Driving on the French Autoroutes

Yellow car

Traveling on the French Autoroutes is similar to driving on other freeways in Europe.  The roads are not as nice as the Autobahn in Germany, but better than the Autostradas in Italy. They have lots of tollbooths and the toll charges add up to a lot of baguettes. They also appear to have speed cameras, although I never noticed any on the roads.

Mini in Paris
NO! Not a Mini again!

I only know this now because I keep getting “administrative charges” showing up on my credit card account from Sixt, the car rental company I used on my France trip. Sixt charges me 18 euros every time they get notified that I did something wrong while renting their car. I’ve received four of these in the past month.

I’m slowly getting these tickets in the mail from the French road authorities. They want 45 euros for each ticket from me at first, escalating to 180 euros each over time. One of the tickets cited me for going 138 km/hr in a 130 km/hr zone. The 130 km/hr speed is the standard speed limit on the Autoroute.  My excessive speed of 8 km/hr over the speed limit is approximately 5 mph.

Give me a break!  This is on the freeway! Almost everyone was driving faster than me. If they send tickets to all of those drivers, think of the administrative machine and revenue generating/wealth redistribution system they have designed.  Those French socialists!

I think I’ll refuse to pay these tickets, just like that ticket described in my Italian driving misadventures. Unless they can get to my credit card like those *#@$%&$ Austrians.

Yellow car
This car will keep me within the speed limit.

I’m still struggling with my European GPS (go here for a tale of my inadvertent Swiss mountain climbing expedition in a Mini). One time my GPS sent me through the back roads of the French countryside to my next destination, instead of via the Autoroute.  It was nice for a while, until I got to a road closed due to construction.  I was in the middle of the back of beyond, in terms of the Loire Valley.

To recover from the closed road, the GPS sent me down one lane roads, gravel roads, and farmer’s lanes until eventually (OK, it was actually a couple of hours) I ended up back at a main road.  When I looked at the map later, I could have done the whole trip on freeways. I am going to take a sledge hammer to that GPS someday.

(If you want to leave the driving to someone else, such as to and from an airport in Europe, try Blacklane Limousines).

On my way towards Normandy I stopped at a gas station to get something to drink. When I came back out to my car I saw this:

bad park job
My rented BMW M1 is on the left.

Thanks, dude. You’ve blocked me in. What were you thinking? I can’t even get my car door open!

I was getting steamed. Who parks like that? What an idiot!

I had to wait for the truck driver to come back to his (or her) vehicle.  I decided to stand in the way and confront him, silently, because if he knew I was American he would probably let loose a slew of French vulgarities at me.

French road sign.
Typical French road sign.

After ten minutes I saw a young guy in overalls come out of the store. He had a cup of coffee and a candy bar. I planted my feet and took up as much of the sidewalk as I could in front of my car, so as to partially block the path to the truck. He was looking down at his coffee as he walked, until he got a few feet from me.  He noticed that I was in the way and looked up, into my eyes.

I gave him my Angry Eyes, pointedly looked at his park job, then stared back at him.  I didn’t say a word.

He slightly grinned, smirked, and ducked around me without speaking. He hopped into his truck. I gave him the French single finger salute as he drove away. It made me feel better.

Back on the road.  Let’s go to Mont Saint-Michel.

Hanging with Monet in Paris and Giverny

Monet's pond.

After my enlightening trip to the Pompidou Center to see modern art (as documented here), the next day I went to enlarge my knowledge of impressionism at the Musée de l’Orangerie.  The main exhibit at this Paris museum is a series of very large paintings by the master of French Impressionism, Claude Monet, called “Water Lilies” (Les Nymphiás).

water lilies
Part of one of the panels of the Water Lilies.

“Both monumental and intimate, Water Lilies are the ultimate expression of Claude Monet’s artistic ideas, an incredible project by a painter who wanted to explore all the variations of light in his garden at Giverny.  The paintings are housed in two elliptical rooms, and encourage the visitor to gaze in endless contemplation. After the horror of the First World War, Monet wanted his work to take on this aesthetic and poetic dimension, and provide a haven for peaceful meditation.”

The curved walls of the exhibition hall at L'Orangerie.
The curved walls of the exhibition hall at L’Orangerie.

Well put, by some pompous art scholar.  Each of the two large elliptical rooms show four massive and colorful paintings of Monet’s pond.  When I was there it was uncrowded.  I almost had the rooms to myself.  This was surprising considering I was in the most touristy city on earth. The paintings demand your attention and reflection.  I was able to sit on a comfortable bench and I actually did gaze in meditative contemplation at the paintings.  It was peaceful but not quite endless, because after a while I had to go to the bathroom.

Monet's pond.
Monet’s pond near Giverny.

Monet lived for much of his life in the Norman countryside near a town called Giverny, about an hour’s drive outside of Paris. For the start of my road trip around France I decided to go see Monet’s pond and find out why he painted it so many times over the last twenty years of his life. Since it was late springtime the flowers were all in bloom when I got to Monet’s gardens. As I walked along the paths I couldn’t help but marvel at the beauty of this place and how my late mother would have enjoyed it. I could see why Monet liked it here.

flowers in Monet's garden
A sample from Monet’s garden.

I wandered up and down the paths dodging the hundreds of grade school children who threatened to knock me down and trample me like a multitude of ants.  Each child had a paper and a pencil.  They were on some sort of class field trip/treasure hunt. I crossed a road at the far edge of the garden by using a tunnel and came out onto a path in a bamboo forest.  The path led around Monet’s pond.  Yes, the pond was still full of water lilies.

Monet's pond and water lilies
Another view of Monet’s pond.

By this time the sky had clouded over and it started to rain. As I walked around the pond the rain turned into a downpour. I bolted back into the tunnel to wait out the storm. When it started to let up I made a beeline for Monet’s house to dry out.

Monet's house
Hello? Is anyone home in Monet’s house?

The house has been restored to how it was in Monet’s time there (from 1883 until his death in 1926). Monet was friends with many of the leading painters of the day, and he hung paintings by Renoir and other famous artists on his bedroom walls. I also noticed a Renoir in the hallway outside his room.

Monet's study
The walls of Monet’s study are filled with his work.

Could that be an original?

(for more good Monet stuff, check Artsy’s Claude Monet

Trouble in Switzerland

Switzerland mountains

“The flight is canceled.” I said. “It’s so typical of the French to go on strike and screw things up for everybody.”

We were supposed to fly to Nice in the south of France to meet up with our former foreign exchange student named Natacha (yes, I know that sounds Russian and not French; she even has a brother named Boris!). The French air traffic controllers had called a three day strike, and Air France had already changed our flight to avoid it. We headed to the airport hoping for the best. The flight was scheduled to leave at 3 pm. It was now 4:30 pm.

“We have two choices.” I said to my wife and daughter. “We can wait until 9pm for the next flight, but that is likely to get canceled too. Or we can go home and come back tomorrow and hope that the Frenchies have found something better to do than continue the strike, like drink wine and eat cheese.” Neither of these sounded good, since we were supposed to meet Natacha at 7pm.

As we were waiting to get our checked bags back from luggage purgatory, I had another idea.

“What about a road trip?” I said. “We can rent a car and drive there. We should be able to get there by midnight.” Munich to Nice by car is 800 kilometers (~500 miles) – about eight hours of driving. “We can call Natacha and tell her we’ll be late.”

“Road trip!” they chanted in reply.

I hiked over to the Sixt counter while the ladies waited for the bags. Since it was peak tourist season and I didn’t have a reservation, there were very few cars available, and all were at outrageous walk-up prices. I ended up getting a brand new Mini Cooper. Cool! I’ve never driven a Mini before. This will be fun!

mini cooper
It looks good!

I also had to rent a GPS unit. I have one of my own, by I had purposefully left it at home since I thought I was going to be flying on a plane, riding in a taxi, and taking the bus on this trip. I had no desire to drive in central Nice.

Suitably outfitted with Mini and GPS, I picked up the girls at the curb outside of the departure door, and quickly discovered my first mistake. The car.

The Mini might be considered a fine automobile if you are by yourself, are taking it across the city to pick up a book at the library, prefer a rock hard suspension, and if you have never driven a real BMW. It is not the right vehicle for a cross-country trip with three people (two of them women), three suitcases, a backpack, a carry-on, a large tourist camera, two purses, snacks, three cell phones, three water bottles, and an iPad. Especially if it is a two-door model.

“Why did you get a two-door?” asked my wife.

“Uhh, it’s what they gave me. It was the only thing available.” I replied. I didn’t admit to forgetting to ask the Sixt woman about this feature.

This Mini didn’t have a trunk. It had a small cubbyhole behind the rear seat. I managed to stuff my backpack and the carry-on into the space and slammed the back door shut. I piled the suitcases into the back seat by wedging them through the space between the front passenger seat and the rear quarter panel. The Mini had about four inches of space on the floor behind the front seats where my daughter, sitting in the back seat, could put her feet. If I sat back there, my knees would cover my ears. She squeezed into the little available space in back while my wife and I claimed the front seats.

I put the clutch in gear and took off into the Munich rush hour traffic. Every time I looked to the left I banged my head on a handle attached to the Mini’s ceiling. I had to crane my neck down to see out of the windshield. If I straightened up my vision included the inside roof of the car. The seat was hard and my legs were cramped after five minutes. Only eight hours to go.

I relied on the GPS to tell me where to go. This would prove to be my second mistake. I managed to set it to speak English instead of German. Das gut!

Switzerland mountains
The Swiss Alps

We left Germany behind and crossed the skinny part of Austria, then raced across Switzerland. The view of the Alps was spectacular while we climbed higher and higher. A few hours later we were getting close to Italy. The sky was darkening. It happens every night.

“Look! There is a tiny mountain village named Splügen!” I called out as I read the road sign. “What do they do in Splügen? Hello, I am from Splügen. Excuse me, I think I just Splügened.” After five hours in the car I found this to be the funniest thing in the world. My wife rolled her eyes. My daughter groaned.

And then we came upon road construction signs indicating the road ahead was closed. We got off the main road and followed a semi in front of us, while peaking at the detour signs as they flashed by. We drove a few hundred meters on a parallel one lane road and then came to an impromptu tee in the road. The semi turned left, but our rental GPS told us to turn right. So I turned right.

Swiss hiking signs
Which way to Italy?

The road wandered down a short valley and then took a hairpin turn to the left and up a slight incline. In a daze I slowed to first gear to take the turn. I cranked the wheel of the go-cart I was driving and scampered around the hairpin. After a hundred meters I was doing it again in the other direction. In my head I was thinking “can this be the right way to go?” I trusted the GPS, it must be right. I was tired, cramped, and cranky. I should have been relaxing in a hotel room on the French Riviera after a stupendous dinner and a bottle of wine. Instead I was manhandling this Mini up a couple of Swiss hairpin curves in the dark.

After three more hairpin turns my decaffeinated brain finally overcame its stupor and kicked into gear. This can’t be the right road. How would the semis handle this? These turns are so tight there isn’t enough room for a truck to make the turn. I had to turn around.

I stopped the car. It was pitch dark outside. I got out to have a look around. From the Mini’s headlights I could barely make out that to my left was a sheer drop off. Depth unknown. There was no guard rail. To my right was a sheer cliff. Height unknown. Then I comprehended that the road was only one lane wide. About 15 feet. There was no way to turn around. There was also no way I was going to back down the road through those hairpin turns. I had to go forward.

I resigned myself to this fate. The safety of my family was at stake. I had horrible visions of TV shows and movies where the car plunges over the side of the mountain road and bursts into flames as it rolls down and down into oblivion. Why do I always run into trouble in Switzerland? (See my other Swiss misadventure here). I vowed never to return, but this time it’s just passing through. Does that count?

hairpin turns in Switzerland
A portion of the road (from Google Earth).

I hunched over the steering wheel, peering into the darkness and praying that no one would be coming down this road from the other side of the mountain. I stayed in first gear, lunging and lurching around each hairpin turn, up and up towards the mountain peak. I lost count of how many times I spun the wheel first one way and then back again.

After what seemed like an eternity I took the last turn and the road straightened out on top of the mountain. I had made it! I now knew the euphoric feeling that mountaineers get when they reach the summit.

San Bernardino Pass
The top of the pass in daylight.

I passed a deserted café and a tranquil lake. The road then started to descend. What goes up, must go down. I could barely detect the lights of a city in the distance, on the valley floor below. How many hairpin turns away is that place?

For another eternity I crept downward, staying in first gear or coasting in neutral. Down and around, endlessly down and around went the Mini. Until finally the road straightened out and joined a wider road stretching into civilization. We were finally in Italy and I was a nervous wreck. At least we were alive.

I found out later that I had inadvertently driven the San Bernardino Pass road in Graubünden, Switzerland, one of the highest paved roads in Europe. (I was going to say “accidentally” driven, but that sounds bad in this context.) This road was featured in a Top Gear episode where the three guys try to find the best driving road in the world.

I ended up on the mountain road because due to the road construction and the f$%#*$! GPS navigation system I missed the route through the San Bernardino Tunnel. Yes, there is a tunnel through the mountain, which is the easy way to get into Italy on this route.

The top of the pass (at 6,778 feet) is the dividing line between German speakers and Italian speakers and is where the Rhine River basin starts. It is only open in the summer, primarily for mountain hikers. Luckily it was early summer when I was there, so the snow was gone. The route was originally a mule track in the fifteenth century. A road for wheeled vehicles was opened in 1770, and improved in the 1820s.

The bypass tunnel was opened in 1967 to facilitate passage by big trucks and tourists who rent Minis. It is used by all, except for those weary travelers who blindly obey their GPS systems.

My location
Get Directions

The View of Vieux Ville in Nice, France

Castle Hill view top

I climbed the steps on a sunny morning.  They started at the end of the Vieux Ville (Old Town) of Nice, France, one block in from the Mediterranean Sea.  I stopped every few minutes to take photos.  At every point the view was fantastic.

Castle Hill view
A view from the start of the climb up Castle Hill.

Castle Hill overlooks the Vieux Ville and the rest of Nice.  It is on a small peninsula splitting the Vieux Ville on one side and the port of Nice on the other.  In the Middle Ages there was a fort on the site that protected both the port and the town.

view of Nice port
Which yacht can I take for a sail?

The fort was destroyed in the 1800s and a park was built on the hill.  Today it provides a good workout for those running up the steps, or even for people like me who hiked to the top to get one of the best views in the Mediterranean.

Castle Hill view top
I made it to the top of Castle Hill.
Vieux Ville street in Nice, France
The narrow streets of the Vieux Ville of Nice.

I had been to Nice about ten years ago. I had stayed in a hotel by the yacht club on the south side of the modern city.  It was a decent place to stay for a few days, but it lacked culture and interest.  For this visit I stumbled upon a small apartment for rent located in the middle of the Vieux Ville.  It was in a building at least a couple of hundred years old.  The streets were very narrow and were lined with small shops, cafes, restaurants, and service establishments for the locals.

The apartment was on the third floor.  The stairway was a challenge to navigate, since it was narrow and steep. There was no elevator in the old building. The view from the window was only of the building across the lane, but I could look down to watch the local residents shop at the patisserie on the corner.

Building in Nice, France
A typical building in the Vieux Ville.

A few yards away from the doorway to my building was another street called the Cours Saleya.  This pedestrian street hosts daily markets.  Fruit and vegetables are sold in the morning, flowers in the afternoon, and arts and crafts in the evening.  Along both sides of the street are restaurants of all kinds, with some of them serving traditional Nicoise cuisine.  Sitting in an outdoor café, eating a fresh croissant, and watching the tradespeople and shoppers is a relaxing way to take a mid-morning break.

Roof view in Nice, France
The red tiled roofs of the Vieux Ville.

The neighborhood of the Vieux Ville is a delight to wander around.  The middle-aged women line up outside the butcher shop to buy the main course for tonight’s dinner.  Old men drink pastis, the local aperitif, at the bar while arguing about the football news.  Trendy young women flit in and out of the designer clothes shops looking for a good deal on the latest fashions. At night the tables outside the restaurants are full of diners.  Once in a while a young man on a loud scooter speeds past the startled diners in a haze of blue smoke.

This is a working and authentic neighborhood.  Local people go about their lives in their daily routines despite the occasional group of boisterous American college students searching the back streets for good pizza.

Promenade de Anglais
Perfect for a stroll…

Across the street from the neighborhood and stretching along the coast is the Promenade des Anglais (Promenade of the English). Before Nice was urbanized, the coastline at Nice was bordered by a deserted stretch of beach covered with large pebbles. Houses were located on higher ground well away from the sea, as tourists visiting Nice in the 18th century did not come for the beach, but for the gentle winter weather. The areas close to the water were home to Nice’s dockworkers and fishermen.

In the second half of the 18th century, some wealthy English people started spending the winter in Nice, enjoying the panorama along the coast. When a particularly harsh winter up north brought an influx of beggars to Nice, some of the rich Englishmen proposed a useful project for them: the construction of a walkway along the sea.

I walked the Promenade des Anglais every day of my time in Nice.  The Mediterranean Sea shined in a bright blue glaze in front of the pebbles on the shore.  Like most beaches on the French coast of the Mediterranean, even today there is no sand.  Instead, the beach consists of various sized rocks and pebbles.  Although the rocks are worn smooth, it is still quite a challenge to position the rocks in such a way as to be comfortable for more than two minutes.

That doesn’t stop the hundreds of sun worshippers from spreading out across the beach every day all summer long.  Some of the women wear no bikini tops.  This is France, after all.

Beach scene in Nice
Ouch! That rock is poking me.

The Pickpockets of Paris

View of the Eiffel Tower from the Palais du Chaillot

In any big city of the world there are many perils to try to avoid. One of them is the street crime of pickpocketing. Before returning to France for the first time in nine years, I read up on the latest news in Paris tourism. I was checking out the new attractions in the city and came cross an article warning tourists of the most recent scams. Little did I know that I would experience firsthand two of the main scams described in the article on my first day in Paris.

View of the Eiffel Tower from the Palais du Chaillot
La Tour Eiffel.

I left my hotel in the First Arrondissement after breakfast to go for a long walk around the Île de la Cité and the Latin Quarter. I had my typically large and expensive camera around my neck, clearly marking me as a tourist of the most garish sort. As I crossed the Rue de Rivoli in front of the Louvre Museum I noticed several scruffy looking young men loitering in the big empty plaza. From a distance I could see that the guys all had dark hair and swarthy skin. They were gypsies (more formally known as Roma).

In some situations I might cross the street again to avoid this gathering. I would definitely do that late at night or if I was accompanying my wife and/or daughter. But it was only 9am in a busy part of the city. There were many tourists walking towards the Louvre. So I kept walking.

By the time I got to the first guy, some of the other guys had spread out and were approaching other passersby. At least half of the guys had clipboards in one hand and a pen in the other. The other half of the guys were empty handed. Thanks to my pre-trip research, I knew I was about to be subjected to the Survey Con.

Metro sign
Beware of the pickpockets…

The Survey Con is a pickpocketing technique that is much more blatant and obvious than the usual bump on the crowded Metro. It works best when the thieves have blended into a crowd of people walking down a sidewalk. A first thief is the survey taker. He (or she) approaches the mark (me in this case) and politely greets the mark and asks if you wouldn’t mind taking the time to answer a few questions for a survey of great importance. The survey taker may adapt the pitch according to the age, socioeconomic status, and perceived interests of the mark. The approach works better when the survey taker is well dressed, articulate, and formal. This puts the mark at ease. It works particularly well when the survey taker is an attractive young woman and the mark is a man (of any age).

The mark answers the questions of the survey, and the survey taker notes the answers and engages the mark in a dialogue. While the mark is temporarily distracted by thinking about his or her answers, the second thief (the accomplice) comes up behind the mark and pickpockets him or her. In some sophisticated rings, there may be multiple accomplices who crowd and jostle the mark, and any one of them will lift the goods from the mark.

These guys were crude amateurs. For one thing, there were at least a dozen of them in the same spot, all trying to run the same con at the same time on multiple passersby. They were dressed like they had slept on the street and they were doing this in a wide open plaza instead of a crowded sidewalk.

The survey taker approached me and I stared him in the eyes and firmly shouted “Non!” I briskly walked away without looking back to hopefully lessen the chances of him being persistent and following me. The tactic worked. He gave up on me and looked for an easier mark.

It concerned me that the Paris police do nothing to stop this behavior in front of the biggest tourist attraction in the country.

I.M. Pei's pyramid in front of the Louvre Museum
A fine summer morning in front of the Louvre Museum.

As I walked around the city over the course of two days I was approached three different times with the Ring Con.

The Ring Con is another wide open pickpocketing technique. The thief spots a potential mark in a crowd or walking on a sidewalk, unobtrusively approaches the mark, and bends down and picks up a gold ring off the ground.

“Excuse moi, monsieur!” the thief will say. “I think you dropped this ring.”

The mark stops to respond to this statement, looks at the ring, and checks his or her fingers, purse or pockets.

“No, you’re mistaken. It’s not my ring. It must be someone else’s ring.” says the mark.

While the mark is distracted by this ruse, an accomplice comes up from behind and pickpockets the mark.

I don’t know why, but each time I was approached in this manner the thief was a respectable looking old woman (a different woman each time). Maybe the old woman thinks that younger people will automatically think she is trustworthy and honest in trying to return something of great value to a stranger. Certainly I would never think my mother or grandmother would be part of a pickpocketing tandem.

I think also that the thief palms the ring with some sleight of hand instead of actually picking it up off the ground.

The first two times this happened to me I instinctively turned away from the old woman and kept walking briskly past. The third time I had had enough.

I looked threateningly at her and rattled off an angry stream of expletives. I yelled that it was the third time I’d seen the Ring Con since yesterday and that I was going to call the gendarmes.

She turned and ran away.

P.S. Paris has the reputation of being the world’s capital of rude waiters. In past visits, I have noted that Parisian waiters are snooty, snotty, and surly. The tourist commission must have sent all of the waiters to a reeducation camp. On this brief mid-summer trip every waiter I had was friendly, smiling, and helpful. I was beginning to wonder which city I was really in! What a change for the better. Go to Paris before the old waiters come back from holiday.

Royal Palace Garden
The Jardin du Palais Royal.