Back in July, I met my dear friend and travel buddy, SK, in Barcelona, where we rented a car – a beautiful black Audi we named Jacques – and set out to explore southern France and Andorra. Here are a few lessons I learned from the road.
Lesson 1 – Ignore your inner Ricky Bobby.
Much to my parents’ chagrin, the youthful American in me has a tendency to drive a tiny bit faster than the recommended speed limit. (What do you mean, “It’s the law, not a recommendation!”?) As I cruise the US Interstate, I constantly scan the horizon for cops in case I need to make an adjustment to my expeditious pace. Unfortunately, this driving strategy didn’t serve me well in southern France.
In France and in much of Europe, many highways are rigged with speed camera stations to catch miscreant behavior. Additionally, the French police force called the Gendarmerie has begun using new speed detectors in unmarked vehicles to clock drivers’ speed as they sneak up behind. Whether it was a metal tower or a mustached Frenchmen who noticed Jacques’ swiftness, I can’t be sure. But I can guarantee that the system works: the rental car company sent a bill for “traffic violations.” Oops.
Lesson 2 – Bring a loaded piggy bank.
France has an expansive network of toll roads, some of the most expensive routes in all of Europe. These high-priced highways are extremely helpful in moving drivers across the various regions of the country in a timely fashion. However, as they say in France, “Le temps c’est de l’argent,” and saving time will cost you cash.
By the end of our road trip, we spent over 100€ on tolls alone! While we couldn’t avoid many highways given our destinations and time limitations, I’ve learned to carefully consider taking the “scenic route” the next time I travel through France by car.
Lesson 3 – Use (but don’t rely on) Google Maps.
Did you know that Google Maps will allow you to save maps to access offline?
Since neither SK nor I had an international data plan, this revolutionary feature provided tremendous aid in getting our bearings as we traveled around. With Google Maps in hand, we wandered through the narrow, twisted streets of Avignon and the sprawling city of Lyon with confidence. I became quite endeared to the little blue dot that tracked our position, especially through the long stretches of countryside. Thank you, Mr. Google, for the gift of offline technology.
As great as Little Blue was (and still is), I learned not to depend on him completely. Occasionally, for technical reasons beyond my understanding, my saved map would stop working and I’d lose access to it altogether.
As a result, I cherished this incredible feature of Google Maps while it worked… and I kept the GPS on anyway.
Lesson 4 – Don’t forget your tunes.
For the first few days of our road trip, I thoroughly enjoyed flipping through the radio and listening to French folk and pop music. The soulful sounds of the language of love invited the beguiling French culture into our automotive experience. However, I’ll admit that there were plenty of times I just wanted to listen to some of my music – in English, s’il vous plaît.
To my relief, SK brought a small speaker that connected to our iDevices, which I retrieved from the deep recesses of the trunk one afternoon after I pulled over on the side of the road. I sang for an hour straight.
Lesson 5 – Fuel up in Andorra.
The tiny mountain nation of Andorra has the lowest gas prices in the region. Jacques got his fill of petrol in the Pyrenees, and SK and I quenched our thirst for nature with a mountain hike. Everybody wins in Andorra. At least, I think so.
Lesson 6 – Follow the locals’ advice.
On the day we were to drive from Avignon to Lyon, I asked our Avignon host, Sophie, what we should see on our way there. She listed several promising locations – all east of Avignon, not north toward Lyon. Despite the directional challenge, we took Sophie’s advice anyway… and that was what I like to call “A Good Life Choice.”
Sophie’s recommendations took us to the adorable L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, the lavender fields of Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque, and the medieval town of Gordes. La journée parfaite.
Lesson 7 – Pull over for scenic overlooks.
France in the summertime is absolutely glorious and the outstanding panoramas are not to be missed.
As we drove up the mountain in Provence and turned a corner, both SK and I let out a “Woooaaahhh!” as we caught sight of the gleaming city on a hill, Gordes. We found a questionable spot to park Jacques, darted across the two lane road, captured the scene on camera, and just marveled at its beauty. We rented a car for moments just like this!
Sadly, I do have one regret from our road trip. No, not over those traffic violations…. c’est la vie. Instead, I wish I had stopped to frolic in and photograph the most glorious summer scenery in France: the sunflower fields.
“Sunflowers!” I shouted every time I caught sight of fields filled with the gigantic golden blooms. Oh, how badly I wanted to run through those crops of brilliant color! Yet, I suppose I learned how to suppress some parts of my inner Ricky Bobby, as I never did pull off the highway for a spontaneous photoshoot in favor of our safety.
Now, I leave those sunflower fields to my imagination… and Van Gogh.
Lesson 8 – Enjoy the foie gras, frequently.
My Golden Rule of European Travel: When in France, eat foie gras. What more is there to say?
Lesson 9 – Hangriness is real. Be prepared.
When a person becomes really hungry, their temper grows proportionally shorter and they become increasingly unpleasant to be around. In effect, they become “hangry.” According to Urban Dictionary, hangry is When you are so hungry that your lack of food causes you to become angry, frustrated or both.
A hangry person in your travel party can make the sunniest day seem cloudy. Therefore, the wise traveler knows the importance of having a Hangry Prevention Plan for every leg of your journey. Thankfully, hangriness prevention is fairly straightforward and simple: keep a hefty stash of edible goods on hand at all times.
In France, our Hangry Prevention Plan included supplies from the local market in Lyon, where we purchased fresh cheeses, meats, breads, and fruit to last us several days. Alas, there were still moments when one or both of us succumbed to our hangry selves. For example, when we arrived in Andorra and were greeted by our happy-go-lucky host, I was shocked by SK’s menacing tone towards him… until I realized she was suffering from hangriness.
I was reminded that even the most experienced travelers still need to be wary of hangriness.
Lesson 10 – Travel with a friend.
Traveling brings the best and the worst out of you, and it’s important to travel with someone with whom you can share all aspects of yourself. Choose your travel companion(s) with care and intentionality, for they will inevitably impact your experience – for better or for worse.
I chose for better. We had a blast.
To friends and readers,
Have you ever taken a road trip in Europe? If so, what did you learn along the way?