A road trip through France is highly advised.
Landing after midnight to start that road trip, in a country where you’ve never driven, don’t speak the language and can’t get yourself out of Charles de Gaulle Airport, however, is less advised.
Yet that’s how two friends and I embarked on our week-long road trip through central France. In our Volkswagen rental, we covered 1,500 miles from Paris to Lyon, around Grenoble, briefly through the Alps, and into the vineyards of Burgundy and Champagne.
After landing at Charles de Gaulle just before midnight, we raced across the terminal to pick up the car. (Note: Most rental-car counters at CDG close right at midnight. So you might want to time your flights better.) Once behind the wheel, we had the tricky task of navigating our way out of the airport and through a dizzying maze of overlapping highways.
We made a few errors, landing on deserted streets, missing turnings at roundabouts and being foiled by roads closed for construction. Google Maps did a decent job. But French motorways come with lots of signs, stacked on top of one another — for instance, “A4/A6/A10 Vers/Aéroport Orly/Porte de Montreuil/Périphérique Sud.” The Voice of Google Maps reads them all, without pause, butchering the French names horribly. What we learned: Ignore the voice and follow the arrows on your phone screen.
A drive that should have taken an hour, however, took us about 21/2. At 3 in the morning, we arrived at our first bed-and-breakfast, in the small farm town of Les Molières. We tiptoed on the gravel pathway, using our cellphones for light, looking for our room key, which the owner was to have slipped under the doormat. But it wasn’t there. Luckily, a side door was unlocked. We slipped in, found our room vacant and tucked in for the night.
The next day, we met the owner, a lively young farmer who was flabbergasted by the mishap and told us the key had probably been taken by her dog — a massive and quite unruly St. Bernard.
“He’s probably buried it somewhere,” she said. “And I don’t even have a spare. I’ll have to go to the shop today to get one made.”
She served us oeufs mollets, or soft-boiled eggs, and demonstrated how to eat them: Slice the shell off the top, sprinkle in a bit of fleur de sel and black pepper, and either scoop it out or dunk in a piece of crusty, white bread.
“You have to flirt with how long you cook them. Too long and they turn into a hard-boiled egg — not as exciting,” she said.
They were magnificent — so much so that I ordered them everywhere else we stayed.
After breakfast, we set out on the longest leg of our trip: from Paris to Lyon, about 300 miles on a toll road. That’s the quickest route — and the least scenic. Roads labeled with an A, for autoroute, are fast highways laden with tolls (generally 10 euros or more); use them if you’re in a hurry, not on vacation.
Instead, we opted for a slower, more intimate ride through the countryside, using the E and D roads. E, or European roadways, don’t have the tolls of an A road; they’re not as massive but still quick and effective for getting around. D, or departmental roads (departments are like states), take you through every little town, which translates into lots of charm and lots of roundabouts.
Our first stop on the long day’s drive was Orléans, one of the prettiest cities in France and a popular getaway for Parisians. We parked the car and meandered down its lovely streets, looking for a local SIM card for our phone. The saleswoman at the cellphone store was intrigued by our visit to her town.
“You have come from California?” I nodded with a smile. “I have always dreamed of driving there, on the road that runs along the ocean — what’s it called?”
“You mean, PCH, the Pacific Coast Highway,” I replied.
“Yes, yes. It would be — comment dit-on (how do you say) bienheureux?” she said, reaching for her phone to find the word. She held up the Google translation: “Blissful.”
“Blissful, yes,” I said. “I’m here to drive through the countryside of France. That, for me, will be blissful.”
She smiled. “Yes, yes. It is blissful. Especially with some wine!”
Before we left, she pointed us to the flea market in the central square. At an antique bookseller’s table, we spotted some Gustave Flaubert, the art of French living, religious texts, the history of boules. Some were hundreds of years old. I picked up a French cooking classic, “Larousse Gastronomique.”
Leaving Orléans, we drove through the Loire Valley in search of chateaus. In America, we have road signs for the nearest eatery or gas station; in France, they have signs for the local chateau. The symbol, a large house, appears on the smallest of signboards in the countryside. Driving on Route D108, we stumbled on a couple, including the 18th-century Chateau de Villette. Sitting handsomely on more than 100 acres of land, this is one of the “smaller” chateaus in the area, with only 45 rooms. Unfortunately, it was being used for a private event that day (many chateaus have been converted to party venues or bed-and-breakfasts), so we couldn’t wander the grounds. Heading farther east, we admired the more regal Chateau de Sully-sur-Loire.
With no time for a leisurely French lunch, we bought ham-and-cheese baguettes at a local bakery and kept driving along the Loire River. Every few miles, we passed through another charming village, each with its charcuterie, boulangerie, fromagerie, salon de coiffure. The French, it seems, prize their hair as much as their cuisine.
Our destination that night was Francheville, a suburb of Lyon, and La Maison de Roussille, our bed-and-breakfast, was an ideal refuge from the madness of France’s second-largest city. It had modern, clean rooms in an older home, looking out onto woods and a grassy expanse with walking trails.
For breakfast the next morning, Brigette and her husband, the owners, introduced us to homemade French yogurts with a chestnut compote. It was a hit.
We spent only a day in Lyon — though it truthfully is interesting enough for a vacation on its own — before aiming our Volkswagen toward the Alps. It was just a two-hour drive, but we were surprised by the tolls — as high as $20 on one stretch of highway.
The mountains began to appear near Grenoble, and we stopped to get gas. You don’t want to run out of fuel in the Alps — stations are few and expensive.
I popped into the gas station, requesting 30 euros’ worth of fuel. The elderly teller was taken aback. He started asking me a series of questions in French that I couldn’t answer, then finally said, “Touristique?”
Yes, I nodded, somehow embarrassed.
Finding a bystander to translate, he told us that in France, you fill up and then pay; only after 8 p.m. do you have to pay first. (This was actually explained on a polite note on the pumps, translated into English and Italian. I had just failed to notice it.)
“Apologies,” I said. “Where I come from, we must pay first. What if someone drives off without paying?”
“Oh, diesel theft. Yes, we have that,” he replied, shrugging. “But what can you do? There will always be personnes stupides.” He laughed. Other customers joined in.
Gas tank replenished, we headed toward Oz en Oisans, a ski mecca in the winter and a scenic hiking spot in the summer. Instead of chateaus and castles, we enjoyed chalets in this “satellite village” of the more famous (and more crowded) Alpe d’Huez. Following in French footsteps, we brought our own lunch: a picnic of cheese, baguettes, ham, grapes, chocolate and wine.
From Oz, we took the D526: an enthralling ride with spectacular scenery and countless hairpin turns through remote villages. We spotted a rogue yellow camping tent perched alongside the road, facing the lake. That chap had the right idea. (Note for next time!)
Our road trip was half over. With three days left, we turned back in the direction of Paris, via the Burgundy region. In the city of Mâcon, a delightful local cradling her baguette told us: “Every road in Burgundy is beautiful. But the one that goes through Cluny is paradis.” That road of paradise has a less glamorous name: the D980.
It does take you to Cluny, a town known for its famous, and once massive, Benedictine abbey dating to the 10th century. In the middle of the abbey is the Tour des Fromages, or Tower of Cheeses. At the ticket counter, I thought we had signed up for a cheese class. We were thrilled.
Instead, it turned out to be the place where monks housed wheels of cheese during the ripening process. The ticket allowed us to climb the 120 wooden steps inside the tower, one of the oldest surviving buildings from the original abbey, leading to a glorious view of Cluny and the neighboring vineyards.
Sadly, as many things were ransacked and destroyed in the French Revolution, so was Cluny. A movie inside the museum illustrates what it would have looked like in its heyday: mesmerizing. Today, there are only a few structures.
Onward through the heart of Burgundy we drove, past the Chateau de Cormatin (another “small” chateau being refurbished by a local family), and as clouds gathered and rain began, we dashed for our bed-and-breakfast just outside La Rochepot. Le Clos des 4 Saisons is a yellow house on a hill with nearly 360-degree views of the valley and its vineyards. Sylvia, our host, is Swiss by birth but has become French by heart. She leaves Switzerland only in the winters when she craves the Alps, snow and chalets, she jokes at breakfast, passing us homemade jams and jellies.
“Otherwise, why would I? It’s bliss here,” she says.
A Belgian couple, seated across from us, have visited here every summer for the past five years. They visit different regions but always stop at Sylvia’s.
I asked whether they ever want to vacation anywhere other than France. They were unsure.
“We always have a glorious time here,” the woman said. “We drink, we eat, we drive, and we sit in the sun. It is the best vacation.”
“Plus, in August, there’s hardly any French here, anyways,” her husband chimed in.
With some Burgundian wines stowed in our baggage, we headed to Champagne. In the town of Bethon, a community of just 300 people, we stayed at Le Chalet Champenois, a bed-and-breakfast being renovated by its cheery owners, William and Edwin.
As soon as we got out of the car, the pair came walking toward us with one question: “Have you eaten?”
I could see why this place has a 9.8 (out of 10) rating on Booking.com. Before our bags were even in our room, we were in the kitchen, watching them prepare a clafoutis and sort through the ingredients for dinner.
The meal wasn’t over until 11 p.m., when, in true French style, the cheese platter was still making the rounds.
“You must try the local goat’s cheese. It’s not like the stuff you get at the store in America,” Edwin said to me. It wasn’t.
The next day, we got to meet one of their neighbors, Gaël Dekenye, a passionate fourth-generation winemaker whose vineyards date to 1919. He took us to a special crop of organic chardonnay grapes — the source of many a backache, he joked. Much of the work on the farm is still done by hand, he explained — some of it by his aging parents, who still trim the vines.
“Want to try what they taste like?” he asked. Of course. After a quick drive to their cellar, he popped open a bottle. Clean, refreshing, fruity, impeccable.
“How many can we legally take home?” Six, he said.
If only my suitcase still had that much space. We settled for two.
Chhabra is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles.
La Maison de Roussille
15 Rue de la Doulline, 69340 Francheville, Lyon
Simple, modern rooms with a view of the woods. About 20 minutes to Lyon by car or bus. Breakfast included. Rooms from $100.
Le Clos des 4 Saisons
La Loucharde, 21340 La Rochepot
Spacious rooms with shabby-chic decor, perched atop a hill with lovely views of vineyards. Breakfast included. Rooms from $90.
Le Chalet Champenois
Rue Noblot, 51260 Bethon
Overlooking the town of Bethon, this bed-and-breakfast recently has been restored, offering large, modern bedrooms with stylish, spa-like bathrooms. Breakfast included. Rooms from $90.
Restaurant le Cheval Blanc
26 Rue Liberation, Route de Sézanne, 51270 Montmort
Ideal for a leisurely three-course French lunch in the Champagne region. Traditional fare served in a classic dining room, overlooking a chateau, with preset menus that start at $20.
Suzette and Co.
12 Rue du Garet, 69001 Lyon
Putting a modern twist on a beloved French dish from Brittany, the cafe serves sweet and savory crepes made with buckwheat, regional meats and unique pairings. Outdoor seating available on a lively street dotted with restaurants and bars in the heart of Lyon. Entrees start at $14.
Hotel le Relais Champenois et du Lion d’Or
157 Rue Notre-Dame, Sezanne
With a rustic yet elegant dining room, the restaurant, housed in a beautifully manicured hotel, offers fine French cuisine including local sausage specialities such as andouillette. Entrees start at $20, and preset menus start at $30.
Champagne tour and tasting at Dekeyne et Fils
Ferme de la Vogloniere, Route de Chantemerle, 51260 Bethon
A fourth-generation winemaker offers personal tours through nearly century-old vineyards. Call ahead to book a visit.
Cluny Abbey tour & museum
Rue du 11 Août 1944, 71250 Cluny
Climb the tower for scenic views of the village and the vineyards of Burgundy.
Open April, May, June and September 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m.; July and August 9:30 a.m.-7 p.m.; October-March 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Last admission is 45 minutes before closing time. Tickets $10.50.