My first road trip in France was actually my first time driving in a country other than the United States. My friend and travel buddy, Jeffrey, flew to Paris to meet me and I rented us a car for the week from Avis. Since the first place I had to drive the car was through central Paris and down the Champs Elysees to pick him up, my initiation to driving abroad was like trial by fire. But it turned out to be a lot simpler than I had anticipated since drivers there tend to obey lanes, traffic signals, and rules.
Ok so this wasn’t our car for the entire road trip, but rather the toy I got us for riding’ around Paris.
NOTE: This is part 2 in a multi-part series on road tripping in France. Be sure to check out the other parts detailing other French road trips linked below. And definitely don’t miss the awesome dashboard video montage I compiled of me road tripping across the French countryside, linked below here and also following each article in this series.
We first set out northwest from Paris, even though our final destination was Cannes, which is very far south in the opposite direction. But a friend of mine from the States had been inviting me to come visit him at his summer house outside Paris for years and years, and I thought having a car and being only an hour away would be a great set-up to finally make the trek out there for a visit.
On a side note here, take my advice on this – if your friends ever invite you to come visit their quaint little summer home outside Paris, DO IT! When we pulled up to the gate and drove through, a huge freakin’ chateau suddenly appeared over the horizon of manicured gardens. This quaint little country home they had been so nice to invite me to come visit for years turned out to be a gorgeous French estate. Needless to say we enjoyed ourselves staying there overnight, touring the gardens, drinking wine from the wine cellar, admiring the art and statuary, and vowing never to pass up an invitation to a friend’s French summer home again.
Ok their gorgeous chateau and estate, but our bad ass Mercedes for the road trip.
After leaving Louviers, the village where my friend’s chateau is situated, we drove south toward our next desired destination along the way, which was Chambord. We generally tried to stay off the highway, and luckily our car’s GPS had an option for taking non-highway routes. So we followed a charming alternate route through a few small cities like Evreux, Dreux, Chartres, Chateaudun, and many much smaller villages in between before arriving at Chambord in the afternoon.
Chambord is a visually stunning French Renaissance castle in the Loire Valley that was commissioned by King Francis I as a hunting lodge in the early 1500s and completed in 1547. While the outside is incredibly beautiful, the inside of Chambord isn’t much to see. It was never permanently decked out inside since it was used so infrequently by the kings and what furnishings and decor were in it were largely looted during the French Revolution. But I had dreamed about seeing Chambord in person since I was a kid, and it was definitely worth the visit.
Stunning on the outside, empty on the inside… the castle, not me.
I also wanted to see another nearby castle, Chenonceau, while in the area, but we ran out of time before this one closed for the day and decided to move on. So I still have to go back to see that one, and my friend with his own chateau tells me that Chenonceau is actually still furnished and decorated on the inside like a royal or noble residence would have been back in the day.
Continuing the journey, we jumped on the highway to head southeast toward Lyon but noticed on the map that the town of Vichy was just off the highway on the way so we diverted there to check it out. You history buffs out there may recognize this otherwise unremarkable town’s name, as I did, because it was the seat of the puppet government for southern France set up by the Nazis during World War 2 and so the German-installed French government during the war was always referred to as the “Vichy government” and the non-occupied part of France as “Vichy France.”
After a decent dinner in downtown Vichy, we meandered through the countryside a little more before hopping back on the highway to head into the larger city of Lyon. We decided to spend a night here, since a city of that size would have decent hotel options, and opted to go bar hopping after settling into our room. Lyon’s nightlife scene wasn’t exactly off the charts mid-week, but we did manage to find a few semi-lively bars and the walk around the city center at night was quite pleasant.
One of the things I love about going out in Europe is walking out of bars late at night and scenes like this just smack you in the face. Place des Terreaux, Lyon.
The next day our road trip continued south toward the coast, aka the French Riviera. We were quite excited to get to the beachside villages that we jumped back on the highway from Lyon and sprinted toward Cannes. This stretch is where I wish we had been a little more patient because in doing so we bypassed Avignon and Marseille, both of which would have been neat to see. But that just means I get to come back.
We hopped back off the highway when we got to Cannes, and we had timed our trip to arrive here for the closing weekend of the Cannes Film Festival. I’ve gone to the film festival in Cannes several times and the parties and glitz and glam are always a lot of fun. So we planted ourselves here for a few days and enjoyed walks along the Croisette, outdoor films on the beach at night, great wine and food at the cafes and restaurants, and overpriced shopping at the boutiques.
Red carpet fabulousness in Cannes during the annual film festival.
Outdoor classic movies on the beach in Cannes are a great way to soak up some of the film festival atmosphere without needing tickets to any of the screenings. And just look at all those yachts in the background.
By Sunday of the last week, the festival draws to a close and Cannes begins to die back down to the sleepy village it normally is for most of the year. So we too moved on and drove north along the coast to the picturesque village of Antibes. This is one of the hidden gems of the Riviera and where the in-the-know go to escape the hustle and bustle of Cannes when it gets too busy.
Strolling and lunching along the road overlooking the Mediterranean in Antibes.
After a walk around the outdoor market and a charming lunch overlooking the water, we continued on our way up to Nice following the coast. The first time I went to Nice I was going from the airport to the south toward Cannes and I wasn’t that impressed with the parts of the city I saw then. But this time I was able to see the northern and eastern parts of Nice and found them quite lovely, especially the drive north along the oceanside cliffs. Beautiful scenery.
Our final destination on this road trip was Monte Carlo and Monaco. There’s not much to Monaco but it’s quaint and cute. You really have to work a little bit to find places in Monaco to make a stay there enjoyable because they’re not obvious. But over the course of a few days there, which was my third trip to Monaco, we did manage to scout out some cute restaurants and nice strolling routes that weren’t obvious on my first few visits, despite Monaco’s tiny size. I also took pride in going on a jog and running the entire length of the country, and the “long” way too, which is probably the last time I’ll run across a whole country.
Monte Carlo’s world famous casino and some adjoining shops along the Place du Casino.
Beginning my cross-country run, plus views from our hotel’s back (sea) and front (sea of Ferraris).
There was actually an Avis location back in the heart of Cannes just off the Croisette where I was supposed to turn in the car, but since we were flying out of the airport in Nice they let me take it on to the airport and drop it off there. Overall, it was an amazing first road trip through France and we got in some really key sites and cities that I’ve always wanted to see, and which most tourists to the big cities like Paris or Nice never get to visit.
The only downside, though, was the five speeding tickets that came in the mail weeks later that Avis had received for me. Those highways evidently are loaded with speed trap cameras and my lead foot probably funded a few more. Even more of a reason to slow down and enjoy the journey.