If you are like me then you love Paris BUT, after awhile, the desire to lunch in a small village, enjoy a chateau visit on your own schedule or visit the Abbey where Eleanor of Acquitaine is buried starts calling you. When the desire struck me, I rented my first car and off I went. To this day I enjoy driving in France but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t nervous and there have been some fundamental “learning moments” that I want to share with you.
Don’t worry, this blog is not a “Rules of the Road” manual for France! Rather, it’s an invitation to take the first step as nothing ventured, nothing gained!
Let’s start with car rentals: I only rent from well-known rental companies – cheapest is rarely best for international travelers. But full disclosure, French customer service is not the same as in the US and I generally experience some minor challenge either picking up or dropping off the car. I now fully expect the unexpected to happen, roll with it and try to use it to practice more French! Here are a couple of examples:
During my recent trip to France, we took a train from Paris to Rennes to pick up our car. Now I have no problem driving standard shift but I prefer to drive automatic in France. With so many variables, automatic is one less variable. We arrived at the Rennes rental car office to find the keys for the ONLY automatic car were on the way to Paris. To his credit, the rental car office manager piled us and the luggage into a car and we drove for 1½ hrs to collect an automatic car.
But look what was waiting for me after the morning delay. Chapelle Sainte-Anne-de-la-Greve is located in Saint-Broladre, northwest France. The impressionistic artists came here to paint and you can see why! The places you will see – planned and unplanned – when you have a car are limitless. It’s about the journey you experience not just getting to your destination that creates the best memories!
In Lyons, I wanted to return my rental car at the train station, which seemed an easy task, but after literally circling the station four times, I pulled into a garage to ask for help. The attendant walked me out, points across the way and there in the distance was the smallest rental car sign I have ever seen! The moral of the story is to allow extra time for rental returns and if it all goes smoothly, have a glass of wine 😉
I also had my first car damage incident…… As the car was being returned and inspected, look what was discovered:
The rental car manager actually said this happens all the time. Well, not to me 🙁
You will find that French roads are extremely well maintained and I don’t think the word “pothole” exists. With such good roads, exceeding the speed limit is easy, however as I learned the hard way, France is very diligent in enforcing its speed limits!
The major roads will post the speeds and the sign below told me that radar was in use. No problem, I did not intend to speed.
What I did not know was that around villages, I was expected to know the speed limit – there may be no sign. Try as I might, I did my best but I ended up receiving two speeding tickets. Enter a village at 35 kilometres per hour (kph) and you will get a ticket! Important speeds for these areas are:
- 50 kph ( 31mph) – populated areas
- 30 kph (18 mph) – villages
I am crossing my fingers that there will be no speeding tickets from my current trip as I used a great mobile app called Waze as my GPS. (It’s like Google Maps but it also displays the relevant speed limits a long with the turns to take so you can concentrate on the road.)
Let’s talk about roundabouts. I love them. Besides being efficient, they are fun. On my first visit to Paris after the quarantine ended, my friend drove me around Paris. It was great to see the city but we were approaching the Arc de Triomphe and the mother of all roundabouts! As we neared the roundabout, he was chatting while I watched the cars coming at us. To my shock, he accelerated so the other cars to his left would let him pass. He is a roundabout master and explained that here, cars entering from your right have priority! It was very impressive and I will attempt that in the very near future. Maybe 😉
For me, I drive outside of Paris and roundabouts are frequent – it would surprise me to see a stop light. I have never had any roundabout mishaps but I know, for some, that they can be a bit intimidating. Just take it slow, enter the roundabout and the GPS will tell you your exit. If you miss your exit, go around again, no stress. Don’t forget your roundabout etiquette, as you near your exit, use your right blinker.
I don’t know about you but toll booths have been a challenge for me. Which lane, coins or paper, tickets, etc. When I was in France earlier this year, my friend paid the tolls contactless. I was ecstatic and asked if I could use my credit card as I wanted to see if my US card would work since he is British. Well, I paid all the tolls that day and my card worked; he commented that he had never seen anyone so excited about paying tolls before!
I did have a toll experience I do not want to repeat. Traveling with a friend, we pulled into the toll booth and my friend tried to insert his credit card but it did not work. While we were getting another card, the toll worker lifted the gate and we were off. We agreed that was so nice! However, when we exited the expressway, we needed a ticket to pay the toll. We had no ticket. Turns out the slot he was putting into was actually a ticket dispenser.
As you near the toll booth, you will see at least these two options:
- Green arrows – all forms of payment – credit cards, coins & paper
- Orange T – automatic payment – ie easy pass
Since we did not have a ticket, we had to pay the maximum toll – 64 Euros – for the gate to lift. Lesson learned!
I wanted to end my blog with a picture of Mont Saint Michel – I was driving and just had to get this picture. Having a car, stopping and getting the shot or eating at a local auberge (tiny local restaurant) makes the difference between an experience and a visit. The benefits of driving in France far outweigh the challenges!