Road trips can be a lot of fun if they’re planned properly and the vacationers have a wealth of maps and technology at their disposal; but it’s one thing to travel in a country where the inhabitants speak your language, and quite another when they don’t.
About 10 years ago, my best friend Lynne Firth and I decided to drive around Europe for a couple of weeks, despite the fact that our French and Italian were absolutely nonexistent. We drew up a route that would take us south through France, over to Italy, into Switzerland and back into France. Although our time line was fairly strict, based on the date of our return flight to the Cayman Islands, we were determined to “wing it” through certain parts of our journey to really experience the carefree feeling of life on the open road.
We spent a few days in Paris before setting off for parts relatively unknown. This is a must for anyone if they’re planning a similar trip. Paris is truly a breathtaking city with so many sights to see that someone could wander its streets for weeks and still not see it all.
The Paris Métropolitain is definitely the way to get around, or by taxi. I am a confident driver, but I figured it was madness to rent a car while we were in the city. Beyond the fact that parking would have been a two-hour affair, the public transport system is modern and excellent.
Another wonderful experience was the hop-on/hop-off bus service that can usually be found in large cities around the world. We were able to sit on the top floor of a double decker bus and see Paris from a great vantage point, including such notable highlights as Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, and Avenue des Champs Élysées, leading to the Arc de Triomphe.
The Arc de Triomphe, one of the most famous monuments in Paris, sits in the middle of a legendary and treacherous multi-lane roundabout boasting 12 exits, with its own specific insurance rules. If that doesn’t put you off the idea of renting a car, nothing will.
For our few nights in Paris we visited the Louvre, took pictures of the Eiffel Tower, window shopped along the beautiful Champs Élysées, walked the bridges over the Seine, enjoyed some marvelous food, and generally drank in the magic of the “City of Light.” We also attended an interesting karaoke night in the basement of a bar where I attempted to sing along in French with three teenagers. Charles Aznavour, I am not.
The next day, we picked up our rental vehicle from Orly Airport, south of Paris, and officially began our road trip. Now, we’d heard all these wonderful stories from friends of ours about driving the country roads of Europe, but as we’d set ourselves the task of getting through three countries in two weeks, we made the initial silly decision to take the Autoroute highway, which would be much faster but ended up being nowhere near as picturesque. I had also not done my research on the associated costs, figuring it would be about the same as taking the turnpike in Florida.
Lynne wanted to stop in Orléans to see the Château de Chambord, a stunning edifice originally constructed in the early 16th century. As I hit the indicator to take the exit, we saw the toll station before us. I berated Lynne for having nothing smaller than a 10 euro note, as we had cars at our back and front, and now the toll attendant was surely going to have to make change for us.
Thirteen euros later, I was eating my words, and made a mental note to take the smaller roads from then on.
The chateau was magnificent and well worth the stop. After that, we kept heading south, trying to get to Marseille in one day, but around hour four I was tiring, and so we pulled out our Best Western directory that we had swiped from our hotel in Paris, and called ahead to book a room in Lyon. So much for “winging it.” Even armed with an expensive detailed road map and directions, we spent an hour enjoying an unwanted tour of downtown Lyon at night before we found the hotel.
It only took us a couple of hours to get to Marseille the next day, and we stayed in a hotel overlooking the harbor. That night we had a meal at a good seafood restaurant, where I ate far too many snails, and then wandered along the harborfront where musicians were playing guitars on sailboats while others sang along. It was like something out of an old movie, and we stopped at an outdoor restaurant overlooking the water for a final glass of wine before heading to bed.
We couldn’t stay long in Marseille, as Nice was calling, followed by Italy, and so we packed everything back into the car, and hit the road again, riding on seats surrounded by bottles of water. At least we wouldn’t die of thirst.
The south coast of France offers beautiful vistas, so we took our time driving it. After a pass through Cannes, a place famous for its yearly film festival, we spent an evening in Nice at a hotel that was all stairs and no elevators. Next time we would pack lighter.
As we headed to Italy the next morning, we drove through Monaco and Monte Carlo, where we saw some incredible landscapes and many homes, cars and yachts that we couldn’t afford.
We were just becoming comfortable with our broken French as we crossed the border into Italy to make our way to Rome.
To be continued…
Tips on France:
Make an effort to learn the language, even if it’s just a few basic phrases. We found almost all the French folk, including the Parisians, helpful and pleasant when we were there. You’re bound to run into the odd miserable person no matter where you go, but if you at least try to communicate in French, they’ll appreciate that a lot more than loud, halting English matched with wild gesticulations. Glasses of wine can cost less than a glass of soda in this country, so take advantage.