Let's just start by saying Parisian drivers are terrifying! Cars, buses, trucks, motorcycles, scooters, good lord, it's all madness. As as pedestrian over the last two weeks I never quite understood the Parisian way of driving and certainly couldn't ever figure out how many lanes of traffic there might be on a given street let alone a massive traffic circle. Well before leaving Paris today (Saturday) I got an up close and personal experience on the back of a scooter through the streets. It was both terrifying, like death grip terrifying, and awesome at the same time.
I met a guy on Thursday who offered to take me on a tour of Paris so of course I said yes (sorry Mom, this was a don't tell til it's over type adventure!). Why not, right? Live a little and go for it, experience a bit of Paris as the Parisians do. With my helmet on (it took me about five attempts to figure out how on earth to get it off so it was on seemingly for good) I was ready to go. My new friend JP told me just yell if he was going too fast, don't yank on him. OK, noted, I'd try. He assured me that he'd been driving scooters since he was 14 - so with like 20 years experience under his belt I was supposed to feel confident.
I soon discovered that it was not the speed that was most frightening it was the weaving in and out of cars, buses, and trucks wherever and whenever possible. There's a lot of honking, yelling at other drivers, hand motioning to say variations of F-off - but it really is amazing that the cars do move over to make space for the scooters. The best way of describing scooter and motorcycle driving is that it's a maze. You're trying to always find the path to the front of the other vehicles even if it means coming within millimeters of side mirrors, curbs, and the backs of trash trucks. There were definitely moments where I was visualizing myself flying off the back right into the street but luckily that never happened. Moments of white knuckle grip on the seat were accompanied by as much relaxation and enjoyment. We raced through the streets hitting up all of the major sights - we went from Notre Dame, along the Seine, in front of the Eiffel Tower, around the Arc de Triomphe, past the Opera and the Louvre, through Paris' China Town, and up the hills near Montmarte. On a side note I went back to the Opera and toured the inside, it was beautiful but definitely a bit over the top in some places.
Paris feels massive on foot but on a scooter it shrinks in size. Really amazing! I should have brought the GoPro and attached it to my helmet - since there's no way I was actually going to be able to hold it!
What riding around did solidify for me was that there was no way in hell that I was going to actually be behind the wheel in Paris city center. NO WAY! I'd been going back and forth about where I was going to pick up my rental car for the next leg of the French travels - do I go out to one of the airports or should I get a car from somewhere in the city itself. I was now solid on heading out to the airport after getting up close and personal with the driving. The sooner I could end up on a big road the better! I didn't want to end up at intersections where I had no idea what stop light to look at and have scooters weaving in and out and most definitely honking at me.
So this morning I headed out to CDG to pick up my rental car and start the journey.. and since I still haven't learned how to drive a manual car I had to wait for them to bring me a small automatic from the garage. Otherwise I have no idea what I would have ended up with but I certainly didn't want some van. I told the guy the smaller the better, so I had to wait. Good thing I'm in no rush! I ended up with some Prius type hybrid thing. It will definitely do the trick and maybe save me on some gas money.
With my keys in hand I loaded up the car and hit the road and headed west. I was now attempting to play the part of a French driver. Good thing for Google Maps navigation any being told exactly where to go, I don't think I would have done very well trying to ready my hand written directions. Also, I did know that I was going on a toll road, but I didn't realize that it was going to be like 20 EUR worth of tolls in one day. Jeez! I guess that's how they have such a nice road. I will say though, being able to use a credit card for the toll was fantastic. Once I realized that I was much relieved because I didn't really understand how it would work otherwise when the first toll I came to was 8.50! We'll see how many more toll roads I end up on. I hadn't factored that into my car expenses.
I've been working over the last few days on the over all plans and getting inputs from a variety of people - including JP the scooter driver who happens to be from the south of France. The plan is coming together but will go a bit day by day. I just know that I need to be in Nice for a flight out on April 30th.
Right now I'm in a town called Bayeux in Normandy. It's a good staging point to head out to the coast and see the D-Day beaches. There are lots of Americas and Brits here for sure. For the next few days here's what I'm planning to do...
- D-Day beaches (beaches, museums, American cemetery)
- Bayeux Tapestry (a 60 meter tapestry stitched in the 11th century depicting the Norman invasion of England - very interesting, saw it this afternoon)
- Mont Saint Michel (hoping to see it at both high and low tides)
- Saint Milo (setting of a recent book I read, All the light we cannot see, very good)
From the western coast I'm going to head back east and starting going south. Planning to pass through a place called Tours and check out some castles in the area. Then make my way towards the south with Montpelier and Marseille to explore the coastal towns around. I'll head up the coast from Marseille through the French Riviera, maybe hit up Monaco, and ultimately end in Nice. There's nothing for this part planned so I'll figure out a few accommodation ideas in the next few days. I know some of the sights I want to see but also if the weather continues to be nice and it's warm down there I might just plop on a beach for a while.
I'm hoping that I can get a better internet connection over the next few days to be able to upload photos. In my current hotel it's pretty slow so I can't get the ones from the last few days organized and shared. Boo.