One of the things I’ve always wanted to do has been to drive through the French Alps. With a bit of time on our hands before Paris, we thought this would be a great opportunity to do just that. We left Barcelona via another high speed train, this time on SNCF, to Perpignan, just across the Spanish/French border, where we picked up a rental car. We tried to spring for something that would be enjoyable to drive for a long distance, and ended up with a red Citroen DS 4. While the car isn’t terrible to look at (at least it wasn’t silver) and it handled well enough in the mountains, it had a turning radius of about 3 American football fields. This made it tough to take through the narrow old town streets. Anyway, we’ll get to that later.
Sadly, our original train was canceled due to a SCNF strike (France!), but we were able to simply take a later one. This meant we had to cut our Perpignan visit short and had to drive straight to Marseille. Overall, not a terrible problem.
Once in Marseille we checked into the Mama Shelter, which was a damn delight. Maja had recently signed up for a Tablet Plus subscription which we used to book this, and it ended up scoring us an upgraded room and free breakfast. Hell yes.
Side note: I may have mentioned this before, but since long term travel involves making so many decisions every day, we’ve started opting for – on short stay – lodging that includes breakfast. Sometimes (though not often) it’s a better deal than going out, and it always makes mornings way way easier. The Tablet Plus subscription fit very well with this.
The hotel was very hip and young and chill, kind of like a French Ace Hotel. The room came with superhero masks and an iMac that doubled as the TV, though it seems most guests used it to send webcam snapshots of themselves to the (huge, cool) lobby bar.
We spent the next day wandering around Marseille, having lunch by the marina and stocking up on various supplies at the nearby mall. Surprisingly, we saw the place we had lunch in the newspaper the next week – it was in the background of the soccer riots that followed from the Russia/England Euro 2016 match that would take place there after we left.
The next day, we drove eastward to Nice, the southern France vacation hot spot. We stayed a cute little hotel just off the beach (Hôtel Les Cigales) and spent the evening wandering the promenade and eating on the roof bar of a cute little restaurant who’s name I will never remember in a million years. The city was all decked out for the Euro 2016 matches that would be played there. It was super cool and beautiful to see. I ran around in the fountains which I think embarrassed Maja, but oh well, she’s stuck with me now. (Hi guys, this is Maja, it didn’t, I laughed my butt off and put it on Snapchat)
Nice definitely feels like France’s domestic vacation hotspot. The beach, the party atmosphere, the all-around chill attitude of the people. It doesn’t feel as busy (or dingy) as Marseille, but it certainly has many more tourists.
From Nice we kept heading east, mostly just to pop in to Monaco to say hi. We parked and walked around the lavish and beautiful and vertical city, had a €40 ham and cheese at the cafe in front of the Casino Monte-Carlo, and left. It was stupid and great.
After Monaco we charted a course up through Sisteron and Gap through to Grenoble. The drive was really lovely. We mostly stayed off the highways (thanks, Google Maps “Avoid Tolls” feature!) and saw tons of beautiful scenery – mostly mountains and lakes – while we listened to various podcasts and Hamilton on repeat.
Grenoble was really cool. It’s not quite small enough to be called a “mountain town” – it’s a college city and major research hub. (Tech-friends may know that Apple will open – or has opened – an advanced imaging lab there.) We stayed a very design-y hotel called the OKKO which was fun. Any hotel that offers you a free beer in the lounge on arrival is A-OK in my books. We had definitely made it far from the beaten tourist track though – we saw literally no other tourists there and I got to do most of the communication as very few of the locals spoke English.
I’d love to go back to Grenoble some day. It seemed like there was a lot of fun outdoors stuff nearby, and the mountain views from all over the city were incredible. I bet it’s good fun in the winter. For this trip, we only spent a day, and then it was onwards!
Our next stop wasn’t far – we swung through Chambéry to drop by a knife museum. What? Well, let me explain. When I was a kid I had this little folding knife that I used to fight over the ownership of with my brother. It was an Opinel knife – legendary in France, these cheap but super durable and useful pocket knives are all over the place there. We eventually lost the knife, which in retrospect was probably for the best, since who the hell gives a kid a folding knife? Let alone one that has to be shared by two competitive brothers? Anyway, I decided since we were so close to the source, now would be a good time to replace it.
We arrived at the Opinel museum around the same time as a bus full of adorable elderly French people. We skirted past them and checked out all the cool old history of the Opinel company – one of the few 100+ year old companies that still does the thing which it was founded for. We landed in the gift shop which housed every kind of knife they make, from the mini pocket knives to the huge machetes. I got one to replace the one we lost, and sent one to my brother at home. One more thing we no longer have to fight about.
Side note: The knife I bought for myself I forgot to mail home, and left in my bag when we went through CDG airport security. No worries though – they didn’t notice!
We hit the road soon after and continued north to Geneva, Switzerland. We had a sort of funny moment when we arrived in Switzerland where we were pulled over by the immigration control / police at the border checkpoint. We thought “oh no, they are going to search us, or otherwise give us a hard time” but nope – they just required us to buy a highway pass, which I had forgotten was necessary in Switzerland. We haggled but had no luck, and had to pay €60 or so for a sticker to let us drive on all the toll roads. Ah well.
When we arrived we decided that although the road had been beautiful, we were Driving Too Much and needed a break. A couple days in Geneva, a city we enjoyed from the moment we arrive, would be great. Also, Maja had caught another cold, which was also a good reason to take it easy for a little while. One great recommendation: Birdie.
Geneva is impossible to talk about without mentioning how expensive everything was. Kebabs and street pizza were priced in the mid-teens of Swiss Francs, a currency with near parity to the US dollar. Entrees at even “cheap” restaurants were in the twenties. We ended up mostly staying in our hotel, planning more of the trip, catching up on email and blogs, and generally having Internet Time.
One cool thing we did do was drive out to CERN and visit the Large Hadron Collider and the exhibits there, which was extremely nerdy and cool. They had lots of interesting stuff on display, from data tapes that held real test data to the NeXT cube that Tim Berners-Lee wrote the first web browser on. It was awesome.
Our last stop before heading to Disneyland Paris (which deserves and will get its own post) was in Beaune. We didn’t really know anything about it before arriving, and chose it mainly because it made sense as a good place to stop on our trip. We were very, very pleasantly surprised!
Beaune is a small (20,000-ish residents) walled city in Burgundy. Not only did it feature cool architecture, it had plenty of small restaurants to keep us fed and happy. The real star though was the bed and breakfast we stayed in – Les Chambres De L’Imprimerie. Marie and her husband Seb were super nice and welcoming and their Bed and Breakfast was so far the coolest and nicest we’ve stayed in on our trip. Marie makes jam of various odd flavors – I ended up buying a jar of pineapple jam that was devoured before we left Paris. We didn’t expect it at all, but our stay here ended up being a surprise highlight of our driving tour.
In retrospect, it probably would have been a lot better to plan all of our stops much further in advance. Because of our lack of planning, this road trip cost much more than we would have liked, mostly due to our impromptu stay in Geneva, and we spent a lot of time researching places to go and things to do instead of actually doing them. We also ended up eating and staying at quite a few places out of convenience instead of desire. While this isn’t at all a horrible problem to have, we both felt it would have been more prudent to plan ahead. Noted for the future!
After leaving Beaune, it was only a short drive to Chessy, where we ditched our car and checked in to a nearby hotel for a few days of
EuroDisneyland Paris adventures!