To me, a vacation is something that middle class people do when they get their tax refunds and give their boss two months advance notice. It may involve a man in a mouse costume or a beach on a neighboring developing country, but the purpose is always the same - to escape the monotony of everyday life. For me, this wasn't a vacation, it was a wake up call from the universe. And it started with a plucky, unassuming French hatchback.
I'm not a rich guy. I spend more time looking at sub-$1000 cars on craigslist than I should, and I consistently undervalue my time when work is concerned. However, I'm a huge believer in the idea that if you skimp on a quality experience in life, the regret of not doing it will cost exponentially more than any initial cost you would've had to pay. Buying something inspirational you'll remember for the rest of your life is way better than saving your money and having a head full of "What If?"
So that's why I bought first-class tickets to Europe for an experience that lasted a little over 2 weeks, stopping in 4 countries and 10 hotels in between. And I'd be driving nearly the entire way.
Part 1: Leaving Home
If there's anything that I can recommend to someone as a shining nugget of wisdom, it's to always get the premium version of whatever you're doing if you're forced to do it for an uncomfortably long time. Don't cheap out on your mattress, don't buy a base model car, and don't fly economy on transatlantic flights. It's worth it in the value of food alone. Having a seat that folds into a bed at the touch of a button really helps alleviate the stresses of flying, and I'll be damned if I wasn't feeling refreshed and ready for the day by the end of the flight, while my planemates in coach looked like they'd been lost at sea for a month and mildly relieved that they could finally stop drinking their own urine. OK, maybe not that bad, but 9/10ths that. If you can't afford it, save more money. It's 3 times the price for 20 times the experience.
Part 2: Little car, big Paris. | Miles Traveled: 0
I landed in Paris and spent a few days on foot, taking in the scenery and doing the usual touristy things because I had apparently forgotten what I'd written in the introduction to this article. Paris was, as I can best describe, familiarly alien, if only for the fact that I studied French for 4 years and was a huge Top Gear fan. I'll explain that last one - For years, Top Gear referenced European car manufacturers that we didn't have in the States - makers like Citroen, Peugeot, Renault, Seat, and Alfa Romeo (your dad's '85 Spider doesn't count!), and I knew all of them, despite never having seen any before I arrived.
For some reason, the main streets were packed with tourists and locals, but nearly all the shops were closed, so there were pockets of complete isolation. I'm not saying it looked post-apocalyptic, but if you wanted to play a prank on tourists by having everyone dress up like zombies, you'd get a lot of Americans soiling their cargo shorts.
After a few days of tooling around the town fueled by overpriced bottled water (REALLY, $5.20 FOR WATER?!) and pastries, it was time to get something that ran on actual fuel.
I went to the Gare St-Lazare train station to get my rental car, and after about an hour trying to find the rental kiosk, which was in the 3rd subterranean level (it might as well have been in the 3rd pit of hell), I got my car. I'll preface this by saying that I am very picky when it comes to rental cars. I knew I was going to do a lot of driving, and I was traveling with a companion, so I needed something that was fuel efficient, yet had handling that could...um...handle the winding roads I was inevitably going to throw at it. When ordering, I had the option of a Mini Cooper, Fiat 500, or Citroen DS3. I hoped to high heaven it was the Mini Cooper, as I wanted the best handling for my Euro. Turns out fate has a hell of a way to show you that you're dead wrong.
I got the Citroen, and at first glance, it wasn't so bad. It was adequately spacious inside, had an agressive look to it, and it was a 5-speed manual, which was a plus if I was going to whip this thing like a frappucino topping. It had a 1.6l, 89hp diesel engine with 170 lb-ft of torque. I actually had to double-check those figures right now because those numbers seem extraordinarily for the performance this car had. It wasn't quick by any stretch of the imagination, but it made up for it by being chuckable and tiny. Because Europe was established before the invention of horses, the concept of a street that actually led somewhere was relatively new, so driving through European towns involved a lot of doubling back and threading impossible needles with motor vehicles. People that think New York City is cramped would have a claustrophobic episode if they drove through France.
Before leaving Paris for the long journey ahead, I stopped at the Arc de Triomphe for some quick pictures and was quite amazed at the amount of included features in my plucky rental. Backup sensors, navigation, bluetooth audio/phone support, and one hell of a great interior design. Even though this car was on the cheaper side, the interior materials had an extraordinary fit and finish. The gloss black center trim was a welcome addition, but it did get a bit troublesome because fingerprints showed up so easily. The car also had a stop-start system that turned off the car if you came to a stop in neutral, and turned it back on seamlessly when you pressed the clutch in and put it in gear. It took a little getting used to because all my years as a gearhead told me that this was the wrong thing to happen at a stoplight.
As soon as I stocked up with expensive and weird European snacks, I was on my way.
Part 3: Castles and Countryside | Miles Traveled: 580
The Citroen DS3 was a surprising car for a few reasons: It felt quick while going around town because you never had to keep the revs up, all of its torque was made at 2000 rpm, made audible with a satisfying yet faint turbo whistle. But when the car hit the highway, the car's long legs made getting to the speed limit effortless. A car with 89 horsepower should not be this smooth and this uneventful when merging into traffic. Speaking of traffic, here's one thing I noticed about driving on French highways: No one speeds. The left lane was for passing only. There were no police on the roads, and I saw an absolute lack of people being pulled over. There was zero traffic and no cars had any dents or scratches on them. In fact, I was hard pressed to find a car anywhere, in any city in France that had any damage at all. Why was this? Their neighbors, the Italians made the fastest cars on the planet and drove as if their hair was on fire, which may have actually been the case had they purchased a Ferrari (too soon?).
I found out why.
It was because the French were scared of getting a ticket. The French government has a sneaky way of integrating speed cameras into its guard rails, so sneaky in fact that they're completely unmarked and can issue you a ticket so massive that it costs you a week's work to pay it off, and that's if you get to keep your car and your license afterwards. I'm from New Jersey, where 65 means 80, so this concept was completely foreign to me and I found myself regularly inching 10-15 kilometers over the posted speed limit. What to do? Once again, the Citroen had me covered.
The car had a built in, user programmable speed limiter. I could set the speed at the road's posted speed limit and I didn't have to worry about ever speeding. It worked in two ways: It would either blink to tell you that you're speeding, or it would simply stop the car from accelerating past that speed. It also worked with the navigation system to tell me what the speed limits were at any given time. This was indispensable because it didn't completely remove me from the equation, like a cruise control would (it did also have that), but it kept me in check and allowed me to worry about other things on the road, like the interesting cars.
I was wishing my Mercedes S500 back home had that. My E39 M5 had a version of this, but it didn't cut the engine's power, it just warned me to say that a ticket was in the mail already. Thanks, BMW. The Citroen wasn't done with its useful trinkets, however. Its navigation screen alerted me of speed traps ahead and told me to slow down when I got near. Evidently this was a common feature on French cars, because I would see an ocean of brake lights around those particular parts of the highway. I was loving this car because as this was my first trip that involved driving through Europe, it gave me a sense of relief that I wouldn't be getting any tickets in a language and currency that needed translation.
I headed to the Loire Valley to check out the architecture of the Chateaux - the nearly thousand year old castles nestled all over the region. That involved getting off the highway and going through the French countryside and taking some of the more scenic backroads.
This is where the car made sense. Nothing else mattered. The endlessly winding roads surrounded by immensely beautiful landscapes with perfect weather, fresh air and pristine, sleepy little towns that absolutely oozed history and character. Forget the Transfagarasan Highway and forget the Stelvio Pass. Drive through the Loire Valley with a tiny, responsive manual hatchback in the middle of summer and you'll feel what it means to love driving. You'll know what it's like to be in the moment and nowhere else. There was no danger of falling off a cliff and traffic was nonexistent. I'm not a religious man, but this is the closest thing to a divine experience I've ever had. It changed me for the better and I have the Citroen to thank. It was the combination of piloting a novel car on a novel road that made me yearn for a novel life.
Over the next few days, I visited the sites of various beautiful French castles,
stayed at the Chateau de Mont-Felix, a small castle in its own right, and even connected with one of the caretakers, who loved vintage Porsche 911s, Mercedes SLs, and Volkswagen camper vans. Anyone visiting france should look them up, I can't recommend them enough.
After a heartfelt farewell with our previous accomodations, I hit the road to the next destination, Sarlat-La-Caneda and Carcasonne, the latter being the last stop for this leg of the journey in France. As I approached the hotel, I realized something: I was at 1/4 tank and I'll need to get fuel soon. But I was in another country, none of the pumps said "diesel" on them, and my credit card wasn't accepted at the pump. I'll back this up by saying that in New Jersey, it's illegal (or unlawful, you choose) to get out and pump your own gas. I'm not sure why, but them's the rules, so perhaps I could get a pass at being a noob at this stuff. I checked in the morning and drove around with the fuel light on until I found a station that had an attendant I could plead with in broken French. "Diesel" had about four different grades, not unlike the regular, mid-grade and premium octane for gasoline here in the states. The one I was looking for was called "Gazole". Fancy that. I stuck 60 euros of whatever the hell that was in the DS3's tank and hoped to God I didn't put regular unleaded in it. Since this was the first time I was filling up, it was time to do some fuel consumption math. I had averaged 65MPG on my journey thus far. I wasn't hypermiling and had my foot to the floor more often than not, so it certainly seemed like everything so far concerning this car was indeed coming up Milhouse.
Sarlat-La-Caneda was another sleepy village that had a town center that looked to be a million years old. The streets were lined with cars, which exposed another of the Citroen's strengths. It was tiny. My Mercedes in the states, with its long wheelbase, was nearly twice as long as this car and parking it was without a doubt the easiest in any car I've ever driven. I'm sure that you could almost park head-on in a space like a Smart Car, but I wouldn't want anyone to confuse me with someone that enjoyed the smell of their own farts. In short, it was a beast at parking and town was amazing.
After a short stop in Carcassonne afterwards, I was Barcelona-bound.
Part 4: What the hell happened?! | Miles Traveled: 1,061
Traveling from France to Spain by car, in terms of road etiquette, is like traveling from Martha's Vineyard into Burma. As soon as we hit the border and the French population on the road was a minority, you saw that every single car had some sort of damage on it. No one signaled to change lanes and people passed on the right while flashing their highbeams at people that were going the speed limit. Sure, it was what I was used to in New Jersey, but to descend into chaos at such a rapid pace was shocking at the very least. Driving into Barcelona, I realized quick that we weren't going to use the car at all while we were here. Parking was nonexistent, and the chance that we'd get into a crash was astronomical. Plus the caretaker of the hotel told us that we weren't far from the "tourists shouldn't go here, it's VERY dangerous" zone of the city. The last thing I wanted was for my rental to be on bricks and there to be a permanent phallic symbol etched into the hood. I found an underground parking garage for 30 Euros a day, parked, and traveled by foot and took the bus everywhere for a few days. Along the way I saw a few people who should've followed in my footsteps. The following pictures may be offensive to James May:
After three days of Barcelona, I had had enough of Spain. It's not that it was bad, but I longed to return to France and I was very curious about Italy. The city had countless interesting and photogenic spots and it was a breath of fresh air to be in a place where I understood the language.
If I had to give a one line review of Spain and Barcelona I would say "It's OK, I guess." I apologize to anyone in the Iberian Peninsula that I have offended. Your country has the best Mexican food I've ever had.
Back to France!
Part 5: The country so nice we went there twice | Miles Traveled: 1,290
After a short 4 hour trip, I was back in France, en-route to Italy. I took the country roads for the last 2 hours, which proved to be, as far as ideas go, quite good. This time the winding roads seemed to be endless, with rolling hills of wheat and various crops growing on my left, and 400-year old townhouses on my right. Save for a tractor that didn't exceed 20 km/hour for about 15 of the longest minutes of my life, it was white knuckle, test-the-limits-of-grip driving all the way to Mazan, a town that looked to be about a mile long, but had the most beautiful backyard scenery ever, ever, ever. The Citroen felt right at home, and to be honest, so did I. I genuinely thought about my life and found no reason I had to live it conventionally. I was never one for a 9 to 5 job, and I never wanted to climb any corporate ladders while wishing that I hadn't compromised on my dreams. I wanted to live life on my terms and leave behind a legacy that others could admire and emulate. This little car gave me a taste of the life I'd always wanted.
The next stop was the French riviera, a place I had longed to go for more than a decade (I had traveled to Monaco and Barcelona when I was in high school). I hit the highway again, and the little French motor simply swallowed the miles without protest. We approached the coastal town of Cassis, known for its HOLY CRAP LOOK AT THAT VIEW.
After a short lunch and hanging out on the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean Sea (believe me, that does NOT get old), I got the DS3, which was significantly harder to park because there really were no parking spots in the surrounding 3-mile radius, and set course for our last stop before Italy - Monaco.
Part 6: The land of fast cars and cheap pasta | Miles Traveled: 1,415
If you were to put a Occupy Wall Street protester on a Monaco street, I think that they'd have trouble breathing with all the capitalism and tax breaks in the air. This was truly a next-level place. The streets were spotless, and the roads were filled with as many Rolls Royce Phantom Drophead Coupes as they were filled with Ferrari 599 HGTEs. There were plenty of tourists, but parking was plentiful. Why, you ask? The answer is simple: They had their shit together. It's amazing what you can get accomplished if you plan things out from the start. I'll give a quick example: All parking garages in the city had sensors telling you how many available spots there were at a given time. In addition, all the garages were interconnected and signs across the city would tell you where there were vacancies, with clearly marked signs pointing you to the best option. The main area of the city was completely crowded but I found a spot within 3 minutes because it was so easy, you'd wonder why we don't employ this sort of thinking into everything we do.
I made it a point to drive the length of the Monaco circuit and it's beyond ridiculous how hairy that road is. I managed 70 kph and that was pushing it for me. To go 120 mph with zero margin for error in a car that weighed less than the luggage I carried on this trip seems like borderline cocoa-puffs insanity.
After touristy Monaco and some of the best and most scenic seaside cliff driving I've ever done, I stopped overnight in Recco, a city close to Portofino in Italy. Something I found quite peculiar is that Italy was the birthplace of the supercar, both vintage and modern, yet the streets could barely fit two bicycles riding in a staggered formation. My Citroen felt like a 1975 Lincoln Continental trying to manuever into a "compact car only" parking spot. I've had friends of mine drive exotics across Europe, and in order for you to drive something as wide as a Lamborghini Aventador down a typical Italian street, you'd need to block off the street at both ends, fold the mirrors in, and hope the following insurance claim doesn't total the car. I carefully parked the car in the hotel's parking garage and retired to the room to admire the view, and deliver it did.
I was nearing the end of my time with this hatchback that was quickly winning my heart, but not before I noticed a few more things about both the car and my surroundings.
Part 7: Wilson!! I'M Sorry!!!! | Miles Traveled: 1,844
After Recco and a short stop in Sanremo in which I didn't even get out of the car because I was so exhausted, I was in the home stretch to my final destination with the car, the one place in Italy that having a car, regardless of make or model made any sense - Venice.
I hit the Italian Autostrada with my foot welded to the floor, because unlike the French, the Italians aren't afraid of speeding and unlike the Spanish, they don't immediately crash. The rate of speed that this car took was indeed surprising, but a more appropriate word would be effortless. It didn't require any extra concentration for me to exceed 100 mph, and the engine didn't feel taxed at all. I don't suffer from delusions of grandeur in which this car would compete and win with anything, but I didn't feel like it wanted for more when I stretched its legs on the arrow-straight highway that seemingly went on forever.
A quick aside - something absent from my trip was the 4-way intersection. The reason is because Europeans value their time and like their trips to be as stress-free as possible, so they use this funny invention called the roundabout. This essentially means you yield instead of coming to a stop. On country roads where there is little to no traffic, that means you don't stop at all and don't sit stupidly at an empty intersection waiting for a stoplight to finally turn green.
It was time to bring the car back. At this point I was legitimately thinking of ways I could import this car into the states. I could probably rebadge it as a Kia and no one would know. Or disassemble it and register it as a kit car. It made too much sense and it was way too much fun to simply forget. So I'm taking a stand that if I ever have a property in Europe, the first car I'm buying is a 2013 Citroen DS3 1.6 Diesel. It's the car that brought me closer to my dreams than I ever though possible, and it never asked anything from me other than a little bit of fuel every once in a while. It was a far cry from the unreliable and wacky Citroens of old, and it took pride in its accomplishments, like a child that had lackadaisical beatnik parents and grew up to graduate from Harvard Law. More than that, it was my portal into a life I wanted and would strive to get, and I would never forget that. Citroen DS3, I thank you.
After I returned the car in Venice I traveled another 200+ miles to Florence and eventually Rome by train, and made my way back to New Jersey shortly thereafter. The entire experience of road tripping through a foreign continent was one that everyone should do at least once in their lives. It gave me a clarity of purpose and motivation to live the life that I had previously convinced myself wasn't possible. I didn't have a feeling as fleeting as happiness, it was a lasting sense of satusfaction, something I certainly hoped to convey through my writing. So if there's anything you can take away from this, it's not to cheap out on amazing experiences and find the moment when you're driving the right car on the right road and everything simply makes sense.
Here are some parting pictures from Venice, Florence, and Rome. I hope you've enjoyed reading this as much as I did writing it .
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