Coke Smith Photography & Travelogue

Three Month Expedition Throughout Europe!

  Segovia's spectacular Alacazar castle seen while on a night stroll of the town.


Be sure to visit our Photo Galleries for more spectacular images of our travels! (Pbase Galleries)


During the summer of 1992, I actually wanted to travel to Africa or South America or some other major eco-destination.  But I also really wanted to travel with Lien.  I was sick of traveling all by myself.  There is something about sharing your experiences with your significant other that makes it more worthwhile.  Go figure…duh.  So this summer, the great compromise was a three month trip to Europe.  I really had no desire at all to travel Europe as it was more of a history/cultural destination and less of a nature hotspot.  At this point of my life, I was pretty single-minded in my approach to travel: nature or nothing!  What a fool…

Well, next thing I knew it I was traveling Europe in a rented SAAB that we picked up in Amsterdam.  It took me about two hours before I started enjoying the hell out of this “great compromise”!  I am so glad that my arm was twisted and I was forced to see the great sights of this amazing continent!  And I even had a chance to visit several national parks and nature-filled regions throughout Europe.  I even racked up an impressive bird and mammal list for the trip as well!

During the three or so months we spent driving our rental car around Europe we visited countries including: Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, France, Andorra, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and Monaco.  We decided to rent a car instead of relying on trains.  I really don’t care for trains as the main form of travel – you simply miss way too much.  Train travel, while being fun if it is considered the main focus of the trip, basically takes you from one station or town center to the next.  People I spoke to who had traveled Europe knew a lot about the cities and main urban sites but knew absolutely nothing about the countryside or natural sites of the countries they visited.  I love the freedom of controlling my own destiny!  And going by car is generally cheaper than train travel.  The only pitfall is parking in the main cities.  We collected parking tickets all over Europe!  I think I had over 30 by the time we finished the trip!

This trip had many highpoints.  For at least a couple weeks of our journey we were joined by my mother and father.  After Lien and I enjoyed a bit over a week in Amsterdam seeing such amazing sites as the Ann Frank Huis and the canals; and Luxembourg exploring castles and magnificent hardwood forests; and then through Strasbourg, France, we met my folks in Paris for a wonderful few days in that wonderful city.  My folks spend a lot of time in Paris and enjoyed showing Lien and me “their” city.  We did most of the main sights in just a few days and then worked our way to the Brittany Coast to spend some time exploring Mont Saint Michel, which is one of the most spectacular man-made sights anywhere on earth, in my opinion.  Aside from having to sleep in the noisiest hotel on the planet, our time there was outstanding. 

We then worked our way through the French countryside and explored several castles and chateaus in the Loire Valley.  I cannot remember exactly how many castles we experienced but my absolute favorite was Chambord.  Wow!  We had a blast cruising this part of France for a couple outstanding days.  We spent one night in Ambois at a golf course (we found that the best lodging deals could be found outside the towns at the local golf courses throughout France!).  We explored Clos Luce where Leonardo de Vinci was exiled and eventually died.  Seeing his inventions actually brought to fruition was amazing!  What a brain that man had.

We continued working our way through Bordeaux, wine tasting and enjoying the countryside.  We stayed in a tiny town named “Condom”, where we picked up some great wine.  We headed further south in to a region of France my folks had yet to experience.  I wanted to see the prehistoric caves near Lascaux, but was disappointed to learn that the main caves in Lascaux were actually closed to the public.  We could have waited in line for hours to tour a facsimile …. screw that!  While I was dealing with my disappointment, someone pointed out to us that we could see some actual caves with excellent art in the nearby village of Roufignac.  The caves were outstanding!  And that same afternoon we found ourselves sampling excellent Foie Gras from local farms.  I wish I could remember the name of this lovely village!  This is the sort of stuff you can do when you are not limited to the train stations!

After a couple amazing days in the French countryside, we headed over the Pyrenees.  We experienced some outstanding views and I was even able to collect some interesting scarabs in these absolutely spectacular mountains!  We were able to cross them again later in the trip and get in some quality trekking.  As soon as we crossed the Pyrenees and entered Spain, we were in the middle of a spectacular environmental shift.  Once I saw the rain-shadow desert-steppes of eastern Spain, I knew exactly why they selected Spain for the site to film so many Spaghetti Westerns!  We were blown away by the natural beauty of this area.  The batholithic geologic formations, the intense river-carved canyons and the ancient terraces of the region were stunning. 

We almost went to Pamplona to see the running of the bulls, but the town was basically completely closed down and filled up!  So we continued on to the lovely town of Soria.  We had a great time exploring the town and its main plaza.  We spent one fantastic evening with the locals in their outside cafes enjoying a balmy summer evening.  The next day we explored ancient Roman ruins in the countryside near Soria.  We learned how this city was under a two year siege!  We all enjoyed this rarely touristed towns.

Our next destination was Segovia.  Where does one start with this phenomenal city.  We spent a couple great days exploring Segovia with its interesting Segovia-pine forests and its spectacular Alcazar Castle.  The enjoyed the café lifestyle in the plaza of the city as well as the night strolls around the ancient Roman Aqueduct and cathedrals.  Watching the European White Storks roost on the roof tops was fascinating. 

By this point of the expedition, mom and dad had to head back to France to catch their flight back home.  On one point we were stuck in traffic while heading toward Madrid to catch their train and got to chatting with one of the traffic controllers.  My Spanish at this point was pretty rough and somehow he heard whatever I was trying to tell him that my father’s name was “Eduardo”!  And from that point on, we enjoyed joking with my father, “Eduardo!”  In fact, we are still milking this joke almost twenty years later!

While we did spend a couple days in Madrid, I was not very impressed with it, so Lien and I decided to continue our journey to Portugal, which we both found much more interesting. We hung out in Lisbon for several days.  What a fantastic town.  We found a favorite lunch spot that boasted views of the entire city that we visited daily.  We explored the Portuguese coastline and villages in the countryside. 

We spent another few days working our way through Portugal and southern Spain.  We decided to stay in Grenada for a couple days and experience the Alhambra.  Aside from the city with perhaps the worst parking on earth, Grenada was a great place.  I will never forget the sunset we experienced from the Alhambra overlooking the city.  Somehow we found our way to “make-out” point….  So, “when in Rome”….or in Grenada…”do as the….”

After a few more days exploring the southern Pyrenees and parts of southern Mediterranean France, we made it to the amazing wetlands national park, La Camargue.  Here we spent several days exploring these amazing wetlands and finally getting my wildlife fix in!  We saw wild Boars, wild Horses, Nutria and too many birds to remember (I was not keeping lists at this point in my life).  Seeing my first wild Flamingos was great! 

By this point of the trip, we both had enough of European cities.  We wanted to relax somewhere cooler (Europe was in the middle of an oppressive heat wave!) and with a lot more natural scenery.  We drove through southern France’s Alps and were pretty disappointed with how overwhelmingly commercial and crowded places like Chamonix were. Plus they were way out of our budget.  So we crossed through the longest and stinkiest and most polluted tunnel I had ever experienced (and was a site of a horrible multi-car accident a few years later - many fatalities) and found ourselves in amazing Val Ferret of the Italian Alps!  We were basically exploring a small mountain road and decided to drive it to the point where it ended.  After several miles we found a stunning little chalet at the base of some phenomenal mountain peaks looking directly at Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc)!  We spent an entire week there exploring this spectacular region.  We even made it to the Matterhorn for a day.  Wow!

We still wanted more from the Alps.  We absolutely loved this part of Europe.  And I had a chance to perfect my version of the song, “The Hills are Alive”….which I sang incessantly.  While driving through Italy and in to Switzerland, we noticed the hour becoming late and we needed to find a place to stay.  We saw a sign pointing to what I assumed was a little village in the hills.  We decided to take a chance and explore at this late hour.  After a few miles of stunning Alps scenery, we came upon the village of Soglio, in the Swiss Italian Alps.  We spent five nights in this amazing alps village.  Aside from daily treks and sun bathing, we didn’t do much.  We walked to the nearby villages and ponds and explored the small forests nearby.  This is definitely a place I would come back to in a heartbeat!

We were finally heading back to Amsterdam to conclude our journey.  But first we had a few days to spend in Austria, exploring its version of the Alps – wow!  We also cruised through Liechtenstein and almost missed it when we blinked!  We did spend a few outstanding days exploring southern Germany’s state of Bavaria at its section of the Black Forest.  I wanted to document the forest damage caused by acid rain for my ecology classes back home.  It wasn’t hard to find. 

Our last three days was spent on the Rhine River in Germany.  We explored castles and simply experienced the river life.  Stunning.  We finally made our way back to Amsterdam for a couple more days of fun in that special city.  All in all, while I would have voted ‘no’ for coming to Europe for three months, I absolutely loved our time here and would do it again in a hearbeat!  (Actually now, almost twenty years later, I have had the pleasure of visiting Europe many times and have even introduced its grandeur to Som and Cokie!).


Be sure to visit our Photo Galleries for more spectacular images of our travels! (Pbase Galleries)


Here are some images of our expedition to Europe!




The beautiful hamlet of Soglio, situated in the Swiss-Italian Alps.  Lien and I accidently found this place and ended up spending nearly a week experiencing this lovely region.



The lovely countryside in the tiny nation of Andorra.



The ancient Roman Aqueduct in Segovia.  Strolling the town at night was one of our many activities there.




Soria is a place that very few tourist make it to.  We came by accident as Pamplona was "full"!  But we are glad we did and were able to explore these spectacular Roman ruins and the town of Soria where we spent quality time experiencing this small yet very quaint town.



Grenada's spectacular Alhambra with its definitive Moorish architecture.  We enjoyed a sublime sunset here one night with the locals at "make out point".



A spectacular sunset at Mont Saint Michel.  I wish I had more images of this place but this was the period in my photography "career" when I was taking prints (that have yet to be scanned) of most things and slides (scanned here) for basically nature topics.  The two people in the foreground are mom and dad!



The view of Monte Bianco from the patio of our chalet in Val Ferret, one of the many "accidental" finds on this expedition.



This is the view from our Val Ferret lodge.  We spent the better part of a week exploring this phenomenal region.



Viandan Castle in Luxembourg was my first "real" castle ever!  We spent a couple days here exploring the forests and castle of this tiny town in the middle of this tiny nation. 




The slate-tile roofs of the castles impressed me.




The amazing Mallos de Riglos near the Gallegos River situated in the rain shadow of the western Pyrenees were some of the more impressive natural formations we experienced during the entire expedition.




We were lucky to spend an afternoon trekking the Verdon Gorge region of southern France.




While in the Camargue Wetlands reserve in southern France, I did see several Wild Boar, one of which nearly scared me to death as it dashed out of the reeds!  This one was probably a domesticated one seen cruising the grounds near the visitor's center.




Nutria or "Coypu" are still found in the Camargue.  This one was enjoying a bivalve for breakfast.



La Camargue is famous for its resident population of Wild Horses.  This one was seen in the wetlands a few miles away from the visitor's center.



I was most impressed with the world-class birding that I experienced at La Camargue.  This was my first wild spoonbill!  We saw many European Spoonbills during our strolls in the wetlands.



My first wild Greater Flamingo!  La Carmargue is famous for flamingos and other avian fauna.



Great Cormorants were also common in the wetlands of La Camargue.



This Short-toed Eagle had just massacred a small bird before I caught it perched on a shrub in the wetlands of La Carmargue.



A spectacular sunset over the Mont Saint Michel mud flats.  Tides are very dramatic and fast in this region.  The tide this evening came in within minutes to a depth of over one meter. Tidal bores are common as well and can be dangerous.




The mud flats of Mont Saint Michel are famous for dangerous tides and quick sand!  While we were there, we saw two rescues of tourists caught in the sand!



Roufignac Caves were amazing.  Luckily someone informed me that these caves existed and we were able to see authentic cave art over 25,000 years old!



No doubt one of the reasons Lascaux is closed to the public is due to graffiti and other abuse like we saw here.




I loved seeing the European White Storks all over the roof tops of Spain.  We were lucky to be in this region during the nesting season.



This Greylag Goose was seen in La Carmargue wild, but its relatives were the ones who provided us with the delicious Foie Gras we sampled in a small village near Roufignac.

Be sure to visit our Photo Galleries for more spectacular images of our travels! (Pbase Galleries)