Although it took me years (and multiple failed attempts) to get my driver's license, it's probably one of the best things I did. Road tripping, through France or across Europe, has become one of my favorite way of traveling, because it always makes me feel intensely free. There is also something almost meditative to being on the road, driving, as you can't take your eyes off the road and use distractions against boredom.
The most impactful road trip I experienced was probably the first one I took on my own, when I boarded my step father's old but solid Volkswagen Golf to move to Sweden. This is not what I will write about right now though, instead I would like to share my experience road tripping around France with my (non flying, non driving) Dutchman!
The plan was to enjoy our some part driving, part working, part chilling, mostly eating, holiday while visiting my friends and family spread around France. We started our trip from Eindhoven, in the Netherlands, and returned after around three weeks. We made eight main stops, experiencing 5 French regions, Luxembourg, and probably the best sea food in our lives.
Normandy, Honfleur & Jacques Brel
Our directions to find our Normandy hosts said nothing but a street name, and explained we should take a turn after a garage. Not impressed by the apparent difficult task, we joyfully left behind us the flat landscapes of the Netherlands to reach Normandy, near the coast, where France come the closest to England. I think somewhere between Belgium and passing Lille, the French in me woke up, and I started singing in chorus with Brel. Not that singing really is the accurate word, not one of my talents, but the song was very "à propos" as he sings about Honfleur, a cute seaside town we visited during our stay in Normandy.
Normandy, when not occupied by train loads of Parisians looking for some breathable air, has a soft provincial charm. Sea breeze, half-timbered and thatched farmhouses, a backdrop of friendly looking cows. Narrow streets, impressive cliffs breaking the waves of the Channel, smells of mussels. To me it still evokes childhood Easter holidays, spent looking for eggs, playing with my cousins, picking whelks and other shells on the beach.
During our short stay, we visited Honfleur and its small harbor (just take me anywhere with boats!) and the impressive ruins of the Jumieges Abbey. Doing so, we got a good sneak peak of the Norman life: the rural and the chic.
Mont Saint Michel & the edge of Brittany
After our stay in the Seine area, filled with childhood memories for me and cosy home cooked food for the both of us, we traveled slightly more South but not far from the coast.
The Mont Saint Michel is an island, made famous by the Abbey on its top. Although it belongs to Normandy, I often heard that it was also claimed by the neighboring region of Brittany. France is full of these local rivalries, but pretty much everyone disagrees that the real difference is simple: there is the province, with all the charms and quaintness, and Paris, the Diva. Obviously I am being very objective here...
The erect mount, coming out of the Channel, is an impressive sight that seems to be getting less and less impressive as you come closer. I remember the excitement of seeing it from far, on the road, and the subsequent disappointment of visiting the hollow walls of the Abbey. In other words: the Mont Saint Michel is better seen from far, suddenly appearing behind a string of trees when you less expect it.
La Rochelle & l'Ile de Ré
Leaving behind the Channel, we reached at La Rochelle the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. Our stop at the port city was swift and without regrets: we found our haven in l'Ile de Ré.
Reachable by a bridge, the island is not as isolated as we might have hoped. However, we were charmed.
L'Ile de Ré is quaint, but with enough space for long sandy beaches, green pastures, a number of lighthouses, and some of the best seafood we have ever had (and we have a lot!).
The first day, we walked on the beach by day and by night. We were taken by the sounds and the sights of the ocean, calming yet strong.
The next day we drove around the island, lucky enough to escape the rain that seem to only interrupt when we were just coming out of our car for some sightseeing - leaving way to a bold sun. One notable stop was le Phare des Baleines (the Whales lighthouse), which we courageously climbed all the way to the top to enjoy a strong maritime wind.
Our all time favorite, and still to this day, was the small seafood restaurant we stopped at. The owner served us generous portions of meaty crab and intensely flavorful shells, topped by a fresh and crisp white wine. The feast was complemented by a decor worthy of a real fishing boat, small artifacts of the sea hanging from every wall, windows with a view on the small harbor.
Toulouse: fearless racers, bricks & a long awaited reunion
The main reason for our stop in Toulouse was really to meet my childhood friend. However, it is a city I always appreciated. In France, we call it " La Ville Rose " - the Pink city. If you want my opinion, it should be called the orange city instead: the bricks that gave it this name always looked more that way to me, maybe because of the often gloomy and humid weather.
It's a lively city, busy with students and young professionals. To me, it always seems to have a bohemian air, a soft spot for art, serious gastronomy & a rebel spirit.
There, we lived the local life.
We enjoyed the best of France: fresh croissants from the corner bakery, a good meal with wine, and my favorite - apéro with saucisson (look it up!). We also saw a soap box race, where families and friends raced down a hill in made up vehicles, while other watched sipping on a beer and enjoying the popular live music.
In the evening, we did as the "Toulousains" do and sat by the canal, contemplating the changing sunset light over the water and the brick buildings.
My France: Uzès & the South
From Toulouse, we made our way to what I call the "real South" - you'll have guessed, that's where I am from.
Uzès was our "base", and from there we took some excursions to the country side and cities such as Aix-en-Provence and Marseille.
We also visited "les Carrières de Lumière", a natural cave where light installations display the works of famous artists, such as to make you feel you are part of the painting yourself. It's a fabulous and very moving experience, and that day the exhibition was focused on Van Gogh.
Uzès is a provincial town, inland, but not far from the Mediterranean coast towards Montpelier. It's quaint and very medieval, with its old and newer buildings always polished.
Beautiful & quiet, it comes to life mostly on market days: Saturday, mostly for the tourist and visitors, and Wednesday, when the locals shop.
The population is elegant, a mix of local families that did well, and German & English who came on holidays and never left again.
Small art galleries, designer stores & delicatessen shops are interrupted by the occasional chain, always out of place.
Of Marseille I always love the deep blue sea, never too far, and the intensely Mediterranean spirit. It gets its reputation of a dangerous city mostly from the outskirt, but the center has actually gotten trendier and trendier over the years.
It's very lively and varied, in neighborhoods, styles, architecture and population. I think I love it so much because it reminds me of Greece, I always find comfort in a salted & messy atmosphere. For such a big city, it's very real and authentic, spoiled by tourism only in very restricted areas. It shows a unique, diverse and welcoming side of France.
Annecy, between lake & mountains
If you have not been to Annecy yet, go there.
Annecy is a beautiful old city with a castle, a maze of small streets & canals on the shores of a turquoise blue lake bordered by snowy mountain peaks. To understand how exciting that last part is, keep in mind that I currently live in the ( lovely but very, very flat) Netherlands.
The center of the Annecy is split between the old town, around the castle and quite hilly, and the "town town" (still showing some beautiful buildings).
The area around the main canal and its island is quite fairytale-like, even though the main building is actually an old prison.
We took advantage of the early spring and cycled around the lake to enjoy green pastures, cloud reflections in the water, and friendly looking cows; all topped by a fresh local beer.
Although the surrounding sceneries are the obvious best thing about Annecy, the gastronomy has to come at least close second. Savoy is knows for its decadent fondues & other cheese specialty, but also offers some interesting lesser know specialties such as the "Grolle" - or friendship cup. Just try it.
After a couple of days in Annecy, we headed North again and to the end of our French road trip. Our only other stop before the Netherlands was Luxembourg City, of which there is not really much to say.
We came back with a boot full of wines from different regions, olives from the market of Uzès, olive oil from the garden, and full of ideas for our next trips.