La Voiture. /vwäˈtu̇(ə)r/ n. Language: French. Meaning: The Car. A 4-wheel vehicle, typically powered by internal combustion, that’s the essential component to any road trip. And the French word makes even a minivan sound sexy.
I’m no fan of the automobile. I’d be happy if I never owned a car. The price of gas; the tugging feeling that I’m warming up the planet mile by mile; traffic jams; insane, road-rage prone drivers who I wouldn’t trust with a pair of scissors, let alone a 2-ton mound of steel; searching for parking in cities; insurance rates and Geiko commercials. All reasons I don’t like cars. I’m a public transport or walking kind of girl, which is one thing I seriously love about living in Spain.
And yet, a car can be the secret to a great vacation. And a road trip through France back in August is exactly what I needed to reaffirm my once-wavering love for the country.
24 hours after I arrived back in Spain, the travel bug took over and my old roommate Patricia, her two friends and I set off on a road trip through the Midi-Pyrénées region of south central France.
It was my 4th time in the country. In 2011 I spent five days in Paris; this past year some friends and I crossed the border to Biarritz, and then in May returned to Bordeaux to run a 10K race through the vineyards of the neighboring Blaye. All three times, I truly loved France.
But this time I began to question what was so great about it. Our first major stop was Toulouse, which, like the rest of France, is a beautiful, charming old city full of stone buildings and shutters and all the French works.
But like the adjectives I just chose to describe it, Toulouse kind of bored me. It was all the same. I was over it.
Another big (or relatively big) city. Another so-so French meal that somehow still costs me 15 euros. Impeccably manicured parks, which of course are nice to look at, but I found myself yearning for more. The grit of Marrakech. Krakow‘s chilling history. Was I tired of Western Europe already? Shit, I’d only been back for 48 hours.
But as much as the car is screwing up things around the globe, it actually helped out France—my vision of France, that is. Since we were road tripping, we had liberty to take our car wherever we wanted, off the beaten track, away from the major cities.
On our third day, we ventured into a national park, the Parc naturel régional des Causses du Quercy, and it’s there where I began to feel again that initial love I remembered having for France. You just can’t argue with scenery like that.
Over the next two days, we stopped in five tiny villages, and this time, I wasn’t “over” the stone houses, cobbled streets, or shutters: I drooled over them as in previous trips. France, it turns out, is just as charming as they say it is, maybe even more so. But all that charm isn’t centered on the Champs Elysees or the Eiffel Tower at night. It’s in the minuscule villages, and to fully discover it, I’ll admit: The damn automobile comes in handy.
We wound through these towns without plans; mostly even without Google Maps, since our Spanish 3G service didn’t work in France. But as we chanced upon fairytale village after fairytale village, it became clear that it’s less a lottery in France than an absolute guarantee that anywhere you’ll stop, you’ll be greeted by astonishingly old and picturesque towns; outdoor markets selling the quintessential cheese and baguettes; and stunning, verdant scenery.
Itinerary for Our Road Trip Through France
Night 1: Bilbao—SaInt Jean de Luz—Pau (overnight).
Saint Jean de Luz is a beautiful resort town on the coast, in the French Basque Country. It has a similar vibe to San Sebastian, which of course means it’s worth a visit. We did little more than stroll along the waterfront, eat a quiche dinner and drink wine, but it was the perfect stop for a meal.
Day 2: Pau—Toulouse (overnight).
The Tour de France passes near the inconsequential town of Pau, and we caught site of this awesome statue. In other news, a gas station charged me 2.60 for a tiny coffee. WTF, France.
In Toulouse, we strolled around, ate a bagel (48 hours out of the States and I already needed a bagel), saw some pretty gardens, drank wine on a bridge, and admired pretty buildings. Like I said, I was a bit jaded.
Day 3: Toulouse—Cajarc—Sant-Cirq-Lapopie—Cahors—Sarlat—Perigueux (overnight).
Five picturesque villages. When I was through with these towns, I was once again a converted Francophile.
Highlight: Saint-Cirq-Lapopie. We chanced upon this town simply because we saw a postcard for it in Cajarc. Plus, that name—how are you not going to stop? To reach it, you must park below and then walk along a path for about ten minutes to a giant archway, then along a cobbled road up to a castle perched on the cliff. (That sentence feels so normal in Europe.) There are shops, restaurants, and ice cream parlors along the way. Saint-Cirque-Lapopie was clearly a tourist hot zone, but I must say: Sometimes tourist hot zones are hot zones for good reason. Don’t avoid them like the plague. In this case, the medieval town not only reaffirmed but cemented my love for France.
Runner-up: Cajarc. Unpretentious. Very few tourists. We just stopped here for a grocery store, and stumbled upon some medieval streets, a perfect tea house, and an outdoor market. One woman even invited me into her pie van. And here I thought the French had a cold reputation!
Second Runner-up (because why choose?): Sarlat. We arrived there at night, just in time for a picnic dinner of—you guessed it—bread, salami, cheese, and wine. Although I would love to return to this town and see it in the daylight, being there at night made it seem all the more majestic. It, too, had a medieval feel, and was so alive with people dining al fresco and live music in the plazas.
Skip: Cahors. Besides a beautiful bridge, I didn’t find this town worth the stop. Maybe I was too exhausted at this point to enjoy it, but the other towns had much more to offer.
Day 4: Perigueux—Bergarac—Bordeaux—Bilbao
Perigueux has a charming old town that’s worth checking out. (Why use a thesaurus for “charming” when it’s really the only adjective to describe French villages?) We stumbled upon yet another outdoor market, which is always fine by me, especially when they’re giving out paté samples.
France is prim, it’s pristine, and it knows it. And as long as it’s got the Eiffel Tower and macaroons, people will never stop visiting. That’s why France thinks it’s OK to charge me three euros for a thimble-sized coffee. After three prior visits, I began yearning for more.
Luckily, more is exactly what I got with a road trip through France. Peeking into these minuscule villages was a treat that would be nearly unattainable using public transportation. On some of these roads, a tour bus was having a hair-raising time navigating the one lane that hugged a jagged cliff. We were grateful for our pint-sized hatch-back Renault, and the freedom that went along with it.
Tips for a Successful Road Trip Through France:
- If your lazy bones grew up driving only automatic (yours truly), find a friend who drives stick. Most car rentals in Europe are manual.
- Gas prices in Europe will have Americans shouting for joy at 4 bucks a gallon. And the toll roads add insult to injury. A road trip is worth it, and can be cheaper than public transportation, but only if you fill the seats to divide the cost!
- We stayed at F1 hotels two out of three nights, which are all over France, and are the new wave of budget hotels. These are incredibly economical–32 euros for a 3-person room, which, if you split it, is cheaper than a hostel bed! The rooms have sinks, but toilets and showers are shared in the hallway. (Insider tip: It’s pretty easy to sneak a 4th person into the room. 8 euros/person. . . . three cheers for a part-time English teacher’s salary.)
- Book in advance! We went on a holiday weekend in August without booking accommodation in Toulouse, which was not our finest moment. We ended up calling and walking into far too many hotels before finding one that had space for us.
- BUT, we found out that many hotels offer discounts on the weekends! I don’t really understand the logic to this, but I was all for it.
- Bring a map. I mean a physical, paper map. Remember those things? You could end up paying a fortune for GPS and 3G in a foreign country.
- Don’t speed. France has hidden radars that take photos of license plates, and by the time you realize you’ve passed one, it’s too late.
Have you done a road trip in Europe, or do you tend towards public transport? What are your feelings on France?