Almost every year since we were married in 1980 we’ve gone on vacation with my wife Tammy’s sister Teri and her husband Al and their children, boyfriends, girlfriends and now husbands, wives and grandchildren. Al travelled extensively in his previous career in the telecommunications field, and the plan has always been that when their kids were out of college he would show us around Europe. That trip finally took place May 7-17, just before our 35th wedding anniversary. Along with the four of us were their son Mark and his new wife Tiffany, who used the trip as their honeymoon and a return to the place of their engagement.
This was the first international travel for Tammy, Teri and I. The trip started with an overnight flight from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, a short layover in Frankfurt, Germany to our destination in Nice (pronounced “Niece”), France. Mark and Tiffany would fly from Houston to Paris to Nice.
We did everything we could to sleep on the plane as Al (who had planned this trip to show us some of his favorite places in Europe for months, and had sent periodic emails to give us hints and tips about the trip) told us that with the seven hour time difference in France we would not be able to sleep until the next evening. The title of the trip “A Taste of Europe”, was based on Al telling us that we would only be getting a small taste of Europe in the eleven day trip (with two days primarily devoted to travelling). Al and I prepared by reading Rick Steve’s travel books on Paris and France.
We landed in Nice on the French Riviera, and rented a large Renault van, which was great for us, but at times a real challenge for Al to negotiate the narrow, winding roads in France, Italy and Switzerland. We stayed in Nice at the Hotel Suisse, which provided spectacular views of the Mediterranean Sea and Nice’s picturesque seaside promenade, the Promenade des Anglais (‘the Walkway of the English’) from our balconies.
The beach doesn’t feature sand, but large pebbles or small stones. While in Nice we took side trips to Antibes and Monaco. In Monaco we saw the city being set up for the baptism of Prince Albert II and Princess Charlene’s twins scheduled for the next day. We also saw the outside of Jacques Cousteau’s Oceanographic Museum, the famous Monte Carlo casino (complete with a Rolls Royce, Bentleys, Ferraris and an Aston-Martin parked outside) and the city setting up for the upcoming Grand Prix race.
On Sunday we said good-bye to Nice, and our Tour Guide Al led us to Bellagio, Italy on beautiful Lake Como, where we stayed at the Hotel Metropole. On the way we went through many tunnels carved out of the mountains. For the first hour of the trip we had wonderful views of the Mediterranean Sea. As we approached Bellagio, the narrow and winding roads provided a challenge to navigate as did finding a parking space in the very crowded town. We had wonderful sunset and sunrise views from our balconies.
After having breakfast on the shores of Lake Como, we took a car ferry across the lake and took off for Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland and the Hotel Stabbach at the foot of the Swiss Alps, with five waterfalls within our view at the hotel. On the way we had many breathtaking views of mountains, waterfalls and beautiful clear lakes.
We took a tram up to 9,744 feet above the Swiss Skyline to Schilthorn and the Piz Gloria, the sight of the villain’s hideout in the 1969 James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The views were spectacular. On the way down from Schilthorn, we ran into and had a great conversation with Paul Miller (author of A Praying Life) and his wife Jill. We had hosted “A Praying Life” event at our church a few years ago, led by one of Paul’s team members. I’m currently reading Paul’s A Loving Life and very much being blessed by it. Look for a review soon.
We drove to Geneva and visited St. Peter’s Cathedral (Cathedrale St-Pierre) in the heart of Geneva Switzerland’s Old Town towering over the other buildings and making quite an impression from the banks of Lake Geneva, one of the largest lakes in Western Europe. John Calvin preached here for 25 years, and visiting the church was one of my highlights of the trip. Over the next two days I read Steven Lawson’s book The Expository Genius of John Calvin. My reading plans for this summer include reading Banner of Truth’s new translation of the first volume of Calvin’s Sermons on Job, recently released as an e-book.
Though Calvin’s pulpit has not survived, his chair has. Read the article “The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Calvin’s Chair” from Tim Challies. Tiffany, Mark and I then went to visit the famous Reformation Wall in a local park near the church.
We then hopped a high-speed train for the three hour trip to Paris, the last stop on our Taste of Europe trip. We rented an apartment in Paris on Rue du Pont Neuf, two blocks from the Pont Neuf bridge, Paris’ oldest bridge.
In Paris we saw many of the famous sites the city has to offer – the Seine River and many of the 37 bridges over the river; Sainte- Chapelle, Notre Dame (including Al and I walking the 387 steps to the top for incredible views of the city); the Louvre Museum (Mona Lisa by da Vinci); Musee d’ Orsay (Impressionist artists like Monet and Renoir); Eiffel Tower; the Sacre Coeur basilica and a great view of the city at Montmartre; the Arc de Triomphe and walked down the Champs-Élysées; the Luxembourg Gardens; the Pantheon, walking past the Church of St. Sulpice which was featured in The Da Vinci Code movie, and seeing the front steps of the Église Saint-Étienne du Mont where Owen Wilson would magically be picked up at midnight in the Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris.
There are many memories that I will keep with me for the rest of my life from our “Taste of Europe” trip of a lifetime. The beautiful scenery in the French Riviera, Italy and Switzerland and the incredible historic sites in Paris. All of the waiters and store personnel we encountered were friendly and most knew at least a little English. I’ve never seen so many motorcycles and small cars. The graffiti was distracting in some of the areas. We learned words like Sortie (Exit), gas and still water, Bonjour, Merci and were often on the lookout for WC’s (water closets) or Toilets (no mention of rest rooms in Europe). At times I had a hard time finding American coffee. In Paris, many dressed in fashionable clothing and most that we encountered were young professionals. We enjoyed sitting at the outdoor cafes, facing outward and watching the people go by. We ran into mostly small elevators (lifts) in the hotels we stayed at, and some very small showers. We used Uber (who challenges Jimmy Johns for being freaky fast), rather than taxis for most rides. We encountered distracting cheap souvenir hawkers at all of the major attractions.
We visited many beautiful churches, most of them Roman Catholic. But what about faith in France today? Doing a little research I found that sadly only 4.5% of the French attend church on a weekly basis. According to the 2010 Eurobarometer Poll, only 27% of French citizens responded that “they believe there is a God”, making France one of the more secular countries in the world. Of the 44% who considered themselves to be Christian, 41% of those were Roman Catholic. 13% considered themselves atheists and 29% non-believers or agnostics.