Our off-season road trip through France was always doomed. It’s not just that Jeremy and I seem to attract disaster like magnets made of whatever the opposite of disaster is. But we have particularly awful luck when it comes to cars.
In the first 3 years that I lived in San Francisco, I managed to destroy 3 cars. That’s an average of 1 car destroyed a year. And mind you, they weren’t all my fault. The first victim was parked innocently on the street, minding it’s own business, when suddenly a car hit another car, and THAT car somehow flung itself into the air to land directly on top of my car, and then throw a few punches for good measure. Total bad luck.
But Jeremy has the curse, too. There was the car that Jeremy destroyed while on a camping trip 10 hours away from civilization only 6 months after we started dating (here’s the full story).
Put us together and the bad luck multiplies. When we purchased an inexpensive used car together to replace destroyed cars 1 and 2, it lasted all of 3 months before inexplicably dying, too. Our mechanic was stumped.
After that, we gave up on owning cars.
But here we were, renting one in France in January. What could go wrong?
Everything, of course.
This is the story of our doomed French road trip. Or as I like to refer to it, the story of the time we ran a BMW into a medieval castle.
Estimated Reading Time: 23 minutes
What Not to Do on a France Road Trip
When we stepped off of the plane in Nice, France, we weren’t thinking about our car curse. We were just so excited that after long months spent lugging our backpacks on buses and chicken trucks, we’d finally have control of our own transportation. As we boarded our last bus from the airport, we were giddy with excitement.
So of course, when we stepped up the Sixt Car Rental counter and they informed us that we’d gotten an upgrade to a luxury BMW for free, we were elated.
Luxury?? We were backpacking hostel dwellers. We were thrilled.
We were idiots.
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Don’t: Accept an upgrade to an expensive, bigger car
We soon realized our mistake. As we pulled out of the parking lot, we were horrified to discover that everything was somehow shrunk, like a fun house at a creepy carnival. The parking lot consisted of hairpin turns. The streets barely had room for the 2 rows of parked cars on either side (how does that even work?!). There’s a reason the typical image of a car in Europe is Fiat sized.
And to make matters worse, we were hungry. As all experienced travelers know, hunger is the #1 cause of travel misery.
We spent 45 minutes following our fancy luxury BMW Navigation system (she sounded very posh and British) through traffic to some delicious Nicioise restaurant I’d found on Yelp. But we couldn’t find anywhere to park on the crowded, tiny streets.
An hour and a half of hunger and frustration later, we accepted our fates: we would have to pay for parking.
Don’t: Try to park your expensive, big car in a tiny parking garage.
We navigated into a parking garage with prices hovering around €30 an hour (whyyyy). But there was nowhere to park in there, either. Merde.
It was on our way out of the parking structure that disaster struck. The parking structure was a maze of poles and hairpin turns. If you were driving one of those Smart cars that looks like a sneaker you’d probably be fine, but we were driving an enormous luxury BMW that may as well have had a giant American flag on the back of it.
On our last 45 degree turn out of the parking structure, Jeremy ran into a pole.
Well, that’s what we later realized. We couldn’t tell what we ran into, because the pole was so short we couldn’t see it out of our windshield. It was a French mini-pole. Le polette.
Who puts a f***ing mini pole on a f***ing hairpin turn?!
At this point, we gave up on finding delicious Nicioise food in Nice. We hightailed it out of the city, hungry and cranky.
Don’t: Run out of snacks
Every experienced traveler knows that they must always, always, always have snacks. And back-up snacks. And back-up snacks for their back-up snacks!
But we had committed the cardinal sin of traveling: we had run out of snacks. And we were hungry.
So we took the first opportunity we could find to get food: a Shell gas station.
Sure, it wasn’t exactly the French food I’d been dreaming of. But we ran out of snacks and we were desperate. Besides, I recall going to a McDonald’s in Paris years ago and enjoying some of the best macarons of my life.
As soon as we stepped out of the car, we realized that one entire side of our BMW’s front bumper was smashed. The light was smashed. The corner was smashed.
Literally, we had hit that stupid mini pole at 5mph. I have no idea how it had caused so much damage, except that we have incredibly bad luck with cars.
It was too late to turn around and return the car. After all, we’d have to pay for it one way or another, right? We didn’t want to deal with the hassle of going back to Nice and asking for another (smaller) car.
So with that hanging over our heads, we walked into the gas station to eat our first meal in France.
Don’t: Eat your first meal in France at a gas station
Despite my reassurances that even the worst French food is still better than most American food, it would see that there are exceptions. Our quiche, croissant, and croque-monsieur were awful. Still half frozen, totally tasteless, and complete junk.
Exactly what I’d expect from a gas station in America. Le sigh.
Spirits low but no longer hangry, we continued on our way. We needed to be in Montpellier for our AirBnB reservation that night, and we’d wasted hours navigating our boat sized car through Nice. So we decided to take the toll route, because our helpful British BMW Navigation lady said it would be fastest.
Don’t: Take the toll route
When we hit the first €5 toll, we were like, this is fine. €5? Whatever. I’m sure there won’t be many of these.
But an hour later, we hit a €15 toll.
€15?!?!?! For a TOLL?!?! I flipped my sh*t. Did they see us coming in our stupid giant American BMW and raise the price?! We were literally only driving for an hour. How?! Why?!
This continued through every toll we hit. As the tolls racked up, our “inexpensive” rental car became one of the most expensive methods of transportation we’d ever taken.
We arrived in Montpellier well after dark, cranky and hungry yet again because we’d blown our food budget on tolls.
As we entered Montpellier, the crowded streets around us shrank smaller and smaller, like a horror movie where the walls are closing in around you and all you have to protect yourself is a very expensive BMW that you’ve already damaged.
We realized, with growing terror, that we would have to park our car again.
Don’t: Try to park your car again
The closer we got to our Airbnb, the smaller and more choked with parked cars those streets became.
Thankfully, there were no other cars nearby. We could take our sweet time looking for parking and attempting to navigate our BMW boat-car into the tiny parking spaces we DID find.
Except that the minute we started trying to parallel park, all of the cars in Montpellier showed up directly behind us. And they were NOT happy.
Have you ever been trying to carefully execute a 25-point parallel parking maneuver into a teeny parking space with a giant car while 7 French families wait impatiently behind you, leaning on their horns and screaming French obscenities out their windows?!
Word of advice: avoid it, if you can.
As car after car lined up to honk and shout at us, we panicked inside our giant metal hell box. Finally, after 45 minutes of trying to park, we were able to only sort of be too far into the street.
At this point, it was well after 9PM. As we schlepped our backpacks the 10 minutes back to our Airbnb from our parking space, we passed a grocery store.
It was closed. No dinner for us.
We spent our first night in France hungry, frazzled, and feeling very broke.
Surely it had to get better from here, right?
Do: Eat Baguettes All Day, Every Day
The next morning, we had a small redemption: as we headed out into Montpelier (on foot, of course) in search of breakfast, we noticed that everyone we saw was carrying a baguette. Baguettes slung over their shoulders, tucked under their arms, peeking out of their bags. Everyone had a baguette.
As Americans, we were tickled and delighted by this extremely French stereotype come to life, and immediately devoted ourselves to mimicking it. We set it in search of our very own baguette, and in doing so, we managed to find the single most delicious almond chocolate croissant in existence at a tiny, average looking French bakery.
To ward off any potential hanger disasters, we picked up a lunch baguette to take with us, with a hunk of cheese and some pate for good measure.
So far, so good. Maybe our French Road Trip wouldn’t be so bad after all….
Don’t: Take the long scenic route to avoid tolls
After roughly doubling our expenses on day 1 of our French Road Trip thanks to obscene toll fees, we decided to avoid tolls by taking the long, scenic route.
This turned out to be an awful idea, of course.
At first, as we drove through Parc National des Cevennes, excitedly pointing out ancient farmsteads and old Chateaus to one another, it felt like we’d made the right decision. THIS is what we’d envisioned when we decided to take an off-season French Road Trip.
We wound through tiny towns and past rolling fields, each building we saw looking straight out of the 1400’s. It was magical.
And then, 4 hours later, we looked at the map, only to realize that we’d driven roughly ¼ of the way to our next destination, Bordeaux. It was already 1pm.
Don’t: Take a scenic detour to see a castle
As we drove through the countryside, we kept seeing these tempting road signs with gorgeous illustrations on them and tantalizing names like Chateau de Baguette and Chateau de Tartine. OK, I made that up. I only know French food words. Sorry, everyone.
So when we saw the sign for Chateau de Vezins that said something in French like “adventure and castles this way,” we were tantalized. Should we go check it out?
After all, we reasoned, the whole point of a road trip instead of taking the train is the freedom to go and explore the French countryside and visit Chateaus if we like. We had this car, we had our freedom, why not just #YOLO and do it?! Adventure is out there!
Let’s be spontaneous, we said to each other. It’ll be fun, we said. Famous last words.
Tires screeching, we pulled off in search of castles & adventure.
The first glimpse of the castle was stunning, and we happily pulled over and got some photos. But wouldn’t it be awesome, we thought, if we could see it from close up?
We typed in Chateau de Vezins to see if our BMW GPS lady was on board with our plan, and she was totally game! She took us through the town and pleasantly said “Turn right.”
We casually made the turn she said only to find we were now IN the castle. Like imagine if someone just plopped a broken BMW in the middle of Winterfell. It was like a shift in the space-time continuum: one minute we’re driving on an ordinary road, the next minute we’ve magically been placed in front of a looming, inexplicably open wrought-iron gate with an ominous French “DO NOT ENTER” sign (we later realized) swinging creakily from its cobweb covered handle.
If you’ve ever seen Beauty & the Beast and wanted to scream at Bell’s dad to just NOT trespass into the eerie, clearly haunted French castle and just TURN AROUND and GO BACK TO SAFETY, then it would have been really helpful to have you in the car with us, because for some reason we kept driving. L’Adventure!
Jeremy saw a pathway with a No Parking sign. On the other side of that were houses. He deduced (incorrectly) that that meant cars must frequent this area. So he continued onwards.
As we went further into the castle grounds on a rickety, weed-choked cobblestone horse path, we realized with growing dread that the walls were closing in on us from all sides. Like, literally. The castle was built roughly 1000 years ago for horses and slim French noblemen, not Americans in massive BMWs that may or may not have been trespassing.
Screw adventure. We decided to turn around.
Except we couldn’t turn around. We were stuck.
Don’t: Get your BMW stuck inside a medieval French castle
Panic gripped us. There was nowhere to turn around. We had about .5 inches of room on either side of us between Ancient Castle Walls and our huge, incredibly expensive BMW.
Up ahead we could see sort of a courtyard area. Except instead of being a nice big flat courtyard, it was like a 45-degree hill covered in gravel. It would have to do.
Have you ever tried to turn around on a 45-degree gravel-covered hill in an ancient French castle? Here’s the thing: it’s impossible. As Jeremy spun the wheels helplessly, I did my best to assist him by screaming, crying, clutching at things in terror, and covering my eyes.
Unable to turn around, we decided we would just back slowly out of the entire stupid (haunted?) castle. Uphill. On gravel.
The front headlight was already smashed, so what’s one more insurance claim?
Wheels spinning, we attempted to back up the 45-degree gravel hill. … And slipped right back down.
At this point, we were desperate. There was no other option than to just keep trying. And so we did.
Inch by inch, we backed slowly up and out of the castle the way we had entered it. Right past the creaky, cobweb-covered gate which CLEARLY SHOULD NOT HAVE BEEN OPEN.
By some miracle – call it Travel Magic, or perhaps a blessing from the castle, seeing that we meant no harm and did not actually wish to trespass after all – we managed to back ourselves all the way out of the castle back to an actual road WITHOUT SCRATCHING THE BMW.
And here I would just like to highlight, bold, and underline this irony: attempt to park a car in a parking garage? SMASHED HEADLIGHT. DENTED BUMPER.
Attempt to drive a car into a castle?! Oh, it’s fine. No scratches.
Our luck, you guys. It is terrible.
Don’t: Run out of time and take the toll route again
At this point, it was like 3pm. We were screwed. There was no way we could make it to Bordeaux by dark on the scenic route.
Besides, the scenic route had gotten us nothing but trouble.
So we made a bee-line for the toll route again. A few hours later, our GPS lady informed us in her adorable, luxurious British accent that we’d shaved an hour off of our arrival time by spending 2 hours on the toll road. Joy! We paid for this convenience with yet another $15 toll fee. RIP budget.
Do: Eat & Drink Everything in Bordeaux
The whole reason for rushing from Nice to Bordeaux was so that we’d be in Bordeaux for my birthday, which is January 7. We’d made a fancy dinner reservation and planned to drink ALL of the wine and eat ALL of the foie gras.
Which is exactly what we did, and it was fantastic. Bordeaux, it turns out, is rad. And we didn’t even have any disasters!
Well, ok. We did. But they were mild. Like, someone broke the door of our Airbnb apartment building so that it didn’t lock (because they ripped the entire lock off in pieces). And we lost all of our photos from the amazing wine tasting tour we took in Saint-Émilion- the only files from our entire year long honeymoon to be randomly corrupt.
Oh, and we got a phone call from my dad letting us know that my 93-year-old grandfather was in the hospital and that we should book a flight home immediately. I guess that one wasn’t so mild. I’m not going to get into that story here, but if you’re curious – spoilers: my grandfather low-key tried to fake his own death and is still with us and very much alive – you can check out the full story right here.
But all things considered, Bordeaux was awesome. Highly recommend. Although next time, we’ll just fly straight there.
After a few pleasant days in Bordeaux, it was time to move on to Avignon.
Do: Spend a Few Days in Avignon
Avignon was actually also fantastic! I know, this is suddenly a really boring post. Who wants to read about happy people gallivanting around in France having a great time? Ugh. Not me.
There is a TON of beauty to be explored in Avignon, and we barely scraped the surface. I would go back in a heartbeat, for sure. Here are some of the things I wish we’d gotten a chance to do:
But I’ll say this: up until Bordeaux, we’d just been speeding through towns, not really stopping and exploring. Now that we were taking our sweet time, it began to dawn on us why taking a road trip through France during the off-season is maybe not the best of ideas.
It’s not just that the lavender fields aren’t blooming.
But everything is closed. Like, everything.
In Avignon, since it’s a big city, it wasn’t too bad: we found a couple of restaurants that were still open, and we enjoyed the opportunity to take some photos in spots that are usually super crowded. But we definitely missed out on a LOT of the charm that this gorgeous little town has to offer.
Still, we spent a quiet but enjoyable few days in Avignon. And then we were off to Seillans, which is always top on the list of the most beautiful towns in France. We were stoked!
Unfortunately, here’s the thing about the off-season, at least in Provence, that we learned on this trip: everyone is gone, and everything is closed.
Don’t: Visit French Medieval Towns During the Off-Season
The drive from Avignon to Seillans was absolutely gorgeous. We stopped at an ancient abbey in Gordes where they mill lavender (but it was closed) and drove through a bunch of really cute medieval towns (all closed). We stopped at the famous Verdon Gorge to take pictures, but because it was winter, our photos were cold and gray instead of bright blue and lush, like every other photo of it we’d seen.
At one point, we inexplicably ran into a bunch of snow.
It was odd. Like, one minute it’s 60 degrees outside and sunny. The next minute, snow. What?! Where am I, Tahoe? Yosemite?!
We affectionately dubbed this spot, in Verignon, “Snow Black Hole.” It was just a very small patch of very snowy winter wonderland. We stopped to take a zillion photos, but this was actually the only 10 minutes of snow we got during our time in France. And we still don’t know why there was snow, since there were no mountains anywhere nearby. Odd.
Anyway, we drove on, past dead lavender fields and stunning medieval towns built into hillsides, like Moustiers St. Marie.
But try as we might to explore them, they were all closed. Everything was closed. And dead. And devoid of people.
We couldn’t help imagining how beautiful and full of life these seemingly empty places must be during the spring and summer, and wishing we had planned a summer French road trip instead.
Don’t: Expect a medieval town to have more people than cats
Finally, we made it to Seillans. And it was every bit as beautiful as the pictures made it seem, except without the greenery and trailing flowers, because it was winter and they were all dead.
Also without the balmy restaurants with lovely outdoor patio seating and stylish patrons sipping French cappuccinos. Because they were all closed. And all of the people were gone.
No French food. No French people. Just a grocery store and like a million cats.
Yep, that’s right: Seillans was filled with cats. Like, SO MANY CATS.
It seemed that when everyone left the town for wherever it is that French people go all winter, they left their cats behind. Fluffy, sweet, domesticated cats swarmed the streets. They were living in the old cobblestone walls, in the doorways, perched on rooftops and empty patio benches.
Seillans was their town, and we were just visiting.
Luckily for us, we love cats, so we were actually quite pleased that there were all cats and no people. We made a LOT of cat friends as we explored the tiny, pedestrian-only empty streets of Seillans, feeling like we were stumbling into a French post-apocalyptic wasteland.
And then it occurred to us: how creepy would it be if the cats just murdered all of the people and took over the town? What if we were actually in an episode of The Twilight Zone without even realizing it?!
But the cats let us live.
… For now.
Don’t: Explore Nice on a Sunday
Our French Road trip was coming to an end. One last stop: Nice, again.
We needed to return to the car. We’d called ahead of time and asked to return it as soon as humanly possible because it had gotten us nothing but trouble.
We spent our last day with the BMW exploring the French Riviera and driving along the coast. We visited the beautiful medieval town of Èze. Then, we drove through the country of Monaco for 10 minutes and in those 10 minutes, we got a speeding ticket.
We dropped the car off with Sixt, apologizing in broken French and taking the necessary paperwork to file an insurance claim with our car rental insurance provider. Then we went off in search of something to eat.
But in Nice, in the off-season, almost everything is closed.
And on Sunday, in Nice, in the off-season, EVERYTHING is closed.
I never did get to try Nicoise food. But by the day of our flight, we were just excited to leave this disastrous road trip behind us.
It wasn’t until we were in the airport that I realized I hadn’t even a single damn macaron, my favorite French treat. Merde!
So we bought 3 boxes of clearance-priced airport Macarons, and darn if they weren’t the best damn Macarons I’ve ever had in my life. You’ve been dethroned, McDonald’s.
The Results of Our French Road Trip
Here are the results of our French road trip, by the numbers:
- Very expensive speeding tickets: 1
- Very expensive insurance claims: 1
- Very expensive toll charges: 18
- Bottles of red wine drunk: 11
- # of times we ordered Truffles & Foie Gras from a menu just because we could: 3
- Cat Friends Made in Medieval Towns: 14
- Boxes of Airport Macarons Consumed: 3
- Nicoise Meals Consumed: 0
All in all, I’d say that we had an interesting time. Was this is the best road trip we’ve ever been on? No. Was it the worst? No. That award still goes to the time we killed our car in the Sierra Nevada mountains and had to get a 10-hour tow back to civilization just to find out that the stupid car was totaled. Here’s the full story.
But France still calls to us. We’re dying to explore some Medieval towns when they’re populated with humans, not cats, and eat delicious French food from actual restaurants, not gas stations. Hopefully one day we can return again for another France road trip.
… Or maybe we’ll just take the train.
Our French Road Trip Itinerary
Here is our itinerary, if you’re looking for France road trip ideas (although I’m not sure I’d recommend doing exactly as we did, for obvious reasons).
We mostly explored Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, except that we also drove across the country to Bordeaux because we really wanted to drink As Much Wine As Possible, which we did.
- Nice → Montepellier → Bordeaux → Avignon → Seillans → Nice
In total, our France road trip itinerary was about 10 days. Some of the highlights on this itinerary (but not necessarily during our trip) are:
- A wine tasting tour of Saint-Émilion from Bordeaux
- Seillans, the most beautiful town in France
- Avignon & the lavender fields of Provence
- Verdon Gorge
What to Wear in France in the Winter
Although Nice and the French Riviera are warm, if you venture out of the area it will get colder and colder. We ran into snow at one point during our trip, so we were glad to have packed warm clothes! Here’s what to wear in France in the winter.
- Warm Jacket: I brought 2 jackets with me to Europe: a beautiful camel-colored A-line wool coat like this one that kept me incredibly warm and looked amazing in all of my pictures, and a travel-friendly packable down jacket that I kept stuffed in my daypack in case I needed an extra layer! Jeremy wore a peacoat like this one (or this one, or this one).
- Warm Hat: A warm hat is an absolute necessity in France in the winter. It also doubles as a super cute accessory! Personally I’m a fan of hats with poofs on top, like this or this. Jeremy is more of a purist, and likes to wear beanies like this or this.
- Warm Walking Boots: When you’re not in the car, you’ll be exploring winding cobblestone streets on foot, so you need to have shoes that are up to the task and will keep your feet toasty and warm. Our favorite winter travel show is from Vivobarefoot. We each have a pair: these are my boots and Jeremy’s boots. They’re cute, they’re insanely comfortable, they’re waterproof leather and lined with shearling to keep your toes toasty warm, and they’re extremely lightweight and foldable so you can stuff them in your bag when you travel. Oh, and they have thin and flexible soles that let your feet function as if you were walking around completely barefoot! Note: you might find yourself in need of some calf strengthening if you’re not used to barefoot-style soles.
- Day Bag: On a long day of exploring a new place, you need a place to stash your stuff. I carried this day bag with me every single day packed with my packable down jacket, an extra pair of gloves, and anything else I needed for the day – a notebook, a water bottle, an endless supply of snacks, whatever. Jeremy carried our camera in this bag along with his packable down jacket and scarf.
- Scarves: I LOVE a chunky scarf. They’re my favorite accessory in chilly weather! I’m a big fan of scarves that are big enough to double as blankets, like this one or this one. Infinity scarves are super convenient because they don’t slip off too. I love these because they come with matching hats!
Fun fact: most of the things we did horribly, horribly wrong on this trip are included in this massive list of “things every American should know before visiting Europe” on Everyday Wanderer. Er, oops? Check out this list of road trip essentials to avoid some of our mistakes. If you’re interested in exploring French castles disaster-free, here’s a great guide to 17 French castles you can visit! Want to pass through Paris on your road trip? Check out this post on Paris in winter or the 10 best day tours from Paris.
Perhaps you’re looking for somewhere to visit in Europe in the winter that isn’t deserted or filled with cats? Here are our faves:
- 12 Charming Things to Do in Copenhagen in Winter
- 10 Magical Things to do in Bremen, Germany in Winter
- Romantic Bruges, Belgium: Adorable Things to do in Bruges in Winter
- 12 Delightful Things to Do in Prague in the Winter
If you are looking for more tour tips during your visit to France the amazing guys over at ViaHero will connect you with a local person who will share all their juicy knowledge and help you plan your perfect itinerary. Check it out here.
Have you ever gone on a trip & had absolutely everything go wrong? Commiserate with us in the comments!
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