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An old friend recently posted on Facebook a picture of a gorgeous Northern California landscape, accompanied by a question that asked, essentially, "Why would anyone go to France or Italy when we've got this right in our back yard?"

I assume this was directed, at least in part, at me, since my friend knows I spent most of the month of September in France and Italy. So let me try to answer the question.

First, it's not about the landscape. We live in a place as beautiful as any spot on Earth, with a variety of river valleys, mountain ranges, pastoral agricultural lands, redwood forests and dramatic coastlines that combines the best of nature's offerings. There are vistas in the Alps that will take your breath away, but no more so than some vistas in the Sierra. The rolling hills of Tuscany are reminiscent of the Alexander Valley, complete with geothermal plants puffing off steam on the mountaintops.

My trip wasn't for the scenery. It was for this:

I stood on the beaches of Normandy, looking at the nearly 70-year-old detritus of the beginning of the end of World War II, walking on the bomb-scarred Pointe du Hoc that separated Omaha and Utah beaches and contemplating the many white crosses in the American cemetery that declared "Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God."

Down the road, several small brown stones at the German cemetery marked the resting place of "Zwei Deutsche Soldaten" – two German soldiers. I grieved that after all that carnage and all that loss, we seem to have learned so little: Our country and others still send young people to die far from home.

I walked through the home and gardens where Leonardo da Vinci spent his final years in Amboise, France, alongside the Loire River. The epitome of a "Renaissance man," da Vinci was an artist, scientist, inventor, visionary. His study of anatomy informed his drawings, paintings and sculpture. His interest in engineering produced innovation in bridge-building and hydraulics. His imagination conjured flying machines, advanced weapons and other innovations that didn't become reality until hundreds of years after his death in 1519.

I paused at the base of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, which is an impressive war memorial, but an even more impressive traffic circle. The Luddites who want to ban roundabouts in Cotati should visit this place, where 12 busy streets converge in a huge vehicular free-for-all that, despite no lane markings, traffic lights or even very many signs, works efficiently and with an amazing lack of fuss and bother.

Cars, taxis, buses, limos, delivery trucks and dozens of motorcycles and bikes and scooters navigate this chaos in a herky-jerky ballet that looks scary as hell but gets the job done. I watched for quite a while but the only pattern or rule I could discern was that everyone paid attention to their own responsibility and respected the presence of other vehicles, then went on their way. American drivers could learn a lot here.

I took a rain-soaked hike on the flanks of Mont Blanc, Europe's tallest peak at 15,782 feet, and watched it turn the Arne River white with granite-laden runoff from the huge glaciers that hang off the side of the peak. The next day, I rode bus through the 7-mile tunnel through the mountain that connects France and Italy, where signs asked motorists to leave 150 feet between vehicles traveling through the narrow two-lane bore – and drivers actually complied.

I rode slow trains and fast trains, trains full of teenagers on their way home from school and trains full of commuters on their way home from work, trains that flashed through the city underground and trains that struggled up the mountains on narrow tracks, trains covered in multilingual graffiti and trains appointed with cushy seating and Wi-Fi.

I saw a woman sound an alarm when a man stole her purse from a train stopped at a station in Milan, and I cheered with the rest of the passengers when a handful of Italian station-workers chased the thief until he dropped the purse, its contents still intact.

I climbed more than 600 stairs to the second level of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and more than 400 stairs to the top of the Campanile next to the Duomo in Florence. Both provide sweeping views of cities that have very few skyscrapers, terribly crowded streets, impossibly scarce parking and – how can this be? – no dearth of tourists and shoppers.

I sat surrounded by Claude Monet's huge paintings of water lilies, I got up close to examine Pablo Picasso's brush strokes, I stood in awe before Sandro Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus."

In California, history is usually described in the 150-year-arc since white men swarmed here in search of gold. In Europe, Botticelli put that paint on that canvas more than 500 years ago. Masons started laying the foundation for the Cathedral of Notre Dame in 1163. Museums display sculpture and artifacts with dates followed by B.C.

I rode my bike on the endless hills of Tuscany, in a landscape that wasn't so very different from home, but where the roads were amazingly smooth and the drivers were unswervingly polite – even when our group of 20 caused them delays of up to several seconds. I drank jug wine in the vineyards where it was made, I tasted olive oil under the trees where it was grown, I ate pasta and bread in the kitchens where it was produced. It wasn't necessarily better than the wine and the oil and the food that can be found in the vineyards and orchards and kitchens of Sonoma County, but it was different.

I spoke – badly, haltingly and with a terrible accent – in French and Italian, usually to people whose command of my language was far superior to my attempts at theirs. I deciphered signs and symbols, train and bus schedules, menus, newspapers and grocery ingredients. I got lost, I found my way back and I enjoyed every misstep and detour. I had an adventure.

I took a step outside of my ordinary life, a leap of faith into the unknown, a risk of getting a little bit lost in exchange for the reward of discovering something extraordinary.

To answer my friend's question: That's why I travel. Not to get away from this extraordinary place we call home, but to put its place in the world – and my place on the planet – in a broader context.

And when I walked back in my door on Monday night, I appreciated this place even more than when I'd left.

<i>Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.</i>