That’s me standing in front of the Millau Viaduct in Millau, France. It’s the tallest — not the highest — bridge in the world and considered one of the greatest engineering accomplishments of all time. Not to mention it’s beautiful. That’s a creative inspiration to me!
My wife and I recently came back from a wonderful vacation in France. Being a game designer and science fiction writer, I am always looking for creative inspiration. We met many challenges on our drive through France, but I suspect that some of my future stories or game ideas will come from this experience. I will post a few entries on my blog with details and pictures of the places we visited — particularly those that might provide inspiration — but for now here’s a summary of what we learned as Americans travelling and driving in France. Since there are many great websites with details on how to travel or drive in France, this is just meant to supplement those offerings based on my personal experience.
COST: If you are wondering what the price of things are in France, just double whatever you think it will cost in America. This isn’t exact, of course, but generally it seems to work.
PARIS: The Paris metro is really easy to use, especially when you have a map. We had a 2-day metro pass that we used several times to get to museums and sites, visit family, and travel to restaurants. About the only issue we had was getting on the subway headed in the wrong direction. This was easy to correct, however, because we just got off at the first exit, crossed over to the other side, and got on going the other way. Happens when visiting New York too. Also, when we didn’t know exactly where we were going, we sometimes exited the metro on the wrong street — forcing us to walk to the other side of the building. Pay attention to the signs leading you to the street exit, because it’s easy to lose track and end up one level too high or too low. We also had a 2-day museum pass. Except for Notre Dame Cathedral, we didn’t have to enter long lines to buy individual tickets at the museums in Paris. This saved us hours during our short stay in Paris. Driving around the Arc de Triomphe really can be confusing, even with GPS. I suggest going around more than once, if necessary, to figure out exactly where you should turn. I got off at the wrong exit, and it took me 15 minutes to get back to the right place.
RENTAL CAR: If the car you rent takes Diesel gas — like ours did — it will probably be called Gasole, Gasoil, or Gazoil at the pump. There may be other spellings too, but this is what we found. Generally it cost around 1.3 euros per liter. At about 3.8 liters per gallon and $1.35 per euro, that works out to about $6.70 per gallon of diesel gas. About double what it costs in Florida. Some websites indicate that you can probably purchase gas at the automated pumps after hours if you have a credit card with a chip. Don’t count on it! We had a credit card with a chip, but I was unable to use it at the pump. I ended up always purchasing gas at stations with an attendant there. The same was true for tolls on the major roads in France. Near Paris, we had no problem paying tolls with our credit card, but otherwise we were unable to use our credit card at tolls. The first couple of times this happened, we had to press the button for assistance and get everyone behind us to back out so we could move to a cash-pay lane. So from then on we always paid cash for tolls. Often, there were no lanes that were manned, so we just looked for the lane that had a green arrow, but NOT a credit card symbol. These took cash (Euro bills and coins). By the way, the roads in France are excellent. And, yes, I did have an International Driver’s License with me that I got at AAA before I left Florida.
GROCERY: Grocery shopping is not unlike shopping in America. Even the self checkout machine at Intermarche was easy to figure out, though I think you need to have a credit card with a chip to pay — and we did. At Carrefour I learned that bananas should be weighed BEFORE coming to the cashier — by the way, the bananas were very good and the store employees were very friendly and helpful. For our car snacks, it was easy to find items like Cheerios, peanuts & almonds, bread, hummus (hoummos in French), Coke, and bottled water, but we were surprised that we couldn’t find crackers or walnuts.
PARKING: I didn’t have to park in Paris, so the only place I had any trouble was finding a spot in Dijon near the central shopping area. The other issue with parking is that the spaces and rows are very narrow, so it is difficult to turn directly into a parking spot. Often I found myself taking two or three efforts to get into an opening, and a couple of times my wife helped me judge distances. The car had a backing up camera and warnings, but that didn’t help for the sides and front. Always have Euro coins and cash on hand, because some parking lots will not take your credit card. Our success using our credit card was about 50-50 for parking lots.
ROUNDABOUTS: Other than Arc de Triomphe, I did not have any trouble with these and there are many all around France. On some routes I probably went through 10 to 20 of them in a 50 miles drive. Beware, though, because even if you have the sign that gives you the right of way inside the roundabout, there will always be someone who attempts to enter from the right by cutting you off. I had this happen a couple of times, and it happens here in Florida too — such as at the Clearwater Beach roundabout.
GPS: I had a portable Garmin device for directions, and it worked great all over France. Although I also had Michelin maps as a backup, I got used to and dependent upon the Garmin very quickly. There are so many tiny streets, roundabouts, French signs, fascinating architecture and natural beauty, and other distractions to deal with. I think it would take much longer to navigate with maps. Plus it was nice to have our own device rather than rent one, because we were instantly familiar with the settings and usage, as well as the language was already set. So whenever we parked the car, I put the Garmin and its power cord in my backpack for our walk. It only took a minute or two to set it up again when we came back to the car, so this worked out well for us. One item of note: I got a great price on French maps for Garmin on Amazon.com. Most of the maps and information (restaurants, gas stations, etc.) were still perfectly useful, however, I noticed in at least a couple of places that the directions were outdated because roads had been changed or eliminated. That’s the price you pay for saving by using older maps.
RESTAURANTS: I love ice, and I did miss it in France. Although some restaurants will put a little ice in your drink if you ask, don’t expect much. I’m always in search of a great vegetarian burger, even in France. So I’m happy to report that we really enjoyed veggie burgers at “Le Shanti” in Dijon, France and “Annette’s Diner” at Disney Village near Paris. Note that in some small towns, some restaurants only take cash. I found that I like galettes — French pancakes — too. Many restaurants are closed between lunch and dinner — often between 3pm and 7pm — so check times, if possible, before you go.