Paris, city of light and love. City of romantic Montmartre apartments and fresh baguettes with jambon et raclette. City of exhilarating architecture. City of terrifying traffic!
And there I was, crossing a devilish roundabout along with about a zillion other cars funneled into an inescapable metal trap. My exit lay ahead over the rooftops of about ten equally paralyzed motorists. The substance of my worst European road trip nightmare: a full-on traffic jam, totally gridlocked, at night, in the rain, in the middle of Paris! I shoved the muscular five -passenger Peugot into first gear, slowly let out the clutch, and inched forward into the razor thin space between a red Fiat and a Gray Mercedes.
It started out as a simple trip to visit our son, Jason; his wife, Melanie; and our effervescent granddaughter, Cece, who had relocated to Paris for the year. How did it get so complicated, so fraught with jeopardy? One minute my husband, Ralph, said, “Since we are flying all the way to Paris what else could we do? How about beaches?” Ignoring the voice in my head that screamed for security and safety, I looked on the map and noted, “Wow! The Costa Brava is only a half day’s trip to the south of France!” And, “Look, we could visit Carcassone!”
Before good sense (and fear) could intervene, we booked flights to Barcelona – a launching point to the Mediterranean and said beaches. We also decided to take a day trip to Burgundy in search of the ancestral home of my husband’s family. Our independent wandering spirits couldn’t stand the thought of being confined to public transportation. Our family has a long history of road tripping. This time I would be the exclusive chauffeur as my husband’s right arm slowly healed from painful nerve damage.
Never mind our hardened experience driving the Alaska Highway when it was merely a gravel track through deep woods and wilderness. Never mind that I cut my driving-teeth learning how to use a stick-shift Volkswagen bug. Never mind I had maneuvered our large travel van on the bustling streets of New York City and driven a class A motorhome on the narrow streets of Gig Harbor, Washington. Driving in Europe presented unique problems I felt unprepared for: foreign languages, cryptic traffic signs and regulations, sprawling toll plazas, a multiplicity of roundabouts (at nearly every intersection in country villages and large cities), ancient narrow roads, with alien landscapes as my proving ground.
Right out of the gate it became a white-knuckle adventure. We arrived in Barcelona on the evening of September 24, after a 12 hour flight from Boise. With a brain, fuzzy as the fleece on my airline neck pillow, I sleepily greeted the Hertz associate. Then I blindly refused the rental of a GPS device thinking we could make the six minute drive from Barcelona- El Prat Airport to the Hotel Hisperia Tower with instructions from a stack of Google Maps print-outs.
Once on the motorway, distracted by speeding traffic, I whizzed past the exit for Ave Autovia Castelldefels heading “nord”, and instead took the wrong exit headed “sud”. My slow wit translated both from Catalan as “north and south” seconds after heading the wrong way.
Those seconds cost us thirty minutes but we finally managed to get turned around and had the Hotel Hisperia Tower in our sight on the far side of the motorway. After several aborted efforts to find the right exit (as in you can’t get there from here), we pulled into a darkened motorway gas station. Our hotel was RIGHT there above us! But we couldn’t seem to get to it through the maze of roundabouts and dead-end streets. Finally, by driving through the gas station parking lot and ducking into an alley, we emerged in front of the hotel. But not before eliciting a lecture from a tour bus driver for blocking his way through the hotel roundabout. (there again, the devilish roundabouts.)
The next morning I gazed “sud” from our 13th floor window. As if hypnotized by the traffic patterns below, I traced the route to the airport determined to preempt any nuances and surprises on the route back to Hertz. Clearly, a Never Lost navigating device was essential. At 88 euros for the eight days, it was cheaper than data on our phones or psychiatric treatment. The Never Lost saved my sanity and the beach portion of our trip. Except, that is, for the time it got us lost.
With guidance from the Never Lost, navigating Spain and France was mostly easy and pleasant. Carcassone was magnificent. The Route des Cretes from Cassis to La Ciotat was an adventure worth the hairpin turns and dizzying heights. We had a glorious visit to the beaches and towns of Sete, Cassis, and La Ciotat, France, before heading back to the Costa Brava north of Barcelona. There, the navigator guided us off the motorway through green farms, vineyards, and charming villages to the medieval town of Pals.
At Pals, however, the Never Lost could not locate the address of La Costa Golf & Beach Resort. Strangely, the navigator on Ralph’s cell phone did locate the resort and could direct us despite having no access to a European data plan. Something it hadn’t done before during the trip. Even so, we were soon facing the middle of a pasture and a less than promising shallow cement ditch. This was shaping up in my mind as one of those GPS horror stories that later becomes a Dateline exclusive, or worse, the 3rd sequel to an awful horror franchise. I wanted to turn back to Pals, but Ralph insisted we put our trust in the incorporeal GPS goddess and keep going. At the end of the ditch there was no option but to turn right onto a muddy dirt road. After bouncing through potholes and puddles, we suddenly broke through a line of trees and turned left onto a paved road where we encountered yet another roundabout. There, much to my relief, was a sign pointing towards the open and welcoming gate at the entrance to the luxurious La Costa Golf & Beach Resort on Pals Beach. When we mentioned our strange journey to the desk clerk, she admitted, “Uh,yes, we know that it’s, uh . . . complicated.”
We settled into our accommodations and explored the lush grounds and swimming pool before taking a relaxing walk on the wide golden-sand beach. Upon learning that the hotel restaurant wouldn’t open until 8 p.m., having learned nothing from our earlier travails, I proposed another drive. I was eager to see the village of Begur. On the map it seemed simple (the map always seems flat and simple). We soon learned that lovely Begur is in the twilight zone.
The center of the village is high on the hills above the ocean. From its perch, spectacular homes spill down the steep forested slopes, along narrow vertical roads, towards cliffs fixed timelessly above the Mediterranean. This precarious layout completely befuddled the Never Lost. Around a tight switchback, just below our goal, we confronted an abrupt landslide blocking our way to Begur. It seemed there was nothing to do but head back to the resort. However, the ineffectual female voice of the Never Lost had us driving in circles. Vertical circles up and down steep hills. After she instructed us several times to turn the wrong way onto one-way streets, we emphatically switched her off. We figured all we had to do was keep the ocean on our right while heading nord hugging the coast. By this point, after coming through several adventures unscathed, we felt assured that we could be “lost” without getting into too much trouble.
We survived and all was never even close to being lost. But that was before the gripping climax, the fuming Smaug of my psyche that I had every intention of evading: the Paris roundabout traffic jam.
On Sunday morning, October 12, Ralph, Jason, and I took a taxi to Orly airport to get a rental car in order to avoid driving in the city. From there, once again guided by Never Lost, we entered the A6, Autoroute du Soleil, going south toward Auxerre. Once off the motorway, a beautiful drive through quiet fairytale villages and farms of Burgundy, led us to Chateau de Mailly, the possible ancestral home of Ralph’s forbearer, Pierre de Mailly. Thanks to the owner we were able to tour the beautiful chateau and grounds (a story for another time).
Rain began to fall as we set off on the return drive. We were tired and eager to get home, and didn’t want to waste time at Orly airport. We felt confident that we could make our way to Gare du Nord, only a short subway ride to the Lamarck/Caulaincourte metro stop near our Montmartre apartment, to drop off the vehicle. Once again, it seemed so simple. But the road trip deities had other plans. By now I should have learned this.
First: Ralph, got more and more car sick as we approached Paris. Second: even though it was a Sunday evening, traffic came to a stand-still on the motorway. With Jason navigating via his cell phone, we gave the surface roads a try hoping they would be less congested. Alas, the entire city was out for a Sunday drive. And third: finding a gas station to fill up before returning the car proved to be maddening now that we were further from the motorway. Gas stations in Paris seem to be as scarce as an authentic French baguette in Boise. After several failed attempts to locate petrol, we decided to take Ralph back to our apartment as his discomfort level had become unbearable.
With Jason as my cohort in the quest for a fill-up, we continued the hunt for a gas station by heading back towards Paris Boulevarde Peripherique. The night conspired to bring us to the nexus of commuters careening towards vehicular paralysis with me at the epicenter. The only way out was through: nudging forward, one inch at a time, the Peugot’s proximity alarm blaring neurotically. Jason pointed ahead as an opening materialized. Steeling my nerve, I put my foot to the pedal, threaded through the eye of the needle, and darted out of the roundabout. We were still not out of the woods, or rather, fender bender danger yet. At Gare du Nord I had to maneuver a narrow cork-screw passage to the Hertz drop off five stories underground, proximity alarm once again objecting strenuously right up to the last moment when I dropped the keys in the attendant’s hand.
I suffered many sleepless nights making preparations for our trip. I concocted hair-raising scenarios most of which never happened. A fair share of harrowing circumstances did arise, but in reality, much of the fun and adventure came from these crazy, unforeseen obstacles.
I have a new mantra: don’t fear your fears. Being scared doesn’t have to result in crippling anxiety. Challenge those fearful assumptions. Staunchly face the charging imaginary traffic. Appreciate small miracles: my high school French suddenly came back to me; slumbering intuition, dormant in the safety of home, came to life. Doing something that scared me granted me courage and self-confidence I couldn’t find any other way.
So, go ahead, do something that scares you.