13 days, 3 countries, 2632kms and 1511 photos later .... Delwyn Drives Europe in a brand new Citroen lease vehicle...
A fast but fabulous self-drive holiday in Europe
Written by Delwyn Sinclair – General Manager, DRIVE EUROPE
DAY 1 – PARIS TO REIMS (via the A4 direct it is approx. 140km / 1 hour & 30mins)
We collected our brand new “spicy orange” Citroen C3 Aircross manual petrol with GPS from the Paris CDG Airport location at around 7.30am on a quiet mid-September Sunday morning. The perfect choice for two adults and one child.
I was nicely surprised 12 months earlier, my first time driving in Europe, how easy it was to adjust to driving on the ‘right’ side. But I had no such chance this time because my husband was with me and decided he would do all the driving. No problem – I’m a much better back seat driver anyway! Being the chief GPS programmer was also part of my job description – oh dear, things could get interesting. Plus, I played a supporting role in keeping us on the ‘right’ side of the road with the chant ‘tight right – loose left’ when we were approaching a corner, to be sure we made it to the correct side of the road at each left/right turn. Apparently that chirping gets annoying after the 10th time in the first 2 hours so I was quickly relegated to just programming the GPS and taking photos.
Our 12 day driving route through France, Germany and Switzerland
When we were planning our holiday a couple of months earlier, we knew that the only way we were going to be able to cover the distance we had planned was to travel on toll roads. Incredibly boring, reasonably expensive (at a guess we would have spent around €8 per hour of driving) but unbelievably fast and efficient when you can drive at up to 130km/hour.
Day 1’s destination was the lovely city of in the Champagne region. We could have done the drive in less than 2 hours but as we knew our hotel room wouldn’t be ready until 3pm we decided to take the long way and explore the Champagne region en route.
One of the smaller vineyards in the Champagne region
We pushed ourselves a little too much on our first day – especially as we entered the not so small town of Epernay at around 1pm. Unfortunately, “Frances” (our GPS) and I encountered some recent road changes / lack of good signage and managed to drive down a one-way street the wrong way – finding ourselves face to face with motorists trying to exit a roundabout into our path. After much screeching (me) and eye rolling (them) everyone waited patiently for us to reverse out of the way, then we made a quick dash to enter the roundabout from an exit and thanked our lucky stars there wasn’t a policeman watching. Needless to say, we decided we’d better get ourselves to Reims, find some food, stretch our legs then sleep for 12 hours before we got behind the wheel again!
We chose the centrally located . There was a car parking building next door (€16 for 24 hours) and we could walk everywhere – it was perfect!
This is the choice you are faced with when on a driving holiday. Book a central city hotel and pay for parking or stay on the outskirts of a town or city with (often) free parking. We went with a mix, depending on the city/town we were visiting. Overall, as you would expect, it was cheaper to stay on the outskirts, plus you get more facilities / value for money.
As we arrived in Reims on a Sunday, we could only visit the Cathedral - which was fabulous and to be honest, all we had the energy for. But it was a shame to miss the Champagne caves, closed on Sundays.
DAY 2 – REIMS TO STRASBOURG (via the A4 direct it is approx. 350km / 4 hours)
Strasbourg was our destination on Day 2 and if I was one to keep things simple, we would have driven directly there in just over 4 hours. But one of my lovely French friends suggested a visit to his Champagne house of choice in the small town of Pierry. We enjoyed a thoroughly interesting tour through the caves and were offered various Champagnes to taste. And not just a small drop – we were offered almost a full glass of each. My husband was the designated driver so as the (increasingly happy) navigator, with the GPS already programmed with our final destination, I felt it only right to be thorough in my tastings before finally choosing three bottles to bubble wrap and bring home for Christmas.
Our Citroen C3 Aircross parked outside Champagne Bouche, Champagne region, France
The next thing I knew we were on the road to and what a treat that turned out to be. What a lovely city – overflowing with colour, history and waterways that were truly delightful to explore as we worked up an appetite for dinner. We stayed at the , with free parking and only a 10min walk to the city centre – featuring a big modern room and the only hotel that included breakfast on our entire trip!
Just one of the many photos taken during our stroll through Strasbourg
DAY 3 – STRASBOURG TO COLMAR (via the A35 direct it is approx. 75km / 1 hour)
Exploring the Alsace region was our focus for the next couple of days and wow – what a fabulous region of France this is. While I am not a fan of the sweeter Alsace wines, or the local beers, the unique, colourful and incredibly quaint towns through the region are just delightful. I took hundreds of photos, even leaning out the car window when there was nowhere to pull over – it is certainly one of the most beautiful regions I have explored to date. We drove up the hill in Obernai for a lovely view over the town and beyond, with vineyards all around us. And quick visits to small towns like Barr, St Hippolyte, the Chateau of Haut-Koenigsbourg, Rodern, Ribeauville and of course Riquewihr were all simply wonderful.
The colourful town of Rodern in the Alsace region
We eventually arrived into for a two-night stay in an apartment just a 10-minute walk to the historical city centre. But where did that freak hail storm come from as soon as we arrived? My impatient take-charge husband decided to run across the road to check-in, however the two sensible females in the car thought it was a much better idea to stay dry and sit it out. To help pass the time we took a video so we could remember how loud it was – and just in case the hail stones got too big and damaged the car. I knew I had comprehensive insurance with no excess, but I didn’t want anyone to think we’d parked next to a golf driving range! Less than 30 minutes later the sun was back out and the water started flowing away nicely.
And here we come to another highlight of my holiday. I was finally staying somewhere for more than one night with a kitchenette and could go supermarket shopping! At home I dislike supermarket shopping with a passion. But when I’m in France? I love it! Mini lemon meringue tarts (otherwise known as tarte au citron meringuée) are always top of my list, as well as delicious yoghurts, breads, cheeses, meats, olives and wine of course. As well as the architecture, history and scenery – a major highlight of France is the food. Whether from a local boulangerie, patisserie, supermarket or restaurant – it’s always a treat … even when the potato is purple, but I’ll cover that later!
One of many quaint little side streets in Colmar
DAY 4 – COLMAR TO FREIBURG (via the D415 direct it is approx. 52km / 1 hour)
We were going to spend a full day exploring Colmar but as it turned out my husband came across a mention of Freiburg (Germany) which was only about a one hour drive away and it looked quite lovely. So, in true independent self-drive traveller style, being able to go where you want and when you want, we headed to .
And what a completely unexpected treat that was! As we approached the old part of the town we entered the first car parking building we saw and spent a fabulous 4-5 hours exploring their food and flower market as well as the many gorgeous streets. My husband was happy – he’d finally found a ‘flat white’ coffee – made by someone who had just returned from a working holiday through New Zealand and Australia. And I guess I should come clean – I pushed my husband and daughter to the limit with the many fabulous clothing stores. But in my defence, and as it turned out, this was the only day on our entire holiday I had time to shop.
I can happily report that I left Freiburg with four lovely new tops and a dress!
Nothing better than fresh raspberries (Freiburg market)
The return trip back to Colmar included some unexpected highlights. My daughter lost her hat out the car window, requiring a u-turn, wait for the traffic to clear, then a fast sprint onto the road to retrieve it. We had a nice visit and walk around the German town of Breisach, including a lovely ‘chat’ between my husband who only knows how to order a beer in German, and a very old German man who didn’t speak a word of English! And a fabulous photo stop on the French side of the Rhine River as we crossed back into France, looking back to Breisach and its lovely St Stephen’s Cathedral.
The late afternoon was spent exploring Colmar on foot - a truly delightful town.
A view from the French side of the Rhine of St Stephen’s Cathedral in Breisach, Germany
DAY 5 – COLMAR TO ANNECY (via the A1 direct it is approx. 355km / 4 hours)
was our next destination and what a stunning area of France the Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes region is.
I thought I’d programmed the GPS to take us through France to Annecy, rather than heading east through Switzerland, but life is a journey and the destinations come and go so let’s not worry about what we miss and focus on what we learn I say. And I learnt not to cheat the motorway toll system in Switzerland. Rather than pay-as-you-go toll roads as you have in France, the Swiss system is to purchase a “vignette” (sticker) that allows unlimited use of their motorways for up to 13 months (depending on when you purchase the vignette, as they are generally valid from December to January) at a cost of CHF40. I was tempted to not bother, but changed my mind and purchased a sticker at a fuel station after about an hour on the motorway. As we left Switzerland (near Geneva) there were traffic police checking all vehicles – phew – CHF40 for 3 hours was a lot cheaper than a CHF200 instant fine!
After an easy 45 minutes or so from the border crossing near Geneva we arrived at the lovely lake-side town of Annecy. is located on the outskirts of town and our room had a lovely view of the lake – it was just heavenly. Even our car had a view!
Annecy was a treat – such a lovely lake and town to meander along and through in the late afternoon. Mouth-watering crepes, cold wine and decadent ice-creams blended seamlessly with cobbled streets, ancient buildings and beautiful shops. It is certainly worth a minimum two-night stay, or longer if you can manage as there are a number of lovely places within an easy drive.
Our Citroen’s view of Lake Annecy from our accommodation
DAY 6 – ANNECY TO CHAMONIX MONT BLANC (via Megeve it is approx. 100kms / 2 hours)
And one of those lovely places is none other than – another last minute day-trip decision that proved to be a real highlight. We took the slower scenic drive along the lake, then headed for a quick look at Albertville (this town hosted the 1992 Winter Olympic Games opening and closing ceremonies), before travelling through the mountains via Megeve and eventually to our destination.
Parking was easily found, then we headed for the station, passing the cutest coffee truck I’ve ever seen, to take the little red rack and pinion train up to the station where you then take a gondola, then finally more than 500 steps down to view an ice cave. Easy breezy going down, but getting back? OMG – my legs were so sore they went numb!
Cutest coffee truck ever in Chamonix Mont Blanc
DAY 7 – ANNECY TO AIX-LES-BAINS (via the A41 direct it is approx. 35km / 30 minutes)
Aix-les-Bains was our next destination, plucked out of nowhere really, but it sounded and looked nice when we were searching for a Logis de France property to stay, with a swimming pool and Michelin star restaurant for a special treat. Because it was a relatively short drive, we took a completely out of the way detour to the (prehistoric limestone caves), just over an hour from Annecy. Highlight of the drive? A little Boulangerie-Patisserie that exceeded our expectations for the tastiest baguettes and beautiful tarts you could imagine, not to mention a most gorgeous young Frenchman with fabulous English as he had just returned from a year in New Zealand.
After exploring the caves we continued our journey to the just on the outskirts of the lake-side town of Aix-les-Bains. The rooms were lovely and the food, in true Michelin style, was a delicious work of art – including a purple coloured mashed potato that I referred to earlier (see next photo) – known in France as Potato ‘Vitelotte’ and cultivated there since the early 19th century. They have a chestnutty flavour and are super healthy with extra antioxidants. Bet you didn’t know that before!
Just one example the many beautifully presented dishes at the Logis Auberge Saint Simond - featuring purple potato!
DAY 8 – AIX LES BAINS TO VEZELAY (via the A6 direct it is approx. 385km / 4 hours)
The next day dawned sunny and fresh as we headed to – an almost 400km journey north in the northern Burgundy region. Stops included the gorgeous towns of Meursault and Pommard, a brief visit to Beaune, before continuing through the countryside to Vezelay. Arriving at around 3pm on a Sunday afternoon allowed us a couple of quiet hours to explore this lovely UNESCO World Heritage hill-side town, including a visit to the Abbey.
A lovely store-front in the hill-top town of Vezelay
We stayed just 5 minutes down the hill from Vezelay in a small town called Saint Pere, and this is where we unexpectedly discovered the most authentic, rustic, charming (I could go on forever!) . Owned by Denise and Christian, Denise originally from Canada and Christian born and raised locally, the restaurant was once a cowshed owned by Christian’s ancestors in the 18th century. Serving mouth-watering regional dishes that of course includes Beef Burgundy stew (Boeuf Bourgignon) that Grand-mère (grandmother) used to make, Duck Breast with wine merchant sauce and much more. All washed down with a recommended Pinot Noir from the little Burgundy town of Irancy. We just wished we were staying for longer so we could try the many other dishes and desserts.
DAY 9 – VEZELAY TO FONTAINEBLEU (via the A6 direct it is approx. 165km / 2 hours)
Fontainebleu was our next destination, but we were in no hurry to get there. Preferring to spend much of the day exploring more of the Burgundy region. was just 13kms from Vezelay and a real highlight. My history-loving husband devoured the photos, maps and stories while our 9-year old set off on a well-prepared treasure hunt activity that kept her well and truly engaged (and quiet) as we passed through each room.
Chateau de Bazoches-du-Morvan on the hill
The town of Irancy was our next stop – decided after sampling its Pinot Noir the night before. We explored the hills surrounding the town, but unfortunately, we arrived between 12-2pm when all the caves were closed for lunch so we couldn’t purchase a bottle or two. Such a disappointment.
In amongst the Pinot Noir grapes, overlooking the lovely Burgundy town of Irancy
We arrived into mid-afternoon and after parking our car we set off to find yet another delightful patisserie, enjoy a meander around and through Chateau de Fontainebleau – the grounds and gardens were truly beautiful – before meeting up with friends who decided to detour our way as they headed, eventually, to the Languedoc-Dordogne region where they had been living for the last year or so.
Within the peaceful grounds of the Chateau de Fontainebleau
Nothing beats spending time with friends in another country, sharing various stories and learnings over a lovely dinner. Choosing the wine was a little too much pressure for me, so I decided to pass that role to them – and what a great job they did, choosing a very nice red from the Languedoc. By the end of the evening, they had added places we’d visited to their list and we had added places they’d visited to ours. We may only have a couple of days left on this holiday, but one needs to start planning the next to lessen the disappointment of the end approaching far too quickly.
Less than 48 hours later we were back to and our holiday was all but over.
Chateau de Chantilly
Time kept slipping away and the next thing we knew we were being guided by our patient GPS-friend Frances to the Paris CDG Airport return location.
13 days, 3 countries, countless lemon meringue tarts and tasty baguettes, I’d rather not say how many glasses of Champagne, far too much cheese, a feast of foie gras, hours and hours of walking, numerous errors with the GPS programming, a myriad of detours, just the one one-way street mishap, 2632kms and 1511 memory-filled photos later and it’s time to go home.
A self-drive holiday in Europe is incredibly rewarding with lots of twists and turns, changes and surprises. One thing is for certain – we will be back soon.
Just two examples of the many treats we enjoyed in France!
Handy Hints for your self-drive holiday in Europe
When programming your hotel address into the GPS, enter the postcode as the city/town name, not the word – the number is more accurate.
The shortest route is not always the fastest route!
Plan your route in advance as, like your wife, it is not a mindreader. Add waypoints to ensure you go the way you expect and don’t have a meltdown if you mess it up. There is always another gorgeous village to explore, often just around the next corner.
Get up early! Less people, easy parking, better photos.
Staying on the outskirts of a town has its benefits. You would usually enjoy free parking, cheaper food, a bigger room and with any luck a small kitchenette.
Roundabouts are everywhere – you can’t avoid them so you may as well embrace them. You go anti-clockwise.
Picnics are so much more fun than eating in restaurants, particularly at lunchtime. Don’t forget to pack a few plastic cups and plates, knives, spoons, wet wipes etc.
Don’t distract the driver.
Don’t drive when you are tired.
Keep saying “tight right – loose left” when you approach a corner (tight turn right, loose turn left).
When you’re on holiday and you see something you want, for heaven’s sake just buy it already!
For more information:
Call Delwyn - 021 08 61 33 79 / 09 394 7709
Email Delwyn - email@example.com
Visit our website - www.citroendriveeurope.co.nz