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Road Treep!
They said it couldn't be done -- a jump-in-the-car, last-minute, American-style road trip in France. Maybe he should have listened.

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 27, 2006

My role in the family is to take well-conceived vacation plans and complicate them. Someone in every family has to be the acknowledged enforcer of the laws of entropy. Over the years I have had a gift for turning even the most sublime vacation into an ordeal. Thus almost from the moment we arrived at de Gaulle for a vacation in Paris, I began dreaming of leaving Paris behind and going on a road trip.

I wanted to see castles and vineyards and tiny French villages with cobbled streets barely wide enough for a tank. (For many American males of a certain age, old European streets are inevitably associated with tanks, from watching TV shows like "Combat.") But I didn't know if a road trip would be plausible in France -- a real road trip, the kind that's impulsive, unplanned and potentially calamitous. The authentic American road trip is improvisational. It's not just a means of getting from point A to point B, because point B is often an unknown. A road trip should have something of the feel of a jailbreak. Often it is organized merely around a cardinal point on the compass, i.e., "Let's go south." Many a person has wound up in Key West, for example, simply because it's the end of the road.

The United States has the infrastructure to support such spontaneity. You can pull off the highway, grab chow, spend the night, hit the road again. These freeway-exit retail villages have no character, of course, and at 3 in the morning it is impossible to recall if you're in a Comfort Inn or a Motel 6 or a Red Roof Hampton Courtyard AmeriSuites by Ramada. But it doesn't matter. The great virtue of these places is the ease with which they can be departed.

Could that style of travel be transposed onto the continent of Europe, with its fetishization of mom-and-pop hotels and its little country inns and its presumption that travel should have some stickiness to it, some odd textures and quirks and eccentricities that don't lend themselves to drive-by tourism?

Obviously a person can, with some forethought, drive just about anywhere in France or elsewhere in Europe, because there are cars, there are highways, there are gas stations, etc. This is not like parachuting into Siberia and trying to use a hand ax to build a raft to float down the Lena.

But you don't hear of many Americans doing European road trips, because they prefer to travel by rail. Indeed, you'd think they were required to, that it was a law laid down at the same time as the Magna Carta, violation of which will result in a hearing before a tribunal in The Hague.

My colleagues and friends warned me that renting a car and driving in France would be problematic, and the travel guides frown at the idea. They pointed out that the cars can be expensive and tiny, and that gas is so precious it is sold by the liter, as though it were wine. Lodging could be iffy since, at the end of July and early August, everyone in Europe goes on holiday. "There are stories of people sleeping in their cars along the highway," a veteran Paris correspondent warned me. I could picture my wife and me and our three kids trying to sleep in some two-cylinder Fiat, the kind of car that looks like it ought to be driven by Stuart Little.

My wife, moreover, is the kind of person who does not believe that travel requires compulsive motion. She had carefully planned our trip to Paris, and considered it sufficiently reckless that we were crossing the Atlantic without first learning French. She packed a library of books about Paris and not one broached the rest of France. We were ensconced in a house about a block from the Eiffel Tower, which sparkled every night on the hour, visible from the bedroom windows. A road trip would surely be a fiasco. We'd get lost and wind up in Morocco. We'd drive off a cliff. Worst of all, we'd be immersed in uncertainties and unknowns.

I responded to these concerns as any husband on vacation would, with calculated indecision and paralysis, and for two solid weeks we enjoyed the Paris life and filled up on baguettes and took in museums, until finally one Friday night I could take no more, and got online and booked a car for the very next morning.

Road trip!!!!

Day One

There is some skepticism in the Eiffel house about whether we are actually going. But we are. It is imperative to nip in the bud any incipient revolt that might nix the excursion.

I do something extremely smart, if I may say so: I pick a destination, the Loire Valley, and search online for rooms in that vicinity. I pick the Loire because it has castles and is only a couple of hours away and it sounds like an authentic destination (more so than "Let's go south"). I search in Orleans and Angers and finally find two rooms in a hotel in Tours. It's a Comfort Hotel. Yes, the Comfort Inn! Same chain!

I recognize that purists would be horrified by such a decision. Savvy travelers would lecture me about the importance of staying someplace that is the very opposite of the Comfort Inn. But certainty and reliability have their charm. I can sell the concept of the Comfort Hotel. Sleeping in the car has now been removed as a potential item in our itinerary.

Next step, get the car. I have to go back to the airport, de Gaulle. (I've got a rate of just $217 for four days, though at one point they tried to stick me with a rate of $529. They backed down.) The journey to de Gaulle on the RER train takes forever, and then I go to the wrong terminal, and when I finally find the Europcar counter it is besieged by a mob of Englishmen. A single employee stands behind the desk, talking on the phone with a worried expression. The queue doesn't move. I cannot suppress the thought that, although Europe has fabulous museums and train stations and cathedrals, in America we have some rather sublime rental car facilities. They've got Sacre Coeur, we've got the Alamo counter at LAX.

One of the Brits finally succeeds in renting a car and shouts "Got keys!" as he runs down the concourse. In the course of the next hour and 15 minutes, I have plenty of time to contemplate the downside to being a spontaneous person.

Eventually I get the car, a Ford "Foo-kus," as the agent puts it. An hour later I'm back in Paris proper, and after loading up the family, we're on the road, heading south on the A10.

Two hours later, we're in the Loire Valley, walking toward a humdinger of a castle.

The valley is lousy with these chateaus, and this one, Chambord, is perhaps the biggest, most ostentatious, in some ways least approachable, for it is parked in a vast wildlife preserve, isolated in space and time.

The brochure informs me that Francis I had it built in the early 1500s, though it wasn't finished until Louis XIV did his Sun King magic the following century. The thing is impossible to look at without thinking of Cinderella's castle. It definitely could use a roller coaster and maybe a flume ride.

I buy a map in the gift shop and look, in vain, for some kind of Guide to France.

Evidently people who make it this far have already got one.

The map, however, helps us negotiate the villages that line the Loire River. On both sides there is a levee, on top of which a two-lane road is a motorist's dream. We pass more castles looming on the bluff. We drive through Vouvray, a white-wine mecca, and my spirits soar as though I'd just had a carafe. Wine country! Who knew????

We eat in downtown Tours in an Italian restaurant in a cobblestoned square, and my wife and I pop into an English pub where the bartender says the locals speak the most perfect French in the entire country. Pearls before swine, in our case, but it's nice to know that all those words we can't understand are beautifully articulated.

The motel, we discover late in the evening, is not the Ritz. It is not even the Ritz Express. Without air conditioning, we are forced to keep the window open, but there's an electric sign buzzing outside in a fitful manner that makes it sound as though it's zapping mosquitoes the size of eagles.

But it's clean, the staff is friendly and the price -- about $150 for two rooms, not including breakfast -- isn't bad. We can survive. On a spontaneous road trip, every man's motel is his castle.

Day Two

We wake up and decide that, awful as it is, we'll stay a second night at the Comfort Hotel and just explore the castle country by driving more or less in circles.

We stop for coffee in a hole-in-the-wall along the Loire. We pop into a wine cave and purchase a bottle. We go to Chenonceau, a castle built on the Cher River with the water flowing underneath. There are formal gardens and a 16th-century farm. The castle clearly could use a TV room with a plasma screen, but otherwise you could throw some killer keggers at the place.

We drive off to Amboise, where there's another castle, and then we see more castles as we drive all over the place, and eventually wind up back in the old section of Tours, eating at an Irish pizzeria. It's good. I'm guessing that the guidebooks have overlooked this local treasure.

A great day, all around.

Day Three

A bad day. Everything goes a little bit wrong.

We drive 125 miles north, through Normandy, where imagining tanks on narrow village streets is by no means a stretch. But our objective, the beach at Deauville, turns out to be a longer drive than I had anticipated. Distances are hard to gauge in Europe: A two-hour drive turns out to be, when you do it, more like four. And at the gas pump, you just have to avert your gaze from the price.

Deauville itself is quirky, more English than French in its architecture, and devoted to a horse-track culture that makes it seem a little like Atlantic City or South Florida. But we just miss the public market, and a lot of stores seem to have been shuttered, and the beach itself is a little disappointing. We're Florida people, and spoiled.

There are murmurings about possibly returning to Paris. I douse that notion and drag everyone off to Rouen, which I think is just 30 minutes away but is more like an hour. I've found, online, yet another Comfort Hotel. It's like a bad habit I can't shake. This hotel is in a part of the city that shuts down precisely at 7 in the evening. There is litter all over the pedestrian mall, and panhandlers. We walk across the Seine to the cathedral that Monet loved to paint, and then find a very, very French restaurant where the waiter is snooty and the onglet steak just needs a spiked heel to be ready for resale by Manolo Blahnik.

After we walk back to the hotel, we discover that we just missed a light show at the cathedral.

The guy in charge of this road trip is clearly an idiot.

Day Four

I've lost my audience. We go home. We do not even stop and see Giverny along the way.

I try to find the Europcar parking lot at the Montparnasse train station, but can find only the Avis spaces, and leave it there. The guy at the Europcar desk looks at me like I'm an imbecile, takes the keys and just sort of waves me away, without even any paperwork.

So can you do a road trip in France? Yes. The motoring is excellent.

The roads are in many cases delightful. We will always remember the castles of the Loire.

Road-tripping might not be a great idea if you're a nervous driver. There are signs you can't understand, roundabouts instead of traffic lights, narrow streets, not enough parking and so on. You don't want to have to deal with these uncertainties while being already unnerved by driving a stick shift.

In some ways driving in France is easy. The superhighways don't seem to be terrorized by 18-wheelers. The signage is great. In America you get off the highway and try to figure out what road to take, but in France you just follow the signs to the next village. The villages rarely have a traffic light; you just wind your way through a medieval maze and then quickly pop out into farmland again.

But road-tripping isn't cheap. The easy-come, easy-go roadside motel largely remains a foreign concept. Maybe someday France will have the road-trip infrastructure that exists in America, but that's probably not something we should hope for, because when we go to Europe we want to know, at all times, that we are in Europe.

And reluctantly I concede that there are virtues to planning. There comes a moment when you realize that improvisational motoring is really not so different from being lost. Freedom's just another word for not knowing which way to go. Next time I might even take the ultimate precaution and, prior to hitting the road, buy a guidebook to France.

Joel Achenbach is a staff writer for The Washington Post Magazine and writes Achenblog.

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