Road Trip Through France (Kind of like a Medieval Route 66)


La Voiture. /vwäˈt(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.

me france river

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

road trip through France itinerary

(read this counter-clockwise)

Night 1: Bilbao—SaInt Jean de Luz—Pau (overnight).

france sunset |Road trip through France

Sunset on the road

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).

Tour de France | road trip through france

Tour de France statue

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 fields | road trip through France

Fields in the national park

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? 

  • Pingback:

  • Pingback: binaural()

  • Pingback: Apartments in Tel Aviv()

  • Pingback: cheap blade and soul gold()

  • Pingback: Changing the Way I Travel - A Thing For Wor(l)ds()

  • Anne

    Just one word for this post: FOMO.
    (Great post, as always!)

  • Ryan Zieman

    Oh Jenny, I’m so jealous of your spontaneity! I’ve only been to Paris, but it seems like I’m missing out on all these incredible little countryside villages. I love the line about a castle perched on a cliff feeling normal – so true though.

    • hahah isn’t it? Just the norm here. . . . and while you’re in Madrid you should definitely take advantage of our neighbor France, and explore some of the villages!

  • Beth

    This seems like the perfect way to explore France!! I felt that Paris was very overrated when I was there, but I think I’d be swooning over the small villages.

    • When I visited Paris I remember liking it, but thinking how is this so many people’s favorite city in the world? I mean it’s beautiful, yes. But maybe I need to go back when I’m rich to fully enjoy it. (Waiting on more freelance gigs, ha!)

  • My grandpa dragged me to France when I was 16 years old. Hated him for it before we left, was so happy he took me afterwards! French towns are seriously adorable. I have wonderful memories of spending the Bastille Day in a small town near Tours whose name I will never ever remember.

    • Wait, how could you hate anyone for taking you to France??? Were you just not into traveling at that age? But yes, it’s hard not to fall in love with it once you’re there.

  • Francesca

    I’ve never been to France and, honestly, have never felt the draw, but I totally know what you mean about how nice it is having the car to get to the smaller villages. It’s how I felt when traveling through Tuscany and Umbria in Italy. Your photos of Saint-Cirq-Lapopie just might be what convince me to finally go to France!

    • I definitely recommend France, but don’t feel like you have to go to Paris just to say you’ve been. Bordeaux, for example, seemed exactly like a mini Paris to me. But do go for the villages—like any other country (Italy, as you mentioned), there is so much charm off the beaten track!

  • Mindi @ 2foodtrippers

    Great trip and even better suggestions, especially about the map. We rented a car last year to drive around Burgundy and Beaujolais. Like you, we loved being able to visit lots of little towns – each one more charming than the last.

  • Jonathan Marshall

    I’m sold!

    • Meet you there next June?

      • Jonathan Marshall

        Sounds like a plan! The grass is greener there than in California, that’s for sure.

  • …I’ve only ever been to Paris (and that was last year), but perhaps I could make it across the border to visit our neighbor to the North–after all, Zaragoza is about 300 km. away!!…

  • Erin McClanahan

    Beautiful! The word Toulouse reminds me of the Friends episode where Phoebe makes her “grandma’s” chocolate chip cookies, lol. Miss you and can’t wait for our visit!!

    • OMG thank you for saying that. I couldn’t stop thinking of that episode the whole time I was there. Thank god you and I are reuniting soon, that’s all I have to say.

  • Cassandra

    Perfect late-summer day, right here—> “we strolled around, ate a bagel… saw some pretty gardens, drank wine on a bridge, and admired pretty buildings.” Not shabby!

    I visited Toulouse during a strike and came away with a very different image. I’d love to go back and have a Toulouse Redux (or, even better, a road trip through southern France)!

    • Ha!! Ok yes, rereading that sentence, I now feel like a pretentious jaded idiot saying I was so over it all.
      Now that I’m in Barcelona, southern France is so close, and I’d love to do a roadtrip on the French riviera! (Do you drive stick? If so I’m totally hopping on your plans, haha)

  • Jenny love this post, I’ve just been thinking about a road trip through France (kind of a problem because I also hate driving). I totally agree re tiny villages, and this hold true for most of Europe for me. The smaller the village, the more random, the more I will probably like it. My memories of road tripping France are the summer with my French host family at 15– the places we went were way off the American tourist map and I still haven’t heard about anyone visiting them. I just wish it was easier to visit these villages without a car!

    • It’s a real struggle for me, because I love the freedom of a car but hate everything it represents. Not to mention I get clammy hands and a sweaty back from worrying about crashing; don’t know how to drive stick; and would get too nervous following foreign traffic signs anyway. BUT—if you are more confident, I highly suggest you rent a car when you do come! (And hey….come down to Barcelona while you’re at it!)

  • lindsaypunk

    I have some things I’d like to say:

    – CARS ARE THE WORST! They should only be reserved for roadtripping purposes. (In other words: WORD)

    – I, too, feel like a pansy for not knowing how to drive a stick. We’d have been screwed in Iceland had we not landed ourselves the last automatic available!

    – Overpriced, teeny-tiny, mediocre coffee makes me #thesaddest :(


    • -So glad you feel the same about cars. Our similarities just keep on growing.
      -Someone tried to teach me stick once on a brand new Audi. I was like…..sorry I just ruined your transmission. AND I still didn’t get the hang of it.
      -In my trip to Bordeaux in May, I ordered what I thought was a latte. It turned out it was an espresso shot with a drip of milk, literally no bigger than a ping-pong ball. My American friends and I started laugh-crying and then went to McCafe. #hadto.
      -Change that ASAP, but take me along with you.

  • “Medieval Route 66” sounds like one of the best things ever! Glad to see you re-discovered a love of France… It gets so much hate, which makes me sad, because it’s such a charming country (you’re right, there’s no other word). There’s so much more to it than rude people and overpriced coffee… Once you leave Paris!

    • Hahah, it’s funny that you say that, because I think France gets so little hate! I mean yes, the people aren’t the most revered, and it’s expensive, but in general everyone swoooooooons over the country and it’s capital.
      But yes, I’m so happy I got away from all that on the road trip, and found what there is to love about it once again.

  • This road trip sounds lovely. I have only been to Paris so I have not gotten out to see ‘the real
    France yet and what makes the country so charming, but this post is a great starter for my planning. What I will have to learn however is how to drive manual, just the thought of it scares me.

    • You definitely need to make a return trip, outside of Paris! And there are automatic cars in Europe, so that shouldn’t stop you—they just cost more to rent and are less fuel-efficient, making the already high price of gas even more insane. But where there’s a will, there’s a way!