In the Driving Seat
Stepping up out of metro gloom at Convention, into speckled sun- light filtering through an umbrella of new leaves and soft white cones of chestnut blossoms, confirmed that spring had come to Paris.
There’s a big gap in time between this sharply etched memory and our next visit to France. Here’s how we planned and carried out that trip in April and May 2006.
We were finally in a position to return to beautiful France – a couple of energetic 50+ Francophiles going back to places visited more than 30 years ago, re-tracing a honeymoon trip. The excuse, as if we needed one, was to celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary.
After spending a few joyous days absorbing the pleasures of Paris, we planned to self-drive our way through the French countryside, revelling in the diverse charms of busy cities and shy villages.
The enthusiasm we brought to the planning of the trip, including many glasses of wine as we studied maps and gauged distances, had not changed. The way it came together, certainly had.
This time planning - to sort out travel documents, hotel reservations, insurance and a car - was internet based. Emails armed us with printed off e-tickets, an itinerary, maps, back ground information on destinations, details about the car and insurance and confirmations for accommodation, while our credit card did away with the need for taking foreign cash from home, unlike the wads of travellers cheques purchased from the bank, last time.
We put our email confirmations and maps of hotel destinations, in an A4 Clearfile, to take with us.
A variety of websites were useful, for checking out the best place to sit on different planes, to checking local holidays in France, the weather and good background on out of the way places. Some of the best were: - Seating for individual aircraft types www.seatguru.com; Check a location, distance, route, time. http://world.maporama.com/idl/maporama/ or www.mappy.com; An interactive map of France showing regions and although for purchasing royalty free maps, a great tool; http://www.map-of-france.co.uk/; general info on all areas of France, useful if you come across a little place and can’t find any info in reference books. www.france-for-visitors.com ; weather anywhere in the France, individual entries for right now, tomorrow and the next two days and then advanced for 6 – 10 days. http://weather.yahoo.com/regional/FRXX.html.
Looking back, most things were outside our control in the ‘70s. Our travel agent was in the driver’s seat. After phone calls and visits, hand written airline tickets with pages of sector coupons were prepared, our insurance was arranged and hotel requests were confirmed via fax, phone or through a lumbering telex machine.
We purchased a car for our earlier trip. A white, camel interior, Reliant Scimiter GTE, right-hand drive, was arranged through Campbell Motors in Auckland, collected from the factory in Tamworth, just out of London, and shipped back Tourist Delivery. The fibre-glass car had a profile, as Princess Anne was driving one at that time.
No way could you drive a right-hand vehicle for thousands of kilometres in France now and return home in one piece, so although the car was new this time, our Renault Clio 1.5 diesel manual APS-APS 2006 was a left-hand drive, leased under the Eurodrive scheme. ph 00 800 8781 1120. (We were using airpoints through Amex, so they also arranged the car for us).
After five car-free days in Paris, we returned to the chaos of Charles De Gaulle Airport to collect it. Not quite as simple as the paperwork we brought from NZ would suggest. There is no phone at terminal 3, the charter terminal, so after asking airline staff for directions, we walked wheeling our luggage to the small iron shed used as the Renault Eurodrive office.
The car comes with scant fuel and a map of the only fuel stop in the airport environs. A map, however, which is not drawn to scale and although we were watching out carefully, we thought we must have passed it and turned back, to find we hadn't. With the extra driving we were very close to empty and needed a boost of 70% dark French chocolate to build up our energy (and nerve) again.
At this stage we should have headed for the Paris ring-road (prérférique), 35 kms long with a speed limit of 80 kmph and taken our direction from there, via one of the 30 gateways or portés. Depending on where you are going, make a choice of either the interior running clockwise or exterior, running anti-clockwise - http://en.parisinfo.com/paris_map/rub6204.html&id_article=6729
Instead we drove around Versailles for some time, not so good when our destination was Brittany, in the opposite direction. We may well get GPS next time.
So where do you start when organising a trip? Our first step was an email for a very special hotel booking.
As the highlight, we blew the budget for the night of our anniversary, booking at the beautiful Chateau de Montreuil Hotel and Restaurant. This luxurious four star manor house is set within landscaped gardens and located in Pas de Calais, Montreuil sur Mer, where Victor Hugo wrote Les Miserables. www.chateaudemontreuil.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
We had stumbled upon it on our previous visit and we were again booked into Room 1 - complete with fireplace, beautiful antique furniture and a bathroom with a dazzling copper ceiling.
For our accommodation we leaned towards the friendly charm of the Logis de France group. http://www.logis-de-france.fr/uk/index.htm. With over 3000 listed properties, in villages, towns and cities, all over France, these are individually owned family-style hotels, offering comfort and style and value for money. Ranging from historic buildings, including restored stables and country inns, to the chic and new, all serve breakfast for around 7 to 8 Euro, while many have full restaurants serving superb food, including regional food and wine specialities, removing the drink drive worry.
We booked 2 chimneys, ‘providing a high level of comfort and tasty cuisine for the price’ and dealt with bookings by email and faxed through credit card details to hold the reservation. No charge was made to our credit card in advance of our stay.
Logis we experienced: - Hotel de Bretagne, Nort Sur Erdre, near Nantes 55E, Restaurant, parking in grounds: Hotel Les Bains de Mer, Benodet, near Quimper, 52E Restaurant, parking on street or 4.80E per day www.lesbainsdemer.com email@example.com; Manoir de la Grassinais, St. Malo, 69E, top notch restaurant, owner and chef Christophe Bouvier, parking in grounds. This was new and had the least atmosphere, but was very spacious. The gates on the internet sight hooked me firstname.lastname@example.org; La Residence, Nancy 60E, no Restaurant, but delightful breakfast room, own parking 5E per night. email@example.com; Cristal Hotel, Saumur, 65E, superb little restaurant, outstanding location by river, public parking out front overnight, pay from 9am, firstname.lastname@example.org
Where there was no Logis, we went with a combination of Lonely Planet and Rough Guide recommendations, checking with Trip Advisor, www.tripadvisor.com before finally making a decision.
Our choices were: - Hotel des Celestins, Lyon, 67E, quirky but best breakfast of all, no restaurant, parking close by, excellent site for info on Lyon email@example.com ; Hotel Le Manoir, Aix En Provence 75E Breakfast under majestic Cloisters dating back to the 14th century, no restaurant, parking in grounds - a real luxury. firstname.lastname@example.org ; Hotel Mignon, Avignon, 67E breakfast, no restaurant, parking on sidewalk to unpack, free in side streets, or Pope’s Palace parking 500m from hotel, email@example.com ; Hotel Gardenia, Biarritz, 49E, breakfast, no restaurant, free parking in street www.hotel-gardenia.com firstname.lastname@example.org; Touring Hotel, Bordeaux, Bordeaux, 50E, breakfast, no restaurant, two underground parking areas next to hotel. Leemail@example.com; Hotel Restaurant, Le Grand Saint Michel, Chambord, fantastic location next to a Chateau. firstname.lastname@example.org
Our mobile phone was a regular blessing. As darkness fell and we were still a couple of hours away from our destination, I would make another courtesy call.
We also travelled with Lonely Planet (France first published 1994) which was useful for on the spot information on cities and well-known villages. Friends who had travelled extensively, suggested The Rough Guide to France and we found this provided unexpected gems on things of interest on our route, along with good general suggestions for food and sleeping. With these two, and an AA Road Atlas of France, A2 size, spiral bound, with fully updated speed camera sights - available in NZ from book retailers - we felt well covered.
Previously, we had relied on AA accommodation books and maps, some bought in NZ , but mostly from the London AA centre, plus a collection of brochures. We booked ahead a day or two then, making a phone call from the hotel where we were staying, or winged it. The day's travelling was usually close to our estimation.
Huge traffic increase is the biggest difference the decades have made. Pay roads (peage) swallow up distance, but are boring and expensive. The route nationale takes you in and out of everywhere, but you need to allow much more time than you think. We worked out that an average of 30kms was about it. France is roundabout crazy, the traffic is incessant, both cars and trucks, signposting is often inconsistent or isn’t and roadwork deviations are the norm. We were always late arriving and once there, more time is needed to deal with narrow one-way streets, where accommodation is booked in the old town.
We made it back with fabulous memories and the car in pristine condition, having covered over 6,000kms. When we go again, we will plan just the same way, but will definitely allow more time.
Best tip – In Benodet, Brittany, person an local post office, suggested cheaper to buy a pack of 10 airmail, pre-paid envelopes for our post cards than just stamps – cheaper, private and more room for writing.
©2008 Linda Donald
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