My European Road Trip: Part I

Sunset in Zaragoza, Spain with basilica of El Pilar

My European Road Trip: Part I

In Photos: On The Road In Europe

Two countries, six cities, and a dozen or so towns and villages in 10 days…

This past scouting trip was the most ambitious and exhausting I’ve ever attempted.

It all began with the idea to meet a couple of friends in Valencia…

A train, a plane, a sturdy Toyota, and over 2,000 kms later…

And here I am, back in Paris.

A map of France and Spain
My 10-day trajectory


(It’s good to be home again.)

When our good family traveling friends told us they were headed to Valencia in June, asking if we’d be able to join, I barely registered it as a question.

Of course we’d be there!

But logistics being what they are, Harry, my ever-practical husband, nixed the idea. Too much travel in too short a time. Behind on deadlines. Summer holiday budget already blown. Etc. Etc.

I scarcely paused.

I hadn’t been to Valencia since Harry and I had visited in 2007. I was dying to get back and see how things had changed, much as I had been excited to revisit Barcelona last year—also not seen since that fateful ’07 trip.

I would get to Valencia this year… the plan was already forming in my head.

I’d been invited by some British expats in the south of France to come and be introduced to their little slice of heaven… the south of France is but a mere few hours from Spain… this was a scouting trip in the making.

The three-hour train from Paris to Agen, a town about halfway between Bordeaux and Toulouse, was a delight. I had a leisurely lunch, rested my eyes, and started work on the litany of reports I had due after this Odyssey.

Agen aqueduct
Agen aqueduct (the water is particularly muddy looking thanks to days and days of rain that preceded my visit—it’s usually a more appealing blue-green)

For the following four days, I was toured around the Gascony region of southwestern France, immersed in the countryside and rural living options—some of the most peaceful lifestyles I’ve ever seen.

In this part of the world, tractors provide the biggest obstacle to drivers. The occasional traffic jams are caused by agricultural equipment or livestock.

The roads, though, first laid by the Romans thousands of years ago, are straight lines cutting through fields as far as the eye can see… it makes for scenic driving.

Straight roads in France
The straight roads here were first cut by the Romans, way back when…

Simply Gascony, the company run by Robin and Clare, my hosts here, could be thought of as a full-service concierge for those looking to come and settle in the region. They most recently helped the Atkinsons, a couple from California, purchase a dream villa near the town of Lupiac.

The Atkinsons home
The entry gate to the Atkinson’s dream home—a sprawling villa with plenty of land and sweeping countryside views in all directions

Much more on that half of the trip to come… stay tuned…

Meantime, France was only Part I of my grand tour, and on my last day with them, Robin and Clare drove me into Toulouse, where I spent a lovely morning and lunch before picking up my rental and heading south on the longest leg of my Franco-Spanish trek—the six-hour crossing of the Pyrenees.

Toulouse’s biggest plaza, Place du Capitole, with a few market stalls set up on each side
Toulouse’s biggest plaza, Place du Capitole, with a few market stalls set up on each side

The national motorway that leads south from Toulouse, the A64, is par for the French course: A well-maintained highway with plenty of signage. Speed limits of 100 to 120 kmph and at least two lanes, if not three. Easy driving.

This is what you can expect from all A-grade roads in France. These are the autoroutes, and aside from being a pleasure to cruise on, they’re peppered at regular intervals with “aires,” wonderful French-style rest stops.

Aires (literally, areas) come in many varieties. They might offer shopping, cafés, fast food, and mechanical services. Or they may simply be a bathroom set to the side of the road. No matter how big or small, though, they all offer greenery and picnic tables.

An aire on A64
An aire on A64 ©

Around noon, aires across the country see families unpack a picnic lunch—complete with wine and beer—as they refresh themselves for the next leg of a road trip.

A typical aire-style lunch
A typical aire-style lunch ©

Once I made the turn off towards Spain, however, I was surprised to find that the national-grade highway ended…

From there, it was a single-lane, two-way country road, the D929—with plenty of roundabouts and villages to slow you down along the way—that led from Lannemezan at the turnoff towards Spain to Aragnouet, the last town you drive through in France.

This is where the route began to get interesting… as you drive deeper into this rural, mountainous region, the towns seem trapped in time, becoming smaller and more remote the farther you drive…

All I could think of as I drove through quaint village after stone-built village was then opening scene of “Beauty and the Beast,” the song Bonjour playing in my head on repeat. I’d have no trouble believing Walt got his inspiration from these little inter-mountain hamlets.

Take a look at a few of the towns I passed through as I made my way southward…

Rebouc, France
Rebouc ©
Sarrancolin, France
Sarrancolin ©
Ilhet, France
Ilhet ©
Arreau, France
Arreau ©
Vieille-Aure, France
Vieille-Aure ©
Aragnouet, France
Aragnouet © Josef Cerezo
Bielsa-Aragnouet Tunnel
Bielsa-Aragnouet Tunnel ©

There’s no checkpoint at the border… no administration as you cross from one EU country to the next.

The towns and scenery I passed left me breathless and white-knuckling the steering wheel as I forced myself to focus on the road instead of the stunning landscape.

All of these villages are starting points for countless hiking and biking trails that lead up into the mountains and through all its waterways, and there were always plenty of local ecotourists making use of them.

Alas, I didn’t have time to stop…

Careening through raw, stone-cut tunnels, around hairpin bends, up and down, I wound my way to Zaragoza, stop #1 on this leg of my grand tour.

France's winding mountain roads
The winding mountain roads were as challenging to drive on as they were not to be hypnotized by! ©

At the highest peaks, there were still white snow caps on the Pyrenees. At sea-level, though, it was uncompromisingly hot.

Mountain peaks
It may be hot in the valleys, but the highest peaks were still white-capped when I passed… ©

I was never at one altitude for long, though, heading up and down at varying degrees of steepness. At times, I was braking to come down a highway slope, at others, I couldn’t fathom why I was flooring it and my little car was barely puffing up what had been a gradual incline I was oblivious to.

I didn’t realize how high I was climbing until I saw the road signs: 800 meters… 1,000 meters… 1,200 meters… 1,500… and then in the reverse.

As I chugged up and down these hills, the wind became the biggest obstacle to driving, as it whipped through valleys and buffeted vehicles on elevated highways.

Zaragoza is famous for its wind—it’s even got a special name, the Cierzo, and it’s no joke. At times it took all my upper body strength to keep the wheel stable as I slowed to what seemed a crawl to get over the gustiest stretches of highway to and from the city.

Once you reach the city outskirts, though, the driving is more relaxed… not least because I practically had the massive, brand-new highways all to myself. In fact, the highways around this city are so new, they’re still being constructed in some places.

And the desert landscape that they pass through will leave you speechless. It reminds of the American Southwest—endlessly fascinating formations in a completely arid setting.

The Aragonese landscape around Zaragoza
The Aragonese landscape around Zaragoza ©

There may not have been traffic outside the city, but once inside, it was a different story. Not overly congested… but what you’d expect from a city at 7 p.m. on Friday night: weekend rush hour.

Street parking? Dream on.

After crisscrossing the neighborhood for an hour on the hunt for a spot, I gave up and followed some locals into a garage.

…But not after accidentally taking a handicapped spot… then a loading zone spot… and then driving on what turned out to be a tramway track instead of a road for several blocks (luckily unscathed) before being righted by a helpful local…

Zaragoza, Spain
Zaragoza has a wealth of transport options: bus, tram, bike (it’s a flat city)… just make sure you know when cars and trams are allowed to share the road and when they’re not!

To get into my Airbnb I had to visit a nearby bodega and show them a picture of the keys I needed. They didn’t have the set I was meant to take…

As we say in France, as we rub our temples and roll our eyes… Oh la la…

An hour or so later, I was installed.

And all by myself…

It was a humbling feeling for a young mother who’s never been away from her family for more than a week…

But it was also exhilarating.

The next day I’d have to up stakes again on route to Valencia, but for tonight, I had a brand-new city at my fingertips…

Tune in next week for the second half of my Euro road trip…

Happy trails,

Kat Kalashian signature

Kat Kalashian
Editor, LIOS Confidential