feel like kids at heart!
Another fun surprise came as we looked at what bus stops looked most interesting. We debated about getting off at a place called Park Gruell. It was a significant walk away from the bus stop and we almost decided it wasn’t worth it. After huffing and puffing up the hill, we discovered that this park was 100% worth it! Unique architecture, especially mosaics, melded beautifully with the landscape, making it our favorite stop in Barcelona!
The churches in Barcelona were quite unique. There were lots of churches in various cities we visited, but this place, the Basilica Sagrada Familla, wins the prize for creativity. Not only is it enormous, it also has distinctly different architectural styles on each side of the building-and it’s still under construction!
Our little tour of Spain ended at the island of Palma, where we took a catamaran trip and went swimming in the warm Mediterranean Sea.
Next stop was Italy, starting with this quaint old town called Cefalu in Sicily. From the beautiful rocky coast to the narrow cobblestone streets, we had fun exploring this gem of a town.
It would be hard to head to Italy and not see Rome. We took a more touristy tour of the main sites, getting quite a lot of steps in the process.
Our cruise started and ended in Marseille, France. We took a brief tour of the town, and then had a bit of time left to kill. Not knowing where else to go, I looked at a map and said, “Not far from our hotel, there’s this garden, what do you think about going there to chill a bit?” We arrived by tram, descended, walked around the corner, and our jaws dropped when we saw this beautiful fountain! The unexpected surprises are the most fun, I think.
Our time in France was split between north and south, giving us a sampling of many beautiful spots. This series of seven stair-step locks on the Canal du Midi in Béziers, near France’s southern coast, has been functioning continually since it was built in the 1600’s. We rented bikes and explored the locks and the countryside alongside the canal.
After our bike ride, we wandered around Béziers for a while, coming across this beautiful garden by an old pedestrian bridge. Again, an unexpected surprise!
Nearby Béziers is Carcassonne, with its medieval city and castle. Not even a month earlier, I had been visiting friends in the US, and they proposed a game of my choosing. I glanced at their collection, and one game stood out. It was called Carcassonne, and I exclaimed, “Hey, I’m going there soon!” So we played a fun family game, and later I got to experience the real thing.
The city of Avignon contains a palace that housed the Popes for a number of decades in the 14th century. Near that is this curious half-bridge, of which the other half apparently got washed out in flooding long ago.
An exploration of the countryside near Avignon for a day led first to a pleasant stroll around the quaint town of Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. This island town surrounded by a creek containing contains over a dozen old water wheels.
The same creek that forms Isle-sur-la-Sorge originates from a fountain at the base of a mountain nearby, called Fountain de Vaucluse. Even though it had been incredibly dry over the summer, the water still flowed swiftly from the spring.
In that same region is this beautiful old town of Gordes, built into a hilltop.
And a bit further down the road still lies a former quarry for ochre, which is processed and used as a pigment. Nature took over when the quarry closed, and now you can enjoy a hike while viewing the contrast of green pine trees against the orange and yellow ochre rocks.
So far, we had been exploring southern France. We then took a train up to Strasbourg, which is right near the border with Germany. I enjoyed a couple of days with some good friends and missionaries who are planting churches, mainly among immigrants in this culturally diverse city.
Strasbourg has some beautiful sights of its own: Notre Dame Cathedral of Strasbourg (which is probably the most beautiful Notre Dame you can get into these days, since the one in Paris is still under repair; although some people say this one is prettier than Paris’s Notre Dame).
An old-fashioned little section of Strasbourg called La Petite France.
A parc in Strasbourg called Parc des Orangiers, which was bursting with stunning arrangements of flowers. We hadn’t expected flowers to still be in good shape in September, so this was a lovely surprise!
There’s a castle called Haut-Koenisbourg not too far from Strasbourg. It has been beautifully restored and furnished, and boasts amazing views of the valley, since it sits on the tip-top of a mountain.
From Strasbourg, we continued on to Paris, although for a very short visit since we aren’t big city lovers. I had been to France, mainly Paris, once before this trip, when I was in high school (I won’t say how long ago that was!). We made a point to see two things I recalled enjoying the most from that trip:
The first was the Palace of Versailles, where Louis XIV lived. Its rich interior and vast gardens give a sense of the extreme opulence that kings lived with back then (although, despite the expansive space they lived in, they seemed to lack any privacy in their daily routines). There was no shortage of well-groomed, colorful flowers and fountains to delight the senses.
The other spot we longed to revisit was the famous Mont St-Michel, a well-known island town and abbey on the northern coast of France.
Heading further east into Brittany, we lodged in this beautiful old manor that an American couple runs as a Bed and Breakfast, but its main focus is ministering to missionaries. It was a joy to get to know them!
Here’s a pretty medieval little town called Tréguier we visited in northern Brittany.
From that manor, we ventured north to the coast of the English Channel. There’s a stretch called the Pink Granite Coast with so many beautiful seascapes scattered with unique colored boulders.
Heading south from the manor, we visited the city of Vannes, largely because a friend who owns our favorite in Togo comes from there and highly recommended a visit. The old ramparts with more colorful gardens were a delight to explore.
On our way back from Vannes, we stopped at a little town on a hill. It was called Rochefort-en-Terre, and it was perhaps our favorite spot in all of France! The buildings were all old stone structures with cobblestone streets and flowers flowing everywhere!
To end our trip, we settled down for a few days in Albertville. This city could have been my home back in 2012 while I was studying French. Most of my colleagues studied at a school here, which teaches missionaries working in French-speaking parts of the world. I opted to study French in Lomé, the capital of Togo, instead. I sure missed out on some beautiful scenery and culture, but I still think it was the right decision for me.
Not far from Albertville is the lake-side town of Annecy. We explored it with some French friends who volunteer in Togo from time to time.
My travel companion studied French in Albertville, and was able to reconnect with her former language helper. We went exploring in the mountains together, including this deep blue lake high (really high!) in the mountains, called Lac de Roseland.
Whew, that was quite a tour of so many beautiful spots in Europe! I hope you enjoyed this glimpse of it. It was stunning to experience all these new places, but I’ll admit I was ready to settle back down at home in Togo be done with traveling for a while.