Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Tour De France

I like to post on each destination I visit during a sports road trip, adding a bit on tourist attractions I found interesting, or just some general information on the area that might be useful for others. I spent the last two weeks of 2011 driving around France and although it wasn't a sports trip, I did see a few interesting sights that I've decided to list here as well as some info on driving in France that might be worth reading if you are planning your own road trip there.

Driving in France

If you are a visitor doing a road trip in Europe, you will probably need a rental car. Most cars available there come with a manual transmission, so if you don't know how to drive one, you'll need to pay more for an automatic. There are some good rental sites that concentrate on Europe, such as EuropCar, although I ended up using a specific American rental company for which I had a good discount code.

Generally speaking, it's best to avoid the toll roads between the major cities, as they are expensive and rather boring. Instead, try to take the smaller side roads, usually denoted with a D or N along with the road number. These take you through some beautiful country side and old towns that you will not see otherwise, and if you can, stop in at one of these places for a snack or lunch. Below is a restaurant we found in Riec-sur-Belon just east of Pont Aven that turned out to be surprisingly good and devoid of any tourists.

You can use mappy, a French road trip site, to determine how much tolls would be if you are more concerned about time than money, but be aware that French tolls are expensive; a 5-hour trip between Carcassonne and Nice cost nearly 40 euros.

Driving is on the right side, and I found French drivers to be better than I expected, although some tailgate without trying to pass. Speed limits are in km/h and are as high as 130 on the tollways, 110 on the smaller highways, and 90 for the most part otherwise. I saw few cops but there are plenty of speed cameras, so try to maintain a steady pace around the limit.

You'll need a map to plan your trip, but I never had trouble once on the road; signs are plentiful and easy to understand. The only minor problem I had was driving in the cities without a detailed map; these are old towns with small streets, many of them one-way, so it can take a while to get around and find your destination. These cities are where drivers are impatient and quick to honk if you don't know exactly where you are going, but that's no different than any big city in North America.

Street parking can be tough to find in bigger cities, but there are plenty of underground parking garages that are well-signed.

Overall, it was my first driving experience in Europe and very enjoyable, with no major problems to report. I'm looking forward to a return trip, this time with a few more sporting events.


I spent just two days in Paris before heading out on the road. I finally managed to visit the top of the Eiffel Tower and was fortunate to get a clear afternoon. Other than that I just recovered from the flight and enjoyed a couple of nice meals.

The road trip portion saw us visit a number of tourist towns that are well-known in Japan, where World Heritage sites are much more publicized. We started with a day in Mont St. Michel, then drove southwest to Pont Aven for two nights. After that was a trip to wine country in Bordeaux and St. Emilion, and then a night in Carcassonne, before the final four days in Nice, with side trips to Nimes and Monaco.

Mont St Michel

This is a town built on a rock by the seaside, with a church on top of it all. There are hotels inside the town, but we stayed about 2km away and drove over the causeway. In the summer, you can walk along the road, but when we were there it was cold and wet, so we drove the short distance and paid the 6 euro parking charge, one of the bigger ripoffs on the trip. The church is not particularly impressive in and of itself, but it is amazing that they built it in such an inaccessible place. Lots of tourist stores here make the town a bit kitschy but worth a day.

Pont Aven

Most famous as the home of Paul Gauguin before he moved to Tahiti, this is a sleepy town with few tourists in the off-season. The highlight is the Tremolo Chapel, which contains the Yellow Christ that Gaugin painted back in 1889; the canvas is now in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo. The town has a river running through it which provides a number of picturesque photo opportunities.


If you like wine, you will like Bordeaux. Surrounded by thousands of wineries, you could spend months here exploring, but we only had two days. The city is a tourist attraction in its own right with many historic buildings, but most of our time was spent learning about (i.e. drinking) wine.

Just 45 minutes east lies St. Emilion, a World Heritage site that also doubles as one of the many wine appellations in this area. The picture above is of a vineyard near St. Emilion on a foggy morning, while below is from the bell tower in the town later that day, with the fog still hanging around.

Canal Du Midi

Between Toulouse and Carcassonne runs the first stage of the Canal du Midi, a 320-year old waterway that is also a World Heritage Site. You can stop at any number of towns along the way to take some pictures.

There is a bike trail alongside much of the route, although it is better to use it in the summer.


A fortified town originally from the 3rd century, Carcassonne is yet another World Heritage site. Inside the walls lies the Cite, with the rest of the town (Ville Basse) lying down below. Try to stay inside the city and walk down at night for some great views of the Cite lit up.


If you've seen the movie Ronin, you've seen the main attraction in Nimes, the 2,000 year old Roman arena which is the best preserved coliseum in the world. It is still in use (bullfights are held there every year) and open for tours daily. A detailed audio guide is available and really adds some colour to the tour; well worth a stop if you have time.


We finished up with 4 days in Nice along the French Riviera. Not a whole lot to see here but most museums are free, including the Musee Massena above, but some beautiful sunsets and a great old movie theater allowed us to relax to end the vacation.


Monaco is the second smallest nation in the world (only the Vatican City is smaller) and just 20 minutes from Nice by train. You don't need a passport to get into the country, but you do need one to get into the casino as locals are not allowed to gamble. The best race of the F1 calendar is held here and you can walk or drive around the course, which is just some city streets. A great place to spend a day and add another country to your list.


Overall, this was a great two weeks with fantastic food, wonderful weather, and spectacular scenery. Perhaps the biggest problem we encountered is the amount of dog shit on sidewalks in every city. Paris, Bordeaux, Nice - it doesn't matter where you are, you can't get caught admiring the architecture, lest you step into a stinking pile of canine crap. It was the biggest blight in an otherwise beautiful country, but don't let that dissuade you from taking a trip there. It is really a magnificent destination for more than just sports.




  1. Midi looks awesome for a bike trip

  2. Excellent post and first-class pics/landscape descriptions but could have said "doggy poo" instead of "dog sh**". It sort of lowered the tenor of the post.

  3. The use of the more profane word was quite intentional as it conveyed just how shocking the problem is. Much like the tenor of the post was lowered, my impressions of France were lowered simply because people don't pick up after their dogs.