The open highway and an unending horizon. A painter's palette of autumn colors smearing past the window.
Our only companions are passing church spires in disappearing hamlets. What could be more perfect for my husband and me than jaunting through Europe in our own little car à la Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney in Two for the Road? I don't flatter myself that I resemble Audrey's waifish figure robed in designer fashions. And our car, a humble and humorously-proportioned white Peugeot was a far cry from the posh white Mercedes-Benz 230SL roadster in the film. But we left Audrey and Albert in the dust in the sense that my husband and I actually ENJOY being together, and our countryside meanderings became another precious memory in our bank of unforgettable experiences.
On an iPhone? View Jill's European road trip video at: http://vimeo.com/35731560
I had crossed nearly every form of European transportation off my list:
budget continental flights, trains through multiple countries, enough subways, trams, cable cars and funiculars to last a lifetime, the clichéd tour bus through 13 countries, taxi cabs, gondolas, canal boats, hovercrafts across the English Channel, cruises through the Bosphorous Strait, and even gondola lifts through the Swiss Alps. Heck, we've even hitched rides from an Italian garage owner through the Tuscan hills. But the issue is that none of these vehicles run on my schedule. And as a traveler who wants to do what I want to do when I want to do it, I decided it was time that Nick and I take the wheel. Literally. And I am convinced that the liberating experience of driving through the European countryside ought to be mandatory therapy for any mass-transit-weary traveler.
We devised our plan: after 3 days spent relaxing in Paris, we would rent a car to drive from Paris to the town of Reims in the Champagne district. We wouldn't have much need for the car in Reims (driving around seemed dangerous after hopping through the Champagne houses), but our hotel offered affordable parking. And after 2 days in Reims, we would drive north across the border into the Ardennes Forest of Belgium for a 1-night respite in the village of Chimay, before continuing on to deposit the car in the center of Brussels and hopping a train for Bruges (where we would have no need of a car).
Mercifully, drivers in France and Belgium use the same side of the road as Americans, so our biggest hurdles were road signs, language barriers, and jockeying for position in the aggressive driving culture of European countries (You will not find any minivan soccer moms waving you over to merge peacefully).
We picked up our car at EuropCar (rented through Kemwel.com) near Bastille in Paris. We were rooting for a full tank of gas, but were greeted with an empty car, and our first task became finding a gas station in bustling Paris. Cue the one way streets, Nick grinding gears, and me navigating us around the same block 3 times looking for this supposedly-obvious gas station. On our third pass, we found it. It was not a gas station like we were expecting, but rather a small gas pump on the side of the road, easily mistaken for a public mail box. An attendant hurried out and assisted us. The mathematical conversions for the ratios of kilometers to miles, liters to gallons, and Euros to Dollars was too much; Nick decided to just fill it up. Uh, bad idea. Like any metropolis, gas prices are much higher than the countryside. Much much higher. But at least we had gas.
Our next hurdle was mastering the dance of the traffic circle. Thankfully, Bastille was relatively tame (nowhere near the chaos of the Arc de Triomphe) and Nick calmly maneuvered past cars that were perpendicular to us. It was mildly difficult to find the correct roads (despite having a pre-printed map, written directions and my iPhone Google map), but within minutes we were leaving Paris in our dust with nothing but the open road in front of us. Just a few miles outside of the city, the trees began to show evidence of the gorgeous autumn in process all around us, and every mile produced brighter and more lovely colors.
Who knew driving could be so much fun? Some French rap on the radio, the beautiful countryside spreading out in a patchwork of farms, villages and roadways, and Nick and I, just basking in each other's company, marveling at our surroundings and chair dancing to the music. Pure bliss.
The tolls were relatively easy, and the highway was simple to follow, once we realized that we needed to follow town names instead of highway names, as highways change. We passed incredible landmarks from World War I along the way, including Chateau Thierry. In about an hour and half, we arrived in the town of Reims.
After two days, we left Reims and began driving north toward to the town of Charleville, France, before turning northwest and crossing into Belgium. It was a complete landscape revolution, as wine country morphed into provincial farm country. We roamed on incredibly remote roads -- a veritable pastoral still life complete with bleating livestock and sheep grazing in the roadways. Eventually the vastness gave way to forests as dense and dark as any from childhood storybooks as we neared the village of Chimay.
We spent one relaxing night in Chimay, our bellies contentedly full with hearty Belgian country fare and an exorbitant amount of Chimay Trappist Ale. We set out early the next morning, navigating our path through heavy fog and finding our way back to the hustle and bustle of civilization. We needed to drop our car off at the Europcar booth in Brussels-Midi station. After some slight confusion, we discovered that we needed to enter the underground parking garage, proceed down to the level marked by the respective rental company and park the car in those marked spots. Then we needed to ascend the levels back to the train station and turn in our keys and paperwork at the Europcar desk. It was relatively simple once we figured that out (after parking illegally and asking every police officer in the Brussels metro area).
We did not expect the pang of sorrow that stabbed us at leaving our little Peugeot behind. It had done more than convey us from town to town; it had become a part of my fond memories with my sweet husband. And for that reason, I think I shall never see another Peugeot without a little hint of a smile.
Traveling Alone: Unless your location is so remote that you cannot reach it by public transportation, skip driving alone. It is too difficult to drive AND navigate AND try to translate signage.
Car Rental Insurance: If you are booking your rental car with your Visa credit card, decline the insurance offered by the rental company. Just using your Visa card entitles you to decent accident and travel insurance for free, but it is voided if you purchase additional insurance through the rental company. If you're skeptical, call the phone number on the back of your card and speak to a representative about the international car rental process. They were really helpful to me.
Prepare to be a Safe Driver: Look up the driving rules and signage key for each country you will be driving through. Also check to see if any of those countries require a driving permit other than your current country's license and a valid passport. I printed out the road signs ahead of time and brought them with us.
Map Your Course: Plot your path ahead of time utilizing Google Maps or another reliable source. Make sure you have a GPS or data activated on your smart phone. I activated a certain amount of data for my iPhone so I could use the GPS Google map to see when we were approaching exits. And while smart phones are great, never underestimate the power of a printed map and turn-by-turn directions. You never know if your service could drop out, leaving you blind.
Couples Travel: Don't blame each other for getting lost, missing an exit, or being confused in general. Blame Murphy's law, and encourage each other as you find your way back on course. Remember, it's supposed to be an adventure. And try to help the driver with merging and traffic circles (if you can master this without becoming the dreaded backseat driver!)
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