Dina is originally from Java, Indonesia and Ryan is from Ontario, Canada. (Like me), they got tired of the 9-5 routine in Ontario, feeling weighed down by “stuff”. So they sold or gave away most of their possessions, and hit the road with only a couple of backpacks and each other. They’ve been traveling since April 2009, and have visited more than 25 countries so far. Please enjoy a week-in-the-life of Dina and Ryan of Vagabond Quest as they do a road trip through France.
Our travels are usually rather slow moving, but this time I want to share a rather hectic but fun road trip we took in France. We started in Toulouse, in the southwest of France. The southern region of France is famous for its natural beauty and rustic villages, so we decided to do a road trip to see more of the countryside. Since renting a car was not exactly cheap, we wanted to maximize what we could see within a week. We didn’t have a fixed itinerary, just the vague idea that we’d drive east to see Monaco, and north to Paris, where we would return our rental car. So, here is our journey…
Road trip begins: a traffic accident and more – We just picked up our rental car, and Ryan was happily driving again after a few months without getting behind the wheel. We had to drive through the downtown of Toulouse to reach the highway, and before we even got out of the city, an accident happened right in front of our eyes! A lady got hit by a speeding motorcycle that was passing our car. We stayed for a while until the cops and ambulance came. Poor lady, I hope she is fine now. It was just the start, but on the same road, we observed 2 more motorcycle accidents. That really drove home the warning that French drivers are much more aggressive than what we are used to in Canada.
Lourdes – Before we started driving east to Monaco, we decided to make a detour to the west to visit Lourdes, a major site of Catholic pilgrimage. This site commemorates the Marian apparition to a young girl named Bernadette Soubirous back in 1858. The church complex was impressively elaborate, and there was a big pilgrimage parade too. Many people were seen walking around carrying 2 things: the sacred water inside a little plastic Mother Mary-shaped bottle, and special candles for offerings. Some of the candles were amazingly huge – the biggest one was nearly 2 meters tall, very thick, weighing nearly 20 kilograms, and cost 150 Euros!
Driving east: Carcassonne and F1 – We drove 5-6 hours to the east. We passed Carcassonne in the evening and were amazed by the beautiful Carcasonne fortress which was illuminated at night. A little after midnight we finally decided to stop near Narbonne and stayed a night at the no frills hotel called F1 (Formule 1). This cheap hotel chain offers a room for 2-3 persons for only about 30 Euros, but without indoor shower or toilet. The hotels are often located in city’s outskirts, and have free parking lots. One of the best features is that there’s a kiosk for checking in, so you can arrive as late as you want and they’ll be open (most other hotels close for the night at 10:00 or so).
Our new office: the McDonald’s – We are a pair of night owls: we slept late, woke up late, and checked out as late as we could. We first headed to McDonald’s for brunch. Why McDonald’s? Two reasons: food was cheap, and WiFi was free. Ryan was able to maintain his regular job when we left Canada, and now he works remotely through the Internet. McDonald’s was the one place we could always count on to have free, fast WiFi anywhere in Western Europe. It was like our new office! We spent a few hours working there that day.
Narbonne – We enjoyed the city of Narbonne. If you go to Narbonne, I recommend you to visit the never-completed 13th century gothic Cathedral Saint-Just-et-Saint-Pasteur, and read up on the history why the construction was never finished.
Driving east – We drove east again for about 4 hours, and we stopped somewhere near Marseille in another F1. Even though this hotel didn’t have an in-room toilet and shower, it did have a sink! With my must-have universal sink plug, I laundered our clothes, and hung them on hanging lines made of shoe laces.
Hanging lines – The laundry wasn’t quite dry, so we turned the back seat area of the car into a laundry lines area. The hot Mediterranean sun dried them up quickly!
Marseille: Chateau d’If and Frioul Islands – Marseille was high in my list for its Chateau d’If! It is the castle prison sitting on a small rock island in the Mediterranean Sea, where The Count of Monte Cristo was imprisoned and then escaped.
We took a boat ride to the rocky islands of Frioul and If, but unfortunately we couldn’t make a stop in If because the tide was too strong. But at least we passed by it and got a good look at the island and chateau from the boat. What about the Frioul Islands? Most part of this island is the natural habitat of seagulls. We took a walk on the Island. The brilliant blue color of the Mediterranean Sea and the sky, the rocks and little vegetation on them, and the hundreds of seagulls flying above us, made this place amazingly beautiful.
Heading to Monaco – Around 5-7 pm we continued to drive east. We saw in the map that Monaco was only 2 hours away, so we decided to reach Monaco that night. We only stopped to have a dinner, and thought that we had plenty of time. However we didn’t take into account that the 2 hours prediction is for the fastest route between Marseille and Monaco (which means it’s a pay-toll and less scenic route). As we loved to be cheap, we took the slower path. This path eventually brought us to the famous serpent mountain road in the pitch dark, where we drove cautiously. It was a slow path indeed, and it was after midnight when we finally reached Monaco.
Monaco – It was 1 am in Monaco. We took a walk to the super famous Monte Carlo Casino and the Paris Hotel, still looking gorgeous even after midnight.
Bed hunting – Now it was 2 in the morning and we felt tired. Accommodation in Monaco was super expensive and mostly closed for the night, so we decided to go back to Nice. Forget the serpent mountain road, we were tired. We took the pay-toll. We had no idea that all the budget hotels had no vacancy that night! We drove and drove, checking all the budget hotels, from one suburb another. We even reached Antibes! We must have tried about 20 hotels that night. The sun was about to rise when we were finally able to find a place to sleep: Ibis Hotel. We checked-in to stay until the next day. With a little negotiation, the kind hotel manager agreed that we weren’t checking in late, we were just checking in very early. So we stayed from around 6:00AM and only paid for one night. Bonus! We crashed and slept for quite a long time.
Day trip to Monaco – After a good sleep, we had a lunch and went back to Monaco to actually enjoy the city in the daylight. We went to the famous Cafe de Paris beside the Casino and enjoyed a cappuccino. We walked around the downtown and the harbour. After a delicious dinner of mussels and fries with a beautiful harbour view, we went back to Nice.
Nice – We took a driving tour in Nice. If you have been to Nice during the high season, you know that this is a bad idea because the traffic is snarled up everywhere. We spent most of the time waiting in the traffic.
Driving to Paris – We didn’t stay long since we had to start driving to Paris (about a thousand kilometers away), 8-15 hours driving, depending road conditions and whether or not you take the toll roads.
Saint Paul de Vence – Our next sightseeing stop was the beautifully preserved hilltop medieval village of Saint Paul de Vence. This charming little village has plenty of little stores, art galleries, and cafes.
Working time – It was Ryan’s working time again, so then we stopped at a nearby McDonald’s. We were there for hours. A lot of cokes, iced coffees, sundaes, and fries passed until Ryan finished his work, and we planned out what route we would take and what to visit along the way to Paris.
Heading west – We decided to go through Avignon. The driving went smoothly and we got an F1 hotel without trouble. Traveling light made us bring limited numbers of clothes, so it was time to do laundry again. Luckily there were cheap washing machines we could use.
Avignon – Avignon is a great sightseeing city. The remnants from the medieval times could be seen here and there, making the city very pretty. Popes used to live here around the 14th-15th century, and we spent quite a bit of time wandering in the Palace of the Popes and the garden beside it. We loved the view of the river and the famous Pont d’Avignon bridge (yes, the one in the song).
Pont du Gard, the Roman aqueduct – We drove to the site of ancient Roman aqueduct Pont du Gard that was built around first century BC and AD. This huge aqueduct is still standing strong, a beautiful reminder of the amazing skill of the ancient Roman engineers.
Driving north – Time to drive again! Avoiding the pay-toll, Lyon (our target tonight) was still 4-5 hours away from us.
Lyon at a glance and driving north – Our sightseeing of Lyon was very short, limited to driving along the river enjoying the architecture, and walking around for a bit. Our activity that day was mostly driving! Paris was still about 7 hours away.
Long dinner – After passing several rustic villages, we stopped in a small town in hungry condition. There was this rustic yet modern looking restaurant, with cement walls decorated to look like a cave that attracted us. We stopped to eat there, expecting a fast meal, which turned into a very long one. It’s normal in France that the host will stretch dinner out over several hours as that’s how people like it there. It’s just we are Canadians not very used to that, especially not when we are in hurry. Very nice meal, but we now had to make up the time we lost.
Racing to Paris – Forget the free highway, car must arrive in Paris at 10 in the morning. We took a lot of pay-tolls that night.
Again, no hotel! – We had a real struggle to find a place to sleep in the south side of Paris. It seemed like everything we tried was totally full so we gave up as we were too tired. Just past midnight we stopped at a gas station and slept in the parking lot inside our car.
What happened on day 8? – After a crazy morning drive in Paris and a baffling couple of hours trying to find the car rental depot in Gare du Lyon, we just barely returned the car on time. In the past week, our road trip brought us some enchanting natural beauty, amazing architecture of Roman and medieval times, bustling French cities, and rustic villages. Now the car had gone, and again, it was just us and two backpacks. We were excited but tired as well. We didn’t have accommodation booked yet. That’s just how it usually is when we enter a new city after doing some non-conventional backpacking: without preparation. We like it that way. And then, just like usual, we found a restaurant with free internet, browsed for bargain accommodation and booked it, then slept for a long time. Then, we were ready for our next adventure!
Dina and Ryan are currently in Sydney and are planning to do a big Australian road trip. After that, they are hoping to hop to India and then continue to the rest of South Asia. Their blog, Vagabond Quest, has posts about the special experiences they’ve had and interesting places they recommend. They also focus on cheap travel and ways to get more travel enjoyment for less cash.